[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in
heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is
before all things, and in him all things hold together.
--Colossians 1:15-17 NRSV
As you go from this place, hear these words:
May the strength of Christ go before you to prepare your way.
May the grace of Christ come behind you to finish what you must leave undone.
May the peace of Christ surround you in the present moment.
And may the love of Christ guide your every thought, word and deed.
I’ve been saying the benediction I offer each Sunday for at least fifteen years. I’m not exactly sure when I came up with it. I’m fairly sure it is original to me, insofar as it came to me as some kind of mild epiphany once upon a time. I’m also pretty sure it was influenced by benedictions affirming God’s presence that I must have heard along the way. Probably its ultimate source lies in a prayer of St. Patrick:
Lord, be with us this day,
Within us to purify us;
Above us to draw us up;
Beneath us to sustain us;
Before us to lead us;
Behind us to restrain us;
Around us to protect us.
Who knows when or where I first came across Patrick’s words.
Whatever mysterious mixture of inspiration prompted me to come up with the benediction I offer, I stick with it, because with all my doubts and questions regarding God’s presence in my life, in the seconds it takes me to say it, I believe with certainty that the words of the benediction are true. As I look out on the faces of church members I know well and strangers who have wandered in all of whom are looking back at me, I do believe that Christ is all around us—before, behind, surrounding and guiding every one of us.
There is a spectrum of awareness of Christ’s presence that each person who hears the words of benediction fall on. Week to week people may fall at different places along it. One week a person may be keenly aware Christ is present in their lives, and another week they may feel Christ has been absent. Some people move up and down that spectrum, while others hardly move and stay largely fixed at their particular level of awareness no matter their circumstances. When I reflect upon my own awareness of Christ’s presence, I feel more like the indicator of an old-fashioned car radio that moves up and down the dial as someone rapidly turns the knob. Yet, somehow it is easier for me to be certain when I look into others’ eyes at the end of a church service—some wide open and awake, others bleary from a late Saturday night, still others already focused far away on what brunch or lunch spot they are headed to after the service—that Christ is ever-present all around us, within us, always accessible to us even if we don’t realize Christ is there.
I suppose I was attracted to the belief of Christ surrounding us, because I grew up conceiving of God as God the Father with Christ seated at his right hand located far above me in the throne room of heaven. The world was a hierarchy with God and Christ at the top and me somewhere near the bottom. Christ was only accessible in certain sacred locations or among certain sacred circumstances. It was up to me to struggle to find where Christ was hidden, and if I wasn’t successful it was my fault for not searching long and hard enough. Wherever Christ was, Christ was not near to me. If and when Christ showed up, he must surely be disappointed by the long list of my sins he discovered.
Along my journey, I did meet Christians who believed Christ was close at hand. These Christians spoke of God like a cosmic vending machine or Aladdin’s genie. Jesus controlled the stop lights to help them on their way to work. Jesus enabled them to find a two-for-one deal at their favorite restaurant. Jesus blessed them with all kinds of things which seemed more like coincidences to me. Surely Jesus had better things to do than respond to selfish wish fulfillment.
It was only when I discovered so called “feminist” theologians who pointed out where scriptures reveal God’s presence in all creation that I began to question the concept of God being always separate from us. Those feminist theologians didn’t come across to me like radicals on the fringe but in many ways they seemed quite conservative as they pointed out what was plain to read in scripture but which had never been pointed out to me. “[Christ] himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In other words, Christ is in and all around everything, even me.
I’m sure about the same time I read feminist theologians I was also discovering Celtic Christianity and the likes of Saints Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert and others. Thanks to a seminary class on classics in Christian spirituality I read Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen. These ancient writers showed me the deep well of Christian tradition which understood God as not way “up there” apart from us worthless sinners but “down here” among us, around us and always present with us. This wasn’t a new fad but an ancient tradition which had been there all along in Christianity.
What a relief and a comfort it was to find out Christ was all around me, not as some imaginary friend or divine butler but rather present in the miracle of each breath, the beauty of each rain drop and ray of sun, and most mysteriously in the presence of friends and the mercy of strangers. Since this discovery of Christ’s presence all around me, I’ve experienced a never-ending process of trying to live out of this truth. I’m neither very disciplined nor programmatic in my spirituality, so I’m grateful Christ is gracious and never standing by with a clipboard checking off my sins as I had imagined in younger days.
Despite my questions, doubts and lack of awareness the rest of the week, on Sunday mornings when I offer the benediction, at least for a moment or two, I am utterly confident of the truth of Christ’s presence in our lives. I hope that at least for a moment those who hear these words share the same confidence.
Grace and Peace,
He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.”
