Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Realism of Christianity--Dialogue Column 3.27.07

Through a Glass Darkly—Rev. Chase Peeples

Christianity is a realistic religion—at least it should be if it is preached and taught honestly. Yes, since it is a religion, it inherently involves believing in things that cannot be proven, it involves faith. Also, it involves demanding ethics and is therefore idealistic. Yet, I would argue that neither faith nor idealism preclude realism.

By labeling Christianity as realistic, I mean that it is fully aware of the human tendency towards harmful behavior and even violence, especially in opposition to those who dare to speak truthfully to the powers of the world. It does not ignore the suffering of our world, in particular the suffering brought about by human selfishness and indifference towards those without adequate food, shelter or medical care. The object of our devotion as Christians, Jesus Christ, is the ultimate example of suffering due to human cruelty. In our veneration of the cross as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for us, however, we too easily forget that the cross is a method of execution. A realistic awareness of the pain in our world is written into the ANA of our religion.

This Sunday we finish our journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and we do so in style. The pageantry of Palm Sunday announces to us that Holy Week has arrived and with it our time to commemorate Jesus’ suffering, death and thankfully, his resurrection. On that original Palm Sunday, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem fully aware that trouble waited there for him. One of his own would betray him. The rest of his disciples would desert him. Political and religious enemies already made plans to kill him and no doubt would act after he arrived. Jesus was realistic about the opposition he soon would face.

The events of Holy Week remind us that if we wish to follow Jesus, then we can expect to face opposition and even suffering. Following Jesus might mean facing trouble at work, because you refuse to go along with practices that are unethical or even illegal. Following Jesus might mean, facing problems in relationships, because you choose not to laugh at a racist joke around the water cooler or make fun of the class nerd at school. Following Jesus might mean hurt feelings, because you have to say “no” to worthwhile events in order to make time for your own spiritual growth through worship on Sundays or private prayer. Let’s be realistic, following Jesus can be difficult, if we take it seriously.

Although we are promised spiritual rewards in the present for our discipleship, the physical and material rewards are not guaranteed until our earthly lives are over. Jesus was resurrected by God and he did ascend into heaven, but he had to journey through Holy Week first. Like Jesus, our earthly journey sometimes involves moments of doubt, betrayal and suffering. Also, like Jesus, it will eventually involve our own deaths—hopefully they will be less painful than what Jesus had to go through. As Christians, we must be realistic about our own mortality.

The realism of Christianity is a wonderful thing, because if Christians are honest about the suffering and pain that Jesus and his disciples endured, then we cannot help but become aware of the suffering and pain of all God’s children in the world. It is amazing to consider that God chose to become human in order to experience all the joys and pains of life we experience. No matter what else can be said about the Christian religion, at least we confess that God is not removed from us and our pain. Instead God endured on the cross the worst that this world has to offer. Whatever questions and doubts we may have, at least we can say that the God we believe in knows firsthand how we feel when we face troubles in this life.

Thanks be to God that we can also say much more than that. Christianity is realistic, but it is also a religion of optimism, idealism and faith. By the end of Holy Week, we arrive at the empty tomb and the resurrection to claim that there is nothing so bad or so evil that God cannot redeem. There is no human cruelty that God cannot overcome. The cross can be a symbol of pain and death, but it can also be a symbol of compassionate love and eternal life.

Christianity involves holding the different threads of Holy Week together. We recognize the suffering and cruelty of humanity, but we believe in the goodness and grace of God. We are realistic about the problems facing our world, but we hold fast to our faith that God is at work making whole all that is broken. Christianity allows us to be aware of the painful possibilities in our world while being somehow simultaneously hopeful because of God’s tremendous love.

Together with Jesus, let us go to Jerusalem and bravely face the pain and the joy of Holy Week.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, March 26, 2007

Dealing With Toxic People

This is a post I should have put up last week, but I'm hopeful that it will be better to post it late than never.

On 3.18, I preached a sermon called "Giving Up Resentment for Lent" and I got a very nice e-mail response from one of the folks who heard it asking my thoughts about actual tactics for dealing with "toxic" people. By toxic, the writer meant the kind of person that is resentful, negative and generally miserable--and seems determined to make sure you are miserable too. How exactly do you prevent yourself from being resentful towards this kind of person?

I promised to respond via the blog. It just took me a week to get around to it. So, sermon feedback giver--you know who you are--I hope this helps.

A little self-disclosure would be appropriate right about now. Any advice I can give comes out of my own failed experiences of dealing with people like this. In particular, I'm thinking about a co-worker from a past place of employment. Let's call this person "Toxic Person--TP for short."

TP was/is a person that had the amazing and sociopathic ability to be nice to you one minute and horrible the next. The "nice" treatment was so nice that it left me really confused when the horrible treatment occurred. Was this a bad day? Did I do something wrong? Was there something going on with TP that I should know about? Major benefits of the doubt were offered from my end.

TP's negative behavior first showed up when talking about someone else behind their back--usually this came in such a way that made me feel like I was the only one TP was sharing TP's thoughts with. I felt special in that middle school way you feel when you're part of the cool clique. Only later did I realize that I was not particularly special, and TP talked about me behind my back in the same way. It was a common tactic of TP when TP wanted to undermine or settle a score with someone else.

