Fall Greetings, Gayton

As you might know, I love the Muppets. As a child, I loved them because they were funny and relatable. Gonzo knew what it felt like to be different than others. Kermit knew what it felt like to go against the crowd and do the right thing. Animal knew what it felt like to have excessive amounts of energy that needed release. As a follower of Christ, I love them because I see in them glimpses of the kingdom of God: welcome and embrace for the “weirdo” (and who among us isn’t?), purity of heart, giving without return, loving without why.

There’s a particular scene from one of the older Muppets Christmas specials that serves, I think, as an excellent paraphrase for the strange and ancient text of Leviticus that we have recently been reading. The gang from Sesame Street are putting on a performance of “The Night Before Christmas.” When it comes time to introduce Santa Claus, the two-headed monster from Sesame Street appears, and the self-serious Sam Eagle exclaims in disbelief, “Is nothing sacred?”

While Sam’s concept of the sacred has more to do with custom and ceremony than with the spirit of God—he’s really only decrying the non-traditional casting of a very traditional character—his words themselves capture very well the question that the writer of Leviticus would probably have for us if he could see our world today: Is nothing sacred? Because according to Leviticus, every part of life is sacred. The rituals of Leviticus prescribe attention and care for everything from the food we eat and the words we speak, to the ways we touch one another and the ways we treat the land. The rituals of Leviticus cover all of life from the rising of the sun to its setting in the west, from birth and babies to death and corpses.

What we might say about Leviticus, that it is primitive and barbaric, is exactly what Leviticus might say about our world and its loss of reverence for the sacred. The writer of Leviticus might look upon the industrialized meat industry and ask, “Are these animals and their gift of food not sacred?” He might look upon our social media and our casual, careless speech and ask, “Are the words we speak not sacred?” He might look upon our extractive use of the land and disposable use of people and ask, “Are not the land and your neighbors sacred?”

The rituals of Leviticus are ultimately directions for making the world sacred—or “holy.” The same Israelites whose lives have been degraded and violated by oppression and slavery in Egypt, have become part of God’s plan to reorder the world, to make it holy. The heartbeat of Leviticus is God’s call: “Be holy, for I am holy.” Each ritual accordingly calls for attention and care to the various moments of the day, for in this way we can make the world holy. In this way, we can recognize and celebrate the presence of God with us.

I wonder if God’s call to Israel thousands of years ago is not also God’s call to the church today. Be holy. Make the world holy. Our world surely needs a witness to a different way of life, one where our words and our work and our relationships are holy. As the party politics in our nation quickly reaches a fever pitch, we as spectators can easily get caught in the underlying assumption that what matters most is winning this battle at any cost, be it our words, our work, or the way we treat each other.

But in the kingdom of God where everything is holy, there is no battle, and nothing is worth the cost. In other words, there is no means-end calculation here. Everything matters. Everything is sacred. It is a very different way of seeing the world. How, I wonder, could we bear witness to this different way?

The most obvious way a church makes the world holy is its setting aside an hour each Sunday for worship. It consecrates that time. It makes it holy. But as I have come to know in my four years with you, church can also consecrate other experiences of life. For example, we have gone to memory care units and tried to make them holy. We have touched and blessed the residents there, insisting that they are beloved children of God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have done the same on our D.D.’s Bears and Blessing Warriors trips. We have tried to make the world holy in reading groups and prayer circles, where we treat our words with great holiness, using them to bless and build up.

I guess in a strange way, I’m saying now about you what I said earlier about the Muppets— namely, that I love you, and that I have seen in you glimpses of the kingdom of God.

I’m going to miss you all. Grace and peace and the holy kingdom of God be yours. Your brother in Christ,

September Greetings, Gayton Road—

Lately I have been revisiting memories. Among my most enduring memories of Gayton Road are caroling with our shut-ins, meeting with folks for coffee or lunch, gathering for study in diners and homes, sharing D. D.’s bears and prayers at the hospital, and breaking bread with memory care residents. It surprises me that these memories mostly transpired outside the church walls. Perhaps it is simply because what is routine becomes obscured in our memory, and what stands out are the unique moments.

To me, however, it is a reminder of what matters most. Gayton Road is neither a place nor a time, neither the building that sits at Gayton and Ridgefield nor the Sunday that we gather there. For me, Gayton Road is the love that I have known for four years. It is the love that has joined together a small and honest band of Christ-followers, and a love that has called them out into the world.

As I shared last Sunday, I will be resigning toward the end of October, for I sense very strongly the call of God to places beyond the pulpit. (Attached to this email is the letter I shared with you last Sunday.) It saddens me to say goodbye. I know, however, that the love I have found with you is ultimately the same love that calls me elsewhere, and that it also is the same love that will endure among you and call you also into new life.

Or as Paul puts it, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Originally I had planned to begin a sermon series on Leviticus in September. I’m going to keep to those plans. There is a sense in which you and I both will soon be entering a wilderness. As strange a text as it is, Leviticus gives us good news about the wilderness: it tells us that the wilderness is in fact a place of great promise, the place where the people of Israel grew closer to God and came to understand God’s call in a radically new and life-giving way.

Of course there’s plenty in Leviticus that is not relevant to our lives today, like animal sacrifice and dietary prohibitions. But underneath those distant and seemingly primitive laws, we find a formerly enslaved people now learning the basics of living in freedom—how to eat, how to treat your neighbor, how to handle your finances, how to live with gratitude and humility. More than that, they are learning how to live in a way that might bless the world. God did not simply rescue them from something. God rescued them for something.

For what did God rescue them? I’d like to conclude with a reflection from a musing written at the start of our journey together. It intimates, I believe, what God’s call is—not only for the Israelites thousands of years ago but also for the church today: “Make no mistake. Gayton Road has ambitions—for nothing less than the redemption of the entire world. But we know that the call of God is a call not to power or prestige but to love. And we know that love happens even—or especially?—in the littlest of ways. Like giving teddy bears to the sick and sharing meals with one another.

“We have a lot of love to share this month. It’s who we are.” Grace and peace to you all.

August Greetings, Gayton Road—

I wish you the ripening of life this summer, a harvest of goodness—whether that’s your summer veggies full grown and ready for the table, or a project that you’ve finally had time to complete, or simply the fellowship of family and friends.

This past month, I have discerned a harvest within our church. I’m not sure when the realization hit me, but it came somehow over the course of the following observations:

A couple weeks ago, our memory care crew went to Brookdale Senior Living on Gaskins to sing songs and pray and break bread with the residents. As we were leaving, our songstress, Becky, called out to me, “See you tomorrow!” Her words jarred me. It was the word “tomorrow” in particular. I had been thinking that I would see Becky next on Sunday, but she was right. We would see each other the next day at the coffee reading group. I suppose I had been thinking of church as our world thinks of church. I had been thinking of church as an event: a weekly event, or perhaps a special, scheduled event. But that word “tomorrow” jarred me. It reminded me of an altogether different vision of church, one that we find in the Bible: church as a community. Tomorrow means we are in this together. It means we are companions on the way. It is a word ripe with life.

And it is one that I am hearing more often in our community. As a flurry of recent donations has inundated our yard sale crew, I’ve heard the door to the Fellowship Hall open and close far more often than I’m used to hearing it. And as we prepare to welcome a new tenant, Brenda, and her counseling practice, there has been yet more activity under our roof. Folks have been painting and fixing up the front room she will be using. In all of this, I keep hearing that word that is ripe with life: “tomorrow.”

I also perceive a ripening of life at our church among individual lives. We are praying and excitedly preparing for new life in the most literal sense in our nursery, as Amanda and the Carltons make ready a loving welcome for Josephine. We celebrate the recent decision of John to join the church, which marks his commitment and sense of call to serve among us.

And I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the refugee family from Ethiopia whom Judy and Terry had taken under their wing have just received their green cards! It has been a long, arduous journey for the Warjii family: learning English, getting drivers’ licenses, working amid difficult conditions, negotiating mountains of paperwork, and much more. But their light burns brightly, and with the help of strangers and neighbors and friends like Judy and Terry, they have made a home for themselves. Our community is blessed with their presence. At a time when fearful and divisive rhetoric toward strangers permeates our national conversation, the Warjii family quietly witness to the blessing of welcoming others and the joy of new life among us.

As I share each of these moments with you, I rejoice that life is ripening within and around us. In the gospel of Luke, which we’ve been reading this summer, Jesus compares the life that comes from God with folks who hold fast to the good news and “bear fruit with patient endurance” (8:15). I trust that the life we celebrate at church is just such fruit.

