Some artists work on a grand scale.  But others work on a small scale, or even on a miniature scale, producing work that is every bit as skilled, intricate, and beautiful as much larger works. In the pre-photography days, being able to to paint small portraits was a highly valued skill.  Portrait miniatures were about the size of our smallest school photos, and they could be worn as jewelry.  They were usually watercolors painted with tiny brushes on ivory.  Some artists specialized in portrait miniatures.  The actual size of this portrait is about 1 5/8″ x 1 7/8″.  (Portrait of Alice Walker by her father Horatio Walker, ca. 1891.)

People who love small church ministry are like the portrait miniaturists.  It takes just as much skill and creativity as working on a larger scale, and the results are beautiful with the fruits of lives made better and filled with love.  Unlike the large paintings that dominate museum galleries and can be seen from a distance, you have to get close to portrait miniatures to truly see them and appreciate them.  They are tiny treasures.  We small church folk appreciate it when someone comes in close enough to see what the Spirit of Jesus is doing among us and recognize the gospel treasure there.


One of my most-used paintbrushes.

The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, has a large collection of portrait miniatures.  Here is a link to a video about how these tiny treasures are made.  You can also view the collection online.


XMSC_151Over the last few months my congregation and I have been talking about our life together as a kind of monastic community with Jesus at the center.  I wrote this article to help stimulate discussion:

They still print Christmas cards showing small, light-filled church buildings looking inviting in the winter snow.  These images still capture some people’s imaginations momentarily.  Perhaps they remember a similar spot that was dear to them in their childhood.  The thought, “How lovely!” flashes through their mind.  But that’s often where the imagination stops.  They don’t imagine calling such a place home now.

In the light of day, real life little churches in the wildwood seem to have little to offer with their small communities of believers, simple buildings, humble worship, and slower pace.  What can they offer that is excellent and life-enriching? 

It’s true that some small congregations—and larger ones, too, for that matter—are not healthy.  Whatever its size a church isn’t healthy if it’s only about serving self and what the insiders want, or if it’s a service club wearing religious clothing.  It’s not healthy if it’s a place where people are primarily interested in wielding power and controlling others.

But other small churches in the vale are healthy, and what they offer is a way of life, a way of being together in community with Jesus at the center.  They are trying to practice the way of Jesus with one another and with the neighborhood and world around them.  They are trying to become like him.  They want to help others see Christ and experience his healing love and salvation.

Healthy small churches can be a type of monastic community, complete with a rule of faith and practice.  Whether it’s expressed explicitly or not, the people see themselves in sacred covenant with each other.  These congregations resemble the ancient Celtic monasteries that were more like a small village.  Celtic monastic communities included single men and women, which is what we typically think of when we imagine a monastery, but they also included couples, and families with children.  Celtic monasteries were intergenerational.  Hospitality was one of their highest values.  Strangers were honored and welcomed to spend time with the community.  The guest house was one of the most sacred places in the village. Sometimes strangers found the way of life in the community so welcoming and so winsome that they stayed and eventually became believers (1).

The small congregation I serve that calls a little reddish-brown church building home is a monastic community with Jesus at its heart.  Morton Presbyterian Church has formed generations of loving, serving, giving people who have taken the blessings of Jesus Christ far and wide.

With a huge and tender heart, Morton Church very definitely offers a way of life, and we have a number of spiritual practices that are distinctive.  Here are some of the norms of life and practice at Morton.  We do not practice them all perfectly, but we are growing into them.

