Last Sunday afternoon was a big milestone in the life of our congregation as we gathered along with friends and neighbors to give thanks, to celebrate, and to dedicate ourselves and our renovated church building to serve God and our community. Several years ago we began a long-range planning process. We considered who we are as a people and the property we are stewards of here in the City of Fairfax. We have a 3 ½ acre property with a two acre woods, a stream running through it, and a somewhat cranky building with solid bones.
One of our first efforts was to reshape our church’s vision and we came up with: (1) being a small, diverse church where everyone is welcome, (2) being a peace church rooted in the life and vision of Jesus, (3) embodying a Jesus-centered social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment, and (4) ) being a spiritual home for people no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.
As we were working on this somebody come up with the bright idea of changing our name to express this vision. By that time we had built a nature trail through our woods and by Daniels Run, the stream running through our property. It felt natural to take Daniels Run, as part of our name. And the word “peace” identifies us as a peace church in the Anabaptist peace-church tradition.
As part of our long-range planning we identified affordable housing as a crucial social need in our area and we explored building affordable housing on our property. That remains a future goal but we soon realized that it will not happen quickly so we began to explore how our present building could be more welcoming, handicap accessible, and usable for us and our community.
The renovation took a year longer than expected (trying our patience) but we’re so pleased with the transformation. I still need to pinch myself occasionally to remind myself that I’m not dreaming when I walk into our renovated building. I’m most grateful for the enthusiasm and teamwork of our congregation, as expressed in the new church motto we came up with collaboratively, “Living Love, Growing Justice, and Welcoming Everyone.”
We recently had our church discernment process to choose a motto to put beneath our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church.” It came down to choosing between “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone” or just “Living Love, Growing Justice.” Some of us thought that our new name implies that we’re welcoming and we didn’t need to explicitly say it in the motto. Others thought it’s important to say it anyway.
I was initially on the side of not needing to explicitly say it but noticed that many of the newer people in our church voted for “welcoming everyone.” You were telling us something and I changed my mind. We should never take our ability to welcome everyone for granted. So, what does welcoming everyone look like?
We can learn a few things from Jesus’ unsolicited advice on humility and hospitality when he was a guest at the house of a prominent religious leader (Luke 14: 1-14). People who wanted to be important were honored to be invited and jumped at the opportunity to smooze, to see and be seen. Jesus pushes their buttons with his remarks about the social dynamics of this dinner party.
Such dinner parties happen all the time here in the DC area, especially during elections. People paid $50,000 a plate to attend a recent political fundraising dinner. I wonder who made the seating arrangements and how they decided on where people sat? How much jockeying was there to be recognized or to get a strategic seat beside the more important people. William Lamar IV says that Jesus’ alternative of humility cuts against the grain of our culture:
This is a profoundly un-American impulse. This nation is not humble. Americans assume that American political, economic, and foreign policy prescriptions will fix a world much older and often much wiser. Many American churches—which often seem more American than Christian—lack humility as well. Chauvinism animated their theological forebears to take the faith of the wrongfully convicted Executed One and use it as a tool for plunder. A similar chauvinism is evident in their own dog-whistling around Muslims, immigrants, sexual minorities, and black and brown people, God knows America and many of her churches need Jesus’s unsolicited advice (The Christian Century, Aug., 17, 2016: 20).
Accordingly, there’s a caveat in the fine-print to our welcome motto, “You are invited to join us in following Jesus.” It takes lots of grace and humility but we’re determined to help each other grow in things like loving the least, living in peace with all people, caring for creation, spiritual practices like prayer and meditation, studying the Scriptures, and caring for our bodies. We’re not an anonymous crowd with little regard for each other. Instead, we’re a body that lives.
We give more than lip service to being Christian and don’t assume that the words American and Christian fit together seamlessly. So, if you resist confronting those places in your life that are more American than Christian, you probably won’t feel included in our church. And that’s okay. Still, my prayer is that you can see this more as an invitation than as an exclusion. It’s an invitation to join us in a faith journey. It’s a journey that invites and walks in solidarity with the poor and disabled. Together we look forward to being part of that great dinner party in God’s new world coming.
