“1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we a have peace with God through
our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which
we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also glory in
our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance,
character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has
been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Romans 5:1 – 5
What a year this has been! Now, as the temperatures cool and the sun slides further South, darkness comes more coldly and quickly to us. In what has already been a hard ‘dark’ time for our world, winter is quickly approaching. We enter this Advent season in distress and despair, but we have something more as well.
In this first week of Advent we light the candle of hope. Hope, for a future that we cannot yet see. As Paul writes in Romans, our hope does not come from within us. It comes through our Redeemer and Lord.
We have been justified, through the blood of the Lamb. It is through His sacrifice that we are now new creations. Even in the darkness that surrounds our days, there is light from the Source of All Things. We are granted peace with God. Peace, not like the world understands it, but an enduring, comforting warmth that floods our soul and helps us through these worrisome times.
Like the disciples of old, we can rejoice in the darkness. We can sing out in songs of praise and worship. For the glory of the Lord has been shed upon us and is living within us.
Our hope is built from where we have been and what we have experienced. Our hope comes from being in the darkness and shadow of death and knowing that our God is in charge and His kingdom is at hand. We persevere through the challenges of our day so that our character will be refined and sharpened, and hope will grow stronger with each passing moment.
And we do not hope in vain. For our God is a Promise Keeper. Jesus Christ is coming. In a few short weeks we will celebrate the birth of the true King. He has come and done the work for the Kingdom of God to begin.
We now wait in anticipation. Although our wait is much different than that of our ancestors, who were under persecution unlike any we have experienced, we are anxious. Yet, the Spirit of the Lord is with us and in this day and the next day and the many days yet to come, He will guide us through hope to the building of God’s kingdom.
Let us overcome our anxieties and use them to spur us on to reach out to our neighbors, the poor, the hungry, the overwhelmed, and shine the light of hope on them. In this way let us share the love of Christ to our beleaguered world, so that they too may find hope that never shames us.
In years that don’t include a deadly viral pandemic, I usually offer words of encouragement to church folks about how to get along with their families on Thanksgiving. This year many people are having Thanksgiving apart from loved ones due to COVID-19, but maybe this distance offers us an opportunity. Since we have some space this year away from our family members with whom we have strained relationships, perhaps we could reassess what family means and offer grace to one another.
I had an insight about family get-togethers from, of all places, reading a review of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion Special which is airing now on HBO Max. The sit-com starring Will Smith aired in the years 1990-1996. If you don’t know the show, Fresh Prince centers on the character “Will Smith,” played by the actor of the same name, a streetwise Black teenager from a rough part of Philadelphia. In order to keep him out of trouble, Will’s mom sends him to live with extended family who are rich and live in Bel Air, CA. I was in college and seminary during those years and not watching a lot of TV, so I only caught the show in syndication now and then. Yet, I read a review about the cast reunion which is airing now after 24 years, because there was controversy!
During season 3 of the show, conflict arose between the star Will Smith and Janet Hubert, who played Will’s Aunt Viv. Hubert feels she was forced out of the show by Smith and replaced by another actor. When news broke a reunion special was planned, fans expected that “the original Aunt Viv” would not be a part of it. This expectation is well-founded, because reunion specials have conventional rules, as reviewer Aisha Tyler at NPR writes:
The unspoken rules of gathering the cast of a beloved TV show for a reunion special are familiar: Gin up the nostalgia and warm, fuzzy feels. Montages and clip reels highlight the memorable onscreen moments from years past, as everyone jovially reminisces about the time spent playing and creating together on set. If a key member is absent because of behind-the-scenes drama or personal setbacks, try to avoid acknowledging they were ever a part of the show in the first place, and/or gloss over any tensions that might spoil the lovefest. Put on a happy face.
The happy faces were on for 45 minutes of the special, but in the final 15 minutes, things became real. “Aunt Viv #1” showed up to sit down with Will Smith and talk about their past conflict. Suddenly things moved from the unrealistic world of a sit-com family into the real-world families we all live in.
The reviewer Aisha Tyler wrote this summary which really got me thinking about our real-life families:
For those few moments, funnily enough, the special feels like an actual family reunion with real stakes, as the estranged relatives awkwardly and uncomfortably confront one another, let it all out, and, finally and cathartically, reach reconciliation.
