“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
--Matthew 5:4 NRSV
I shared in Tuesday’s email about how the liturgical church calendar has All Saints Sunday as the first Sunday after Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve). It’s customary to read from the Gospel of Matthew’s Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12, which forms the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). I won’t be preaching on the Beatitudes this Sunday, so I felt it was a good idea to share about them via these emails.
Remember, the Beatitudes (the verses that begin “Blessed are . . . “) are not instructions to be poor in spirit, mourners, meek, persecuted, etc., but rather declarations of the way God sees the world. Jesus depicts God’s reality in a way which is contrary to how we understand how the world works. This seems especially true in the case of the second beatitude (“Blessed are those who mourn. . . “).
Often interpreters who understand the Beatitudes as instructions or as ideals to strive for see this beatitude only in communal terms. In this kind of view, the mourning in question is concern about the sinful or unrighteous state of the world. In other words, those who are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven grieve all the ways our world falls short of God’s intended purposes. I certainly don’t think this kind of mourning is bad, rather I think it is an appropriate perspective for people of faith to mourn the ways humanity despoils the earth, commits acts of violence upon one another, supports prejudice of every kind and allows a sizable chunk of humanity to live in squalor. Nonetheless, I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind with this beatitude, at least not exclusively.
I believe Jesus meant people are blessed by God who are mourning losses. It sounds absurd, so I get why interpreters have found ways to understand this mourning as something other than the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a dream or the dissolution of a marriage. How can one possibly be blessed when they are enduring the inevitable losses in life?
I think the answer comes when we understand “blessed” less as a tangible benefit of some kind and more as divine favor or concern. Attempts to point out the blessings that may or may not arise from grief can come across as cold or cruel, as if one is telling someone in pain to “look on the bright side” or remember “every cloud has a silver lining”. If blessings ever do come from times of grief, they come in the form of personal growth, an increase in compassion and empathy, or gratitude for the love received from others. These may come eventually, but they never fill the void left in one’s life.
For me, the words “Blessed are those who mourn . . . “are a comfort in and of themselves, because it means when I grieve that I am not forgotten or abandoned by God. God cares for me. I am not being cursed or punished because of some sin or shortcoming but rather painful losses happen in life for reasons that remain a mystery, and God is present with us during those times.
Indeed, the Gospels reveal Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, wept over the fate of Jerusalem, and wept facing his impending death. The power of the Incarnation is that in Christ God experienced what it is to grieve. This is not a God who remains far off from us but a God who draws near to us and shares our pain. The loss we feel is felt by God too.
This blessedness or co-suffering of God with those who mourn is beautifully expressed in the hymn “Be Still My Soul.”
Be still my soul the Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain
Leave to thy God to order and provide
In every change He faithful will remain
Be still my soul thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end
The hymn speaks to the second half of the beatitude “. . . for they shall be comforted.” There is no time table given for when this comfort will show up. In this life, comfort may come in the faithfulness of friends and family, a sense of God’s presence or simply the passage of time. Comfort in its fullness comes in the mysteries that await us after this life is over.
The future orientation of the second half of the beatitude (“. . . for they shall be comforted”) offers us the guarantee that the comfort will come even though we may veel our pain will never end. This promise is essential, because so much of what we grieve is the loss of an expected future that will not come to pass. Former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ John Thomas speaks eloquently of this facet of grief:
We often think of grief as the loss of something or someone that has been important to us in the past. But the sharpest pain of grief comes, I believe, in the moments when we suddenly find ourselves confronting a vastly altered future . . . It is not so much the loss of a rich past as it is the prospect of a barren future that causes us our most profound grief.
Jesus’ declaration that those who mourn “shall be comforted” is a promise that when we think our lives are over and believe we can’t go on without what or whom we have lost, God offers a future still. Our lives will never go back to what they were before our losses; our losses remain with us. But a new kind of life always lies before us, because our Divine friend walks with us ino that future.
In 2020, we have known so many losses of all kinds: over 220,000 people in our country dead from COVID-19, loss of community, jobs and our best laid plans. The interpreters who want to interpret this Beatitude as communal, mourning over the state of our world, are not all wrong. I just believe our mourning is not an either/or proposition. We mourn for the suffering in our world and we mourn for the losses in our individual lives. Whatever our suffering, whatever we mourn, Jesus promises us that the blessing of God's presence remains true. New life remains in our future and our God walks besides us on our way there.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
This week the New York Times ran an article entitled “New Spirits Rise in Old, Repurposed Churches.” It described church buildings around the country that were sold by closed congregations and have been repurposed for new uses. Many times when a congregation closes another one buys it, but in a growing number of cases the church building becomes something else entirely. The articled offered these statistics:
It is unclear how many religious buildings are repurposed. Roughly 1 percent of the nation’s 350,000 congregations — or 3,500 — close each year . . . But not all find new uses and some buildings are filled by different congregations.
These “different congregations” sometimes look very different from a house of worship. An Episcopal church in Denver founded in 1880 became a dance club called “The Church” (real original). In Troy, NY, a former Catholic church was bought by the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity. The frat brothers made an agreement with the town when they bought it that they would keep it alcohol-free, but if they’ve done so, then they would be the first college fraternity to do so, well ever. Second Presbyterian Church of Newark, NJ, became the headquarters of Audible, a digital audiobook and podcast provider. While in San Francisco, a Christian Science Church founded in 1923 is now home for an archive of everything ever posted on the internet.