And as our church continues to share in conversation over its future, I hope we’ll remember and give thanks for what truly makes us a church in the first place: not an event once a week, but a community together “tomorrow”—a community that shares the life of faith around tables, among strangers, in nursing homes and hospitals.

Grace and peace to you all this August. As we hold fast to the good news, may life ripen in our midst and may we celebrate together the harvest of God’s goodness.

Yours, Jonathan

Summer Greetings, Gayton Road—

It is officially camp season. Do you remember summer camp? The silly songs, the uncomfortable cots, the early mornings, the shared meals, the tearful goodbyes?

Last week I went to camp for the first time in years and was reminded of each of these timeless camp experiences. I served as a volunteer at Camp Rainbow Connection, a weeklong respite camp for individuals with intellectual disabilities hosted by the Virginia United Methodists at Richard Bland College in Petersburg. It was an incredible week. Because I struggle to find words that express all that I felt, what I learned, how I changed—I’d like to begin by sharing one story.

On the second night of the week, the campers all participate in a talent show. Most campers choose to sing or dance to a song. The camper with whom I had been paired, Jason, chose instead to do a magic trick with a deck of cards.1 On the afternoon before the talent show, he asked me to be his assistant. I gladly agreed and we began to practice his trick. I soon discovered, to my dismay, that there was no method to his trick. I would pick a card from the deck and reinsert it. Then he would blindly choose a card from the deck himself and trust that it would be the same one that I had picked. God would help him, he said.

My initial impulse was to suggest that maybe he choose a different act for a talent show. Wasn’t there a song he would like to share with the other campers? But it dawned on me that this suggestion said more about me than it did about Jason. I was the one who was feeling stage fright. I was the one worried about failure and embarrassment, because I was the one living by the principle that our abilities and our friends’ admiration are what make us worthy. Jason, on the other hand, had no stage fright. I can’t say for certain why, but I suspect it was because he knew that he was already blessed and beloved by God. He had nothing to prove: no accomplishment he needed in order to justify himself, no esteem he needed in order to earn his place. His incredible faith, in other words, was not simply that God would accomplish the card trick. His faith was that God would love him regardless and would provide for his needs come what may. His trust was not in God the great magician, but in God the loving, faithful companion.

(1 I have changed the name of my camper.)

Beginning this month, we will read through the gospel of Luke, paying special attention to the inward character of life. In other words, life is not something measurable by what is on the outside, size or strength or speed. It consists instead in what is invisible to the eye, like hope, joy, faith, and love. The first scripture that we read together yesterday is the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). There the devil invites Jesus to prove himself. The temptation that Jesus faces is the same temptation we all face. It’s the idea that the more I do, or the more others applaud me, the better I am. If I accomplish that project, or achieve that promotion; if I win that person’s affection, or earn my way into that club: then I will have proven myself. Churches, of course, face a similar temptation. If we have more members, or if we offer bigger, more attractive programs, then we will know ourselves and show ourselves to be worthy of our calling.

But like Jason at the talent show, Jesus does not fall for these temptations. The reason is the same. He knows that he is blessed and beloved by God (cf. Luke 3:22). He accepts himself as he is, with all his human limitations and dependence. He is not driven by a compulsive need to do more or to show more in order to prove himself. He already has it all, and from that “all” he lives abundantly.

For Jason, the stage was not a platform to prove himself or earn acceptance. It was an opportunity to share and celebrate what gave him joy and life. In the same way, Jesus sought not to prove himself or earn acceptance but to share and celebrate the good news that we already have God’s love just as we are.

At Camp Rainbow Connection, it was not only Jason who modeled faith for me. Many of the campers bore witness to a spirit of freedom. They lived unhampered by the quest for outward success and its accompanying measures of strength, size, and speed. I cannot help but think that this is because, like Jesus in the wilderness, they have accepted themselves as they are, knowing that they are loved. Perhaps this is the truth, and it has set them free.

