Thursday, May 14, 2015

God, Why didn't you prevent the Nepalese earthquakes?
by The Rev. Kenneth L. Chumbley
At a recent Sunday adult class, someone asked a provocative question--one that I often ponder.
Referring to the first earthquake in Nepal, which killed more than 8,000 people and devastated that small country,  he asked: Why didn’t God prevent that disaster? 
I did not get the sense that the questioner was bating me, using a natural disaster to argue against the existence of a loving God, as many people do, but that he was genuinely seeking to understand God, even reaching out to God with his question.
People of faith and people without faith have long sought to understand Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, as Rabbi Harold Kushner's classic book poses the question( I recommend this book and would happily lead an exploration of it, if anyone were interested.) An earlier classic, the biblical book of Job, also deals with the question of evil and the God of love. I commend Job to you. Thank God the Bible comprehends Jobian questions.
                                                              Evil is personal
Every person, I reasonably assume, has experienced his or her own personal Nepal, if you will. On several occasions, Penny and I have. Penny's niece, Toni, for instance, was murdered by her boyfriend about 10 years ago. 
That horrific tragedy certainly challenged our family's faith. It still does. Toni's murderer is serving a life sentence. Penny's mother, Norma, a person of deep and strong faith, says that it is only by the grace of God that she can pray for James, which she does. I do not know whether I could.
No person, and certainly no theologian, no matter how learned, will ever fully and satisfactorily answer the question posed by that man in the adult Sunday school class. 
Although I do not have any answers--not in any conclusive sense--I do have some thoughts, perhaps even insights, standing as I do daily amid the rubble of evil, tragedy, pain, and suffering. I hope they help you in your journey of believing. 
                                                   Faith is at the heart of the journey
Mine is not Christian certainty but Christian faith. I am like the man in Mark 8. 17ff. He takes his son who is possessed by an evil spirit to Jesus to be healed, if Jesus can. And Jesus responds, If I can. “All things are possible to him who believes.” And the man answers, as I do: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Given so many questions and so few answers, I could stop believing. I could give up on God. But I choose to believe in the God of love, even when the evidence sometimes seemingly contradicts the existence of God. 
A cellar in Cologne, Germany once sheltered thousands of Jews from Nazi evil. When WW II ended, someone discovered a few sentences scratched on a stone wall there. No one knows the name or what became of the author, who wrote: "I believe in the sun even when it's not shining. I believe in love even when not feeling it. I believe in God even when He is silent."  
This anonymous author suffered and likely died during the Holocaust, as did more than six million Jews. These and other millions of other deaths came not as a result of natural evil, like that earthquake in Nepal, but from human evil: Hatred, discrimination, cruelty, violence, horrible death. It is impossible to prevent earthquakes, tornadoes, many diseases, and, although it is impossible to eliminate human evil, it is possible to curb it and even to prevent future Holocausts, with God's help and with our faithfulness to God.

                                                         God is love: Not a cliche but the truth
As a Christian, I believe that God became human in Jesus Christ. St John's Gospel and John's letters teach that Jesus showed us the nature of God. God is love. God's love for us is so great, as St. Paul writes in Romans 5.8, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Jesus goes to his death for the sake of love--He dies on the cross as a political criminal because He did the very best for every human being He ever encountered, be that person stranger, or friend, or enemy. And loving this way brings ridicule, persecution, and even death. His was a radical love, a love that the world had never seen before; indeed, a revolutionary love that sought--and that still seeks--to eliminate all that is unloving in the world today. This is the mission of every follower of Jesus.

God offers His  love to human beings as gift. And God gives us the freedom to accept Jesus and God's love embodied in Him and to live according to His teaching and example and in His Spirit; or we can choose to reject Jesus and His love. Daily, people--yes, even Christians--reject God and do ungodly things to one another. Our niece's murder is a particularly monstrous example.

                                                                            God's YES!

I believe it was scholar and famous preacher Fred Craddock who once said that Jesus' crucifixion was humankind's NO to God, but His resurrection was God's YES to us. You killed my son, I imagine God saying, but I went on loving you and seeking you and will never stop doing so. You can never destroy my love.

The resurrection, which we celebrate in the great 50 days of Easter, proclaims the beginning of God's act of new creation, according to theologian and Anglican bishop Dr. N.T. Wright. The natural world, which, perhaps like human beings, is in rebellion against God's good purposes--will be made new. It will be perfected as it was at the beginning. Then, there will be no more Nepals. No murdered young women. That is because all creation will act in conformity with the purposes of God. Why does God wait for this perfection? Could it be that He waits on us, hoping that all, not just a few, will choose Him and live eternally in fellowship with Him? And in the judgment of the living and dead, God, may I be among those who live with you forever.

