Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dispatches from Middle Earth, Part III: I Belong on Land

(alternatively titled: How I Accidentally Signed Up to Water-Torture Myself)

(This post is the third of a five-part series on what I saw, experienced, and learned during mine and Carrie's honeymoon to New Zealand by way of San Francisco and Hong Kong.  Yes, this was a time of rest and vacation for the both of us, but it is in fact quite difficult for someone who deals in profoundness for a living to escape such depth of meaning simply because he is off relaxing in another country.  I was moved in many ways during my short time away, and I hope at least a faint morsel or two of that impact shines through in my words to you here.  Finally, all pictures in this series are taken by me unless noted otherwise.  I'm not a great photographer, so be gentle.  You can read parts one and two here and here. ~E.A.)

In gym class my freshman year in high school, I got a B.  How does one get a B in gym, you ask?  How can anyone not get an A?  After all, those who can't do teach instead, and those who can't teach, they teach gym (apologies to gym teachers everywhere :) ).

I got a B because I was the slowest swimmer in the entire class.  Even though I had near-perfect attendance and did everything else in the class just fine, my swimming was so glacial that a preschool swimming teacher at the Y would probably have marked me down for it.

Now, please don't misunderstand me: I *can* swim.  If thrown into the proverbial deep end, I can tread water like a pro, I can swim both forwards and backwards with the breaststroke and backstroke, and I can make physical motions that vaguely resemble a sidestroke.

Carrie, though, remains unconvinced of my rudimentary swimming prowess and keeps swearing that she'll sign me up for swimming lessons one day.  Meanwhile, I remain perfectly happy and dry on land.  Until our honeymoon, that is.

We joked that the theme of our honeymoon was "Let's see how much water Carrie can throw Eric into," because we did swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling during our time away (we also did hot tubbing, but even a klutz like me can manage that, so that doesn't count).  On the predawn drive out to the Milford Sound for our kayaking adventures, we passed the Mirror Lakes.  Can you guess how they got their name?

(that little sign in the middle says "Mirror Lakes" in reverse so that it reads correctly in the water's reflection!)

There's plenty of fun outdoor sightseeing to do, including things you come across quite by happenstance, like a pro cycling race (which I maintain is still an exciting thing to watch, despite my pop pop's protestations that "all they do is pedal.")  Here's the breakaway quartet:

...and then several minutes later came the peloton (the main pack of cyclists):

I even snapped a decent pic of the poor chap in last place:

I feel ya, mate, I've been there.  In high school gym class almost 15 years ago, but still.

C and I also went snorkeling with the dolphins and seals off the coast of Kaikoura.  Or, rather, we both went snorkeling with the seals, and C went snorkeling with the dolphins while I managed to inhale loads of salt water *near* the dolphins.  For my first-ever snorkeling experience, we had inadvertently chosen an open ocean dive with swells of one or two meters and quite choppy water...which meant that, even though I was in a fully-buoyant wetsuit, I still didn't last more than a minute or two on each dive as I fought the sensation of drowning (part of which I am sure was exacerbated by my Lamaze-esque habit of forgetting to breathe when I panic, or by the fact that I had my head down too low to the swells, allowing more salt water to enter, which rather defeats the purpose of a snorkel).  The entire sum of those factors was that it felt, I imagine, like what drowning might be like, even if I was in no immediate danger of doing so.

And that is how I accidentally ended up waterboarding myself on my honeymoon.  Fortunately, when we went back out snorkeling in the afternoon to see the seals, it was very close to the bay and the water was much calmer.  I did just fine.

I will say, though, in my defense, that going out in the water can be quite scary, especially if it looks like this, the rapids in the park near Milford Sound called The Chasm (again, guess how it got its name):

And water--via snow--is capable of the massive avalanches that leave utterly bare paths in their wake, like these that we saw above the Blue Lakes on our climb to the Tasman Glacier Lake on Mt. Cook:

Nevertheless, it was difficult for me to relax enough to even go back out onto the water...I had to be cajoled into it by the well-meaning folks running the seal swim, and I have to think their effort was all part of the more relaxed, informal nature of New Zealand.  I mean, how many of us worry about making our flights on time here in the States?  Well, in NZ, this is how the flight monitor in Auckland reads:

That would be a digital sign telling the passengers for eleven upcoming international flights to relax.

And while walking around the Parnell neighborhood of Auckland, C and I came across this business, whose office hours notice I had to photograph, since I really need to make them my own office hours here at the church:

It's always reassuring to come across establishments that clearly don't take themselves too seriously, but that's part of the Kiwi culture, I think.  Across the country, C and I encountered loads of people whose good humor and geniality would put even the most jovial of Yanks to shame.  Certainly there are outliers and exceptions to every rule, but the impression we both came away with was that there is more concern here for the overall person rather than simply what they can produce or contribute or manufacture.  All of it led to less visible stress that we could see, even in places off the beaten tourist paths.  And coming from one sometimes stressed-out American, even when he is on dry land, that is a lesson I am trying to carry back with me to the US.  Which naturally stresses me out even more.

It is a deranged hamster wheel I run on.