I know a church is the people that make it up and not a building, but it just feels wrong to transform a building dedicated to worshipping God into a building used for such secular purposes. I guess I should keep in mind that in many cases a church might sell its building and use the proceeds for good causes. I’ve known churches that closed and sold their property which gave the money from the sale to start new churches. Also, just because a congregation sells its property doesn’t mean it died. In some of these cases, the neighborhood around the church building changed or its members began moving to other parts of their cities. So they sold their property and built a new building elsewhere. I also know of congregations who couldn’t afford to keep up a big expensive building, so they sold them and used the money to support ministry in a rented property like a storefront.
I first began taking notice of articles describing the fate of sold church buildings a few years ago. The first one I saw was an article in The Atlantic titled “America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches.” It detailed the decades-long decline in church membership and attendance, as well as demographic shifts in some expensive real estate markets. In places like Brooklyn, NY or around Washington, D.C., historic church buildings were being bought by developers and turned into hipster lofts and condos. Preservationists were aghast and so were many church folks.
My whole career as a minister I’ve been hearing about the decline of denominations and local congregations. There are so many reasons for this, such as generational change, lower commitment to institutions, disillusionment with organized religion and more. Predictions vary, but it is clear that sometime not too far off in the future as churches lose their older members--the most numerous and most committed in churches today--there is going to be a massive sell off of church buildings.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as I’ve said, as a lifelong churchgoer it just feels wrong to me to no longer use a church building for spiritual purposes. On the other hand, the biggest source of conflict and the biggest obstacle to actually doing the ministry of Jesus Christ I’ve seen in the congregations I’ve served has been the church buildings. Again and again, staff, ministries and more essential things have been sacrificed to maintain buildings too large for dwindling congregations to manage. It’s as if church folks felt like they were actually doing the work of the Gospel as long as they kept the roof from caving in. This idolatry of church buildings is pretty sad when one considers Jesus did just fine without his own building. So did the early church; Christianity survived for centuries before the first church buildings were built.
As congregations get smaller and have fewer resources, it is fair to ask whether or not it is good stewardship of God’s money to work so hard at maintaining buildings that stand empty most of the week. I wonder why we ever thought this was a good idea in the first place. In no other sector do buildings get so much attention but get used so infrequently.
In this week’s New York Times article, there were some church buildings which had been repurposed for uses that were at least closer to their original purposes. One had been made into a winery and another was made into a restaurant. Hey, Jesus spent a lot of time sitting around tables eating and drinking with people, so much so he was criticized for it. A church building in New Orleans that a congregation couldn’t afford to repair after hurricane Katrina became a recording studio used by local jazz musicians and even stars like Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and Janelle Monae. I’ve certainly had plenty of spiritual moments listening to music and attending concerts, so this doesn’t seem so bad to me.
One church building, however, had been repurposed into something that seemed closer to its original use than the others. A Methodist church in South Charleston, WV has been transformed into Cafe Appalachia. A non-profit group runs the restaurant that serves comfort food and prides itself on being a part of its community. At the heart of Cafe Appalachia are the kitchen workers. They are part of a job training program for women recovering from opioid addiction. West Virginia has the highest rate in the country for opioid deaths and everyone knows someone affected by the crisis. Two quotes about Cafe Appalachia caught my eye:
“There’s sadness when a worshiping space changes, but this is a whole different kind of sanctuary,” said the Rev. Cindy Briggs-Biondi, the former pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church.
“If Jesus were here now?” said Ronnie Skeens, a regular. “The way my faith works? He’d be back there cooking with them.”
I can’t help but think that if more churches looked and acted like Cafe Appalachia, then there would be a whole lot less church buildings on the market.
PHCC is more fortunate than many churches. Its building costs money to maintain, but it is in good shape compared to the dilapidated shape of many others. Also, PHCC’s building is used, even in the time of COVID-19. Merry Moments continues to provide an excellent preschool education (albeit at smaller numbers). The calendar for the Life Center is full for the next three months due to basketball practice by various community teams. AA groups meet faithfully here, and a few other community groups are now using space too.
Yet, as your interim minister, I can’t help but wonder what other dreams God has that PHCC can be a part of. Once upon a time, SPEAC began in our building thanks to the dedication of some of its members. It’s flourished and now serves hundreds of hungry families in our community each year. I just wonder what might happen if a group of dedicated Christ followers who believe in “Bold Hospitality” began praying for God to show them how to make the most of their building for the Kingdom of God.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
--Matthew 5:3 NRSV
As I explained in yesterday’s email, according to the liturgical calendar the first Sunday after “All Hallow’s Eve” (Halloween) is All Saints Sunday. Since churches like ours don’t have capital “S” saints but rather use the word “saint” the way the Apostle Paul did, which is referring to all Christians as lower case “s” saints, I like to make All Saints Sunday a time to remember people on our faith journeys who have made a difference in our lives.