TP and I really crossed swords--metaphorically--when I didn't go along with TP's program--whatever that was. First over little things and then later over larger things--once I began to wise up--TP's need for control of me and really, I guess, everything became pretty obvious to me.

Once I finally realized that I just couldn't trust TP on really any level--emotionally, in regards to work, to keep a confidence, etc.--I noticed a lot of toxic behavior. TP would suck up to all the right people, so that any complaint I might make to somebody who had power over TP would not be believed--I would end up looking like the petty one. TP kept score and never forgot. Things that occurred days, weeks, months--even years earlier would not be forgotten by TP, and you never knew when TP might remind you of it or punish you for it. TP liked to be the center of attention and hated it when other people got rewarded or praised--unless it was TP's idea. TP knew the gossips around the workplace and played them like a fiddle to make TP look good and others bad. TP felt most comfortable complaining and would often complain about something you also disliked in order to get in your good graces or manipulate you.

I came to realize that TP was not only playing by different rules than me, TP was playing a different game altogether. TP was constantly calculating--maybe at a level that TP didn't even realize. There was nothing TP said or did that didn't have some element of manipulation. That sounds extreme, but I really believe it. I even think that TP was often not even aware of TP's mixed motives and deceit.

TP was/is a deeply troubled person.

I didn't deal with TP very well. It took me a long time to stand up to TP in an appropriate way. I reacted to whatever TP did, and eventually I realized that by constantly reacting to TP, I was giving TP power over me. I was an accomplice to my own frustration and hurt feelings.

Looking back now, I realize that much of my problem had to do with power. I felt powerless to stop TP from doing all the really mean things TP did to me and to others. There was no superior or supervisor to report to that would view my complaints as anything more than personal. I felt like there was nothing that I could do besides just be abused by TP on a regular basis.

I realize now that although I could not control TP's behavior, I could control how I reacted to TP's behavior. I had a choice in how I responded. Most of the time I was not successful, but I did have some good days where I was able to have pity if not compassion for TP.

Some things that I tried which worked for me:

  • when I realized that I was dwelling on what TP had done to me or someone else--by dwelling I mean not healthy thinking or problem solving but ruminating and storing up bitterness--I stopped it right then and there. I literally had to say to myself, "TP is not worth it. Go do something else with your time." I discovered that even when I wasn't around TP, I was allowing TP to distract me from things far more important and meaningful.

  • I found safe people to talk with about TP--people who didn't even know TP, who could offer support and some objectivity. It helped to have my feelings validated and to have my own behavior double-checked.

  • I was careful around TP but not paranoid. I realized that the best way I could protect myself was to not give TP any ammunition against me. I didn't retaliate and I didn't disclose anything personal to TP. The added side effect was that this actually ended up bothering TP, because I wasn't giving TP the negative attention TP desired--yes, I said "negative attention." Just like a child, TP took any attention TP could get--positive or negative.

  • I was careful not to sit around complaining about TP with other coworkers--not only was there the possibility that some other person would pass on what I said--even unintentionally--to the manipulative TP, but even more importantly, I found sharing my complaints with others who felt the same way quickly devolved from supporting one another to feeding their resentment and mine.

  • I laughed. I learned to recognize how ridiculous TP was acting and simply laugh at how god-awful amazing it was at times.

  • I prayed for TP--yes, I prayed. There's a good reason why Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, so that we do not become like them. Many times I wanted to respond to TP in kind and I think my prayers for TP were the only thing that kept me from sinning. My prayer helped me--sometimes not always--to remember that God loves TP. God created TP, so there must be something good inside of TP that I should not lose sight of, even though I had difficulty seeing it at all. Through prayer, I was able, at least once or twice, to feel compassion for TP and to consider how awful it must be for TP to spend TP's life being such a miserable person.

In this Lenten season as we consider Jesus' example of responding to hatred and betrayal, I think it is good for us to realize that Jesus chose how he would respond and he remained in control of himself no matter what others did to him. Christians often get the idea that Jesus' example is for us to just be lumps that allow others to make us victims. Instead, I think Jesus offers us an example of how to act rather than react to toxic and hurtful people.

Jesus chose to undergo his suffering. He did so for a higher purpose of demonstrating God's love. He did not do so, because he was a wimp or because it is virtuous to suffer in and of itself. What Jesus did when he went to the cross is different from say...a woman remaining with a guy who beats her. What Jesus did is different from say...continuing to let a "friend" manipulate you. What Jesus did is different from say...reaching in the same manner in which you have been treated by a toxic person.

Jesus shows us that we can choose how we act and we do not have to constantly be reaching to a toxic person. We can choose to respond with love without condoning negative behavior. We can love someone without liking them. I also have to believe--even though I'm not very good at this--that we can forgive someone without having to pretend that things are suddenly okay between us and toxic people. I don't believe in the idea of "forgive and forget." There is a way to forgive and to continue to protect yourself from being hurt without holding on to resentment and bitterness.

