Gardening by Daniels Run

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.


All Are Empowered

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.


Building Community

Last week a crew of eleven friends and members of my former Shalom congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia came to help us with the initial deconstruction of the part of our church building where we will create our new worship space. I can hardly express my gratitude for their labor of love. They were the face of Christ here in Fairfax.

We’re not only creating a new worship space, we’re creating community in many different ways. Members of our congregation provided food and lodging for our volunteers. Then a whole other group of local people from Fairfax, including an emerging congregation that is sharing space in our building, came to clean the building. Lots of relationships were built as we worked and ate together.

Our church property has been both a blessing and an albatross for us. It’s strategically located in the center of the City of Fairfax, a major suburb of Washington DC, and includes a two acre woods with a small stream called Daniels Run flowing through it. We have been able to rent space in our building to several immigrant Korean, Chinese, and Hispanic congregations. The building is solidly built but is an albatross in the sense that it feels dated and worn and the worship space is on the third floor.

Where we meet can make a huge difference in our worship and in our ability to create a faith community. Architecture matters! Our renovation will move our worship space to the ground floor and make it handicap accessible. It will better serve our congregation as well as all the other congregations that share our space. Our dream is that it will also create opportunities for yet unseen ministries in our community.

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


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


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


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.