The traditional Gospel reading for All Saints Sunday is Matthew 5:1-12. This passage has come to be called the Beatitudes (see yesterday’s email for my explanation why). Each of these phrases begins with the words often translated as “Blessed are. . .“ These are not instructions to be poor in spirit, mourners, meek, persecuted, etc., but rather declarations of the way God sees the world. Jesus depicts God’s reality in a way which is contrary to how we understand how the world works.
Jesus says, “Contrary to how the church usually does things, those who are poor in spirit are actually blessed by God.” This doesn’t really make sense. Elsewhere Jesus urges his disciples to be full of faith. The Holy Spirit is sent to the first Christians and being full of it seems like a good thing. Yet, Jesus declares those who have little spirit already have the kingdom of heaven. Say what?
In my lifetime of being in various kind of churches and attending or officiating a whole lot of Christian funerals, I have often heard people praised as a person of faith. “He was a man of faith.” “She was a woman of faith.” Oftentimes, by this phrase they mean the person was a dedicated Christian or an involved church member. Sometimes I’ve heard the phrase used to imply the person was a superior sort of Christian, especially faithful, as if she or he possessed some degree of holiness or God’s blessing that is more than others. I have never heard anyone praised at their funeral as “poor in spirit.”
Jesus’ strange declaration that those who don’t seem to have much faith or spirit already possess the Kingdom of Heaven makes a little more sense when we consider what else Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). A little while after the Beatitudes, Jesus has this to say about giving alms (giving to others in need):
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.”
He then has this to say about prayer:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
He then says this about fasting:
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
Jesus seems particularly critical of those who make a show of their religion. Elsewhere he declares that God hears the prayer of a humble sinner over a self-righteous person. He says tax collectors, prostitutes and others singled out as committing worse sins than others are entering the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of the most important religious people.
What this means is that the celebrity pastors and sycophantic religious leaders offering cover for corrupt political leaders and the TV preachers asking for money are not the blessed ones. In fact, according to God’s point of view, the most visible Christians in society are further away from the Kingdom of Heaven than the people they condemn. If we take Jesus seriously, then when we make our spirituality a contest, we have already missed the point.
People who use religion to acquire power, money, celebrity and fame “have received their reward” and it is not being a part of what God is up to in this world or the next.
People who use their faith to feel superior over others, condemn others, judge others and exclude others “have received their reward” and it is not the Kingdom of Heaven.
But people who struggle with their faith and even question whether God exists, don’t understand why there is so much suffering in the world, own their own faults, mistakes and the pain they have caused others, and demonstrate humility, grace and love to others whoever they are—these kind of people, “the poor in spirit,” have a different kind of reward.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples
came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
--Matthew 5:1-3 NRSV
For the next three Sundays at PHCC, I will be preaching about stewardship or what does God expect us to do with our money. PHCC’s annual pledge campaign begins this week, and financial support of PHCC matters more now than ever, however people of faith resisting the temptations that come with money matters all the time. How can Christians have a positive view of money that inspires generosity rather than nagging, guilt and shame? That’s what I’ll be talking about the next few weeks.
Unfortunately, this means I’ll miss out on preaching about All Saints Sunday, one of my favorite Sundays of the year. Some churches preach on the saints (churches that are Catholic, Episcopal and some other Protestant churches), but other churches combine it with All Soul’s Day, a day to remember all those who have died. I tend to do the latter, because in “low church” congregations like ours we don’t usually elevate some Christians above others. I believe it’s a great time to recognize all the “lower case” saints who have influenced our faith journeys.
It’s also a good time to reflect upon the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Matthew 5:1-12, often called the Beatitudes. Since I won’t be preaching on them Sunday, I’ll write about them this week.
Why are they called the Beatitudes? The Latin translation of these verses from the Greek each began with the Latin word “beati” meaning “happy”, “rich”, or “blessed.’ (The original Greek word “makario” meant basically the same thing.) Over time, first in Latin and later in English, the term “beatitude” came to mean a state of being happy, rich or blessed. Some confusion comes up in modern English, because the only word we usually hear based on the root “beati” is “beatify’ or “beatification” which is a step on the road to sainthood in the Catholic church, so those of us who aren’t Catholic don’t naturally connect “beatitude” and ‘blessed”.
Another problem for English speaking Christians is the confusion with our modern use of the word ‘attitude” meaning (according to Google) “a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person's behavior”. Confusing “beatitude” with “attitude” risks interpreting these verses as ‘attitudes’ Jesus wants us to have. In other words, Jesus says to us “Be poor in spirit, mourning, persecuted, etc.” in order to receive God’s blessings. Indeed, many books have been written with just that interpretation. At best this is only part of what these verses mean, at worst this way of understanding the Beatitudes entirely misses Jesus’ point.
I believe the best way to interpret these verses is not as an instruction manual from Jesus, but as declarations from Jesus about how the world really works, all appearances to the contrary. A group of clergy called SALT Collective does a nice job of describing this way of understanding the Beatitudes:
Jesus paints an utterly counterintuitive picture of blessedness: looking around the world, then and now, and it’s easy to conclude that the “blessed” are the rich, happy, strong, satisfied, ruthless, deceptive, aggressive, safe, and well-liked — and yet here’s Jesus, saying that despite appearances, the truly “blessed” are actually the poor, mourning, gentle, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, persecuted, and reviled.
