August

Greetings, Gayton Road—
One of my very first memories of Gayton Road Christian Church is the caption that was printed on the front of the bulletin: Pastor: Rev. Debbie Carlton / Ministers: Every Believer
I had seen thousands of church bulletins before with the pastor’s name on the front. But never before had I seen a bulletin that suggested all of the congregation were ministers. In time, I would come to learn that this is part of the Disciples heritage. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone did
not maintain the traditional distinction between clergy and laity. They did not distinguish between the person in the pulpit and the person in the pew. They believed that we are all called and equipped to be ministers.
In one of this month’s lectionary scripture, Paul broaches the same idea. “Each of us,” he says, is “given grace” (Eph 4:7). God gives us all gifts, he continues, “to equip [us] for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:12).
We are all ministers. We all have gifts to share. That is how Christ lives in our world today!
When our new church constitution takes effect at the end of this month, our church will take on a new shape. But in fact, this new shape springs from our deepest and oldest roots as a church, as Disciples, and as followers of Christ. For “every believer” in our church—member, friend, interested visitor—will be invited to join one of three ministry teams in order to share his or her gift and to build up the body of Christ in our community and our world.
Because we are all ministers. We all have gifts to share.
Just recently, my good friend Kristin had her second child. As I celebrated this milestone with her, I thought back to the early days of our friendship in college. I remembered with a smile one of our common exchanges. When I would express appreciation for her friendship, without missing a beat
she would respond: “Oh, that’s alright—you don’t know how much your parents are paying me!”
The joke (I’m assuming it was a joke!) gets giggles because of the fact that genuine friendship is a gift, no strings attached. It is not a cold, calculated exchange. If someone were our friend only because of what they got out of it, then we would probably call them something other than a friend! Calculation drains friendship of its life. Friendship is at its fullest when it is a gift.
I wonder if we could say the same thing about ministry. We are all ministers, remember, because God gives us all gifts. Ministry begins with a gift. It makes sense, then, that when ministry becomes nothing more than a calculated commitment, an obligation or task to complete because “this is
what we’ve always done,” it loses its spirit. Only when ministry brings a smile to lips and joy to our hearts, only when it finds free expression in our flesh as though it were the most natural, “Godgiven” thing for us to do, only then is it at its fullest.
On Sunday, September 9, the church will gather for a potluck luncheon to inaugurate our three ministry teams. We will all be invited to join one. Each team will then gather to discuss how its members’ gifts might build up the ministry of the church. My hope is that we will each find a team where we can share our gift. My hope is that we will each find ways to serve God and others freely, gratuitously, not out of a sense of obligation but out of joy and inspiration.
Because we are all ministers. We all have gifts to share.
Grace and peace to you all. As our summer winds to its end, leaving some of us to drag our feet back from vacation to work and school, and others of us to venture forward into change and new challenges, may the gifts of God—friendship, ministry, and more—fill all our sails with the fullness
of life.
Yours,
Jonathan

July

Summer greetings, Gayton Road—
Hidden underneath an eave at the church sits the nest of a finch family. For days I walked by it without noticing. Only after I saw a finch dart by me for the umpteenth time did I realize. Now every time I walk by, I feel like I’m in on a secret. There in the unseen shadows breathes new life! Perhaps you harbor such secrets of your own. Perhaps this is a secret of our faith—that new life sings in the shadows of our ordinary lives.
And perhaps it is this secret that has enlivened the conversation at our weekly Bites, Brews, and Big Questions, where together we investigate our ordinary lives and discover profound truth and wonder amid each other’s stories, experiences, and questions.
I find myself still chewing on a comment that Carl made at the first gathering. In response to the question, “Does life have a purpose?”, Carl pointed out that humans are unique amid the animal kingdom because of their consciousness, because of their ability to reflect upon their own lives. Other animals live out the truth of their lives more immediately without the need for self-reflection. They simply do what they are. Flies fly, bees buzz, and pigs…pig out.

I wonder why I do what I do. If I’m honest, I have done much without much reflection. I have done what the world has told me to do. I went to school because that’s what the world told me I needed to do to get a job. I wanted to get a job because that’s what the world told me I needed to do to make a living. I wanted to make a living because that’s what the world told me was the goal of life. (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”) All along the way, I did what the world told me to do: I dressed a certain way to fit in with the world around me, I spoke a certain language to get along with the world around me, I even thought a certain way so that I could make sense of the world around me.
I wonder, then: how am I human? Where does that human consciousness really come into play? When do I stop mindlessly mimicking the world and reflect on the choices I am making and what those choices mean for myself and the world around me?

