As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes
on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to
share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so
that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
--1 Timothy 6:17-19 ESV
Each morning my email inbox is filled with emails from news sources offering lists of articles. I browse through them over breakfast checking the headlines and occasionally clicking on them for more information. I usually avoid “listicles” in favor of actual journalism. “Listicles,” in case you’ve been ignoring the internet for the last decade, pretend to be a news article (hence the -icle in the word) but really are only a list someone has arbitrarily compiled, for example “The 10 Greatest Celebrity Breakups of All-Time!”). Sites love them, because listicles get people to click on their site (they charge advertisers per click) and they don’t have to pay for an actual journalist. Like I said, I try to avoid them, but sometimes I can’t resist.
This morning I gave in to temptation and clicked on a listicle titled “7 of the Weirdest Things People are Buying During the Pandemic.” Don’t ask me why. I just did. It turns out the 7 Weirdest Things weren’t very surprising—well, one of them was—roller skates. That one surprised me, but the other six weren’t very “weird” at all: RV’s, yeast (for breadmaking), bidets (remember the toilet paper shortage?), sweat pants, scented candles and guns.
Look, I’m doing my best to make it through this monotonous pandemic just like everybody else. Who am I to judge anybody for doing whatever it takes to deal with this crazy time? Things like sweat pants, bidets, yeast and scented candles sound like coping mechanisms for people stuck at home. RV sales have been in the news because fewer people want to risk getting COVID-19 traveling by plane or staying in a hotel. Even guns don’t surprise me; this is America after all. I have lots of questions, such as, “don’t most people who are into guns already have plenty of guns and ammo already?” “Exactly how many more guns and how much more ammo do you need?” “COVID-19 is bad, but are we really talking about total societal collapse?” Wait, don’t answer that.
I shouldn’t make too much of a listicle like this. Somebody being paid by the word probably generated it in a random manner. This isn’t hard journalism. Yet, it did make me think about what am I spending my money on right now? If folks are fortunate enough to still have jobs during this economic crisis, what are they spending their money on. As I said, far be it from me to judge folks for seeking some material comforts/coping mechanisms during this stressful time, but the Amazon vans and FedEx trucks racing up and down my street seem to imply there is a lot of purchasing going on these days. I think it’s fair to assume much of what’s being bought aren’t necessities.
I’m wondering if in my own life I’ve relied too much on the endorphin rush that comes with hitting “Buy Now” and neglected the joy which comes from giving to others in need? There’s a lot of need right now. Maybe they exist out there on the interwebs, but I haven’t seen many listicles of the top things people are giving away or the top charities people are giving to during the pandemic.
A crisis like the one we are going through can reveal a lot about our own character, values and beliefs. It is perhaps when we most feel like circling the wagons that we most need to reach out with generosity. Maybe this time offers us the opportunity to reassess our whole approach to buying more and more stuff, what the writer of 2 Timothy calls setting our “hopes on the uncertainty of riches.” Maybe the uncertainty of these times can inspire us to turn our focus to God “who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” After all, often when we give in to the constant itch to buy more stuff we don’t need, we are merely using a materialistic solution to address a spiritual need. Deep down what we want is to “take hold of that which is truly life.”
The paradox of following Jesus is that the more we give away the more we end up with that truly matters. The more we give up the stuff that masquerades as “life” the more we discover what true life really feels like.
Grace and Peace,
P.S. If you are looking for an opportunity to be generous, check out the Facebook Group PHCC’s own Carrie Stewart has started called “Operation Teacher’s Toolbox KC.” It allows you to see wishlists by area school teachers who are stocking their classrooms for the first day of the school year. We all know how difficult this year will be, and most of these items are ones teachers pay for out of their own pocket. It’s a great way to support and encourage your children’s and grandchildren’s teachers.
Since we belong to the day, let’s stay sober, wearing faithfulness and love as a piece of armor
that protects our body and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
--1 Thessalonians 5:8 CEB
Talitha Arnold, a United Church of Christ minister in Santa Fe, NM, writes about hope and the ways it has been described.
"Hope is the thing with feathers," wrote Emily Dickinson, "that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all."
"Hope is a muscle" wrote the author of a book about a girls basketball team.
Hope is a helmet, said the Apostle Paul.
Always the realist, Paul encouraged the early Christians of Thessalonica to put on "a helmet of hope of salvation." It's a great metaphor. Hope is often under siege, whether in Paul's time or ours. One glance at the daily news makes hope seem naive and those who hold hope appear foolish. We often need the protection a helmet affords to keep hope alive.