--Matthew 22:38-39 NRSV
“Our tradition has done a good job loving God with our hearts but it has done a poor job of loving God with our minds.” I clearly recall the moment Dr. Bill Rogers said those words to me as I sat in his office during seminary. He articulated what I had already known all my life growing up in the Southern Baptist/evangelical culture. My father a Southern Baptist pastor valued higher education and a historical critical approach to faith, and my mother who had been my Sunday school teacher as far back as I could remember passed on her cynicism of preachers who relied on emotion to cover up their bad theology. I had benefited from mentors, teachers and professors who had taught me to use my mind when I approached my faith, but I had lived in a religious culture suspicious of the mind as a place for Satanic deception. I had absorbed who knows how many messages I had internalized that said unless you “invite Jesus into your HEART’ then you were not a true Christian. I needed Dr. Rogers to make his declaration, because even as a seminary student I still deep down mistrusted the idea of loving God with my mind.
I had grown up going to youth camps and attending revival meetings where emotional appeals were used to get those present to “walk the aisle.” The only statistics that mattered were the ones saying how many people got “saved,” so no amount of emotional manipulation was off limits, the ends justified any means to save souls from eternal damnation. Never mind that religious commitments made in the heat of emotion never seemed to last. In youth group, we were warned about the “mountaintop experience” of having an intense spiritual experience at camp that would all be for naught if we didn’t guard ourselves against temptation when we “came back down the mountain” and our spiritual high wore off. Emotion was the gauge of spiritual authenticity, and the question of whether one “felt close to God” had eternal consequences. The ever-present bromide, “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?” ensured that we would keep searching for the next moment when we felt Jesus in our hearts once more.
While attending a Baptist college, I saw the emotional side of Christianity cause not just shame but also abuse. I attended college meetings where speakers would declare any who didn’t end up crying by the end of the worship service to be false Christians. Friends of mine tried attending a charismatic church the next town over from our campus where they experienced intense emotional harm, because they didn’t have the same kind emotional breakdowns that drove other attendees to lay on the floor weeping. It was not uncommon to see guys (it always seemed to be guys) breaking up with their girlfriends and blaming God for the decision. “I just feel led by God to not be in this relationship anymore.” Who could question the God who spoke to us through our feelings?
When I left the Baptist world I was raised in, I sought out more progressive/liberal congregations in the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. Those churches would regularly describe themselves as the kind of churches “where you don’t have to check your mind at the door.” Indeed, I can remember countless stimulating conversations and intellectual debates in these congregations. I reveled in the intellectual freedom I hadn’t known in the churches I grew up in. Nobody was called a heretic or condemned to hell for expressing doubts or raising questions. Finally, I learned what it was to be in churches where people loved God with their minds!
I discovered, however, that these more cerebral churches had their own issues. I expected that our stimulating intellectual conversations about social justice would lead to faithful Christian social action, but to my dismay I found out that white liberals feel like they’ve done something if they have had a good discussion about it. I would wonder why I would invite church members to a protest and they would look at me confused, as if to say, “Well, we talked about racial reconciliation (or poverty, or LGBTQ rights, or equality in education, etc.). What more is there to do?”
In the same way, I found out that for many folks in these churches their faith was about an intellectual assent to an idea rather than any sort of commitment that shaped how they lived. Talking about God replaced having an experience of God. Talking about the Bible replaced actually reading it. Discussing an ethical issue in society or even in the church included little thought to what God might actually ask them to sacrifice or do differently. Loving God was more of an idea in the mind than anything that touched the heart of one’s being. I learned that just as emotion could be taken to an extreme that neglected the mind, the reverse was also true.
On my spiritual journey, I’ve struggled to find communities of faith that strike the balance Jesus asks for in the Greatest Commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Loving God seems like a never-ending process where we work on opening ourselves up to God, and during that process we discover that we always seem to emphasize one part of ourselves over another. We must constantly seek to recalibrate a balance. God doesn’t seem to want just a part of us but all of who we are to be caught up in love with the Divine.
More than mind and hart, Jesus says we must also love God with our soul. “Soul” is a mysterious sort of term that meant a bunch of different things even in Jesus’ time, but I think the word “soul” always contains the sense of an unquantifiable wholeness of our true selves. Whatever isn’t contained under the category of “mind” or “heart” falls into the “soul” category. In the end, these terms are just human ways of describing how the love of God seeks purchase in every fiber of our being.
The medieval mystic Hildegaard of Bingen said this about the soul:
The soul is a breath of living spirit,
that with excellent sensitivity,
permeates the entire body to give it life.
the breath of the air makes the earth fruitful.