As a child who grew up watching reruns of sit-coms, I still secretly wish that all my family’s problems could be resolved in 22 minutes. Yet, real-life family conflicts rarely get resolved so quickly, if ever. More likely, family members nurse long grudges, remember slights from years past and harbor secret pains, none of which ever gets talked about. Families in real life are not like a warm fuzzy smile-fest of a reunion special but rather like those last 15 minutes of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion Special—raw, awkward and painful.
As a minister who is privy to the stories of lots of families (which I keep confidential), I can assure you that if you feel your family is dysfunctional then you are in good company. Trust me on this. Every family has its secret pain. But maybe this year as we are apart from our family members whom we love but resent we can meditate on the possibilities of reconciliation.
Christians are called to the work of reconciliation and peacemaking, but often the most difficult places to do such work is in one’s own family. What would it look like for you to honestly express feelings and work toward reconciliation with that sibling, parent, or cousin with whom you have issues? Could you offer grace and forgiveness while accepting responsibility for your own hurtful actions and words? Could you do so even if your family member didn’t offer the same in return? Is such a thing possible?
Ponder and pray about these things seriously enough, and you might find yourself picking up the phone and calling that loved one and having a difficult but life changing conversation. Sometimes such “re-unions” happen in real life and not only in sit-coms.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
--Psalm 34:18 NRSV
A recurring theme in conversations I have had with church folks this week is sadness over not sharing the Thanksgiving table with loved ones this year. Due to the alarming increase in COVID cases in our area, people are justifiably limiting their guest lists and either inviting only a few people or none at all. Even as we look forward to the hope of vaccines enabling us to return to our usual holiday traditions next year, we nonetheless must acknowledge our grief over what has been lost this year.
For far too many people a limited Thanksgiving dinner is not merely a precaution but a necessity, because they have loved ones who have died from COVID or who are currently suffering from it. For them, this week is a time of mourning and/or a time of intense anxiety and helplessness. Their pain is magnified as others around them in person or in the media deny the reality they are experiencing in the present moment. Our separation from one another keeps us from sharing normal rituals of grief and comfort such as funerals,
memorial services, visits by friends and family to the hospital rooms or bedsides of those who are ill, etc. The grief of those directly affected by this pandemic must be respected and acknowledged.
Then there is the grief of the many who are not directly affected by the virus but nonetheless affected by the separation and isolation of these days. For those of us fortunate enough not to have loved ones suffering from COVID, there may be a sort of tension in our emotions. On the one hand, we may be thankful for the health of our loved ones, while on the other hand we grieve our separation from them. Rather than feeling our grief in such cases is inappropriate, I believe we can hold on to both grief and gratitude at
the same time. When we sit down at our Thanksgiving meals, we can offer thanks for our loved ones even as we feel the weight of their absence around the table.
For many of us, disrupted Thanksgiving plans are a powerful reminder of all the plans which have been disrupted throughout 2020. Everything from travel to weddings to funerals to school to work has been put on hold or cancelled. Our grief over what has been lost mixes with our grief over what still will be lost in the coming months. I found a helpful article online called "It's Okay to Grieve the Time You've Lost in 2020." In it, I found a quote by
clinical psychologist Dr. Emma Hepburn helpful. She says, "Our brain is a planning and future-anticipating organ so we can experience loss not just about what has gone from our past or present but what has potentially gone from our future too." We evolved as human beings to try and control our futures. For example, the future harvest meant safety, security and survival. As much as spontaneous events may offer unexpected blessings, our
ancestors knew unexpected events more likely meant danger for ourselves and our families in the forms of disease, natural disaster, famine or war. Even though we have reasons to hope for an end to the pandemic, knowing there is more disruption and pain to come means more grief in the meantime.
As is the case when we grieve any loss, there are things we can do to deal with our grief in healthy ways.
Number six seems especially difficult and maybe even trite in the face of loss and pain. I believe however, (and so does pretty much every spiritual thinker out there) that gratitude and thanksgiving are powerful strategies for dealing with grief and pain in our lives. Even as we grieve the absence of loved ones and feel pain due to the loss of traditions and rituals this Thanksgiving, we can develop deeper gratitude for the people we love. We can discover the ways we take for granted those who mean the most to us. We can learn that the grudges and grievances we hold against loved ones are not as important as those loved ones themselves.