  • Our boundaries are elastic.  The word “us” is very elastic.  People are warmly included and welcomed to walk with us as long as they need to and want to whether they choose to “formally join” or not.
  • The family of our family is our family.  This practice is apparent, for example, when the congregation offers tender care and hosts funerals for people who have never been in the church, and perhaps have never been in any church, just because they and their families need it.  Another example is helping people in the extended family and community celebrate milestones with graduation lunches and baby showers.
  • We show up for one another, whether it’s a funeral for a relative or a child’s school program.
  • Prayer bathes everything.  For us, prayer is a way to practice love.
  • Gratitude is a central practice.  The congregation deliberately counts its blessings, noticing what is good and beautiful, noble and just, and gives thanks.  Prayer concern times are filled with thanksgivings as much as naming needs.
  • Children are cherished.  They are seen as young disciples.  Wherever possible they learn to serve by serving alongside faith-filled adults.  Adults go out of their way to reach out to other people’s children, not just their own.  Older and younger people spend time together.
  • We tell and retell the scripture stories, aiming to internalize them so that they come to mind when we are discerning what to do in the present.
  • Simplicity is a way of life.  Simplicity is practiced in many ways.  Our worship is simple.  Our organizational structure is simple.  Our church house is simple, yet beautiful.
  • Group singing is a practice that joins our hearts in fellowship.
  • Stewardship means caring well for all that God has entrusted to us.
  • Breaking bread together is a priority, and so is seeing to it that people get nourishment when they are sick or stressed.

We find these practices and more to be life-giving.  Walking together with Jesus in this way greatly enriches our lives.  A big question for us is, “So how do we share this way of life?”

I have read article after article and book after book expressing the deep hunger of people of all ages in our culture for loving, authentic community.  Loneliness is profound, and people long to be known and loved as the people they really are.  Yes, that includes young people, who do not need more of the noise, busy-ness, chaos, and stress that so often characterize daily life in this age.  Young pastor Laurie Lyter Bright, for example, speaks of the millennial generation’s longing for deep relationships across generational lines.  “Millennials want to know and be known,” she writes (2).  “They want to choose and be chosen into a family in the fulness of their identity.  Is the church ready for that?”

Are we? A healthy small church certainly has the potential to be that family.  How does a small monastic community like ours take our tenderhearted hospitality where the people are, where they can experience it and experience Christ’s love?  How can we make the guest house, the sacred space of hospitality mobile and visible out in the world?  How do we share Jesus pure and simple without seeing people primarily as potential consumers of programs, attendance builders, and offering-givers?

The light inside the little church in the wildwood is lovely indeed.  But imagine another Christmas card showing the people spilling out of the church, carrying the light through the darkness to all kinds of people in all kinds of places.  It would in fact be a better representation of the meaning of Christmas.


1 For a discussion of life inside a Celtic monastery, see George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), Chapter 2.

2 Laurie Lyter Bright, Vagabonding: In Defense and Praise of Millennial Faith (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018), p. 61.

For more about children in small churches, see this post, Give a Small Church the Chance to Nurture Your Children.


Pa lifts Laura, 1994

In a post entitled An Army of Grandparents, Christian educator Christina Embree cites studies showing that grandparents have a strong influence over their grandchildren’s faith development, an influence second only to the children’s parents.  In some cases that influence actually increases with time.  She writes:

“I learned that if grandparents talked about their faith with their grandchildren face-to-face more than once a week OR went on family vacations with their grandchildren once a year that those grandchildren had a significantly higher chance of remaining in the faith than those who did not and led to an increase in grandchildren talking with others about faith struggles in their life.

I learned that ‘when grandparents consistently modeled their faith, their grandchildren tend[ed] to share that faith.'”

Whether we have grandchildren of our own or not, we should not underestimate the power of simple, everyday actions like saying “Hey!” to children when we see them, reading together, talking about things that matter, and taking them along when we share God’s love with others.

If you are looking for good books and activities to nurture your children’s and grandchildren’s faith, here are a few resources:

Books to read:

The mission of Sparkhouse Family is to support faith development in families.  They have a growing catalog of Bible story books, other books, and videos you can enjoy with your children and grandchildren.  Our church’s Sunday School teachers are adapting some of them for use on Sunday mornings with our children’s class.  They also have a blog you can subscribe to for ideas, including Bible reading plans.  Each month of readings has a theme.  Click here to subscribe to the blog, and here to subscribe to monthly Bible reading plans.  Look in the sidebar for categories of posts: parenting, faith resources, family freebies, things we love, and news.  Sparkhouse Family books include titles like Search and Find in the Bible, which resembles the hidden picture pages in children’s magazines, Spark Devotions for Kids, and Frolic First Bible,which makes a nice baby gift.

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers has published many wonderful titles for children, including one of my all-time favorites, Psalms for Young Children. Click here for my review of this book.

You can access these materials from the publishers’ web sites and from booksellers, and you may be able to find some in your local or church library.

Pockets Magazine is published by Upper Room Ministries of the United Methodist Church.  It is aimed at children ages 6-12.  Eleven issues each year deliver “full-color photos, stories, poems, games, mission-focused activities, daily scripture readings, non-fiction features, and contributions from children who read the magazine.”

Activities to share:

Flame Creative Children’s Ministry is a blog with lots of activity ideas using simple materials.  For example, here is a meal time grace place mat  with prayer reminders that you can make.

Music to listen to:

Glory to God: Hymns and Songs for Children and Families. See my review here.  You can order the CD here.  You can also download it from iTunes.  Search iTunes under “Nassau Presbyterian Church.”  I love the natural sound of acoustic instruments, and the voices of singers of all ages on this CD, and the fact that it includes music we sing during worship.

Shine Early Childhood Music CD. This CD comes from the Shine Curriculum of the Mennonite Church.  Click on the title to hear some samples, and to order.

CDs from Making Music Praying Twice.  I can’t recommend these highly enough.  I have thoroughly enjoyed using these with children.  Click here to read about how we have used these in our church to nurture young children.



An Army of Grandparents Unleashed

Do Broken People Matter? is a heartfelt and challenging post from Joshua Wilkey on his blog This Appalachian Life.  Joshua grew up in Appalachia, and knows about the suffering there from the inside.  He now teaches history at Brevard College. A big part of his life’s mission is to help people understand this beautiful, beloved, struggling American region, and especially its long struggle with poverty.  He wants to join with others in seeking solutions to Appalachia’s problems that truly respect the people who live there.

In this particular post Joshua tells some of his mother’s story, about the hard, dead-end jobs that broke her health and the mental illness and drug addictions that compounded the brokenness.  The few resources that were available to address her physical and mental health were totally inadequate.  She died on her fifty-fifth birthday.

Mental healthcare is a crying need in Appalachia and across America.  Joshua points out that if we are to have any hope of addressing the plague of drug addiction, the mental health resources must be there.  However, whether it’s poisoned water in Flint, Michigan (a problem that is ongoing) or drug overdoses in rural America, he writes, “It seems, at least on the national level, that no one is interested in treating crises in impoverished communities with the same urgency as crises in middle-class America.”  Often poor people are written off as trashy people who make trashy choices.  People with addictions are written off as low-level criminals.

Joshua’s writings and others compel me to look into my heart of hearts.  Do I really believe that all lives matter, or is the truth that I believe some lives matter less than others? Do I really believe that God loves and relentlessly seeks each one like a shepherd who won’t be satisfied until all are safely in the fold?  Do I believe that all lives are precious and worth the effort of caring?

I can’t help thinking of the mantra of the pigs who are the ruling elites in George Orwell’s book Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  Is a similar sentiment operating in my heart?

Do people whose brokenness and mess cannot be hidden matter?  Jesus certainly thought so.

In an article entitled Choosing Church Marilyn McEntyre reflects on some reasons to consider becoming part of the life of a congregation.  But first she suggests several good reasons for avoiding some churches:

  • “Some churches are clubby and exclusionary.”
  • Some offer easy, oversimplified answers.
  • Some churches try (unsuccessfully) to imitate the language, music, and style of popular culture.  (Another way to put that is that they are trying to be something that they are not.  As many writers such as Rachel Held Evans have noted, young people can smell inauthenticity a mile a way.)
  • Some churches are predictable, lukewarm, and boring.
  • Some churches are partisan.  They support particular political candidates and tell people how to vote.

Now on to some good reasons for checking out church and giving church a chance:

  • “A healthy church will help you get over yourself.”  The church invites us into a story that is bigger than we are.
  • A healthy church calls us to confession, to acknowledge guilt and experience forgiveness.
  • A healthy church calls us to live according to the norms of the kingdom of God instead of the norms of the culture around us.
  • A healthy church gives us access to words and music that address the experience of life, connect us with the way of God and point us to the future.
  • A healthy church is a place to experience the presence of God.

There’s more in depth discussion of all of these in the article.  Check it out.



Prayerful hands3

Prayerful hands.

John and Mimi

My husband, John, and his grandmother, Blanche Todd

I often think about how faith is transmitted across generations.  Last night I heard a story about the power of shared faith across generations.  I was listening to a book entitled The Spiritual Child, by Lisa Miller.  It’s about the neuropsychology of spirituality, and how nurturing children’s innate capacity for spirituality helps them thrive.  The book is very repetitive and a bit sleep-inducing, and I am still listening for practical applications.  However, this story was striking.

The author describes what happened one Sunday morning aboard the New York City subway.  When she boarded, she saw that the passengers were crowded at one end of the car.  At the other end of the car was a disheveled man clutching a bag of fast food, brandishing a piece of chicken at the other passengers and yelling, “Hey!  You want to sit with me?  You want some of this lunch?”  The author took an empty seat across the aisle from the man.  At every subway stop the man issued the same invitation as people boarded.

At one stop an elegant older woman boarded with a young girl, about eight years old.  They appeared to be a grandmother and granddaughter.  They were beautifully dressed for a church service.  When the man saw them, he issued his invitation: “Hey!  You want to sit with me?”  The grandmother and granddaughter looked at each other, nodded, and sat down right next to the man, looking into his face.  “Thank you,” they said in unison to him.  The man and all the passengers were shocked.  “Do you want some?” he bellowed as he offered his chicken.  They replied, “No, thank you,” and again looked at each other.  He asked again, in a calmer voice, and they patiently replied with kind voices, “No, thank you.”  This was repeated a few times, and each time, the man grew calmer and calmer, until he was quiet. The grandmother and granddaughter looked at each other with understanding and agreement.

It was clear to the author that the grandmother and granddaughter had a shared spirituality.  The look that passed between them, which the author calls “the nod” was a sign of something deeply shared.  It was a sign of spiritual direction and values taught and received in a loving relationship between an elder and someone younger. The author felt like she was witnessing the passing of a sacred torch.

My hunch is that this granddaughter had accompanied her grandmother and  observed her kind manner and respect for others many times before.  And soon this way became a part of who the granddaughter was, too.  The author went on to point that out that the strength of this kind of connection across generations makes a big difference as children learn to live with the ups and downs of life.  Among its blessings are a sense of security and resiliency.

I give thanks to God for my grandmother and all the elders in my life who gave this gift to me.  I’m still looking for ways to pass that sacred torch on.

Morton Christmas 2

Singing Christmas songs together.

It used to be that everyone, or almost everyone, sang regularly, in church and at community gatherings.  Group singing has become an endangered species even in the church.  Encouraging everyone to sing, from our infant saints to our oldest saints, is one of my missions.

In his post Everyone Can Sing: How to Stop the Non-Singer Epidemic in Our Churches, Jonathan Aigner talks about remedying that situation.  One of Aigner’s most important points is to use music in worship that is suitable for group singing, i.e. doesn’t require a soloist’s interpretation.  It’s singable by ordinary people with ordinary voices.  He is critical of church music that he views as too performance-oriented.  He gets some pushback about that and other points in the comments.

At any rate, I’m going to keep working on this.  I really believe that everyone can make music, and we learn to do it in the same way we learn to talk, by listening and giving it a try, with lots of encouragement from someone who cares about us.

Here are some of my earlier posts on making music:

Music for Jesus’ Little Friends.

Music for Jesus’ Youngest Disciples.

The Blessings of a Hymn Book.