In class that Sunday morning, the only thing I remember saying in response to that man's question was not profound at all, but was truthful: We all come into this world in the same way, at birth; and we all leave this world  the same way, at death. Some deaths come at the end of long lives well and faithfully lived. Other deaths come too soon and sometimes tragically, as in the case of Toni and those earthquake victims in Nepal.

But I believe--there is that word again--that as God is there at our beginning, to paraphrase the poet T.S. Elliot, so God will be there at our ending and that ending will be only the beginning of life eternal.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Leaving church? Or staying?

A friend posted a church-planter's provocative essay on Facebook today. You can read, "Dear Church, Here's Why People Are Really Leaving You" at I responded to the essay and to my friend:

Dear Kellie,

I agree with your assessment of John Pavlovitz's thoughtful essay and with many of his observations about how we, the church, are failing to relate to people and to relate people to God.

Faith in God is relational, I believe, and nothing can replace that primary relationship with God, however appealing it might be in the immediate.

Over my nearly 20 years as pastor of one congregation, I have seen many people come but, thanks be to God, many fewer people go.

People come to church and stay because they are seeking not excitement and entertainment, although I understand that some churches provide inducements to bring people into the fellowship of faith and there to nurture them, but people come to church and keep coming back because they are seeking an authentic encounter with the living Jesus Christ and wanting to learn how to be in community with Jesus and with other people. One does so in one congregation, not in a series of them.

Over the years here, I have observed that among the people who leave church, apart from those who enter eternal fellowship with Christ in heaven, some leave because they have grown bored, are restless and are often seeking the perfect church, which often comports with their specific definitions of perfection, including conformity to certain biblical texts, which are interpreted in one, usually literal way.

Some people leave because they want to return to the church of the past, which never existed, and which they hope will provide them the unshakable security they seek in an insecure, changing world (The only security in this world, I believe, is found in daily placing one's ultimate trust in God, not in institutions, including the church, regardless of denomination.)

Some people leave because they are shaken by the challenge of the Jesus of the Gospels--Jesus whose love, compassion, mercy, and justice extend to every human being, even to those who reject and crucify him.

Some people leave because they are distracted and diverted from the commitments and consolations of the Christian faith, including regular worship with other followers of Jesus, because of work pressures, family, Sunday morning sports, and the cares and pleasures of the world.

But what about the rest of us? What about people who stay in church and in one church? People who experience many of these same pressures, temptations, promptings? Why do we stay?

We stay because church--although imperfect and sometimes irritating, dull, wrong, disappointing--is our spiritual home, our family.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We need one another. We need Christ in our lives, and we find him with one another in that community called church, faithful and yet flawed.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Leap into God

It was laundry day in the Chumbley household. Christa, our six year-old granddaughter, was standing atop the drier. How she got there, I don't know. I know that she has entered the climbing phase in her development.

"Sweetie," I said. "Sit down before you fall."

She didn't. She turned around, her back to me now, threw her arms out, as if to take a high-dive backwards, and then said, "Poppy, catch me."

And off she came.

I caught her, of course. She laughed. I held her, kissed her. And she was ready to take another leap into my arms. Backwards.

I learned something in that moment.

When Christa took her leap, she could not see me. Still, she trusted me, that I would be there for her. She knows I love her. I love her more than my own life. I would never let her fall. Ever.

And so it is with God. He loves us. He shows his love for us on the cross, loving us more than his own life, and saving us through his sacrifice.

Find your drier. Stand on top of it. Now, turn from that which you can see and to the One you cannot see. Throw out your arms. And take that leap of faith into the arms of our loving God.

And God will catch you. Every time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

125 lives and counting

How many lives do you affect for the good daily? With a hello or kind word? By sending a card to someone who's lost a loved one? Holding the door for someone whose arms are full? Volunteering at a local hospital or school of nursing home or church.

The opportunities to increase the sum total of good in the world every day are endless.

Today, I received an email about a possible project of the Diocese of West Missouri. Ideas are being solicited now.

The 125 Lives proposal will come before the Diocesan Convention in November in the form of a resolution. If approved--how could it not be?--the resolution would urge congregations to identify ministries and projects that are helping at least 125 people.

