We Care


A slogan on our church sign by the road proclaims that we are, “A Caring Christian Community.” It expresses our desire and hope for the kind of community we want to be. Yet the word “caring” begs to be filled out. I did some research and found three different quotes about caring:

  • This one especially grabbed my attention. “Some people care too much; I think it’s called love”—Winnie the Pooh.
  • Another reminds me of something my former spiritual director would say. “A smile is the light in your window that tells others that there’s a caring, sharing person inside”—Denis Waitley.
  • Yet another is especially appropriate for smaller churches. “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world, for, indeed, that’s all who ever have”—Margaret Mead.

In what ways are we caring and how is that put into action? Pastor and small church advocate David Ray says there are good reasons why smaller churches are the right size to be caring communities. People come to small churches because they want to be with others rather than to worship in isolation (The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 154).

Smaller churches can take time to care because we don’t need to be fully occupied with keeping the institution running, as is true in larger organizations. If the way we think about our ministry and the way we structure our church life are more relational, we as a people will be more relational. We then have a greater capacity to care for others and to meet the needs of people.



Lent and Valentine’s Day


The First Sunday of Lent and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day this year. Each reminds us of both the wonder and pathos of being alive. We are part of the whole web of life and we trust in God’s care for all creation. Life is full of unspeakable love and beauty. Yet none of us, no matter how powerful or privileged, is immune from personal tragedy and suffering.

Christian mystic Evelyn Underhill reminds us, “No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.” A standard biblical reflection for the season of Lent is Christ’s temptation in the desert. The desert reminds us that life is fragile and that we all have internal demons against which we struggle. Our inclination to ignore the relationship between love and suffering keeps us from recognizing the pared-down beauty that the desert brings.

It also keeps us from developing the spiritual resources that we can draw on during times of adversity? The Bible is replete with the assurance that we can turn to God for strength and security. Common cognates are that God is our refuge, our fortress, our stronghold, our dwelling place, and our shelter. We learn to trust as a way of coping with the adversities and anxieties that beset our lives.

James Healy writes, “Whether we gaze with longing into the garden or with fear and trembling into the desert, of this we can be sure—God walked there first! And when we who have sinned and despoiled the garden are challenged now to face the desert, we do not face it alone. Jesus has gone there before us to struggle with every demon that has even plagued a human heart.”

God’s Peace Stands Guard

A group of us recently went to hear a Celtic Christmas concert at George Mason University. I love the rhythm and sound of Celtic music. It has its own kind of spirituality rooted in the soil and history of Ireland. Later that evening we listened to President Obama’s address to our nation about the threat of violent acts of terrorism from Islamic jihadists. It was like being transported from one world into another.

What Obama had to say was sobering. I recognize his responsibility as president to keep American citizens safe. Yet I’m concerned that actions such as aerial bombings and drone strikes in foreign countries further escalate the cycle of violence, kill innocent civilians, and increase the flow of refugees. Equally concerning were the critical responses of CNN commentators following the president’s address. One was especially alarmist and clearly desired stronger rhetoric.

Such rhetoric arrived the next day when a major presidential candidate advocated barring all Muslims from entering our country. Then the president of an evangelical Christian university told the university community that he was carrying a concealed weapon and urged them to do the same in order to stop any potential Muslim threat. Whatever else we might say about that, it’s certainly not the gospel.

In a time like this I’m drawn to our Advent scripture passages from Isaiah and Philippians. The prophet Isaiah is responding to a situation of war and conflict in the Middle East that mirrors what’s happening in our day. The small nations in the region were picking sides and aligning themselves with the bigger powers of Egypt and Assyria, primarily based to which side they thought would win. The prophet talks of the boots of tramping warriors and of garments rolled in blood (9: 5). Armies were sweeping through the region and destroying towns and cities.

Isaiah’s council to people of faith is to not place their hopes for security in such national alliances and to instead trust in God. “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (12: 2). We will want to consider what such trust looks like in our world that’s awash in high-powered guns and weapons of war.

The words of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians are equally instructive (4: 4-7). He counsels Christians to not become consumed by our anxieties or to become victimized by our problems. We are instead to be known for our deep sense of joy and gentleness or forbearance. Two things make this possible. The first is our experience of Christ present in our midst. The other is the assurance that “the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.”

