If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
--Isaiah 58:9-12 NRSV
Some notable clergy from our denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, participated in the recent Inauguration Prayer Service (held virtually) on Inauguration Day: Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale.
This isn’t the first Inaugural Prayer Service to include Disciples ministers. In the 2009 service, then General Minister and President of the denomination, Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins gave the homily, and she also participated in the 2013 service. In 2009, 2013 and this year, Rev. Dr Cynthia L. Hale, pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, GA participated in the services. Also, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, NY participated in the 2013 service.
In this year’s service, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II gave the homily, and if you haven’t done so, I encourage you to pause your day and either read it or watch it.
Here is a link to a video of the service. The homily begins about the 44 minute mark, although the whole service is beautiful and worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNHIr4dXFbA
Here is a link to the written version of the homily: https://time.com/5931343/william-barber-inaugural-prayer-service-sermon/
The homily is a powerful statement about God’s concern for the poorest in our society and every society. Barber takes as his focus scripture verses from Isaiah 58 (some of the verses I included above).
If you are unfamiliar with Barber, I encourage you to get to know him. He is one of the founders of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival. The group takes its name from the final work of Martin Luther King Jr. which sought to unite low-income white, black and brown people to work for economic justice. This campaign was left unfinished due to the King’s assassination. You can find out more at poorpeoplescampaign.org. I especially encourage you to read the biblical justification for their important work.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
“Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father,
will be with us in truth and love.
2 John 1:3
The power of Grace in our lives was first demonstrated through the power of love. God’s love for us.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for
The power of God’s love is always available to each of us. And the power of his Grace comes to us when we put on the clothing of Jesus Christ. As we become more Christ like in our walk in this world love becomes more powerful and natural in us. As that love grows so does our capacity for grace. When we share that power more freely and completely with everyone we meet, we become true disciples of Jesus. In his book The Power of God’s Grace, Gary Schulz says:
“When we walk in love, we are walking in the power of God; we are filled with the fullness of
Being filled with this “fullness” means that we too are filled with the same grace that filled Jesus. This grace is for everyone who walks in the way of Christ. Like all things with God, though, it is our choice whether we live into this grace.
“If we choose to live by this truth and obediently love as he commanded us, we will continue
in his grace, and his grace will abound in power through us. Otherwise, his grace will lay
dormant within us and all will miss the glory of God.” Gary Schulz, The Power of God’s Grace.
By living into God’s grace, we spread that grace to others. Just as the power of love showers others with the desire to act in love; the power of grace lived out in our lives becomes powerful for others.
Like a fire that spreads from a spark the power of God’s grace grows within us and spreads throughout the church, then moves outside of the church and touches everybody we encounter.
As we become more Christ like our walk becomes one of power that is fueled by the Spirit. For we do nothing in our own power, but through the Spirit. God’s grace covers us in all our weakness. It is through his power that grace is activated and becomes in us a powerful force that spreads throughout the world.
Lean now into the power of grace granted us through the person of Jesus Christ. Let the Spirit move within your hearts building the powerful love that this broken world needs. And in this way God’s powerful grace will flood the world with healing and peace.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But
I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may
be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the
good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
--Matthew 5:42-44 NRSV
In the Peeples’ household, my wife and I have taught our sons from a young age to be a good sport when they lose a game. After board games, tossing bean bags in cornhole games and countless hours of video games, we have insisted our sons shake hands. The winner must tell the loser “good game” and the loser must tell the winner “congratulations.” In that simple exchange, our hope is that these two brothers might remember there are things greater at stake than who won or lost a game—their own integrity and their relationship.
I can remember a decade ago when then KC Chiefs head coach Todd Haley refused to shake the hand of then Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels after the Broncos utterly destroyed the Chiefs by a score of 49-29. My sons who were 7 and 4 at the time pointed at the screen and were horrified an adult—coach of their favorite team no less—refused to shake hands as they had been taught to do. Haley was not known for his self-control, and in his defense it was Josh McDaniels who was on staff with the Patriots before and after this event. Haley made a general apology to the media the next day and said if he had it to do over, he would shake McDaniels’ hand. I have no idea if he ever apologized to McDaniels in person. It was a teaching moment for my sons that they still remember. How one reacts when you lose reveals one’s character.
