Friday, August 22, 2014

Recommended Reading 8.16.14 edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  Here it is for last week:

Recommended Reading

I spent a lot of time this week glued to coverage of events in Ferguson, MO.  Here are some of the things I read that were meaningful to me:
I was deeply saddened by the news of Robin Williams' suicide this week.  Here are some things I read related to this awful event that I want to pass on:
Here are a few more things I read this week that I recommend: I posted my August 3 sermon "Wrestling With God" on the church web site.  It's a sermon about the story in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with God.  This sermon deals with struggling with God as we struggle with ourselves.  Often the greatest blessings God provides to us only come after an emotional and spiritual struggle.  Just as God gives Jacob a new name (Israel), so also God can replace the negative names we have been given (loser, worthless, failure, etc.) and replaces them with a new name: beloved. 

Okay, add this to your list of Christmas gifts for your pastor.  I must have this for my shelf of tacky Bible things! 

Grace and Peace,


Friday, August 8, 2014

A Boat Seems Small in the Middle of a Storm

 When I was in Israel this past June, I saw the so-called "Jesus Boat," a boat that had been used during the time of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.  It's not likely that Jesus actually used this boat, but it is the kind of boat Jesus' disciples used for fishing and the kind of boat mentioned in the Gospels.  It is located in Kibbutz Ginnosar on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and it was discovered in 1986 by two boys who lived at the kibbutz (communal farm).  The water was low and the boat which had been preserved in mud on the bottom for over 1900 years was exposed  Through a complex excavation and over a decade of preservation, the boat was saved.  Now for a nominal fee and a walk through the gift shop you can see the boat that sailed 2000 years ago.

I've written before about my impressions of the Sea of Galilee.  It's not a sea but a lake and it doesn't match our Great Lakes.  Yet, because of the lake's geography it can be a treacherous place.  It is surrounded by mountains--not like the Rocky Mountains or the Alps but ones that would take a morning to hike up.  There are canyons that split these mountains and when storms come winds whip through those canyons and down on the lake.  The water can get very choppy and storms can get violent. 

When I saw this ancient boat, the same kind Jesus and his disciples would have used, I had a new appreciation for the stories in the Gospels that mention storms on the Sea of Galilee.  The boat is 27 feet long and 7 feet wide, but standing next to it, the boat didn't seem that big.  It seemed to me that once you put a mast on it along with oars (see the model pictured below) any more than 4 men would make it pretty crowded.  It certainly wouldn't offer any shelter during a storm.

Sunday I'm preaching on Matthew 14:22-33 which is Matthew's account of Jesus walking on the water out to the disciples who were on such a boat on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm.  I wish I had a way to project these pictures of the "Jesus Boat" during my sermon for people to see it and think about the story.  Like me, I think folks would get a feeling for just how vulnerable the disciples were.

Since the disciples in the story think Jesus is a ghost when they first see him on the water coming toward them, some scholars have theorized that this story is actually a post-resurrection vision that was put back into the story of when Jesus was alive. Whether that is true or not, from the perspective of the reader--on this side of the resurrection--we still must decide what we believe about it.  No matter when it happened (for some it may be a matter of if it happened), we must struggle with its meaning for us today (if at all). More importantly than deciding whether or not we believe in miracles like Jesus walking on the water, we have to decide if God is still present for us today in our moments of vulnerability in crisis. 

The reason this story made it into the Gospels is because it was meaningful to the first Christians.  Most of them would not have been witnesses of the resurrection but would have heard about it second or even third hand.  They had to decide if the story of Christ being risen from the dead and making the presence of God real among them made any difference for their circumstances.  We have to make that same decision of faith--is God real? can God be present in my moments of crisis? will God help me when I am vulnerable and afraid?