As Christians, finding blessings in our lives can become a vital part of our devotion to God. We find purpose and meaning in our lives, even during grief, by remembering all that we have been given by a loving God. Even as we wrestle with the mysteries of why a loving God allows suffering, we can focus on what is not mysterious but plain as day before us, the blessings of love, relationship and connection which remain in our lives no matter our losses.
The great scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann, wrote about such thanksgiving in the midst of grief in a recent column on the wonderful web site Church Anew. He shared about the history of the hymn "Now Thank We All Our God." He writes:
I suggest that the hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God," [is] a welcome model for a life of disciplined gratitude.
Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices,
who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mother's arms hath blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us!
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us in his grace and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
the Son and him who reigns with them in highest heaven,
eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
(Prayer Book and Hymnal (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1982)
This warm, intimate, trusting poetry was written by Pastor Martin Rinkart as a table grace during the Thirty Years War that devastated all of Europe. His wife had died of the pestilence and he wrote this for his children. The hymn affirms that we, along with Pastor Rinkart and his children, are on the receiving end of God's goodness even in the most dire of circumstances.
This Thanksgiving may God "keep us in his grace and guide us when perplexed and free us from all ills in this world and the next."
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
“Praise the Lord.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.” Psalm 106:1
“Praise the Lord.” Praise God! Sing hallelujah to His great name. “Praise the Lord!”
Take a moment and just let those words roll around in your mind.
Speak those words out loud. “PRAISE THE LORD!”
In this dark hour when so many have died, when illness surrounds us like a raging inferno, “PRAISE THE LORD!” What more can we do, but praise the Lord?
Jesus came to us, a child in an uncertain world with a death sentence on His head, yet He came. Praise the Lord.
In His ministry and life, He taught that we are to love one another as God our Father has loved us. There is no limit to our Father’s love. In message after message, parable after parable, the story rings true. We are the children of a loving and caring god, who will never desert us. Praise the Lord!
When we study scripture, we see a picture painted for us. A picture of what was meant to be. God wishes to reside with us. In the garden He walked “in the cool of the evening” with Adam and Eve. To the children of Israel, He went before them as a cloud of fire and a pillar of smoke. As our risen Savior, He touches our hearts and mends our spirits.
Our God is unique. He is present and He very much wants us to be present with Him. The fog of this world gathers in our eyes and our hearts blindly reach out, lusting for something we do not understand, until we praise the Lord.
Our God has never left us. In the fire and smoke of life we may choke and gasp, but He is right there beside us, guiding us home to Him. Jesus leads the way through the cross. It is through His righteousness that we know God is good. And God is incredibly good.
Even today, as we taste the bitterness of death around us, He is here now. The Spirit is guiding us to a place away from darkness and death into new life. When we open our throats and sing out in praise, our God is stirred and continues to build a new kingdom around us. Praise the Lord!
Oh, child of God, do not despair, we are never too far away from the loving embrace of the Father.
Breath in his love.
Breath in His graciousness.
Breath in His loving forgiveness.
Breath in His mighty power and sing out in a loud voice. “Praise the Lord!”
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the
Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the
same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own
interests, but to the interests of others.
--Philippians 2:1-4 NRSV
I’ve had multiple conversations this week regarding the difficult decisions people are making about holding family Thanksgiving dinners next week. We’ve never had to do Thanksgiving in a pandemic before, so we are all making it up as we go along. Each family has its own acceptable level of risk for such a gathering. I’ve heard of families proceeding as they do every year and others calling the whole thing off. Either way, Thanksgiving is sure to feel like the NFL games many of us watch on Thanksgiving Day. This year the games are still happening, but without the crowd in the stadium it just doesn’t feel right.
I’ve also heard from clergy friends about the rise in mental health crises they are seeing in their congregations, from depression to full blown breakdowns. In some ways, things seem relatively normal but beneath the surface lies a great deal of anxiety and stress as we navigate these unprecedented times. The struggles of these days demand that we reacquaint ourselves with how much we depend on one another.