Grace and peace to you all this July. Wherever we are enslaved by the compulsion to do more or show more, may we know the love of God as Jesus and Jason know it—and may we live freely, fully, and faithfully from that love, for it is our life.2

Yours, Jonathan

June Greetings, Gayton Road—

As we have read through the book of Acts this Easter season, one character more than any other has made an impression on me: the Holy Spirit. Many of us are familiar with the Holy Spirit’s grand introduction to the story in Acts. We’ll be celebrating that introduction next week on Pentecost Sunday. But as I’ve paid closer attention, I’ve discovered that nearly every story after Pentecost is also aflutter with the unforeseeable gusts of the Spirit.

Reading about the Spirit’s unexpected movements reminds me of a particular conversation pattern. Have you ever had a conversation where the final decision bears no resemblance to any of the ideas originally discussed? I remember countless family conversations about what to eat for dinner. One person would suggest pasta, another pizza, another pancakes (that would have been me—any excuse for maple syrup!), and the last meat and potatoes. Then there would follow a bit of conversation, in which one of us might observe how nice the weather was, and another might wonder about eating outside, so that eventually we made a decision that had originally not been on the table: we ended up grilling chicken and vegetables! We had gone into the conversation with four ideas, but ended up deciding on a fifth, unforeseen idea.

In the middle of Acts, a church council gathers in Jerusalem to discuss a deeply contested matter. The book of Acts does not sugarcoat this discussion. It acknowledges that it begins with “much debate” (15:7). There follows some silence and listening. Some folks, like Peter and Paul, are moved to share from their personal experience. And then James shares some scripture that clarifies their experience. In the end, there is consensus (cf. 15:22, 25). As far as I can tell, the final decision is not identical to any one proposal that was initially brought forward. Instead, it is a resolution no one has foreseen. But there is a reason for this. When the council explains their unanimous decision, they put it this way: “It…seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28). There she is again. The Holy Spirit.

Our world often thinks about conversation as a tournament of voices. Each person brings his own idea to the table, and one of those ideas will win (while the others will lose). But the early church models a wholly different approach to conversation. There are no winners or losers. Instead there is unity in the Holy Spirit. And more often than not, the Holy Spirit winds up moving in a direction unforeseen. (Not unlike the night my family ended up grilling out.)

On an unrelated note, I’d like to share with you a bit of personal news. I have been invited to write a book on Leviticus and Numbers for Smyth and Helwys’ Reading the Old Testament commentary series. After some prayerful pondering about how this project might pair with my responsibilities at church, I have decided to accept the invitation. I will approach the book much as I approached the class that I taught this past semester: as an opportunity to employ my free time toward a constructive spiritual purpose, one which might inspire and instruct me in the faith that I share with you. Already some of my colleagues have jokingly suggested that I make the most efficient use of my time and preach a sermon series on Leviticus. As crazy as the idea sounds, I haven’t rejected it just yet! Maybe beneath all the blood, guts, and fire of that strange, distant text, there lie lessons of faith that Protestants who have long dismissed ritual could stand to relearn. More on this to come!

Grace and peace to you all this Pentecost season. May the Holy Spirit be not only a past memory we celebrate, but also a lively and transformative character in our faith journey together.

In our conversations, our silences, and our listening, may the Spirit of God draw us in its wake. Yours,

May Greetings, Gayton Road—

A couple of months ago, my parents’ cat Sherlock had his world turned upside down. Before then, Sherlock had the rule of the house, as far as he was concerned. Everyone knew which cushion on the couch was his. Everyone knew which blanket he preferred for his afternoon naps. But when my brother and sister-in-law welcomed their twins into the world, they were no longer able to take care of their two kittens, Sydney and Geordie. Guess where the two kittens ended up? Sherlock no longer had the rule of the house.

Sydney and Geordie shook things up quite a bit, and for a couple of weeks Sherlock was less than pleased. But I’m happy to share that they are now closer companions that anyone ever would have imagined. Their rhythms of romp and repose are in close sync, and rarely are the three cats found in separate rooms. What originally threatened to ruin Sherlock’s life, eventually enriched it beyond his (or our) wildest dreams.

In the season of Lent, we read more than once about how Jesus shook up the synagogue. He regularly interrupted Sabbath proceedings to heal the hurting. He forgave people whom the religious leaders had condemned. The religious leaders saw this as a challenge. But we might wonder if Jesus meant it instead as a renewal. His disruptions were not for the sake of rebellion but rather for the sake of putting things in their proper order: prioritizing people over protocol, the cries of the needful over convention and custom. What the religious leaders saw as a threat to their way of life, was in fact meant to enrich life—both theirs and the needful’s.

Having shared enthusiastic conversation with many of you about Jesus’ “Sabbath example,” I am now inspired to follow it. Would you join me? In the coming summer, we plan to break with our religious routine once or twice: instead of meeting at church on Sunday for worship, we will gather with the needful in our community to share our worship with them. Already we are planning a Sunday gathering with the memory care unit at Symphony Manor (across the street) and another Sunday gathering with some of the homeless folks to whom Rhonda Sneed and her Blessing Warriors minister.

I’m hopeful that these Sunday sojourns will be a blessing for both those whom we visit and us ourselves. I take heart not only from the fact that we will be following Jesus’ Sabbath example, but also from the fact that sojourning is at the center of our faith experience. Abraham trusting God and leaving home; the Israelites wandering in the wilderness; the Son of Man traveling without a place to lay his head: each story reminds us that our home is not in a building or a familiar setting, but in God—who so often takes the face of a stranger.

Grace and peace to you amid the unending changes of our lives. May God sanctify these shake-ups; bless us with eyes to see in them the opportunity for renewal; and draw us ever out ourselves and into the kingdom.


April Greetings, Gayton Road—

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the gospel of Mark alongside you this Lenten season. Each week I glean new meaning from the gospel as we share our reading experience together—as we ponder questions, confess doubts, express wonder, and discover our own stories tangled up in this story of good news.

One question that we’ve wrestled with repeatedly at our Friday Lenten coffees is, “Why does Jesus keep telling other characters to keep quiet instead of to spread the good news?” (Mark, after all, trumpets the good news at the very beginning of his gospel story. He wants the word to get out. Why doesn’t Jesus?) In our last few discussions, we’ve come to a possible answer by way of another question: what is the good news? In other words, is the good news simply the figure of Jesus? Is Jesus pointing a finger at himself? Or is it the kingdom of God? Is Jesus pointing to a better world, a better life?

Perhaps Jesus tells others to keep quiet because he knows all too well the human tendency to make an idol out of power. Perhaps he worries that people will miss the kingdom for the king.

Another observation we’ve shared at our coffees is how Mark more than once juxtaposes fear and faith as opposites. After Jesus calms the storm, he asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40). Later when a father hears that his daughter has died, Jesus tells him, “Do not fear, only believe” (5:36).

A couple of weeks ago, I joined the Lakewood Retirement Community for their Sunday Vespers service. I was running of a couple of minutes behind, so I walked briskly toward the front door.

As I approached its canopied entrance, I noticed a woman sitting in a wheelchair. She was eating a banana. What caught my attention was how slowly, how gently she was chewing. Unhurriedly. Contentedly. A soft smile rested on the corners of her lips. Strangely the rest of the world began to move in slow motion too. It was as though the woman was slowing the world down by her simple act of eating that banana. For that moment (I couldn’t say how long it was, although I imagine it was only a second), I forgot that I was running late.

The more I considered this seemingly trivial moment of my day, the more sacred it became. For Lakewood is in the midst of major renovation. Change is all around, as men and women in construction hats walk imperiously from one corner to the other. How oblivious this woman seemed. And I thought of the other changes that she has endured over the span of her life: from newspapers to television to the internet, from telephones and switchboards to cell phones and Skype, from a Short Pump filled with trees to a Short Pump filled with shopping centers.

After years of change and in the midst of even more change, there she sat, eating her banana as though it were a real gift, as though it were the only thing in the world that mattered. She ate not fearful of the change around her but full of faith in the source of that banana and all goodness.

I’m not proud to share that oftentimes I look the complete opposite, eating my food in a rushed manner as my mind plans impatiently, jumpy with uncertainty and hungry for control. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I hear Jesus ask. “Do not fear, only trust.”1

As we near Holy Week and Easter, I hang onto this trivial-turned-sacred moment, which I encountered at its intersection with the gospel of Mark. I offer it to you too. Amid the changes of our lives, may we not fear but trust in the source of all goodness. Even in loss, may we not fear but trust. Even at the sight of a cross, may we not fear but trust. May we eat our bread, may we drink from our cups, full of faith in the God who gives us life.

Yours, Jonathan