From the Pastor’s Desk . . .

 

As I have said in the past: in the Valley, CHANGE is a four-letter word. We like things the way they are for the most part, but sometimes change is necessary to meet the needs of a world that is continually changing, offering fresh challenges and new opportunities. The psalmist and prophets spoke of new things God was doing in the world, and suggest that the four-letter word change might represent is HOPE, for God’s steady hand is at work in the midst of all kinds of change.

Here at Covenant, some changes are coming. For the past ten years Sharlene Wade has served as our Director of Children’s Ministries and Congregational Communications. Under her leadership we have significantly improved our communications within the congregation and to the community through an expanded website, periodic opt-ins, and a biweekly newsletter. Our children’s ministries have nurtured the faith of boys and girls from the cradle through fifth grade in Sunday School classes and vibrant Vacation Bible Schools. Behind the scenes Sharlene has provided loving support and organization to a slew of Session teams and church activities. She has been a good friend and colleague who has blessed us many times over by the sharing of her abundant gifts! Sharlene has accepted a new position to begin July 1 and so will be leaving us June 30. We are grateful for all her contributions and the good spirit with which she has served, and pray God’s blessing upon her as she begins this new chapter in her career. Please take the opportunity to express to Sharlene your appreciation for her fruitful ministry among us!

As we go forward, we trust God to guide us through this season of change. Here at Covenant, children’s ministries will be part of the call to an Associate Pastor for Christian Education and Nurture; the APNC is continuing their work to discern who will be called to that position. Communications will be part of a redesigned Administrative Assistant position, and the Personnel Team is beginning the process of seeking applicants for that  position. Those changes have been two years in the making! God is doing some new things in our midst! It will be exciting to see where God leads us in the days and years to come, and as we go, we hold onto that four-letter word proclaimed by the prophets and psalmist in the midst of all change: HOPE!

~ John C. Peterson, June 12, 2017

 

In a recent edition of Life & Work the following question was posed to a group of Scottish pastors and elders: WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT CHURCH? The answers varied, but central to most of them was the recognition that church is people and a way of life, not a building, not just worship. Being part of a church family that nurtured faith, welcomed strangers and shaped life was not only something to like but something vital to their lives. Someone once noted that the church is not a destination, it is a journey; being church is journeying together through life as followers of Jesus. One Scottish pastor drew on that image to close his thoughts with, “And the journey continues!” Another suggested, “Church for me is a way of life…and has been for as long as I care to remember.”

How would you answer that question? What is it, if anything, that you like about church? What does CHURCH mean to you? Is it as vital, as essential to living out your faith, as those Scots seemed to think? Throughout the New Testament all those who come to be followers of Jesus join a community of faith. There is no follower of Jesus who is not part of a community of believers where gifts can be shared, faith nurtured and mutual care offered. The Christian faith is lived out in a community of love and service.
 
This Sunday at 9:30 a.m. between our worship services we will gather in the Great Hall to talk about being church. Specifically we will invite suggestions for how we explore and respond to that societal need that we identified last month: the impact of poverty on children. But we will also spend a little time sharing some of the joys we have experienced over the last year and some of the challenges that remain. Come with your ideas! Come with your questions! Come and be part of this Covenant family who serves and worships and learns and cares for one another together in love!
 
~ John C. Peterson, May 29, 2017
 
 

This Sunday we will join together for one worship service at 10:30 (no 8:30 service) led by our children. The children have written the liturgy for our worship and will lead us in word and in song in voices big and small! We are blessed with a host of talented children who lead us in worship regularly through participation as liturgists, ushers, choir members, collectors of our monthly Four Cents Per Meal offering, and instrumentalists for preludes and postludes. This Sunday they will take a further step to shape the words and ideas with which we worship and to speak up with us and for us as worship leaders. Worship is something we do together as a family of faith that includes all ages!

While our children are leading our worship this week, we owe a debt of thanks to those Sunday School teachers who are guiding their participation this week and nurturing their faith throughout the year. They tell the stories of faith, answer searching questions, and offer living examples of God’s love. In our vows at a child’s baptism, we affirm our shared responsibility to share the good news with our children in word and deed. That is the responsibility parents bear each and every day, but it is also a responsibility we as a church bear together. Those who teach in our Christian Education programs live into those baptismal vows, sharing their time and talents to help nurture faith in the next generation. It is a labor of love, but also of joy as children continue to surprise and inspire us with fresh insights, excited discoveries, and acts of simple faithfulness. What more important work is there in the church than nurturing faith in the next generation?

What are you doing to teach the next generation about God’s love for them in Jesus? If you are ready to do more, then contact Sharlene Wade or Amanda Campbell (CE chair) to find out how you might make a difference with others in the life and faith of our children!
 
~ John C. Peterson, May 15, 2017
 
 

One of the goals of Covenant’s Long-Range Plan adopted last year is as follows:

Annually identify, study, and respond to one significant societal need with emphasis across the life of the congregation.

In March we invited input from the congregation about what that societal need might be. We received 82 responses! Our expectation was that we would narrow the possibilities to two or three, gather additional input on those suggestions in June, and have the Session choose one in their June stated meeting. However, the direction of the congregation was so clear that the Session adopted the societal need for our study and response at its meeting last week. The overwhelming choice for our focus in the coming year is:

the impact of poverty on children

There are a host of ways that we may approach this issue in Sunday School classes, sermons and prayers, outreach projects, fellowship events, and preschool programs. It is an issue that is significant within our community, but also across our nation and world. We suspect that what we know now is only the tip of the iceberg; by next year at this time we hope to have a greater understanding and tangible responses with regard to those needs. In June we will have a session to hear questions and suggestions for ways in which we might approach this issue as a Covenant community. Jesus says, “As you welcome one of these little children so you welcome me.” In the coming year we hope to better understand how welcoming or unwelcoming we have been, and how we might better welcome Jesus by welcoming children who live in poverty!
 
~ John C. Peterson, May 1, 2017
 
 

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

With those words early Christians greeted one another as heralds of the good news of Easter. We continue that tradition each week in choosing to worship, not on the Sabbath (the 7th day of the week,) but on the day of resurrection (the 1st day of the week). Each Sunday is thus a renewed celebration of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to which we bear witness as his worshiping disciples. Yet, the throngs that fill the pews on Easter Sunday are often strangely absent just one week later. It is as if the good news of Easter were, like so many University of Kentucky basketball players, “one and done.”
Our Christian faith is not a “one and done” religion; the good news of resurrection is not the peculiar province of Easter Sunday and occasional funeral services. It is good news throughout the year, a promised reality that gives us hope with which to live each day. It is a promise that frees us from the fear of death and thus opens new possibilities for living fear-free. In an age when fears and anxieties within our nation and world seem to be omnipresent and increasing, Jesus’ resurrection offers a faithful response that rejects the doom and gloom and dire forecasts with a strong declaration: with God ALL things are possible!
Do not leave the alleluias behind in these coming weeks! Hold on to the hope that Easter offers, and so live – and worship – with less paralyzing fear and with more confident joy! For the Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

 

~ John C. Peterson, April 17, 2017

 

With signs of spring bursting out all around us – blossoming trees, blooming daffodils, chirping birds, warmer temperatures – we may be ready to celebrate the joyful new life that Easter promises with a host of “Alleluias!” But before we arrive at the empty tomb we must journey through Palm Sunday and Holy Week. We must hear the shouts of “Hosanna!” and the cries of “Crucify him!” and the whispered words, “It is finished.” Only then can we  proclaim, “He is risen!” The psalmist says, “Weeping may linger with the night, but joy comes with the morning.” We may not want to linger in the night’s sadness, but it is key to appreciating the joy of Easter morning. God’s promises are not just Easter promises; they are also promises fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion, including the promise that God’s love for us in Jesus Christ has no limits.