A thicket of greenbriar and multiflora rose in our church woods
Proverbs chapter eight is a delightful ode to creation. It transports us back to the very beginning in the mists of time where Wisdom is personified as a woman telling us the story. She and God delight in each other as they toil together to create everything that exists. Wisdom says she “was rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
The world as we know it today is broken and painted with darker colors. The Apostle Paul characterizes it as the human race and all of creation groaning together in labor pains as we wait for our redemption and for a new world to be born. Old Testament professor Safwat Marzouk aptly describes this groaning:
Communities around the world are suffering climate change, civil war, terrorism, forced migration, and much more. Churches are weary of polarization and division, and many now lack the ability or desire to have fellowship with people who are different from them. Individuals struggles with cancer and migraines and aching bones, or walk with loved ones who do (The Christian Century, May 11, 2016: 22).
The American Dream insist that our standard of living should keep getting better for each generation. We believe this is our American birthright and try to remain oblivious to all the painful realities around us. Others of us have lost hope in a better future as we see our former standard of living slipping away. As a consequence, there has been an alarming increase in alcoholism, drug dependency, obesity, and suicide in working class communities.
The past several decades have been especially difficult for churches. Denominational institutions have had to continually cut staff and programs as their budgets slowly dried up. Church membership has been declining for decades but then more rapidly since the beginning of this century. We remain deeply divided over things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and racial and cultural differences.
Our denomination is experiencing a major schism as various conferences and congregations decide to leave because of such differences. A recent church news article breaks my heart. Several conferences recently voted to leave Mennonite Church USA. This has created a dilemma for many congregations because they now need to make a painful choice between their conference and their denominational affiliation. This ongoing struggle is a constant drip, drip, drip that erodes our faith and hope.
It gets so discouraging! I try to ignore such struggles and put my passion and energy into the life and mission of our church here in Northern Virginia. There’s wisdom in not getting wrapped up in larger church conflicts to the detriment of the local church. Still, like it or not, denominational matters affect us and we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and ignore them.
The challenge is to have our lives formed by a hope that’s grounded in the creative and redeeming work of God. When we do that we’re capable of confronting these kinds of difficulties with grace. Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us some handles on how to do that. He says that we have been made righteous through Christ’s faithfulness combined with our faith. This confidence and faith gives us peace with God. We have an audacious hope.
We boast of this hope. It’s not something to keep under wraps or to be modest about. Then Paul takes an unexpected turn when he exclaims, “We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5: 3-4). The path to a new humanity winds its way through a briar patch of troubles.
I find it hard to gracefully accept troubles. They make me despondent and ashamed of myself and my church. A voice inside me laments that we could do so much better. We certainly could! What I fail to recognize is how we get there. We don’t insist on black and white answers and we don’t just throw up our hands and walk away.
We, instead, persevere and develop character in the process. And as we develop character our faith and hope increase. I love the way Paul concludes, “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 5).
Giving birth and nurturing new life are special gift from God. That’s why we pay tribute to all mothers on Mother’s Day. My wife Ruth and I enjoy the PBS television series “Call the Midwives.” It’s based on the story of a religious order of nuns and other midwives working with them to serve a working class community in London in the 1950s. This was the beginning of the National Health Service in Great Britain.
It was a tough world but it was also a genuine community of workers, mothers, shopkeepers, clergy, and healthcare providers who loved and cared for all their children. There’s both joy and heartache in each episode of the series. As a pastor, I appreciate the mostly positive role that the church plays. The story revolves around those tough and resilient midwives, the mothers, and the families they serve. Those of them who are not able to have children of their own become mothers in other ways through their service.
In that respect, we also pay tribute to all of us who take on mothering roles regardless of gender or having biologically given birth to a child—we dare not forget grandmothers. All mothers and those who support them are the unsung heroes in our society. These are the most important responsibilities in our world.
It’s fitting to make the connection between our creator God and the life giving and nurturing role of all mothers. I especially appreciate the poem “Mothering God You gave Me Birth,” by Mennonite poet Jean Janzen based on the writings of the 13th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich.
Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, Source of every breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun;
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.
This year Ascension Day and Mother’s Day fall within several days of each other; let’s see if we can make a connection between Mother’s Day and Ascension Day. Christ’s ascension takes place 40 days after Easter. In the Bible, the number 40 is mythically alive. Rain fell for 40 days on Noah’s ark; the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years; a woman is secluded for 40 days after giving birth; and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before launching his ministry. All are pregnant times with a religious future.
Psalm 47 is a customary scripture readings for Ascension Day, It celebrates God as king over all the earth. The vision of God’s kingship is multidimensional, involving memory of the past, experience of the present, and hope for the future. It reaches back to the story of creation where God creates a living ecosystem out of barren chaos. It also reveals what God is doing behind and beyond the confusion of much that is happening in the world. As a people of faith, we absorb headline daily news with this realization.