Paul uses a military metaphor of God’s peace standing guard. Because we have that assurance we don’t need to scan the horizon for new threats. Alert, yes, anxious, no. There is an appropriate level of concern but the kind of anxiety swirling around right now is not fitting for followers of Jesus who have placed their trust in God.

Advent as a Pregnant Time

Given that I’m male it’s a little audacious for me to talk about being pregnant. My closest experience has been living with my wife during her pregnancies with our three children—I certainly can’t claim any firsthand knowledge. Nevertheless, from those memories, I can characterize it as being filled with anticipation, of feeling awkward, and finally a desire to just have it end.

The first Advent season was a pregnant time. Both Mary and Elizabeth with expecting babies. Their husbands, Zechariah and Joseph were, we could say, a bit clueless. The women were much more aware of what was happening. But to be fair, their husbands eventually caught on and certainly supported their wives. It was all a bit awkward. New life was gestating. Tummies were getting big and it was a little hard to keep one’s balance. Things were moving, taking shape, growing. It involved so many hopes and dreams of what God was doing in their world.

This may sound a little sacrilegious but I like to think that God was pregnant. I know it’s a stretch to imagine God with a big extended tummy, walking awkwardly and slightly off balance. But isn’t that much better than imagining God as a stern judge in his chambers keeping track of our sins or as a fierce warrior on the battlefield slaying his enemies?

Speaking of God as a pregnant mother isn’t new. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God as being in labor bringing new life  (44:14) and as a mother comforting her children (66:13). The medieval Christian mystic Julian of Norwich is known for her female images of God. Her words have been made into a poem by Jean Janzen and put to music by Janet Peachy. It’s now in our church hymnal, “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.”

Just as in the first century, our world is also pregnant and we wait in anticipation of the new life taking form in and among us. In this Advent season, we will want to be especially aware of some of the awkward, hopeful, pregnant possibilities in our personal lives, in our church, and in our world.


The Lit Bush


My training in biblical studies has given me a deep appreciation for the long and dusty road of history. I still have my first Old Testament history textbook. It opened up new worlds for me as I became familiar with the scope and breadth of people and cultures that have long since disappeared. So much is gone but then we can’t even completely know ourselves and those closest to us in our present life.

A dear friend is brilliant, insightful man who has always had the weakness of harboring resentments. I sometimes see the same tendency in myself and I pray that I can grow old with grace. When we reflect on our lives we can easily become consumed by resentment, guilt, and regret in a way that hides the sheer miracle of having lived and of being alive.

When we reflect more deeply, we can see that even troubles which we brought on ourselves contain a hidden gem. Difficulties can be the greatest friend of our soul. I wonder if that’s what Isaiah meant when he said that God will “swallow up the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. (25:7).

The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas has written a beautiful poem about looking back on life with regrets about having missed an opportunity. Of wishing we could do something differently.

I have seen the light break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great prize, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. 

Life is not hurrying on 
to a receding future nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush. To a brightness
that seems as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

At the heart of this poem is a realization that all time is contained in the eternity of God. As John O’ Donohue insightfully recognizes:

Your time is not just past or future. Your time here always inhabits the circle of your soul. All your time is gathered, and even your future time is waiting here for you. In a certain sense your past is not gone but rather is hidden in your memory. Your time is the deeper seed of the eternity that is waiting to welcome you (Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, 187).

Reinventing Halloween and All Saints Day


My grandson dressed up as a mad scientist for Halloween

Children look forward to dressing up in costumes and joining their friends to go from house to house, saying trick-or treat, and collecting candy on Halloween. Its lots of fun chaperoned by responsible adults. It’s a way to build our courage by poking fun at scary things rather than being afraid or even controlled by them. That’s good! Furthermore, we have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously. Halloween reminds us to lighten up a bit.

Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve” or “holy evening” which has its roots in the ancient Christian three-day observance of “All-hallow-tide” the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.

The trick-or-treat part appears to be rooted in a folk belief that some departed spirits like to play harmless pranks on Halloween. Carving pumpkins, giving candied apples, and other treats also appears to be related to the tradition of not eating meat during the three-day observance of “All-hallow-tide.” All Saints Day celebrations follow Halloween in many parts of the world but unfortunately only Halloween gets much attention in our country.