When we usually make use of the word ‘blessed” we mean it in material terms, as in I am blessed to have the basic necessities of life (or maybe I’m blessed because I own a bunch of stuff and have a big bank account). Perhaps, we may use the word “blessed’ to describe less tangible things such as the blessings of family, friends and the like. Yet, I believe Jesus is using the term “blessed’ to literally mean divine favor and not about something we possess or earn. Read this way, the Beatitudes become words of consolation and encouragement for those who need it most.
Even if the world does not value you like it does celebrities, the one percent, the rich and the powerful, God values you, cares for you, loves you and knows you.
Especially if your circumstances make you wonder if God cares for you at all or if God even exists, know God loves you, cares for you, loves you and knows you.
Jesus’ words about who is blessed comes at the front of his Sermon on the Mount. Before he gets around to the instruction list, Jesus has already declared who is blessed. So, we need not waste time and energy on trying to earn or keep God’s blessing. God’s blessing of the poor in spirit, the mourner, the gentle, the hungry and thirsty, merciful, pure in heart, and persecuted already exists! It is the way God’s reality works, a preset condition and we do not have the power to lose this divine favor if we are among those on this list!
The minister and author Nadia Bolz-Weber describes it this way:
Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?”
Bolz-Weber and other authors have taken their turns of writing their own Beatitudes declaring who is blessed by God, especially people our society doesn’t value, so I thought I’d write a few of my own during this time of pandemic.
Blessed are the quarantined for they shall experience the presence of God.
Blessed are the lonely for they shall have a Divine friend.
Blessed are the caregivers for they shall be cared for.
Blessed are the anxious for they shall know peace.
Blessed are the overworked for they shall find rest.
Blessed are the unemployed for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are those who protest, organize and vote to provide care for the uninsured, the underpaid and the cash strapped for great shall be their reward.
Whom would you write a Beatitude for in this anxious and turbulent time?
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
“6And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the
beginning, his command is that you walk in love.”
II John 1:6 NIV
In this dark season when all seems to strain our every fiber of faith one truth rings clear: God is Love.
As we face the final weeks of a bitter political season, as the pandemics of the coronavirus and systemic racism march on and neighbor seems angry at neighbor in ways unseen for over a century and a half, we can put our faith in the words of Jesus Christ.
From every corner of the nation, every broadcast, even some pulpits the anger spews, but John reminds us of the command which Jesus gave in Matthew.
“39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Matthew 22:36 NIV
Loving our neighbor is not just about loving those like us. It is not loving those who worship as you worship, walk as you walk, have the same skin tone or cultural background. Our neighbor is everyone. We are called to more than friendly relationships; we are called to have a heart felt deep connection with all people including those we think of as “less than”.
In John, chapter 4 verses 1 through 42, we read the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It is a prime example of privilege and difference. Jesus, a Jew should look down on the woman not the least because she is a woman and a Samaritan, but because as we learn her history, she is not the most savory of characters. Yet Jesus does not look down on her. He asks her for a drink of water. To which the woman responds in surprise – a Jew asking a Samaritan for anything. He then offers her the greatest gift of mankind, grace. He lays out for her the truth of the coming of God’s Kingdom. And through this unlikely source, this “less than”, He reaches a whole town of people leading them to salvation.
If we indeed walk in Christ, we must lay down the privilege of being better than our neighbors. We must put aside the differences that may be obvious and those that are hidden. We cannot, in the white church, walk in the black mother’s shoes, we know nothing of her worries and fears for her children. We cannot walk in the shoes of the immigrant who has fled violence our eyes will never witness. We cannot walk in the shoes of the homeless woman plagued by mental ghost that keep her from living a “normal” life. But we can love them. Just as Jesus showed love to the woman from Sychar, a Samaritan. We can offer our support and our grace to everyone. Whether we meet or only hear of their plight, we can be humble allies in their walk toward justice.
In his book, God and the Pandemic, N. T. Wright speaks of Jesus always looking forward. And although the book is primarily about the Coronavirus, much of what he writes can be added to the pandemic of racism, anger and distrust that we face today.
As with many of his books he asserts that Jesus was the final warning, that His death and resurrection ushered in the Kingdom of God and we are now struggling to learn to live in that Kingdom. We are called now to bring justice to our brothers and sisters in chains, whether they be slavery, poverty or illness. We are called to build the Kingdom now by loving one another without reservation. Instead of looking for a scapegoat, we are to look on everyone with loving grace, just as Jesus has looked on us with grace.
We have been told, in the gospels and the Old Testament what we are to do. Micah 6:8 reads:
“8The LORD God has told us
what is right
and what he demands:
“See that justice is done,
let mercy be your first concern,
and humbly obey your God.”
Micah 6:8 CEV
We are to do what is right. Stand with the downcast. We are to seek justice for all races. We are to show mercy, not condemnation for those “less than” ourselves. And doing this we will humbly obey God. In laying ourselves before Jesus and letting the Spirit guide our hearts we can put aside our privilege and build the kingdom together, just as Jesus did in the Samaritan town of Sychar through the unlikely character of a woman disdained by her own people.