During these days of COVID-19, we need some steel-plated hope to keep despair at bay. In recent days I have been asked to pray for a family given 30 days to find a new home, an unemployed man unable to pay his rent due to the decrease in unemployment benefits, a good friend’s father who is on a ventilator due to COVID-19, and someone’s mother who has dementia in a memory care unit which so far has not allowed caregivers to visit. I keep praying for all these folks and more. So far, arrows of despair and frustration keep pinging off my “helmet of hope,” but they hit hard enough I feel like a bell getting rung.
I like the image of a “helmet of hope,” because it implies hope is more than empty wishes. It speaks of a certain kind of inner strength and determination necessary to face despair and keep going. Krista Tippett has one of my favorite lines about hope in her book Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It:
The spiritual geniuses of the ages and of the everyday don’t let despair have the last word. Nor do they close their eyes to its pictures or deny the enormity of its facts. They say, “Yes, and…” And they wake up the next day, and the day after that, to act and live accordingly.
I love the idea of saying “yes, and. . .” to all the daily news of despair. That simple practice reminds us that the daily struggles and traumas in this life are real, but they are not all there is to reality. Beauty, community and love are also real. Sure, sometimes things are bad, really bad and it takes work to hold onto hope, but we are not talking about mere wishes or even optimism alone. We are talking about living out of the truth that despair does not get the last word.
Paul uses the image of hope as a helmet, but he describes it in a particular way “hope of salvation as a helmet.” We have to be careful that we don’t spiritualize hope once we see the word “salvation’ next to it. Again, Talitha Arnold has good words on this verse of scripture:
Paul says it is the "hope of salvation." Yes, it's the saving grace of Jesus Christ, but it's also the hope that saves us from despair and discouragement, be it about our world or ourselves.
Hope for salvation from death once this life ends is no small thing, but it’s not the only thing. Ultimately as Christians we have hope, because we trust in God and that makes all the difference in the here and now.
God isn’t a cosmic vending machine that dispenses answers to our real-world problems after we insert the correct change or the right words in a prayer. Instead, God is the energy that we grab onto which pulls us out of bed each day to do what must be done and to do all we can to face our struggles. We are empowered to keep at it, because we trust we are not left to our own devices. God is at work along with us as we face whatever difficulties come.
Most of all, that steel-plated hope that we wear like a helmet to guard our minds from despair is an internal transformation that enables to face whatever external trouble comes our way. Joan Chittister writes:
Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside of us to get better. It is about getting better inside about what is going on outside.
In these days of COVID-19, where the usual difficulties in life grow exponentially greater, may you keep your “helmet of hope” on tight as you rise each day to do what must be done.
Grace and Peace,
“Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of
When called to Jesus, we bring our hearts, minds and bodies. These are the things of true value that we have, the only things that are undeniably ours. We can “earn” many other possessions, like money, homes, vehicles and so on, but all we truly are born with are our hearts, minds and bodies and it is these that we surrender to Christ when we proclaim Him Lord of our lives.
Before Jesus, Peter and John were fishermen. We don’t know how successful they were or how much “stuff” they had accumulated prior to following Jesus. We only know that when they answered His call to follow Him, they “left everything” behind. While there are many sermons on the dropping of everything to follow, let’s focus for the moment on the reality of what they had. Aside from their “profession” what did these men truly possess? What did they have that Jesus required of them? Only themselves.
Over the last few weeks, we have been looking at the gifts of the Spirit. These gifts: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety and the fear of the Lord are not some magical powers that we suddenly acquire when the Spirit moves in us. Rather they are aspects we learn to use and grow through our walk with the Spirit.
All of us were born with the heart and mind capable of wisdom, knowledge, understanding and counsel. We each have the capacity of courage, strength of character and mind. When we dedicate ourselves to our God, we devote ourselves to His commandments, we have a healthy respect for Him and gladly obey. The gift of the Spirit is that each of these characteristics grows and makes us bolder. We no longer walk alone, but we walk in the Spirit of Christ.
We must not be afraid to exercise these gifts for our community. During this time of separation, when health fears keep so many of us away from the church building, there is no bar to our sharing of heart and mind. During this time of building for our vision of Bold Hospitality, we can take action that will prepare the way for when we can meet again. We can use our minds to pray for wisdom for our leaders. Wisdom in developing partnerships and wisdom in the paths to meet our community needs.
We can counsel one another in how to prevail through this difficult time. We can offer knowledge on how to contact organizations that may make good partners as we reach out to our community.
In our time of devotions and our prayer closets we can vigorously seek out God’s will and that the opportunities to serve our community will become visible to us.