The declaration of the Gospels is that Jesus has the power to bring peace to us in the midst of storms and chaos.  Each of us must wrestle with whether or not we trust such a promise.  
Grace and Peace,


Friday, July 25, 2014

What I Wish I'd Said to the Roeland Park City Council

Monday night the city council of Roeland Park, Kansas voted 4 to 3 against a bill that would ban discrimination of LGBT people.  It was a sad but not surprising outcome, since only Lawrence in the entire state of Kansas has a LGBT non-discrimination bill.  Despite efforts by the local ACLU, Equality Kansas and a bunch of local advocates from inside and outside of Roeland Park the ban was voted down.

I have been unable to attend previous council meetings about the ban, but I'm glad to say that other area UCC clergy and UCC church members, including our own seminarian Karon Harper, have been present and vocal in their support for it.  I made it Monday night for the vote, however, and although I was not surprised by religious opposition to the ban, the ignorance spouted by ban opponents was surprising in that it felt like we had gone in a time warp back twenty or even thirty years.  One woman said LGBT people couldn't be discriminated against, because only people who have non-Caucasian skin color can experience discrimination.  A man said the ban gives LGBT people "special rights" beyond what everyone else gets.  One woman who claimed to be a medical professional declared that "fornication" by homosexuals creates a "health risk" to the public!  When she spoke I thought I was hearing somebody telling poor Ryan White he couldn't come to school! 

Despite the discouraging outcome of the vote, it was good to be with people who so courageously were speaking out for God's justice.  As a heterosexual man who doesn't reside in Roeland Park, I am not directly affected by the council's vote, but there were plenty of people in the room who are.  A number of gay and lesbian people from Roeland Park spoke in the meeting--many identifying themselves as homosexual in such a public way for the first time.  Also present were other LGBT people and straight allies from Roeland Park and from around the metro area.  I was pleased to meet Debi Jackson who is the mother of a transgender child and whose video talking about her daughter has gone viral and received much local media attention.  Also I met a transgender woman who is a local activist for transgender people.  She runs a great blog called: Transas City.  (I was proud to tell both about Donna Ross speaking in worship Sunday at church.)  The courage demonstrated by folks like these is what keeps me working for God's justice.  They are inspirational. 

I did speak during the public comment time of the meeting.  What I said was okay but not my best.  Here's the video.
I'm not sure that anything said by the public mattered by that point anyway, however, because the council members all seemed like their minds were decided beforehand.  One of the council members who voted no said nothing else throughout the meeting.  Another who voted no complained of harassment she had suffered for being public about her opposition.  Yet another council member who voted no looked on the verge of having a nervous breakdown and proceeded to read from the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about not demeaning homosexuals before he gave his no vote.  (The last one was very strange.)

As is often typical for me, just like George Costanza on Seinfeld, as I was driving away I thought of plenty of things I wish I had said.  So here's a letter I will mail Monday to the council members that says what I wish I had said during my 90 seconds of public comment time at the council meeting.

Dear Council Members,

I am writing to you concerning the disappointing vote on July 21 that failed to approve a ban on discrimination of LGBT people in Roeland Park.  I am one of the clergy who spoke Monday night in favor of the ban.  Although I am not a resident of Roeland Park, members of my congregation come from throughout the metro KC area.  I live in Overland Park and had hoped the passage of a ban in your city would inspire my own city and others to do likewise.  I am grateful to you for at least considering such a ban--something my city has yet to do--even though I believe you missed an opportunity to be a leader for justice in the state of Kansas.

I am inspired by the three council members who voted for the ban, and I am praying for each of you, especially the four of you who opposed it   I am saddened to hear that council members on both sides of the issue faced harassment for your convictions.  I am especially sad that those who believe LGBT people should be free of harassment would mistreat those of you who opposed the ban.  Just as I believe most people opposing the ban would not commit outright acts of harassment, I believe most people in favor of LGBT equality would not do such acts either.  There are unfortunately extremists who hold every kind of belief. 