The end of Lent is near, but it is not yet here. Take some time in these last days of Lent to remember Christ’s sacrifice for you and consider your sacrifice for him. Christ died a horrible death for you. What are you doing for him? What difference does his death make in your life today? Perhaps the words of a familiar hymn can speak to us and for us this week:

 

What thou, my Lord hast suffered                                 
was all for sinners’ gain:
Mine, mine was the transgression,                                   
but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘                                            
Tis I deserve thy place;
Look on me with thy favor,                                                   
and grant to me they grace.

 

~ John C. Peterson, April 3, 2017
 
 

One of the goals of our current Long-Range Plan for 2016-2020 is as follows:

Annually identify, study, and respond to one significant societal need with emphasis across the life of the congregation.

Our hope is that by focusing on a single issue that is critical to our larger society we may come to understand that issue more deeply and broadly and find appropriate means to respond. Exploring such an issue might include opportunities in Christian Education (for all ages), sermons, guest speakers, prayer foci, and outreach opportunities over the course of a year. During that year we would continue other diverse opportunities for study and service, but we would be intentional about including opportunities to gain new insights into the societal issue that is identified. As part of that identification process we need your help.

Within the pages of this newsletter you will find a form that invites you to suggest an issue that you believe might be appropriate for our focus in the coming year. Several are suggested to stimulate your thought, not to constrain your choices. Feel free to choose one of those listed or suggest another. We will be collecting these suggestions over the next month and then narrow them to a couple that seem to be of greatest interest. In June we will offer a gathering in the hour between worship services (since Sunday School ends in May) to hear about the possibilities and invite further input. At its June meeting the Session will then choose one issue for our focus over the next twelve months. We realize that it may take more than a year to adequately address an issue, and if so, we may need to roll over a particular issue for a second year. But we are committed to at least one year of prayer, study and action to address an identified need in our community, nation, and world. There are a host of possibilities, but we trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us toward one that will shape our Covenant life together in the next year – and perhaps beyond!!

~ John C. Peterson, March 20, 2017

 

What, if anything, are you doing to observe Lent this year? With the temptations of spring knocking at our doors and March Madness on the horizon, it can be easy to forget the opportunities that these forty days offer to us. Lent is a time for self-examination and repentance, for self-discipline and prayer, for preparation of our hearts for more faithful living as we look toward the cross and the empty tomb. It is a time to pause in the midst of our microwave, fast-food, high speed internet culture to assess what is really important to us. There are a host of ways to observe Lent. Here are a few suggestions:

¨ Use a Lenten devotional to spend a few minutes in reflection and prayer each day

¨ Commit to volunteer or do a kind deed for someone each day (beyond what you already do)

¨ Spend ten minutes in silence each day (as we do in Taizé worship each week)

¨ Fast at lunch one day a week and give the money you save to 4 Cents per Meal

¨ Give up something for these forty days (other than the Brussel sprouts you don’t like anyway)

¨ Come to Taizé worship each Wednesday evening or to the Bible Study on Sunday mornings (Psalms for Lent and Lament)

¨ Write a note of support, encouragement or gratitude to someone each day

¨ Read a book that focuses upon a Lenten theme (Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving, Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference, Marcus Borg’s Convictions, Will Willimon’s Fear of the Other, or perhaps something by C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Frederick Buechner, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

¨ Visit someone who lives in a nursing home or is homebound each week

None of these actions are earth-shattering, but you may find them life-changing. Who knows how God might speak to you if you take time to listen in a new way, in an intentional way, in a holy way for forty days!

~ John C. Peterson, March 6, 2017
 

We all have people we look up to, men and women who offer to us shining examples of how to live a good and faithful life. In the letter to the Hebrews we hear the writer say, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race set before us…” My dad was one of those in the great cloud of witnesses who inspired my life’s run. He was a minister who served the same church in Slippery Rock, PA for 33 years, a pastor by training but more importantly in heart, a good father and good person as well as a good preacher, a man of integrity and faith. This Saturday we will gather in the church where he served long and well to remember his good gifts and God’s good promises for him in life and in death.

Think about those whom you have known who are in that cloud of witnesses, those who have inspired you by the way they lived or perhaps by the way they died, those who showed you what living faithfully looks like. There are a host of such good folks who sat here in the pews at Covenant in years gone by and folks who are sitting here still who are in that cloud of witnesses. Perhaps you are one of them, knowingly or unknowingly.  We don’t always know who is watching or listening, who is looking to us for inspiration in running the race set before them. We just run, run with perseverance the races set before us, run not to garner the praise of others, but simply to honor God and to follow Jesus. The cloud of witnesses inspires our running when the going gets tough or the path is uncertain or we are discouraged. My dad is among that cloud of witnesses who inspired and inspires me along the way. Who inspires you?

~ John C. Peterson, February 20, 2017

 

Last week a group from Covenant went roller skating at Funky’s in Harrisonburg. We had rented out the skating rink for the afternoon, but to our surprise a group of 17 non-English speaking folks, most of them appearing to be Muslim, arrived. The manager at Funky’s had difficulty explaining to them that it was a private group that was using the rink and asked us what should be done. Robyn Sommerfield responded on our behalf, “We are a church. We welcome everyone.” Everyone skated quite happily together!

Robyn got it exactly right! We are Christ’s church, and our call is to welcome everyone – friend and stranger alike, Christian and non-Christian, for all are our neighbors. That was Jesus’ point in the parable of the Good Samaritan; we are called to love all our neighbors, not just the neighbors who are like us, or the neighbors who live next door to us. It was  Jesus’ point in those familiar verses in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I WAS A STRANGER AND YOU WELCOMED ME….” In welcoming strangers you welcome me, says Jesus. In welcoming them we welcome Christ and we make new friends, but we also bear witness to the good news of the Gospel and bear Christ’s light to the world, for it was for the whole world that Christ came.

At a time when so many in our nation are fearful of strangers, especially Muslims, and seem determined to unwelcome them or exclude them, we are called to follow Jesus and to welcome them with open arms. That is not to say that we do not seek to discern those strangers who would do us harm, and thus far that process has served us well as a nation. But in excluding whole categories of people and failing to welcome especially those who are in desperate need, we risk being among those judged harshly in that 25th
chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” As we do to others, so we do to Christ, and Christ calls us to welcome him by welcoming the stranger. What stranger might you welcome this week?

 

~ John C. Peterson, February 6, 2017
 
 

Each year in early January the Session, including the incoming Session class, meets in retreat to take a broader look at who we’ve been, who we are, and who we are called to be in response to God’s call. We review our long-range plan and identify goals to guide us in the coming year. This year the Session adopted the following goals for 2017:

  1. Pay off the debt (the current balance is about $58,000, down $42,000 from a year ago)
  2. Identify one societal goal to address (as provided in our long-range plan) and begin to act on it (action that will continue into next year)
  3. Navigate successfully the staffing transition at Covenant (which includes calling an Associate Pastor for Christian Education and Nurture)
  4. Identify lay leadership/discipleship needs and encourage members of all ages to serve (an ongoing challenge identified in our long-range plan)
  5. Review and refresh opportunities for involvement (across the life of the church)

This is not a complete list of all we will do in the coming year. It is not a list of things that Session will do alone. These goals identify particular areas of focus in our life together as a Covenant community; they will require all of us to be involved. Some of these goals address areas within the life of our congregation; others will push us to look beyond ourselves to meet the needs of the wider world. As a church that is Reformed and always being re-formed by the Holy Spirit, we trust that God will guide us on this path as God has guided us through challenges in the past.

The inauguration of a new president last week reminds us that change is a constant in our world – some of it welcome; some of it unwelcome. But through all the changes – in our church, in our nation, and in our own lives – we trust in God who calls us to be God’s people and promises to be with us each step of the way to inspire us, to correct us, to forgive us, to comfort us, to love us, and to save us. That trust offers us hope as Christ’s church in this place – in 2017 and beyond!

~ John C. Peterson, January 23, 2017

 

I am currently reading a history of my alma mater, the College of Wooster. It is humbling to find that my years there are no longer “recent history” though perhaps still qualifying as “modern history!” (We have four other Wooster alums at Covenant, and Grace Adkins will begin her studies there in the fall.) Like Mary Baldwin, Wooster is a Presbyterian-related college; Presbyterians have a long tradition of supporting higher education and encouraging lifelong learning. We are blessed in our community to have a host of rich options to continue learning about the world around us long after we have completed formal education. But we are blessed too with a variety of options for exploring further our Christian Faith and its engagement with the world. The foundation is laid in Sunday School classes for children; the responsibility of parents to teach children about the good news of Jesus is as important as anything they will learn in school. As adults we continue to learn from and with one another not just in sermons on Sundays but also through Bible studies, book discussions, and topical  Sunday School classes like the Questions class and the Ducks in a Row class currently being offered on Sunday mornings. After 21 years here I am fairly confident that none of you – none of us – have it all figured out yet. We all benefit by studying and wrestling with faith together. In this new year try learning something new about the faith you profess in partnership with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Who knows what God may have to say to you – or through you!

~ John C. Peterson, January 9, 2017

 

What do you want for Christmas this year? That is the question posed by Santa to the little girls and boys perched on his knee at this time of year. What is that “thing” you want, that present you hope to find under the tree on Christmas morning? It is not just Santa who poses that question; it is posed too by frustrated family members who find your Christmas list woefully shy of helpful suggestions for their holiday shopping. Better tell them something before, in desperation, they buy you that remote controlled turtleneck sweater they see advertised on TV! But what if the same question were posed, not by Santa or a well-meaning relative, but by God: What do you want for Christmas this year? What then might you say?

MY TWO FRONT TEETH * PEACE ON EARTH * PEACE OF MIND * HEALING OR CONTINUED GOOD HEALTH * SOME COMFORT AND JOY * FORGIVENESS FOR “YOU KNOW WHAT” * A NEW JOB THAT DOESN’T SEEM SO MUCH LIKE A JOB * DELIVERANCE FROM THOSE LIVING NIGHTMARES THAT KEEP ME UP AT NIGHT * SOMEONE TO LOVE ME * LESS WORRY AND MORE HOPE * A PURPOSE FOR LIVING *?

What do you want for Christmas this year from God? Our answers to that question are the stuff of Christmas prayers. More than any Santa Claus, God invites us to give voice to our desires and needs, be they vastly global or intensely personal. That would of course require you to pause in the Christmas rush to lift up that prayer and perhaps even take a moment to think about what you might ask for. This Christmas I invite you – urge you – to tell God what you really want for Christmas. May God then answer your prayer as God answered all our prayers in a Bethlehem stable 2000 years ago with a Savior who is Christ the Lord. Merry Christmas and a healthy, happy, hopeful, holy New Year – to you!!

~ John C. Peterson, December 12, 2016

 

How do you prepare for Christmas? For some folks that preparation began with a mad dash to the mall on Black Friday or with hours of online shopping to avoid the rush. For some it is finding the right Christmas tree and unpacking the ornaments from the attic, basement or other out-of-the-way place where they were stashed eleven months ago. For some it is laying out a master plan for the bounty of gingerbread baking to come. For some it is tuning in to Christmas carols and seasonal songs that make the season bright. For some it is sitting down with a bowl of popcorn to watch White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, The Polar  Express, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, or all of the above. For some it is making travel arrangements for holiday destinations. And for some – most of you I hope – Christmas preparations include sitting down with an Advent Devotional and Bible to spend a few minutes a day in grateful reflection and prayer on the meaning of this season, perhaps lighting a candle on an Advent wreath along the way.

It is easy to be blinded by the glitz of our culture’s consumer Christmas or distracted by the din of Jingle Bells and Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer and so forget about the Bethlehem stable and babe lying in the manger and the tidings of great joy for all people. This year we have several Advent devotionals available to you for your Christmas preparation:

Let’s Go See the Savior! for young children (free copies in the narthex)

From Heaven to Manger for families and adults (free copies in the narthex)

These Days for adults (limited number of free copies available in the breezeway)

Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season for families and adults, especially those participating in our Advent in Narnia intergenerational Sunday School class (books available online or in stores for those who did not pre-order through Covenant).

Advent is a time to treasure the hope-filled words of angels and to ponder with Mary the meaning of Jesus’ coming into our midst. Advent is here! Christmas is coming! Pray and ponder away!!

~ John C. Peterson, November 28, 2016

 

The presidential election is behind us, Thanksgiving is before us, and here we are in the days between these great American traditions. For some Americans, it is one continuous season of thanks-giving – thanks for the results of the election last week and the promises of the president-elect while anticipating the celebration of our national and personal blessings with family next week. For other Americans, it is a time of mixed emotions with anger and anxiety over the election of a candidate whose toxic rhetoric and crude behavior offer little hope for a better future lingering as plans are being made to celebrate with family the blessings we all enjoy. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day to come together as a nation, but can we do that this Thanksgiving?