I responded to the email, sending along some of the ways that the people of Christ Episcopal Church are helping others:

FROM the Next-to-New Shop, which I just visited, which is providing clothing to people with modest resources, including job seekers; 

TO the Outreach Team, which provides the food, prepares it, and serves it to homeless teens at Rare Breed (Our team will be there tonight); 

TO the church staff here who daily pass out sack (or, today, box) lunches to hungry people; 

TO the Well of Life Center and our many volunteers there, which is distributing food to the growing numbers of hungry people in the area around church 

(Did you see the story in the Springfield News-Leader on Monday about hunger: Some 250,000 people in the Ozarks rely on food pantries for some of their food, and most of the hungry are working full-time; many of them used to be middle class.); 

TO our Crosslines' volunteers who collect, sort, deliver, and then distribute food to hungry people through the Council of Churches' feeding ministry; 

TO our Bissett Elementary School outreach, which just last week distributed new shoes to the students there, and to the people of the parish who contributed money and time to organizing, fitting, and distributing the shoes to a lot of happy children; 

TO the college work that we (and St. John's Episcopal Church) are doing, with 50 students at the first student gathering here a few weeks ago and some 20 or so attending weekly; 

TO our pastoral care ministers, who help hundreds of people through hospitality at the time of funerals, who cook and deliver meals to parishioners in need, who accompany people on their grief journeys, who deliver flowers to nursing homes and hospitalized people;

TO the St. Gregory Senior Choir, which periodically gives Sunday evening sacred music concerts, which people from the parish and the larger community attend, and which enrich and elevate them; 

TO our Haiti Team--contributors and volunteers, whose giving of time, talent, and treasure daily provides medical and nursing care, high-protein food to malnourished infants, schooling and much more to the people of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere;

TO the Vinton Fellowship, which monthly serves nearly 50 elders--people not just from Christ Church, but also from other parishes and from the wider community;

TO everyone involved in our worship ministries, whose contributions of music, word, and sacrament nourish with spiritual food 250 to 300 people weekly during the regular church year.

As I reflect on our positive impact on many hundreds of lives daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, I am awed and thankful for this community of faith and these people called Christ Episcopal Church. 

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Spinning Plates and spiritual food

I like to watch movies about food.

The other night, Penny and I watched a Netflix documentary called, “Spinning Plates.” I think nearly everyone will find something to like in the film.

It tells the story of three restaurants and the people behind them. Hard-working, loving, creative people.

Each restaurant is different. Breitbach’s Country Dining, in rural Iowa, has been in the Breitbach family for four generations now.  La Cocina de Gabby is a Mexican restaurant in Tucson. Alinea, in Chicago, was named the Best Restaurant in North America and received three stars in the Michelin Red Guide.

Spinning Plates reminds me how important food is.

A meal unites people. A restaurant staff works hard—16 hours a day or more--and in unison to prepare the food and serve it. Diners come together to enjoy the meal. A meal sustains people. We must eat to live. A meal is often the setting for celebration—a wedding anniversary, a graduation or a baptism.

A meal can also be a way to find support in a hard time, such as after the death of someone close to us. People often gather after a funeral for a reception or a formal meal. We remember the departed, telling stories of him or her; and often that person seems alive and present. We hug and cry and sometimes laugh. We share not only the food, but also our grief, and we gain strength from one another for living with and through loss.

In the Gospels, notice how many times Jesus and his disciples are having a meal—at the wedding feast in Cana in Galilee, at the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, at the Passover on the night before his death; and, then, at the breakfast by the shore when the resurrected Jesus appears to his grief-wearied disciples during a meal of grilled bread and fish.

Meals not only nourish us physically but also spiritually. Watch Spinning Plates and see how food brings life, how a meal transforms people and communities. (“Babetts’s Feast” is another of those films that is about far more than food.)

For Episcopalians, the greatest meal--and one infinitely superior even to a meal at a three-star Michelin restaurant--is the Holy Eucharist. 

In the Eucharist, the Living Christ, our host, welcomes us. We come to the table needing nourishment and companionship, his and one another’s. He feeds our spiritual bodies with the Word of God (the Scripture readings and the sermon) and with the bread and wine, which become the living presence of Jesus through the power of God the Holy Spirit.

As our physical bodies are enlivened through a meal, so our spiritual bodies are enlivened through this spiritual meal of the Holy Eucharist. 

Even though you’re meeting your physical needs, you’re still missing something, and you can’t quite articulate it.

A sense of wonder? A connection to something bigger than you yourself? The experience that you are loved unconditionally and forever? A feeling of belonging? Hope that is beyond this world? Purpose outside of the ordinary? Wealth that never loses value, but always gains it? Peace that passes all understanding?