I have been thinking about what it means to be a good loser this week as I have watched the events surrounding the inauguration of a new president. As has been well-documented by now, President Trump did not stay for the inauguration of now President Biden, choosing instead to fly to Florida the morning of Inauguration Day. It should be noted that Trump is in both good and bad company. Three other presidents chose not to attend the inauguration of the men who beat them in what were bitter elections. He is joined by the admirable presidents John Adams, who refused to attend the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams, who refused to attend the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, and the not-so-admirable Andrew Johnson, who refused to attend the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant. Yet, most U.S. presidents have chosen to attend the inaugurations of successors, even presidents who only served one term and had to watch the person to whom they lost the election take the oath of office. The reason this is important is that something greater than a single election is at stake—the symbolism of a peaceful transfer of power in our republic, a thing not to be taken for granted of which we were reminded by the insurrectionist riot that took place two weeks ago.
To his credit, Trump apparently did continue a tradition begun by Ronald Reagan and continued in recent decades by succeeding presidents—leaving a personal letter for the incoming president on the Oval Office desk. Trump’s letter to Biden hasn’t been made public yet, but previous letters have been made known. My favorite one is the letter George H. W. Bush left for the man who defeated him in the 1992 election, Bill Clinton. In that letter, the senior President Bush wrote, “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” What a classy thing to write! After a bitter election, the defeated president was able to remember that there was something greater at stake—the success of our nation, the fate of the United States and the nation’s influence throughout the world. He understood the moment was about far more than himself.
There is a lot more I could write about my own opinions about President Trump and the policies of his administration, just as I could write about my criticisms of particular policies and actions of each of the preceding presidents in my lifetime, but I’m particularly thinking about what this moment says to me and you. When you and I lose, how do we respond? Maybe we aren’t a defeated president, but many of us know what it is to lose out on a promotion, a job we were going for, a position in a volunteer organization we hoped to hold like the PTA or some other civic group or even in a game of golf or pick up basketball. How we act when we lose says a lot about our character.
Do we allow the stakes of the moment to become the exaggerated stakes of life and death? Do we allow our own feelings of low self-worth to spew out of us onto the other by demonizing them and belittling their accomplishments? Do we let jealousy, envy and covetousness twist our insides until we seek to undermine the one whom we lost out to? In short, do we forget the basic truth that each person involved—loser and winner—is a person created by God and therefore a person of worth? Do we forget there is more at stake than the loss itself—the success of an organization or place of business, the sustainability of relationships and the state of our own souls?
Our culture does not reward losers. A quick internet search for quotations about losers will turn up all kind of responses from Vince Lombardi, Knut Rockne, Paul Newman and every other kind of star in sports, business and entertainment declaring there is no such thing as a good loser. Yet, from a certain point of view, Jesus Christ was a loser. During his ministry, he faced constant opposition, was continually misunderstood, his closest followers ended up abandoning him, and he was killed with common criminals. Sure, we know how the story ends with the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, but by everyday earthly standards Christ first a loser.
As Christians, we trust that the end of our stories is also known. Whatever failures and losses we face in this life do not have the last word on our value or on the fulfillment of God’s purposes for each of us and for all of creation. This truth is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies—not just our moral enemies or enemies who seek to do us harm, but also the people we view as enemies because they won something that we wished to win. There are greater things at stake than the accomplishments of this life, than our trophies, awards, promotions and elections. Our relationships, the common good of all people, and the character of our very souls all matter much more to God than our defeats.
Muhammad Ali wasn’t a Christian, but I believe he understood this truth. He is quoted as saying after the first time he lost a bout, “I never thought of losing, but now that it's happened, the only thing is to do it right. That's my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.” May we live out the words of Jesus and the words of Muhammed Ali, for the sake of ourselves and all the people who believe in us, because no less than the God of all creation also believes in you and me.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
During a conversation I recently had with a minister friend of mine whom I’ve known since seminary days, we each reflected on the congregations we have served. Each of us remarked about the strengths and weaknesses of this congregation or that one. Some had great theology, others were involved in exciting ministries, but each of us knew what it was to be in a church that looked great on paper but had an unhealthy, even toxic, culture. We both agreed that rather than a church with a rich history, strong theological pronouncements and vibrant ministries in the community, we would rather have a kind church. A church can do a lot of things right while still getting the most basic things wrong. I’d rather be in a church where people were kind, even if it was struggling, than a church that by all outward appearances was doing great but didn’t practice kindness.
Kindness seems so basic. We are taught to be kind when we are young. It is a building block of human social interaction. Yet, in adulthood, we are not rewarded for kindness. Instead, we are often rewarded for aggression, the pursuit of profit above all else, and the beating of competitors by any means. We are rewarded for climbing our particular social ladder, usually at the expense of others. Kindness doesn’t result in awards or social recognition. In fact, practicing kindness may ensure one doesn’t achieve the self-centered goals others prize.