In Romans 12:2, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” In other words, faith is what makes us fully human. Faith is the holy invitation to exercise our consciousness and to become who God calls us to become. It’s what transforms us from machines of the world’s making to flesh of God’s making. Instead of mechanically following the way of the world, we reflect on the fullness of life we have found in the way of Christ and our minds are changed, renewed.

This has long been the story of Christ-followers. Thomas Merton reminds us that the first monks fled the cities not because they were separatists or thought themselves superior but because they had found their true selves in Christ and sought “to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in ‘the world.’”
At the Regional Assembly, our General Minister and President Rev. Terri Horde Owens spoke about the ways that the interests of the world can hijack not only us as individuals, but us as the church. Bombarded by the righteous causes of special interest groups, besieged by partisan maneuvers to secure votes, it is easy for the church to lose its way—to become a branch of one party or another, to clothe itself in the colors of a country, to carry the flags of various movements. It is easy for the church to conform itself to the world.

How, then, does the church become the church? The same way that we humans become fully human: through a self-reflective, transformative faith in Christ. Flies fly, bees buzz, and we humans are transformed by the call of God. In the church, we hear that call most clearly in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Rev. Owens recommended to us a statement of faith named “Reclaiming Jesus.”
Written by a group of church leaders at the start of Lent this year, “Reclaiming Jesus” is a call for Christfollowers and the church to live not by the interests of the world but by the way of Christ in which they have found life. In response to the question, “Why do you do what you do?”, the answer for the church should be simple: “We follow Jesus.” Thus the statement proclaims: “It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity.” I share Rev. Owen’s recommendation, and pass along this link for your reflection: http://reclaimingjesus.org/

It’s easy to get caught up in the demands and desires of the world. It’s easy for life to become a blur. In such moments, may God bless us with big questions. May God bless us with a consciousness that calls us out of conformity into faith. May we be renewed by Christ, whom we follow.
Yours,
Jonathan

June

Greetings from Lynchburg,

Gayton Road……where Virginia and I have wandered to for this year’s Regional Assembly. Already we’ve bumped into ministers from sister churches where some of you have family: Moses Joshua from Springfield Christian in Rockville and Elaine Austin from Bethany Christian in Roanoke. These connections lift my spirits, reminding me that our loved ones elsewhere are loved and cared for where they are. We truly are part of a larger body. Our families are part of a larger family.
Last night at a pause in our seminar, Virginia pointed me to a painting on the wall and asked, “What do you think that is?” It was an abstract painting. We guessed together. It could be a white dog, or a figure in a white dress who happened to be missing her head—and so on.
This month we will delve into in the Hebrew Bible during worship. As readers have long observed, the Hebrew Bible contains disturbing scenes. I would even say that they are dangerous and damaging, if we interpret them as a model for our own faith.
For me, it is helpful to compare the Bible to a series of paintings. Its stories are not objective photographs, simply showing us visible, factual events. They are paintings—some impressionist, some surreal, some abstract, all inspired by an encounter that transcends rational explanation, an event for which the only word we can find that would do it justice is “God.” They are paintings, showing us not just what is observable and measurable but also the immeasurable depths of personal experience and feeling and wonder and mystery.
When I read a story from the Hebrew Bible that depicts God in a violent and terrifying matter, I do not dismiss it. I read it the way that Virginia and I interpreted that abstract painting. Its dark and tempestuous swirls speak to an experience that was undoubtedly violent and terrifying. But while
the painter may have interpreted those swirls as God, I might render them differently. After all, I believe that Jesus Christ is the fullest embodiment of God. When a depiction of God does not look like Jesus, I must ask questions.
In other words, even as I firmly affirm the authenticity of the painter’s experience, I might also wonder if God were not a part of that experience in a different way. All of this to say: I do not read the Bible uncritically as a prescriptive model for our faith, but rather as a descriptive account of indescribable events. The Word is somewhere in the words, but I must interpret it. I must hold my interpretive stethoscope up to the text and listen for the divine heartbeat.
This month as we read through the book of 1 Samuel, I invite you to join me on this adventure of interpretation. Its story is very much our story. The book of 1 Samuel depicts a world of political intrigue, abuse of power, cunning calculation, the naïveté of youth—and in all of this, it finds God.
God, it says, is somewhere in the midst of all of this. We might not always agree on our interpretation, on where we find God in the painting.ℵ But I think we will all find hope and encouragement in the good news that in a world like ours, which sometimes feels dark and tempestuous, God is present and striving to redeem all things.
Summer blessings to you all! As in our recent weather, so also in life: there will be storms. May we seek God even there. May we know God in the midst of life’s mess and magnificence alike.
Yours,
Jonathan
If you’re interested in discussing these differences and other big questions of faith, I would encourage you to join us one Wednesday night in our upcoming Bites, Brews, and Big Questions gatherings. See the bulletin or weekly notes for more information.