The words of George Washington offered in his Thanksgiving proclamation of October 3, 1789 may be helpful:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor… Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these United States… that we then may all unite unto him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection…for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of his providence… for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness… for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed…that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions… to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue….

Perhaps this Thanksgiving can be a time to begin to heal as a nation as we recall our common blessings, our common need for humility and pardon, and our common dependence upon the grace of God who is greater than any nation or president or problem. May our president, our president-elect, and all of us live into that vision of Micah to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. As Christian Americans, we should expect and demand nothing less!!

~ John C. Peterson, November 14, 2016
 
 

This Sunday is our Dedication Sunday, a day to pledge a portion of our time, talents and resources in gratitude for our blessings. It is an annual exercise in discipleship, a time for each of us to pause and reflect on what we are doing with the gifts God has given us. In his biography of Woodrow Wilson, August Heckscher writes: “[L]ooking back over the course of his years, he (Wilson) could say that God had never had ‘anything but blessings for me.  It makes me almost tremble to think of the uniform good fortune that has followed me all through life.’” Two Sundays ago in worship three of our folks looked back across their lives and echoed Wilson’s sentiments. It is hard not to be awed by all the blessings we have received!

God has no obligation to bless us so greatly. We are blessed simply because God chooses to bless us. We are not obligated to share those blessings since they are unconditionally given, but if we claim to be disciples of the risen Lord, then we can hardly pass on the opportunity to express our gratitude to God by using those gifts as Jesus urges us – to love God and neighbor, to share the Gospel, to make disciples, to do justice, to further the work of God’s Kingdom. Across the ages Christians have responded to Christ’s call by pooling resources and talents in the work of the church. Today those pooled resources make possible our weekly worship, our care and support for one another in times of crisis, our Christian nurture of faith, and our teaching faith to a new generation. Our shared gifts make possible the work of the church in this place!

Here we are blessed with a host of children with whom to share God’s love and good news. We are blessed with new members with whom to grow in faith and with whom to share in service to our neighbors. We are blessed with music that inspires our worship and an occasional sermon to inspire our lives. We are blessed to share this ministry! Our pledges make that possible! They are not an obligation we grumble to offer; they are opportunities to share in ministry and to express to God our gratitude for all that God has given us and done for us. With joy this week, prepare your pledge and come to share your gifts to the glory of God!!
 
~ John C. Peterson, October 31, 2016
 
 

Stewardship  is not a four-letter word, but sometimes it gets treated like one. At its core stewardship is the acknowledgment that we are not owners of all that we have, but caretakers who hold our blessings in trust for someone else – namely, for the God who granted us the blessings in the first place. In a culture that emphasizes private ownership, fierce independence, and self-made people, the idea that we are accountable to someone other than ourselves for what we have is countercultural. But Jesus was countercultural in his own day and did not hesitate to reorient our perspective from self to God.

All that we have is a gift from God – our talents, our time, our resources, and our freedom to make choices. Too often stewardship is distilled down to dollars and cents, as if our financial resources are the only blessings for which we are accountable to God. God is as interested, perhaps even more interested, in our use of time and talents as in any other choices we make. Perhaps that is because faith is at the heart of our lives and at the heart of our faith is love of God and neighbor – love in action. The choices we make to share our time and talents, or not to share them, reflect our love, our faith and our priorities. Faithful stewardship begins with acknowledging the time and talents we have, not dismissing them or denying them in order to excuse inaction. A commitment to share your time and talent does not demand that you be the best in the church or the world, but that you be the best you can be, that you share the time and talents God has given you for God’s good purposes not just for your own. Having acknowledged the gift, the challenge is then how best to use that gift. In this stewardship season, take some time to consider what you can do and then what you might do and then what you will  do – not as the owner of your time and talents, but as the faithful steward of those good gifts given to you by a God who gives you and me far more than we deserve.

~ John C. Peterson, October 17, 2016

 

In the last Covenant Connection I shared the goals of our newest long-range plan. They are goals for the present as well as the future. While the goals are not prioritized, the first in the list goes very much to the heart of who we are:

Nurture community while honoring diversity as we navigate our individual and congregational faith journeys

We are a community of Christ not a community of clones. We are different in many ways – in our politics, our music preferences, our theological perspectives, our personalities, our talents, our place on our journeys of faith. Hard as it is to believe, not everyone roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers! Yet our unity in Christ binds us together across all those differences. Paul uses the example of the body to say that not every part of the body is alike, but all are essential. It is that diversity of gifts and perspectives that makes us healthier. That said, Paul also urges us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus which suggests that there are some things in which we should be united, specifically related to Christ and Christ’s call to us. How does that play out at Covenant?

We have two worship services that are slightly different but have a common core in Christ and God’s call to us. We have three different adult electives which offer choices for how best to nurture faith, but it is that goal of nurturing faith and faithfulness that is at the heart of all three classes. We have various Outreach projects in which we participate, but not all demand the same skills – building for Habitat requires a different set of skills from serving a meal at Trinity Soup Kitchen. We try to offer opportunities that meet the diverse needs of the congregation, but which also maintain our common calling to be a Covenant community. It is important that we not lose that sense of unity amid the pursuit of our diverse interests. This summer we tried to be intentional about building that unity through our shared “happy hour” between services. There are a host of other possibilities for us to explore new ways to meet diverse needs and utilize diverse gifts as well as strengthening our unity as a Covenant family. What comes to your mind?
 
~ John C. Peterson, October 3, 2016
 
 

A few years ago I was working with the Session of a small country church that was struggling to survive. Membership had dwindled to under 30; most of the members were over 60. The area around the church was not growing, maybe even declining in population, so there were no ready prospects for new members. As we talked about the future of the church and a plan for going forward, one of the elders suggested, “What we need is a new sign out by the road.” Others quickly agreed. “A sign is not a plan,” I said. But that was all that Session could think to do as they looked to a future that seemed to them rather bleak.

We have a relatively new sign by the road, but that sign is not our plan. Our plan for Covenant’s future is rooted in what we are doing and who we are called to be as God’s people in this place. It is the product of input from all of you in small groups and surveys, study of census data that offer demographic profiles and projections of our community, and prayerful reflection by the Long-Range Planning Committee and Session. This summer the Session adopted a plan recommended by the Long-Range Planning Committee to guide us over the next five years. The goals of the plan are as follows:

  1. Nurture community while honoring diversity as we navigate our individual and congregational faith journeys
  2. Annually identify, study, and respond to one significant societal need with emphasis across the life of the congregation
  3. Communicate effectively within the congregation and the larger community to welcome, encourage, nurture, and support active participation in the life of the church
  4. Develop and implement a sustainable plan for professional and lay leadership

 

There are a host of ideas and possibilities that give shape to those goals, and Session teams are beginning to explore and implement some aspects of the plan. Now that we have returned from summer vacations and are diving into a new church school year, we hope to share more details about the plan, its possibilities, and opportunities for you to be involved. As we do, the words of the prophet Jeremiah come to mind: “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” May our plan be part of God’s hope-filled plans for us!

