From the Pastor’s Desk . . .



   As I write this on the eve of Holy Week it dawns on me that Jesus was roughly the age of our son Daniel at the time of his crucifixion and resurrection. That seems awfully young – young to suffer so, young to die, young to have such an impact on history and upon our lives! We sometimes think of Jesus as timeless – a man of indeterminate age who spoke with the wisdom of an ancient sage while garnering the love, respect, and hate of people of all ages long ago in a land far away. But the reality is that Jesus was born, lived, and died within our time and space. He walked the dusty roads of Palestine for only 33 years. He celebrated birthdays, stopped to eat lunch, and laid down his head to rest at night. He stubbed his toes on stones, mourned the death of friends, and got the flu. His incarnation affirms that Jesus fully experienced what it is to be human and so understands what our lives are like day to day. But it also affirms that in his betrayal and gruesome death he understands human suffering – suffering on a scale that we hope never to experience!    It has been said that Christians emphasize Jesus’ humanity too much at his birth and his divinity too much at his resurrection. The two are entwined on those days and across all the days in between. So, before you rush from Palm Sunday’s hosannas to Easter’s alleluias, from the man riding on the donkey to the savior rising from the tomb, take time to reflect on the reality of the events of this week. Remember the crucifixion and Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”

   Remember too his promise, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Remember it all! For, the good news of the empty tomb at Easter’s dawn is inseparably tied to the agony of Good Friday and his mixed reception on Palm Sunday. As the psalmist says, “Weeping may linger in the night, but joy comes with the morning.” This is a week in which there is weeping and rejoicing, humanity and divinity, death and new life, Good Friday and Easter!
 — April 15, 2019

   A sabbatical is a time for rest and renewal, a time to step back, breathe deeply, and look more intently or broadly at aspects of life and ministry. Some of you may be familiar with sabbaticals in the world of academia, but pastors too take periodic sabbaticals. All terms of call for ministers in Shenandoah Presbytery require provision for a sabbatical every seventh year as a way of encouraging longer, healthier ministries. (Sarah’s first sabbatical will be in 2025 and my next one will not be until 2026!) This summer I will take my second sabbatical since arriving at Covenant in 1995. My last Sunday before sabbatical will be Easter Sunday, April 21, and I will return on Monday, August 12. During that time I will be doing some reading, writing, visioning, traveling, and resting. I will be exploring what others are doing in ministry that might translate well to our Covenant setting and will have opportunity to talk with colleagues about their view of ministry and to listen to sermons instead of writing them. We will spend a few weeks in Scotland (our home away from home) visiting and traveling with good friends, but most of the time we will be popping in and out of Staunton.

   While I am away you will all be in Sarah’s capable hands. As I am sure you have come to know, she is more than capable to lead and provide care for all of you in these coming months. Guest preachers will ease some of the preaching load and our visitation teams will work with Sarah in meeting pastoral needs throughout the summer. Help her out along the way, sharing with her all the same concerns, needs, news, and joys that you so kindly share with me! Sabbatical is for the pastor, not the congregation! So, I hope and expect that in my absence life will go on here as usual with vibrant worship, caring concern for one another, and great joys to share in our Covenant life together. I am grateful for this gift and trust that it will be a fruitful  time – for all of us! Blessings!
 — April 1, 2019


When morning gilds the skies, my heart awakening cries: “May Jesus Christ be praised!”

    How do your mornings begin? When the alarm goes off, and you rub the sleep from your eyes, do you rise with a groan or first scroll through your phone? Are you unsuitable for company or conversation until you’ve had your morning cup of coffee – or your 2nd or your 3rd? Do you jump out of bed eager for the day, or dive under the covers hoping it is just a bad dream, or linger there awhile to gather yourself or force yourself to get up and get going? An old friend in Richmond told me that he started each day by saying out loud as he rose from his bed, “Good morning, Lord!” It was a reminder that God had been with him through the night and was right there by his side as he rose for the day. Do you have such an awareness of God’s presence with you each morning? I used to run three miles or so every morning at sunrise, and more times than I can count the brilliance of the sky over the Blue Ridge would move me to murmur (not sing out loud out of respect for the dogs in the neighborhood), “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning, our song shall rise to thee!” Does    a song or prayer escape your lips with gratitude for the gift of another day? Do devotions orient your day at daybreak, or do you hit the ground running through your mental to-do list? Do you get up on the “right side of the bed” or the “wrong side”? How do your mornings begin?

   Consider beginning your day with God on your mind this Lenten season.  Take a moment at the dawn of the day to utter a brief prayer or soak in the sunrise or ponder a reading (a handful of Lenten devotionals are still available in the narthex) or simply say with my friend, “Good morning, Lord!” With God by your side and on your mind, embrace the day – for each day is a gift from God!
 — March 18, 2019

   Lent begins with Ash Wednesday this week;  it is a late start to our 40 day pilgrimage to Easter! Because Easter falls so late in the year this year, Lent will compete for our attention with the ACC and NCAA basketball tournaments, tax time, the beginning of baseball season, spring soccer, high school proms, and the lure of warm spring days. How then will you observe a holy Lent through this bright and busy time of the year?    The mark of ashes on our foreheads is a start; the ashes remind us that we are creatures of the dust and to dust we will return. In the creation story in Genesis the writer uses a Hebrew wordplay to declare our humble origins: the adam is created from the adamah – literally the earthling is created from the earth. God alone is the divine creator; we are the creations, like the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees, all made of the same substance and shaped by a divine hand for God’s good purposes. The mark of ashes is also an acknowledgment that we have not lived up to our created purpose. It is a sign of penitence as we acknowledge our sins, our need to do better, and our total dependence upon the grace and mercy of God. Lent is a time for self-examination and reflection, a time to consider the ways in which you are being faithful and unfaithful, a time to repent (literally turn) and return to God’s ways. The ashes are a visible reminder of the invisible sin that stains our souls, and so we begin this journey toward the cross and empty tomb by acknowledging that we need to be cleansed, redeemed, renewed.

   Ash Wednesday begins that holy journey, but it is only the beginning. Throughout these 40 days there are opportunities for fasting (giving up something as a reminder of those who live without all the time), prayer (speaking to God and listening for God speaking to you), reading Scripture (Lenten devotionals are available to guide you through these 40 days), and acts of kindness toward others (write a note a day, visit a friend, help someone in need). Lent is a holy journey that begins with ashes on our foreheads on March 6 and will end at the empty tomb at Easter’s dawn. It is a journey that we take together. How then will you observe a holy Lent this Lenten season?
 — March 4, 2019

   Events in Richmond over the past few weeks offer stark reminders that racism continues to plague our public and private lives – from the past and into the present – and we have difficulty knowing just how to talk about it. Just a year and a half removed from the violence in Charlottesville, we find ourselves still wrestling with the sins of our past (e.g. lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and yearbooks portraying students in blackface) and the sins of the present (e.g. violent hate crimes, racially gerrymandered voting districts, and tacit prejudice). Racism is not a relic of our distant past that we can dismiss as the problem of another generation and suggest that we have left it behind; it is a present reality among us in personal, institutional, rhetorical, and systemic forms that must be addressed, confessed, and remedied if we are to find healing for our nation, our church, and our souls.

   Jesus calls us brothers and sisters all, and Paul claims that our identity in Christ transcends any of the ways in which we try to differentiate ourselves – male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free – to use his language, which might currently include black or white or brown, gay or straight or transgender, American or Armenian or Angolan. All are one in Christ, because our fundamental identity is in him. Every person is created in the image of God, and all are welcome in the family of God through Christ. That is the good news you and I bear to the world, but it is good news that must be lived out in our lives and in our life together. Racism tries to build walls between US and THEM; Christ breaks down the walls that divide us (Ephesians 2). That deconstructive work begins with our recognition of the ways in which racism taints our lives – consciously or unconsciously – and the ways in which it is experienced by those who are oppressed by it. On Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 7:00 pm at Staunton City Hall there is an opportunity for a “conversation on race and diversity” as local citizens “share their stories of what it has been like to live during segregation, school integration, and up to the present day.” Might you engage in that conversation or in another like it, and so begin  to identify those places where racism dwells in our midst, in our own lives, and so begin a process of repentance and healing toward a more beloved community!
 — February 18, 2019

   One of our Session goals for 2019 relates  to increased participation from all of you in the life and ministry of the church. Each of us is blessed with particular gifts to be used in God’s service; not all the gifts are the same which is a good thing because there are diverse needs to be met. Denying your gifts – the talents God has given you – is a rejection of God’s call to you as a disciple of Jesus! In the words of one of my seminary professors: Confess your weaknesses but profess your strengths. Acknowledge the talents God has given you and offer them in God’s service, for what seems eminently doable to you may seem impossible for someone else.

   With that call in mind, there is a new opportunity for those of you who have gifts for visiting with others. Last spring we offered three sessions on visitation – including some memorable examples of how NOT to visit; now we have an opportunity for you to use those gifts in service to God and our congregation. Covenant’s Visitation Ministry will be a ministry of presence – no great demands apart from sitting a spell to listen and talk with folks in our congregation who might enjoy such a visit from time to time. Visitors will be paired with folks so that there is an opportunity to get to know one another and identify shared interests and any needs or concerns that may arise. There will also be visitors who may be on call for a time to help Sarah and me with visits to folks in the hospital or at the time of death. This ministry is not intended to replace the work that Sarah and I do, but to expand and extend our ministry to folks in our congregation. There will be an organizing meeting on Sunday, February 24 immediately after worship for those who may be interested – no prior training is required! We need women and men, young and not-so-young all! Might this be God’s call to you to share the gift of your presence and patient ear with others in our congregation?
 — February 4, 2019


Each January the Session gathers for a one-day retreat to review where we’ve been over the past year, where we are, and where we are called to go in the year to come. We review progress on our long-range plan, assess how we did in meeting last year’s goals, and establish priorities for the year to come. Following discussion at our retreat on January 12, the Session adopted the following priorities to guide our work in 2019: ¨ Develop cross—congregational engagement in our ongoing societal need initiative ¨ Prepare for John’s sabbatical and support the staff and congregation through it ¨ Develop and implement a plan for revitalized and re-branded “lay leadership” to increase volunteer participation ¨ Be better environmental stewards In coming weeks there will be more information and commentary on each of these priorities, but for now, perhaps a brief overview of each is appropriate. ¨ We continue to explore opportunities to address the societal need that we identified two years ago: the impact of poverty on children. This spring we are working with the Boys and Girls Club and continue to look for new possibilities to involve more folks in the congregation. This is an important societal need for all of us to address!

¨ I will be on sabbatical from late April (after Easter) until mid-August. This will be my 2nd sabbatical since I arrived in 1995.

¨With Sarah on board and some additional part-time assistance to provide for pastoral needs, you will be in good hands in my absence! ¨ We need more folks to be involved in ministry. We need Sunday School teachers, kitchen help, Godly Play workers, ushers for worship, and a host of others to share their gifts in ministry together. WE are the church, and the WE is US! ¨ God has called us to be good stewards of God’s gifts. We note that we have not been especially good stewards of our environment – from our use of paper products and plastic to our management of heating, cooling, and lighting. This year we commit to being better stewards of the environment across the life of the church. 

We believe these are some of the things God is calling us to do in 2019 in addition to all the other good things that we do in worship and service and nurture of faith. Stay tuned and get involved – for we are the church together!
 — January 21, 2019


    It is a new year and with a new year come a host of New Year’s resolutions. If your list is anything like mine over these last years, the resolutions tend to look a lot alike with a tweak here or there, but nothing startlingly new. Might we need a new approach to those resolutions? This year, our daughter Emily suggested setting some goals for the year, rather than yet another list of things to resolve to do. The means toward meeting the goals might ebb, flow, and change over the year, based on experience or circumstance, but the goals would remain the same. Assessment and reassessment would provide opportunity for course corrections and fresh starts. There is thus a little more grace in living into those goals along the way this way.

   In thinking about her suggestion, I wondered: What might happen if a New Year’s resolution for each of us here at Covenant was “be a better disciple of Jesus”? What directions might that lead us – individually and as a community of Christ? It might mean re-engagement with the Bible for some and engagement with those in need for others. It might mean a rethinking of priorities or a re-imagining of possibilities. Perhaps a starting  point would be to consider Jesus’ expectations for his disciples and then assess what needs to change in your life to meet those    expectations. Such a resolution would not be a laundry list of holy things to do, but rather a holistic approach to faithful living – as disciples of Jesus Christ.  What would make you a better disciple of Jesus in 2019? How then might you pursue that goal in January of this new year?
 — January 7, 2019





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