It seems like common sense that church people would be kind people, but that has not been my experience. Church people are still people, and when people spend all week long engaged in behavior that often runs contrary to kindness, it’s ridiculous to expect them to show up at church and act in a different way. Church board meetings can become mirror images of corporate board meetings and business sales meetings. Church events can resemble social events which are Darwinian in their participants’ pursuit of social status. Sometimes at church, kindness is a matter of empty words alone.
In my career, I’ve had the experience of serving a church that was really good at welcoming new people, but those new people rarely stuck around long. I always wondered why we were so bad at keeping the people we attracted. I’d assume it had to do with cultural trends that don’t value commitment, people coming who had issues which made being a part of a community difficult, and competition from larger churches with deeper pockets. As I look back on that experience with a little distance, I have begun to think that the real problem was that the church just wasn’t very good about being kind to one another, much less to new people. New folks who showed up would feel initially welcomed, but as they tried to get involved, to build relationships and to share their talents, I believe they met resistance. There was an insider clique that sustained itself like the “cool table” in a middle school lunchroom.
In my newsletter articles, emails and sermons, I have tried to highlight the assets of Park Hill Christian Church. I believe one of its assets is the kindness of its people. Granted, I’ve only known this church during the COVID pandemic, and things are far from normal, so maybe there’s a mean streak I haven’t encountered yet, but I have been impressed with your kindness towards one another. I know that I haven’t been here long and there is such a thing as a honeymoon period, but I’ve appreciated going to board meetings and executive committee meetings without afterward feeling like I needed to seek counseling for PTSD. I’ve taken note of members who have taken it upon themselves to reach out to other members who have been isolated during the pandemic. I’ve seen your generosity in giving to community groups that meet human needs. I’ve watched your conversations over Zoom and occasionally in person while social distancing. I have seen that staff are appreciated rather than being treated like “the help.” There are lot of small ways I have seen the kindnesses of PHCC.
Every congregation has its own culture. Each church has a way of being which results from its particular history and the amalgam of interactions between the people who make it up. I’ve learned that despite efforts to teach church folks to be kind, it seems like congregations either are or are not kind, no matter what is taught. It’s a strange mystery to me how people who may act kind as individuals can take part in a group, especially a church, that cumulatively results in unkindness, but myriad examples of just this dynamic exist. I know PHCC is not perfect. It’s made up of human beings who have broken places inside of them after all. I’m aware of some of the past fights and controversies in the life of the church. Yet, at least in the parts of PHCC I have seen, kindness is a part of this church’s culture and one of its assets.
I am only the Interim Minister after all, so maybe I’m off base here. Perhaps, I don’t know “the real” PHCC. If so, I’d love to hear from you how your experience of the church has been different. I’d also love to hear if you think my impression of the church’s kindness is correct.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken
--Micah 4:4 NRSV
For me, one of the most moving parts of inauguration ceremonies today came when 22 year-old poet Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Climb.” She eloquently mixed scripture (Michah 4;4), American history and imagery reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She addressed the recent violence and turmoil but offered hope as we work for a brighter future. I urge you to watch her recite this powerful poem multiple times to take in her words. If you watched it live, watch it again.
Here is a link to a video of her recitation:
Here are some lines from the poem I loved as best as I could transcribe them:
We have learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions of what “just is”
Isn’t always justice . . .
We are not striving to form a union that is perfect
We are trying to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know to put our future first we must put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
So we can reach out our arms towards one another
We seek harm to none
And harmony for all . . .
Even as we grieved we grew
That even as we hurt we hoped
Even as we tired we tried
That we will forever be tied together
Not because we will forever again know defeat
But because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
That everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And noone shall make them afraid
If we are to live up to our own time,
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promised glade
The hill we’ll climb
If only we dare
Because being American is more than a pride we inherit
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it . . .
We will not be interrupted or turned around by intimidation
Because we know our inaction or inertia
Will be the inheritance of the next generation
And our blunders become their burdens . . .
For there is always light
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your
thinking be adults.
--1 Corinthians 14:20 NIV
In high school I was in the play Inherit the Wind. Unfortunately, I did not have the part of the Matthew Harrison Brady or Henry Drummond, the two legal heavyweights debating the legality of teaching evolution. My role was a combination of three different roles: hot dog vendor, Eskimo Pie vendor and a juror. The juror had no lines, and the hot dog vendor and Eskimo Pie vendor had only one line each. As I sat through hours of play practice waiting for my few lines, I practically memorized the arguments for and against the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The play was based on the real life so called “Scopes Monkey Trial” which happened in 1925 in Dayton, TN. The simplistic religious beliefs of the town minister in the play were easy to poke holes in, and I assumed such beliefs were confined to an earlier age. I didn’t realize back in high school that the debates between science and Christian fundamentalism in the early 20th century would resurface later in my life.
I grew up as a Southern Baptist, but my minister father and my schoolteacher mother valued education. I was taught by them to try and read the Bible with an eye towards its historical context which was different than our own. They also taught to be suspicious of Christians who refused to accept modern science. I never felt much of a personal conflict in regards to balancing the claims of science and the claims of faith. The conflict between science and faith never seemed like an either/or proposition to me.
As I went to college, seminary and graduate school, I learned there were deep streams within Christianity of valuing reason and the best science of a particular age. You wouldn’t know it from the arguments of the most visible purveyors of the faith in our culture. Much of the animosity towards science in Christianity came after the Enlightenment and the rise of modern scientific study. Fundamentalisms of every religion developed as an antagonistic response to science and modernism. Christian fundamentalism flared up brightly in the early 20th century, such as in the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” but after public debacles that hurt their cause more than it helped, fundamentalism eschewed the public eye. With the rise of the Religious Right at the end of the 1970’s, old fights were new again, as Christian fundamentalists sought control of political offices to reinstate prayer in schools, ban the teaching of evolution and more activities hostile to science. These critics of modern science and the use of reason seemed ignorant of Christian tradition valuing both.
Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have always been better at using the media than their more open-minded counterparts. With the rise of the internet, it seems Christian ignorance has spread ever wider. In many circles today, to be Christian equals rejecting science, reason and critical inquiry—at least all kinds that do not support its own worldview. Some of us may scoff at the Creation Museum in Kentucky with its life size Noah’s ark (complete with cargo holds to contain dinosaurs!) but for many American Christians this is an acceptable view of history.
If Christianity is going to survive, it must reject the false dichotomy between faith and science. I appreciate the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ explanation of how the two are really pursuing different things. To put faith and science in opposition to one another is to misunderstand both. Sacks writes, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” Similarly, in an interview, Adam Gopnik shares that even Darwin understood this difference. Gopnik says, “You can be completely committed to a rational, if you like, material explanation of existence, of why — how we got here, without being committed to a reductive account of our own experience. You can believe that there’s a completely rational account of how we got here but that you can never fully rationalize what we feel here.” One of the big reasons younger generations of Americans are rejecting organized religion is because they are asked to choose between a science-less religion and a religion-less science. If those are the only two choices, the latter seems like a more honest course of action. Christians who are faithful and who value science must be more visible and more vocal if Christianity is to survive.
In navigating the contours of my own faith and the use of reason and science, I have always appreciated the simple elegance of John Wesley’s thoughts on the matter. He promoted theological reflection via scripture, faith tradition, reason and experience, what is called “Wesley’s Quadrilateral.” In his Sermon #70, which is titled “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” Wesley takes on those who value reason too little and those who value reason too much. (He takes as his scripture 1 Corinthians 14:20 which is printed above.) It’s a nice argument that explains the important things reason can do for us and the important things reason cannot do for us. He finds a middle way between an ignorant faith on one hand and a reductionistic non-faith on the other. When it comes to Christians who don’t value reason, Wesley has the following words to say:
When therefore you despise or depreciate reason, you must not imagine you are doing God
service: Least of all, are you promoting the cause of God when you are endeavouring to
exclude reason out of religion. Unless you wilfully shut your eyes, you cannot but see of what
service it is both in laying the foundation of true religion, under the guidance of the Spirit of
God, and in raising the superstructure. You see it directs us in every point both of faith and
practice: It guides us with regard to every branch both of inward and outward holiness.
In other words, a healthy Christian faith is one that employs reason. Of course, there are things in a Christian’s experience and their beliefs which are outside the bounds of what science can ascertain, such as eternal life, divine revelation, etc., but a responsible faith uses the mind along with the heart. I’ve often heard more open-minded churches say, “Here at our church, you don’t have to check your brain at the door.” That is reassuring to hear, but it’s a wonder any Christian ever thought such a step was necessary.
Today when denial of science literally has lethal consequences—e.g. refusal to believe in the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines—we need Christians who will set aside internet conspiracy theories and science nightmares found in sensational movies and TV shows. We need Christians who will trust the advances of science while realizing that science cannot possess all the knowledge of what makes life worth living. If people of faith refuse to trust the advances of science, then the consequences will be not only fatal for Christianity but also for the lives of people like you and me.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ
Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace,
expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through
faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can
boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God
prepared in advance for us to do.”
Ephesians 2:6 – 10
What is Grace? That is a question we will be looking at over the next few weeks. In his book, The Power of God’s Grace, Gary Schulz describes Grace this way:
“Grace comes from the heart of God and has its greatest benefit on the heart of man.
Grace is filled with love and compassion, but it also [is] filled with power and the will of
The great joy for us is that the desire of God’s heart is for us to benefit from knowing him. Our God, in his awesome power, cares deeply for his creation. Schulz goes on to say:
“It is about our relationship with God. Grace is a flow of power of God through his
people to accomplish his will among us. It is about his life manifesting in and among
Clearly, God wants more than just worship or praise from his people. He deeply desires a relationship with us. Grace is about God moving through us in a real and powerful way. It is more than forgiveness or mercy; it is the engine of redemption played out through our lives. Its power brings change in our hearts as we draw closer to God. It is the gift of knowing that our God is interested in our every moment of being.
Schulz also notes:
“Grace is a teacher. Our heavenly Father teaches us how to live according to his
righteous ways. This is a critical aspect of his grace.”
We are not left alone to figure out what God’s will is nor are we left alone to struggle with the path of righteousness. Christ has given us the Holy Spirit to guide our steps. It is through relationship and communion with Christ and the Father that the Spirit grows within us. Grace is the working of the Spirit upon us to prepare us to be a light to the world.
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to
say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and
godly lives in this present age, ….”
Titus 2:11 – 12
It is this “teaching” of Grace that allows us to grow in righteousness in a broken and troubled world. It is the moving of the Spirit within us that helps us to become more Christlike in our daily living. It is the gift, from the Father, that refines us and burnishes the rough edges of our lives to make us true tools for the building of his Kingdom here on earth.
But we must be careful. From the very beginning there have been those who would twist God’s gift of grace into something it is not. Grace is not an excuse to live unrepentant lives. It is not a cover for continuing to live in disobedience to God.
In the garden, the serpent used half-truths to convince Eve to disobey God and eat of the fruit. We are faced daily with this sort of temptation. Leaders, both religious and public feed us with these half-truths to keep us from really listening to God. We must remember it is a personal relationship with Christ and the Father which keeps us connected to the Spirit.
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good,
reject every kind of evil.”
I Thessalonians 5:20 – 22
Remember, relationship is God’s heart desire. And when we stay in relationship with him, through Christ the Son we are filled with the Spirit of Truth. Schulz says:
“Jesus came to deliver us from sin for eternity so that we would live for eternity.”
Grace is Spirit driven, through Christ who gives us the strength and wisdom to know righteousness. We do not become perfect in this world, but through the teaching of Grace, we learn to build our relationship with God and the path of righteousness becomes clearer.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
--Philippians 4:8 NRSV
The stories we tell matter.
Recent studies in neurology, psychology and other fields demonstrate that we are wired to respond to stories over facts and figures. Have you ever noticed that in their marketing charities and nonprofits will often tell the story of a single person, child or animal in need? Studies show that statistics about how big a need exists in society actually decrease giving. Our brains see numbers of people who are homeless, children who are hungry, and animals without shelter and we make an unconscious calculation that the need exceeds our ability to do anything about it. If they tell the story of one person, child or animal however, giving increases, because our brains see a need we can meet. Furthermore, a story of an individual is something we can identify with and empathize with, while numbers remain an abstraction. A good story has power.
After the January 6 Capitol riot, many people (myself included) are bewildered by the news of people motivated by QAnon conspiracy theories. Despite the lack of evidence to support such ideas and much evidence to the contrary, people really believe there is a Satanic pedophile ring run by government officials, Bill Gates is injecting tracking chips via COVID vaccines and more. Although some adherents of these ideas may be mentally ill, most are not. Despite the facts, they are caught up in a story of good vs. evil which places them in the role of heroes conquering evildoers. As crazy as the stories may seem to people who don’t believe them, the stories make sense to their adherents and provide a cohesive narrative in a confusing world.
The stories told by QAnon may be bonkers, but the desire of humans to use stories to find meaning, establish a worldview and establish values is as old as our species. I was fascinated by an article by Wiliam J. Bernstein, neurologist, historian and financial theorist, titled “What if the Stories We Tell Happen to Be Conspiracy Theories?” I’m not a neurologist or a historian, so I have to take Bernstein’s research at his word but his points make sense to me. He says that mass delusions of the QAnon kind are not new, not limited to our culture and apparently have always been a part of human experience. He writes “we are condemned to navigate the Space Age world with Stone Age minds; because of this inherent biological anachronism, [humanity] is the ape that imitates, tells stories, and morally condemns others.”
Humans imitate one another, and imitation enabled our species to thrive and spread. Some human in the past was the first to make a spear, blowgun or kayak and other humans imitated that one. Rather than each ancient human having to make a new discovery on their own, they merely imitated one another and the spread of tools, traditions and knowledge enabled our survival. We are wired to imitate one another, and that pull is often stronger than reason. It turns out your parents were right to worry about which friends you hung out with as a teenager.