Ultimately, in our placing God first, we will become a people filled with compassion for our neighbors and we will reach lives in ways we never considered before.
We are in the process of building. We are in the process of becoming. Even in our separation, we are coming together in the Spirit. Listen, God is saying:
“19See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
Open your minds and hearts to hear His word. Exercise your gifts so that He will be lifted up.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
--Psalm 150:6 NIV
If you’ve gone to church for any length of time, some of the language can become a little too familiar. The words can lose their meaning. Phrases and ideas heard repeatedly in scripture readings, praise songs and hymns sort of become like a favorite pop song, commercial jingle or Christmas song. One is so familiar with the words, their significance no longer sinks in.
It helps me to hear my tradition with fresh ears when I hear truth in another religious tradition. Whether I’m reading something by a person of another faith or I’m getting to talk to someone of a different faith in person, I usually find not only am I learning to appreciate the faith of another tradition but I understand my own better. This has especially been the case in reading the writings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. For example, he writes:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
The Western world’s values of viewing the Creation of God merely as something to be used up for our own gratification has developed with the blessing of a Christianity that views the “material world” as inferior to the world of the spirit. It is embedded in the heart of free market capitalism and exported around the globe.
Yet, this Buddhist monk’s recognition of the miracle that exists in all creation reminds me to consider the parts of Christianity and the Hebrew Bible that recognize the earth not as ours to use like a tissue we wad up and throw away, but as God’s creation that we participate in but do not own. “The earth is the Lord’s” declares scripture, but the present ecological crisis shows how we humans act in godless ways refusing to recognize the earth belongs to God not us.
Thich Nhat Hanh also writes about the miracle that is an ordinary loaf of bread:
When I hold a piece of bread, I look at it, and sometimes I smile at it. The piece of bread is an ambassador of the cosmos offering nourishment and support. Looking deeply into the piece of bread, I see the sunshine, the clouds, the great earth. Without the sunshine, no wheat can grow. Without the clouds, there is no rain for the wheat to grow. Without the great earth, nothing can grow. That is why the piece of bread that I hold in my hand is a wonder of life. It is there for all of us.
I buy my food at a supermarket, and it’s easy to forget everything involved in a “simple” loaf of bread. There is the miracle of life itself and all the things in an ecosystem required for grain to grow. There are the farmers who harvest grain, the people in bakeries who produce it, the people who transport it, the “essential workers” who stock it.
Especially in these times of pandemic, where people literally risk their lives to put bread on store shelves, I ignore everything and everyone who has been involved in the bread making it to me at the peril of my own soul. As politicians debate the level of unemployment benefits, most of whom have never been hungry a day in their lives, I consider the low hourly wages of most of the people who produce the food I eat. Many of the people who produce food for my family are paid wages that leave them below the poverty line and without medical benefits. Each bite of a sandwich I take connects me to countless people and to creation itself. It also reminds me of my ethical responsibility to the earth and to other people.
Most of all, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of mindfulness that starts with paying attention to our breathing:
Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive—that you can touch the miracle of being alive—then that is a kind of enlightenment.
Even though I believe in God’s grace, I don’t often live like it. I hurry around trying to prove myself and act as if accomplishing more is that same thing as living in a significant way. My prayers are hurried and harried instead of moments to connect with God who is present everywhere and in every moment.
Christian theologian Theilhard de Chardin wrote this about the “breath of all creation:”
All living creatures are sustained by this life-giving rhythm, and we are dependent on plants, trees, and other vegetation to transform the carbon dioxide we exhale into the oxygen we need to thrive.
Our breath connects us with the “breath” of every living thing. We are a part of the network of God’s creation. We are not beings operating in a vacuum, separate from everyone and everything else. We are a part of God’s living community. Millenia ago, the Hebrew writers of the Psalms expressed the same truth when they sang
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Sometimes the truth of God sneaks up on us via someone of another religion so that we might rediscover the truth of our own.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at
work within us; glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and
--Ephesians 3:20-21 CEB
At the end of the third chapter in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the author offers a prayer for the audience of the letter. The prayer gains in force and scope, as if the author gets carried away, and ends with a crescendo of a declaration that God “is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us.” Those are strong words. Are they true?
In some sense, my almost 20 years in full-time ministry and the ten years prior in education and part-time ministry have all been a wager that words like the ones at the end of Ephesians 3 are true. In my career, I’ve largely found evidence to the contrary. Church fights, hypocrisy, poor leadership, focus on the wrong priorities, and churches that function as social clubs rather than faith communities have at times made me cynical. Perhaps, the most dispiriting part of being a minister is seeing church people, for some reason, supporting an institution while at the same time refusing to believe it will accomplish anything of importance. The low expectations of church folks always astound me. I often wonder why people so fearful of shrinking budgets and pining for the glory days of old even bother to show up at church. It’s no wonder most of our culture has moved on. Who wants to be a part of a group so determined to fail?