I have no easy steps on how to get there, but I do believe it comes about somehow through God's grace. It comes about by saying and really believing that toxic people are not worth obsessing over. Life is better spent thinking about bigger things--important things--rather than being sucked in to the small behavior of small people.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, March 23, 2007

Me and "Dr." Jerry Johnston

Before moving back to MO, I came back regularly to visit family. On one of those trips I was surprised to learn about the pastor of a mega-church named Jerry Johnson. "Hmmm," I thought. "Jerry Johnston. How do I know that name?" Then it hit me. I had a bit of a history with Jerry.

It seems that once upon a time when I was but a youth, Jerry was the camp evangelist at a Southern Baptist youth camp I attended. I'm pretty sure that his nightly sermons about teenagers overdoing on acid and his warnings that I could die tonight and spend eternity in hell resulted in me walking the aisle to rededicate my life to Christ. The odds are pretty good, since I think I had the hell scared out of me every time I went to one of these camps or evangelism rallies or whatever. When faced with the prospect of eternal damnation, can you ever really have enough fire insurance?

Thankfully I had a good youth minister who reminded me of Paul's words, "He who has begun a good work in you will be faithful to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1:6) That didn't really sink in until much later. How could I really trust God when I had people like Jerry Johnston reminding me what an awful sinner I was?

Later on in high school, I read a book by Johnston, Edge of Evil: The Rise of Satanism in North America. Wow, this guy sure did know a lot about Satanism! It seems Johnston has written a lot of books. He rode the Satanism craze with Edge of Evil (remember all those thousands of peoples with "repressed" memories about being sexually abused by Satanists? The FBI investigated and determined there was no league of Satanists and there would have to be millions of dead bodies from all the reported Satanic rituals if the memories produced by manipulative therapists were actually real.) He also has written a bunch of books about family and marriage (a little jealous of Dr. James Dobson are we?). Later he wrote The Last Days of Planet Earth, a title that sounds suspiciously like Hal Lindsey's famous book of prophecy from the 70's The Late Great Planet Earth. (That one predicted Jesus would return in 1988). I guess he wanted to cash in on the whole Left Behind phenomenon and the anxiety over the millennium. He also jumped on the Passion of the Christ bandwagon, the evolution controversy bandwagon and the anti-gay marriage bandwagon. It seems there's Jerry has a habit of jumping on whatever religious wave goes by as long as it draws a crowd, gets him attention and makes him money.

So, I was not surprised when I recently read the series of articles in the Kansas City Star about Jerry. The articles report that Jerry or "Dr." Jerry as he likes to be called has been less than forthright with all sorts of people. Apparently, he only had a GED and never went to college (he's getting his B.A. now at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Bible college). The "Dr." on the church signs and letterhead was an honorary one given to him by Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

Apparently, there's not a whole lot of honest disclosure going on in terms of financial matters either, at least according to the Kansas City Star. Both Jerry and the church have been delinquent in paying tax bills. The church also has several court actions against it for unpaid bills to contractors. The church won't provide financial information even to its members. The board of the 4000+ member church is not elected, and you guessed it, both Jerry and his wife serve as one of the few board members. One of the people listed as a board member, when contacted by the Star, said that he hadn't been to the church in years and didn't even know he was on the board. So much for financial transparency.

A number of previously pro-Jerry church members have left and are spilling the beans to the press. The church raised money for a Christian school they failed to start. The church had a capital campaign to furnish their new giant church building promising donors names would be engraved on a 1.5 ton monument that never appeared--at least not until the Star began investigating the church. (It's a much smaller monument that has a plaque on it that some claim doesn't even have all the donors' names on it.) He claimed 200 acres had been donated to the church for a youth camp, but it turns out that his son bought the land at a discount via a mortgage through a rich land developer. He makes a nice profit off of religious tours around the world. He and his family members drive expensive SUV's owned by the church. His son serves as the media buyer for the church and makes an undisclosed amount of money for each time a church service is aired on any station anywhere. He has a number of relatives on the payroll and even canned other employees so his family could remain employed by the church. And, last but not least, Jerry has his own Centurion AMEX on the church's account. It's only for the most elite cardholders. It's annual fee is a mere $2500 dollars.

Here's what Jerry teaches his flock about how they should sacrifice for Christ.. This is an excerpt from one of his sermons as quoted in the Star: “Maybe we’re going to decide to wear the same pair of pants for a year because we’re going to honor God with our finances and we’re going to get it right,” he said. “Lordship means I seize the moment regardless of the inconvenience.”

His radio and television ministry keeps growing and growing with broadcasts of his preaching going around the world. However, it would appear that spreading the Gospel is only part of Jerry's concern. Here's another quote from one of the Star articles:

A former church member recalled Johnston saying the church needed to focus more on its TV ministry. “Jerry said, ‘You know why we’re on TV, don’t you?’ And he looked at me and said: ‘That’s where the money is. Elderly and shut-ins.'”