All Saints Day is a major holiday in the Philippines where I and my family once lived. People bring lots of candles, food, and music to their family burial plots in the cemeteries. Prayers and blessings are said. People camp out in the cemetery through the night and spend the whole next day visiting with relatives and neighbors. They bring photos of loved ones who have died and tell lots of stories in memory of them. There’s a sense that their dead ancestors’ spirits are there with them. It’s a big multi-generational party.

How can we revive this in our culture? Dressing up in costumes and going trick-or-treating pales in comparison. Some churches organize a “Saint Fest” party for the whole family on Halloween. Wouldn’t it be great if we’d follow this with a worship service and intergenerational fellowship meal our church cemeteries on All Saints Day? We could remember our loved ones who passed away. We could tell stories about the struggles, victories, and defeats of past generations in our families and our churches. We are who we are because of who they were—saints and sinners—ordinary people with strengths and weaknesses who passed their faith down to us.

Worship as the Work of the People

In her book Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott describes being slowly drawn into the fellowship of a small church during a troubled time in her life. It was the singing and the warm community that drew her in. She writes, “I couldn’t believe how run-down [the church] was, with terrible linoleum that was brown and over shined, and plastic stained-glass windows.  But it has a choir of five black women and one rather Amish-looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth.”

I have had a similar experience with our church. For a fleeting moment I considered turning around and leaving when my wife and I first walked through the doors into our depressing basement entryway that felt like we were walking back into the 1960s. I couldn’t do that because I’d accepted an invitation to preach. So we climbed two flights of stairs to the sanctuary where we encountered a very friendly and surprisingly diverse group of people who drew us in. I began to think that being the pastor of our small church here in the City of Fairfax could be a fun challenge—and it has been.

I find myself learning and growing with our church. Our worship is the heart and soul of our congregation. It forms us as a caring, spiritual community. It’s here that we experience God alive in our midst as God our creator, Jesus our teacher and redeemer, and the Spirit who empowers us. David Ray, the author of Wonderful Worship in Small Churches, says that worship is the work of the people and the fruit of their gifts.  Likewise, the author of 1 Peter says that each of us has received a gift to use in serving each other (4:10). David Ray writes:

  • Authentic Christian worship is the work of all the people—short and simple.
  • Authentic Christian worship is a workshop in which all the people are encouraged and supported in naming their spiritual gifts and developing them as gifts for God and God’s people, as well as their own sense of self-fulfillment.
  • Authentic Christian worship provides the precious opportunity in which those now employed in the community know deep in their heart that they are not useless and unusable. . . At its deepest core, Christian worship is both a gift to God as well as to the people themselves.

Such worship is like a structured but informal folk dance in which all participate rather than a concert put on by select performers for an audience.

Losing and Saving our Lives

It was a pivotal juncture in Jesus’ ministry. He had just concluded a successful campaign in Galilee, where thousands flocked to him. His disciples were completely pumped and had huge dreams for where this would go and the part they would have in it. Now that Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Judaism, even greater things will certainly follow.

The location is also significant. They were in the region of Caesarea Philippi that Herod the Great’s son Philip named after himself and the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. A huge temple in honor of Augustus accompanied the renaming, rebuilding, and glorification of the city. It was an imperial city and, according to Roman propaganda, “the empire would dominate without end and know no bounds.”

It’s here that Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, speaking for all of them, proclaims, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8: 27-30). It’s the right answer but with a fatally flawed understanding. The word messiah literally means “God’s anointed one.” This goes back to when the prophet Samuel anointed David to be the king of Israel. Devout and zealous Jews in Jesus’ time longed for a new messiah-king who would lead an armed insurgency and deliver them from the hated pagan occupiers of their land.

This is obviously what Peter was thinking. We can feel the rush of energy in his words. We’re off to Jerusalem with the goal of establishing a new Jewish dynasty. The disciples were already jockeying with each other and arguing about who would sit next to Jesus in the seat of power. We can assume that’s why Jesus instructed them to not tell anybody. This had to be a low point for him as a teacher and spiritual leader.

After being with him all this time, his disciples still didn’t get it. They still thought following God meant destroying their enemies—not loving them. So he begins to talk in a strange way that doesn’t compute. He talks about suffering, being rejected, even killed, and then raised again. We can imagine the confusion on the disciples’ faces and their sideways glances at each other. They were expecting pep-talks and strategy sessions—not this!