Yet, I believe in God, so I can’t let go of promises like the ones in Ephesians 3. Deep down I believe that God is aching to “do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work with in us.” I imagine God unmoved by our collective shrugs still looking for an opening to pour that power into us in order to do more than we ever think possible. I’ve had glimpses of this kind of outbreak of power along the way—moments when people got carried away with their generosity and belief that they were making a difference in the world. Those few glimpses give me hope that I’ll find a group of so-called believers who actually believe God can do something amazing through them.
When I talk with leaders of a congregation, I like to ask them about the history of their churches. In many cases, there is little to tell regarding membership numbers or the various ministers who served there. Yet, sometimes churches tell amazing stories of generosity and grace. One church started an after-school program in a housing project after MLK was assassinated that continues to this day and has grown to help kids raised in that project break out of generational poverty. Another church was active during the HIV/AIDS crisis and helped start their city’s first hospice for people with the disease. Another church welcomed in a refugee community and began holding multi-lingual worship services so their American-born members and the refugees could worship together as one church. Those stories exist if you look for them. No matter what the churches look like in the present, somewhere back in their DNA, God did something “beyond what we could ask or imagine.”
Park Hill Christian Church has some good spiritual DNA. There’s no denying that in the past people in this church got a little carried away by God’s “power at work within us.” There are stories of generosity given to people in need and ministries that started small with an idea but blossomed into something big. It’s all there in your DNA.
Two weeks ago, I visited S.P.E.A.C. (Southern Platte Emergency Assistance Center) in the lower level of Parkville Presbyterian Church. I was greatly impressed with its operation and reach. Then I learned that S.P.E.A.C began here at PHCC in Meade Hall. It changed location because it outgrew our space! I heard about the inspiring work of Helen Wright and how PHCC volunteers have served at the food pantry every week and on the board for 31 years! That’s a pretty amazing story—and it’s not your only one.
My question for PHCC is do you only believe that God worked back then through PHCC or is God capable of working in some kind of similar way here in the present as well?
It’s the same God you’ve been worshipping all this time. God didn’t change. What’s keeping you from letting God’s “power at work within us” raise some holy havoc now?
After our 40 Days of Prayer and Purpose, the church board approved the idea of Bold Hospitality, sharing our building and resources with the wider community to dramatically represent the way Christ welcomes’ all to share in God’s blessings. Jill Watson, our board chairperson, has already asked for you, the people of PHCC, to begin thinking and praying about needs in our community and the groups at work trying to meet with them. If they need space to meet or carry out their work, PHCC has plenty to share. Who can we partner with—in the same way we partnered with other churches and non-profits to found S.P.E.A.C to make a real difference in the Northland. Do you really believe that God has already given you everything you need to do similarly amazing things again? If not, why not?
If you think about it, you’ve already done this kind of thing in the past—S.P.E.A.C. is a great example—all you have to do is actually raise your expectations and trust that God “is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us.”
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
--Psalm 24;1 NRSV
Most teenagers rebel against their parents by rejecting their parents’ values. Kids of liberal parents try on free market libertarianism. Kids with NRA members for parents sign petitions for gun control. You get the point. I was a weird kid. My form of teenage rebellion was to take my parents’ religion and become so hardcore about it that they worried about me. Let me tell you, when your father is a Southern Baptist minister, you’ve got to take things to extremes to outdo him when it comes to religion. I sought to out-Christian my Christian parents. I would have had a lot more fun, I think, if I had gone the other way.
I feel the need to offer a disclaimer here that as Southern Baptists go, my parents weren’t so extreme. No, they didn’t drink alcohol and yes, they went to church all the time, but they didn’t hold to fundamentalist beliefs about God. My parents usually voted Democratic and they supported women’s rights and racial equality. They were by no means radicals, but they were pretty much mainstream for middle class white people.
Nonetheless, I fell in with friends in high school who were involved with Youth for Christ, a parachurch organization based in Kansas City. Think Young Life but with a whole lot of sexual shaming, talk about the Second Coming and a strict dualism which didn’t offer middle ground on anything. It was the last thing, the dualism, dividing things up between sacred and secular, Christian and pagan, good and evil that for some reason really appealed to me. In the decades since, therapists have pointed out to me that I tend to fall into the trap of either/or thinking or looking only at extremes. In the short term, such thinking is a handy way to make sense of the world, but in the long run it causes a lot of psychological trouble, because life rarely is so simple.