God reigns over the nations and this means that, as a people of God, our identity transcends our ethnic and national identities. As Christians, our story transcends the American story. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about how broken our national story is and how this is shaping our presidential primary in ugly ways:
Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that isn’t working for people anymore, especially if people think the system is rigged. I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today (New York Times, April 29, 2016)
As followers of Jesus, we have a contribution to make to the new national story that David Brooks envisions. Rather than a story of pluck and self-sufficiency, our story is about giving love, nurture, care, dignity, and justice—especially for those who are most vulnerable. We respond as the people of our mothering God.
Gorgeous spring weather has arrived and I’m squeezing as much time as possible from my other pastoral duties to work in our church garden by Daniels Run. I expanded our garden a bit by creating two new beds. I planted early spring crops of spinach, lettuce, chard, radishes, and snow peas. All these plants are starting to poke their heads out of the soil but you have to look close to see them. In a few more weeks they will develop into vigorous plants.
This is the promise of gardening. It’s also the promising of pastoring our smaller church here in Fairfax, Virginia. Our adult Sunday school class has been studying the book The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches written by David Ray. He says that worship is where the life of a smaller church begins and comes together. He also reminds us that the church exists by mission. To paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, “We seek the welfare of the city where we live, for in its welfare we will find our welfare (29:7).
Our church is fortunate to own a three-acre property in the middle of our city, with the small stream called Daniels Run flowing through it. One of the ways we seek the welfare of our city is by caring for this environment and developing it into an inviting space for our neighborhood. Last summer an Eagle Scout troop helped us create a picnic area and nature trail winding its way from our church garden down to Daniels Run. Now we’re gradually developing the trail through the two-acre woods on the other side of the stream.
We’re also renovating our church building and worship space to make it handicap accessible and more inviting. One feature will be a large window in our sanctuary looking out over the woods and our church garden. Another aspect of healthy church life is raising morale and elevating our spirit. A big part of that is focusing on the unique strengths and resources of our small congregation rather than thinking we need to be a large, program oriented church to be successful.
We are a church in the Anabaptist spiritual tradition that emphasizes the communal life of our church and things like simple living, service, peace, and justice. We’re also deeply rooted in the soil of our past history of farm life and bi-vocational farmer preachers. Perhaps that’s why I thoroughly enjoy combining gardening with my other pastoral work. In keeping with this spirituality, our church is considering changing our name to “Daniels Run Peace Church.” That will help to root us in our environment and to grow our garden here beside Daniels Run.
In his international bestselling book Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande argues that we’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. He writes “We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way” (259).
It’s not only that our goal is misguided; the way doctors relate to their patients is equally problematic. He describes three different kinds of relationships. One is “paternalistic.” This is the old-school method of telling people what to do. Take the red pill or the blue pill. The doctor is authoritative, self-certain, and busy with things to do.
Another common way today is “informative.” Here the doctor is the expert who gives the patient the facts and figures and the rest is up to you. In this approach the patient is a consumer and doctors know less and less about their patients and more and more about their science. He says this is his own default way of relating to patients, which he’s trying to overcome.
Neither way is quite what people need. Sure, we need a doctor with information and a degree of control but we also need guidance, which requires a frank and honest discussion that honors the humanity and the wishes of the patient. This third way is known as an “interpretative” approach. Doctors who use this approach ask their patients, “What is most important to you? What are your worries?” (201).
The goals and doctor-patient relationships that Dr. Gawande strives for are also relevant in creating a life-giving Christian fellowship. I find it easy to become moralistic and self-righteous about things like social equality. Preaching is easy, but how do we create a community that listens to each other and endeavors to actually relate to each one of us in ways that are authentic?
One of the most revolutionary aspects of the life of the early churches was the conviction that all are empowered by the Spirit of God. Putting this conviction into practice was especially radical in the midst of a hierarchical and paternalistic society. They insisted that even those with no legal rights were to be equally included as sisters and brothers in their fellowship.
An example of how this was put into practice is when Paul sent the slave Onesimus back to his former master Philemon. We don’t know the circumstances but it appears that Onesimus ran away after a conflict and then somehow met up with Paul in prison. All three are now followers of Jesus and this makes all the difference. Paul sends Onesimus back with a letter to Philemon instructing him to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” It’s a powerful example of how following the way of Jesus turns social relationships upside down and empowers even the least among us.