Stay tuned for part four--a much more serious post--on the many monuments and memorials we saw in NZ, commemorating both European and Maori history, and on the importance of memory as not just an individual trait, but a social trait, entitled "The Cloud Piercer's Lament...Or, On Monuments to Memories")

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dispatches from Middle Earth, Part II: What We Ate

(alternatively titled: An Ode to Lamb Burgers)

(This post is the second of a five-part series on what I saw, experienced, and learned during mine and Carrie's honeymoon to New Zealand by way of San Francisco and Hong Kong.  Yes, this was a time of rest and vacation for the both of us, but it is in fact quite difficult for someone who deals in profoundness for a living to escape such depth of meaning simply because he is off relaxing in another country.  I was moved in many ways during my short time away, and I hope at least a faint morsel or two of that impact shines through in my words to you here.  Finally, all pictures in this series are taken by me unless noted otherwise.  I'm not a great photographer, so be gentle. ~E.A.)

For me, there is, and always has been (at least since I graduated to baby food to solids) something happy and joyous about sitting down to a meal.  Part of that I am sure is the satiating of my hanger (I'm rather prone to getting hangry), and another part of it is, I am equally sure, simply because I am a disgusting glutton, but part of it is also spiritual.  Meals are what celebrate the liberation of the Israelites out of slavery, the liberation of us all out of sin (via the Last Supper), as well as more civic holidays like Thanksgiving (What? That's around the corner?! Holy crap).

Meal-sharing really is a Biblical thing--when the prodigal son returns to his father, shamed and chastened, the forgiving father has the fatted calf slaughtered and served in a celebratory banquet.  Much of Jesus' teaching takes place around a dinner table, be it at Simon the Pharisee's palatial digs or at Mary and Martha's more humble abode in Bethany.  And in Psalm 23, far and away the most famous of them all, we may all know how it begins ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...") but how it ends includes the verse "you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies."

Even though New Zealand is far from an enemy (in fact, almost across the board, the Kiwis we met were friendly, open, and exceedingly gracious hosts), Carrie and I sat at tables prepared across the country: some prepared by others, and some prepared by ourselves.

The first table, though, came in Hong Kong (our exploits there you can read about here), when we stumbled entirely by accident upon a second-floor dim sum joint that was incredibly endearing to us: not only was the carpet, walls, and decor likely from the 1970s or so, but the clientele largely consisted of two demographics: elderly men and women, and their middle-aged children accompanying them to breakfast.

(As an aside, stumbling entirely by accident was pretty much our default mode of transportation in Hong Kong.  The only reason we even knew which stop to get off at on the bus was because some well-meaning schoolchildren got to practice their English by reading the bus stops off to us, since we of course had no idea where we were.)

This restaurant has communal tables, and I have to say that as a card-carrying introvert, I actually heartily endorse the use of communal tables in restaurants.  We sat across from two different couples--one younger and one older, and while C and I spoke no Chinese and they spoke no English, the smiles and gestures were enough to communicate our enjoyment of the meals we were having, and that truly did add to the richness of what we were experiencing.

The true culinary richness of our trip would come in New Zealand, though: we landed in Auckland from Hong Kong on C's birthday, and so I took her to The Grove, a restaurant I researched extensively and booked weeks beforehand for this evening.  It was homework well worth doing.

I only have a picture of one of the five courses we ate, but it was by far the most virtuousic one, ash-baked parsnip with with apples and carmelized red endives:

(We also had, if you clicked on the link above which takes you to their menu, the ika mata, asparagus and pigeon ravioli, a cheese course, and then our first taste of NZ lamb, which of course was fantastic, even though I was completely stuffed by that point).  The prices are in New Zealand dollars, which the US dollar exchanges favorably with, so the prices were actually lower for us than what are quoted.  In terms of the food itself, it was superlatively good.  More on that later, though.)

I think another part of the reason the price of the meal was so cheap relative to fine dining in America is that, well, there isn't as much of a dining culture in New Zealand--though it is certainly growing.  Our server asked if we needed the concept of prix fixe (or fixed price) explained to us, and, well, after seeing this particular Subway advert in a local pamphlet, I couldn't blame her:

Custom-made right in front of my eyes?!  It's like fracking magic!  And you say it's my choice whether to toast it or not?  Well, paint my tongue purple and call me Charlie the unicorn, that's just the most luxurious thing I've ever heard of!

(Now, I'm not trying to be a snob here--in point of fact, I've eaten at Subway dozens of times in my life.  But when you make it sound like a magic show that one of your "sandwich artists" (a term I find hilarious for so many reasons) can slap some cold cuts and veggies on a bun with a smell that I both love and hate simultaneously, I'm sorry, but we might be operating with different assumptions on what constitutes a nice meal.)

However, I'm still a rube myself, as *my* own idea of a nice meal consists of a bowl of these for breakfast, a cereal that comes from Australia but that criminally I have never seen anywhere in the US:

You know those obnoxious Foster's commercials that say that Foster's is Australian for beer? You know, these?  Well, I can say definitively that Weet-Bix Crunchy Honey is Australian for crack.  I went through two half-kilo boxes while we were there.

Of course, cereal may be quite basic, but you also don't really care when your view from your dining room (aka our rented campervan) is this:

Or this:

I *did* alternatively title this post "An Ode to Lamb Burgers," and I admit, I haven't even gotten there yet, but oh, what a lamb burger it was, courtesy of the cult-like, famous Fergburger in Queenstown:

The correct term, though, according to the Fergburger menu, is the "Little Lamby burger."  (If you think that's at all barbaric, you might be interested in their vegetarian burger, the "Holier Than Thou" burger.  Yes, that is its real name.)

