The Dignity of Work

A young couple that occasionally visits our church told me that one of them works at a fast food chain and the other works at a major retail store. Even though they work here in the DC area, they live 20 miles away in an apartment they can afford to rent. They’d like to come to church more often but they need to work on weekends and can only come if they take a day off.

Work is one of the most central parts of our lives yet little is written about it in standard theological resources. It is addressed in Introduction to Catholic Social Thought by Milburn Thompson and The Way of the Cross in Human Relations by Guy Hershberger, a Mennonite writing in the 1950s. Both link work with creation and the Genesis story of God creating the earth and then resting from all that labor. This story grounds the dignity of our labor. We share in the creative activity of God and realize our human potential through work. The creative process of work is hardwired into us. Children do it with abandon with no thought of status or being paid. Playing is children’s work.

Work is good for us. It provides the necessary resources for our lives. Much of our waking hours are given to our work; through it we contribute to the community, participate in society, and help establish the common good. Milburn Thompson says that “work is essential for a meaningful life; it is a human obligation and a human right” (84). Guy Hershberger makes a similar claim and ties meaningful work with the ability to own property and draw our living from the earth. “There can be no liberty without property. Slavery and the absence of property go together. Property and the human welfare which it represents are thus not merely the concern of the individual, but of the entire community” (214).

Let’s hold this vision of dignified, meaningful work because work as we know it is often oppressive and unjust. Workers should never be reduced to cogs in a machine because the whole purpose of an organized economy is the flourishing of all workers and their families. Milburn Thompson writes, “The dignity of human work and the priority of the personhood of the worker challenge the morality of the modern economy” (84).

Our Nature Trail by Daniels Run

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An Eagle Scout troop recently built a picnic area by our church garden that overlooks Daniels Run. Then they created a trail through the woods going down along the stream. They worked hard all day to clear invasive plants and brush, build steps out of dead logs, and haul out trash that had been dumped along the stream bank years ago. Finally, they laid down landscape cloth and covered it with mulch to create the picnic area and the walking trail.

People from our church prepared a lunch and helped with the project. The City of Fairfax donated the mulch and hauled away the brush and trash. We all willingly contributed to the project because of our public spirit and our love for our community. We want our city to be walkable and to have plenty of green space that enhances our environment. In the process we learned to know each other and built stronger community relations.

This is part of an ongoing project. During work breaks we discussed the possibility of creating a rain garden to capture rainwater from the street and our church parking lot. We want to extend the nature trail across the stream to connect with an existing trail in our two-acre woods on the other side of the stream. An even bigger dream is to someday create affordable housing (perhaps for people with disabilities) in the area where our church building now stands.

This is related to the song of our heart as a congregation. One stanza of our song is to “embody a faith-based, compassion and social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment.” This vision is still unfolding but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s integrally tied to our location by Daniels Run, that little stream flowing through our church property, which eventually finds its way to the Chesapeake Bay and finally the wide Atlantic Ocean beyond.

There’s spiritual wisdom in our natural environment that we can learn from in our fast-paced Metro DC area. I think of a verse in Wendell Berry’s poem, The Want of Peace:

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire.
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

My hope is that our garden, picnic area, and nature trail by Daniels Run can help us reconnect with the spiritual wisdom found in nature. Another verse in one of Wendell Berry’s poems indicates how our nature trail by Daniels Run can help us find that peace and grace:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
Around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Small Churches are Beautiful

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Small churches are just the right size for building caring relationships and equipping each other for the adventure of being God’s people. My friend Norman Kraus, a theologian and teacher who served in Japan, tells me about the Japanese preference for small churches. When a church reaches the size of about 20 people they think it’s time to divide and start another church. We Americans, on the other hand, think we need to close our doors if we’re that small. But this was the normal size of churches during the first centuries when size was limited by how many people fit into a typical house.

“Repeatedly throughout scripture, God affirms the few, the small, and the insignificant who live by grace, faithfulness, and courage. With few exceptions, biblical faithfulness does not come from or result in large numbers. God is more likely to count by ones and fives than by hundreds and thousands. Christ promised to be present whenever two or three come together in his name. . . The tiny mustard seed, the pearl of great price, the leaven in the loaf, the single lamp, the lost sheep and coin, the sparrows, and the numbered hairs on a person’s head, are all powerful signs and symbols that small can be theologically mighty or, and least big enough” (David Ray, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 55).