Obviously, this is all perfectly appropriate when God has called you to be the next great leader of Christendom in America. Here's what Jerry had to say about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson:

"Guess what?” he asked his congregation after rattling off the names of evangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in a 2005 sermon. “Those men are getting old. Really old.

“See, God’s calling us to step up to the plate. And there are national Christian leaders all over this nation that are looking to First Family Church to do the job.”

Somebody's got some delusions of grandeur.

It seems like all that's missing is an affair with a secretary (a la Jim Bakker) or a prostitute (a la Jimmy Swaggert) or a homosexual tryst (a la Ted Haggard). We'll have to wait and see.

I guess I was most shocked to read how young Jerry is--only 47 years old. That would mean that I heard him speak when he was in his mid-twenties. He was just a young pup, but even then he was special. He certainly left my middle school self quaking in my high-top sneakers and running down the aisle lest a meteorite hit me before I could "really and truly" be saved.
He seemed older and wiser--like he knew everything.

Do I sound like I'm taking this personally? Like I've been betrayed?

I guess I do feel that way. I gave up listening to people like Jerry Johnston a long time ago. Certainly on my trips back to Missouri I felt it was pretty evident what a poseur this guy really is. Yet, I can't help but think about the 13 year-old me. I believed what he said. I trusted him. I agonized over what he preached. I was tender-hearted, vulnerable and doing my best to be a good Christian. I was manipulated. I only lost a bit of innocence. I never recall giving any money to Jerry Johnston, like so many others. Yet, he betrayed me and he betrayed the Gospel by teaching me about a vengeful God and offering nothing of God's grace. Jerry's gospel was about Jerry. Then and now.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Challenging Patriarchy One Song at a Time

Well, it's a great day for public radio listening. So, I'm listening to the second hour of Talk of the Nation and after a Republican presidential candidate comes the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. I've been listening to them since high school and have seen them a few times in concert.

I know that Saliers is a Christian. I don't know about Ray. Both are out lesbians and dedicated social activists. They came out of Atlanta and went to Emory for undergrad--that's where I did my aborted stint as a doctoral student. They also have a great restaurant in Decatur, Ga called "The Watershed." Interestingly, Saliers' father is a Methodist minister and now retired from teaching Worship at Candler Divinity School at Emory. They wrote a book together and toured talking about music and spirituality.

anyway, the Indigo Girls are on tour and promoting their most recent CD. It was interesting to hear them play a song by Saliers called "Pendulum Swinger" which she described as about "taking on patriarchy in the church and the Bush administration." Here's a taste:

It's fine about the old scroll Sanskrit

Gnostic gospels the da vinci code a smash hit

Aren't we dying just to read it and relate

Too hard just to go by a blind faith

But they left out the sisters

Praying to a father god so long I really missed her

The goddess of benevolence

You should listen to your mama if you have a lick of sense left

In some ways, I feel like I've grown up with them and it's a testament to their music that a straight middle class white guy like me can get into it.

Grace and Peace,


What a Celebration!--Dialogue Column 3.20.07

Through a Glass Darkly—by Rev. Chase Peeples

What a great day Sunday was for me! The installation service was wonderful! The beautiful music of our choir along with that sang by our congregation still rings in my ears. So do the words of praise and encouragement that were given to me by those participating in the service. The reception afterwards was beautiful and the food delicious (I’m still eating cake leftovers). The time in our fellowship hall and social room was a blessing for it allowed me to have an intimate time with family, friends, former First Christian ministers and folks from area churches. (The members of the Congregational Life Committee deserve special thanks.) It was a humbling and exciting afternoon.

You need not worry about me getting a big head after having so many nice things said about me. I have a loving wife and children to help me keep things in perspective. One can only feel so important while changing a dirty diaper (which I did as soon as we got home). Or maybe a better way of putting it is one realizes his or her true importance only when they are doing things like changing a baby’s diaper.

I was so very pleased to have all the members of the search committee who were able to be at the service participate in it. This group of people sold me on the church and through their insightful questions and response to my answers, I gained a helpful and I think accurate picture of First Christian Church’s strengths and weaknesses. Chairperson Creath Thorne and committee members Brenda Hines, Emma Jean Neudorff, Janet Pullen, Dave Tushaus and Kristin White were the faces of First Christian that I encountered first through phone calls and letters and then later in our face-to-face interviews. Beginning with my first phone call with Creath and then through conversations with the other committee members, I felt an immediate and electric connection with these folks and through them with the other members of this church. That connection remains and I feel it was demonstrated this past Sunday afternoon. I will always be grateful to the six of them.

As I said in the service and have shared before, I felt that First Christian would be the right church for me for several reasons. First, it is a congregation that takes seriously Jesus’ commands to meet the physical and spiritual needs of others—most especially those on the margins of society. Ministries like the Jamaica mission trip, the Royal Family Kids Camp, Open Door Food Kitchen and others demonstrated to me this church’s commitment to caring for “the least of these.”

Second, I was gratified to know that this church has chosen to remain a downtown church, not only to remain in its historic and beautiful building, but also to minister to the people that live in this community. Even though First Christian members live in a variety of places around St. Joseph, this church has chosen to stake a claim downtown and to accept all of the challenges and blessings that come from being a part of a changing and often impoverished area.