Why is the lamb so good?  (And the venison, for that matter.)  Because there really are sheep everywhere on the South Island: I couldn't tell you how many herds Carrie and I passed while driving through the different motorways.  It's all local, it's all fresh, and there's tons of it.  None of this packing food away in 18-wheelers to haul it halfway across a giant-sized country like, say, I don't know, the US, only for that food to lose freshness the whole time it's in transit.  Nope, none of that here.

We enjoyed other barbaric meals too, like this whitebait fritter in Auckland:

Look closely.  You see those little black dots at the ends of the little fishes?  Those are eyes.  We ate those whitebaits whole.  And they were fan-freaking-tastic.

In fact, all of the seafood we ate there was exquisite.  Down the mountain a ways from Mt. Cook (stay tuned for those escapades in a later post), there was a salmon farm where you could feed the salmon, then have them butcher the salmon in back, and pick up said butchered fillets fresh off the ice, fillets that had been swimming happily in the water just that morning.

NZ is also much more British than we are, and part of that is all of the tea-drinking they do there.  Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see that they do indeed derive their coffee inspiration from one of the best cities in which to get coffee:

Finally, one must always take care when eating outdoors in NZ, because much as they are here, the seagulls are utterly uncivilized and without manners, and will attack an abandoned table of food before your seat has gotten cold.  This particular feller in the coastal town of Kaikoura absolutely loved the butter than our dining neighbors left behind, and is chowing down on said buttery goodness with single-minded zeal:

I didn't try talking to him/her, but I assume that if I did, it would have sounded exactly like the seagulls in Finding Nemo.  That butter was "Mine, mine mine!"

And that really is the antithesis of the joy of sharing a meal, you know?  Okay, your meal is yours, yours, yours (and God knows I'm terrible at sharing when it comes to my dinner), but the communal aspect of meal-sharing is, I have to think, the difference between simply eating to survive and eating to thrive.

Which is what leads me to the final culinary experience worth writing about--one that actually took place stateside, the day after Carrie and I arrived stateside in San Francisco, when we had a reservation to The French Laundry in Napa with Russ, my pastor and mentor from FCC Concord, and his wife Kelli.  This is the menu (which they let you take with you as a keepsake) from our lunch:

You may notice the whopping prix fixe amount of $295.00.  Even with gratuity already included, that's a heck of a lot of clams to spend on one meal, and more than double what both our meals cost at The Grove.  C and I were able to afford this because of the love offering my congregation insisted on so generously giving us as a wedding present.  C and I were (and are) incredibly grateful, and considering the celebratory nature of the gift, we wanted to do something festive with it, so...The French Laundry it was!

And while it was a festive, incredibly enjoyable meal, I am about to speak some culinary heresy: C and I were unanimous that the cuisine at The Grove was better than that at The French Laundry.  Specifically, the inventiveness of a couple of the dishes at The Grove simply wowed us--amazing things were being done with relatively humble ingredients like coconut and parsnip, and while all of the dishes at The French Laundry tasted good, many of them were also rather safe and less exciting.

But the meal was perfectly paced and an utterly delightful way to spend three-and-a-quarter hours with just three other people, even three other people whom I love.  As that card-carrying introvert, I'm liable to go catatonic if placed in such close quarters with the same people for that long.  But it never felt that long, not once.

So we bookended our honeymoon with two amazing meals: one consisting of the best dishes we had ever tasted, and the other consisting of the best eating experience we had ever had.  And going forward in our marriage together, I am sure that these two shall collectively act as the gold standard to which we judge all future meals that we have the pleasure to share together.

(And stay tuned for the next post in this series: "I Belong on Land.  Or: How I Accidentally Signed Up to Water-Torture Myself")

Yours in Christ,

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dispatches from Middle Earth, Part I: Hong Kong Prologue

(alternatively titled: Never Give Interviews While Jet-Lagged)

(This post is the first of a five-part series on what I saw, experienced, and learned during mine and Carrie's honeymoon to New Zealand by way of San Francisco and Hong Kong.  Yes, this was a time of rest and vacation for the both of us, but it is in fact quite difficult for someone who deals in profoundness for a living to escape such depth of meaning simply because he is off relaxing in another country.  I was moved in many ways during my short time away, and I hope at least a faint morsel or two of that impact shines through in my words to you here.  Finally, all pictures in this series are taken by me unless noted otherwise.  I'm not a great photographer, so be gentle. ~E.A.)

It so happens that when booking air tickets to New Zealand, you have two main options: book a flight to somewhere in Asia or Australia and then a connecting flight to Auckland, or you can book a rare nonstop to Auckland but pay a lot more money.  Carrie and I decided to do the former, which meant a 12-hour layover in Hong Kong after our red-eye out of San Francisco.

Because I'm a history and architecture nerd (as opposed to being a historian or architect, both things I am emphatically not and would likely be horrible at), we took the train from the airport to Kowloon to visit two major sites: the Kowloon Walled City and the Wong Tai Sin Temple.

Getting there took, as I mentioned, the train, which was one of the best I've ever been on, and then a double-decker bus, which might have been one of the worst I've ever been on, as C and I spent the next several minutes sitting atop this monstrosity as it careened down Prince Edward Road in the hands of a madman driver who I am convinced thought the Hong Kong rush hour was simply a gigantic game of bumper cars.