You won’t need a reservation for this holy meal. You’ll always find your place at the Lord’s table. And although there won’t be any spinning plates, the meal served here from that silver paten (and chalice) will be one that will satisfy your deepest hungers.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Journeying with the Jesus of justice

Some church members wonder about my passion for justice, which I understand very simply as doing unto others as I would like them to do unto me.

Why do I care about justice? Because in my spiritual journey, I have discovered that God cares about justice and calls me to do the same. 

God's will, I believe, is for a just and loving world--one in which all God’s children are treated with respect and dignity. God, as I know him and believe in him, creates every human being in his image and likeness, as Genesis puts it. God is in every person, and every person is in God.

In the Lord's Prayer, I pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." I not only say this prayer, but, with God's help, I try to enact it. To paraphrase Evelyn Underhill, the great Anglican mystic, If I pray for God's kingdom to come, then I have to work to achieve it. 

Humbly and feebly, I strive for a better, a more just world for everyone, especially for those people the renowned sociologist Robert Bellah once described as the “underclass.” The underclass includes the working poor, the hungry, people without health insurance, vulnerable children and elderly people. The underclass lacks the power that other classes in America possess, including education and training, political networks, money and access to decision-makers, status.

I see and serve the underclass daily as a pastor, as well as through Christ Church's outreach ministries and my active involvement in community groups and on various boards, including the Board of Directors of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.

At our recent community dinner at church, with 85 people in attendance, I went from table to table, welcoming our guests and learning a little about their lives and challenges. Most of them never imagined that they would be homeless or would rely on food banks or church suppers to survive. One guest, a former teacher with a master’s degree, told me that she never thought she would have a nervous breakdown and then lose her job.

My concern about justice grew slowly, beginning in the Roman Catholic Church. A child of Vatican II, I learned from Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and from my priests and nuns that Christ cared for the underclass, that he urged his followers to work for their wellbeing. I give God thanks that today Pope Francis is urging all Christians to work for a just and peaceful world.

As a young adult at the University of Louisville, I became active in the Ecumenical Center. At the urging of my Roman Catholic chaplain, I began to read Thomas Merton, a priest, monk, social critic and activist. Merton called Christians, not only to daily conversion to Christ, but also to the conversion of the world, that the world might become God’s kingdom of justice, freedom and peace.

After college Penny and I became active in a house church, a weekly informal gathering of Christians in one another’s homes. Our church was dedicated to Christ and to social justice. Activism was new to me. I felt self-conscious and frightened as I participated in public protests—against the death penalty, the building of a nuclear power plant in southern Indiana and the USwars in Central America.

I never imagined that my faith in Christ would lead me to kneel with others in prayer at the federal courthouse in Louisville as a man was sentenced to death, that I would begin corresponding with a death row inmate in Alabama, that I would spend the day with him in a cell, there getting to know him better and praying with him (This inmate, Wallace Thomas, became my friend and was later executed.), that I would become an active memberof the Nuclear Freeze movement, which sought to abolish nuclear weapons.

I began to write about social justice and to publish articles and reviews in national publications, including The Other Side and Sojourners. I wrote occasional opinion columns about peace and justice for The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times. Colleagues at the public relations agency where I worked thought my views controversial. A family member said I should keep my opinions to myself or jeopardize my career. I kept writing.

By the late 1970s, Penny and I were attending Christ Church Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral in Louisville. I was attracted to the cathedral because of its beautiful music and traditional worship, its focus on fostering the life of prayer, its lively, engaged community and its strong commitment to serving the poor and needy.

The more I learned about the Episcopal Church, including its history of championing justice and peace, the more convinced I was that the Episcopal Church was the church God was calling me to join. The lively preaching of the canon, the assistant minister, with whom I sometimes disagreed, challenged me to see Jesus more fully, as God’s compassion for all human beings--be they homeless, hungry, people of color, gays and lesbians. I am glad I listened to the canon. Listening to him, I was listening to Christ, God’s living word.

I moved from my birth church, the Roman Catholic Church, into my new spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, on Trinity Sunday, June 1, 1980. The Episcopal Church continues to shape my vision of what it means for me to follow Jesus.

My graduate theological education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and, later, at The General Theological Seminary in New York City exposed me to the prophetic (speaking the inconvenient truth) tradition of both Judaism and Christianity. I studied the Hebrew Scriptures and language and immersed myself in the world and work of the prophets of Israel, who spoke for God to his people. The prophets urged the Israelites to abandon their idols and to be faithful to God alone, living according to his law and loving and caring for the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable.