Third, when I came last fall, I asked people, “Why did you join First Christian and why have you remained a member?” Again and again, the answer was something like “because First Christian is like a family.” Families can be exclusive and inward-looking caring only for themselves, but they can also be open to others, always having room at their table for one more person in need of a nourishing meal. I believed strongly enough to move my family here that First Christian is the second kind of family, the open kind. I still believe it today now that I am officially installed as your minister.

After the installation, many people said to me, “Well, you’re ours now. There’s no going back.” To which I replied, “There’s no going back for you either. This installation does not come with a refund or exchange policy.” Thankfully, I do not anticipate a trip to the customer service counter for either you as a church or me as your minister. I have said it many times and I really do mean it: I am very optimistic about the future of First Christian Church. I believe that God has a special role for our church and that God will use us to provide something unique to our community and the world. My hope and prayer is that together we may have the courage to respond with joy to all the good things God will work through us, even if—maybe especially if—those things demand much on our parts. Whatever the cost to us may be, I believe the rewards of God’s grace and love will be far greater.

May our loving Creator and Sustainer continue to bless First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in St. Joseph, MO.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

James Dobson's Bad Theology--Dialogue Column 3.13.07

Here's this week's Dialogue column. It continues the subject I spoke about on Sunday: "Giving Up Bad Theology for Lent." What spurred me into writing this column was a letter written by James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other leaders in the Religious Right opposing the work of another conservative religious group seeking to stop the genocide in Darfur and global warming. Here's the information I read and listened to about the subject:
Through a Glass Darkly—Rev. Chase Peeples

This past Sunday my sermon was entitled “Giving Up Bad Theology for Lent.” I cited two examples of what I consider bad theology: 1. interpreting painful and bad events that befall people as punishment from God for sinful behavior, and 2. the so-called “prosperity Gospel” which equates financial rewards with spiritual obedience. I believe these two viewpoints are bad theology, because of my own experience of God and because of my reading of Luke 13:1-9. In this passage Jesus refutes the connection between tragedy and sin, but he also says that nonetheless we must turn away from actions that hurt others and God. I read Jesus as saying, “Quit focusing on bad theology and put your energy towards what really is important: YOUR OWN relationship with God.

To my list of bad theology I could have also added the wrong move of singling out certain kinds of sinful behavior above others. This type of bad theology came to my mind this past week when I read about a letter written by James Dobson and other powerful members of the Religious Right. The letter was addressed to the policy director of the National Association of Evangelicals who directs that large conservative organization’s lobbying efforts. In the letter, Dobson and the others criticized the NAE for working to stop the spread of global warming and the genocide in Darfur. The critics charged that emphasizing these political issues was detracting from the efforts to deal with “true moral issues” like abortion, gay marriage and pre-marital sex by teens. I was not surprised to read about this stance by the elite of the Religious Right, but I continue to be saddened that so many Christians have such a judgmental and limited understanding of morality. I believe that Jesus would be saying to them, “Repent of your own sins before you spend your time and money focusing upon the sins of others.”

I have no great affection for people like James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell and other members of the Religious Right. For that matter, I’m not a big fan of the National Association of Evangelicals either, but I always respected this somewhat less conservative group, because in addition to their stands on issues like abortion and homosexuality, they also took stands on things like the environment and human rights. At least they understood Christian morality as being about more than just a few controversial social issues.

Dobson and his friends are right, however, about one thing: if conservative Christians enlarge their understanding of what it means to be “pro-life” then they risk losing their base of support and their political power. Focusing on a few select issues and demonizing minorities without political power is a cheap way to gain your own clout in the political arena. By keeping things simple and not asking too many questions, they do not have to think about the complicated questions that arise once you start respecting all life. If you are “pro-life” doesn’t that mean you should be against violence, torture and war? If you are “pro-life” doesn’t that mean you should be against capital punishment? If you are “pro-life” doesn’t that mean you should be against policies that harm the environment including human lives? If you are “pro-life” doesn’t that mean you should work to eliminate hunger and poverty around the world, since these two factors kill more human lives each day than anything else? I could go on.

The leaders of the Religious Right along with their followers do not want to think about these issues, because doing so might mean they would have to repent. I fear that such humility is not in their nature. It is easier to demonize women who make the difficult decision to have an abortion than to work to eliminate the societal factors that make such a painful choice an option in the first place. It is easier to condemn homosexuals than to actually listen to their life stories and reevaluate whether or not being gay really is a sin. It is easier to preach abstinence and spread fear among young people than it is to teach them to respect their own bodies and to prepare them for all eventualities. It is easier to condemn than to treat those with whom you disagree with respect.