Peter, ever the self-assured one, took Jesus aside to help him understand the effect of such talk. We can imagine him confiding in a low voice, “You can’t talk like this. You’re demoralizing everybody!” Then, to his chagrin, Jesus turned around and rebuked him in front of the other disciples. “Get behind me Satan! Your understanding of what it means to be the Messiah isn’t spiritual in the least. It’s completely wrapped up in human understanding of power and the trappings of power. That’s a devil of an idea.”

I suspect that Jesus is talking to himself as much as to Peter. We can’t forget that this was at the core of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when Satan took him up on a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and promised to give them to him, if he would worship him (Matthew 4: 8-10). Worshiping Satan is equivalent to a violent grab for power. World history is littered with the horrific consequences.

We see it being played out in the political and military turmoil in Syria and other part of the Middle East. The lives of millions of people have been destroyed as the flood of refugees keeps increasing. The obvious contemporary example is the Islamic State group known as ISIS, yet all nations have some element of domination through violence as part of their core identity. We hear slightly different versions of this perspective articulated by candidates running for public office.

Financially speaking, what would I gain if I became a billionaire and was a self-centered jerk with no true friends and no understanding of the rewards that come from freely giving myself? I’d still be a shadow of a person no matter how important I or others might think I am. What a travesty! In contrast, Jesus proposes losing our lives in order to save them. We think of those who give their lives in this ways as heroes and martyrs, people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa. Focusing exclusively on such exemplary people can be disempowering for ordinary folk like you and me.

We all lose our lives daily in various ways. We lose our lives when we devote ourselves to the well-being of our families and loved ones. We lose our lives when we give ourselves to serving others through our work. We lose our lives when we become engrossed in a concert or join others in a meaningful activity such as taking a walk. We lose our lives when we worship together and serve together as a congregation. We lose our lives when we join others to work for peace with justice in our world.

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.

Creating a Spiritual Home


Noise and motion, busyness, activity and pressure! There’s energy in urban centers like metro DC and its part of what attracts me to our city. Yet it can be brutal when it runs amok and we assume that bigger is always better and we divide the world between winners and losers. Donald Trump has personified this in the news cycle in the past several weeks. Notice how the media is drawn to this circus like moths to a flame.

There can be a great gulf between our outer life of work, roles, and responsibility and our inner life enriched by God’s presence. Our insecurities turn our fast-paced, urban world cruel and ugly. For some, this is masked as drive and ambition; others lose confidence, despair, and even become suicidal. Growing in spiritual wisdom and maturity necessarily involves recognizing and coming to terms with this part of our lives. It also entails finding a space where deep touches deep and we connect with the spirit of life within.

We need to make space for God in our lives. This will be different for each of us. Gardening is one way that I get in touch with nature, with myself, and with what I sense as the Spirit of God alive in all creation. It’s hard to explain. It’s the fruitfulness of the natural world, working my muscles, feeling the sweat on my brow, and biting into a fresh tomato—this connects me with an unfathomable power much greater than myself.

I should quickly add that I can easily fret and become anxious, I can be self-absorbed in a way that keeps me from connecting with others, and I can become bored and distracted. Sometimes the creative source and ground of being that we call God seems far removed from my life. Like everyone else, I have questions and doubts. That’s why I love being a pastor with its rhythm of relating to church members, connecting with all kinds of people in our community, preparing weekly worship services, studying, and writing sermons. These disciplines keep me grounded.

I want our church to be a spiritual oasis for seekers and those working for the common good in our city. I want us to be a safe place where people feel comfortable expressing their questions, doubts, and fears. Trying to ignore them and stuffing them down certainly doesn’t work.

Rachel Held Evans talks about the doubts and unanswered questions that kept her away from church for a long time, “Doubt will pull you out to sea like a riptide. Or hold your head under as you drown—triggered by an image, a question, something the pastor said, something that doesn’t add up, the unlikelihood of it all, the too-good-to-be-trueness of it, the way the lady in the thick perfume behind you sings “Up from the grave he arose!” with more confidence in a single line of a song than you’ve managed to muster in the past two years” (Studying for Sunday, 186).

Let’s talk about that. I want our church to be a place where honest seekers like Rachel can express such doubts and questions in a group discussion or pop into my office and say, “Hey Earl, what about this?” If that doesn’t work, perhaps we can talk about it in the church garden some morning while we take a break from pulling weeds.