What I wish had happened, however, is that those council members who faced harassment for opposing the ban would have gained some empathy for LGBT people who face harassment every day in their workplaces, in the marketplace and other environments.  As a heterosexual I never have experienced someone accusing me of being a "fornicator" or a "public health risk" as happened in Monday night's meeting, but LGBT people experience such inane words all the time.  They get to hear slurs, jokes at their expense and insults everywhere they go unless they choose to hide who they are.  Decisions like hiring, contracts and housing are made all the time based on prejudice against LGBT people.  Freedom from such discrimination is not a case of "special rights" or "more rights," as was claimed Monday night, but rather a simple human right that heterosexuals take for granted.

I don't feel anger towards the four of you who voted against the ban but rather pity.  I pity you, because you had the chance to be courageous and make a positive difference for your city and even your state, but you missed that chance.  I pity you, because you are on the losing side.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well, when he declared, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."  The cause of equality for LGBT people is making great strides, and before too long, people will wonder how anyone could have opposed the blindingly obvious reality that LGBT people deserve the same protections as everyone else.  Your children and grandchildren (if they don't already do so) will consider your vote on July 21, 2014 and wonder how their parent or grandparent could have been so ignorant and cruel?  There will be other Roeland Park city councils, and sooner or later, a council of your city will approve such a ban.

As a Christian and a minister, I believe our love for our neighbors should include trusting their stories of who God made them to be rather than imposing an ancient understanding of sexual morality upon them.  Even if you do not share my religious and ethical views, I wonder how you as an elected official can claim to act in the best interest of all your constituents in a city containing people of different religious persuasions and yet vote in such a way that imposes a particular interpretation of Christian scripture upon all of them?  In your city and my own, there are people who live in ways that are contrary to my religious beliefs, yet in a pluralistic democracy I must acknowledge their rights to live as they believe is best so long as it does not threaten the common good.  Similarly, if I wish to enjoy freedom from discrimination based on whom I believe God created me to be, I must be willing to grant that same freedom to others.  On July 27, four of you voted against the common good of Roeland Park in favor of the particular religious views of a vocal minority--a vocal minority who, in my opinion, fail to understand the grace of God they claim to represent.


Rev. Chase Peeples   

I will mail this letter on Tuesday.
Grace and Peace,

Recommended Reading: 7-25-14 edition

Each week I send out an e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.   Here's some stuff I found meaningful to read this past week:
  • SBNR--"Spiritual But Not Religious"--heard that one?  If you've been paying attention at all over the last 25 years or so, you've probably heard it a lot.  I know I have heard it so much that I must work hard not to visibly cringe at some well-meaning person who self-identifies herself or himself as such.  The NY Times reviews several recent books that address the SBNR folks out there.  In case you are wondering how I feel about the idea of being SBNR, I agree wholeheartedly with UCC minister and author Lilian Daniel (whose book When 'Spiritual But Not Religious' is Not Enough is featured in the article).  Community matters.
  • I'm a few Sundays behind in uploading sermons to the church web site, but I did get the July 6 sermon "Child's Play" up.  It's ready for your eardrums, if you missed it.  Here's the description of it I posted with the audio (It's pretty wordy, but I'm trying to attract Google search results.): "This is a sermon on Matthew 11:16-30.  It is a sermon about how to deal with people you disagree with and having the humility to admit you don't have all the answers.  This sermon addresses issues like how do we disagree with others who hold different beliefs from us and do so in a respectful and loving way?  It also speaks to the difficult task of debating with others on social media, a medium where we let our worst selves run wild.  In Matthew 11, Jesus responds to his critics who criticize him for eating and drinking with sinners but who also criticized John the Baptizer for being too strict in his ascetic lifestyle.  Some religious people are only happy if you do things their way; yet God can move through many different kinds of people and through many different religious points of view to accomplish what God wants.  To assume your religious comfort zone is the only true one is to risk missing out on the many other ways God is at work in the world.  This sermon also mentions the comedian, Marc Maron, specifically a good interaction between Rev. Peeples and Maron at one of the comedian's performances.
  • Apparently there's a social media phenomenon out there with women taking selfies and holding up signs saying "We don't need feminism."  I thankfully missed it, but I'm glad I didn't miss Rachel Held Evans' powerful blog post on some of the reasons we do in fact need feminism

Saturday, June 28, 2014

I gave Marc Maron one of my sermons

This week I joined all the hipsters over in Lawrence, KS (I felt at a loss, because I wasn't wearing skinny jeans nor an ironic thrift store t-shirt.) to see my favorite comedian and podcaster Marc Maron.  The show was great and he was very gracious with the fans.