Thus the air is the soul of the earth,
If you’ve discovered part of yourself that you’ve neglected to cultivate in your spiritual journey—your mind, your heart, your soul—perhaps a good place to start to do so is a place inside you that is in need of spiritual moisture and greening. May the parts of yourself that have not been fruitful begin to blossom.
Grace and Peace,
“12Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13You will seek
me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:12 – 13
When we enter into a relationship, communication is a key aspect of how successful that relationship will be. Without communication, we are lost, and the relationship dries up and goes away.
Just as this is true with our relationships with other people, it is true with God. We must take time to ‘commune’ with God and part of that is prayer time. Philippians tells us to “not be anxious” but pray.
“6Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with
thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Philippians 4:6
In 1 Thessalonians we are told to “pray continually” for it is “God’s will”.
“16Rejoice always, 17pray continually, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will
for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16 – 18
It is clear throughout scripture that our God wants to hear from us. He wants to have communication with us. It is His desire that we come to Him with all things. Because through prayer we are building a relationship with Him.
Prayer also gives us the opportunity to build relationships with others. It is in prayer for one another that we are able to shape our relationship in the way of Christ. As we pray for someone’s needs, we are drawing closer to that person and finding a new love and compassion for them as they encounter life. As we pray about the circumstances of our community, we become participants in the community; we join our voice to the voices of those around us. It is in prayer that we take the time to hear the voices of others around us.
How can you not become more aware of God’s presence than through the wonder of answered prayer? When we are a praying people, we begin to see and hear God’s will play out in our lives and the lives of those around us. It is this time of communing with God that builds our faith and trust. As Jeremiah tells us, God is listening. And when we believe this, when we take the action of prayer, we are seeking Him and find Him. It is a promise that is realized in a very deep and profound way as we pray and see those prayers answered.
In our vision of Bold Hospitality, we need prayer to guide us and strengthen us. As we reach out to our community, how better to let them know we are listening then to offer them the power of prayer.
Out of prayer and discernment an idea was born. Deb Turpin came to us with the wonderful idea of a community Prayer Line. This prayer line is open to all in our community and will be a wonderful tool for outreach. What we are offering the community is the opportunity to share their needs, joys and concerns with us. You may have noticed a line has been placed between two trees on the North side of the parking lot by the Life Center. In the coming days and weeks, you will see signs going up that invite the community to “Hang ‘em here.” You will see a small house on a pole with materials placed at the edge of the parking lot. And, as time goes by, you will begin to see prayers hanging from the line.
On October 11th, following the morning service, we will have a blessing of the Prayer Line and each of you in attendance will be asked to put up a prayer request or praise or joy to kick off the new line. These prayers, joys, needs and concerns will remain on the line. From time to time you will see in the newsletter some of those prayer request, joys and needs. This is a tool that we can use to further God’s will for our community. It is an opportunity for us to reach out to those in our neighborhood, even if it is anonymously and make a difference in people’s lives. The point is we will be communicating with our neighbors and with God on their behalf. What greater thing can we do? What greater gift can we give then to be in earnest prayer for those around us?
As Jeremiah states, God will listen, and He will be found when we seek Him. In prayer we can see mountains move and lives be changed.
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other;
just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
--Colossians 3:13 NRSV
There’s a lot to be angry about these days. Some of that anger is legitimate, because it is anger about genuine injustice faced by immigrants, Black people and Latinx people, low-income people and so on. Some of the anger is based on mass delusion fed by a media more interested in profits than telling the truth. This type of anger is based on conspiracy theories, misguided victimhood and even racism. Anger also comes when we experience loss, and we are experiencing losses of all kinds during the COVID-19 pandemic, from loss of mobility and activity to loss of health and even life. 2000,000 people dead is a significant loss. Whatever the source of the anger and resentment, however justified or misguided, the cost on our spiritual, emotional and physical health is high.
We were not created to hold grudges, stoke our anger and feed our resentments. Emotionally it makes us miserable and increases the misery of those around us. Psychologically it leads to loss of self worth, depression and self-medication via alcohol and drugs. Spiritually it takes us away from our center, which is God, and throws our whole life out of balance. Physically--well, the physical problems are perhaps easiest to track.
The Stanford Forgiveness Project occurred in 2001 and was the first university study that sought to intervene in people’s behavior when it comes to anger, resentment and forgiveness. The Stanford Forgiveness Project involved people with unresolved anger toward another person such as a cheating spouse or an overbearing parent. Participants rated their level of anger and stress. Half of the group took classes on forgiveness and learned relaxation techniques for managing anger. The other half did not. Following the classes those who had learned to forgive experienced less anger and stress than the control group. According to Dr. Frederic Luskin, who directed the project, “The study…found that by not harboring grudges the participants became less angry. ‘Their level of hopefulness for the future…significantly increased, and they…felt more spiritual’”
Data from the Forgiveness Project and other studies indicates that learning to forgive results in lower levels of anxiety and depression. Whereas harboring anger increases the risk of heart attacks and impairs the immune system, forgiveness has the opposite effect. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that, “the less people forgave, the more diseases they had and the more medical symptoms they reported…” [According to Wisconsin professor Robert Enright] ‘We've been surprised at how strong forgiveness can be as a healing agent for people…You can actually change a person’s well-being, their emotions, by helping them to forgive’”.
Dr. Luskin at Stanford defines forgiveness as, “…recognizing that you have been wronged, giving up resentment, and [possibly] responding to your offender with compassion. Many religions encourage forgiveness. It's at the center of Christianity. But modern society frequently embraces contradictory principles such as vengeance” He continues, “Having a grudge gives you a sense of moral superiority: This person, this group, this ex-husband, my mother-in-law, they're all lousy people. But you get a false sense of security by cutting off the legs of other people to make yourself taller.’ You also can end up with a great deal of heartache—maybe even heart problems.”
Science continues to show what all major world religions and philosophies have known for centuries: resentment, the desire for vengeance and continual anger are bad for us and forgiving, kindness and grace are good for us. Jesus couldn’t have been any clearer about this truth, yet so many Christians walk around as if they breathed rage rather than oxygen. As Anne Lamott says in her memoir Traveling Mercies, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die." Or as an unknown wise person once said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
You’ll probably hear me relate this very same information about forgiveness in a sermon sometime soon, because I believe all of us need to be reminded as often as possible of the benefits of letting go of our rage, resentment and desire to get even. We just can’t hear it enough. So as you cable TV news blares at you, notifications on your smartphone squawk at you, and your Facebook/Twitter feed presents a deluge of things to be outraged about, stop, take a step back, breath and spend time finding ways to turn your anger into actions that increase your well-being and that of people around you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
--Psalm 136:1 NRSV
It has been my honor and privilege to serve as PHCC’s interim minister for the last six months. As I’ve said from the beginning, this is the strangest ministry gig I’ve ever had. By that, I’m referring to starting work at a church during the COVID-19 pandemic. I still haven’t met most church members in person.
Even so, certain characteristics of PHCC are evident. You are a caring community of kind people. You have welcomed me warmly and encouraged me in our time together. You are dedicated to serve your community in Christ’s name even if you aren’t sure about the best ways to go about doing that at this day and time. These are admirable qualities that should attract any minister whose heart is in the right place.
During my time here, I have been honored that numerous folks have let me know they would be pleased if I would remain on as PHCC’s settled pastor. I began my work here intending to only be the interim minister, but I have to say, given the warmth you’ve shown me, I would be a fool not to at least consider staying on. Yet, my time here has confirmed what I’ve been feeling for several years, long before I came to PHCC, that God is leading me to move to some other kind of ministry besides being the pastor of a local congregation. That’s terrifying to say, and I have resisted saying it. My sense of identity has been bound up in being a local church pastor for so long that I’m not quite sure who I am if I’m not one. Also, the known is always preferrable to the unknown, and I have little clarity regarding what is next for me in terms of what God is calling me towards.
I am humble enough to know that some of the interest shown in me by PHCC members is also about what is known vs. what is unknown. “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush” is how the saying goes. Yet, I feel confident that there is a bird “in the bush” that God has in mind for PHCC who will be a better fit than me for the future God intends for this congregation.
In the coming weeks, I will offer in the Thursday newsletter some observations I have that may be helpful to PHCC as it considers what it needs for a new minister. I think even more important than a potential candidate for minister is that PHCC know itself as well as possible. How can a church pick a new minister if it doesn’t have a strong idea of who it is and where it is going? I’ll offer my thoughts about those questions as well.
The plan for the near term looks like this. My original agreement with PHCC was to serve as interim minister through the end of 2020. At the moment, God has not revealed to me what is next on my vocational journey (despite my repeated requests for at least some hints!), so I’m available. I am going to stay on as interim minister into 2021 as we continue to deal with COVID-19 and until such time as PHCC calls a new minister. Either the church or I can end my service with thirty days notice.
In terms of PHCC forming a search committee for a new pastor, that is on hold for the moment. Our friends at the Greater KC Region are saying that few candidates are looking to move churches during the pandemic. PHCC is one of four DOC churches in the Northland alone that are currently without settled pastors, so there is high demand but low supply. From what I’m hearing from clergy friends across the country in the Disciples of Christ and in other denominations is that this is a nationwide trend. More clergy will be looking to move to new churches when there is a resolution of COVID-19.