Our culture prizes independence and individualism, so much so that we often put one another at risk. Those who argue wearing a mask during a pandemic is somehow oppression prove this point. The very air we breathe is shared by billions of other people and billions more animals and plants. Our very molecules are shared in the world around us wherever we go. Our separation from one another is an illusion.
The researcher and writer Brene Brown writes about how we are all connected. She says, ““I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” A physics teacher once tried to explain a force field to me. I had images of Star Trek and Star Wars in my mind, but he explained it is just the field of energy that exists between any two things or even all things in the universe. It’s there, but we just can’t see it. This is why Albert Einstein wrote, “We are part of the whole which we call the universe, but it is an optical delusion of our mind that we think we are separate. This separateness is like a prison for us. Our job is to widen the circle of our compassion so we feel connected with all people and situations.” Widening our circles of compassion seems like a great idea, because many people are feeling isolated and imprisoned this Thanksgiving week.
In the Christian scriptures, this connectedness which is very real but often unseen by human eyes is called “koinania” often translated into the English word “fellowship” which seems like far too tame a word to me to describe the dynamic power of the Divine connecting us with one another. I grew up hearing the word “fellowship” referred to in terms of a refreshment time which took place in, of course, a church “fellowship hall.” The term seemed to refer to a cocktail hour full of teetotalers. In the New Testament however, “koinonia” refers to a relationship among the faith community which meant sharing in the sufferings of one another just as the group shares in the sufferings of Christ. It also meant partaking in the “light” and the “Spirit” of God not only as individuals but as community.
The surest way I know to help others during this time (and helping ourselves at the same time) is to reach out and to remind people they matter and are not alone. We can become prisoners of our own minds, convinced we are alone in a painful world. A seemingly small gesture can offer light and light to those who feel bereft of both. To have one’s grief, pain or sufferings acknowledged by others is a gift, a validation of the self and perhaps even a lifeline to someone drowning in their pain.
I’ve always heard of neighbors walking next door “to borrow a cup of sugar.” I guess that was a thing once, but I’ve never seen it. I like the image though of someone in the middle of putting together a recipe and short a mere cup of a necessary ingredient. The cooking is at a point where there’s no time to run to the store to buy more, but this small amount is crucial, so one requests the favor.
Today, I’m sensing there are many people who are short a small but necessary ingredient in their Thanksgiving preparations. They need a cup of hope to weather the disappointments and difficulty of these days. Perhaps they are struggling with a loved one’s health condition, they are away from family or they are battling psychological demons. Maybe they are unable or afraid to ask to borrow that cup of hope from you. So, it’s up to you to offer your small cup of hope to them.
Spiritual writer and nun Joan Chittister describes two pathways we can take in life: hope and despair:
When tragedy strikes, when trouble comes, when life disappoints us — as it surely will — we stand at the crossroads between hope and despair. To go the way of despair colors the way we look at things, makes us suspicious of the future, makes us negative about the present. It leads us to ignore the very possibilities that could save us, or worse, leads us to want to hurt as we have been hurt ourselves. When I say that I am in despair, I am really saying that I have given up on God. Despair says that I am God and if I can't do anything about this situation, then nothing and nobody can. To go the way of hope, on the other hand, takes life on its own terms, knows that whatever happens God lives in it, and expects that, whatever its twists and turns, it will ultimately yield its good to those who live it consciously
I am sure Chittister would agree with the idea that sometimes we are unable on our own to choose the way of hope over the way of despair. Sometimes the pain is great and we need the support of community to help us find hope in life. I’ve found that it doesn’t take a lot of hope to help someone find their own path again, but that small cup offered by a friend or loved one is just what is needed.
Today and in the coming days ask for the Spirit of God with whom you are in “koinonia” bring to your mind those in your life who need your cup of hope. You are already connected with them through the energy of God’s love. When their names and faces come to mind, don’t hesitate, immediately reach out to them. They only need to borrow a cup of hope from you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Many preachers in America this week are preparing sermons about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving and gratitude to God are a worthy subject on any Sunday, and maybe the wise preacher would stick to that topic, especially on a Sunday when her or his church is already thinking in such terms. Rarely has anyone called me wise, so I’m preaching on a different subject: our allegiance to Christ above all.