Loving one another is more than a quip; more than a passing fad; it is a heartfelt, deep, energy filled action that looks beyond the appearance and finds the grace of God surrounding all people of all forms. Let us live in God’s love for this world.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and
have it abundantly.
--John 10:10 NRSV
Maybe it's because I'm passed the middle in middle age and have begun the
second half of my life, but whether it's because of my age or something
else, I've been thinking about "work" lately. I've worked in a variety of
places and done a variety of work, and I've been thinking about what parts
of my work have meant the most to me. For many (most?) of humanity, work is
a matter of survival and procuring the necessities of shelter, food, medical
care, raising children, etc. For those of us who live in the middle class
and above, work is more than just survival; it's also about purpose and
identity. If one is privileged enough to have a choice in where one works,
then why one works becomes a significant question.
In our culture, just think about the words we use to describe our
The words we use to talk about our jobs raise questions; such as, when we
think about what we "do for a living" are we really talking about living?
Frederick Buechner expresses the question of "life" verses "doing something
for a living" this way:
Jobs are what people do for a living, many of them for eight hours a day,
five days a week, minus vacations, for most of their lives. It is tragic to
think how few of them have their hearts in it. They work mainly for the
purpose of making money enough to enjoy their moments of not working
If one must spend around 40-plus years of their life working at least five
out of the seven days of the week for around fifty weeks a year--a huge
chunk of their one and only life, shouldn't that work be about really living
instead of working for the weekend or the next vacation?
The great writer and interviewer Studs Terkel once wrote in his amazing book
of interviews titled Working, "Working is a lot more than economics. It's
about a search for daily meaning as well as for daily bread, for recognition
as well as cash; in short, for a sort of life, rather than a Monday through
Friday sort of dying." Living instead of dying? I think I've heard something
about that before.
Jesus said, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." In
context in the tenth chapter of John, Jesus describes himself as the gate to
a sheep pen. Anyone that doesn't enter the pen by the gate is a thief who
comes only to destroy. In other words, the abundant life Jesus offers comes
through him, or more precisely with God, the giver of life. Christians have
spiritualized these words to make them only about getting to heaven or about
believing proper doctrine, but especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus is
talking about the sort of life one lives here and now. This abundant life is
not about being right, as opposed to others who don't share your beliefs,
but about connection with God and being the one and only you, the one
created in God's image, the only you there ever will be.
I know a school secretary, a position that can be rather thankless, who
cares deeply about the kids who enter the school office every day. She knows
which kids don't have enough food to eat. She knows which kids are homeless.
She knows which kids have a rough home life. All these kids struggle in
school. She watches over them all and is a rare adult in their lives who is
invested in each of them.
I know managers at restaurants, box stores and machine shops. They work hard
to keep the business going--often underpaid and overworked. They know each
of their employees whether they are lifelong laborers or teenagers at a
summer job. They care about each person they work with and attempt to create
a safe and respectful workplace day after day, so their people can do their
jobs well and with dignity. These are the kind of people who write
recommendations and know the names of their employees' children.
I know a Human Resources Director who daily works through conflicts between
employees. She views company policies as a way to protect the rights and
dignity of all employees, not just the ones at the top. She sees her job as
teaching people how to act, speak and communicate in ways that create
respect and shared solutions to inevitable problems. For her, human
resources isn't about bureaucracy or filling out forms but rather improving
the lives of the people with whom she works.
In each of these cases, the job is about more than punching a clock, earning
money and surviving until the weekend. There is something more happening,
something less tangible and more spiritual, something less temporal and more
eternal. These examples illustrate people using their gifts given to them by
God and living out of the image of God inside of them. They are offering
their authentic selves to a world drowning in the inauthentic and
superficial. They are earning a living while also living.
If you are starting out on your career, what is it that is holy about your
chosen field? How do you make a difference in other people's lives?
If you are in mid-life, what about your employment journey thus far has been
the most meaningful, let the answers to that question guide your next steps
along the way.
If you are retired, what did you learn from your years of working that can
be shared with your kids, grandkids and younger people searching for living
and not just earning a living? What was meaningful about the work you did
that you can do now as a volunteer or mentor?
We only get one life, and if we are going to spend a big chunk of it
working, shouldn't earning a living involve really living?
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to
you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ,
and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My
speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a
demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.
--1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NRSV
As a minister, my inbox is filled with emails promising tools guaranteed to grow my church. It’s a hazard of the profession. I tend to view such offers with skepticism, because if all these strategies and tools worked then why are there so many dying churches these days? Sure, in every community there’s usually one large church that everyone points to as proof churches can grow and usually the finger pointing at the large church turns to point with judgment at one’s own smaller church. The problem with such judgment is that nobody mentions that the larger churches often succeed not by making new converts but by sucking up members from smaller churches like a spiritual vacuum. Often the larger churches (especially the megachurches) are cults of personality that have found ways to put on a better show instead of authentic communities of faith.
Don’t get me wrong, things like an attractive building, effective preaching, quality music and offerings for kids and youth all matter, but they matter less than many realize. There’s no excuse for churches offering low quality ministry, but a lot of congregations out there purporting to be thriving churches are superficial, consumer-oriented fluff. It’s pretty packaging on an empty box.