It was all worth it, though, because the Walled City park is breathtaking.  The Walled City itself has its roots in the Chinese middle ages, but more recently served as a British military fort, leaving behind artifacts like this cannon:

Other artifacts abounded throughout the Walled City, but what really was stunning was the architecture and foliage:

Behind this particular building is a garden with statues of varying sizes of each Chinese zodiac animal.  I tried to capture images of each, but made sure to capture my own zodiac animal, the ox, up close:

Among the many pavilions in the Walled City was one in which the floored panels were composed as giant Chinese chessboards:

And on the walls surrounding gardens like these were fantastically beautiful flowers:

While Carrie and I were busy admiring the south gate of the Walled City, we were approached by a pair of very earnest secondary school students who asked us in English if they could interview us for a school project they were doing (was it really that obvious that we were tourists?  Yes, yes it was.).

Now, I don't know if you know this, but flying halfway around the world somehow manages to throw your body's internal clock completely out the 100th-story window so that you barely know up from down and right from left, much less day from night.  I know, shocker, right?  I think I'll call this phenomenon I have discovered here "jet lag."

The pair of students erstwhile were asking us serious and meaningful questions about whether our interests in Hong Kong and in the Walled City were historical, cultural, or more, and of how much of the Walled City's story we were familiar with, and all I could do was grunt and point to my dear wife who gamely tried to answer their questions far more articulately than I could have, but that still came out the way most politicians answer questions: using lots of words to say really very little.  Because at least in our case, very little was all we could come up with.

So, somewhere in Hong Kong, there exists somewhat embarrassing video footage of the two of us in which I sound, look, and probably smell (hey, it was a 14-hour flight with no showers) like a caveman.  I clearly need to find these students, bribe them for the footage, and destroy it before my nonexistent enemies can use it to blackmail me somehow.

From the Walled City, we eventually made our way to the Wong Tai Sin temple, where our jet lag was instantly compounded with the fierce and pungent perfume of roughly twenty quadrillion sticks of incense, all carried by devout pilgrims to the temple plaza as a part of their ministrations for their respective spiritualities.  I don't say this to denigrate the use of incense as a religious practice--after all, a great many of us Christians belong firmly in the "smells and bells" camp as well.  But holy cow, there needs to be a maximum occupancy on incense sticks just like there is with people.

Nevertheless, it always amazes me regardless to see so many people, all at once, acting our their faith in prayer in so devoted a manner.  Every time I worry--and this worry will at times seem to be popping up with increasing frequency--that we as a world and as a people are losing faith in those things greater than ourselves (especially that thing I call God), I get the immense privilege to bear witness to our capacity to have faith anew, and for the first (and not even remotely last) time on this trip, I found my own spirituality encouraged by the surroundings in which I had placed myself.

Between the incense, jet lag, and general fatigue, I didn't have the energy to snap as many pictures here as I did at the Walled City.  I did, however, come across this really cool fountain in front of one of the shrines, proof that even my beloved hometown of Kansas City doesn't have a complete monopoly on being the City of Fountains:

With our visit to both sites finished (we actually tried to visit a third--the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral--but it was closed when we arrived), we beat a path back to the Kowloon train station and then back to the Hong Kong airport.  Along the way, we also stumbled completely accidentally onto an upstairs restaurant in which we had some of the best dim sum of our still budding lives, but that is the subject of another post--of my next post,in fact, entitled "What We Ate (Or, An Ode to Lamb Burgers)."

I am in fact completing this post from the Hong Kong airport, but on our return leg back to San Francisco, ten days after our visit into Kowloon.  While altogether brief and obscured by the fog of physical limitations as well as the requisite atmospheric smog in China, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which would prove to be the first of many on this trip.  I am, and will continue to be, immensely and profoundly grateful for that reality.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, November 2, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Upon Sand, Upon Rock"

(Note: Carrie and I will be jetting out of the country for two weeks to New Zealand for our long-belated honeymoon as well as for a much-needed vacation for the both of us.  I am purposely trying to unplug as much as possible during these two weeks, and so aside from perhaps posting some pictures, there will be radio silence here on the blog as well.  I plan on being back in action both in my congregation and here online starting the week of Monday the 17th.  As always, it is a joy to be able to write for you, and I look forward to getting back into both ministry and writing rested and renewed.  ~E.A.)

Luke 6:46-49

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say? 47 I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. 48 It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built. 49 But those who don’t put into practice what they hear are like a person who built a house without a foundation. The floodwater smashed against it and it collapsed instantly. It was completely destroyed.” (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Six

The scientist could have been summoned straight out of central casting: lanky, somewhat balding, thick-framed glasses, and a studious face that often appeared above a suit and tie, but his work was anything but stereotypical.  Almost singlehandedly, Jonas Salk changed the world by doing something that nobody else had managed to do in a cultural atmosphere of sheer panic: come up with a foolproof inoculation against the cause of that panic…polio.

It’s an instructive lesson for the present moment as well, considering how ape we have all collectively gone over ebola, because then with polio as now with ebola, public reaction was one of unadulterated fright when an epidemic of polio hit the United States in 1952.  But a bare three years later, in 1955, morale immediately reversed when the news of Salk’s polio vaccine proving successful hit the news wires.  And now, nearly 60 years after that first successful test, people are talking about a legitimate chance for humanity to one day eradicate polio the same way we did in the 1970s with the smallpox of old.

And while Salk’s success in the molten pressure of the crucible is preaching-worthy in and of itself, it is what he did after the vaccine’s success that makes him such a good springboard for today’s message.  Or, rather, it is what he didn’t do.  He refused to patent the vaccine, meaning that any pharmaceutical company could manufacture and distribute it.  And that is why I said he almost singlehandedly changed the world: with a patent, the polio vaccine would have taken much longer to eradicate the disease in entire swaths of the globe.

So when he was asked who in fact held the patent on the polio vaccine, Salk simply and famously replied, “There is no patent.  Could you patent the sun?”  In other words, could you patent something that was almost universally good for humanity?  Salk couldn’t.  And that choice he made allowed humanity to build its defense against a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease upon a foundation of rock.  Salk could have been one of the biggest, richest grains of sand in the world, but he preferred to bequeath to that world a rock instead.  And so, in essence, a house of care and cure was built upon a rock.  And that kind of strength, rare though it might be, is what we look at today.

So I said at the beginning of this series that this was a new sermon series for the fall, and this series would take us all the way into November…well, here we are in November, and holy freaking cow.  I can’t believe it, can you?  Anyways, we have been spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and so we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching.  Since then, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons didn’t get any easier to swallow with subsequent instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us, not judging other people, and refraining from hypocrisy.  Last week, we arrived at what all of these different instructions are meant to make us: the pure tree, the pure heart, which bears only pure fruit, and today, the passage is a similarly summative sort of declaration by Jesus—that this is what people who live out His teachings look like—but with a far different metaphor.  Instead of trees and fruit, we have houses upon sand and upon rock, and one of them blows away.  All we need is the big bad wolf and the three little pigs and this would be a story I was read at bedtime every night.

(And no, for the record, that was emphatically not me saying that Jesus plagiarized from the fairy tales.  Jesus plagiarizes from the sing-a-longs, y’all.  Okay, I digress.)

But before we even get to the house-on-sand, house-on-rock metaphor, we have to deal with one of the most universal indictments Jesus offers against those who would do wrong—universal because it doesn’t begin with, say, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.”  No, this “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I say?” bit is Jesus scolding His own followers.

And that’s a bit tougher for us to contemplate, isn’t it?  It’s easier to accept Jesus’ roughness with His criticism when said criticisms are leveled at anyone but us: scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, hipsters, mimes, Canadians…but it’s tougher when it’s aimed at us.  We may want Jesus to be all-loving and all-able-to-let-things-slide, but that is what WE want, not what God wants and certainly not at all who Jesus was.  The point of Jesus here was that there were things that He cannot let slide.

We Christians, though, have made a time-honored tradition out of calling Jesus Lord and then not doing a lick of what He actually says to do—everything that He has spent these past five weeks telling us to do in Luke 6.  And so we should not be so surprised when it feels like (not ‘if’, this is definitely a ‘when’) we live in that house made upon sand rather than the house made upon rock.

Now, the church itself, well, it has stood the test of nearly 2,000 years of time and it will certainly exist in some form or fashion for many more years to come, but our own individual churches, and even our own individual households, often feel like they are made upon sand and could blow away at a moment’s notice from a stiff wind.

In some ways, it makes the tornado we experienced here the other week rather prescient: it touched down right by our church building, and our facilities survived with no damage whatsoever.  Our church building has been a rock.  And we are, in part, built upon it and within it.

But we are also a congregation that is built upon sand, because even if a physical tornado might not destroy our building, a financial tornado very well could.  A moral or spiritual tornado is always a risk even for the biggest churches: just this week, the 15-site megachurch Mars Hill announced it would be disbanding effective January 1, 2015, after repeated scandals that plagued its lead pastor Mark Driscoll.

So the threat of seeing one’s own spiritual home being blown away is always very much real, even as Christianity itself as a spiritual home tends to continue plodding onward.

But I want to talk about your own homes as well—not just your church home, but your own household, where you live and eat and sleep.  We don’t need a show of hands here, but how many of you are worried about being the person whose house is about to be blown away by some sort of disaster?  How many of you are worried about not having the safety net of being built upon rock?

That fright is probably there to some degree for all of us who do not have the safety net of wealth, and it is in part because all of us do not do as Jesus would command.  God made the earth to be plenty for all of us, but when the wealthiest 1% of Americans control about one-third of our nation’s wealth, it isn’t difficult to read between the lines that many are going without whilst others have more than they know what to do with.

And that’s not me talking about the dreaded ‘s’ word, either—socialism.  I’m simply stating a factual reality.  Imagine how rich Jonas Salk could have gotten if he had patented his polio vaccine.  He chose not to do that and gave us a rock rather than making himself the richest grain of sand in the billions of grains of sand that live in the world.

We create houses built upon sand through our selfishness and greed—we create these sorts of fragile, dangerously weak houses that others have to live in.  But we also do it to ourselves as well: we all could, say, manage our money better.  We could all be more diligent at building our own personal safety nets.  But so many of us want things, and when we pay full price for them, that comes at the additional cost of not being able to solidify ourselves and our homes and our churches.