The reason I’m preaching on this topic is because I generally follow what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of texts for each Sunday. In Christian denominations with more of a hierarchy than ours, clergy are required to preach on a lectionary text each week. In churches with more freedom, like ours, clergy can preach on whatever scripture passage they feel led by God to use. I know preachers who like the lectionary and ones who don’t. I tend to preach from it, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t pick as wide of a variety texts to preach on. Besides, the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ has always pursued unity among the various Christian denominations, and there is something to be said for different brands of Christians focusing on similar scripture passages each week.
Each worship or liturgical year according to the lectionary ends on the last Sunday before Advent, the season of four Sundays prior to Christmas. This way over 12 months, the church moves from looking forward to the birth of Christ through the life and ministry of Christ to focusing on the eternal reign of Christ before starting all over again. This does mean, however, that the preacher is talking about how Christ is above all things in the universe at a time of year when the congregation is busy thinking about the coming week full of Thanksgiving get-togethers, Black Friday shopping and getting out Christmas decorations.
Yet, people being too busy (clergy included) to think much about Christ’s ultimate place in the cosmos is not a new phenomenon. From Jesus’ inauspicious birth in a stable in Bethlehem to his disgraceful death as an executed criminal, most people were too busy to pay him much mind. It’s not just this time of year that is filled with too much activity for us to think much about Christ’s place in our lives; it is every week all year long. We are always busy.
The gospel texts for this Sunday each year illustrate the point of how difficult it is for human beings to consider the Kingdom of God Christ taught and lived out. This year it’s Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Son of Man judging the sheep and the goats. Next year it’s John 18:33-37 where Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews?” and “What is truth?” In two years, it is Luke 23:33-43 where the crowd mocks Jesus on the cross, saying “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself!” In each, Jesus Christ is not recognized for the ultimate power he truly is.
Christ the King Sunday was first established by Pope Pius XI in 1925. He created it to remind the faithful that Christ was greater than the ideologies of his day competing for dominance: secular capitalism in the West, communism in the East and Fascism in Italy, Spain and soon to be in Germany. Protestants adopted it after Vatican II. It reminds us today that what our world mistakes for greatness today has little to do with the Christ who appears to us as “the least of these.”
We have just gone through a bitter presidential election with many Christians equating Christianity with one party. It is good for us to remember Christ cannot be reduced to a single political platform or issue. We struggle to juggle the demands of our economy, our families, our workplaces, and our society’s values. It is good for us to remember Christ as worthy of our devotion above all these. We tremble before the threat of a pandemic this holiday season. It is good for us to remember that Christ holds power greater than life and death and remains our ultimate security. Our culture worships celebrity, wealth and influence while ignoring the plight of the powerless, poor and marginalized. So it is good for us to worship Christ who comes to us as a helpless and poor infant, a convicted criminal and disguised as people who are sick and in prison and in need of food, water, and clothing.
My mind and yours may be on the busyness of the season and the discomforts of the pandemic on Sunday but let us strive together to remember Christ is greater than all these things.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess
our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all
--1 John 1:8-9 NRSV
This past weekend I was honored to take part in an ordination service held via Zoom for a long-time friend and mentor of mine. She was my Baptist Student Union director for some of my time at the Southern Baptist college I attended. After a decades-long journey, she chose to pursue ordination in the Presbyterian Church, USA. I know from my own journey what it is to leave the faith tradition of one’s family and upbringing in order to search for a new home, so as a fellow “Baptist refugee” I celebrated the welcome she had received in another tradition.
During the service, we prayed a Unison Prayer of Confession that I am sure came straight out of the Presbyterian Church, USA Book of Order. Presbyterians are known for doing things “properly and in order” after all.
Here is part of what the prayer said:
Merciful and loving God,
you have called us to be your people
and claimed us for the service of Jesus Christ.
We confess that we have not lived up to our calling to proclaim
the good news in word and deed.
We are quick to speak when we ought to listen
and remain silent when it is time to speak.
We put too much faith in our own actions
and fail to trust the strength of your Spirit.
The prayer concluded with a request for the grace to live out Christ’s calling in our lives and was fallowed by an “Assurance of Pardon” offered to the congregation.