As PHCC makes decisions about its future, it will save itself a lot of time, aggravation and money accepting that most churches are never going to be as large as they were a generation or two ago. That’s not the world we live in anymore. As I’ve written previously, I’m not convinced the larger numbers present in the post-war church boom in the 1950’s and early 1960’s really amounted to more disciples of Jesus Christ. Sure, church pews and bank accounts were full, but that’s not the same as people devoted to following Jesus. If it were so, then why is it that when our society’s approval and rewarding of church involvement waned churches began declining? Many who came to church did so, because it was good for business and their standing in their communities. When such “earthly” rewards went away, so did their need to go to church.
I believe smaller churches can thrive if they are willing to offer something that is authentic, loving and vulnerable. These qualities are what made Christianity grow exponentially in a Roman Empire that was hostile to it. People came, because in the Christian faith community they were valued in ways society did not value them. People who had no place to belong found belonging. People who found no awe and wonder in the gods of culture discovered the awe and wonder of the one true God. People were loved because of the image of God inside them made them valuable instead of feeling they were valued only because they were important, wealthy or influential. That’s why Christianity flourished. Where these qualities are found, Christianity will always thrive.
United Church of Christ minister Jennifer Brownell makes this point in an eloquent way:
What if church growth, though, was less about a plan or a program and more about an orientation, an attitude, a way of being? What if the most attractive feature of your church to young families (and old singles and all the configurations of humanity in between) was that you had the kind of true peace that confronted conflict in a healthy, unafraid way? What if the most appealing growth plan was a commitment to faith so unabashedly reverent that it looked something like awe? What if the best church growth program of all was a community of people giving and receiving the kind of comfort that can only be inspired by the Holy Spirit? I mean, I don't know if it would work. But if your church is anything like mine, you've tried everything else.
PHCC leaders have begun important conversations about how the church should move forward and what the future of the church will look like. These are the kind of preliminary conversations that are essential and must take place before a pastoral search really gets going. Conversations that ask the right questions before a pastoral search gets up and running. Questions such as:
The first question leads to searching for a pastor, setting priorities in spending and attempting ministries that exhaust a small congregation and leave everyone feeling like they have failed. The second question leads to a congregation which looks for a spiritual guide rather than a charismatic guru and ministries that flow out of what church people gladly offer rather than guiltily and half-heartedly hand over. The first question leads to a competition between our church and other churches. The second question leads to us sharing what we have with anyone and everyone who is working to build the Kingdom of God. The first question leads to making our church look good so we look good, but the second question leads to God getting the credit God deserves.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be a part of a faith community that helps me know God’s peace, love and grace rather than a church that contributes to my insecurities which say who I am is dependent on how much I own, who I know and whether or not I can write a big check. There’s a reason why yoga classes are everywhere, online courses offering help with mindfulness fill our social media feeds, and self-help books are best sellers. People are just as hungry for peace and purpose as they ever were. The need is real, but it will not be met at a church whose biggest goal is to have more numbers—more people in the pew and more money in the bank.
I’d rather go to a small church that is real than a big church that’s fake. How about you?
Grace and Peace,
Trust in the Lord with all your heart.
--Proverbs 3:5 NIV
Not too long ago, we upgraded the internet at my house. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all four of us were at home all the time using the internet, our bandwidth couldn’t handle the demands of four people streaming videos, video games, podcasts, social media and checking email. As it turned out, we were using “old technology” and the wireless router providing Wi-Fi was several years old and therefore ancient by current standards. Also, our provider had new plans which gave us faster speeds for a cheaper price. It turns out they are happy to just keep on billing you at a higher rate for slower speeds until you bother to check into it yourself. Since the upgrade, nobody is complaining about slow download speeds at my house, but I’m sure this pause in outrage will be only temporary. Our society is addicted to getting what we want as fast as possible.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to watch most any movie I want at the push of a few buttons and I get frustrated whenever the dreaded buffering symbol shows up. Whether it’s an hourglass, an arrow moving in a circle, a spiral or whatever, I grit my teeth at all of them. But I do take a perverse joy (just as my parents did before me and their parents did before them going back to the beginning of time) telling my teenagers about the days of going to an actual store to rent videos on videocassette, having a phone with an extremely long cord so I could talk on the phone in another room away from my parents and how amazing it was to connect to America Online via a modem which sounded like a truck carrying telephones crashed into another truck carrying staticky old black and white TV sets. Things keep getting exponentially faster but we are never satisfied for long.
I find myself at this particular moment in time especially impatient. When will the pandemic be over so things can go back to normal/ When will the election come so that the bombardment of political ads will end? When will our society do what needs to be done to eliminate racism, injustice towards immigrants, climate change, poverty and so many other social ills? When will things change for the better? I feel nothing but impatient right now.
Our spiritual lives seem like an odd mixture of patience and impatience. On the one hand there are times when putting something off any longer can hurt ourselves or others. We put off changing our diets or exercise that our bodies and minds need to be healthy. We delay vacations and times of rest and become less productive due to fatigue. We make excuses not to change policies and even laws that are unjust as people with less power suffer. On the other hand, there is much that is not in our control and we cannot change. We waste energy on anger and fear instead of finding peace and joy in the present moment. We love efficiency so much that we lose touch with the joy found in creating something of quality with care and intention.