This Lenten season, Jesus is calling us to examine our own lives rather than finding ways to single out and judge others. He calls us to give up bad theology and focus on the good theology of personal humility and repentance (turning away from) the behaviors and actions that isolate us from each other and from God. Let us be loving towards ourselves as we do our spiritual examination and loving towards each other as we support one another in the process. Together, let us give up bad theology for Lent.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, March 12, 2007

St. Patti's Day

Okay, I'm a Jonny-come-lately to the Patti Smith fan club. I wasn't old enough in the 70's to be aware of the New York punk scene. In the 80's I thought listening to Bananarama was living on the fringe. In the 90's I was lost in the grunge era like every body else my age. I guess it was hearing my favorite band, U2, talking about how Smith's work influenced them and even singing with Smith in some of their New York shows that got me to finally look up her work.

I missed out.

I find her work, honest, seering, poetic and at times even difficult to listen to, but always powerful and moving. I wouldn't say that I put her stuff on all the time, but having finally given her a listen, I find there are times that I'm just in the mood for Patti Smith.

She starts of her first studio album, Horses, with a strong statement,

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
meltin' in a pot of thieves
wild card up my sleeve
thick heart of stone
my sins my own they belong to me, me
people say "beware!" but I don't care
the words are just rules and regulations to me, me

It may be strange that I, a Christian minister, would be attracted to such a song, but I am. There's a certain kind of brutal honesty there that I have to appreciate. At least she takes her sins seriously enough to claim them, which is more than I can say about myself most days. At least she recognizes the tricks up her sleeves and her heart of stone, I barely stop to notice. I take the cheap grace way out of assuming Jesus will handle it for me without really stopping to consider what I'm expecting Jesus to do. If I stopped and looked deep in my soul as Smith does in her songs, I'm not sure I would like what I'd find there. I'm fairly certain that I wouldn't want to write about it and sing about it before a crowd the way Smith does.

I guess that's why Smith has simultaneously won a devoted following that includes so many popular musicians but has still remained below the radar of the mainstream. She's a little too honest.

I was pleased to see her op-ed in the NY Times today about her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has mixed feelings about it just like I knew she would. She writes about accepting it on behalf of her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith most notably of the MC5, who never got such recognition. She also writes about the power of rock-n-roll to subvert and to challenge the poerful. S he concludes her essay with a powerful picture of her relationships in her neighborhood, with ordinary people, and offers those relationships as justification for her acceptance of accolades:

In the end it was my neighbors who put everything in perspective. An approving nod from the old Italian woman who sells me pasta. A high five from the postman. An embrace from the notary and his wife. And a shout from the sanitation man driving down my street: “Hey, Patti, Hall of Fame. One for us.”

I just smiled, and I noticed I was proud. One for the neighborhood. My parents. My band. One for Fred. And anybody else who wants to come along.

I don't know how to articulate it and maybe I don't need to, but there's just something remarkably Christ-like in the picture of community that Smith paints.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, March 11, 2007

My Muslim friend is in the NY Times today

A Muslim friend of mine was in the NY Times today.

One of the blessings of living on Long Island for five years, just outside of New York City was getting exposed to the great diversity of nationalities and religious beliefs. Following September 11, there was a great effort, especially among Muslims on the island to reach out to different faiths and make themselves known as the peace-loving people they are rather than the ugly stereotypes that predominate in the media.

I got to know Dr. Faroque Khan a leader at the Islamic Center of Long Island when he came and spoke at our church--a faith community that had two members die on September 11. Dr. Khan explained to us that they also had members die on September 11 and a bridge of understanding began to be built. He is a pulmonologist originally from India who helped found the Islamic Center of Long Island. He is an unassuming man who has worked exceedingly hard to build bridges between people of different faiths.

The mosque Dr. Khan helped to found has an annual dinner with Jews from a synagogue in Great Neck (a heavily Jewish area) where together they break the Ramadan fast and have the Jewish dinner of Sukkot during the Festival of Booths. Also, they sponsored a group of young people from Muslim, Jewish and Christian backgrounds who travelled in the Holy Land doing interfaith dialogue. I attended several interfaith events at the mosque and always felt deeply gratified and blessed for being there. The hospitality I received was amazing and I always grew in my understandings of not just other faiths but my own as well.

When I saw today's headline about a mosque from Long Island comprised mainly of South Asian immigrants and a mosque from Harlem comprised of African Americans trying to build a relationship with one another, I was not surprised to see Dr. Khan in the picture. The article is a good one, but I would criticize if for not giving enough credit to the work Dr. Khan and his mosque have done over the years in interfaith dialogue. It mentions an attack made by congressman Peter King, who represents a big chunk of Long Island, made against Dr. Khan and the mosque for remarks made after September 11. The background there is that King's comments and campaign attacks earned him support and money, not to mention that his vitriolic attacks against the Muslim minority in his district were not only way over the top but a cheap way to gain political power. I would have liked to see the Times take on King a bit, but that wasn't the focus of the story.

Anyway, why this matters to me is that I came to consider Dr. Khan a friend and kindred spirit. I firmly believe that if the human race is going to avoid some awful bloodshed this century people of different faith groups are going to have to put aside prejudice and religiously-justified violence (whether that be suicide bombers or Christians in America blindly backing preemptive war). In order for this to happen, ordinary people on the ground, in grass roots locations around the world have to start talking to each other and learning from each other.

As a Christian, I believe learning from someone different from me rather than believing a stereotype is a way for me to love my neighbor as myself.

