The Best of the Best of the Rest by Mary Claire

We are told through advertisements, through family, through friends, “Don’t worry!” Be stress free. Give up self-doubt and stress. Live life successfully free. Now, if it’s an ad, then it will tell you to accomplish this through the product they are trying to sell. A shampoo commercial flashes a gorgeous model with luxurious hair telling, “You don’t have to do anything to worry about how your hair looks except buy our product! All will be taken care of!”

Friends and family tell us to relax through many activities. Hanging out with friends could mean grabbing a pizza, going hiking, watching a movie, going to dinner, kayak, fly fish, etc. The list goes on and on. Family has become about game nights, basketball games, cooking a meal together, or cleaning the house. We live in a world of “doing.” Even our activities that are supposed to help us relax are activities that we fill our lives with. Our schedules are busy and filled with activities that will improve us and help us to escape the anxieties of life.

Why do we need to escape?

What is so horrible about life that we need a movie or a game to detract from what’s happening? What is so stressful that we procrastinate on over and over again? Fear drives us to be busy and to fill our lives. Fear also drives us to be good at the things that stress us out. When I was in school, I felt this strongly. I was an overachiever. Getting an “A” meant “Alright,” a “B” meant “Bad,” a “C” was “Critical.” Anything below a “C” in any subject would’ve been the equivalent of a mental breakdown, even if I disliked the subject or wasn’t particularly good at it. In high school, the overachievers were the top fifty students and they were cutthroat. GPA’s measured class standing, and it would get down to .0001 between students. This could determine your place of 21st or 22nd in the class. It might end in tears, or worse not being accepted to your top college.

Overachieving is a symptom of being busy. As an overachiever, I know that I worry so much. I try to make my life look as easy as possible. I have had several people tell me how “effortless” my life looks and how successful I seem. I won’t lie, I’m often flattered by these “compliments.” They’re not really compliments. Why do I want my life to look like I’m not trying, like I’m not living it? So then when I’m compared to people who seem like they are, I win some sort of prize in the game of life? A measure of success has become an overwhelmingly busy yet stress free and effortless life. It seems like an oxymoron.

But why do we worry so much?

The more I see, the more I worry. When I fill my life with things, with ideas, and with desires, I worry more. Often, I can’t prioritize what’s important because it’s all important to me. This lack of prioritization keeps me spinning in all kinds of directions. The more we fill our lives with busyness, the more we have to think about, the more we try to be successful at busyness by balancing it. But it’s sort of like having a plate spinning on a stick for every activity we do. We worry for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that if we don’t do all these activities, we’re suddenly not enough. These activities become all important and consume our life. They define who we are. We feel that by dropping these actions, these “doing’s”, means dropping ourselves.

So, what happens when we stop spinning the plates?

They come crashing down, and we have to clean up the mess? What does it matter? Is that it? We stop doing these activities? Does the world end? Are millions of lives at risk? Do children become orphans? Is our lifetime achievement award given to someone else? Are we no longer the person whose name is on our birth certificate? No. We’re still the same person, maybe even more so now without all our distractions. Our over achievement and need to fill our lives is pointless. It doesn’t cement our love for people. Our actions of spending time with people are merely a simple expression of love. But like saying something over and over, it begins to lose its meaning if we do it so often, if we’re stressed when we say it. Often the more we say something, the less significance it seems to hold as people stop listening to something being repeated.

The truth is: We are not better than anyone else and filling our lives with things that make us feel that we are is false. Defining ourselves in a role is often a way to make ourselves feel secure, because when we strip that, what are we left with? I suppose you have to drop the plates to really find out.

A Good Story by Susan Schaller

We, humans, and, indeed, all of life, are interdependent – strands in a great web.  We cannot achieve independence until we recognize our true Selves, the connected Self, as opposed to the little screaming, fear-driven, drama-loving little self, the ego.

Our stories, myths, legends and shared expressions connect us, remind us of connections and expand awareness of connection.  We struggle to think of effective ways to turn not only to our friends, but those who distrust and dislike us, to recognize ourselves in everyone. Through our sharing and stories, through listening, we can connect, in spite of differences.  We must, in order to grow more life on this planet.

We are our stories. Every language carries a collection of stories–a culture–a unique perspective. Storytelling’s power to connect people also teaches us about ourselves. We must work toward an inclusive society by bringing together stories from many languages, cultures, and through different senses and media. Our work is sharing and making new stories out of every person’s story, to complete our own story and ourselves.

Yes, and good story telling is not rushed.  Good stories take time, not only in the making, but in the telling.  Pauses are music in storytelling.  Then there’s that “we” word.  Rushing around is not a good state to be in, to be with people, to listen and learn new stories. Today let us practice avoiding that modern disease of dizzybizzy – moving too quickly and trying too hard to do too much.   Recovery, reviving and re-creation involves slowing down, even stopping.  If we pause and breathe, we invite more connection and life.

Today I am beginning a new life.  Everyday we are given a new life.  We can live more fully than yesterday, more connected, more ourselves with and through others and their stories. When we break from an old habit, an old thought, when we become independent of our conditioning and past, we become free of bondage to a selfish pattern, becoming more open to others.  It is possible not to overeat, get drunk, ignore a friend or family member or zone out with a mouth-watering fantasy.

Today, I will remind myself to be present, look people in the eye and listen, be conscious of my eating, drinking, talking, seeing, and this day will be richer each time I remember not to be a slave to immediate gratification, freeing myself to hear others.  Today, I hope to enjoy a more independent me, free to grow more life.

Enjoy the fullness of this day.

Service as Worship

We often think of worship as what we do in church on Sunday morning. It involves a piano or a guitar or some sort of musical instrument. There will be singing and scripture. Sometimes, art might be involved in some way. Worship is a structured time. It is organized and does not happen outside of its allotted space.

People make this distinction as a way to separate the holy from the mundane. Our life and what we do is not holy, it is mundane. Holy is an other worldly experience. It is the brief experience of seeing a beautiful sunset or birds chirping in the early morning. It is meant to be a brief excess of breath, a meditation or a prayer that lasts thirty minutes. It is meant to end at some point. We cross back into the realm of the mundane. Reality is the frustration we feel at evening traffic or the experience of eating a meal. It is ironic that the moments that we call “reality” or “mundane” are the ones that we are least conscious of. The mundane world is the one we live into every day without thought. Holiness happens in the moments when we finally take notice, when we are aware. We finally notice how the birds chirp in the morning and how it fills us with something akin to the breath of life.

Our holy moments, our connection with God are ones that happen when we are intentionally connected and aware. So, why do we only associate these with church? Christ says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’ “ (Matthew 22: 37-40). These are the ways you lead a “good” life. The classic John 3:16 verse begins, “For God so loved the world….” It begins God loves the world. God loved all people in the world and still does. He loved the world to send his son to die for us. Is not a way to love God by treasuring what he loves most, the people in this world?

John 15 reads, “Greater Love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” But beyond friendship, what about our communities? The people who surround us on daily basis. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then I think we must treat this as an act of worship. Love to God is shown by how we love others. When you say you love God, how do you express it? Through rejoicing and singing. But what about worshiping by serving others? Christ’s life is a testament to serving others. Christ died for all.

Community Service and volunteering often have a false feeling, as if we’re truly working for others. Volunteering for others is helping others, but I would be lying if I said that it was completely for others. I feel better when I volunteer. I feel good about myself and I’m more aware of my community. I am intentionally working for others. It’s one of the few times I feel connected to God in a way that is active and both loves my neighbors and God. Service is the glue that holds communities together, and is only possible by making a conscious commitment to others.


Intentional with Each Other

Blackburn House Covenant 2015-2016

“We, the Blackburn House of 2015-16, are committed to unity and edification, sustainability, honesty, mutual care and giving, and the practices of silence and not taking ourselves so seriously. The structures which will enable us to aspire to this covenant are:


– Morning Prayer begins at 7:30 am Mon-Thurs which includes coming into silence, Lectio Divina followed by an extended period of silence in which one can pray silently or out loud, The Lord’s Prayer and a hymn. The leader chooses the text for the prayer and may also choose

another creative format of their own. We honor silence a full five minutes after prayer.

– Every morning, including days without morning prayer, we honor silence until 8 am.

– Optional 5 pm meditation in the chapel every day.

– Evening Prayer at 8 pm Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday includes silent prayer together contemplating the prayer list with verbal intercessions if one is so moved.

– Meals include growing (when possible), preparing, and eating food together at least 4x a week (Mon, Wed, Thurs dinner and Sunday lunch). Monday and Thursday are simple meals (rice & beans, pasta) unless one is so moved to cook something special. Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon are community hospitality meals.

– Meal prayer includes a moment of silence in gratitude, followed by a short prayer led by the cook.

– Monday meal is shared in silence.

– Those who did not cook clean up after meals.

– No delegated weekly chores, daily chores are done on a volunteer basis.

– House Cleaning will be held on the first Saturday of every month around 1 pm.

– Community “check-in” happens every Sunday at 4 pm including Minimalist Monday Mutual Mission and CAR.

– Wednesday and Sunday meals are concluded with expressions of gratitude.

– We share most groceries, creating a list every week and dividing the bill by 3.”


It seems as we begin so many projects, we have barely had time to focus on what has drawn us all to Blackburn House in the first place. This covenant was founded between Ingrid, Susan, and I. It was what will define us for our remaining year at Blackburn House. The act of being intentional with a group of people is never an easy feat. To you, these rules might seem arbitrary or unimportant, but it is important to us. It is important to us, because we deliberated over them together.

I have never lived in an intentional community. I lived with other people, but we never hashed out rules or made a statement of purpose. This process has felt strange and foreign to me. I feel like I’ve made a commitment to something precious. We call it a covenant, a sacred promise we have made with God. We keep that promise by carrying it out with the people we live with. It feels holy. It is holy.

And yet, we laughed the entire time we were creating this. We joked about adding silly rules such as, “We must include black beans in every meal we cook in some way.” There wasn’t a time that it felt holy or spiritual of how we normally treat something called a “Covenant.” Ingrid kept telling us, “Come on, guys. We have to focus.” This document seems very lofty, but it’s not in many ways. The mundane nature of buying groceries together or eating together are actions families do every day. It’s nothing special. It is only special because we have decided together to do this, to shoot for ideals that may never be perfected, and that we are able to create something important out of it. It is something that crosses both the mundane and the spiritual. We are living together and committing ourselves to these rules because we are saying, “We matter to each other,” and this is how we show it. We are searching for God in our daily living, together.

As we continue these practices, it makes me want to search deeper for neighbors. I have the neighbors who I live with and the neighbors who I live next to. People in my community who I want to live intentionally for. I believe that’s why the Todd Listening Project is important. I want to know the people in my community, so that I can support them as Ingrid and Susan support me. I find glimpses of God through other people. I see God in Ingrid. I see God in Susan. I see God in Todd, and I want to see more.

TLP Launch Speech by Brandon Wrencher

When I would ask about the community when I first arrived in Todd a few years ago to pastor this church and direct Blackburn House, almost always I heard about stories of the “good ole days” that have gone. Many long-time Toddites connected with the story of the booming town of Todd from the early 20th century when Boone and West Jefferson were afterthoughts, churches were full, businesses were lucrative and community hubs, farms were plush with fruit and support, families were a web of networks and connections, and people knew their neighbors and their neighbors’ neighbors. Other Todd residents remember a more recent story of Todd from the 80s and 90s: a General Store at the center of community life with the men of the community gathered around the wood stove, telling stories and drinking their free cup of coffee. For others, there was no or little connection to these nostalgic stories. The story they’d tell is about retirement, a big beautiful home with nice scenery, and being able to live relatively unbothered. Many residents’ story about Todd is really a story about Boone or West Jefferson. Todd is just the place where they sleep. You want to know about the story of Todd? It depends on who you ask. Each person, each organization, each church, each business has a different story to tell. But diversity becomes problematic when it masks a common story.

In that first year I felt alone as a new resident, pastor and community organizer to the community. I didn’t sense a common story. The isolating story I was connected with was our little congregation that was fighting a good fight to stay alive and engaged, but still struggling to keep 10-15 folks regularly committed to the church. But as I shook more hands, ate at more community potlucks, got to know more poor folks, went to more non-church community meetings, ate and shopped at more local businesses, went on more morning walks with locals, ate more elderly folks’ pound cake and fudge, I discovered that many other Todd residents were disconnected, that businesses were suffering, that other organizations and churches lacked participation. My little church’s story wasn’t just ours.

So about year ago I started gathering key community folks together to start a conversation, do some training, and begin strategizing the Todd Listening Project. Communication and connection was the clear issue. One of our community leaders, Denny Norris, said it best during our volunteer training at the TLP Launch: “People aren’t that different…But you can’t get to a caring [community] unless we talk to each other.”

The Todd Listening Project is very significant for our little rural community. Yes, because it will increase projects, initiatives and ideas. Even more because it will increase the quality of relationships, the very social and economic fabric of our town.

There is a story about Todd that makes the grapevine news: Todd is dying, Todd is declining. It’s the story I was told before I decided to come here. It’s a story common in many rural communities.

This story is rooted in fear, in the buffet line of dreams and ideals of the community that is gone. But is this the story we have to believe? The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is relevant: “Those who love their dream of … community more than they love the …. community itself become destroyers of that … community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

The Todd Listening Project is about telling another story about our community. The story of fear is destructive. This project is about building trust again, about believing again in a fresh story of our community that is told and lived by the people next door to us and up the street, by the people that are actually here, ALL OF THEM. Through TLP we long for a story worth trusting in again, worth believing in, worth committing to, worth joining!

January 30 Todd Listening Project Launch

Saturday January 30 marked the long-awaited launch of the Todd Listening Project.

The Todd Listening Project (TLP) is an initiative started by Todd residents and organizations to connect more of the Todd community through listening—listening to residents naming their hopes and dreams and watching for the twinkle in their eye when they talk about what they love. It might not sound like front porch conversation, but it’s a start.

In early 2015, a group began meeting to discuss what they could do to better serve their community and how groups like TCPO, Ruritan, area churches, and businesses could engage a wider “cross section” of Todd like they used to. All of us had heard the stories of “how things used to be” and how “it’s just now the same these days.” Rocking chairs sit empty and we see the same folks at every event in the park.   The church serves a spaghetti dinner but new families don’t come. Todd surely had seen “better days,” yet the group believed better days would come again if we did things differently, with more humility and less assumptions, if we listened before we spoke.

Saturday morning, 24 volunteers from Todd and Boone trickled into Blackburn’s Chapel to be trained as “listeners” for the Todd Listening Project. By 12:30 they’d be going door to door on nine different Todd roads to ask residents questions about what they want to see happen in our community and if they’d be willing to work with others to see that those ideas bear fruit.

Was training really necessary? Shouldn’t talking to our neighbors be easy? Well, a person’s front porch can be uncharted territory for community members nowadays. Volunteers have asked me, “What if they don’t want to be bothered?” That is a fair assumption, but from what I’ve experience, most people want to be connected with others and would accommodate, if not love, a day-visit from someone—even if they are a stranger.

But even if talking to neighbors comes easy for volunteers, listening is another whole ball game. I wanted to train volunteers to become keen listeners—how to look out for the moment when someone “lights up” in a conversation or how to re-direct the conversation if someone seems disinterested in the TLP.

In addition to gaining or rediscovering listening skills, volunteers needed to be familiar with the TLP survey that we use for every resident interview. So during the training on Saturday morning, volunteers got into teams of Todd and non-Todd residents and practiced using the survey by interviewing the Todd resident in their team. So before they left the Chapel, we already had several interviews done.

By 2:30, volunteer listening teams made their way back to Blackburn’s Chapel, in high spirits, bubbling with story after story of inspiring interviews with Todd residents. Elaine Hall, pastor of Bethelview United Methodist Church shared that the first and only house they went to had two kids so her kids played with them as she and her husband interviewed the parents.

In that moment, I couldn’t help but feel God’s presence in this project. Just when a family is worried about how well they’ll be able to go door to door with their two kids in tow, they end up in the perfect place, feeling at ease. Plus, the family they met just moved here and really didn’t know anyone around Todd. Now they do.

Pastor Brandon Wrencher shared that he got to pray with a resident spontaneously when the man shared a health concern with him, in this man’s home. Prayer is not a scripted piece of the TLP, but the Holy Spirit moves through us in unexpected and life-giving ways when we let our faith speak in our work. At one point, life-long Todd resident Denny Norris looked around the room full of volunteers and said he couldn’t believe how many people had come to help us—especially so many young people.

The stories didn’t stop there. When everyone was back, teams had to condense each interview to three take-away points on an index card for each person they met: what are their gifts of “the hand, the head, and the heart?” Looking at the cards, I saw things like mentorship, gardening, compassionate, office administration, teacher, house painting…the list goes on.

Further into their debriefing of the experience, each team produced a quote or story from one of their interviews that spoke to the essence of the Todd Listening Project. They wrote the quotes on large pieces of paper for all to see. One paper read, “It’s hard to know what’s happening in the community when you don’t know anybody.” Another read, “One person can’t do everything but maybe everyone could do a little.”

Proud of the words of their neighbors, volunteers hung the quotes on the walls of Blackburn’s Chapel for the press conference at 4pm.

It had been a long day for everyone involved but it wasn’t over. Some of the volunteers left and some stuck around. New guests made their way into the Chapel, curious about what all the TLP hype was about and why Todd was in the newspaper earlier that week. To their surprise, their friend or their neighbor stood at the podium explaining why they were involved with the Todd listening Project and why the rest of the community should stand up with them.

Pete Richle, a retired ASU Professor and Todd homeowner in the audience put it this way, following the press conference:

“I’ve been thinking about the trains that used to come here. I hear a new kind train now. And the community is helping other community members get on board. “

By Jaimie McGirt



MLK Day of Service

11 a.m. Monday Morning January 18, 2016

People began to trickle in to the chapel for the Monday service. Familiar and unfamiliar faces had come to Blackburn’s Chapel UMC to celebrate MLK Day. We began late because of people coming in. It was surprising that so many people showed up at all considering the extreme cold on Monday. The Blackburn House Staff had been running around earlier to make sure everything was in place for the day.

The thought that kept running in my head was, What if no one shows? What will we do? But fortunately, a few people toughed out the cold in dedication to the day. The service began as a traditional church service. In honor of Dr. King, we were putting together a worship service that reflected the struggle and character of the civil rights movement.

The service was fine, not grand. I left during the sermon because Phillip, a very loud and rambunctious two year old, was not interested in sitting through Dad’s (Pastor Brandon Wrencher’s) sermon. We came back up to listen to Mom and Ingrid sing gospel songs, and that perhaps is when it happened.

Perhaps I missed something during the sermon, but when I came back to the service, people were excited. You could feel the energy. Erica, Ingrid, and Matt were playing instruments and singing Gospel Freedom Songs. People were into it. Hands were clapping and bodies were moving. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Methodist church service in rural Appalachia, but it’s a rare sight to see. People will sit down and stand up like puppets. Clapping is often awkward. It’s as if people often feel uncomfortable inside of church to make any sort of noise, that doing so would disturb God. But something happened with those songs. I don’t know if Ingrid, Erica, and Matt were at their best in that moment, but people felt it. The music was beautiful, and it was made more beautiful by the fact that everyone was apart of the experience. People were into it. Clapping happened. I don’t know if I can stress the clapping enough because that does not happen often in the walls of a Methodist church.

When Brandon stood to give the benediction, I could feel more energy than a typical church Sunday. That benediction came with the knowledge that we were there to serve our community. We were there for Todd. After lunch, we divided into three teams. Some went to chop firewood for seniors in the area, others went to Elkland Art Center to volunteer, and others went door to door surveying neighbors in Todd for the Todd Listening Project (TLP). I was on the TLP team. The excitement in the air was contagious.

At the end of the day, we all came back, satisfied, with a full day’s work under us. We sat together and told each other of how we had served that day and what our highlights were. I think for me, the highlight was the singing. I loved singing the Gospel Freedom songs, because it was the beginning of the feeling of cooperation, of believing in serving our community together. Whether or not we were Christians, we had the intent to serve Todd, and I believe that we did. I hope that we don’t stop there. I hope that service does not end on MLK day. One man has already offered his wood splitter for future firewood cutting. I think we’re off to a good start in serving our community.

If you’re reading this, I encourage you to look at our service opportunities at Blackburn House. We are still looking for tutors for our Green Valley Tutoring Program and for the Todd Listening Project. I encourage you to e-mail us at if you’re interested!

Matt Gundlach on congas, Erica Wrencher singing, and Ingrid Forsyth on piano-MLK Service Day 2016.