Patience is one of the so-called Christian virtues, but it is not valued much today. In my own mind, I confuse patience with passivity. My nature is always to press forward intending to use the human agency given to me by God to its fullest. Of course, my way of plowing ahead regardless of the consequences is often due to the anxiety that comes when I slow down enough to acknowledge it.
The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen draws a distinction between patience and passivity. He writes:
Patience is not waiting passively until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are. When we are impatient, we try to get away from where we are. We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later, and somewhere else.
The scientist and writer on stress reduction Jon Kabat-Zinn describes patience this way:
Patience is an ever-present alternative to the mind’s endemic restlessness and impatience. Scratch the surface of impatience and what you will find lying beneath it, subtly or not so subtly, is anger. It’s the strong energy of not wanting things to be the way they are and blaming someone (often yourself) or some thing for it. This doesn’t mean you can’t hurry when you have to. It is possible even to hurry patiently, mindfully, moving fast because you have chosen to.
It seems so many writers, teachers and thinkers which speak of mindfulness these days are merely repeating the same message of spiritual teachers from long ago: whether one is moving fast or slow, be conscious of where you are, who you are and why you are doing what you are doing. This consciousness is at the heart of what we Christians call faith.
Faith isn’t really a set of beliefs but a way of existing in the world, a way of trusting God. The preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor described this change in her own spiritual journey:
I…arrived at an understanding of faith that had far more to do with trust than with certainty. I trusted God to be God even if I could not say who God was for sure. I trusted God to sustain the world although I could not say for sure how that happened. I trusted God to hold me and those I loved, in life and in death, without giving me one shred of conclusive evidence that it was so.
This kind of faith, the trust kind, the kind we rely on when we either cannot act or don’t know what to do is difficult. It requires courage. Benedictine writer David Steindl-Rast puts it this way:
To have faith does not primarily mean believing something, but rather believing in someone. Faith is trust. It takes courage to trust. The opposite of faith is not disbelief, but distrust, fear. Fear makes us cling to anything within reach. Fear clings even to beliefs… Faith is the courage to respond gratefully to every given situation, out of trust in the Giver.
These anxious times cause us to hit the refresh buttons on our browsers, look at every news alert on our phones and obsessively watch cable news, but none of these actions offers us peace. Pointless activity is not the same as purposeful living. Patience generated by trust in God reveals to us when it is best to do something and when it is best to do little. The paradox of accomplishing more by doing less seems unsatisfying when we are afraid and angry, but out of such paradoxes God reveals to us peace and purpose.
May God grant you the peace of mind to discern when to do more and when to do less.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of
God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us,
created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
--Ephesians 2:8-10 NRSV
The hospital comedy Scrubs aired on NBC from 2001-2010. As its opening credits rolled, a quirky song played. I could never catch all the words, but the credits ended with the words, “I’m no Superman.” It turns out the song is called “Superman” and its by a band called Lazlo Bone. The chorus of the song goes:
Well, I know what I've been told
You gotta work to feed the soul
But I can't do this all on my own
No, I know, I'm no Superman
I'm no Superman
I don’t know anything about this band, and I’m not quite sure how the chorus of this song fits with the verses, but I feel like I need to play this song every morning so it will become an earworm in my head. That way maybe I will remember that I’m no Superman.
You’d think all I’d need to do is look in the mirror to realize I would not look good in blue tights and red cape, but you see I was a “good kid.” In my nuclear family, I learned that getting praise and affection from my parents meant being a “good kid.” That idea transferred over into my spirituality (as our relationships with our parents often do) so that I felt that to get God’s love I likewise had to be a “good kid.” I heard lessons about grace and not earning God’s love, but those ideas never really sunk in. My identity and spirituality became a twisted sort of egotism. On the one hand, I felt like everything was up to me in terms of being good enough to prove my worth before God and the world, but at the same time I knew that I was never good enough. I had no sense that people loved me for who I was and I didn’t really believe God loved me just as I was either. I had to be a sort of Superman to prove to myself, everyone else and God that I was good.
When one lives with the belief that deep down one is really not good enough that leads to a lot of unhealthy behaviors. Serving others and not being selfish becomes a great way to deny yourself what you need to be a healthy person and to have healthy relationships. When you believe you have to keep giving to others, because deep down you have to earn their love and prove you are worthy of their love, then you quickly become a burned out and even bitter person. When one needs to prove their self-worth, then everything becomes a competition lest someone else do something better proving you aren’t as good as you feel you must be. Living this way, one gives not out of one’s best self but out of one’s worst self, a self ruled by insecurity, fear and constant feelings of inferiority. It’s a strangely defeating to feel like one must be Superman all the while believing that you are the farthest thing from it.
Parker Palmer writes about this kind of life in his amazing book, Let Your Life Speak:
When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality, loveless—a gift given more from my need to prove myself than from the other’s need to be cared for. That kind of giving is not only loveless but faithless, based on the arrogant and mistaken notion that God has no way of channeling love to the other except through me. Yes, we are created in and for community, to be there, in love, for one another. But community cuts both ways: when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to the person in need.