Last year on Pentecost Sunday, I used a story from Maron's book Attempting Normal in my sermon.  I brought a CD of that sermon hoping I could give it to him.  During the Q&A, I shared that I was a minister who was a big fan and I had used his stories in sermons.  The crowd thought that was awesome, so I told him I had a copy of one for him.  He seemed genuinely glad to have it and asked if he could play it on his show.  I agreed, of course.

After the show, I began to worry that I came across like I was crazy or trying to convert him, so I tweeted the following:

A little while later, I got this reassuring response to my tweet by none other than Maron himself:

I hope he does listen to it and appreciates it.  Mentioning it on his podcast seems like too much to ask.  Either way, I got to interact with a comedian/podcaster whose work I really enjoy and that interaction was a good one--I'm more than satisfied with that much.

If you want to hear the sermon I gave to Marc Maron, here it is on my church's web site.  Apologies for the crappy audio quality.  Something was up with the audio that day.

Wadi Qelt (a.k.a. "the valley of the shadow of death")

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. . ."

I learned the words to the 23rd Psalm when I was a child.  I still prefer the poetry of the King James Version and its Elizabethan English.  Today, I recite it most often at funerals, at which I'm grateful still most people know the words to recite along with me.  I've been known to preach on it, because it is worth living by every day and not just at funerals.  After visiting Israel, I think of it in a whole new way.

The picture above is of a place called Wadi Qelt.  A wadi is a canyon carved by centuries of sporadic heavy rain.  Wadi Qelt is the traditional place David had in mind when he wrote Psalm 23.  (It is also said to be the place where the prophet Elijah hid from the forces of Queen Jezebel and was fed by ravens.)  Of course, there is no way to know if this is the place David really had in mind any more than there is a way to know for sure that it was David who wrote Psalm 23, but it was powerful to visit it just the same. 

I had always envisioned the "valley of the shadow of death" as well, more shadowed rather than baked by the sun.  The vegetation you see in the picture exists because an ancient aqueduct still carries water along its steep cliff side and leaks at places.  The aqueduct was built long after David's time, so if he was thinking of Wadi Qelt it wasn't with any greenery.  It's much more bleak than I imagined.  The day we visited the temperature was in the 90's (don't ask me about Celsius) and it felt like we were being baked in an oven.

I had also imagined the "valley of the shadow of death" to have more life to it.  I guess I was taking the phrase literally which says, "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters."  Now I know the writer of the Psalm, if he or she had Wadi Qelt or a place like it in mind was drawing a contrast between his or her lived reality and what he or she trusted God would provide.  There are no green pastures nor still waters in Wadi Qelt.  The only water comes rarely and dangerously rushing through the canyon.

When we look at the parched landscape with its steep cliff sides that allow only a narrow trail along them, we can realize just how much faith it took for the Psalm writer to trust God would provide "green pastures," "still waters," "a table before me in the presence of mine enemies," and a cup that "runneth over."  This is the substance of faith in God--that in our desperate moments when we are most in need that God remains with us to provide for us.

Wadi Qelt speaks to our lived reality.  In moments of tragedy and grief, pain and loss, it may take more imagination than we can muster to believe existence is more than a parched and desolate place lacking in comfort.  When we have no answers for why the innocent suffer, the young die or relationships are broken, Wadi Qelt awaits. 

The Letter to the Hebrews says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  There are times when we have no assurances nor convictions.  Yet, Psalm 23 declares that when we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" God is with us.  This is faith--daring to believe God walks with us even when we cannot feel God's presence. 

Wadi Qelt reminds us not to speak of faith in a trite manner nor to speak words to one who grieves merely to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable in their presence.  It reminds us that faith in such circumstances is truly a miraculous event that if it occurs, does so on a different timetable for each person.

Faith is believing that even in such a bleak landscape, God is still present with us.  Faith is trusting that the Psalm's words are true: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."  I hold no guarantees, but I pray you find faith when your life's journey takes you to Wadi Qelt.  May your "shepherd" guide you.
Grace and Peace,

Why was Jesus a Small Town Guy?

(written for my church on June 20)

I'm back from Israel although I'm still jet-lagged.  Although I returned Monday evening, I continue to fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon and wake up in the middle of the night, so in case I miss Sunday worship, that's my excuse.  I am thankful to all who filled in for me during my absence: Mark Pridmore and Karon Harper for preaching and leading in worship, the church staff for doing all their good work to keep our church running, and our lay leaders and volunteers who do so much to make this community of faith a reality.

My trip was wonderful and I'm full of thoughts about it.  In the coming weeks and months, I will be sharing more about my experiences.  Suffice to say, I will never read Bible stories in the same way now that I have seen the places they are supposed to have happened.  For now, let me share this reflection with you.

 My trip started out seeing sites along the Mediterranean coast such as Caesarea, a port city constructed by Herod the Great before Jesus' birth that later became the home of Roman governors like Pontius Pilate.  (see above picture)  It was quite the city complete with a grand theater, circus mzximus for chariot races and an arena for gladiatorial combat.  We concluded our trip in Jerusalem, which was in Jesus' day as it is now, a hub of religious, governmental and commercial activity with incredible architecture that towered over its inhabitants.  Between these ancient cities, however, we visited sites around the Sea of Galilee which was an entirely different experience.

First off, the Sea of Galilee (pictured above--photograph by Sterling Severns) is not a sea but rather a freshwater lake--a big one but not a huge one.  After reading about it in the Bible my whole life, I was rather stunned by how small it is.  Don't get me wrong it's beautiful; in fact I would say the Galilee area is probably the most beautiful part of Israel, but it is not large.  We visited the ruins of the ancient villages of Capernaum (see below picture--photograph by Sterling Severns) and Bethsaida where Jesus spent most of his ministry.  These two villages and a third Korazin form what's called the "Gospel Triangle," the area where Jesus did almost all of his preaching, teaching and miracles.  Again, I was shocked by how small the villages were--really just hamlets by the lake shore in the case of Bethsaida and Capernaum.  Furthermore they aren't far off from each other, a few hours walk at most would take you between these villages and through similar ones nearby.  Now I understand why the gospels describe crowds gathering around Jesus; everybody in this very small area probably knew of his teaching and activities.

 Jesus didn't pick a metropolis for his ministry but a small rural area where fishing was the primary industry.  He could have chosen the city which represented the might of the empire or the city considered most holy but instead chose a much less "important" place for his work.  If you happen to believe in the incarnation, as I do, this means that God chose to be present in a unique and incredible manner not in the halls of power but among ordinary people in a small area.  What might that mean?

For me it means that if this God-thing is real, then any place can be a place where God can do amazing things.  Even if that place happens to be out of the way, what God does may start in an out of the way place but it doesn't stay there.  What God does matters so much, shakes the foundations of our human sensibilities and conventional wisdom so greatly, that it echoes in the powers of influence.  Jesus was the ultimate grassroots organizer that ended up changing the world by starting small, but what was small in the eyes of the world was great in its power and influence.

If this God-thing is real, that means what we do as a church among our small congregation matters a great deal.  If we allow God to be active among us, what we do together matters.  Just as what Jesus accomplished in the small villages near the lake shore impacted the world around it, so also what we do together can make a huge difference in our neighborhood, our part of the city, our metropolitan area, the states of Kansas and Missouri, our nation and our world. 

Are my thoughts too grandiose?  Perhaps.  But I walked among the small villages where God worked wonders on the shore of the Galilee, and I've learned that what matters is not the size or influence of a community but rather its willingness to allow God to work through it. 

Grace and Peace,