Small churches are mighty if we believe we are. A familiar complaint of a small church with an inferiority complex is that we’re too small to pay a full-time pastor or to offer the programs provided by large churches. We think we’re too small to have a good Christian education program or a viable youth group. God is calling us to recognize our unique gifts and to structure our congregational life outside such boxes. Churches of more than 150 people are too big and impersonal to be the kind of church the apostle Paul was envisioning when he wrote his pastoral letters.

Large churches can work at ways to create smaller, more intimate spaces for fellowship but they’re at a clear disadvantage. People get tired of the show and get frustrated by sitting in the pews and feeling like spectators. Studies show that people in small churches attend worship services more frequently, volunteer more of their time, give more, and are more engaged in their community. That’s because, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4: 25, “We’re members of one another.” When we’re too big for that, we’ve grown too large.

We live in a society that thinks bigger is better but we’re increasingly exasperated by our over-sized, impersonal structures that quickly become oppressive. We feel it in the bureaucracy we encounter when we try to get service for something we bought at a big-box store. We feel it in our bloated political system dominated by perversely rich corporate sponsors. Granted, supersizing it can sometimes create a beneficial economy of scale but the last thing you and I need in this environment is a supersized church.

“At their best and most faithful, what does a smaller church offer the bigger, high-tech world? Smaller churches offer high touch. They offer a place of belonging to those who feel like refugees. They offer community to those who feel isolated or estranged. They offer an opportunity to make a difference to those who feel superfluous. In a world full of sickness, they offer healing and wholeness. In a world imploding in its own complexity, they offer a simple place where people feel like they’ve arrived where they ought to be. They are a God-given response to this world’s greatest needs” (David Ray, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 61).

Here Comes Everybody

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The social and ethnic diversity in the metro DC area is strikingly different from the rural Pennsylvania community, where I grew up. We were all white. There was only one black family in our high school and the only Hispanics we met were occasional seasonal workers who came to pick tomatoes on a nearby farm. We were all from different Protestant denominations. The biggest religious differences were Catholics and a small Jewish community in a nearby city.

There was a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” We hardly knew these other people but had lots of stereotypes. I still remember the prejudiced things we said about them. A significant part of my life story and my faith journey is my transition from that world to being the pastor of our church in one of the most diverse regions of our world.

Our diversity in metro DC is similar to the diversity in the first-century Mediterranean cities and churches to which the Apostle Paul wrote his letters. Especially instructive is his teaching about how we bridge such differences to create an inclusive community. Like those churches we need to figure out what it means to confess that there’s no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, that we’re all part of one body (Galatians 3:28).

Asian feminist theologian Yong Ting Jin writes “Each person has a unique and creative role to play as inspired and sustained by the Spirit. Everyone is charismatic, no one is useless. As such, each member has a decisive place in the community, but all serving one another, all having and enjoying equal dignity” (In Boyung Lee, Transforming Congregations through Community, 38).

Different cultures can rub each other the wrong way. Laid on top of this is the cruel history of how our country treated Native Americans and African slaves. This is our original sin and those hurts still run deep. A different but related matter has been our recent church fight over sexual orientation and same-sex relationships that has consumed so much of our energy in the past several decades. This has been our test of finding unity in diversity and to discern together what it means to be a fellowship where all who proclaim faith in Jesus are welcomed and nurtured.

My alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, recently announced that it will not “discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or any legally protected status.” Their hiring practices and benefits will now expand to include employees in same-sex marriages. It’s a change I welcome. This should not be a church dividing issue and I look forward to the day when it no longer absorbs so much of our energy. It’s one among other issues of inclusion and there are many other things that cry out for our attention.

One verse in the song of our heart is to be a diverse church that welcomes everybody no matter who you are or what your background may be. I want our neighbors to know that about us. Perhaps we now have a unique opportunity to be welcoming in this broader sense. As the apostle Paul insisted, there is no distinction between people on any basis in the church. All are valued, all are gifted, and all are needed.

A Small Church Manifesto

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Large churches are known for their excellent programs. They have the staff and resources to put into preaching, music, and Christian education, which small churches find impossible to match. This can lead to a sense of discouragement among members of small churches. How can we even begin to compete?