But this isn’t a sermon about frugality, it’s about spirituality.  It’s about being able to temper our own self-centeredness enough to see past ourselves and into the needs of the other person who, just like us, is living in a fragile, wispy house upon sand with no real foundation to speak of.  It’s about us being able to help build up a foundation for that other person, and about us being able to allow other people in to our lives so that they in turn can help build for us a rock to live upon.

So who in your life most needs a rock to build upon?  Who could most benefit from you inserting yourself into the picture and offering your own strength and solidity, even if you’re terrified that you don’t even have enough of it for yourself right now, let along somebody else?  Are you willing to take that sort of risk to put yourself out there for another person living right next door to you in a neighborhood full of sand-based homes?  Are you worried if you are even able to?

The whole thing about this entire sermon Jesus gives—and this entire series that I have given based on it—is that we shouldn’t be worried to.  We should be worried not to.  Because if we do indeed call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord,” then we are called and compelled to act upon that belief in Christ and that faith which we hold in our hearts for Him. 

We are called and compelled to be, as Saint Teresa of Avila famously said, the feet of the body of Christ that has no literal feet, the voice that Christ uses to teach, and the hands that He uses to bless. 

We are to be the architects of neighborhoods and towns and entire cities of homes that will be built upon the steadfast rock of Christ’s incredible, life-changing- world-upside-down-turning love.

We are to be the laborers of love, tirelessly striving under heat and rain and light and dark to create for one another what God began: a life that no longer knows need, and which only knows grace.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 2, 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

November 2014: "Giving More Than Thanks"

Dear Church,

Turkey Day is around the corner, which means mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie out the wazoo, along with the aforementioned turkey (except for the one that gets pardoned every year by the White House for, I don't know, being a turkey. Does being a delicious piece of poultry somehow violate the US Code? But I digress).

And we call this day of smorgasbord eating, football watching and holiday season preparing Thanksgiving. Because we are supposed to have things in our lives, every year, that we ought to give thanks for. And that's a good thing. It never will not be a good thing.

But it also isn't enough.

I'll repeat that: giving thanks is not enough.

What if we had a holiday named Lovegiving, or Compassiongiving? I know those perhaps sound cheesy when you say them aloud, but love and compassion are just as basic components of goodness as thanks is. What if we dedicated a day solely to each of those virtues? Might the world look any different than it does today?

You might feel like those questions are a bit above your pay grade (mine as well!), but they're fundamental questions for any Christian. How does the giving of love and compassion change the world around us? How does it help usher in the kingdom of God here on earth? And how can we best equip ourselves and others to be as giving of love as Jesus Himself was?

So this Thanksgiving, I would gently exhort you to spare a thought between bites of turkey for what else you might have left to give as well: to your family, your neighbor down the block, your friend across town, your church, and, ultimately, your God--the God of the Bible and the sender of Jesus Christ.

But then, don't forget that thought. Keep that thought rolling around in your heart and your soul so that you might be prepared to act one day upon it, so that the giving might continue beyond just this singular day of Thanksgiving.

In this manner, I pray, your feelings of thanks on this holiday might turn into something a little less fleeting than a mere moment in time, and into something a little bit bigger for the body of Christ we are continually working to strengthen together here in the First Christian Church family of faith.

I wish you and yours a blessed and safe Thanksgiving, and I look forward to being able to share in and celebrate the coming holiday season with all of you!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Photo credit:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"This Week's Sermon: "Omnia Munda Mundis"

Luke 6:43-45

 43 “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit. 44 Each tree is known by its own fruit. People don’t gather figs from thorny plants, nor do they pick grapes from prickly bushes. 45 A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken. (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Five

The itinerant Quaker preacher wore many hats in his nascent colonial New England community: he was a traveler, a merchant, a scribe and notary, and perhaps one of the most consistently dedicated abolitionists the colonies had ever had.  Far more than merely content himself with the practice of preaching against slavery (which he did, often and at great length), he also lived out his principled opposition to enslavement: he refused to write and notarize last wills and testaments that bequeathed slaves as property.  When he would pay visits to slaveholders, he would insist on paying the slaveholder’s slaves for their care of him.  He even refused to use dishes made of precious metals or wear dyed fabrics as clothing under the (correct) belief that the procurement of these materials involved terrible treatment of the slaves performing the labor, including the exposure of the slaves to dangerous and potentially deadly poisons.

You might think that a man possessed of such fervent and zealous convictions would be a firebreather in expressing them: the type of raging, thundering blowhard preacher who thumps their Bible and pounds their pulpit.  And you would not be more wrong for thinking that.  Contemporaneous records from the late 1700s continually described him as a kind, soft-spoken gentleman of a soul who was able to use that gentle manner to convince Quaker slaveholders to liberate their captives.

Eventually, this devoted preacher would go to England to continue his cause of preaching against slavery.  There, though, he contracted smallpox almost immediately and died shortly thereafter, in 1772.  The Quaker minister John Woolman was two weeks shy of his 52nd birthday when he died.

But his pure-in-heart legacy lived on, because nearly four years later, on July 4, 1776, when a group of other fellows were gathered together to sign a document proclaiming that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers, of whom Woolman was one—successfully voted to abolish slavery within their entire denomination.

Because, after all, a pure tree will never fail to yield pure fruit.

This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November.  And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing).  Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain.  So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and so we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching.  Since then, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons didn’t get any easier to swallow with subsequent instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us, not judging other people, and refraining from hypocrisy.  And this week, we arrive at what all of these different instructions are meant to make us: the pure tree, the pure heart, which bears only pure fruit.

Purity is a funny word in Christianity these days—both funny ha-ha and funny weird.  It’s both Marx brothers funny and sad clown funny.  It’s funny because you have all sorts of movements in Christian purity culture to try to keep kids away from acting on their almighty raging hormones: there’s True Love Waits, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, purity balls, and many more—ask my younger sister who is here today, she’s an amateur expert on this phenomenon.

And I’m all for teaching kids seriously about the gravity and respect that sexual relationships demand of us, and of our need to partake in them in the context of monogamy.  I haven’t spoken about it at great length from the pulpit in part because there are other pressing issues I have felt called to address from a spiritual and moral perspective here, but also because of the words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, in which he writes at one point, “(T)hough I have had to speak at some length here about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here.”

But increasingly, and despite the portent present in Lewis’s words, it seems that in Christianity, purity is being defined solely as sexual purity, as opposed to overall moral purity, the type of moral purity that I think Jesus is really talking about here.  Rather than approach our purity with the sort of holistic, encompassing mentality that Jesus demands, we have in fact made the center of morality around whether Jimmy and Jenny were caught sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

So let’s instead posit that sexual purity is but one component of a great many that make up spiritual purity and go from there.  What is Jesus really demanding of us, then?  He’s saying that we can build up good within ourselves—the treasury of good—and from it, produce good fruit.  In other words, goodness begets more goodness.

Paul, in fact, echoes this very sentiment in his letter to Titus, where he says, in the Latin vulgate translation, “Omnia munda mundis,” which roughly translates as, “to the pure, all things are pure.”  In other words, if you have already built up this pure goodness in yourself, you are able to see as, and make, other things pure and purely good as well.

And in so many words, that is what it actually means to be Christian, to be religious, to believe in the God who sent us Christ: it is to strive to build up goodness within yourself so that you in turn can make more things good as well.  That’s the Christian life summed up in one sentence.  Or, in this case, in three Bible verses.

Which means that this lesson really does go in line with all the others we have covered so far in this series: and what I believe the overall theme of this series, and of this sermon by Jesus, really is: that the “how” of being a Christian, of being a Christ follower, is really quite simple for us to express, but incredibly difficult for us to actually do.  And I’m worried that in fear of that difficulty, we have tried to oversimplify what it actually means to be a Christian.

What do I mean by that?  Well…think of the tracts, the business cards—you’ve all probably been given one (or had one thrust into your hands) or seen one, that says, “three (or four, or five) steps to guarantee your entry into heaven,” and what follows is a belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God but then a series of rather arbitrary beliefs to have, even though, really, isn't Jesus supposed to be it?

And then—and I am not making this up—we take tally of the number of “salvations” we have achieved as, say, a small group or a household or even an entire church and brag about it, nevermind the fact salvation—the existence of being in a right relationship with God—is not something that can be achieved by a simple step plan.  This isn't a piece of Ikea furniture (okay, maybe assembly of that isn't so simple either, but the metaphor still holds water, right?).

Think about it: if we can get said almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen, to grant us salvation based on a series of statements we claim and sinner’s prayers we pray, we’re basically manipulating God into giving us what we want.  Which doesn’t make that God very powerful, and to be totally honest, not really a God that I think is worth worshipping.

No, the God worth worshipping is the God who calls us to a salvation that has a higher degree of difficulty than that: the salvation that demands of us a choice, yes, a choice to choose God, but a choice that must be made every day when we get out of bed to continue to be that good person, to continue to be that good Christian, and to continue to grow in that identity.

That is what we have to want for ourselves, and it is so, so easy to stop wanting it, because there are so many other things the world tempts us with for us to want.  Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish father of existentialism and patron saint of snarky Christians everywhere, titled one of his philosophical treatises, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”  And that’s about where we’re at.  We are trying to will one thing: the growth of goodness in the world today.

But here’s the thing: it isn’t like we don’t know how.  It isn’t like we are being taught for the first time how to use a fork, or how to tie our shoes.  We’ve seen this done before, we’ve done this before ourselves, even.  We have the moral examples of people who have gone before us, people who have so devoted themselves to building up and then giving out of their goodness: the Martin Luther Kings, the Mother Teresas, the John Woolmans of the world that we don’t really have an excuse beyond, hey, we still suck at being Christian.

And perhaps that’s okay, at least to a point, but we only so long as we own it.  We have to be humble enough to know when we are not measuring up to the giants of our faith and to the consciences of our own hearts.  We have to know when the spiritual fruit we are bearing is less than pure and when the treasury of goodness within our souls is all but used up.

And then—and this is the hard part—Jesus is going to demand that we do something about it.  That’s what the previous four weeks were all about: that’s all stuff that we’re supposed to actually do, not just daydream about someday maybe doing.

So get out there and actually try turning the other cheek.  Try giving to someone who asks of you.  Try to will the one thing in your life: a treasury of goodness for God.  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 26, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Few Words on the Inherent Worthlessness of Canada

One of my best friends here in Longview, and the best man at mine and Carrie's wedding, is a born-and-raised Canadian.  His wife is also a good friend and is a naturalized Canadian citizen.  Their criminally adorable two-year-old son is a dual US-Canadian national.  For reasons that I can't begin to fathom (probably reasons like friendship, fellowship, and collegiality), I hang out with them all the time.

I went to seminary with at least one classmate from Canada, who somehow managed to take the anti-Canada barbs I'd hurl at her with good humor, sharp wit, and remarkable grace.  Surprising, considering that I seriously doubt such virtues are taught in the land of ice hockey and mukluks.  She's now a pastor of a church up there, leading weekly worships to a god that I assume is depicted as a giant idol of a caribou.

And most shamefully of all, my grandpa George was born in Toronto, which technically makes me one-quarter Canuck.

I am utterly self-loathing.  Like a closeted gay or lesbian Christian who rails against their fellow queer people, I go to great pains to demonstrate my hate for and of Canada in order to compensate for the blood that runs in my very veins.

And I try not to use that word "hate" here very often.  This is a Christian blog, after all, and hate is not a trait Christians ought to have.

But man, I hate Canada.  What a worthless excuse for a country.  What sort of independent state puts another country's monarch on their currency?  We Yanks fought a war to make sure that WE got to choose who is put on our currency, and let me tell you, we did a bang-up job, especially with putting the chap responsible for signing the Indian Removal Act (which allowed for the Trail of Tears) on the $20 bill.

And what kind of pitiful Potemkin country takes a sport like curling seriously?  I mean, I get it: fake country, meet fake sport.  It makes perfect sense.  But you maple-leafers sure aren't helping your case for legitimacy with that one.

I may criticize my country's leaders an awful lot, but I still love that I'm an American: this country was the life-saving refuge of my mom's family as they fled a genocide, and nothing gets me more star-spangled righteous than comparing our red, white, and blue awesomeness to Canada's mere red-and-white mediocrity.

Maybe that's the problem with Canada.  They're short the blue.  Maybe they can get the Brits they still somehow tolerate a viceroy from to loan them the blue from the Union Jack.  Maybe the Brits will take Rob Ford in exchange, I'm sure one of the many tabloids across the pond would LOVE to have him closer by.  I mean, seriously, Rob effin' Ford.  In what country could he be elected mayor?  Well, as it turns out, the same Mountie-obeying country that gave us Justin Bieber.  Thanks for him too, you musically-challenged chuckleheads.

And if none of this convinces you of Canadian's perpetual, raging ineptitude, go onto Google right now and type in the words "Why Canada" and see what the first autofill suggestion is.  Seriously, go ahead.  I'll wait.

So yeah, Canada basically sucks.  And as such, I and every other freedom-loving, moral courage-abiding, proud-to-be-an-American should have expected nothing but suckitude from that cold, barren, North Pole-wannabe wasteland after, tragically, a Canadian soldier, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, was shot and killed in a violent rampage that took place in Parliament in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

And lo, do the stories that have emerged after this crime confirm Canada's place as a bottom-feeder among the nations.

Parliament's Sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers, who was responsible for bringing down the assailant (and thus is the one to credit for this not turning into a large-scale shooting), turned out to be a thoughtful and sensitive soul who has, in the course of a long, distinguished, and honorable career, mediated with and gone to bat for the rights of many cultural minorities in Canada from the indigenous tribes to the Sikhs.  What an almighty loser.

The assailant, whose name deserves no more notoriety than is already being given (and thus I shall not be using his name), is another fundamentalist Muslim terrorist, which has already baited some of the more virulent and vile Islamophobes to begin spewing their poison anew.  But then the chief of the Ottawa police, Charles Bordeleau, sent this reassuring letter to the leaders of the Canadian-Muslim community in Ottawa that, said, presumably with lots of long-o sounds, "I want to take this opportunity to reiterate my commitment to ensure the safety of ALL our communities." (emphasis mine)

Where the hell did that Tim Hortons-swilling yahoo learn such thoughtfulness and tolerance?  While learning to drive his first ever Zamboni?  Ugh.

And what about all of the unnervingly touching messages of sympathy, condolences, and prayer being exchanged by all four and a half people who actually live way up there in the frigid nether-regions of hell?  I mean, art like this truly incredible cartoon kicks me right in the feels, and that is something the member of Team America within me simply cannot abide by:

Clearly, this third-rate so-called "country" has nothing to offer my great nation of the United States except its existence as our collective hat.  Our collective, funny-shaped, overly apologetic, slightly dopey hat.

And who gives a frozen moose turd about any one hat?  Even a hat that has shown that it can bear a national tragedy with as much grace, dignity, and poise as its geographical wearer, if not more?  Certainly not a hat whose only relevance to the rest of the world comes two weeks every four years when the Winter Olympics gets played.

What an obviously worthless excuse for an independent state.  If the United States isn't going to bother invading and turning this piece of tundra into a giant satellite parking lot for Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota, then I hope they get invaded by some renegades from Santa's elves and are forced to immediately surrender and live out the remainder of their insipid little lives in the service of their new jingle-belled overlords.

Even just thinking about a state that is made up of such kind-hearted and compassionate citizens remaining sovereign makes me want hurl back up the Kraft dinner I just consumed.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee,

(Author's Note: The publishing of this post was delayed by a tornado formed over our church building and continued through town.  Everyone who is here at the church is fine and there is no immediately visible damage, but a number of trees were brought down, and there appears to be a fair amount of damage throughout our town.  Your prayers would be much appreciated. ~E.A.)

Photo credits: and, respectively.