I think the prayer or one like it is a good one to pray every time a church gathers and maybe a good one for Christians to pray individually every day. There is certainly nothing I object to in it and maybe I’m just “disorderly” in my own preferences for worship, but I struggle a bit with prayers of confession. I don’t naturally gravitate towards including them in worship services I lead. I think this personal struggle of mine is a struggle with shame.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with shame. There are some of us who are wired to be overly zealous in our self-examination and self-criticism. Growing up Southern Baptist, the countless messages of how great a sinner I was merely confirmed what I already thought about my own inadequacies. There were messages about grace too, but they never seemed to make the same impression.
There is a recognition that bubbles up naturally among people who struggle with religious shame, a shared understanding that passes unspoken when two similar souls meet. I’ve met them throughout my career as a minister and they are usually raised Southern Baptist or some other kind of Evangelical but also Roman Catholic too. Even though they don’t believe in a judgmental or wrathful God anymore, their shoulders are permanently hunched as if braced for a lightening bolt hurled by angry deity.
I’ve learned along my journey as a minister that there are plenty of people who love prayers of confession and revel in the depravity of us sinners. These folks pray the prayers as if it applies to everyone but themselves. I’ve encountered such church folk most often on church boards or committees. They’re the ones who fire off furious emails criticizing others, reminding others how much money they give to the church and what would happen if they chose to leave it. As the frequent recipient of such missives, I’ve wondered why such people even go to church at all?
The folks who most intrigue me, however, are the ones who seem to pray the prayers of confession but take just as seriously the words of assurance offered after the prayer. Somehow, they balance their very real need to acknowledge their shortcomings, sins of commission and omission, while at the same time feeling comforted that God forgives them and shows them grace. Folks like this seem to get it right. They take the confession seriously with humility but don’t wallow in shame, preferring instead to revel in God’s goodness. Maybe I’ll get to where they are someday.
I was raised as a good Protestant to believe in what’s called the Priesthood of All Believers, the idea that in Christ I have my own relationship with God and do not need a priest, saint or anyone else as a middleman or middlewoman between me and God. Yet, I’ve always been a bit jealous of our Catholic siblings who make a practice of confession and being declared forgiven by a priest. The simple act of asking God to forgive me through prayer never seemed to convince me I was really forgiven. Sometimes when you know you really have blown it and can’t make up for what you’ve done to hurt others, knowing God forgives you isn’t enough. Sometimes God must speak through another person for one to hear God’s loving mercy.
Along my journey as a minister, I’ve met people who needed someone to pronounce them forgiven by God. I’ve always been uncomfortable in such a priestly role speaking for God, but at times I’ve dared to do so, because their need to hear it was so great. I’ve said the words with as much authority as I could muster, “God forgives you”, because I believe it with all my heart, at least for everyone else but myself. There’s still the voice inside my head that whispers, “Yeah, but what about . . .?”
I probably still won’t be inserting a Prayer of Confession followed by an Assurance of Pardon into a worship service I plan, at least not unless the circumstances demand it. But if you need me to speak for God and pronounce you forgiven because you are struggling to believe it yourself, I am glad to do so. Just be prepared for me to ask you to pronounce the same thing to me in return.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the
Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
--James 1:17 NRSV
I’ve got a problem brewing in my house.
One of the local radio stations started playing Christmas music last week, and my wife, who can barely wait until the Thanksgiving dinner has cooled to break out the Christmas decorations, has begun blasting Christmas music on the stereo in our den. My sons and I have begged her to just hold on until the day after Thanksgiving, but my wife is pretty darn stubborn when she has made up her mind. She responds to our pleas, “There isn’t a radio station playing Thanksgiving music, and I want to get in the spirit of the holidays, so I’ll be thankful for Christmas music.”
When I continue to beg her to at least hold off on the Christmas music until I’m not in the room, she gives me the look that she gives me when she wants me to suck it up and get over it and says, “2020 has been a hard year. COVID has caused so many things I love to do during the holiday season to be cancelled, and I need Christmas music right now. I’ll take all I can get.” I sigh and try to block out the sounds of John Mellencamp’s abominable version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
I get it; I really do. 2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year. Even though we made it through the presidential election without a constitutional crisis and rioting in the streets, we are already on to the next crisis—and it’s the same crisis we’ve been dealing with all year—the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions are returning in many municipalities. Schools are returning to fully online classes. Thanksgiving dinners are potential super spreader events. COVID cases and hospitalizations are rising and this winter looks to be as bad as we feared. We all await vaccines to end this sorry chapter of our collective history.
So, if listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving helps you get by, then by all means let the Pointer Sisters sing to you “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” There are certainly coping mechanisms that are more destructive (even if there are few more annoying). I’m just going to throw out there the plea for you to sprinkle some gratitude and thanksgiving in while listening to Jewel nasally butcher “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Gratitude shouldn’t need its own holiday but offering thanks to God once a year before gorging oneself on turkey and falling asleep in a tryptophan coma while watching football is better than never doing so. Every major religious tradition says gratitude is at the heart of connecting with the Divine just as every self-help writer says it’s essential for a healthy and happy life. I believe it is also the best way to cope with a year like 2020. Gratitude is more effective, of course, if we practice it as often as possible.
In her wonderful book on spiritual practices, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“In the same way that I am willing to thank my husband for a gift even before I have opened it—because I trust his love of me—I am willing to thank God for my life even before I know how it turns out. This is brave talk, I know, while I can still pay the bills, walk without assistance, and talk someone into going to the movies with me. My hope is that if I can practice saying thank you now, when I still approve of most of what is happening to me, then perhaps that practice will have become habit by the time I do not like much of anything that is happening to me. The plan is to replace approval with gratitude.”
If you are struggling with being grateful at a time when so many of our routine pleasures can’t be experienced, I offer this poem by Ross Gay to read, meditate and pray over:
If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
I’m not asking for radio stations to put “Come Ye Thankful People Come” as sung by somebody like Taylor Swift on heavy rotation, but I do ask that all of us offer up some gratitude for the next ten days or so.
Grace and Peace,
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you
in Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
It seems to have been eons since things were ‘normal’. We continue to social distance, have areas of the world facing new lock downs, wear masks everywhere we go and watch nervously as the numbers of infected continue to rise. Yet, we are called to rejoice. How can we in such a troubled time?
When Paul wrote these words to the people of Thessalonica, they were facing persecution. Paul himself had been faced with harassment and persecution as he moved through the area, but to these people he said, rejoice.
Today his words echo down to us, “rejoice always”. And how can we rejoice?
By being ‘continually in prayer’.
When we are in prayer, we find the strength to go on. We find the power of the Spirit moving among us. It is not that the troubles of the world disappear. Indeed, in some instances they may increase, yet we are not to lose hope. Our prayers will open our minds and hearts to a peace amid chaos. It is through prayer that we can find the strength to face each new reality. Again, it is not a secret weapon that destroys all the bad in the world, but it is a comfort that builds faith and hope in our God.
While in prayer, we can ‘give thanks’. Never at any point is it easier to be thankful than when we are in conversation with our Lord. As we bow our head; take to our knees or lift our eyes to the heavens and settle into the quiet moments of prayer something happens inside of us that defies all that goes on around us. When we truly reach out to God in our hearts, our minds fill with peace and a clarity that escapes us at all other times. Prayer is that quiet moment when all becomes still and suddenly, we find ourselves in the presence of the Most High.
Paul tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances”, when we approach the world in prayerful consideration this becomes possible. When we take our eyes off the chaos and pettiness of the world, the circumstances pale in comparison to the mightiness of our God.
It is God’s will that we seek Him first. And in seeking Him first, through prayer, we begin to live righteously, and, in that righteousness, we begin to see the world through the eyes of God.
We, like Jesus, can weep over the state of the world, but we also rise with Jesus on the wings of eagles and see the majesty of the great good work God is doing in this world.
Therefore, rejoice and give thanks to God, our loving Father who is in all things.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of
heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil
against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for
in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
--Matthew 5:10-12 NRSV
When most American Christians speak of being persecuted for their faith, I can only roll my eyes and guffaw. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been Christians persecuted for their faith and that persecution still happens today in many countries, but rarely does it happen in America. When it does happen in our country, it’s not for the reasons most American Christians claim.