Small churches tend to sell themselves short. We fail to recognize our distinctive strengths such as our intimate fellowship and lay leadership. Another characteristic of small churches is that we are generally more resilient and can weather leadership changes better. We might think of these differences as the distinctive characteristics of a supermarket versus a farmers’ market.

In this respect, adventurous small churches that recognize their strengths may be uniquely positioned to respond to the increasing number of people who are frustrated with their experience of church and looking for alternatives. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope have done qualitative sociological interviews of such people who have dropped out and say they are “done” with church.

These “church refugees” are actually deeply committed and engaged Christians who have become completely disillusioned with the institutional church. Common frustrations are that most church resources are consumed by all those programs and that the church bureaucracy severely limits participation by ordinary members. Josh and Ashleigh offer four strategies for reengaging such people that can fit nicely with the vision of engaged and forward-thinking small churches (Church Refugees, 113-128).

Their first strategy is to “invite participation within limits.” We should trust our community and give people resources to participate meaningfully with minimal oversight. The second strategy is to find ways to “undermine bureaucracy.” Put timelines on positions and committees to avoid unhealthy concentrations of power. Encourage specific projects that capture people’s imaginations but be careful about developing them into programs.

A third strategy is to “be truly relational.” To that end we will devote staff time and resources to knowing and supporting people rather than creating and maintaining programs. Do things with people rather than for people. Finally seek to “impact your community” and allow yourself to, in turn, “be impacted.” To do that, we will want to be involved locally at the grassroots level.

Church as a “Veggie Village”

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Our church’s community garden can serve as an allegory for the life and growth of our congregation.  Margie, a member of our church with a playful sense of humor, began to call it our “Veggie Village.” Her vision was to have all kinds of flowers, native plants, and vegetables live together in harmony as is fitting in a church garden. She wanted it to be a space for children to enjoy and to learn about nature.

Plants grow from their own biological nature. We don’t create them. Our part is preparing the soil, planting the seed, providing water and fertilizer, pulling weeds, and waiting with hope. I like the way farmer-poet Wendell Berry expresses it:

The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work.

Still gardening is a craft and even an art. Gardeners learn to know each other and share all kinds of gardening lore. As a gardener, I read books, take classes, and experiment with different gardening methods. I learn as much as I can about each variety of crop, the best planting time, beneficial insects, how much water and fertilizer it needs, pests that attack it, and how to best interplant it with other vegetables and flowers.

The same is true for churches. We need the mindset of a gardener. A key to a healthy church is finding our niche and to do what we do well. Foremost, is identifying the type of soil where our church is growing and adapting to it. We dare not become complacent. We will want to keep experimenting with different ways of being church and engaging our community while trusting in who we are as a people of faith. We recognize that God is at work in us.

Jesus’ parables of the sower scattering seed and of the mustard seed draw attention to both the mysterious growth of the seed and to the astonishing fertility of the earth (Mark 4: 26-34). The reign of God is not something that develops naturally in human history through our effort. Instead, it’s the miraculous work of God and the harvest comes as a delightful gift. It is much bigger than our congregation, our denomination, or even our religion, and includes all the inside-out things God is doing in our world. Recognizing this can be liberating—we’re not slogging it out by ourselves. We will seek to discern what God is doing in our neighborhoods, roll up our sleeves, and join in the action.

There’s also a radical political edge to it. The reign of God is the opposite of the Roman Empire which rules by economic exploitation and military coercion. It’s a different kind of community formed through the power of love and nonviolent action. It’s a community that embraces all, especially the most vulnerable among us.

Jesus’ parables counsel patience and hope. Biblical scholar Ched Myers writes, “Mark sobers any illusion that change will be quick and triumphal. It is rather a matter of finding the right soil and trusting that the seed will grow, maintaining faith that the small seed will be “raised up” and the mighty brought down” (Binding the Strong Man, 181).

Church Refugees

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Hiking group (not refugees) at a recent church retreat.

I took a short hiatus from writing this blog post, partly because I was busy other things such as helping to create a community garden at our church and supporting a community coalition advocating for affordable housing in the City of Fairfax. The garden is looking great! We were also able to achieve at least some of our affordable housing objectives. The developer, who will demolish 110 affordable housing units in the city, agreed to give $1,000 resettlement stipends to current residents and contribute $550,000 toward a newly established affordable housing fund in the city. It won’t replace the affordable housing that has been lost but it will at least enable us to begin developing an affordable housing initiative in our city.