Humans tell stories to make sense of the world, teach behaviors that ensure survival and ensure cohesion of the group. Our ancient forebears were not using geometry to hunt bison, molecular biology to discern which plants were poisonous or statistical analysis to grasp the spread of a contagion. Instead they told stories and the stories helped them to survive.
Finally, humans made moral judgments. They imitated one another and told stories about their own tribe, but when they encountered different tribes they judged as wrong, immoral or ungodly, traditions and stories which were not their own. This ensured their tribe survived when they encountered other tribes which could be competition or a threat. Demonizing the other tribe also made it easy to destroy them.
We evolved to be storytelling creatures, so the kind of stories and the messages we take from stories matter greatly. From the parables of Jesus to the fables of Aesop to the stories of George Washington’s childhood (“I shall not tell a lie. . .”) help us to know who we are. The stories we tell and the ones we do not tell (the stories of native Americans, African Americans, women, etc.) shape us. When school children are taught the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than about slavery and other misleading stories of “the Lost Cause” mythology of the South, their understanding of racism, history and politics is shaped by them. When the story of the United States’ westward expansion is one only of cowboys, gold miners and wagon trains, while the stories of Native Americans, broken treaties and ethnic cleansing is omitted, identity culture and politics are molded.
Yet stories can also be a powerful force for social reform and liberation. The writer and social critic Rebecca Solnit cites the #MeToo movement as an example of the positive power of storytelling.
“Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech. Even now, when women begin to speak of their experience, others step forward to bolster the earlier speaker and to share their own experience. A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth.”
She goes on to describe how our stories contain the power to do ourselves and others great harm or to offer help and healing.
“We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
People of faith know the power of stories. Each religious tradition has its own stories. As Christians, we experience the power of the stories we tell of God creating order out of chaos, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, Jesus hanging around with tax collectors and prostitutes, and Christ rising from the dead. We may have different interpretations of what these stories mean and even whether they actually happened the way the Bible depicts them, but those stories shape who we are, who we imitate and our judgments about others different from us. How those stories are told, who tells them and what lessons we learn from them matter greatly.
Christian stories about the End Times became enmeshed in QAnon conspiracies to motivate the rioters at the Capitol last week. As we honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr. this coming week, we remember the stories of Christianity inspired him and other Civil Rights leaders to risk death for the cause of racial justice. The stories are in the same book, but who tells them and for what purpose make all the difference in the world.
As we move through 2021, may we commit ourselves to telling stories that liberate, that value diversity, acknowledge the inherent worth of every person, that reveal the truth about people whose voices have been silenced and cherish the natural world and its resources.
The stories we tell matter.
Grace and Peace,
Before you read my thoughts, you need to hear the thoughts of PHCC Board Chair Jill Watson that she shared during worship this past Sunday. If you haven’t done so already, go to the church web site and watch the service from this past Sunday and hear Jill share as presiding elder her thoughts of the good shape the church is in as we start 2021. Things at PHCC are probably better than you may realize. There’s a lot to be thankful for!
A good friend of mine serves as pastor to a church which has the best Epiphany tradition I know. As they celebrate Epiphany, the story of the Magi following the star of Bethlehem, they hang cardboard stars all around their sanctuary. On each star is written a word, such as peace, love, grace, etc. Those present are invited to take a star and consider the word on it a message from God as they start the new year. They mail stars with their words from God to those who cannot be present for worship, and this year their church continues to meet online, so they are mailing them out to everyone.
When I saw my friend’s Facebook post about this year’s Epiphany stars, I commented about how meaningful of a practice I thought it was, so he sent me my very own star. It turns out my star had the word “laughter” on it. What a strange word to get after a year like 2020 and a new year begun with violence and chaos! In a way, laughter hardly seems appropriate for such a time. Yet, I found myself feeling the word “laughter” was entirely appropriate, because in the midst of troubled times laughter reminds us what makes life worth living.
Recently I talked with a church member about the state of PHCC. With this person, as with so many others, there is anxiety about PHCC’s future. They confessed to having less ability and less interest in doing many of the church things they did when they were younger. I wondered aloud if that might be a good thing. So many of the structures of churches like PHCC were made in a different time for a different culture, and many of those things just do not work anymore. We exhaust ourselves keeping them going and then feel like we have failed when they inevitably die. Instead of feeling shame and guilt, maybe a good way to think about what is necessary for a church to do is by asking, “What makes us laugh?”
At church, so much of our language is about sacrifice and service—necessarily so!—but many of us, myself included, translate those concepts into drudgery and obligation. Of course, there is always grunt work to be done at church, but when done in a spirit of joy with other folks who also do it joyously, then even grunt work can become enjoyable. Many of us who approach church as something we “should” do feel uncomfortable laughing about church. In our desire to do things right and good, we end up taking church so seriously we forget to have fun. We end up turning church into something nobody wants to do. I don’t mean church should become mere entertainment, but church should be a source of joy in our lives. I know of no better way to turn rigorous obligation into joyous experience than laughing at it.
Laughter is a way for us to be humble about our beliefs and practices. Pity the Christian who can’t laugh at themselves and their attempts to relate to a God who is so close to us but also so mysterious. Minister and writer Matt Fitzgerald writes, “Laughing in church is a way of saying, ‘Let's be honest. We don't really know what we're talking about.’ Laughter undercuts religion's clammy sanctimoniousness. And its murderous certitude. We better laugh.” What would have happened if the rioters at the Capitol last week had beforehand taken a moment to take themselves less seriously? Perhaps that riot could have been avoided if they bothered to laugh at themselves. Similarly, how many awful things done by Christian’s in God’s name could have been avoided if the perpetrators knew how to laugh at themselves? How much joy is the average church missing out on, because its people don’t know how to have a little fun and laugh at their foibles, mistakes, goof ups and quirks?
During worship the Sunday before last I finished the opening prayer and simply walked off the chancel completely forgetting our practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer at that point in the service. I sat down in the pew wondering what the awkward silence was about. Thankfully, our music leader RaJean began the prayer on my behalf. I mentioned later that if you wanted proof that we don’t have to be perfect at church, just look at the imperfect minister who makes mistakes up at the front of the church each week.
I’ve been in churches that operated their services with ruthless automatic efficiency. Any deacon who didn’t pass the offering plate as precisely as a Swiss watchmaker was shamed. Heaven forbid a baby might cry or someone might trip walking to the lectern to read scripture. In such places, I felt the pomposity bordered on blasphemy. I could only imagine God and the angels lovingly laughing at all the self-serious church folk.
We live in a world where seriously unfunny things happen. Currently as many as 4,000 people are dying each day in our country during COVID. The very fabric of our democracy seems to be on the brink of unraveling. The future of our church and most churches is potentially dire, to say the least. Yet, if the lives we live for the short time we get to live them are worth living at all, there must be time and space for happiness, for fun, for joy and for laughter. Laughter is a holy resistance to the pain and suffering in our world. Yes, there are moments of grief and times for tears, but if there is not also time for laughter than all we have is misery. Life isn’t supposed to be miserable, and neither is church.
As PHCC looks to a new year, ponders what kind of life together it wants when the COVID pandemic ends, and discerns what kind of pastor it seeks to call, put at the top of your list whatever it is that makes you laugh. I don’t mean the coarse or cruel laughter that comes at someone’s expense, but rather the surprising laughter that bubbles up from the gut which is medicine for the soul. Consider when you have laughed together as a church. Remember when you were able to laugh at yourself, not as a put down or self-abuse but rather in the life-giving way of loosening up and enjoying the present moment. I promise you that as you consider what you want the future of PHCC to be, if you start with what brings laughter then you will find God’s purpose for this church.
Grace and Peace,
Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many
antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.
--1 John 2:18 NRSV
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the QAnon conspiracies that apparently motivated many of the rioters who attacked the Capitol building a week ago. These conspiracy theories include ideas that Democrats are running a pedophile ring and imprisoning children out of a local pizza restaurant in Washington D.C., the COVID-19 vaccine is a way for the government to implant tracking microchips into the American population and other outlandish ideas running the gambit from JFK still being alive to 5G cell phone service being mind control. The rioters included many who identify as evangelical Christians and reporters quoted many who believed Donald Trump was predicted in the Bible. The talk of spiritual warfare, including ideas of fighting against a secret cabal of Satanists, bring back a lot of memories for me. I grew up hearing similar kinds of conspiracy theories long before QAnon showed up. I heard them all the time in Bible studies about the apocalyptic writings in the Bible, such as Revelation, Daniel and other passages.
My Southern Baptist minister father and my preacher’s wife mother didn’t believe in stuff like the Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Mark of the Beast, but my father served in churches full of people who did. Whether it was at youth camp, revival services or Bible studies, I heard a steady stream of conspiracies about the government, communists, the United Nations, barcodes on groceries and more. The Antichrist could be anyone from the latest Soviet leader to Ronald Reagan (each of his names has 6 letters which equals 666!). George Bush Sr.’s statement about a “New World Order” after the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired countless books about the United Nations imposing a one-world government like the Babylon mentioned in Revelation. I remember when ATM machines first became popular hearing people seriously ask if their PIN numbers were the Mark of the Beast.
In the 1980’s, the so called “Satanic panic” occurred when all across the nation people who saw Christian counselors “recovered” what they thought were repressed memories of being sexually abused by rings of Satanists. In Christian bookstores and on TV shows like Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, people spoke of “recovered” memories of rings of Satanists sacrificing babies. I recall reading a book called Satan’s Underground written by a woman who claimed to have been a victim of what became known as “Satanic Ritual Abuse.” I can also remember reading The Satan Seller by a leading Christian speaker named Mike Warnke who claimed to be a reformed Satanist. (The authors of both books were exposed as frauds in the early 1990’s.) An immensely popular fiction book in evangelical circles was called This Present Darkness. It told the tale of a literal battle between angels and demons in a small town where ordinary Christians were how God’s forces defeated their fellow townspeople who were possessed by evil spirits. I recall feeling like demons were behind every bush after reading it. Once the “Satanic panic” was proved to be untrue, experts label it an event of “mass hysteria” or “moral panic.’
By the time I went to a Baptist college where most of the student body believed similar stuff like this, I began to see that my parents’ cautions about buying into such beliefs were valid. Through more grounded Christian mentors and caring religion professors, I let go of all such preoccupations with Christian apocalyptic conspiracy theories. So, I missed a whole new round of apocalyptic fads which reached mainstream popularity.
In the 1990’s, the first Gulf War prompted a new round of speculation, best-selling books and videos claiming Saddam Hussein was the Antichrist. They looked an awful lot like claims about the Ayatollah Khomeini a decade earlier. Later on, the same claims would be made about Osama bin Laden. Sexual puritan turned apocalyptic expert Tim LaHaye and the fiction writer Jerry Jenkins published the Left Behind series of New York Times best-selling books which recycled the same conspiracies about a one world government, an Antichrist who made use of the United Nations, the Rapture, etc. but capitalized on anxieties regarding the year 2000.
Speaking of the year 2000, fears about the so called “millennium bug” folded neatly into evangelical fears about societal collapse and what now are called “preppers” held trade shows full of survival goods at evangelical churches as the 20th century counted down to zero. 9-11 and the events afterward led to yet another round of the same evangelical conspiracy theories. I have friends who bought gold to prepare for the coming economic collapse and End Times. For all I know, they made a good bet given the 2008 financial crisis.
The rise of the internet and social media just seems to have kicked these evangelical apocalyptic conspiracies into overdrive. Sociologists are calling QAnon a ‘digital cult” because of its hold on people. Yet, much of the language used—spiritual warfare, combating rings of Satanists who abduct and sexually assault children, fighting against globalists, etc. all sounds familiar to me. The roots of this stuff, of course, go back deep in American history back through McCarthyism, Henry Ford spreading the fraudulent The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the apocalyptic imagery used by the Ku Klux Klan and more. There is a deep fascination within White Protestant American Christianity for apocalyptic conspiracies.
Psychiatrists and sociologists point out motives for believing in conspiracy theories. Motives include everything from Dissociative Identity Disorder, cultural anxiety, and simple low self-esteem. Experts note that conspiracy theories are prevalent on the fringes of both the political left and the political right, but the political right seems to be enjoying a flurry of such thinking in recent years.
To me, it seems the seeds planted by the Religious Right in the late 1970’s have finally sprouted. The toxic mix of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics that has been a part of political life since then has always included a steady stream of apocalyptic beliefs which reduce the complexities of the modern world to dualistic good and evil. The problem with this thinking, of course, is that when your political adversary becomes an agent of Satan there is no room for compromise. The basic humanity of someone is lost if they are in league with the embodiment of evil. One cannot do anything other than destroy someone who seeks to destroy the world as you know it.
We saw some of the inevitable consequences of such thinking last week at the Capitol building. Even a willing purveyor of such apocalyptic evangelical Christianity like Mike Pence can find himself instantly put on the list of Satanic enemies to be destroyed. When one plays with the fire of this kind of religious fervor, they will inevitably get burned.
What I came to see on my own religious journey is that if one holds to a belief system that includes evangelical apocalyptic conspiracies, it becomes difficult to do much of anything Jesus taught. One cannot pray for and love one’s enemies if one is fighting a spiritual war to destroy the enemies of God. One cannot turn the other cheek or walk the extra mile when the Antichrist is the one hitting you or asking you to carry their rucksack. One cannot forgive someone if they are a part of Satan’s army. This is why conspiracy theories wrapped in the mantle of Christianity, whether it’s anti-communism or QAnon, always end up being something antithetical to Christianity. A belief system devoid of love can never be called Christian.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples