From the Pastor’s Desk . . .

Another week, another disaster – this time fires devouring everything in their path in California. Coming on the heels of the hurricanes wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and southern U.S. and the man-made disaster – the shootings in Las Vegas – we are in danger of becoming numb to the pain and suffering, not only of the victims of each new tragedy, but also of those who are still dealing with the aftermath of tragedies past. As the news cycle moves on to the next big event, do we move on as well and forget the continuing needs of those who are still suffering? Is the sheer number and scope of these disasters overwhelming them – and us? Anne Weems gives voice to some of the sentiments of these days in her Psalms of Lament which includes this Lament Psalm 35:
 

The sky has fallen and no one seems to notice.

Mountains have fallen into the sea and people are oblivious.

Floods cover the land, and tornadoes topple the buildings

and earthquakes divide the land.

Everywhere I look there is nothing but devastation,

and yet, everyone goes about their business as usual.

O God, my life is destroyed,

but people go to the bank and to the store.

They eat and they drink,

and I crumple under the weight of my heart.

O God, it is the end of my world!

Why aren’t people weeping and wailing?

Why isn’t the world on its knees asking forgiveness?

The whole world is one great wailing wall

and I will live here forever.

 

God Almighty, why am I all alone?

Couldn’t you, O God, come and sit with me…

Please, O God, rebuild my world!

Have mercy on me, for I am all alone.

No one sees that the sky has fallen,

no one, O God, no one, but you.

All-knowing God, you are the only one

who can put the stars back in place.

Take pity on me and hold up the sky.

 

I will walk by the river of hope, and you will find me there,

and you will reach out your hand

and push the heavens back into place,

and I will kneel and give thanks, for you will be with me.

You will put the stars back in the sky.

We are God’s hands at work to help push the heavens back into place for those folks. It is not our work, but God’s work through us. That is what stewardship of time and talents is about. That is what love of God and neighbor is about. That is what being Christian is about.

~ John C. Peterson, October 16, 2017
 
 

The events in Charlottesville recently are a sobering reminder that we continue to live in the long shadow of our nation’s racist past. The vitriolic rhetoric and violent actions of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and their ilk not only personify evil, but also deny the common image of God in which we ALL were created. Their attempt to build up dividing walls between people stands in direct opposition to the message and mission of Jesus to tear down those same walls with love. Our Christian tradition has had a mixed history with regard to this issue. Some Christians have aided and abetted divisions along racial lines as portions of Scripture were quoted to justify slavery and discrimination, while other Christians were hard at work as abolitionists and civil rights advocates pursuing freedom and equality for all people. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of “the anesthetizing effect of stained glass windows” as many white churches stood strangely silent in the midst of the turmoil of the civil rights movement. We dare not stand silent now!

2500 years ago the prophet Micah declared that what God required of us was “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” DOING JUSTICE requires that we do more than simply stand on the sidelines and shake our heads at the violence we witnessed last Saturday. We must be active in resisting those who seek to contravene the Gospel with racist rhetoric, discriminatory policies, and violence, and we must try to build a more loving and just community for all. LOVING KINDNESS demands that our response take shape without resorting to the violence and hate that are the bread and butter of racist groups; Jesus rejected eye-for-an-eye retaliation and suggested that loving, non-violent resistance (which was still significant resistance) offered a better way. WALKING HUMBLY with God forces us to examine our own lives and assess how we have benefitted from or been complicit in less overt acts of racism. We must identify and humbly admit our own prejudices, our silence in the face of discrimination, and support for systemic injustices – knowing or unknowing – that continue to treat people unfairly. As individuals, as a community, and as a church we have a lot of work to do to live into God’s call to us – to ALL of us – to love our neighbors (all our neighbors) and to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. The ugly incidents in Charlottesville should be for us a wake-up call, reminding us that OUR WORK HERE BEGINS NOW!!
 
~ John C. Peterson, August 21, 2017
 
 

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

 

 
 

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