Grace and Peace,


Saturday, March 10, 2007

John Edwards has got it right--too bad he won't win

In last week's sermon I spoke about "political idolatry" or when religion is manipulated to push a political agenda or when partisan positions are put above our allegiance to God. Well, wouldn't you know it, someone was actually listening to me. One of our regular visitors e-mailed me a link to an interview with John Edwards on Beliefnet

In the interview he speaks about his faith and how it influences his politics. He also shares about how God has helped him during times of struggle, such as when his son died in a car accident and when his wife had cancer.

What struck me most of all when reading the interview is Edwards' emphasis upon poverty in America. In my sermon last Sunday, I made the statement, "Don't expect a political candidate to show up at a soup kitchen unless they're looking for a photo-op around Thanksgiving." This is certainly true about most politicians, but I did not consider Edwards, who started off his campaign in Louisiana helping Katrina victims and who has repeatedly emphasized the needs of those unable to afford health insurance and those who live without enough food to eat. In the interview, he also talks about rushing to war and the genocide in Darfur as being things Jesus would not be happy about. It's certainly nice to hear somebody in the public eye saying these things.

It's too bad Edwards can't get beyond the Hillary/Obama media spotlight and it's too bad that his thoughts on poverty, justice, faith and politics won't be taken seriously. Issues like poverty and genocide are unfortunately not issues that win a candidate an election.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Last Week's Dialogue Column

Uh...I'm not sure what happened last week, but I just checked and I didn't post last week's column either. So, for those of you who don't get our church's newsletter or who just didn't get enough the first time, here it is:

Through a Glass Darkly—Rev. Chase Peeples

Two weeks ago on Sunday morning we read the account of Jesus’ transfiguration on top of a mountain. We stood with Jesus at this literal and spiritual high point in his ministry and considered what lay ahead. For Jesus, Jerusalem lay ahead, the place where he would suffer and die to demonstrate the extent of God’s love for humanity. Our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem is called Lent. In this time, we consider the violence and selfishness of human actions which lead to suffering for so many in our world. We also consider the places in our own lives where we through commission and omission cause pain for others and ourselves. Thanks be to God that the cross is not the final destination of our journey. The empty tomb is where our journey ends, and the resurrection stands as the ultimate demonstration that God can redeem all of our wrong-headed and selfish choices.

This past Sunday, our Lenten journey took us into the wilderness with Jesus. There we witnessed Jesus’ responses to temptations that would have enabled him to control the environment and the people around him. Rather than controlling others, Jesus chose to serve others and even to suffer on their behalf. By following Jesus’ example, we too can give up trying to control others by viewing them only as instruments for our convenience, through our attempts making them into carbon copies of ourselves or by using our religion to draw attention away from God and towards us. With Christ’s help, we can give up our vain efforts at control for Lent—both as individuals and as a church community.

On the coming Sundays, we will have more opportunities to give things up as we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem. I hope you will be a part of the journey.

My Lenten challenge still stands. I have challenged the membership of First Christian Church to be present in worship during Lent—provided you are physically and geographically able to do so. I know the snow kept many folks away this past Sunday, but even so, we had a nice turnout. I expect to see more of you this week. Worship is just not as good without you.

Grace and Peace


Dialogue Column 3-6-07

Through a Glass Darkly—Rev. Chase Peeples

While in seminary, I recall hearing as a guest speaker in chapel, Nancy Hastings Sehested, longtime minister of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church in Memphis. She had been one of the pioneering women in Southern Baptist life who served as senior minister (now Southern Baptists have pretty much kicked out any churches with women ministers and are working towards kicking out church with women lay leaders). She related how after being at that church for years and preaching on the rights of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals, a church leader said to her, “Well, I guess you can stop preaching about equal rights so much. We have a woman minister, African Americans in leadership and we are open and affirming of gays and lesbians.” She replied, “I will never stop preaching about these issues and on behalf of excluded people. Just because our church has made some important steps doesn’t mean that God has nothing more to teach us about loving one another.”

Hastings Sehested’s works stuck with me, because I believe every minister has common refrains that he or she comes back to again and again in sermons, Bible studies and conversations. Sometimes, those refrains are the same old stories or jokes rehashed again and again. For some ministers, every sermon comes back to saving souls from eternal damnation. Other ministers end up harping on the same social issues, like abortion. Hastings Sehested’s refrains just happened to be about equal rights for oppressed groups, both in the church and in society. If I was one of her church members, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t mind hearing her repeat herself on these issues, because I never stop needing to be reminded of them.

In recent weeks as I have been getting my sermons ready for Sunday morning preaching and printed distribution later, I have thought the themes that I seem to return to again and again. From my own self-observation, I notice that I seem to regularly hit upon two themes: 1. Each and every person is immensely valuable, because God created them and Christ suffered for them, and 2. As Christians we are to be serving those in our society that are marginalized and less powerful, precisely because they are so valuable to God. I guess I would have to say that I am okay with being criticized for repeating myself, as long as I keep repeating these two ideas.