I have often fallen into the trap of feeling like I couldn’t let go of a commitment I had made, because I feared it would reveal my own sense of failure. It has been hard for me to trust myself, my true self that God created in God’s image, to admit that often others can do things better than I can. By continuing to grit it out from fear of being seen as inadequate, I refuse to trust others and to trust that God will work through them.
Minister and writer Tony Robinson wrote in a United Church of Christ Daily Devotional about this kind of mixed up arrogance:
Following me, said Jesus, means self-renunciation. According to the dictionary, self-renunciation is, "rejecting, repudiating, sacrificing, giving up your self."
This business of self-renunciation is a tricky matter. I can think of whole lot of ways to get it wrong:
what I want or need isn’t important
I should always take care of others (but never myself)
my job is to fix you, make you successful, get you sober, make you happy, etc.
if I don’t do this, no one will
if I can just be perfect, everything will be fine
One form of self-renunciation that feels real, if hard, important and Jesus-like, is to give up on being the grim bookkeeper working away at keeping the ledgers of life’s rights and wrongs on everyone else. Throw out the books. Close the accounts. Renounce your need to say or prove that you are right and he/ she is wrong. Renounce your intricate and truly tiresome strategies for justifying yourself or making yourself look good. Give it up to Jesus by whose grace alone you and I are healed and restored.
I grew up Southern Baptist, and every worship service had to have an invitation hymn at its end. As the soft music played, it was a time for the “unsaved” to walk the aisle down to the front in order “to accept Christ as Lord and savior.” There was a section in the hymnal called “Invitation Hymns” and I knew them all by heart, because as a preacher’s kid I had been to a whole lot of worship services. In the hymnal I grew up with there were two versions of the hymn Just as I am, one had four verses and the other had at least six—it felt like twenty! When the longer version was selected, I knew it was going to be a long time until lunch.
The words of that hymn, however, which spoke of God loving me and accepting me “Just as I am” never hit home. As I look back on them, I realize I’m still trying to learn the lesson that I don’t’ have to be Superman, because God loves me for who I am.
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt
Fighting and fears within without
O Lamb of God, I come, I come
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
“42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of
bread and to prayer.”
In this time of Covid our breaking of bread together has been limited. Unfortunately, this pandemic has thrown a wrench in the way we usually gather and how we celebrate Christian Fellowship. True enough, we have an open service and we still take Communion each week, in our own way, but the chance to get together and break bread in person has been greatly curtailed. And we justly grieve this loss.
This year our getting together for fellowship through the fun of Trunk or Treat has been cancelled. We have not been able to gather for church dinners or even Sunday School classes. If we think on it, so many of our ‘normal’ activities of fellowship have been disrupted, that it feels as if our fellowship has been lost and may never return. But there is good news!
This time of separation will not last forever. There will come a time when once again we will be able to congregate together and break bread. A time when we will use the Life Center for dinners and Sunday School classes will meet again in person. There is coming a time when this cursed pandemic will be tamed, and we will once again be able to venture out freely without fear of infection. This season will pass.
More than that, the act of fellowship goes deeper than dinners and handshakes during morning service. Fellowship has a much deeper and significant role in our relationship with one another and with God.
“3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship
with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”
I John 1:3
The early disciples travelled throughout the countryside building new churches, leading converts to a relationship with Christ. And as they did so, they seldom stayed in one place for long. Often in his letters to the churches Paul expresses his sorrow that he could not be with them at just that moment. But always he reminded them that when we are in Christ, the Spirit brings us together regardless of the physical distance.
“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard….” John says. Just as we have proclaimed to one another over time our witness of God’s wonders in our lives. We did not come into this pandemic with an empty pouch. We have stories and examples of how Christ has affected our lives. Stories we have shared. Loves we have expressed. Prayers that have been answered beyond belief. We come, just as John and the early disciples, with history of Jesus in our lives; having made a difference in our outlook and our hope for tomorrow. We come full of the Spirit who was sent by Him who overcame the world, Jesus Christ.
We are in a season of a new fellowship. A season of separation, but not of loss. Though we are unable to gather as once we did, we have a fellowship in the Spirit that overcomes every aspect of this world. We are united in a bond of companionship which holds Christ at its center and this bond cannot be broken by a pandemic. We hold a fellowship with God the Father and His son Jesus Christ that cannot be torn apart by physical separation. Christ came to Earth to bridge the divide that separated us from fellowship with God. He stepped into the ‘void’ created by theology and broke down the barriers that kept us from a personal relationship with the Creator of all things.
The glory of this moment is that we have the Spirit, gifting us with a deeper fellowship than what can be found on a Sunday morning. We have a daily fellowship with the Father and when we open our hearts and minds to the vastness of His love, we have a fellowship with one another that no distance, no illness; that not even death can sever.
When we pray for one another, when the memory of a loved one passes our thoughts, when we speak out a name of a fellow traveler, it is not in vain, but rather it is solidarity with the Christ who has set us all free. Our fellowship may look different these days, but it is not lost. We are together in this moment in the eye of God who makes all things work for His glory.