So, I jumped in with both feet into the job of dividing the world into sacred and profane. Secular rock-n-roll was evil, but if they were a part of so-called “Contemporary Christian Music” then it was good. I can remember being really confused by the Irish rock band U2, because three out of the four band members were Christian and so were a lot of their lyrics, but they were on a secular record label. Plus, one year the members of U2 showed up drunk for the Grammys and were a bad Christian witness to my mind. Only later would I come to learn that Christians in Ireland didn’t share the views of teetotaling American evangelicals. Today, U2 remains my favorite band ever (I’ve seen them in concert eight times!), but when I was a teen they confounded my categories of good and evil.
I hung out in Christian bookstores devouring the blossoming genre of Christian fiction and lingered over the chotchkes made in China with a Bible verse stamped on them. In my mind, the presence of scripture transformed a crappy bit of plastic into a priceless treasure. The same principle applied to politics, celebrities and even ordinary people. If they quoted a Bible verse or thanked Jesus for helping them win a Super Bowl, that made them good, but if they failed to publicly acknowledge Christ they must be bad.
Years later I watched an episode of the animated TV show King of the Hill that addressed my teenage thinking. In it, the central character in the show Hank Hill deals with his son who has begun attending a hipster youth group. When the teens attend a Christian rock concert, Hank tells their youth minister, “Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock n’ roll worse.” So much of what I had labelled Christian and therefore good was merely a bad knock off of secular fads and marketing. Sort of like the cheap crap in the Christian book store, just because somebody or something mentioned Jesus or a Bible verse didn’t make it holy.
Perhaps the worst part of the dualistic thinking I held was how very limited I unknowingly understood God to be. By understanding God was present only in the products of the evangelical subculture, I missed out on seeing God everywhere else. My God was very small and utterly predictable. That’s a far cry from the God revealed in scripture who tends to show up in exactly the last place religious people expect (think a manger in Bethlehem or a cross in Jerusalem).
When we allow God to be God, there is no telling where and how God might reveal the Divine to us. Things religious people might consider evil, secular or profane might turn out to be messengers of God. If Psalm 24:1 is correct, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;” then God can show up anywhere and everywhere. There are folks in our culture gaining power and making money telling believers what is Christian and what is not. Their God looks more like Uncle Sam or a tech billionaire than Jesus of Nazareth. The real question, I guess, is whether or not we are open to seeing God wherever God shows up or if we have closed our minds off to a God who is larger than our preconceived notions.
Frederick Buechner has this to say about religious books:
There are poetry books and poetic books—the first a book with poems in it, the second a book that may or may not have poems in it, but that is in some sense a poem itself. In much the same way there are religion books and religious books. A religion book is a book with religion in it in the everyday sense of religious ideas, symbols, attitudes, and—if it takes the form of fiction—with characters and settings that have overtly religious associations and implications. There are good religion books like The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor, and there are miserable ones like most of what is called "Christian" fiction. A religion book is a canvas. A religious book is a transparency. With a religious book it is less what we see in it than what we see through it that matters.
I’d expand Buechner’s idea beyond books into pretty much everything in creation. If something acts as a “transparency” and allows us to “see through it” to God’s love, peace and justice, then it is “religious.” A book, film, YouTube video, meme, TedTalk, sunset, laughing child, the sound of waves on the beach, a crackling fire, the noises a loved one makes arriving home, birdsong in the morning and so much more allow us to “see through them” and to glimpse the Divine gazing back at us with love. If we waste our time deciding between Christian and non-Christian, sacred and secular, we will miss out on much of what God wishes us to experience.
Grace and Peace,
We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God
--Romans 8:28 CEB
Things are a bit uneasy around my house these days. My two teenagers are “totally over” the boredom of the pandemic. I never thought they would get tired of video games and YouTube, but even those addictive narcotics have lost their power. They are ready to go back to school, to see their friends, to not be at home and to be away from their parents. Yet, our school system has yet to release an official plan of what will happen when school starts. No matter what plans they make, a likely COVID-19 outbreak at their schools will result in students working remotely from home again. I can already hear the disappointed groans of my teens.
I’m hearing a lot of disappointed groans as fall nears. Groans from parents disappointed their kids who are entering college won’t have the normal college experience, even though they are paying through the nose for one. Groans from restaurants and businesses looking at more months of economic uncertainty instead of recovery. Groans of senior adults trapped at home or in their retirement communities. Groans of those fortunate to still have jobs who face an endless parade of ZOOM meetings and struggles to work from home. Most of all, there are the groans of people without access to affordable health care facing the fear of getting sick and the groans of “essential workers” who must risk their lives in underpaying jobs to forestall eviction or worse.
Does God hear our groans? Whether we are disappointed teenagers or family members fearing a loved one’s death from COVID-19? Why does God allow the suffering to continue?
A few weeks ago, I preached on Romans 8 and shared it is my one of my favorite scriptures because of the hope it offers. I shared my take on Romans 8:28 which is starkly different from interpretations that boil the verse down to “everything happens for a reason.”
Sometimes there is a reason for suffering. In the present pandemic, there are lots of reasons things are not getting better, such as a misguided sense of “freedom” which entails individual choice rather than collective responsibility, failure of elected leaders to take unpopular but necessary measures, bureaucratic mismanagement and a healthcare system that puts profits above the common good. Sometimes there are no reasons that we can discern. In the current pandemic, it remains a mystery why some are susceptible to COVID-19 and others are asymptomatic carriers of it. Other times suffering comes because of chaos that by its nature is random and unpredictable. The current hurricane’s unpredictable path illustrates the point.
I don’t believe God is behind every action for good and bad. The Bible is quite clear that the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike, and often the wicked prosper while good people suffer. Plus, given the scale of suffering some people endure, if I believe God caused it, then I would question God’s morality. Why God allows suffering remains a mystery. Any reason I’ve heard for it (usually involving some appeal to free will) feels irrelevant in the moment a person experiences suffering.
Instead, I interpret Romans 8:28 to mean
Sometimes the good that comes out of bad makes up for the pain, but other times the bad remains bad and we learn wisdom from it. Either way God is at work among the suffering to bring out the best outcome possible under the circumstances, even though God alone may know what all the circumstances are.
Despite the promises of TV preachers, God never promises our lives will be free of disappointment and suffering. God does promise to be with us during it, even if we can’t sense God’s presence. God also promises to keep working to bring good out of the bad in our lives. These two promises can give us hope as we face an unknown future with COVID-19.
Joan Chittister writes,
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, to those who live it to the hilt.
God does hear our groans, big and small, and God is at work to bring all the possible good out of our current circumstances living with the realities of COVID-19. Trust God, even if you’re having trouble sensing God’s presence. Stick with hope until we are through this time of disappointment.
Grace and Peace,
7 The Holy Spirit is given to each of us in a special way. That is for the good of all.
1 Corinthians 12:7
In times of desperation it can be hard to feel the Holy Spirit. But, as Christians, we have been promised His presence in our lives:
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you
another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world
cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives
with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
John 14:15 – 18.
The church as a whole has reached a point of desperation. Everyday we read of another church closing its doors or disbanding. Numbers are dwindling and the current environment with the pandemic and social climate has made it even more difficult for churches to survive. But the good news is that we are not alone, and we do not have to fall by the way. We have the advocate at our side. What we are being called to is a new way of doing church.
For too long the American church has been a social club. In many denominations belonging was a social contract. In others it was a “family tradition” and others it was associated with guilt. But we are being called to return to our “first love”. Our love of Christ. We are being called to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, who is freely given to us by Christ. The only requirement is to follow Christ commands. Those commandments are summed up into two things:
Love God above all else and love your neighbor as God has loved you.
The time has come to check our love. Are we loving God above all else? Or are we putting our facility first? Are loving God above all else, or is it just a weekend kind of love? What are you doing in your daily life that shows your love of God? Are you communing with God daily? Do you recognize Christ with you always? Or is it just when a crisis comes or the pastor calls or when Sunday morning rolls along? Showing our love of God is walking humbly and, in His presence, aware that the Spirit is with us and guiding us in all our ways. It doesn’t make us perfect, of course, but it makes us aware and in connection with God we begin to bear fruit.
What of our love of neighbor? Are we like the teachers trying to trick Jesus and asking, ‘who is our neighbor’? Jesus’ replies, everyone is our neighbor. The black man choked in the street, the immigrant child caged like an animal, the disabled threatened with financial uncertainty, the homeless sitting on the corner begging. These are all our neighbors, what have you done in love of them lately? What has the Spirit been saying to you? Are you feeling the tug of the Spirit as you see these injustices?
We are promised the gifts of the Spirit, but we must accept these gifts. God planted in all of us the seeds for these gifts and from one moment to the next we may move through different gifts, that is how His Spirit works. We may find ourselves called to be a voice of wisdom, or a miracle worker, or in the next moment a prophet. The gifts are to glorify God and the common thread throughout is how the gifts will build the church of our Lord. We will know we are using our gifts when we see the fruits produced. The fruits derive naturally from the gifts of the Spirit and they are produced in us through the Holy Spirit:
22 But the fruit the Holy Spirit produces is love, joy and peace. It is being patient, kind and
good. It is being faithful 23 and gentle and having control of oneself. There is no law against
things of that kind.
We have a bold vision for Park Hill Christian Church. We have a hunger to build God’s church here in our community. No longer are we looking at what we have. We are beginning to look at what God wills for us to be. Our fruits are planted. The Holy Spirit is giving us the nutrients and the water, through His gifts, for our fruit to grow. Take time today, in communion with God and pray, that we show the love of God to our community. Then step out in faith and action and show that we love our community.
If you know of a program that will help us love our community, let leadership know. Let’s reach out and touch our neighbors. If you know of an organization that needs space to carry out their mission of love, let leadership know so we can reach out to them and offer Bold Hospitality. If you have an idea of how we can reach a segment of our community speak up, let us boldly strive to accommodate and meet needs of those around us.
We have done much in the past, Family Promise, SPEAC, Micah Ministries and so much more, but now is the time where we look across the street and see the need next door. We look at the school in our backyard and say how can we help. Now is the time that we open our hearts to the homeless man or woman on the corner and ask what can we do to meet your need? How can we show you the love of Christ today?
Like Peter and John, let us look to our neighbor and say;
“Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of
Nazareth, walk.” Acts 3:6
The gifts we have are numerous and the joy of the Lord is with us. Let us spread that joy and love to the Park Hill Christian Church community.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
--Psalm 13:1 NRSV
This Sunday, I’ll be preaching on the strange story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Tradition seems to have a problem with the idea that a human being could physically wrestle with the creator of the universe, so the story is often described as Jacob wrestling an angel. Yet, when the match is over, Jacob names the site Peniel “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
It is a vivid image, the idea of a person striving with God. Yet, anyone who has had an honest journey of faith probably will admit to times of struggle, times when God seemed distant or inscrutable. Especially in times of tragedy when we must wrestle with the hardest questions of why God allows pain to come to people who don’t deserve it, most sane people have some questions about whether this whole God-thing is all its cracked up to be.
At different times along my journey, I’ve heard preachers and teachers extol “unshakeable faith” or a type of “certainty” that flies in the face of reason and experience. Whenever I meet someone who doesn’t have any doubts about what they believe, I want to get as far away from them as possible. Religious people without any doubts are dangerous people. For one thing, they lack humility, and for another thing they can justify anything no matter how abhorrent as God’s will. I think a healthy amount of doubt is a good thing for a humble faith.
Frederick Buechner says this about doubt in his book Whistling in the Dark: A Seeker’s ABC:
Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.
If we stick with it, I’m convinced our times of wrestling with God—working through our questions and doubts—can lead us to a deeper understanding of what it means to be connected to God. A healthy kind of doubting paradoxically can lead us to a stronger faith.
I’ve been in Christian settings where doubts about the party line were seen as weakness, if not sin, but I’ve been in other Christian settings where doubt was the only thing valued. The lack of doubt and uncertainty can lead to spiritual abuse, but when doubt becomes cynicism a different kind of abuse can occur, those who hold convictions are belittled and condemned. There’s not much difference between a fervent Christian who uses religion to hurt others, and a more “enlightened” Christian who hurts others without resorting to religious justification. Neither one operates with a healthy mixture of faith and doubt.
Unhealthy doubt doesn’t have to be abusive; it can simply be the type of cynicism that never allows for trust or risk. The cynical kind of doubt can be little more than a defense mechanism to guard against ever investing oneself in relationships, improving the world or trusting God. United Church of Christ minister and author Tony Robinson has this to say about the kind of doubt which is suspect:
This doubt is an unwillingness to make a commitment and to take a risk in faith. It is never really knowing where one stands or taking a stand. It makes faith a kind of on- again/off-again thing. At least sometimes, it is a good thing to doubt our doubts. It is a good thing to take the risk of trusting wholly and of surrendering ourselves without reservation to God’s care.
How do we know the difference between the kind of doubting which is healthy and the kind of doubt which is unhealthy? There is no easy answer. I tend to believe each of us goes too far one way or the other at times on our spiritual journeys. The only thing I know to do is hold on, keep wrestling with God, don’t let go of the struggle. Jacob refused to let go of God in his wrestling match and for his efforts he received a new name and a blessing, even though he also walked with a limp afterward. The struggles of faith may leave us bruised, but the false certainties of unreflective faith and cynicism leave us in much worse condition.
We will talk more about the struggles of faith Sunday morning.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
--Philippians 4:19 NRSV
If forced to pick the greatest threat to American Christianity today, I would say it is the myth of scarcity. My whole career in ministry I have worked at churches made up of members who were middle class and above. Despite their members' combined net worth being substantial almost every board or council meeting was spent discussing what the church didn’t have enough of. (No wonder nominating committees can't fill seats on boards!) The two numbers that mattered most were not enough members and not enough money. For a religion supposedly (as Hebrews puts it) “confident in what we hope for and assured about what we cannot see,” I’ve rarely known a church leader who was focused on anything else but the number of “butts in the pews” and the weekly offering. The American church is addicted to what it can see and touch regardless of what it says about faith.
Every church I’ve served at has its faithful older members who remember the “glory days” of growing budgets, building projects and packed church services. Compared to those days the present looks bleak. Yet, back in those days were churchgoers any more faithful? The post-war boom in population, expanding economy and expansion of the suburbs combined with a culture that gave social cache to going to church (irregardless of whether or not people actually followed Jesus) meant church growth was inevitable, at least until it wasn’t. There was no need to trust God back then to provide what was needed, because our culture did it all for us. One did not need to have “assurance of what we cannot see,” because what could be seen was plenty. I’m unconvinced faith had much to do with the success of churches in the “glory days.”
Don’t get me wrong about what I mean when I talk about faith and trusting God. I’m not a proponent of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” I don’t believe in “name it and claim it” theology, and I don’t think it’s God’s will for believers to be rich. I also don’t believe churches should be irresponsible with. No, what I believe in is trusting God already has given us everything we need to accomplish what God wishes to happen.
Just once, I’d love to hear a church leader stand up during the annual stewardship drive and make a budget based on what they believe God wishes a church to do and be rather than on annual receipts that keep declining year after year. I believe if churches actually spent time discerning who God wanted them to be and what God wanted them to do before they made a budget, they might practice trusting God will provide what is needed to accomplish those things.
I am not holding my breath for such a moment. Church folks are just like everybody else-- bombarded constantly by messages saying they do not have enough for what they need to be happy, enough to protect themselves, enough things to buy at Costco, enough to compare with their neighbors. A column by me in a church newsletter won’t counter that storm of scarcity messaging. Only God can transform people enough to live with an abundance mindset.
It’s not like God’s abundance is difficult to find. Even a cursory glance at scripture or a rudimentary understanding of Christian practice, should give Christians at least an inkling of the abundance God offers. Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes eloquently about this:
The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things — nothing can separate us from God. What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.
As a culture, we love watching Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year and we hear Jacob Marley’s warning to Scrooge about being miserly. “I wear the chain I forged in life,” the ghost of Marley cries. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard, and of my own free will.” Marley’s eternal punishment doesn’t exactly line up with scripture, but we get the point of him chained to his accounting ledgers. We hear Marley, but we identify with the poor Cratchet family and never with Scrooge. Meanwhile, the chains of our materialism, our belief in scarcity, our faith in never having enough, entrap us in this life, if not the next. God’s abundance offers freedom from our chains of scarcity.
In this pandemic, where the economic needs in our culture have been revealed in all their starkness, we get to ask, “Are families going hungry because there isn’t enough food in the world?” The answer is clearly no. “Are people without jobs because there isn’t enough money in the world?” The answer is likewise no. “Are people lacking healthcare because there aren’t enough resources in the world?” Once again, no. “Are churches closing because there aren’t enough people in the world who want to connect with God?” No.
Even though the answers to some of these questions involve some very complex and systemic issues, what they all boil down to is an unwillingness to trust in God’s abundance, that there is enough for all, that if other people get what they need I will still get what I need.
Over recent months, the media has been full of stories of people’s inspiring generosity. A Maryland teen learned woodworking in order to sell his pieces to help homeless families. Chefs around the country are holding online bake sales to feed the hungry. When people trust that they have enough to share with others, their generosity is contagious. We all know how good it feels to give away what we have to help others, but our giving is a rare experiment rather than a lifestyle.
Maybe this belief in scarcity is understandable for people who believe in “the law of supply and demand” more than the law of loving one’s neighbor. Surely, the scarcity mindset makes sense for people who believe in the Gospel of Ben Franklin “God helps those who help themselves” more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ who taught us not to worry because “God’s eye is on the sparrow.” But isn’t it reasonable to think people who claim to actually believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ might put their faith in God before they put their trust in what their paystub says, their address reveals, and their garages contain?
I don’t know what the future of Park Hill Christian Church will be, but I do believe any future worth having will come through the people who make it up being freed from the myth of scarcity.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples