How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
--Psalm 13:1 NRSV
This Sunday, I’ll be preaching on the strange story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Tradition seems to have a problem with the idea that a human being could physically wrestle with the creator of the universe, so the story is often described as Jacob wrestling an angel. Yet, when the match is over, Jacob names the site Peniel “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
It is a vivid image, the idea of a person striving with God. Yet, anyone who has had an honest journey of faith probably will admit to times of struggle, times when God seemed distant or inscrutable. Especially in times of tragedy when we must wrestle with the hardest questions of why God allows pain to come to people who don’t deserve it, most sane people have some questions about whether this whole God-thing is all its cracked up to be.
At different times along my journey, I’ve heard preachers and teachers extol “unshakeable faith” or a type of “certainty” that flies in the face of reason and experience. Whenever I meet someone who doesn’t have any doubts about what they believe, I want to get as far away from them as possible. Religious people without any doubts are dangerous people. For one thing, they lack humility, and for another thing they can justify anything no matter how abhorrent as God’s will. I think a healthy amount of doubt is a good thing for a humble faith.
Frederick Buechner says this about doubt in his book Whistling in the Dark: A Seeker’s ABC:
Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.
If we stick with it, I’m convinced our times of wrestling with God—working through our questions and doubts—can lead us to a deeper understanding of what it means to be connected to God. A healthy kind of doubting paradoxically can lead us to a stronger faith.
I’ve been in Christian settings where doubts about the party line were seen as weakness, if not sin, but I’ve been in other Christian settings where doubt was the only thing valued. The lack of doubt and uncertainty can lead to spiritual abuse, but when doubt becomes cynicism a different kind of abuse can occur, those who hold convictions are belittled and condemned. There’s not much difference between a fervent Christian who uses religion to hurt others, and a more “enlightened” Christian who hurts others without resorting to religious justification. Neither one operates with a healthy mixture of faith and doubt.
Unhealthy doubt doesn’t have to be abusive; it can simply be the type of cynicism that never allows for trust or risk. The cynical kind of doubt can be little more than a defense mechanism to guard against ever investing oneself in relationships, improving the world or trusting God. United Church of Christ minister and author Tony Robinson has this to say about the kind of doubt which is suspect:
This doubt is an unwillingness to make a commitment and to take a risk in faith. It is never really knowing where one stands or taking a stand. It makes faith a kind of on- again/off-again thing. At least sometimes, it is a good thing to doubt our doubts. It is a good thing to take the risk of trusting wholly and of surrendering ourselves without reservation to God’s care.
How do we know the difference between the kind of doubting which is healthy and the kind of doubt which is unhealthy? There is no easy answer. I tend to believe each of us goes too far one way or the other at times on our spiritual journeys. The only thing I know to do is hold on, keep wrestling with God, don’t let go of the struggle. Jacob refused to let go of God in his wrestling match and for his efforts he received a new name and a blessing, even though he also walked with a limp afterward. The struggles of faith may leave us bruised, but the false certainties of unreflective faith and cynicism leave us in much worse condition.
We will talk more about the struggles of faith Sunday morning.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
The Myth of Scarcity
And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
--Philippians 4:19 NRSV
If forced to pick the greatest threat to American Christianity today, I would say it is the myth of scarcity. My whole career in ministry I have worked at churches made up of members who were middle class and above. Despite their members' combined net worth being substantial almost every board or council meeting was spent discussing what the church didn’t have enough of. (No wonder nominating committees can't fill seats on boards!) The two numbers that mattered most were not enough members and not enough money. For a religion supposedly (as Hebrews puts it) “confident in what we hope for and assured about what we cannot see,” I’ve rarely known a church leader who was focused on anything else but the number of “butts in the pews” and the weekly offering. The American church is addicted to what it can see and touch regardless of what it says about faith.
Every church I’ve served at has its faithful older members who remember the “glory days” of growing budgets, building projects and packed church services. Compared to those days the present looks bleak. Yet, back in those days were churchgoers any more faithful? The post-war boom in population, expanding economy and expansion of the suburbs combined with a culture that gave social cache to going to church (irregardless of whether or not people actually followed Jesus) meant church growth was inevitable, at least until it wasn’t. There was no need to trust God back then to provide what was needed, because our culture did it all for us. One did not need to have “assurance of what we cannot see,” because what could be seen was plenty. I’m unconvinced faith had much to do with the success of churches in the “glory days.”
Don’t get me wrong about what I mean when I talk about faith and trusting God. I’m not a proponent of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” I don’t believe in “name it and claim it” theology, and I don’t think it’s God’s will for believers to be rich. I also don’t believe churches should be irresponsible with. No, what I believe in is trusting God already has given us everything we need to accomplish what God wishes to happen.
Just once, I’d love to hear a church leader stand up during the annual stewardship drive and make a budget based on what they believe God wishes a church to do and be rather than on annual receipts that keep declining year after year. I believe if churches actually spent time discerning who God wanted them to be and what God wanted them to do before they made a budget, they might practice trusting God will provide what is needed to accomplish those things.
I am not holding my breath for such a moment. Church folks are just like everybody else-- bombarded constantly by messages saying they do not have enough for what they need to be happy, enough to protect themselves, enough things to buy at Costco, enough to compare with their neighbors. A column by me in a church newsletter won’t counter that storm of scarcity messaging. Only God can transform people enough to live with an abundance mindset.
It’s not like God’s abundance is difficult to find. Even a cursory glance at scripture or a rudimentary understanding of Christian practice, should give Christians at least an inkling of the abundance God offers. Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes eloquently about this:
The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things — nothing can separate us from God. What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.
As a culture, we love watching Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year and we hear Jacob Marley’s warning to Scrooge about being miserly. “I wear the chain I forged in life,” the ghost of Marley cries. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard, and of my own free will.” Marley’s eternal punishment doesn’t exactly line up with scripture, but we get the point of him chained to his accounting ledgers. We hear Marley, but we identify with the poor Cratchet family and never with Scrooge. Meanwhile, the chains of our materialism, our belief in scarcity, our faith in never having enough, entrap us in this life, if not the next. God’s abundance offers freedom from our chains of scarcity.
In this pandemic, where the economic needs in our culture have been revealed in all their starkness, we get to ask, “Are families going hungry because there isn’t enough food in the world?” The answer is clearly no. “Are people without jobs because there isn’t enough money in the world?” The answer is likewise no. “Are people lacking healthcare because there aren’t enough resources in the world?” Once again, no. “Are churches closing because there aren’t enough people in the world who want to connect with God?” No.
Even though the answers to some of these questions involve some very complex and systemic issues, what they all boil down to is an unwillingness to trust in God’s abundance, that there is enough for all, that if other people get what they need I will still get what I need.
Over recent months, the media has been full of stories of people’s inspiring generosity. A Maryland teen learned woodworking in order to sell his pieces to help homeless families. Chefs around the country are holding online bake sales to feed the hungry. When people trust that they have enough to share with others, their generosity is contagious. We all know how good it feels to give away what we have to help others, but our giving is a rare experiment rather than a lifestyle.
Maybe this belief in scarcity is understandable for people who believe in “the law of supply and demand” more than the law of loving one’s neighbor. Surely, the scarcity mindset makes sense for people who believe in the Gospel of Ben Franklin “God helps those who help themselves” more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ who taught us not to worry because “God’s eye is on the sparrow.” But isn’t it reasonable to think people who claim to actually believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ might put their faith in God before they put their trust in what their paystub says, their address reveals, and their garages contain?
I don’t know what the future of Park Hill Christian Church will be, but I do believe any future worth having will come through the people who make it up being freed from the myth of scarcity.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present,
nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
--Romans 8:38-39 NRSV
On Sunday, I preached a sermon on Romans chapter 8. It’s one of my favorite passages of scripture. Its promise that nothing shall separate us from the love of God, not even death, is one I read at bedsides and gravesides. Its words comfort me in my moments of shame and doubt.
As I shared Sunday, in my decades of ministry, I have found that most people aren’t too afraid of the things on Paul’s list (with the exception of death) separating them from God’s love. No, what they are really afraid of is that their own failures, mistakes and hurtful actions are what set them outside the boundaries of God’s love.
What would American Christianity be if it didn’t have shame to heap on people? For a religion that is supposedly about a God who will give anything to be in relationship with us, American Christians sure spend a lot of time talking about how far away we are from God and God from us. Without people being motivated out of shame, I suspect most American churches would have to close their doors.
If one is at all honest, we all have secret places deep inside ourselves where we carry our shame. We keep those places secret, because we suspect deep down if anyone knew what we know about ourselves they could never love us. Frederick Buechner says these secrets create “the central paradox of our condition — that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
This desire to be known combined with our fear of being found out twists us into conflicted people who then act in all sorts of unhealthy ways. We medicate our shame through drugs and alcohol, block out our shame with non-stop sessions staring at our screens (phones, tablets, TV’s, etc.) and minimize our shame by competing with and putting down others. Sadly, American Christianity has done as much as anything else to make this condition worse.
The promises of Romans 8 stand in contradiction to the shame messages we are drowning in. If all the powers of creation—even death—cannot separate us from God’s love, then nothing inside of us stands a chance of doing so either. God knows our deepest secrets and our most shameful actions, but God still loves us. In my favorite novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes these astounding words, “Love is holy because it is like grace - the worthiness of its object is never really what matters." Hear that? It doesn’t matter whether we consider ourselves worthy of God’s love or not.
The social science researcher Brene Brown has become a bestselling author and a viral online sensation for her writing about shame. (It’s almost as if Americans are suffering from a shame pandemic!) She writes in a blog post,
I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.
I’ve been on the receiving end of truly vicious behavior from people in the churches I’ve served, but the most vicious of all were the people who secretly believed they were unworthy of love. Their secret belief, of course, became anything but secret, because their desperation to prove their worth informed their every action. Power plays, triangulation, cutting people down behind their backs, control issues, passive aggressive behavior—all result from people who deep down feel they are not loveable.
If only churches spent more time declaring the promise “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” then maybe our churches, and our society, would be much healthier. I wish for you more moments where you can live out of the assurance you are worthy of love.
Grace and Peace,
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father
except through me.”
--John 14:6 NRSV
I was raised to believe Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” were simple and clear. The only way to get to heaven was by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which meant saying “the Sinner’s Prayer” and being “saved.” Yet, even in Southern Baptist Sunday school classes questions cropped up, such as “If I was raised in Saudi Arabia to be Muslim and never met a Christian to lead me to Christ, would God send me to Hell?” The official answer was “yes,” because Southern Baptists were all about evangelizing the entire world, yet even a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid like me had trouble with that logic. Really? God would send somebody to eternal torment in the fiery pits of Hell—forever—because through no fault of their own they never had the chance to become a Christian? If so, then God doesn’t sound particularly loving or even fair.
Also, from an early age, it was apparent that many people who prayed the right prayer and had their ticket to heaven could be just plain lousy human beings. If one was honest, often the people inside the church condemning people outside the church acted worse than the so-called “heathens.” Early on I began to feel a cognitive dissonance which led me to note the clear lines of who is in and who is out I was presented with at church could become awful blurry. As my world expanded and I began to know Christians of other denominations (many of whom I had been taught were not “true” Christians) and people of other religions, my clarity over who were truly God’s people and who were not further eroded.
Frederick Buechner writes this about what it means to be a Christian:
Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). He didn't say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn't say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could "come to the Father." He said that it was only by him — by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way. Thus it is possible to be on Christ's way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don't even believe in God.
Buechner’s words line up with my experience in churches all my life. I’ve heard more sermons and attended more Bible studies than I can count purporting to reveal what a person must believe to be a Christian. Yet many of the people who heard those things along with me swore they believed but were at the same time, by anyone’s measure, pretty terrible at loving their neighbor. At the same time, I’ve met self-identifying atheists who demonstrated love in ways I could only call Christ-like.
To be fair, I should also state that I’ve known churches and the members who make them up who prided themselves on their diversity of belief. They focused so much on accepting all beliefs that it was hard to see why they gathered at all. Their “progressive” form of Christianity didn’t lead to them sacrificing anything for anyone. The Jesus Christ who called his followers to “take up their cross” was abandoned for an esoteric and utterly bland Jesus who asked nothing of them. Being open-minded was a code word for white middle class liberal detachment from the suffering in the world.
The originators of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ desired to eschew denominations and simply be “Christian.” They repeated slogans like “No Creed But Christ” and declared the Bible was the only rule of faith. Yet, such slogans are much harder to live out in practice than in theory. Some estimates put the number of Christian denominations at over 39,000. Many of those denominations claim the Bible as their only determination of what it means to be Christian, yet the number of different denominations proves how difficult it can be to agree on how the Bible determines who is a Christian. The differences among Disciples of Christ churches reveals the difficulty of “simply” looking to the Bible for answers.
I continue to call myself a Christian and believe the label matters, so if pressed, I would have to say there has to be something between rigid dogmatism that excludes most of humanity and a relativism that makes all distinctions meaningless. Getting more specific than that is tricky. As Philip Gulley says about Christianity, “attempting to construct a definition suitable to all, is both undesirable and impossible.” Even though a concise definition of what it means to be Christian is “impossible,” I still like what Gulley has to say on the matter, “If the church claims Jesus as its founder, it should at least share his values.” I suspect Diana Bass also has it right when she says, “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.”
In today’s American culture, the fastest growing religious group are those who claim “none of the above” when forced to declare their religion. This doesn’t mean they are atheists but rather that the old classifications no longer work for them. Yet, these same people when asked often declare they are attracted to the teachings and ethics of Jesus, if not the dogma declared about Jesus. Likewise they value friendship, community, and relationships based on love and service, but they are finding these things in settings other than traditional religion.
The good news for those of us who still hang on to Jesus’ words about being “the way, and the truth, and the life,” is that what Jesus meant is apparently much broader and more expansive than religious people in his day or our day were willing to accept. All those “nones” out there may still be “Christian” even if they reject the label.
Does that mean the church as we know it and our church in particular are no longer relevant? Maybe. But as Philip Gulley writes, “if history has taught us anything, it is that renewal blossoms in the most unlikely places, perhaps even in the church.”
Grace and Peace,
Embracing Our Gifts
“1Then a shoot will spring up from the stump of Jesse,
and a Branch from his roots will bear fruit.
2The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him--
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and strength,
the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.
3And He will delight in the fear of the LORD.” Isaiah 11:1 – 3
Last week we touched on the gifts of the Spirit and we are going to continue looking at those this week. As we build our “house” with our new vision of Bold Hospitality, it is imperative that we identify our gifts. As Christians we take on the aspects of Christ and in doing so, with the help of the Spirit we are blessed with gifts that will help us minister to a fragmented and broken world.
Looking back at last week, we talked about Paul’s message to the Corinthians:
“So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up
the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:12
We discussed “eagerly” seeking the gifts of the Spirit and using those gifts to “try to excel” in building up the church. In doing these things we can build on our vision of Bold Hospitality. The question that arises, though, is how do we find these gifts?
When we search scripture, it can seem a daunting task. But this is where the promise of Christ comes into play. When we allow the Spirit to work through us, we discover that many of the gifts are already there just waiting to be encouraged and grown. All of us have within us the capacity for wisdom, understanding, knowledge, etc. God has planted these seeds within us from birth. By taking on the likeness of Christ we can encourage these gifts to grow.
It seems that we spend a great deal of time “searching” for our gifts when really, we already have them and in many cases are already displaying them. Perhaps Paul isn’t telling us to search for the gifts at all but telling us that when we are walking in the likeness of Christ and allowing the Spirit to guide us, we will “eagerly” display these gifts to the world.
It is so hard to examine ourselves and see what good we have to offer. Perhaps it is the way our society trained us, but all of us have within us the gifts that the Spirit wishes to use to build God’s kingdom here. It may take reflection and conversation with others for us to fully grasp our gifts, but there is no doubt that we all possess the gifts required to “build” this house. As we move forward, we will be examining our gifts and finding our way to use them.
The incredible joy is that as we embrace the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and the fear of the Lord, we will begin to teach out of our knowledge.
We will begin to see miraculous signs and wonders.
We will begin to have understanding for our brothers and sisters in the community around us.
We will find the strength and fortitude to push on when it seems that darkness will prevail.
In our devotion (piety) to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we will find faith deeper and more enduring than reason and in our “fear of the Lord” we will seek to do God’s will in this place and at this time.
The great goodness of God is that in our gifts we also find our blessings. As we accept that we have within us the gifts of the Spirit, let us accept that each of us has a role to play in the building up of the church. As we set about our making our vision a reality, there is none too old, to broken, to untrained to achieve God’s will. Take stock today. Open your prayer with, “Lord open my eyes to my gifts….” In your quiet time with the Lord, listen to the Spirit’s voice guiding you to the gift that will best move you and us forward. We are the church, the gifted church. All of us are worthy of being used by God to “build” this house.
The Prejudice of Love
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
--Psalm 34:4 NRSV
In this week’s emails, I’ve been sharing about how my understanding of what the Bible is and how it should be used has changed along my journey. I’ve also been reflecting on Rachel Held Evans’ book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. Evans does a great job articulating the ways her understandings of the Bible changed along her journey, and she offers a helpful way for Christians to make use of the Bible that doesn’t force it to be a biology textbook, a personal handbook or a political policy paper.
In a chapter titled “Deliverance Stories,” Evans begins talking about the Exodus narrative and its annual reenactment at Passover Seders. This story has sustained Jewish people through unimaginable persecutions, pogroms and the Holocaust. Then she notes how the same story inspired African American slaves and the Civil Rights Movement centuries later. This powerful story of God being on the side of oppressed and enslaved people transcends culture and time to speak anew to those who need it.
Yet, the Bible doesn’t just contain stories of inspiration and deliverance. It also contains verses and narratives of violence, subjugation and abuse. Among abolitionists like Frederick Douglas there was concern about making the Bible a part of their movement, because of how Ephesians 6:5 had been used to justify slavery: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” Yet, they ultimately chose to hold onto the Bible rather than throw it away. Evans offers this explanation from scholar Allen Dwight Callahan:
African Americans found the Bible to be both healing balm and poison book. They could not lay claim to the balm without braving the poison. . . The antidote to hostile texts of the Bible was more Bible, homeopathically administered to counteract the toxins of the text.
This move of using the “more Bible” to “counteract” texts used to hurt and oppress is the answer for those of us who wish to make use of the Bible for liberation and love rather than judgment and hate.
The rabbinic tradition of Judaism has always been about putting different parts of scripture in dialogue with one another rather than forcing a nonexistent consistency or agreement as conservative Protestants do. Jesus answered his critics in this way by citing scripture to defend healing or picking grain on the sabbath. The apostle Paul, himself a good Jew, likewise cited scripture to justify his message in the face of critics. The insistence that scriptures can only mean one thing and they all must agree with one another made by so many Christians flies in the face of scripture itself.
Evans is quick to note, however, that “just because a single biblical text can mean many things doesn’t mean it can mean anything.” She cites segregationists using the curse on Noah’s son to justify calling African Americans subhuman, the Puritan’s use of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan to justify the slaughter of Native Americans, and recently politicians using the example of King David to justify their candidates’ assaults on women as wrong uses of Biblical texts.
Anytime the Bible is used to justify the oppression and exploitation of others, we have strayed far from the God who brought the people of Israel out of Egypt.
So, how do we make use of the Bible to counteract the “poison book?” Evans says, “there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, What does this say? But, What am I looking for?” The question is not whether or not we pick and choose from the Bible (everyone does that whether they admit it or not), but rather how we pick and choose.
So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?
We will find whatever we are looking for in the Bible, so we’d better be looking for love.
For 21st century Christians who want an alternative to the abuses of the Religious Right, the answer is not to be found in discarding the Bible but reading it with the “prejudice of love.” As people have done throughout Christian history, the answer to Bible texts that oppress and harm is not tossing the whole thing out but rather responding with the texts that liberate. This is what African American Christians have done, LGBTQ Christians have done, feminist Christians have done, Christians with disabilities have done and Christians from developing countries have done again and again. Rather than throwing the whole Bible out, we must “pick and choose” with humility and love.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
--Romans 8:37 NRSV
In my daily emails this week, I have been sharing my experiences with the Bible along with the perspectives of Rachel Held Evans in her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. If you missed any of them, you can find them on the “PHCC Blog” page on the church web site (www.parkhillcc.org). My thanks to Kathy Hendrix and Sara Riggs for updating that page.
Evans, like many Christians I suspect, understood the Bible to be different things at various times in her life. In her childhood, the Bible functioned as a storybook. Her first Bible was a Precious Moments one with a “doe-eyed David on the cover, two baby lambs resting in his arms.” As a teenager, the Bible functioned as a handbook “because it told me what to do” and she turned to it for instruction in relationships, dating and other concerns. Then in college the Bible became “an answer-book, or position paper, useful because it was right.” In her young adulthood, however, she continued to ask questions and her understanding of the Bible changed again.
The more time she spent “seeking clarity from scripture, the more problems [she] uncovered.” Things she had been taught were biblical, such as “restrictions on women’s roles in the home and church, the certainty of hell for all nonbelievers,” became “muddier in the midst of lived experience.” The Bible became “an unsettling version of one of those children’s peekaboo books.”
Beneath the colorful illustration of Noah’s ark was—surprise!—the violent destruction of humanity. Turn the page to Joshua and the battle of Jericho and—peekaboo!—it’s gencide.
Well-meaning family and friends gave Evans all sorts of books and tools to prove the Bible was “true” and to justify all the things in it that were contrary to her experience of God (e.g. slavery, polygamy, violence, war, genocide, etc.), yet their efforts only weakened the Bible in her eyes.
This is the point where so many people raised in Christianity depart from their faith. Their childhood and adolescent understandings of the Bible and their religion run into other worldviews that leave them questioning and usually rejecting the belief system they were raised in. Yet, for Evans (and also for me), that didn’t happen Evans writes,
When you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not—static, perspicacious, certain, absolute—then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic.
Yes, the Bible has been used to justify horrible things in our world, but it has also inspired people to do radical and wonderful things that benefit our world. Discerning between those two ways is our task, a task made easier when we allow the Bible to be “what it is, not what [we] want it to be.” Evans finds a useful metaphor in the function of fairy tales:
Citing G.K. Chesterton, author Neil Gaiman often noted ‘Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’”
The Bible’s stories inspire us to experience a God who provides abundance in places where we think there is only scarcity, life when we only see death, and redemption where we only see shame. It doesn’t have to be a handbook or policy position paper. We can recapture some of what we knew as children—the “magic” which enabled us to experience awe instead of the cynicism we took on as adults.
Whatever PHCC’s future may be, any healthy and vibrant future must include its members experiencing this kind of “magic” with the Bible. There are plenty of churches that use the Bible as a combination biology textbook and self-help manual. There are plenty of others who basically ignore it altogether as they make their congregations into social clubs. There are too few who live being inspired by the Bible’s stories of God’s grace and expansive love for all people.
Even though it’s summertime and numbers may be smaller, we still offer a great discussion in the Zoom Sunday School class happening on Sunday mornings. I’m also up for leading or helping get a Zoom Bible study going any other time. Unfortunately, COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere fast, but in the meantime our need to be inspired remains. I’m all ears for anybody’s ideas about how we can be transformed as a church by engaging with the Bible as it is, instead of what we want it to be.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
The Bible Rarely Behaves
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
--Psalm 137:1 NRSV
Living during the Coronavirus pandemic is frustrating and stressful. Our normal routines are disrupted, and our carefully made plans are scuttled. For some us, this time is filled with monotony, while others of us struggle with fear and grief. The world as we know it has been upended to one degree or another.
The Bible as we know it was formed during times of disruption. The Hebrew Bible (what Christians mislabel the “Old Testament”) was put largely in its present form in response to the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE). The Babylonian Empire conquered Judah, the remaining part of what had been a united Israel under kings David and Solomon, and took its best and brightest into captivity in Babylon. Others stayed behind with no king, temple or capital. This upending of the world caused a crisis of faith and raised questions about whether Israel’s God could be trusted to keep divine promises.
The Christian scriptures (or the “New Testament”) were written in response to another disruption of the world as it had been known. According to Jesus’ followers, God had sent a messiah unlike anyone expected, rather than a great military leader this messiah was executed. Furthermore, this messiah rose from the dead. What could this possibly mean? For the early Christians, further crises of faith developed in response to its eventual separation from Judaism and the delay of the expected return of Christ. All of these disruptions raised similar questions to those faced by their Jewish forebears centuries before—namely, can God be trusted to keep divine promises?
In her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, the late Rachel Held Evans does a great job explaining how these crises of faith due to disruptions in the world formed the Bible. The context that produced scripture helps explain why the Bible resists simplistic categorization by rationalists and fundamentalists alike. She notes “it’s a bible that so rarely behaves.”
Evans states that the chief problem with how faithful people and those without faith approach the Bible is that we make it all about us. (This seems to be a central problem we humans struggle with.) She writes,
Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.
Evans goes on to say, “. . . our present squabbles over science, politics and public school textbooks were not on the minds of those Jewish scribes seeking to assure an oppressed and scattered people.” What? It’s not all about me and my politics?
Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum (and in more progressive churches I’d add), the Bible is dismissed as irrational and unscientific.
We’ve been instructed to reject any trace of poetry, myth hyperbole, or symbolism . . . God would never stoop to using ancient genre categories to communicate. Speaking to ancient people using their own language, literary structures, and cosmological assumptions would be beneath God, it is said, for only our modern categories of science and history can convey the truth in a meaningful way.
Yet, Evans points out, “one of the most central themes of Scripture itself” is “God stoops.” From walking with Adam and Eve in the garden to journeying with the freed Israelite slaves through the wilderness to dying on a cross, God stoops to be with God’s people. (Read Philippians 2!)
The stories, songs and poetry of the Bible need not be “true” in the same way a laboratory test is “true” to speak to the most pressing concerns of humanity. It is not stooping for God to use the things that most shape our identities in communicating divine love and presence. Evans writes,
It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime. This is who God is. This is what God does.
No, the Bible is not about us and our 21st century worldview, but its ancient writers and editors were human just like us. The questions they asked are the ones we ask. Can God be trusted to keep God’s promises? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is God present with us during moments of pain? Is death the final word?
To answer these questions, Israel and the first Christians went back to their stories, traditions, songs and poetry. To understand who they were and why they were where they were, they went back to their origins. We do the same thing, Evans writes:
Today we still return to our roots in times of crisis; we look to the stories of our origins to make sense of things, to remember who we are. The role of origin stories, both in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which the Old Testament emerged and at that familiar kitchen table where you first learned the story of how your grandparents met, is to enlighten the present by recalling the past. Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.
The reasons the Bible resists the categories of systematic theologians and scientific studies is because it is a response to crisis rather than an encyclopedia set or a biology textbook. It is a deeply human collection of writings that respond to our deepest longings for connection with the Divine.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
The Bible Isn’t the “Word of God,” But Rather a Tool for Hearing the Word of God
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for
training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for
every good work.
--2 Timothy 3:16-17 NRSV
I was raised the son of a Southern Baptist minister, and unlike most preacher’s kids, I loved going to church. Going to church as a Southern Baptist meant lots and lots of Bible stuff. I memorized Bible verses and won prizes in Sunday School. I learned the classic Bible stories. I read through the entire Bible and wore out my Bible’s pages with my underlining and highlighting. I even pledged allegiance to the Bible at Vacation Bible School, right after pledging allegiance to the American flag and the Christian flag (never mind the historic Baptist principle of separation of church and state). The Bible was the “Word of God” even though the Gospel of John says Jesus Christ has that title. My Sunday school teachers taught me the Bible was without error, although when I pressed my father on seeming contradictions in it, he admitted there was a human element involved as well. Nonetheless, the Bible captured me, and even though my understanding of what the Bible is and is not has changed dramatically, the Bible still has not let me go.
By the time I was a teenager, the Southern Baptist bubble I lived in was tearing itself apart because of differing views of the Bible. On one side were so called “Moderates,” like my father, who were basically still conservative but they believed the Bible should be interpreted in light of its original historical context, and the “Fundamentalists” who said any view other than one saying the Bible was “inerrant” or free of errors was liberal heresy. The “Moderates” allowed for differing interpretations of the Bible under the idea of “the priesthood of all believers” which meant each believer had their own access to God without any human or institutional mediation. The “Fundamentalists” said their way of reading the Bible was the only true way, and took as their key issues—opposing abortion, strict gender roles for men and women with men in authority over women, viewing anything as a sin other than heterosexual sexual intercourse within marriage, instituting state-sponsored prayer in public schools and support for the Republican Party. The “Fundamentalists” took over the Southern Baptist Convention and began purging all dissenters. In this time period, I learned how the Bible, or at least certain interpretations of it, could be used as a weapon against people I loved.
I went to a Baptist college and was taught by religion professors who had to defend their jobs against fundamentalist critics. Then I went to a new Baptist seminary populated by professors and students forced out of Southern Baptist seminaries. In my education, I learned about the “historical-critical method” for Biblical interpretation, which meant understanding the writings of the Bible in their own context and as specific types of literature. I even learned of Bible scholars who were female, African American, Latin-American and other perspectives who revealed the ways interpretations of scripture had been used to justify, slavery, genocide, colonialism and oppression around the globe. I even began a Ph.D. program in New Testament at Emory University in Atlanta thinking that the classroom was a space I could finally explore the Bible without being attacked. Yet, despite all the wonderful things I learned as a doctoral student, I ended up leaving the program, because the academic study of the Bible felt too removed from the pain of everyday people, and the Bible that had captured me had everything to do with the pain of ordinary human beings.
I left Baptist life and began my journey in mainline Christianity in the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ. I was pleasantly surprised to find a Christianity struggling to work for equality in gender, sexual orientation, race and class, but I was also shocked to find suspicion of and even disinterest in the Bible. It had been the teachings of Jesus and the words of the Hebrew prophets who had inspired my efforts for social justice, but I found among mainline Christians the Bible was often viewed only as an obstacle to it. I still find it strange that in their liturgy and practices mainline Christians say things like “this is the Word of the Lord” about the Bible while at the same time dismissing it.
Even when I believed the Bible was the “Word of God,” I still understood that the Bible could be used for great good or great evil, depending on its interpretation. I knew that slave owners and opponents of Civil Rights used the Bible to justify their racism, while African Americans and their allies found inspiration in the Exodus and the resurrection of Jesus. I knew church officials who quoted Paul to justify opposition to women ministers, yet I knew female clergy who took inspiration from Mary Magdalene being the first to testify to the risen savior. I knew Christians who viewed homosexuality as a sin citing the first chapter of Romans, and I knew gay and lesbian Christians who based their freedom in Christ on Galatians 3:28. I saw Christians inspired by the Bible to give sacrificially to people in need, and I saw church people use the Bible to justify the meanest forms of hate. For me, the fundamentalist claim that there was a single meaning of scripture plain for all to see rang false, yet I could never dismiss the Bible outright. If I threw out the Bible because of all the bad ways people used it, I felt I would also have to throw out all the ways people were inspired by it to do amazing acts of goodness.
Over the years, I have preached sermons, taught Bible studies and as an adjunct taught college courses on the Bible. I’ve tried to share my understanding that rather than a single book, the Bible is a library of different writings of varied genres, written in different languages by people of different cultures living in different centuries. It is a collection of writings in dialogue with one another, and it invites us into that dialogue instead of asking us to treat it like a rulebook, a political treatise or as a daily horoscope. Yet, now I see an amazing lack of concern with the Bible at all. Not only is our larger culture biblically illiterate, but the loudest Christian voices in it use scripture merely as a justification of their right-wing politics.
Ironically, at a time when technology has made the Bible the most accessible it has ever been, engagement of the Bible on its own terms is at an all time low in Western culture. I don’t long for an imaginary yesteryear when people knew the Bible better, because knowledge of the Bible didn’t prevent white Christians from oppressing all sorts of people. But I do wish for communities of Christians who can be inspired by the Bible’s stories of God working through and on behalf of the powerless. I still believe the Bible can be a source of liberation, even in spite of all the ways it has been misused to harm and abuse others.
Growing up, I memorized 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (printed above) and believed it referred to the Bible as I knew it. Later on I learned that the “scripture” mentioned was probably only what I knew as the “Old Testament”, since the early Christians didn’t really have a “New Testament” yet, and an official list of biblical books weren’t agreed upon until a few centuries later. I also learned that the “scriptures” mentioned were probably “Old Testament” books translated into the Greek language of the writer’s day and not the original Hebrew used for most English Bible translations. I also learned that translators disagree on which ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were the earliest and most reliable to use for English Bibles, so it is uncertain which versions of scripture are actually “inspired.” I even learned that the apostle Paul may not have written the Second Letter to Timothy. Yet, despite all that knowledge, I still believe the Bible in all its different languages, translations and packaging remains “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
I don’t believe these words in the way fundamentalists mean it when they quote the verses to condemn people they view as evil, but rather I believe it, because I hear the “Word of God’ speaking to me through the Bible and through other people’s interpretations of it. I still believe the distinction between calling the Bible the “word of God” and understanding the Bible as a means of hearing the “Word of God” (Jesus Christ) in my heart and soul remains an essential one. I’m not willing to throw the Bible out, because I believe it is a tool for God’s redemptive activity in our lives and our world.
For the next three days, I’ll be reflecting on Rachel Held Evans’ book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again in hopes Park Hill Christian can be inspired to think in new ways about how the Bible can be a key part of the future of this church. I highly recommend the book to you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Building Bold Hospitality
“So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up
the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:12
Everyone of us has gifts. Things at which come more naturally to us than to others. When the Holy Spirit comes to us and we are walking in Christ’s way those gifts become enhanced.
Paul says, “since we are eager for gifts”, we should “try to excel in those” and since we all have gifts to begin with it reasons out that we should strive to excel in all our gifts. In Corinthians Paul is talking about the gifts of the Spirit; wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, different tongues and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:7 – 9). Each of us is open to any of these gifts with the abilities we have been given by God from birth. What makes this so important is the eagerness in which we strive to use these gifts.
As Christians, we must be eager to be used by God to move along His church. And to move along His church, we must share our gifts. Paul’s point in this passage could be in the phrase, “try to excel”. In our daily lives we try to excel in our business dealings. We work hard to improve and grow as parents, partners and neighbors, shouldn’t we work just as hard to grow our gifts for Christ?
As we begin working through our vision of Bold Hospitality, it is important for us to take inventory of our gifts. We as a congregation have so many talents and skills, many have been displayed, yet others lay waiting to be used. Over the next few weeks, and months we are going to begin exploring where our gifts lie. We are going to spend time working out what gifts we each bring to the table and how best we can use those gifts to “build up the church”.
We aren’t looking at the traditional sense of building a church. The days of just filling the pews are gone. What we are looking at, as Jill so skillfully stated at the July 16th board meeting, is bringing people to God. Our goal is no longer about numbers in the building. Our goal is reaching people for Christ. It is the goal of the 1st century church, the early days of the disciples as they spread the Word around the Mediterranean, Jesus is King, and God has redeemed His people through Jesus Christ. Our vision is to be a beacon of Christ’s love to our community in real and tangible ways.
We are looking to host those who need space to grow.
We are looking to share our resources with others so the message can be sent out.
We are looking to impact the lives of our neighbors in ways that make a difference.
Some of the suggestions we have received so far; offering our resources to the local schools, opening our facility to other groups that need a place to meet, being open to other church groups that may be needing a space to worship or pray, being a facility that meets the need of families with disabilities, all of these ideas can and will be met with boldness.
That boldness begins with us as a people. A people who are aware of their gifts and talents. A people who have taken inventory and have eagerly set out to excel in “building up the church”.
We have much to offer. And in this time of building, we have much to learn. Let us begin with learning what gifts and talents we each bring and how we can tie these together to excel at the vision of Bold Hospitality.
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.