This other reason I took a hiatus is because I have been wrestling with my claim that the Anabaptist tradition, with its emphasis on the gathered community of faith, is ideally positioned to meet the spiritual and social concerns of those who are disillusioned with the church in our time. My claim is substantiated by the sociological research of Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope based on their interviews of people who have giving up on the church.

In their book Church Refugees, they note that the most common regret among those who have left the church is the loss of community. This is because “they understand Christianity through interactions with others and a commitment to share life fully and honestly with a group of people. Community was fundamental to their understanding of God” (38). A primary reason for leaving was because the dogmatism, bureaucracy, and hierarchy in their congregations clashed with that commitment. This supports moving toward a more Anabaptist model of the church where the engaged community of faith is an expression of God at work in our world.

Even so, another reason this group is done with church makes me question my claim. They perceive the church to be primarily inward focused rather than engaged in its neighborhood. Practically all staff time and financial resources are focused on Sunday morning worship to the exclusion of projects that address needs in the larger community. The structure of the church actually prevented them from serving God through community action. For some, leaving the church became a matter of their own spiritual wellbeing. (55).

Most churches rooted in the Anabaptist tradition are especially inwardly focused, partially as a result of our history as a persecuted religious minority. At the same time, we’ve become part of the larger American religious ethos that gives primacy to Sunday morning worship and self-perpetuating church structures. We become confined in an insular religious world.

I’ll speak from my Mennonite heritage. It’s difficult for those from outside our religious-cultural world to find a place among us. Seeking to become involved in one of our congregations can feel like interrupting a close-knit family. We’re polite but people get the unspoken message that they don’t quite fit and probably never will. This is often just as true of more liberal churches as traditional ones. Even worse, leadership positions in our small denomination are filled by people from certain familial networks.

The challenge for our congregation is to draw on our rich Anabaptist heritage rooted in community, while freeing ourselves from its more inward focused cultural expressions. We may be uniquely positioned to do that because there are not many people with ethnic Mennonite roots in our Fairfax community. This can actually be an opportunity.

It doesn’t mean devaluing or abandoning our culture. My doctoral studies in religion and culture remind me that culture carries religion. What it does mean is practicing hospitality and opening ourselves to people from other cultures in our diverse Metro DC area. To do that, we will want to be engaged with our neighbors in things beyond our congregation such as our community garden and working for affordable housing.   

Caring Community

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Notice the intimate, relational nature of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples in John’s Gospel (John 14-17). Three words stand out: abide, believe, and love. Be with me, stay with me, believe in me, love me and love others as I love you. This foundational relationship shapes our identity, our way of being, and all our actions.

We all need intimate, caring relationships to thrive and grow as people. Child psychologists have discovered that children with a secure attachment to a primary caregiver are more independent and able to explore their world. When the caregiver leaves the room, the child becomes sad and is visibly excited when the caregiver returns.

In contrast, children with an anxious/resistant attachment to their primary caregiver cry more and are less willing to explore. When the caregiver leaves the room the also become upset but may resist physical contact, as a form of “punishment” when the caregiver returns. Other children, with anxious/avoidant attachment show no preference between a caregiver and a stranger.

Children who grow up in an environment where their need for care is ignored, disparaged, or outright rejected live in a constant state of anxiety, which manifests itself in various debilitating ways later in life. As adults, they may attempt to be autonomous and resist the warmth and affection of others. They often crack under stress, exhibit violent behavior, and experience a high rate of depression.

We need to accordingly reconsider some of our prevailing psychology and social theory. According to Jeremy Rifkin, “The conventional notion of evolution, with the emphasis on the competitive struggle to secure resources and reproduce offspring, is being tempered . . . with new findings suggesting that the survival of the fittest may be as much about pro-social behavior and cooperation as physical brawn and competition” (The Empathic Civilization, 81).

This fits with the kind of intimate, relational community Jesus created with his disciples. We abide (become attached), as we’re loved—we love in turn, and we act (explore and create in our world). It’s a way of being.