What drew me into ministry as a profession and what keeps me staying connected to the church is my understanding of the grace that God extends to all people. If I say that I love God and I want what God wants, then my actions must result in caring for others, especially people that are not very lovable according to our culture’s standards. When I read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, I see a God that values people—even people that good religious people do not consider worthy of their time. Sometimes I feel as if Jesus went out of his way to offend the religious sensibilities of those around him for the sake of demonstrating that God’s definition of an individual’s worth and our definition of a person’s worth too often differ.

When I look at most churches in America today, I see them repeating the same mistakes of religious people in Jesus’ day. People are valued for what they produce or contribute—not because they are created by God. People become objects when they are valued only for what they contribute financially, what committees they serve on or even for simply increasing a church’s Sunday attendance or annual number of conversions. When people are not valued in and of themselves, the church mirrors a society that values people according to their annual income, social status or political power. Therefore, groups of people that do not possess these things are ignored—people who are poor, homeless, or just plain different.

The good news of the Gospel of Christ is that each of us, no matter how we are viewed by society as a whole, is of great worth and has something great to offer the world. I believe that the church—the universal one with a capital “C” and our church, right here on the corner of 10th and Faraon—is supposed to be the place where this type of inclusion and celebration of people should happen.

Lent is a fine time for each of us to consider our own worth in God’s eyes and the worth of others. Do we treat ourselves with the respect we deserve in terms of our own self-esteem and health? Are we are aware of those around us—our co-workers, neighbors and acquaintences—that need this important message and need to be a part of a community of people that believes this radical idea? Lent is a fine time for us to consider what refrains each of us uses as we go about our lives. What message do others hear from us, as individuals and as a church? What do our words and actions send out and give off to those we encounter?

During Lent and far beyond, I am sure you will hear the same ideas from me again and again, regarding the God-given value of each person and our role as Christians to love people accordingly. I think we cannot say these things enough to a world that so often fails to value people as loved by God.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, March 5, 2007

Stuff I referenced in my sermon on Sunday

In my sermon yesterday, I spoke about political idolatry--a fancy schmancy way of saying the misuse of religion for political ends or put another way putting politics above love of God. So far nobody has exploded at me, because of my sermon. So that means, either I communicated my message so well that everybody got it OR I wimped out and failed to deliver a prophetic message--I guess it depends on how you look at it.

Anyway, my two negative examples were from speeches by President Bush--the younger one.

1. From the 2003 State of the Union Speech: "Yet there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." (Yes, that's a reference to There's Power in the Blood, a hymn that speaks of the "wonder-working power" of Christ's blood to save us from our sins--a reference used here to speak of America and how President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative should be supported.)
2. From the speech on the one-year anniversary of September 11: "Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind... That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it. " (Yes, that's right. He quotes John 1 and its description of Jesus as the light of the world and says that America is the light of the world instead)

As I also said in the sermon, just in case you think I'm picking only on Republicans. I refer you to the recent article in the New York Times Magazine: "Narrowing of the Religion Gap?" about how the Democratic presidential contenders will attempt to appeal to religious voters in the run up to 2008. We can only hope that their misappropriations of Christianity for partisan political purposes will be better than John Kerry's lame attempts at quoting scripture last time around.

Grace and Peace,


spiritual Detritus

detritus n. pl.

1. Loose fragments or grains that have been worn away from rock.
2. a. Disintegrated or eroded matter: the detritus of past civilizations b. Accumulated material; debris: "Poems, engravings, press release she eagerly scrutinizes the detritus of fame" (Carlin Romano).

I'm not sure when or where I picked up this particular vocabulary word, but I' thought of it today as I walked home. Since I'm not driving and today was beautiful, I thought I would actually walk a bit instead of begging a ride of some unsuspecting church member. As I walked down one of those stretches of road where no one is particularly in charge of cleaning up the roadside, I couldn't help but notice--even with only one working eye--the detritus on the side of the road: soda bottles, Taco Bell sauce packets, a whole lot of cheap cigar wrappers (are all smokers of Swisher Sweets litterbugs?), the tiny specks of countless broken glass bottles, etc.

It remained me of a comment by the farmer-poet-mystic Wendall Berry. I don't recall if it was in one of his poems or an interview, but he made the comment about the edges of fields--the corners left unplanted where the tractors rounded off the end. Those places are often the repositories for farm junk--old equipment, leftover ends of barbed-wire bales, old oil cans, etc. Berry made the point that each of us has such places in our spiritual lives where junk piles up.

Walking along the road today looking at the litter, I couldn't help but think that roadsides might be another such metaphor for our spiritual lives. As we hurry on to the next thing, we move at such a clip that we don't realize the accumulation of things along the margins of our lives--things that we fail to deal with--things we discard without consideration--remnants of hectic schedules that allow too little time for reflection.

Roadsides are rarely cleaned up--if they are it's usually by prisoners or people needing community service. The detritus of our lives rarely gets picked up either, usually not until a crisis forces us to clean up our acts--and maybe not even then. How much better would it be if we could just live a little more intentionally discarding the garbage of life in proper receptacles along the way?

Grace and Peace,