~ John C. Peterson, September 19, 2016

 

Over the past two years the Long-Range Planning Committee has worked to develop a plan that is responsive to our current needs and prepares us to meet our anticipated needs in the next five years. That plan, which included input from across the congregation, was adopted by the Session earlier this summer and will be shared in greater detail this fall. It has some exciting possibilities for us as we look to the future!

More immediately, in response to one of the priorities of the new Long-Range Plan (Develop and implement a sustainable plan for professional and lay leadership) and one of the 2016 Session Annual Goals (Create a staffing structure that meets the current and future needs of the congregation, including plans for a sabbatical), the Session at its August meeting approved a plan for a new staffing structure. In the 21+ years that I have been here we have had several different staffing structures that have adapted to meet the changing needs of our congregation and ministries. This new plan reconfigures some existing staff positions and moves us from 3 full-time and 2 part-time staff to 3 full-time and 1 part-time staff. The plan does not change any of the existing music staff positions, the Director of Youth Ministry position, or the call to me as Pastor. It does consolidate the communications and administrative assistant responsibilities into one full-time position, and includes the calling of a full-time Associate Pastor for Christian Education and Nurture. It is expected that these changes can be made within the confines of our existing Personnel budget. None of these changes will happen immediately, but the hope is that the new structure will be in place by July 1, 2017.

Change is never easy, but as a church that is “Reformed and always being re-formed” we are called to be open to the leading of the Spirit, trusting God to guide us along the way. This past Sunday, the Personnel Team shared details of this vision at a congregational gathering in the Great Hall between services. A second opportunity to hear about the plan will be offered in the sanctuary this Sunday, September 11, immediately following the 10:30 service.  
 
We hope that those of you who have not heard about the plan already will come to hear more about it and to ask any questions you may have. You may also contact Jane Lobb who is chair of the Personnel Team, me, or any Session member with any questions or concerns you may have. In any event, we hope that you will keep Covenant, the Session, and our staff in your prayers as we seek to be faithful in living into the vision God has for us as a Covenant community.
 
~ John C. Peterson, September 5, 2016

 

With reports of wildfires in areas of bone-dry California driving 80,000 people from their homes and flooding in Louisiana that has been described as a “once in a thousand year” event coming on the heels of the horrific flooding in West Virginia earlier this summer, the words of Psalm 46 came to mind:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Earth-shaking events – both literal and figurative – have been happening for a long, long time. Volcanoes erupt, hurricanes roar in, earthquakes rattle the ground, tornadoes suddenly appear, rains never seem to stop in one area while other areas long for even a drop of water. Some of the tragedies associated with these events have a human dimension – people make poor choices to build in flood zones and coastal areas, deplete aquifers for agricultural and recreational use, frack irresponsibly to induce earth tremors, ignite wildfires with careless or criminal actions – but not all such tragedies are human-induced. We can damage but cannot contain or control Mother Nature, despite our best efforts, for that is the way God created the world to be – an ever-changing, dynamic environment. The psalmist affirms that in the midst of all the change, God is constant, faithful, “a very present help”. Rather than despair or live in fear of the changing world in which we live, we are encouraged to trust God and live without fear, to be responsible stewards of the earth and make wise decisions that enhance the well-being of the world in which we live and our lives as well, to stand against policies that damage the environment and risk human tragedy for the sake of economic or self-serving gain. And when the mountains shake, or the waters roar and foam, and tragedies result – as they will from time to time – we are called to help our brothers and sisters in need, to be the hands of God offering a very present help in trouble wherever the “trouble” may be. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one way in which we offer that help. How might you help?

~ John C. Peterson, August 22, 2016
 
 

This summer’s sermon series has focused on leadership, specifically, how God has used a variety of people with a variety of gifts – Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Timothy, David – for a variety of purposes as leaders in God’s plan for humanity across the centuries. There are a host of other leaders in the pages of Scripture, but God’s call to leadership does not end with the last verse of Revelation. God continues to call men and women to various forms of service in God’s plan today. Some are called to do great things and some to do simple things, some to lead and some to follow, but the common thread running through their stories is God’s hand at work in and through their lives.

Our Reformed tradition affirms that we all have a calling from God, a vocation to serve God in doing whatever it is that we do. That means that you regard the work you do wherever you do it as God’s work through you, not only in what you do but also in how you do it. Is that how you regard what you do? If not, how might it change your work or your attitude toward your work to think of it as God working through you? If it seems hard to imagine God working through you to do what you do, then you might ask yourself why you are doing it in the first place. What else might God have in mind for you?

Within the church too God calls men and women to serve and to lead – to preach, to teach, to serve as elder, to sing, to weed, to fold bulletins, to make meals… It is a calling to be the instruments by which God does the work of the church. For whatever reason, God seems to think it a good idea to work through us, and God gives us spiritual gifts to empower us to do what we could not do alone. Like those biblical leaders we may resist the call, but God is persistent and rejects our excuses with these words, “I will be with you.” How then might God be calling you to serve – in your work and at Covenant – this year? Might you be a leader – even if a reluctant leader – in God’s plan?

~ John C. Peterson, August 8, 2016
 
 

Last week I sent out an opt-in in response to some of the community discussion with regard to WRE. I heard from several folks indicating that these comments were helpful, so I thought I would repeat them here with minor modification since not everyone is on the opt-in list:

Within the life of our congregation there are many issues upon which we are not all in agreement. In seeking to be faithful we arrive at different conclusions about what faithfulness demands of us. The role of Weekday Religious Education in the public schools is one of those issues. In the past we have disagreed as to what a faithful response is with regard to this issue, yet we have not been disagreeable in our disagreements. Some of the tones in the current community debate have crossed that line, but I am grateful that within the life of Covenant there has been respect for one another’s perspectives. Some years ago I was asked if this issue had divided our congregation. I responded, “No. We disagree about it, but we are not divided.” That statement was borne out by the actions and attitudes of our Covenant members who disagreed passionately about this issue, but remained friends and brothers and sisters in Christ, worshiping and serving and sharing fellowship together. In an increasingly polarized world, we are called as the church to offer an alternative to an “us” versus “them” mentality that demonizes the other; we are called to carry on respectful dialogue about issues over which we disagree while affirming that what unites us in Christ is greater than any of those disagreements. I am grateful for our school board’s thoughtful reflection on this issue as they fulfill their responsibility to educate the students in the Staunton community and meet challenging standards for testing and funding. The continuing challenge for us as the church is to determine how best we can reach the unchurched children in our community with the good news of the Gospel. WRE in its current form is not the only way to do so! For both those who are supportive of WRE and for those who believe there are better alternatives, it is an opportune time for discussion and reflection about the shape of those alternatives to take place.  

The WRE issue is important to many in our community, but even more important in my view is the spirit within which that debate takes place. If it does not reflect Christian love and affirmation of our unity in Christ that surpasses these differences, then we contradict the very message we avow to share and make the “good news” seem not very good at all! 

~ John C. Peterson, July 25, 2016
 

Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” The church is not a club, but we still might not meet Groucho’s test for membership because we accept all kinds of folks as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ. We are not a haven for saints who have it all figured out but a hospital for sinners who are trying to live faithfully day by day – some days well and some days not so well. Believing that Jesus is Lord, we are committed to following wherever he leads us. Our Covenant mission statement says it well:

Striving to be Faithful Disciples of Christ:

Worshiping with Joy,

Growing in Faith,

Serving in Love

That is who we are as a Covenant community! The “striving” says we are a work in progress. This summer is an opportune time to reflect on our progress. How are we doing at living into that mission statement? How you are doing at living into that mission statement, for the church is the people? In what ways are you striving to be a more faithful disciple day by day? Are you worshiping with joy or are you worshiping at all? What are you doing to grow in faith – reading a book, opening your Bible, praying? Are you serving God by serving others or are you just serving yourself these days? Summer is a great time to rest, relax, and recharge. But it is also a fine time to recommit to what you are recharging for – to be a faithful disciple of the risen Christ! 

~ John C. Peterson, July 11, 2016
 
 

At its biennial meeting last week in Portland, OR the General Assembly of the PCUSA approved including the Confession of Belhar as the 12th confessional statement in our Book of Confessions. This was the final step in a process that took more than five years and required approval of a previous General Assembly to include the confession, and then approval of ⅔ of the presbyteries in the PCUSA. Originally adopted by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986 amid the struggles of apartheid, Belhar is the first confession from the Southern Hemisphere in our Book of Confessions. It speaks of unity and reconciliation. Its statements echo across oceans and continents, and speak to us in profound ways. Here are some samples:

  • We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.
  • We believe that unity is…both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ.
  • We believe that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.
  • We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope….
  • We reject any doctrine which…sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.

Imagine the power of these words spoken in the context of apartheid in the 1980s! Imagine the power of these words in the context of our lives today. How do they speak to you?

~ John C. Peterson, June 27, 2016
 
 

The biennial General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church (USA) convenes on Saturday in Portland, OR. Commissioners elected by presbyteries from around the country will gather to worship, pray, discuss issues, and vote on recommendations to guide our Presbyterian Church into the future. The opening worship can be viewed online on Saturday, June 18, through the pcusa.org website. Throughout the following week the Assembly will conduct business in committee and plenary sessions framed by worship and prayer. Among the issues to be addressed at this year’s Assembly are the following:

  • A proposed merger of the Presbyterian Mission Agency with the Office of the General Assembly to streamline and consolidate our denominational structure at the national level
  • Election of a stated clerk. Gradye Parsons, the current stated clerk, is retiring and so a new stated clerk will be elected. The stated clerk of the PCUSA is the top ecclesiastical officer who also serves as the ecumenical leader of the PCUSA in relation to other denominations.
  • Election of a moderator or co-moderators. Each Assembly a new moderator is elected to represent the PCUSA. Heath Rada is the current moderator. Because of the broad responsibilities of the moderator to travel and speak to churches across the country and around the world, the 2014 Assembly approved making it possible for co-moderators to run together and share the position. Two sets of co-moderators are currently standing for the       office in addition to individual candidates.
  • Action on several overtures related to social justice in the United States and around the world (including the Middle East and fossil fuels)
Both the PCUSA website (www.pcusa.org) and the Presbyterian Outlook are helpful sites to glean information from actions of the Assembly. I encourage you to visit those sites and follow what is happening in our larger church. The reports of secular news media are often incomplete and tend to focus upon sensational actions – often with inaccurate interpretations. If you have questions about actions of the Assembly, please let me know. Regardless of whether you follow what is happening or not, please keep our commissioners and Presbyterian Church family in your prayers as together we seek to discern God’s will for us.
~ John C. Peterson, June 13, 2016

 

In two weeks, Vacation Bible School begins here at Covenant (June 12-16). This year’s VBS theme is CAVEQUEST: FOLLOWING JESUS, THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. The focus will be the good news of Jesus Christ presented as part of a cave adventure. The theme reminded me that a couple of significant events in the Bible involve caves.

In the Old Testament Elijah is hiding out in a cave, fearful of the wrath of Queen Jezebel, when God finds him and asks, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” God’s question is really a confrontation. God wants Elijah to leave the cave, trust God to care for him, and get back to the prophetic work to which God has called Elijah. There at the mouth of the cave Elijah encounters the living God – not in an earthquake or storm or fire as he expects, but in sheer silence, an awful silence that brings Elijah to his knees. The cave cannot be a hiding place, for there is work of the Lord to be done!

In the New Testament the cave that comes into play is the tomb from which Jesus rises. Death cannot contain him. Jesus rises from the dead and leaves the cave to proclaim in person the good news of resurrection. The New Testament cave is symbolic of death, and in leaving it, Jesus affirms God’s triumph over death and promise of life.

We live in a valley that is known for its caves, better known as caverns. They are tourist sites and adventure spots and natural wonders. Our homes and churches can become caves as well (not just man-caves) if we think that there we can hide out from the demands of God. God calls us to leave all our caves (whatever they may be) to share the good news, to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Serving in VBS can be one of those “out-of-cave” experiences. What other “out-of-cave” experiences might God be calling you to this summer? For as at VBS, in coming out of our caves we seek to follow Jesus, the light of the world!
~ John C. Peterson, May 30, 2016
 

 

Last Sunday we celebrated 15 years of beautiful and inspiring music shared with us by Chris Wszalek. Over those years I figure Chris has played for almost 1400 worship services, funerals and weddings! He has a gift not only for playing the piano and organ beautifully, but also for integrating music into worship. Again and again he chooses just the right prelude or postlude to compliment the message and the hymns in the service. It is the kind of thing that we may take for granted after 15 years, but this week we pause to say, “Thank you, Chris! Thank you for inspiring music that stirs our souls, lifts our hearts, and helps us to sing God’s praises! Thank you for bringing with you Becky, Julie, and Susan who have brightened our lives with their songs and smiles. Thank you for all the blessings you have showered upon us!”

The next generation of musicians and liturgists will lead our worship this coming Sunday as we celebrate Children’s Sunday. We are blessed with a host of kids that bring energy and vitality to our congregational life and worship each week. This week their voices will lead us in worship and in song. Their fingers will dance across the keyboards to bring us sweet tunes. Their smiles will light up our sanctuary as together we are reminded that unless we all become like children, we can never hope to enter the kingdom of God. On this special Sunday we will celebrate worship together in ONE SERVICE at 10:30AM.  Come as children of God to worship God with childlike wonder and joy – whatever age you may be!!
~ John C. Peterson, May 16, 2016
 

A few years back on Mission Sunday, one of our members turned to Tom Aldridge during the sharing of the peace and asked, “Are you a visitor?” “No, I’m your treasurer,” Tom replied. One of the challenges in being a growing church with two worship services is that we don’t always know one another as well as we’d like. Recognizing that reality, one of the priorities adopted by the Session for 2016 is: “Create opportunity for greater integration of the congregation.” The hope is that we can get to know one another better as Covenant brothers and sisters instead of Covenant cousins once removed. With that goal in mind the Session has approved a couple of changes in our worship schedule in the coming months that we hope will help us get better acquainted or reacquainted with one another.

The first change is to hold one worship service at 10:30 on five Sundays: Children’s Sunday (May 22), Mission Sunday (August 21), Christmas Day (December 25), New Year’s Day (January 1), and the Sunday for Ordination and Installation of elders (in January 2017).    

On these five Sundays we will worship together as a way of sharing those experiences that are special in the life of our congregation. The second change is in July of this year. We will continue to have our 8:30 service as usual, but our 10:30 worship will move to 10:00 for those five July Sundays. Between the services we will have a more robust fellowship time – a “happy hour” of sorts – in the breezeway (i.e. more food and drink) and spill out into the Memorial Garden on nice days to visit, catch up, and get to know one another better.

There will be additional opportunities throughout the year to get together in other areas of our life together. We hope that you will take a few extra minutes to introduce yourself to those you don’t know, reintroduce yourself to those you’ve not seen for a while, and welcome all the visitors in our midst, for we are one Covenant family – and by the way, Paul Sorrell is our treasurer!
~ John C. Peterson, May 2, 2016
 
This Sunday we will receive into membership seven of our youth who have completed the Confirmation Class and have shared their faith statements with the Session. Confirmation began for them back in September. Above and beyond all their other responsibilities at home and at school they committed to this process as together they sought to understand who we are as Presbyterians and what they believe as individuals. Under the leadership of Laura Lawson and Melissa Druff these young folks (with two others from neighboring Presbyterian churches who joined them in the process) have explored their faith, learned about the Reformed Tradition and Presbyterian Church, visited several other houses of worship, written a worship service, prayed together, worshiped together, questioned together, and sought to articulate their faith. Like all of us, their faith is a work in progress that will change, grow and be challenged over time. But without exception they come to affirm their faith as Christians seeking to follow Jesus as part of this Covenant family of faith.
When was the last time you gave such serious consideration to your faith? Are you as committed to growing in faith as they have been throughout this last year? Is your faith growing or is it withering from lack of nurture and attention? As we welcome these seven young people into our Covenant family on Sunday, I encourage you to consider what kind of example you offer and what kind of faith you hold? If they were to ask, “What do you believe?” what would you say – and what difference does it make to you?
 ~ John C. Peterson, April 18, 2016
 

Last week we visited our granddaughter (and her parents and aunt) in Atlanta. Along the eight hour drive from here to there and back signs of new life were bursting out – red bud and flowering trees lining the highways, daffodils and tulips in colorful bloom, grass crying out to be mowed (or already mowed). It is appropriate that we celebrate Easter in the Spring, for at every turn there are fresh reminders of life arising out of seemingly dormant death – like the Resurrection – a great gift from a great God! Next Sunday we will affirm those promises for Grif Bonham as we celebrate his life with stories of a life well and faithfully and amazingly lived! The Resurrection is more than just a one day celebration. In a sense every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection and the new life that it brings.

In our fast-paced culture we tend to move past such celebrations pretty quickly. We look ahead to them with great anticipation, but as soon as they are over we set them aside and start looking ahead to the next event, activity or holiday. This year, consider lingering a little longer in Eastertide before you get itchy for Memorial Day. Bask a little longer in the joy of the alleluias! Hear the bright songs of birds as harmonies of praise in the great symphony of the Resurrection! See the splashes of color all around us as nature’s artistic tribute to the promises of Easter! Hold on to the joyful, hope-filled promises of new life which God offers to all creation and to each of us in the risen Christ! This Eastertide, dare to live as Easter people in a world that seems determined either to be stuck in the suffering of Good Friday or anxious to move ahead to tax day and leave the Resurrection behind! This Eastertide, live with joy for in Christ God has made all things new – including you!!!
 ~ Joh
n C. Peterson, April 4, 2016
 
What does Easter mean to you? It is a different question from “what is Easter supposed to mean to you?”. The second question is about doctrine; the first is about faith – more specifically, YOUR faith. Ask a child on the street and you are most likely to hear about brightly colored eggs (often chocolate) hidden by a large rabbit – that is our culture’s attempt to co-opt the Christian Easter. But our tradition contends that Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus, the transformation of the cosmos, THE foundational event for our faith. As Christians we are supposed to believe that Jesus was crucified until dead, then  buried, yet less than 48 hours later (on the 3rd day’s dawn) was raised from the dead. Easter is thus about God conquering death, about a divine promise fulfilled, about hope for the future for all of us even in the face of death! The Resurrection is key to all that we believe and all that we are. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

Is your faith futile or fervent? The testimony of 2000 years’ worth of Christians is that Christ HAS been raised, that our faith is not futile, that our sins are forgiven, that death does not have the last word. The testimony of those Christian brothers and sisters is that we are Easter people who hold Easter hopes through an Easter Resurrection. That is their faith expressed in Scripture and in creeds and in stories and in poems and in martyrdom and in countless personal testimonies. The question they’ve answered is the question now posed to you: What does Easter mean to you? Or put another way: Do you believe that  Jesus was raised from the dead? It is a question worth pondering this Holy Week, a question whose answer we will celebrate next Sunday morning – on Easter – with these words: THE LORD IS RISEN! HE IS RISEN INDEED! Come, join in the celebration!
~ John C. Peterson, March 21, 2016
 

Across my twenty years here we have been blessed with a trio of Parish Associates who have been colleagues in ministry and part-time pastors to our Covenant congregation. Chalmers Goshorn was Parish Associate here when I arrived in 1995, and he helped orient me to Staunton and introduce me to Covenant folks through shared visits. After Chalmers retired, Lew Lewis served as a good friend and partner in ministry for over 15 years, endearing himself to all of us along the way before his move to Ohio last summer.    

In November Mary Johns began her service with us as Parish Associate, offering pastoral care with a kind heart and gentle spirit. We had an understanding that when her husband Harry finished his interim pastorate at 3rd Presbyterian Church they would probably retire back to their home in Colonial Heights, VA. None of us knew when that day would come. Last week Harry’s health quickly deteriorated in his long battle with cancer. His family rallied around him through the week in Richmond before he died Thursday evening. We are grateful for his life, and ask that you keep Mary and her family in your prayers as they mourn and begin to look to the future. Mary will be moving back to Colonial Heights, and thus will not continue here as Parish Associate. We are grateful for her friendship and    compassionate care over these past three months, and ask God’s blessing upon her for comfort and peace.

What then will we do here at Covenant? In January, Session adopted goals for this year that are relevant to this change in staff circumstances:

*   Develop Lay Leadership
*   Create a staffing structure that meets the current and future needs of the congregation, including plans for a sabbatical (for me in 2017)
 
As we too look to the future we will be evaluating our professional staffing needs as well as looking to lay participation to meet the challenges of caring for, nurturing, and supporting our growing congregation. Consider your gifts? In what ways might you contribute? To what new ministries might God be calling you? There are a host of ways in which to serve. In what way is God calling you?
~ John C. Peterson, March 7, 2016
 

Last Friday evening and Saturday our sanctuary was filled with sweet melodies and harmonies as about 90 kids with the University Singers from UVA came for their semi-annual retreat. As they have for several years now, they rehearse in our sanctuary, sleep in nooks and crannies throughout the church, eat in the Great Hall, and leave everything in good order. They are one of many groups who use our church facilities throughout the year. When we built the addition fifteen years ago, we emphasized that we were building not just to use for ourselves, but to share with the community as well. We want to invite folks in from beyond our walls as well as going out to serve. Our church is always open to all people to come and share in our Covenant life here; many of our programs specifically invite folks from the community to come (like our Developmental Preschool program, Taizé services, VBS, and Spring Egg Hunt). But we also share our space with non-profit groups who seek to serve others and need a space like ours for particular purposes. How is it shared? Here is a list of some, but not all, of the community groups who have used our facilities in the last year:

*  On a weekly basis: The Arc of Augusta, an addiction support group, a couple of children’s basketball, soccer or T-ball teams (depending on the season)
 
*  On a monthly basis: the Augusta Bird Club, D.A.R.
 

*  At times throughout the year: NAACP for their banquet and prayer breakfast, Allen Chapel, Garden Clubs, Music Clubs, presbytery committees, Meals on Wheels board

With our busy church life (choirs, Preschool program, worship, Bible Studies, TOW, team meetings, PW, etc.) there is a limit as to how much we can share – basketball practice around the TOW tables on Wednesday nights while we are eating could be a problem!  But we try to be good neighbors, for God has blessed us with a host of talents and gifts to share – including our facilities – to serve our neighbors to the glory of God!
 ~ John C. Peterson, February 22, 2016
 
With Christmas decorations barely packed away and the remnants of Super Bowl parties still awaiting clean up, it hardly seems possible that we should be entering Lent. But whether we are ready or not Lent begins this Wednesday (February 10th) with Ash      Wednesday that marks the onset of our forty day walk toward the cross and empty tomb. Have you given any thought to how you will observe Lent this year? Here are some suggestions:
*   Use one of the Lenten devotionals that are available in the narthex to take time each day for reflection and prayer.  Home, Heart, Spirit: Family Prayers and Activities for Lent is a resource that offers a daily observance for the whole family. Living Lent As People of the Resurrection is a collection of reflections more  oriented toward adults. Choose one that suits your needs – and use it!
*    Give up something for Lent (other than chocolate covered parsnips) that will keep you mindful of the season and grateful for Christ’s sacrifice for you, or take on something new – a spiritual discipline or form of service that will mark these forty days for you.
*   Join a Sunday School class. In addition to our ongoing children’s and adult classes, there will also be a Lenten alternative entitled What Wondrous Love: Holy Week in Word and Art as we look at texts related to Christ’s Passion and artwork that interprets it.
*   Come on Wednesday evenings for a meal of soup and bread (at 6PM) followed by worship in the spirit of Taizé (at 7PM) that includes prayer, readings, simple songs, and silence.
*   Read a book by an author who stimulates reflection on Christ or your Christian faith (e.g. N.T. Wright, Marcus Borg, C.S. Lewis, Brian McLaren). Our library has some great options and if you want some additional suggestions, let me know!
Lent is a season for intentional reflection and repentance in order to grow in faith and faithfulness. It offers an opportunity not an obligation. How then will you observe Lent this year?
~ John C. Peterson, February 8, 2016
 

Each January the Session holds a retreat to pause and consider the bigger picture in our church, our shared ministries, and the larger culture. We assess what we have done, dream about what we might do, and set priorities for the year to come. At last week’s retreat we set the following priorities for 2016 (the comments and clarifications in parentheses are mine):

  1. Create opportunity for greater integration of the congregation. (With two worship services we often don’t know one another and there may be opportunities for us to better worship and serve together as one church.)
  2. Explore use of technology in congregational life to be more inclusive including ‘social media presence’. (This past year our website had a complete makeover under the able direction of Darlene Schneck and Sharlene Wade, but there may be further opportunities for us to better reach everyone.)
  3. Pay down the debt. (As of today the balance on the debt is a little over $93,000; last year we paid off $107,000!)
  4. Develop Lay Leadership. (This embraces both existing opportunities and future possibilities for lay leadership – as elders and in other capacities.)
  5. Create a staffing structure that meets the current and future needs of the congregation including plans for a sabbatical. (I am due for a sabbatical sometime in the not too distant future, so we need to plan for it. Staffing structure will also be a piece of our long-range plan.)
 
These priorities are not the only things we will be doing. We will continue our efforts to offer vibrant worship, stimulating Christian Education opportunities, helpful outreach to our neighbors near and far, fun in fellowship together, an outstanding preschool program, and care for our facilities. But most importantly we will continue to live in to that mission statement we adopted last year: STRIVING TO BE FAITHFUL DISCIPLES OF CHRIST: WORSHIPING WITH JOY, GROWING IN FAITH, SERVING IN LOVE. In your plans for 2016, plan to join us on that journey together!
~ John C. Peterson, January 25, 2016
 

A BIRTH FOR THE EARTH

 

The word just came in that a savior is born

In a stable at night in the cold before morn

And the one who delivered her child before day

Gently laid down the babe in the warmth of the hay

For the inn had no room; they had no place to stay.

 

But that is the way that the world tends to be

So concerned with the problems of me and of me

That the needs of a child who is born as a stranger

Are pushed to the side, to the edge of the manger

Where children are born to the poor and in danger.

 

That’s the way of the world – way back then and today

After two thousand years you would think that we’d say,

“That’s enough! All these children deserve so much more

We will care for them, love them, no matter how poor

And we’ll find a safe place for them, that is for sure!”

 

But we don’t! And so refugee kids are still born

In cold stables or worse in the night and the morn

And the Christ who to us came with hope in his birth

Shakes a head that is heavy and lacking in mirth

For the lessons not learned – of his birth for the earth.

 
~ John C. Peterson, January 12, 2016