May Greetings, Gayton Road—
As I write, my window is open and the leaves are rustling in a steady breeze. I’ve not been paying close attention to the weather lately, but it does feel like we’ve had our fair share of wind. In the Bible, wind is more than weather. It is a mysterious force that reminds the faithful of God’s
mysterious spirit. In fact, the Hebrew word for wind, ruach, can also mean “breath” or “spirit.” Perhaps, then, the recent wind is a “happy accident” (any Bob Ross fans out there?) reminding us of a deep spiritual truth. Because this season is windy in more than weather. This May we will be celebrating Pentecost, the day on which the Spirit of God descended in a whirlwind upon the first followers of Christ.
In our last lectionary scripture for this month, Jesus compares the Spirit to the wind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Like the wind, the Spirit of God is unpredictable. And according to Paul in our Pentecost scripture, that’s a good thing. “Who hopes for what is [already] seen?”
he asks (Rom 8:24). We do not pray or go to worship or study the Bible because we already have things figured out. We do all these things precisely because we don’t. We trust in a Spirit that is More than us, Other than us, that will breathe new life into us even as it draws us into the life of the world.
I would like to share just one way that I have seen the Spirit of God—or perhaps we could just as well call it the Wind of God—move among us. Each Sunday morning, our adult Sunday School practices a contemplative form of scripture reading called lectio divina. It is an age-old tradition of our faith. Instead of reading scripture as though it had only one thing to say, we read it expecting the Spirit of God to address each of us uniquely wherever we are in life. Lectio divina follows a simple method: first we listen for a single word in the scripture that grabs us, then we reflect on how that word touches our lives, and ultimately we hear within that word a Call—an invitation or a summons or an encouragement from God.
(For more on the method, just google it—“lectio divina.”) Each week, as our Sunday School class shares the different calls that we hear, I am reminded of just how gusty the Spirit of God is. It blows us in different directions. Sometimes it blows us “off course,” which is to say, it takes us to a place for which the Sunday School lesson was not prepared. And yet that’s precisely what the Spirit of God is all about. It comes from
God knows where—and takes us there too.
Happy Pentecost, friends! May this month be windy for us in more than its weather. May the Gust of God dislodge us from ourselves and draw us into a Life greater than any that we can foresee.
Yours,
Jonathan

April, 2018

Greetings, Gayton Road—
And Easter tidings of joy and new life! Christ is risen! And in him, all creation is risen too. Including me and you, if you would believe it!

Outside spring has finally sprung. Buds are blossoming. Birds are greeting the morning with renewed vigor. The temperature is inching its way up and people have been venturing outdoors. The natural world lends itself as a metaphor for the new life that we celebrate. But as German pastor and
theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, comparing Easter to spring can also tame the meaning of resurrection. For spring is “a law of nature.” It is part of the circle of life, a predictable pattern that plays out every year. But resurrection is wild and unpredictable. It has to do with real dead-ends, where there is no promise of renewal.
For Bonhoeffer, the cross was not a death that passes naturally back into life, as autumn and winter pass back into spring and summer. It was the end of the road for humanity. It was the death of love. By the cross, humanity had pledged its allegiance to the way of power over Christ’s way of love. By power and knowledge and control, by strength and effectiveness and productivity, we would triumph and make things right. Not by the weak way of love, which is to say, the way of belonging and trust and self-giving.
Thank God for Easter. If the cross had been the last word, then we would be, as Bonhoeffer says, “the most miserable human beings on earth.” It would have been a real dead-end, the last nail in our coffin. Power pushes people down and apart from one another and God. The good news of Easter, then, is that Love lives. The cross is not the last word. There is hope for us yet.