When Smaller is Better (part 2)

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What does a church that embraces “smaller as better” look like? How do we “right size” a small congregation to enhance its strengths? In my last blog I identified the crux of the problem as programs and structures taken from larger churches that don’t fit small and medium sized congregations. Consequently, we end up spending too much time and energy filling positions on committees that hardly serve our needs. Many also struggle to maintain outdated facilities that further exacerbate our problems.

Paring down or eliminating church programs and structures developed in the past century, which no longer serve us well, is part of the solution. Another is to retrofit our building and church property to serve other community functions. These are practical nuts and bolts considerations.

Even more important is capturing a vision for “smaller as better.” Carol Howard Merritt identifies “a trend away from the bigger is better mentality and toward smaller, deeper community.” She gives the example of the movement away from patronizing big-box stores to supporting farmer’s markets. Several things lie behind this trend that can be instructive for churches.

Our congregation’s book club, which meets monthly at the local library, is reading and discussing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a serious, yet light-hearted account of her family’s year-long adventure of producing their own food or buying it locally from farmers markets. The bottom line is their love for good, nutritious food. Close behind is the desire to support local farmers and the local economy. Another motivation is to reduce our carbon footprint by not eating out-of-season foods shipped long distances.

I see a similar space for small congregations. In his tour-de-force book The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin juxtaposes the global movement toward greater empathy with the built-in entropy of our unsustainable reliance on energy from burning fossil fuels. The future of our human civilization is at stake.

Small congregations deeply rooted in their local community, and with an environmental consciousness, can help lead the way to a different future. For that to happen, slickly programmed, performance-centered worship services will need to give way to smaller, more relational forms of community. Furthermore, communities of faith have an innate sense of our shared humanity and our ties with all creation through our faith in God as creator of the universe. For our congregation in the City of Fairfax, this provides the inspiration for the development of a community garden and for a nature trail through the woods behind our church.

We’re Seeds Being Planted

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Planting Seed Potatoes in India

Spring has arrived and our thoughts naturally turn to our gardens. A group at our church is planning and beginning some preliminary work to develop a community garden. We have visions of intensive, small beds for vegetables, surrounded with herbs and flowers. One of our church members, an avid amateur naturalist interested in native species, told me she had been baptized with a sprinkling can. What a beautiful baptism image. We’re seeds being planted, seeds that contain so much potential life and fruitfulness.

This has been a busy week and I enjoy imagining the different events I participated in as instances of seeds being planted. One of those events was a meeting between the Fairfax County School Board and Fairfax County Clergy and Leadership Council of which I’m a member. Our meeting was hosted by the Annandale High School, which treated us to a delicious lunch prepared and served by students taking a culinary class.

It was a great learning experience. The sheer diversity in the school is astounding. The principal informed us that 79 different countries are represented in their student body. That became especially obvious when he took some of us on a tour and we dropped in on various classes. These teenagers are learning to relate to each other across many different ethnicities and cultures.

Part of the discussion in our meeting was about managing the religious diversity among the students. Muslim and Jewish religious leaders were especially concerned about the challenges that students from their faiths have in relation to religious observances. This segued into a discussion of the enormous pressure to succeed among students. Some fear missing classes for religious holidays because they don’t want to fall behind in their studies.

School administrators talked frankly about the intense pressure to succeed. Part of the pressure comes from parents but also from enrollment policies in colleges and universities. As I toured the school I began to suspect that teachers can also contribute to unrealistic expectations because of the pressure to succeed that’s placed on them. One tragic result has been the recent student suicides in Fairfax County.

In my last blog I related “being” peace with “building” peace. It includes a faith that leads us from anxious self-seeking to generous sharing. This cuts against the grain in today’s world. For Christians, this is the season of Lent leading to Easter when we remember Christ’s death and resurrection. John’s Gospel uses the image of a seed falling into the ground and dying. (12:24). We know the seed doesn’t actually die. Instead a biological trigger is switched on and it’s transformed by all that latent energy stored inside it. It’s an acorn producing a gigantic oak tree that, in turn, produces from 70 thousand to 150 thousand acorns in a good year.

The same is true for us. What may seem like death is actually an explosion of new life within us. The Bible talks about peace as shalom or flourishing communities rather than as a static state of no obvious conflict. Being peace necessarily includes a faith that leads us from anxious self-seeking to generous sharing. In Jesus’ words, “I lose my life in order to find it.”