I studied the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and later martyr in Nazi Germany, and of Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who famously said that the preacher should prepare his sermons with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other. I discovered the Social Gospel Movement, which called for the transformation of society. I studied Liberation Theology, learning to read the Bible with the help of modern social, economic and political analysis. Evangelical Christians and Quakers of 18th and 19th century America who sought to abolish slavery inspired me, as did Anglicans and Episcopalians who served the poor in the slums of London and American cities in the 19th century.

Also during my seminary days, I saw poverty first hand when I served an African-American church in Louisville and, later, a church on New York's West Side, which ministered to the homeless and hungry. I also saw the power of the pulpit to awaken Christians to Christ who lived in the needy. To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 25, as I show compassion to the needy, I show compassion to Jesus himself.

I met and was challenged by modern-day prophets, including Philip Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest, who opposed the Vietnam War. Humbly, Father Berrigan said that he hadn’t yet become a Christian but that he was “becoming a Christian.” I know that I will never become fully Christian in this world. But I trust that Christ is pleased by my desire to see him more clearly, to love him more dearly and to follow him more nearly, as the blessed Richard of Chichester prayed. 

At General, I studied with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Archbishop Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize while there because of his anti-apartheid work in his homeland. The Bible came to life through his lectures on the church in the modern world and in his preaching in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Small in size, he is nevertheless a spiritual giant who is ablaze with God’s passion for a new world of justice, freedom, peace and reconciliation. Archbishop Tutu has left a lasting imprint upon me--my faith, my concerns, my writing, my teaching and, especially, my preaching

My formation in Christ makes me the person I am, the Christian I hope to be, living into the fullness of my Baptismal Covenant, and the priest I believe God called and ordained me to be.

As a priest in southern Kentucky, then in New York state and now at Christ Church for nearly 19 years, I have sought to live my faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and my Lord, my faith in Christ and my commitment to him constantly evolving as I have dealt with the needs of the people in my parishes and my communities. When AIDS appeared in the early 1980s, I helped found the first regional support ministry in southern Kentucky for people living with the disease. With hunger growing in the Southern Tier of New York, church members and I opened a food pantry in our church. When white power groups started recruiting in the area, I spoke out against the evil of racism. With my encouragement, the church opened our classrooms to Laotian and other Asian refugees so they could learn English.

In reflecting here on some of my journey with Jesus, I hope you have a better understanding of who I am, why I am passionate about the well-being of all of God’s children, why I see advocacy for and service to the poor and needy as an integral part of my faith and my calling from God.This history of mine shapes my faith and spirituality, my values and core beliefs and my actions for a better and more just world.

When we share our stories with one another in the spirit of love, we build relationships of respect, trust and lively concern for one another and for others. In conversation, then, let us all grow more fully into the image and likeness of Jesus, the compassion of God.And let us find our unity in him and in service to all his children.


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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Easter is all around

As I walked early this morning, I heard and saw spring all around. It shouted, Alleluia. Cardinals, robins, blackbirds were trilling; trees exploded in colors, their sap arising after a long winter's sleep, pushing shoots of green from their branches. The wind carried the sweet smell of lilacs. The rain-softened earth offered up tulips and daffodils. Creation surged with life.

God is behind it all--bringing forth life in response to the promptings of his love.

In the readings from the Prayer Book Daily Office for Easter Week (The Book of Common Prayer, page 959), Exodus tells the story of the Passover and of God delivering his chosen people, Israel, from the darkness and death of slavery in Egypt. The readings go on to recount how God leads an often fearful and wavering Israel into new, abundant life in the Promised Land, that land "flowing with milk and honey." Canaan is a kind of everlasting springtime.

The New Testament writings from Corinthians contain St. Paul's profound meditation on the meaning of Christ's resurrection for believers, while the Gospel readings tell in their particular ways that amazing story of Jesus' resurrection and of his miraculous appearances in his risen body. Once again, God is bringing freedom and new life out of the slavery of sin and of death. It is springtime.

God, who is love and life, is at work in creation, in the church, and in the lives of all people who put
their faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Believing in him is committing ourselves to follow him, and when we do, we see him in all his power. He is continuing his work, freeing us from every tomb and from all our chains--be they addictions, selfishness, fear of the future, loneliness, depression. And for those of us who follow Jesus in faith from the tombs of this world, we find our Promised Land. That land is not a place, but a state of being called resurrection and our daily awareness that God is always greater than our problems, our pain, our suffering, even our deaths. Only God is almighty. Do we believe? How does our believing change our way of being and of living?

Easter is all around--in the glorious spring of bird songs and blossoms and beauty. And it is in us and in all who put their faith in Christ on earth, who proclaim by our words and our actions, Alleluia! Christ is risen. May your 50 days of Easter be filled with joy in the God of all life.