The blossoms around us are beautiful, but they are not Easter enough. The real Easter blossoms through our faith. Which is to say, through our trust not in the power of humankind, but in this divine Love that will not die, that will not let us go. It is a happy Easter indeed! In Christ, all creation is risen. May the blossoms beyond be but a hint of the blossoms within—where through our faith God’s undying love bears the fruit of life together and beautifies all our world.
Yours, with hope,
Jonathan

March 2018

But does that mean that politics has no place in the church? Not at all. When Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God, he’s not simply talking about what’s inside our heart. He’s talking about food for the hungry, care for the sick, welcome for the stranger, solidarity with the oppressed (cf. Matt 25:35-36).
In other words, he’s talking about how we live together. Which is what politics is about—how people live together. I will never publically espouse a party or political platform or presidential candidate. But I will always strive to seek first the kingdom of God. Which means I care about how people live together. Which means I care about politics. I wonder, in fact, if engaging in politics is not part of the church’s indispensable witness to
the world. For in much of our nation, genuine conversation is drowned out by loud voices that do not listen, by debates between foregone conclusions. Just think of what our nation could learn from the sacred disciplines of listening (Ja 1:19), humility (Matt 18:4; 1 Pet 5:5), looking first to the interest of others (Phil 2:4), love of the stranger (philoxenia; Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2), and making peace (Matt 5:9; 1 Pet 3:8).

Recently I “stumbled” upon a rather curious scriptural image: God as a rock. Of course, we’re not unfamiliar with that language. It’s one of the psalmist’s favorite metaphors: “The Lord is my rock…in whom I take refuge” (18:2); “He alone is my rock and my salvation” (62:2); and so on.
But we also find Jesus described as “a stumbling stone,” a figure who confuses and confounds our wisdom and power (cf. 1 Cor 1:23; 1 Pet 2:8).
Perhaps it’s a fitting Lenten reminder for us. God is the rock of our salvation, but also the rock upon which we stumble from time to time. Which is perhaps to say, we don’t have it all figured out, and sometimes what we discover may trip us up. That has certainly been my experience when I’ve entered into genuine conversation with others. But as much as those experiences can bruise my ego, I wouldn’t wish them away, because they have also brought me closer to God.
To close, I can find no better words than Paul’s to the Romans: let us “be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (1:12). Lenten blessings to you all, as we stumble along together on the Rock of our salvation.
Yours,
Jonathan

February, 2018

Greetings, Gayton Road,
I share with you the hope of God’s new creation as we take another step into this new year. The year will bring with it surprise and challenge, if it has not already, but we trust in a God who is making all things new, whose patient and gentle grace can transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones. May it be so for us in our own lives and in our life together as a church.
Not only are we taking another step into the new year. In the church calendar, we prepare to take a step into a new season: Lent.
Many people think Lent is a time of self-denial. This is true, but only partially so. Lent is also an affirmation of life.
By the world’s standards, we are winning. Living amid the relative comfort and security of the world’s richest empire, we lack for little. We have gadgets for everything. We have snacks between our meals. We have the ability to summon our latest desires at the click of a button on the internet.

Yet how common it is to hear tales of the richest and most powerful among us sinking into deep unhappiness.
The abundance, it appears, does not translate to abundant life. Life is not won in winning.
Lent invites us into less familiar territory. It invites us to lose. To lose our comforts. To lose the many distractions and diversions that drown out the quiet song of God. To lose our way of life.
The lesson of Lent is the opposite of the lesson we have already learned so well. Life is not won in winning, but neither is it lost in losing. One of the dominant images of Lent is the wilderness. One way to think about Lent is to think about it as a “dry spell,” as though it is one of those periods when we must lose for a while in order that we might win again later.

But the Bible suggests a different story. Life is not lost in the wilderness, only to be won once we reach the promised land. The ancient Israelite prophets talk about the wilderness as a place of abundant life itself.

The wilderness is where God and Israel courted one another and fell in love.1 It is where renewal and restoration begin.2 It is a place of need and trust and new life.
Losing in Lent leads us more deeply into life. Not the life that we thought we lived, a life of things won and lost, achieved and relinquished. Lent leads us beyond things to discover the heart of life—which is to say, the divine thump-thump of love and trust and hope, justice and peace and forgiveness, wonder and gratitude and joy. It is this heartbeat that gives us life.
This Lenten season, some of us will walk in a ritualized wilderness, where we “lose” on purpose. Others of us may walk in a real wilderness, with unintended loss. In either case, let us walk together. And may we discover together the heartbeat of God that sustains us and gives us new life.
Yours,
Jonathan