American Christianity, especially its Evangelical varieties, has a persecution complex. Why? People who claim to take the Bible literally (a false claim by anyone foolish enough to make it) can find plenty of verses in the Christian scriptures equating being a good Christian with undergoing persecution. The final Beatitude couplet in Matthew 5:10-12 is a case in point. When scriptures are seen this way, one can’t be a righteous Christian unless one is persecuted. Yet in a pluralistic democratic republic where most of the population claims at least to be nominally Christian there is no persecution of Christians, at least not persecution like Christians in the first century experienced or Christians in a country like China experience today.
The New Testament writings came about in the midst of religious conflict first with the Judaism out of which they originated and then with the wider Greco-Roman world. When a religious movement is a small minority, they experience persecution, but when they are the overwhelming majority, they more often become the ones carrying out persecution. The latter is certainly the case in America today. So, without actual persecution, American Christians look for ways they can claim victimhood, because otherwise how can they be good believers?
Usually claims of persecution involve one of a number of key social sins involving gender, reproduction and sexuality.
“See how the world hates us, because we consider homosexuality to be a sin!”
“See the persecution we face for protecting the lives of the unborn!”
“See how they condemn us, because we will not ordain women as ministers and declare men are the head of the household!”
The problem with such claims is that nobody in America is stopping them from believing such things or even going through lawful political channels to change laws, but in a nation where everyone’s religious beliefs (or lack of) must be protected, no one religious group, even a very vocal religious group, gets things their way all the time. Such disputes were easier once upon a time, when the only people who had power were largely White people of European descent who claimed to be Christian, but America is thankfully changing. The freedom to believe certain things in a religious community and the power to impose those beliefs on everyone else are two very different things.
The problem with most American Christians who cry persecution is that what society is pushing back against is not their religious beliefs but rather their hatred, judgment and seeking to control other people’s most intimate relationships and behavior. In such cases, I find it hard to believe Jesus would be on the side of the religious people spewing condemnation and mourning because they don’t get their way all the time. The kind of persecution Jesus is talking about is not privileged people claiming victimhood while they actively victimize others.
The kind of persecution Jesus declares blessed is the kind one undergoes “for righteousness’ sake.” While many American Christians claim they are being righteous, in reality they are living out the kind of self-righteous religiosity Jesus roundly condemns. The “righteousness” Jesus describes in his life and ministry involves caring for those whom society considers “the least of these.”
We can see what Jesus means by righteousness by what he is criticized for doing.
Jesus is criticized for his relationships with prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners. Today, too often it is the Christians with the loudest megaphones who condemn equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their particular understandings of gender and sexuality.
Jesus is criticized for his relationships with women, some of whom take active roles in his ministry. Today, too often it is Christian churches and advocacy groups that wish to control and limit what women can do and not do.
Jesus is criticized for opposing those who use religion to manipulate and exploit people who are poor. Today, too often the most visible Christians are the ones leading the charge against those with the least power in our society, such as immigrants, people living in poverty and low-wage workers.
The only Christians I am aware of who face any kind of persecution in our society are ones who stand with the powerless. Churches that offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation lose members and face community opposition. Churches that affirm LGBTQ people are kicked out of their denominations. Churches that stand with low income residents fighting against policies and laws that unfairly affect poor people find themselves declared “soft on crime” or “against law and order.” Churches that declare their allegiance is to the Kingdom Heaven above their allegiance to the United States and question our nation’s use of violence around the world are labelled “unpatriotic” and “un-American” or charged with “not supporting the troops.” In fact, one of the few ways I can think of for American Christians to actually be persecuted is when they are willing to stand with people that don’t have well-stocked political action committees and lobbying groups. If you want to make both Democrats and Republicans mad at you, then just treat people who are powerless and penniless as if they are equal in the sight of God. Pretty soon, people of all political stripes will want you to quit causing them trouble.
In Matthew 25 31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus presents the startling idea that the “sheep” who are considered “righteous” do not even know they are serving Christ himself.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?’” NRSV
This means that the folks caring for people who are condemned and ignored by the Christians claiming to be persecuted may be the “sheep” in contemporary America. This also means that the kind of Christians who claim to be persecuted for their beliefs may end up being the “goats” condemned for their unrighteousness. The “righteousness” Jesus says his followers should be persecuted for stands in stark contrast to the self-righteousness displayed by the many American Christians who claim to be persecuted.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples