Thursday, May 31, 2007

A week with a bunch of preachers is more fun that in sounds

Last week, as I mentioned in a previous post, I was in Nashville for the Festival of Homiletics, a conference on preaching attended by over 1600 ministers. While there I had the privilege of hearing some wonderful speakers and experience some great worship. The speakers who both preached and lectured included folks like Barbara Brown Taylor, Tom Long, Walter Brueggeman, Brian McLaren and William Willimon to name a few.

On Tuesday of that week, they had a special emphasis upon prophetic preaching in today's society. The speakers emphasized politics and social issues and they included Jim Wallis from Sojourners, Joseph Lowery who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Here's an article about that day's events if you are interested.

One of the speakers that offered me some great things to chew on was Brian McLaren of Cedar Ridge Community Church outside Washington, D.C. He's a well known author and theologian. I've read one book by him prior to hearing him speak that I liked a whole lot called The Secret Message of Jesus. I liked what he had to say enough that I shared some of it with the Administrative Board last night. Here's a taste:

"The tragic thing is to think how many churches this Sunday will be treated to safe, nice, harmless, insignificant, intramural, and trivial-pursuit sermons," McLaren said. "There are going to be an awful lot of sermons preached in Christian churches … that actually probably help the world become a worse place. They will use the Bible, and God, and Jesus, to increase greed, to increase fear, to increase alienation, resentment, scapegoating, escapist thinking, fatalism, and an approach of abandonment toward the world."

"Don't assume it will be easy," he said. "Many of our Christians have been converted into consumers of religious goods and services. When you come to them with … a call to be disciples or agents of the transforming kingdom of God, they won't say, ‘At last! Thank you.’”

You can read more of what McLaren had to say and others in this article.

I'll continue to share reflections from last week as they come to me. At the moment, I'm thinking over McLaren's words about preaching "harmless" sermons and considering how my sermons might provoke more thought, reflection and action in response to our dynamic God. Also, I'm reflecting upon his words about so many churches catering to folks who have "converted into consumers of religious goods and services."

I came to First Christian, because I sensed from the congregation that they did not want to be a mega-church or to do whatever it takes to draw a crowd. Instead, I sensed a community of folks who want to practice an authentic form of Christianity that is honest and vulnerable and that welcomes questions, diversity and new ideas along with including all people. By going that route, we make a choice to be a church that is smaller in numbers, less wealthy and less impressive by cultural standards, but we also choose a path, that in my opinion, makes real disciples of Jesus Christ rather than just more consumers of products that no one really needs.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Fitting Memorial

One of the many joys I have experienced since coming to First Christian Church, St. Joseph has been getting to know the Kar family that joined our church just before Easter. Andrew and Beth along with their son Benjamin are good folks. In addition to the pleasure of getting to know them, I have also gotten to know Beth's parents Ray and Beverly Grenke who also live in St. Joseph. Ray is a semi-retired United Methodist minister and among Beverly's many talents and gifts, she happens to be an artist. It's been great to have Ray and Beverly attend our church as well.

Recently, the Kars and Grenkes shared with me a grief their family endured in 2001. Daniel Grenke, Beverly and Ray's son and Beth's brother, died unexpectedly from a cardiac arrest due to a heart condition. He was 28 years old. Daniel was engaged to be married and was a physical education teacher who loved working with younger children.

I don't pretend to understand what a loss this was for Daniel's loved ones.

Beverly dealt with her grief by writing and illustrating a series of children's books about Daniel. In the books, he's called Mr. G. and he is a gym teacher. Each book's plot centers around how Mr. G. helps his young students to learn lessons about diversity, talents, etc. I was very proud when Beverly gave a set of the books to me to read with my boys and to accept a set on behalf of the church. They will be available in our church library to be checked out.

Recently, a long-time friend of Beverly's wrote an article about their friendship and about Beverly's children's books that stsr her son. It's a moving piece about motherhood and I recommend it to you.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, May 25, 2007

Doctrinal Beliefs vs. Political Positions

I'm back from conferencing with a bunch of preachers--great time--I'm still processing it but will post more thoughts here. While staying in a downtown convention-oriented hotel in Nashville, I was provided with the daily complimentary USA Today by the newspaper fairy (or hotel staff member) who dropped it in front of my door each day. It was pretty much basic news stuff, but on Monday there was an op-ed that caught my eye.

It's titled "What is a 'real' Christian? And How might the question affect the GOP presidential field?" by Dan Gilgoff whose bio line reads: "Dan Gilgoff is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report and author of The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War." I think I heard him interviewed back when he was out promoting that book.

In the op-ed, he discusses how James Dobson--current kingmaker on the Religious Right--said in an interview that he was not sure if Fred Thompson was a Christian. Thompson's camp replied with assurances that he was a believer and trotted out his baptismal information to prove it, but the Dobson camp treated this lukewarmly. In fact, this lukewarm response could be said foe all the top Republican contenders who do not fall into traditional categories of what an evangelical would consider to be Christian--for example, Catholic, Mormon, Episcopalian, etc.

I was raised as a good Southern Baptist to believe that a true Christian was one who had "accepted Jesus Christ as personal savior and lord." This meant that an individual had made this commitment to Jesus Christ when they were old enough to understand their own sinfulness and need for grace. The more dramatic the change in behavior/belief the better it was. Things like infant baptism, confirmation, etc. did not count. The only thing that mattered was an act of individual choice for or against Christ. Although this was made possible through God's grace and not through personal works, the proof that one's commitment was real and that one was truly saved came in the form of doing certain behaviors and not doing others. If you did not "walk the walk" then all you were doing was merely "talking the talk." Therefore, people like Catholics, Episcopalians and other Christians who had more of a cultural or community-based understanding of what it means to be a Christian were all suspect. And what about Mormons? Don't even get me started! I remember pamphlets put out by the Southern Baptist Mission Board and even some videos labelling the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints as a cult and tool of Satan.

Strictly speaking in doctrinal terms, I think that many evangelicals and certainly all fundamentalist Christians would still go along with this understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Gilgoff points out, however, that in the political realm, however, conservative Christians are learning to be less concerned with doctrinal purity and more concerned on political purity on issues like abortion, gay rights, etc. So candidates like Romney or Thompson or McCain or Giuliani could be okay just as long as they voted the right way on issues that are the bread and butter of the Religious Right political machine.

Personally, I can't blame them. Although my religious faith is at the core of my life and is the lens through which I try to look at political issues, I gave up long ago believing that any politician was a saint or that the political arena was a realm where I could ever hope to expect someone that truly held the same beliefs as I do to achieve any real power. Instead, I look for the candidate who lines up more with issues that matter to me (issues like poverty, justice, environment, peace, racial reconciliation, etc.) and his or her religious beliefs may or may not play into my decision to support them--to whatever extent I do support them. I have a rather pragmatic view of my involvement in politics, albeit one that often too easily slides into cynicism.

I can't help but point out, however, the inconsistency in the thinking of religious conservatives. They often choose to frame their support of a candidate in terms of his or her own personal morality and religious beliefs (think of the emphasis upon George W. Bush's personal religious conversion in 2000). It makes me wonder if such things ever really mattered to the power brokers of the religious right after all.

On a related note, I will be preaching about salvation this Sunday and different ways of understanding how a person becomes a Christian, so this posting is a little bit of a lead up to Sunday.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, May 21, 2007

I'm conferencing with a bunch of preachers

This week I won't have much to post, because I'm in Nashville at The Festival of Homiletics (homiletics is the fancy word for preaching). It's the largest conference of its kind. Over 1600 ministers are here to learn from some of the best ministers, scholars and writers around. So far, it has been very inspiring and extremely educational for me. I'll be back in St. Joe on Thursday and will have more to share at that point. Unil then...

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The legacy of Jerry Falwell

I've learned over the years not to speak ill of the dead, so I'm in a bit of a quandary about what to say about Jerry Falwell now that he has died. I certainly am sorry that he died in the manner that he did. Nonetheless, I stand opposed to the type of Christianity he practiced. Falwell was a complicated man--no person who achieves the kind of status that he achieved could be anything other than complicated. So, in an attempt not to speak ill of the dead, I'll share a bit of analysis that comes from a source I trust.

Dr. Bill Leonard is the dean of Wake Forest Divinity School and a church historian who specializes in Baptist life. I've heard him speak on a number of occasions and have several of his books. His analysis of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention is worth reading not only for understanding Southern Baptists but for understanding the resurgence of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians in American life at the end of the 1970's. I believe his analysis is perhaps the deepest available on who Falwell was and what he will be remembered for. This comes from an article published by Associated Baptist Press.

Baptist historian Bill Leonard said Falwell's penchant for rhetoric coupled with personal warmness was a legacy of his independent Baptist background.

The three hallmarks of that tradition, Leonard said, were that Falwell was "an absolute … opponent of liberalism politically and theologically," that he embraced "an unashamed commitment to church growth, meaning that numbers proved theological orthodoxy" and that he was "a pulpit controversialist who uses rhetoric to encourage an often-fearful constituency that sees the world encroaching and to beat up on -- indeed, create -- enemies."

Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University, continued: "I think his modus operandi was … not inconsistent with certain fundamentalist megachurch pastors in that independent Baptist tradition. When you met them, they were good-old-boy pastors. So, they were fun to be with; they were jokesters; they had larger-than-life personalities. But when the issues came down, they took no prisoners."

And, he added, "once they're gone, you have this body of absolutely outlandish sound-bites."

Leonard said Falwell struggled throughout his public career to walk a tightrope between his hard-core fundamentalist base and the larger public he was trying to woo to his side.

"His power base is with a group of people who agree with all of those statements -- about gays, about Catholics, about abortion, about the Democratic Party and the Clintons," Leonard said. "So, he's got to talk that talk to keep them with him. But then that talk that they applaud and think is Christian conviction sounds like bigotry when it its broadcast in the public square -- and that is when he had to apologize."

A new generation of evangelical leaders, Leonard said, has learned how to tread that line more carefully than did Falwell. Many younger evangelicals are increasingly interested in a broader view of the church's role in encouraging public morality than the sex-related matters that consumed much of the late preacher's rhetoric.

The mainstream media has focused upon Falwell's impact upon politics through his work with the Moral Majority, however, I believe that the true impact he has had upon American culture will be felt within the religious realm, especially in the way he modelled for a generation of fundamentalist Christians that the heart of Christianity was not the humble sacrifice of Jesus but the accumulation of wealth and power so prevalent in American culture.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Our Church's Shepherding Ministry--Dialogue Column 5.8.97

The latest column from our churc's newsletter, The Dialogue:

Through a Glass Darkly by Rev. Chase Peeples

When I interviewed for the position as minister at First Christian Church, one of the things that impressed me was that this church has a shepherding ministry. This type of ministry goes by different names in different churches and denominations. In my Baptist upbringing, I remember it being called a “Deacon Family Ministry Plan,”, because the deacons were the highest office laypeople could hold in the church and one of their responsibilities was to offer spiritual care for other members. In the United Church of Christ, it was called “Stephen’s Ministry” in honor of the young church leader we learn of in the book of Acts who cared for widows in the church. Here in our church we call it “Shepherding” and it is the elders who are the laypeople charged with caring for the spiritual needs of church members.

On the front of this issue of The Dialogue you will find an explanation of the work of the elder-shepherds that Shirley Evans, the chairperson of the elders, has developed. It outlines how each elder or shepherd has a certain number of families assigned to them, for whom they are responsible for keeping in touch with and offering spiritual care. We call this group of families a “flock”. At its most basic, elder-shepherds are responsible for being a line of communication between a particular family and the church as a whole. This can take many different forms. If a family has not been attending lately, it’s their elder’s responsibility to find out why and to encourage them to return. If a family is going through a difficult time, their elder should offer them support and to help organize further help from the church if needed. If one of their flock is hospitalized, then that elder should visit them to care and pray for them.

I should clarify a few things, however, about the work of the elders. In no way, does the work of an elder relieve me of my job to do all these things and more as the minister of this church. It is my job as well to care for the spiritual needs of all the families in the church, visit folks in the hospital, encourage folks to stay active in the church, etc. Yet, there is no getting around the fact that I am only one person, and I have many different responsibilities and demands on my time as a minister. I simply can’t be everywhere at once. Besides, it is often the case that folks will share things with people they have known for years before they will share something with a minister that is new to the scene. I also think that sometimes support and care from a layperson may actually mean more to a person than from the minister. There is an assumption that ministers are “supposed to do that kind of stuff,” but when a layperson makes time to do it, “well, that was a real sacrifice.” No matter how true or not such thinking may be, the value of laypeople caring for laypeople cannot be understated for the overall health of a church.

There are a number of precedents in the Bible for spiritual leaders depending upon additional workers to care for the needs of the community of faith. In Exodus 18, Moses is overwhelmed arbitrating the disputes of the Israelites, so his father-in-law Jethro advises him to appoint judges to give him the time to lead the people in the ways of Yahweh. In the New Testament, Acts 6 describes how the apostles and the early Christian community chose the first deacons to care for the widows of the church, thereby freeing the apostles to preach and teach the Gospel. These and other examples demonstrate how the work of spiritual care must be shared in a community of faith.

Another clarification I should make is that the responsibilities of the elders by no means relieves the rest of the laypeople in the church of their responsibilities. As Christians, we believe that all believers are called by God to serve others in Jesus’ name. We are called to care for and support one another in the church, and that ministry is something each and every member can and should do. The role of the elder in our church does not preclude any other member of the community from service, but it should ensure that spiritual care and a sense of connection between the church at large and its members is carried out. Even in a church our size, it is easy to assume that someone else is keeping up with a member in need and for those needs to go unmet. Having elders eliminates the need for assumptions ensures that no one is overlooked.

As our church grows—oh yes, we will grow—our elders will continue to play a crucial part in strengthening the spiritual bonds that exist in our church family. My prayer is that each and every elder will take seriously their responsibility to connect with and care for their flocks, so that all members of our church will feel that they are an important part of our community of faith. I hope that all members will take advantage of this resource for understanding the history and tradition of our church as well as for communicating their needs and interests. If you haven’t heard from your elder or if you are not sure who your elder is, feel free to call the church office to ask or you can contact either Shirley Evans or myself and we can find out for you.

Grace and Peace,


Monday, May 7, 2007

A Complaint-Free World

Here's the link to an article about Christ Church Unity in Kansas City. I mentioned the church in my sermon yesterday, "The Power of Negative Thinking." The article is more about the world-wide interest in the bracelets the church has produced to remind people not to complain. It only took the pastor of Christ Church 75 days to go 21 days without complaining. I shudder to think how long it would take me, but it still might be a worthwhile exercise for me to go through--and i suspect for our church to go through.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Lucifer Effect

I was really fascinated by an interview I heard on the NPR show Fresh Air with Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo is the Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University, and he's perhaps best known for the so-called "Stanford Prison Experiment" in which seemingly n ormal college students were divided into two groups: prisoners and guards. In six days' time, Zimbardo had to stop the experiment, because the "guards" began to brutalize the prisoners. It raised the difficult question of why good people can in the right circumstances and with the right social reinforcement can end up doing unspeakable things.

Zimbardo has written a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. which is about the "Stanford Prison Experiment" and about him being called as an expert witness in the court martials of guards who were a part of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

I have a theological reason for wanting to understand what Zimbardo is writing and researching. In my attempts to understand human sinfulness--individually and collectively--I have come to believe that the traditional Protestant understandings of sin are in many ways inadequate to deal with questions like how could normal people go along with the Holocaust or a genocide in Rwanda or Darfur? How could normal Americans who function in society come to believe that sexually humiliating people or attaching electrodes to their testicles could be ever okay--not to mention that they took trophy pictures of themselves doing it?

For that matter, how can the majority of normal people in our country not be concerned that our government authorized torture and has yet to hold anyone higher than a low-level soldier accountable for it?

I guess I feel the traditional understanding of a sin as a bad action is simply inadequate to describe the level of violence that exists in our world. I also wonder if Zimbardo can shed any light from a psychological perspective on the idea that all of us our sinners--our Western individualism and humanism I feel masks the ways humanity in a macro or cosmic sense can inherently cooperate in acts that dehumanize others.

I haven't read the book yet or even bought it, but it's on my "TO BE READ" list.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Power of Negative Thinking--Dialogue Column 5.1.07

Through a Glass Darkly (1 Cor. 13:12) by Rev. Chase Peeples

Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. James 1:19

I learned this Bible verse in youth group growing up, and I have murmured it to myself on many occasions during my time as a minister, especially in committee meetings. The book of James is often described as “wisdom literature” in the same vein as the book of Proverbs. I can see why when I consider this verse. After Jesus’ commands to “love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” I believe this verse should come next on the list of instructions for Christians on how to behave. I believe every church member who has ever served on a committee should have this verse memorized.

Since coming to First Christian as your pastor, I have been impressed overall with the kind of grace and love demonstrated by the members of our church. I believe that our church has a bright future, because of its ability to demonstrate God’s grace to our community. I do feel, however, that there is room for improvement, and one of the areas that we can improve upon as a church is the way our members communicate with one another and the staff. I have noticed that James 1:19 is not always the rule of thumb around here.

I don’t wish to imply that First Christian is a church in conflict or that there is open hostility during meetings or anything like that; far from it. As I mentioned, I believe that overall First Christian is a caring and gracious church to be a part of, but I have noticed that in certain situations some bad habits have developed, such as complaining, nitpicking and generally being negative. Some would say that this behavior is just a part of church life. Maybe so, but I’d like to set our expectations of one another a little higher than that.

James writes that just as an entire forest can be set ablaze by a spark, so also can the tongue cause great damage. This is certainly true. Hurtful words said in anger can leave lasting scars, and when they are said in church, a person’s entire image of Christianity can also be scarred. More often, however, hurtful language is used in more subtle ways through indirect comments, stern memos and careless e-mails. When Christians turn their attention away from the good things God is doing and towards petty matters, the result can be, if not a forest fire, then many small fires. Pretty soon a church can spend all of its time putting out these small flare-ups rather than doing the important work of strengthening the church and reaching out to its community. More than one church has died, because its members turned all of their attention inward to feed the fires of negativity and forgot their God-given calling.

Every organization, especially a church, needs to regularly reassess its goals and improve its performance in achieving those goals. This occurs through frank consideration of the church’s strengths and weaknesses by its leaders. Sometimes that may mean being honest about things that need to be changed or even done away with. This kind of self-evaluation, however, is very different from the kind of negativity I am describing. We must be careful to differentiate between criticism that is given with the goal of strengthening the church in a manner that is loving and gracious and criticism that weakens the church and hurts individuals. With this purpose in mind, I would like to ask each member of First Christian to consider the following before offering criticism about church matters, members or staff:

1. Ask yourself if you are doing so in order to settle a personal score or because you have negative feelings towards an individual? If so, you probably need to examine yourself to see if your feelings are valid. If you feel they are, then you need to go to that person and seek reconciliation in a caring and humble way. If that fails, you need to seek help from a minister or elder in the church.

2. Ask yourself if you are doing so in order to control or manipulate others? It is an unfortunate fact that manipulative people find their way to church, because they can get away with bad behavior. It is also unfortunate that manipulative people rarely will admit to being manipulative. Yet, if you do some honest consideration of yourself and pray about your behavior, you may discover that your criticisms stem from selfish desires rather than out of a desire to strengthen the church.

3. Ask yourself if the matter is worth the amount of energy and emotion you are placing on it? Is this matter really worth getting upset about? Will voicing a criticism in an emotional or angry manner really accomplish anything or will it make matters worse?
Ask yourself is there a better way to express myself? Will my criticism hurt someone else, if so can I phrase things differently to limit that pain?

4. Ask yourself if your criticism will help make things better in the church or if it will only make you feel better for getting something off your chest? If it is the latter, you should consider the best interest of the church and possibly seek out a minister or elder to talk to about your personal issues.

5. Ask yourself have I prayed about this? You may be surprised what God may reveal to you and how God can calm your emotions. God can help you to spend your time and energy in ways that lead to a fulfilling life and a vibrant church.

We have too many good things going on in our church to waste time on negative energy and negative language. God has even more great things in store for our future. Let us all commit to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” so that we may hear the still small voice of God that speaks in our midst.

Grace and Peace,