Nobody likes to live in an in-between time. We like to know what to expect and we want to plan accordingly. Believe me, I get it. However, this time together will not be wasted. PHCC lay leaders will continue to discern the church’s future, and I am here with you to help. What this means is that every member of PHCC needs to be praying for the church and opening their minds and hearts to new ideas that God will inspire us to grab onto. Now is the time to dream big and swing for the fences. Now is the time we look at doing church differently to serve a new generation of people who long for meaning, purpose and wholeness in their lives.
Our faith does not lie in pastors, lay leaders or even in denominations. Our faith is in God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The world may change around us, but God has not changed. God remains faithful to us, and we can therefore trust that God will provide us with all we need—both as church members and as a faith community. Let us move forward together with excitement for what God has planned for Park Hill Christian Church.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
--Psalm 116:15 NRSV
We’ve passed into autumn and my heart’s been tender lately. I keep thinking about my mother who died two year’s ago this November. Two years ago on Labor Day weekend my mother fell and hit her head. The scans of her head revealed she had a brain tumor and two months later it killed her. The months of September and October 2018 were filled with frantic trips to see the oncologist to discuss the biopsy and radiation treatments just to give my mother a few more weeks or months. All of that was fruitless, because my mother didn’t have more time. She died slowly but painlessly under the care of the great people at KC Hospice’s Hospice House in south KC.
I know I’m not done grieving my mother, because I tear up at the strangest times. The Hunger Games young adult books keep making me cry. My younger son and I have been reading The Hunger Games series together. It’s a powerful series that raises questions about government manipulation, violence as entertainment and even compassion for one’s enemies. When death comes in these books, it often comes suddenly. Yet, the deaths in these books are not gratuitous and those who die are often mourned. The main character and narrator finds time to grieve companions and loved ones in ways that are all the more tender because their context seems so uncaring. I keep choking up every time it happens, and I think of sitting by my mother’s bedside as she moved from this life into the next. If I’m crying while reading The Hunger Games something must really be going on inside of me!
I subscribe to a daily devotional that arrives in my email inbox each morning offered by The United Church of Christ. A recent one written by UCC minister Quinn Caldwell made me think about death in a completely different way. I haven’t seen the musical Hamilton but Caldwell describes what happens at its conclusion. (SPOILER ALERT—skip ahead if you don’t want to read what happens at the end of Hamilton)
At the very end of the musical Hamilton, the newly deceased Eliza Hamilton, having been reunited with her son and husband, faces the audience. Her eyes grow wide, she gasps loudly in delight, and the house goes dark. Curtain.
Much has been made of that gasp, especially in the days since those of us who couldn’t afford to see the show in person watched it streaming online. What did she see, or understand? Was it God? Did she break the fourth wall and see the audience sitting there and realize the work she’d done to preserve her husband’s legacy had come to new fruition? Something else? Lin Manuel Miranda’s not telling, and of course that’s part of the point.
I had never considered the moment of death resulting in a gasp of surprise by the one who has died. I’ve always thought about the light people report seeing who have had near-death experiences. I’ve thought of the one who dies experiencing peace or joy when they show up in heaven—whatever heaven is like. I have never thought that a surprise great enough to make one gasp was waiting for each of us.
Images that come to mind when I ponder that kind of surprise are the reaction of folks when the Publisher’s Clearinghouse people show up with a giant check or the reaction of the audience when Oprah gave each of them a new car or maybe one of those America’s Funniest Videos where the kids are told they are headed on a surprise trip to Disney World. Yet, since this is God we are talking about, the surprise waiting for us is even greater than any of those!
As if I haven’t had enough unexpected tears lately, Quinn Caldwell goes on in his devotional to quote the hymn that always makes me cry when its sung in church.
There’s a line in the hymn “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” that regularly makes me weep. At the end, after the hymn has taken us through a human lifetime marked by God’s constant presence, it says,
“As the evening gently closes in
and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been,
with just one more surprise.”
It's good to know I’m not alone in crying over this hymn. I guess I’ve been too teary to ponder that final line “just one more surprise.’ Again, of all things I’ve considered dying would be like, I had never thought of the dying person receiving such a joyful surprise after their body exhales its last breath. What an amazing thought.
If you see me over the next few weeks, you might find me getting teary-eyed at strange moments. I keep marveling at whatever the latest weird thing is to make me cry and think of my mom. Now, I’m imagining my mother’s gasp at the surprise God had waiting for her. I wonder what amazing thing made her gasp so?
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation.
--Joel 1:3 NRSV
In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write the following about the stories of our lives that each of us gets to tell:
By telling [our] stories, we come to see the significance and coherence of our lives as a gift, as something not of our own heroic creation, but as something that must be told to us, something we would not have known without the community of faith. The little story I call my life is given cosmic, eternal significance as it is caught up within God’s larger account of history…. The significance of our lives is frighteningly contingent on the story of another.
This past Sunday I preached on the parable of the workers in the vineyard (or what I think it should be called—the parable of the generous landowner). As I said in the sermon, it’s an offensive story about a landowner who pays his workers the same whether they worked one hour at the end of the day or twelve hours. It is meant to confront us with God’s grace which is offensive to our modern individualistic and capitalistic mindsets. We like to identify with the workers who complain about getting paid for a full day’s work unlike those who only worked an hour, but if we are at all self-aware, we must admit that we are the late-coming workers who only work an hour but receive a full day’s pay more often than we wish to admit.
The Japanese-American social activist Yuri Kochiyama wrote, “Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who touched your life and every experience that entered it. We are all part of one another. “ We may not wish to admit it, but our stories reveal that we did not do it on our own. We travelled our journey only with the influence and assistance of more people than we can count.
In my own story, my birth and survival were the result of many different people. I was born 3 months premature in 1972, a time when preemies had low survival rates. I survived because of the doctors and nurses who cared for me those weeks I remained in the hospital. I survived because of the inventors, researchers and engineers who designed the incubators I remained in. I survived because of the people who built a hospital in Florissnat, MO—the taxes paid, the donations given, the construction crews who built it, the architect who designed it, the people who worked there, all those who paid their bills to keep it in operation. I survived because my grandmother was in a prayer circle at her church in Arkansas who prayed for me to live. I survived because the church my father served as pastor prayed for me as well. I lived because of the hundreds and thousands of people whose actions directly and indirectly enabled me to live.
My entire life has been shaped by choices I did not make and people who directly and indirectly influenced me. I had no control over what family I or country I was born into or what skin color I possessed. Each of those and more determined the opportunities I would have and shaped the choices I have made. All along the way, teachers, ministers, church members, neighbors, friends, enemies, writers, thinkers, media personalities, journalists and politicians all rubbed off on me for better or worse and shaped who I am and what choices I have made. There is no way to count the number of people who have shaped me.
Our individual choices and actions matter—of course they do. Yet, even if our choices were to act differently than the values of our families or the context we were raised in, all those factors still influenced the choices we make in a negative or positive way. We have made our choices and actions not in some sterile lab environment apart from all other variables but the exact opposite. We have made our choices and actions influenced by millennia of culture and history that shape our perceptions in ways that we are conscious of and in even more ways we are not aware.
If you had to tell your story, who would you name as the people who shaped who you are? How long would your list be?
Somewhere in your story—maybe everywhere in your story—God peeks over the shoulder of a person who influenced you along the way and winks at you. In the midst of all these people and situations that shape us, God works weaving our stories together like a master weaver inserting beautiful pieces of thread into a pattern that becomes a masterpiece!
Grace and Peace,
“44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45They sold property and
possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in
the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere
hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their
number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:44 – 47
Working together for the glory of God, that is our goal as Christians. In Acts we see all the disciples of Jesus coming together, working together to find a way to reach out to their community and grow the church in Christ’s name. As we walk through this time of pandemic, we are separated by space, but not from the Spirit. We meet in small numbers or via technology, yet the Spirit moves us together as one body. A body that has committed itself to the vision of Bold Hospitality.
As we prepare for the time when we will again gather in one place, we are being challenged to find our gifts and talents. Over the coming months we will be asking each other questions on how we can use the great gifts that God has given us toward the building of our vision. Already we have taken steps toward this new Boldness with renting space to Athens Church, who meet here Sunday and Wednesday evenings. We are making space for Behavior Innovations to use Meade Hall weekday afternoons. All things are coming together in God’s timing and it is because we have come together, in spite of the current health crisis and declared that we are going to follow God’s vision for this church.
It is important to recognize that, just as in Acts, we are coming together and sharing something in common with others. By offering space to Athens and Behavior Innovations we are sharing the gifts that God has granted us. We are providing space for our community to grow. And we are being blessed in return by their willingness to add to our finances through rental fees. God is doing a wonderous and beautiful new thing right here and now.
Though meeting together is more difficult in this moment, a time is coming when we shall once again be together and share in the breaking of bread. While we are able to do this via electronics, praise God, it will mean so much more when we can look upon one another’s face, reach out our hands and touch each other again. The great joy is that while that day isn’t here yet, it is coming, and we have been preparing for it. What a marvelous God we serve who has provided so much for us!
We cannot know what tomorrow holds, but we do know the love of our Lord and we do know that He has great plans for us as we work together toward our vision of Bold Hospitality. Together we are stronger. Together we will relish in His favor. Together we will grow as individuals and as the body of Christ.
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be
loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
--Matthew 6:24 CEB
I guess it was the combination of nice weather and being unable to have garage sales earlier in the pandemic, but my neighborhood was full of them this morning. This wasn’t a neighborhood-wide sale but rather a simultaneous spasm by people who all had the same idea. I got to the church later than normal this morning, because I stopped at a couple or ten of them. I’m a sucker for garage sales and I always have been. The possibility of getting something I want or need for a deal was bred into me by a father who missed his true calling as a horse trader.
At middle age, however, I’ve found I enjoy garage sales less than I used to. Just like this morning, most of the time I look over what people have and find nothing I want or need. I already have too much stuff. Between my wife and I, we have three sets of parents who have down-sized in their retirement. (Her parents divorced and are both remarried.) In our basement and in our closets, we have stuff they passed on to us, much of it we will never use. We accepted a lot of these parental castoffs, because our parents couldn’t bear to part with them and keeping them in the family eased their struggles with letting go. Someday a time of purging looms in our future like a monster in a horror movie waiting to jump out at us.
Another reason garage sales don’t thrill me like they used to is I’ve lived long enough now to understand more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. Once you move out on your own and eventually fill your own living space with what you like/need, there reaches a point where having more is too much. A scale tips from buying what you need (or at least what a typical middle-class American believes they need) to mindless consumption. There’s a good reason why self-storage units are one of the most in demand businesses today. Possessions can become a trap where we serve them rather than them serving us.
Comedians and writers I enjoyed growing up pointed out the absurdity of allowing our things to control us rather than vice-a-versa. Stephen Wright said in his hilarious deadpan delivery, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Erma Bombeck quipped, “The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one.”
Struggles with material consumption failing to meet spiritual needs aren’t new. Every religion and every philosophy has addressed our human propensity for ascribing ultimate meaning to finite things. Yet, the modern western economy is based upon consumer spending, and so literally many people’s jobs and retirement investments depend upon more people buying more stuff they do not need. The scale of the pressure to find our meaning and purpose in things is greater than ever before. This leads to serious spiritual pitfalls. Arthur Simon, former president of Bread for the World, wrote in his classic book How Much is Enough?, “When things are valued too much, they lose their value because they nourish a never-satisfied craving for more. Conversely, when things are received as gifts from God and used obediently in service to God, they are enriched with gratitude. As sages have said, contentment lies not in obtaining things you want, but in giving thanks for what you have.” I don’t know about you but I haven’t seen many commercials by multi-national corporations urging me to be grateful for what I already have.
Our need to consume and possess more and more also comes with deep ethical considerations that if you’re like me, you’d rather not consider. Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino writes in his book The Good Life, “’What's wrong with wanting a good life?’ people may ask, taking it for granted as their manifest destiny. We have already hinted at the answer: the precipice of dehumanization. In our world, structurally speaking, "the good life" is only possible at the cost of a "bad life" and death for the poor.” I’m too busy ordering my next Frappuccino to consider whether the person who picked the coffee beans my expensive drink is made out of was fairly paid.
Of course, Jesus warned us about all of this, but we never seem to heed his teachings. We can’t serve two masters. We can’t serve God and wealth. In a society like ours where we are bombarded by messages saying we don’t have enough of this or that, it’s difficult to consider what wealth we do have. Wealth belongs to the 1% not to me. Yet, compared to most people on earth and most humans who have ever lived the average middle-class American is indeed wealthy. If we begin the difficult task of differentiating between our wants and needs, our wealth will be revealed. Then, perhaps, we can begin to grasp the truth that the most important things in life do not fit into our online shopping carts.
My wife has a bumper sticker on her car which says, “The best things in life aren’t things.” I haven’t put a similar bumper sticker on my own car, at least not yet. I’m still stopping at garage sales and still struggling with the deluded hope that the God-shaped hole inside me can be filled by something I buy.
Grace and Peace,
Now, brothers and sisters, you know that members of the household of Stephanas were
the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the
--1 Corinthians 16:15 NRSV
Wasn’t this past Sunday great? What a blessing it was to have Rev. Dr. Larry Patterson back at PHCC!
I hope you heard his wonderful sermon either in person or online. If not, you can still do so on our web site, YouTube or Facebook. He preached from the first chapter of Matthew, Jesus’ genealogy on his father’s side. This meant elder Jill Watson had to pronounce some difficult biblical names (Amminadab? Zerubbabel?), but as she promised, she read the names “like a boss.” His sermon title was “How Far Back Do You Remember?” He invited PHCC to think of how far back we remember in our own lives and family trees, and how far back we remember in our own experience of this congregation and its family tree. He highlighted a few “saints” of the church during his time as pastor.
The interesting thing about the Gospel of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Luke provides Mary’s family tree) is who gets included in it. Three names pop out: Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheeba. The names are first of all notable, because they are all women. Jewish genealogies of the time pretty much exclusively listed men. The second reason their names are notable is because their stories don’t make the men around them look very good.
Tamar’s story in Genesis 38 is a tragic but wild one. She married Er, the oldest son of Judah, but Er was killed by God for unrighteousness. During this time, remember, women were considered to be of worth only if they could bear offspring. When a married man died, if he had a wife of child-bearing years, she would be married to her late husband’s next oldest brother. That happened and Tamar was married to Onan, Judah’s next oldest son. Onan, well, to put it politely, did not live up to his responsibility and was also killed by God. Once again, Tamar was married to the next son of Judah who was still a boy. She waited for him to grow up, but her father-in-law thought she was cursed and refused to let his son have intercourse with her. So, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She dresses as a prostitute and hoodwinks her father-in-law into intercourse. In the end, Tamar gets a child, Perez, who is in Jesus’ family tree. (If that story is too risqué for you, don’t blame me. It’s in the Bible.)
Rahab’s story takes place in Joshua chapter two. In it, two Israelite spies are sent into the city of Jericho. The spies are discovered, so they hide in Rahab’s house and she helps them escape. All this sounds nice, except Rahab happened to be a prostitute. Nonetheless she has a son named Boaz who ends up marrying Ruth and is a part of Jesus’ family tree.
Bathsheeba gets a bad rap for somehow luring King David into killing her husband and getting her pregnant, but let’s get real. How exactly was she going to say no to the king? Her story told in 2 Samuel 11 and 1 Chronicles 3 isn’t a pretty one. The all-time best king of Israel commits a major sin and must pay the penalty for it. It’s the kind of story families don’t speak about, yet Bathsheeba is the mother of Solomon, a pretty major biblical figure and another member of Jesus’ family tree.
Why did Rev. Dr. Patterson point out these shocking stories in his sermon Sunday? He did so to point out that the people in Jesus’ family tree were far from perfect, but God trusted them to carry out God’s purposes. Likewise, the people in PHCC’s family tree were not perfect, but God trusted them anyway to carry out what God had planned.
I’ve been your interim minister for five months now, and in that time I’ve heard a lot of great stories about “saints” of the church who had passed on. Rev. Dr. Patterson assured me that despite whatever nostalgia may exist for his years here at PHCC things were not all rosy. There was conflict, disagreement and mistakes along with the good times. Even the “saints” he mentioned in his sermon were not perfect people.
PHCC has many strengths, including a strong 2020 leadership team, but from what I can tell, PHCC has a pretty shallow bench of leaders willing to step up. Like many churches these days, I suspect that come nominating time, there has to be some arm pulling, maybe even pleading to fill leadership roles. If this church is like others I’ve served, this means some folks who agree to be leaders do so because they have trouble saying no rather than because they have joy or passion for the position. I could be wrong, after all I’ve only known you during COVID-19 when church activity is much lower than usual, but I’m willing to bet I am not.
A healthy, vibrant and growing church needs people who will step up and take responsibility to make it so. While it is true a church needs an effective minister, the best minister in the world can only do so much without capable leaders with her. I’ve heard a lot of folks wishing for days past when attendance was higher, the membership rolls were longer and the money was greater. I’ve also heard that much of the responsibility for the lack of those things in the present lays at the feet of former ministers. I wasn’t here, so I can’t speak to the truth of such statements, but in my experience it takes two to tango. Whatever former ministers at PHCC got right or wrong, a healthy, vibrant and growing church is ultimately the responsibility of its members not its clergy.
There are lots of reasons church folks resist leadership these days. People are busier than ever with more conflicts. People are burnt out from church politics and conflict. Older members have served time in leadership and are exhausted from it. These are all real, but I suspect another reason is that folks feel like they are neither talented enough nor a good enough Christian. Yet Jesus’ family tree shows, God works best through people who seem on the outside like unfit candidates for the job. God trusts you with God’s plans. Are you willing to trust that God actually knows what God is doing?
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul calls church people “saints” or “holy ones.” Why? His letters reveal these people were far from perfect and those churches had real problems. Maybe he understood that what mattered most was God’s grace working through imperfect people. God’s grace matters more than our imperfections.
If PHCC is going to have a thriving future, it will take imperfect “saints” who feel led by God to lead in this congregation. Are you one of them?
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples