Friday, February 24, 2017

Book Review: Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt

Carol Howard Merritt's latest book, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (HarperOne) hit the shelves almost three weeks ago, which is almost an eternity in the reviewing world, but in my defense: it took me a long time to read through the entire manuscript because every few pages I had to put the book down in order to everything that was being said to me from a place of sheer vulnerability and honesty. And then I would pick the book back up again and re-read the words I had just pored over. It's that good, and that profound.

Carol has built her reputation as a Christian writer and speaker off of the systematically-laid out vision for a new church that first came through in her debut work Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, but Healing Spiritual Wounds is a bit more organic and much more introspective. Recognizing the Jonah-esque internal turmoil that is increasingly commonplace for people raised in the faith and feeling the need to then leave it, Healing Spiritual Wounds is part-how-to guide, part-testimony, and part-apologia for the church's own complicity in the emotional scars that so many people bear today.

Given that subject matter, you might expect such a book to be a genuine emotional drag, or at least a slog to get through. And while yes, at times the words on the page *are* difficult to read, it is often because they are supposed to be difficult to read. If there is a common denominator to be had across Carol's body of work, it is that she is a pastor and writer unconcerned with what I have come to term as the "Church of Be Nice and Chew With Your Mouth Closed." Not that there isn't virtue to chewing with your mouth closed--there is--but that such virtue is dwarfed by the far more soul-sized virtues that Jesus enumerates in Matthew 23 as the "weightier matters:" justice, mercy, and faith.

In these virtues, it is imperative to recognize that the church has at times failed both its adherents and its communities--a case that Carol makes not with wrathful fire or blithe indifference, but with carefully chosen words of care and compassion for both the church and the people whom it has hurt, people of whom Carol recounts throughout the book as realizing that the presence of the church in their lives was akin to a poison which required an antidote.

If it is painful to hear of the body of Christ seen, and likened to, a poison, it should be: realizing the harm done in the name of Christ by profoundly flawed people is a painful process. And it would be easy for a book on such a topic to simply be an exercise in pain, but that is emphatically not the case in Healing Spiritual Wounds, as Carol presents a blueprint of sorts for the healing that must take place--healing not only for individuals hurt by abusive churches and communities, but healing for the church itself as a living, breathing entity still very much capable of the sort of kingdom-building to which it was commissioned in by the Risen Christ in the Gospels. This blueprint centers around her fundamental belief in the love of God and its radically deep, inclusive, and lifechanging nature, and it serves as the good news of a book that may otherwise bear a foreboding title for many.

And from this good news we get a sense of the depths of Carol's hopes in and for the church. There is a great deal of work to do in building the body back up after the waves of sex and financial scandals, the use and endorsement of conversion therapy, and now after the 2016 elections the selling-out of previously strongly-held principles concerning modesty, humility, and sexuality in order to elect Donald Trump as president.

But we are a resilient people, and with the tools that Carol proffers to us in this book, we can stand to be even more so going into the future. Because God knows, seeing the pain and violence taking place already in 2017, we shall surely need those tools, and her words. If you are interested in learning more about how people have come to heal with their church-inflicted injuries, or if you yourself are struggling with the pain of past church experiences, you very likely will not regret the time and money you sink into reading this book.

Vancouver, Washington
February 24, 2017

Disclaimer: I have maintained a friendship with Carol for several years ever since inviting her to speak at a regional church conference. However, I was not materially or financially compensated in any way for my review, and all opinions in this review are mine, and mine alone.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

You Regret Your Vote. What Next?

Earlier this week, the Twitter account @Trump_Regrets was the subject of a fascinating New York Times article which noted that people were regretting their votes for Trump for a wide swath of reasons, but especially because they now feel personally hurt or harmed by Trump's complete lack of presidential behavior and judgment in the past four weeks. The tweets themselves might be a source of schadenfreude in my more grumpy moments, but truthfully, they're really quite heartbreaking to read.

Here's just a sampling:

I believe all of these folks when they say that their regret for having voted for Trump is sincere. And while confession is generally good for the soul, part of confession from a Christian perspective is always what comes afterward: penance. We teach that repentance must not only be sincere, but substantive--it must result in not just a change of heart or nature, but also in spiritual fruit that you and others can benefit from.

So, if you have come to regret your presidential vote last November, what can you do to repent, to show penance? Here are just five ways to do so:

1. OWN YOUR VOTE. Don't try to diminish it by saying you had no idea that Trump would do the things that he has spent the past four weeks doing--plenty of people were trying to warn you of that, and for whatever reason, you chose not to listen when the moment of truth in the voting booth arrived. This isn't me saying "I told you so," this is me asking you not to try to sweep your enabling of Trump under the proverbial rug, because it is important for the efficacy of ways #2-5.

2. If you have friends who are genuinely worried about their well-being because Trump represents an existential threat to their livelihoods, listen to them. Really listen, too. Don't talk over or interrupt them. Ask them how you can help them. Then, do what they ask of you without debating them or playing devil's advocate.

3. Put your money where your mouth is. Donate to the ACLU, Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, or any number of other organizations doing the good work that needs to be done during the next four years. If your finances allow, set up a recurring donation.

4. Get involved yourself. Attend a protest. Write or call your Congressional representatives and senators. Explain exactly how and why you came to regret your vote and ask them to act as a check on Trump's various excesses.

5. And finally, remember this profound feeling of regret that you feel now when Election Day 2018 and Election Day 2020 both roll around, and cast your vote accordingly, with forethought, care, and deliberation.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It is meant to be a springboard, not an index. I encourage you to get creative with regret (man, we clergy really don't say that enough, do we?). I hope that, instead of just wallowing in it, you can find life, energy, and meaning in it. Our consciences exist to make us better people, and I pray that for you just as much as I pray that for myself.

We're in for a long four years, brothers and sisters. Be there for one another. Even if you weren't before. Especially if you weren't before.

Vancouver, Washington
February 18, 2017

Friday, February 10, 2017

I Follow an Executed Savior

This week in Mississippi, state lawmakers advanced a bill that would bring back execution by means of firing squads, gas chambers, and electric chairs in response to lawsuits claiming the inhumane nature of lethal injection is exacerbated by the illicit nature of the procurement of the drugs used in execution protocols.

Reading the stories about this bill initially, I thought it pretty standard fare for the death penalty-happy South, which has typically used capital punishment as a means to rid itself not of the worst of the worst criminals, but of violent black people while more frequently sparing the lives of its violent white people (a phenomenon that is most certainly not limited to the South--rather, quantitatively, most executions take place there, especially in Texas and Virginia).

And truthfully, the firing squad may in fact be more "humane" (air quotes very much intentional) means of execution. By this point, drug companies that want no business in state-sponsored death have refused to sell their drugs to state governments for the purposes of executions, which in turn has forced those state governments to search for alternate drugs from alternate sources, usually shady compounding pharmacies that operate on the very boundaries of DEA and FDA law--and likely sometimes over said boundaries.

Put a different way--it would be like, instead of going to a government-regulated marijuana dispensary (which I'm not condoning either) here in the Pacific Northwest, you instead went to the home of your friend's sketchy-as-balls friend who hands you a bag of something that may or may not in fact be marijuana. And then it is used by the state to kill you.

So I'm more than happy to see lethal injection go the way of the dodo. Honestly, I always saw it as a convenient sort of mask that shaded from us the true sadism of what it is we were doing, which basically entailed forcibly paralyzing a person and then inducing a massive and painful heart attack until they died. All of which they may or may not have felt--but could not register pain thanks to the paralytic--because the sleeping agent administered at the very start may or may not have actually worked. It's a lie to tell ourselves that we execute people humanely--we execute pets more humanely than we execute people.

None of which might matter to the fine folks down in Mississippi, but it sure as hell does to me, if for no other reason than I serve, follow, and worship a Savior whose execution by the state was not only unjust, but torturous as well. If there ought to be a common maxim in Christian political ethics, it must be that regardless of whether you believe in killing in self-defense or as a part of just war theory, Christians do not gratuitously kill, and certainly do not gratuitously torture.

Yet capital punishment constitutes both of those things. It is not as though methods like lethal injection have made us more humane, no, they have simply masked our sadism, and in truth, we were always that sadistic. We still are.

While the shock and awe I have seen from friends so far is the mention of methods like the gas chamber and the electric chair, what bothered me most about this entire story is a thrown-away line in the middle of the Washington Post article--the legislator sponsoring this bill is, among other things, a Baptist pastor. And this pastor-turned-lawmaker spoke of the need for justice for the parents of a daughter raped and killed twenty-five years ago.

To which I would simply say--justice has and is being served. Life imprisonment without parole is human justice, and this condemned wretch who did this still awaits God's justice. After all, it was Paul (who himself, like Jesus, was unjustly executed by the state) in Romans 12 who wrote, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"

I want to know what this pastor-turned-lawmaker does with verses like these. I want to know what he does with the reality that he, like me, professes faith in, and allegiance to, an executed Savior.

I wear a cross around my neck for a reason--it isn't to identify me as a Christian, although it does. It is to remind me that in the inhumanity of the cross there lies my own humanity. It might well have been me crucified and hurling insults at Christ like the two who were crucified alongside Him did. Not because I would have been a violent rebel against Rome in a past life, but because Jesus wasn't a violent rebel against Rome and yet He still found himself flogged and crucified. Which means that it could just as easily have been me up that cross too.

It is, by the by, why the cross I wear is also equal-armed--an equal-armed cross, in the tradition of the Red Cross and the flag of Switzerland, represents peace. I find peace in the knowledge that I follow an executed Savior. I find peace in knowing that it was not enough simply for Christ to die and be resurrected, but that we had to kill Him and yet He was still brought back to us.

I hear similarly moving sentiments from many of my colleagues about the power of the cross, and I would well imagine that this fellow in Mississippi might say something similarly reverential about the cross as well. But it is hard for me to see how the cross has made him a better servant to his fellow children, not when he seeks still more crosses upon which to lash the bodies of the wretched.

But was not one cross enough? Did it not take one death of a single condemned man to save the world?

Why can we not leave our barbarism at that?

It is something that I continue to fail to comprehend.

Vancouver, Washington
February 10, 2017

Image of church and cross courtesy of Wikimedia

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Day I Prayed for Bonhoeffer

On All Saint's Day 2008, during my first semester at God School, I attended my seminary's All Saints Day chapel worship service. As a part of a litany in the liturgy (say that ten times fast!), we were asked to name in prayer the saints we saw as our role models. I sat and listened to so many people name in prayer their own personal heroes as well as some of the biggest and greatest names to grace Christendom in the past century: Martin Luther King Jr. Mother Teresa. Oscar Romero.

I named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This was before Eric Metaxas's much-touted (and now disappointing, considering Metaxas's own support of Donald Trump for president) biography on Bonhoeffer that catapulted the German pastor and theologian into the pantheon of saints for many a Christian. As someone a part of a genocide-aided diaspora, I revered Bonhoeffer for his opposition to a genocidal regime already.

So I prayed that day for Bonhoeffer.

And I pray for him today, as the imperative is becoming starkly apparent that Christian clergy are required by dint of the verses in Exodus 22, Leviticus 19, and Deuteronomy 10, as well as vows we made to Heaven at our ordinations and commissionings to resist the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant actions of the federal government.

Bonhoeffer is a saint for a reason--he gave everything to resist fascism in the name of God. But, in my own small way, I hope and pray that I am honoring his legacy by publicly committing to the following acts of resistance, both to communicate to friends and strangers alike that I am their ally as well as to allow you (and them) to hold me accountable for what I believe that God is calling me to do at present:

1. My social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter, and here on Blogger will be devoted when needed to highlighting and advocating for the need for immediate change in the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities by this government.

2. If you live in Clark or Cowlitz counties in Washington state and need (or have a friend/family member who needs) an immigration lawyer as a result of this president's executive orders on immigration, I can refer you/them to local immigration lawyers I've spoken with. I am willing to accompany you/them to the first consultation for spiritual and moral support, and if you/they need money to pay attorney's fees, I will help raise it.

3. I have a very powerful and moving testimony (including photographs) of my own family's experience as refugees fleeing a war zone to come to America as brown-skinned, non-English speaking immigrants, and as a pastor, I am well-versed in the previously Scriptural passages pertaining to the treatment of immigrants. I will give a sermon, lecture, or workshop for free to your church, school, retreat, whatever (travel expenses negotiable and schedule permitting).

4. One of my spiritual disciplines since my seminary days has been to donate all of my credit card rewards points to various charities and nonprofits. My wife has already set us up with a membership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but I will be making donations throughout the year to nonprofits dedicated to justice and security for immigrants and refugees--including a donation today to the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project in Seattle.

5. (This one is inspired by my friend Lauren) Send me your receipt--you can email me through the contact widget on the right-hand side of the screen--for a donation of $30.00 or more to the ACLU, NIRP, or another similar organization doing the good work that needs to be done right now, and I'll let you pick the text and title of a sermon I preach this summer or fall (within the bounds of reason and good taste--I'll still hold veto power). Why $30.00? I did this--giving away the text and title for a sermon==for a silent auction fundraiser for my church a couple of years ago, and I learned there that $30.00 is roughly the going rate for auctioning off a sermon! If you aren't able to hear the sermon in person, I post all of my manuscripts here the day they are preached, so you can still read along.

6. The power of the wallet doesn't stop with donations. I am done with businesses that have capitalized on, or endorsed, this White House and the discord it has sown in the name of white nationalism. Uber is off my phone, and Lyft won't make it on, despite their donation to the ACLU, because both companies broke the New York cabbie strike held in solidarity with the detainees. Yuengling and MillerCoors products (not just Miller Lite and Coors Light, neither of which I'd touch with a yardstick, but also Blue Moon, Leinenkugel's, and yes, Portland hippies, Pabst Blue Ribbon--MillerCoors brews beer for Pabst. Not even the Canadians are off the hook--Molson is also a part of the same company that owns MillerCoors) will never grace our fridge. And I'll be buying our new grill for our outdoor deck from Lowe's or Sears, not the Home Depot.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It is simply the start. Much like Trump's ghastly executive orders, I expect the scope of this list to grow as circumstances change and demand.

I will never be Bonhoeffer. I know that now. Really, I always have. He took with him to the grave something that we as pastors who follow him, and King, and Romero quite simply lack. With a precious few exceptions, we clergy today are mere husks compared to heroes such as them.

It is perhaps what I want most for the world--to bring back what our saints took with them when they were martyred. But I know that I cannot. I can simply offer what I can offer.

For when we say to ourselves, "I would have resisted in Germany in the 1930s," well, we're living today in the America of the 2010s, and what we would do now is the tiniest flicker of a shadow of a reflection of what we might do then, considering just how dangerous it was to be in Germany after 1933.

I have long resisted Nazi and Hitler's comparisons due to Godwin's Law and the need to keep the discourse that I facilitate reasonable and pleasing to God, so far as I am able. But it is also pleasing to God to resist the machinations of evil.

And resist it I must.

Here I stand, I can do no other.

If this be against divine will, may God have mercy on me.

Vancouver, Washington
January 31, 2017

Dietrich Bonhoeffer meme courtesy of Pinterest

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How Democracies Behave: Ten Years Without Hrant Dink

Ten years ago today, an Armenian-Turkish journalist named Hrant Dink, who had devoted his career to reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia and to championing human rights within Turkey, was assassinated in broad daylight in front of his office by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist.

This assassination did not come out of nowhere: Dink had faced death threats for years from Turkish nationalists and twice had been prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for "insulting Turkishness." He was acquitted the first time, given a six-months suspended sentence the second time, and prosecutors were preparing a third round of charges at the time of his murder.

All because he openly acknowledged the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide and called on Turkey to end its own denial of it.

Today, ten years later, Turkey is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and while Article 301 was modestly reformed in the wake of Dink's assassination, it is still a crime in Turkey to insult the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan--a crime punishable by four years in prison.

This is not how democracies behave.

And now, law professors who spoke out against Donald Trump's nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General are being retaliated against. The Senate is being asked by the majority party to confirm an extremely ethically-challenged slate of cabinet nominations in a slapdash, paper-over effort. And all our PEOTUS seems to have the time to do is tweet about Saturday Night Live, Meryl Streep, and Representative John Lewis.

This is not how democracies behave.

While our American exceptionalism tends to dictate that other countries ought to look to us for inspiration, in truth, it is time we in the States took a lesson from Turkey. Democracy does not come at the point of a lance. Freedom and liberty is not enforced by taking it away from the journalists who strive to protect it. And the ultranationalism that has plagued Turkey is now plaguing us, if the spate of hate crimes, slurs, and hate speech after Trump's victory is any indication.

Tomorrow, the keys of power will be turned over to a new administration, and here, the useful comparison between America and Turkey ends. Unlike Turkey, we had an election last year, not a military coup. That election, while faithful to the precepts of the Constitution and its creation of the Electoral College, still was not democratic insofar as it ignored the majority vote to the tune of roughly 2.8 million voters.

That, too, is not how democracies behave.

But the earth spins on, and the peaceful transition of power continues.

I will not be watching that peaceful transition tomorrow. I have no desire to be a witness for this Caesar who now takes the throne.

Instead, I will continue to desire to serve God and God's will, to continue to speak truth into the emptiness, to continue to write words of prophecy and justice, and to advocate for the very same marginalized and oppressed people this Caesar decided to campaign against.

It will not always be work with immediate returns. But it will be work that bears eventual fruit.

The best epilogue there has been for a journalist like Hrant Dink is that after his assassination, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to both protest his murder and to express solidarity with Turkish Armenians. Chanting, "We are all Hrant Dink," their voices created an eternally-documented witness to the innate human desire to live in peace, to live in kindness, and most of all to live in love.

And that is how democracies behave.

Vancouver, Washington
January 19, 2017

Image courtesy of OpenDemocracy. My apologies for not updating here more frequently--my writing time and energy has been devoted lately almost entirely towards my D.Min. thesis. I will continue to write here as I am able, though.

Monday, January 2, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "A Year of Jubilee"

I was unable to give this sermon on Sunday as we made the decision to cancel church on account of inclement weather--only the second time that we have had to do that in the five-plus years I have been here. But because it is a special sermon, written for the kicking off of my sabbatical that officially begins today, I still wanted to post it and share it. Please enjoy. ~E.A.

Leviticus 25:1-13

The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, 2 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: Once you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must celebrate a sabbath rest to the Lord. 3 You will plant your fields for six years, and prune your vineyards and gather their crops for six years. 4 But in the seventh year the land will have a special sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord: You must not plant your fields or prune your vineyards. 5 You must not harvest the secondary growth of your produce or gather the grapes of your freely growing vines. It will be a year of special rest for the land. 6 Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food—for you, for your male and female servants, and for your hired laborers and foreign guests who live with you, 7 as well as for your livestock and for the wild animals in your land. All of the land’s produce can be eaten.

8 Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet blown on the tenth day of the seventh month. Have the trumpet blown throughout your land on the Day of Reconciliation. 10 You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. 11 The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines 12 because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. 13 Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee. (Common English Bible)

New Year’s Day 2017

One of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had the joy to be a part of was a three-week mission trip to sub-Saharan Africa under the auspices of our denomination’s global mission arm, Global Ministries. There, we got to visit mission sites in South Africa, Angola, and Kenya to minister to children, hear from HIV/AIDS activists right in the epicenter of the disease’s epidemic, and, in Kenya, visit a seminary where so many students were dedicating themselves to education and to serving God.

It is exactly what we should hope to see happen in impoverished parts of the world—the setting up of an infrastructure that can give people a means out of extreme poverty while also maintaining their own dignity and autonomy. I cannot stress the importance of that enough: it is one thing to try or want to help another people; it is entirely another to do so in a way that preserves their innate dignity and need for personal decision-making that we all have.

In that vein, I came across this story about a young woman in Kenya named Joice, who was a part of a census performed by a nonprofit charity called GiveDirectly that specialized in providing targeted cash infusions to households to lift those households out of poverty, and trusting those households to use the cash in the best way possible, because they knew more of what they needed than outsiders running a charity. The story goes like this:

The fact (Joice) was receiving a number meant her entire life would change: She’d receive free sums of money and would be required to do nothing in exchange. She could use the money however she wanted; all GiveDirectly wanted was to help people become less impoverished.

Over one year, Joice received three transfers totaling 87,000KSE, or roughly $1,000…The three transfers came in different amounts: one for $80 and two for $460 each.

“What surprised me most was the unconditionality of the money,” (Joice says). “I felt so dignified to be recognized as capable of setting my own priorities in addressing my own needs.”

Joice and her husband used about half of the first sum to buy a goat. The rest they spent on food. As this was happening, Joice was going to school, but knew she couldn’t pay for the education. The fees were mounting. When her larger transfer came through, those debts quickly disappeared.

“In our country, it is very difficult to be recognized as qualified without evidence of education,” Joice says. “This was an opportunity that allowed me to clear the fee arrears from my University and allowed me to be free to compete in the job market.”

I am beginning my sabbatical by trying to see it a little like how the $1,000 affected Joice and her family. Three months is a lot of time, just like $1,000 is a lot of money, but for someone in desperate need of such a resource, a little bit is able to go an awfully long way. To erase student loan debt here in the States often takes tens of thousands of dollars, not several hundred dollars. Goats don’t go for two Andrew Jacksons. And three months of sabbatical, studies have begun to show, can do great wonders in preventing burnout from ministry and losing out on much more than just three months of serving Christ’s church.

Because believe it or not, many pastors live in circumstances of spiritual poverty, even as we are called to be spiritual giants. We end up emotionally and spiritually exhausted and we minister not out of abundance, but out of famine. That is simply no way for us to beuseful  able to do our work.

One of the ways the Israelites had to try to stave off famines was the Sabbath year—in order to let the soil replenish itself, every seventh year the Israelites were commanded to not plant anything and to simply live off of what was grown naturally. It had to be so very hard for them to do, especially when ancient farmers often eked out subsistence-level incomes even in the best of times.

But the alternative, of them completely using the land up, of taking out all of its nutrients and all of its life-giving capacity, was a far worse scenario for them to contemplate. Hence the Sabbath year.

The Sabbath year was not enough to ensure sustainability, though, and so God called for a year of Jubilee as well. After every seventh seven years—so, on every fiftieth year, all families were to return to their original land, which is to say that the land would return to being the property of that family.

The purpose of the year of Jubilee, then, is twofold: one is to prevent the establishment of a small, landed aristocracy that controlled all of the arable or useful land in ancient Israel. The other was to provide every household, every family, a fresh start every so often regardless of poverty or indebtedness. It was to do for the ancient Israelites what an organization like GiveDirectly did for Joice and her husband, or, spiritually, what this congregation is doing for its pastor with a sabbatical.

Not just for me, though, but also for you. You’ve got New Year’s Resolutions to either make, break, or try to keep until, say, President’s Day or, if you’re really on a roll, Easter. So why not seek newness that is a bit more enduring, and far more hopeful, for the Jubilee comes not from us, but from God, a God who sees our own need for a Jubilee because God Himself once needed one too.

Our need for renewal and revitalization comes not simply from exhaustion or fatigue, it comes from God. It is Godlike. On the seventh day, God rested. It wasn’t until the third day that Jesus rose.

And from their examples, we are given the Sabbath and the year of Jubilee. Not just for ourselves, but for our entire communities. So while our community will look and function differently for the next three months—I will not be here leading worship on Sunday mornings or in my office during the week—my hope and prayer is that this will indeed be a year of Jubilee for us, of us finding Sabbath rest from the many labors that we have undertaken joyfully together for the past five years to revitalize both our church and our wider community.

Those soul-sized labors do not cease. So it falls to us to ensure that we rest so that such labors continue to inspire us, not burn us out. Truthfully, burnout is the simple way that such labor ends.

But the far better way for our labor to end is to still have the heart for it when the Lord comes again.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 1, 2017

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

January 2017 "New Year, New Dawnings"

Dear Church,

New Year's Eve and Day always brings much in the way of pomp, circumstance, and tradition with it: the making of resolutions, the watching of the Times Square ball, the singing of Auld Lang Syne, and much more. It is a holiday of celebration, of renewal, and of hope for the future.

It feels appropriate, then, that I would begin my sabbatical on the dawn after New Year's Day, for those are indeed my own hopes for my three months away on study leave: to celebrate what we have done, to find sources of renewal for myself, and to plan for the next stage of our future.

This, then, is a (temporary!) good bye to all of you—I will begin my sabbatical on Monday, January 2, and I will be away for exactly three months. I will be back in the office on Monday, April 3, and I will return to preaching and worship leadership on Palm Sunday, April 9. I am very grateful for the chance to take a sabbatical, and to the church for including the contingency for a sabbatical in my contract when I first arrived here as your pastor over five years ago.

I must confess to you that the sabbatical comes at a very needed time for me. 2016 has left me emotionally and spiritually drained--in addition to losing several beloved members of our congregation over the past few years, I've felt enormously grieved by the poverties and obstacles faced not only by many folks right here in Longview, but around the entire world, from Aleppo to Berlin and all points in between. So first and foremost, I am hoping and praying to find some renewal and restoration for my spirit during my time away.

I am also hoping to be able to spend some time working on the future. I already have a pair of sermon series planned for after I return in April, but I also would like to use my work on my doctoral thesis as a chance to reflect on what my ministry here should look like--what I have learned so far from five-plus years here already, and how I can take what I have learned and more deliberately put it into action.

During these three months, the life of the church will be a little different. I will not be involved in the day-to-day running of the church office, and I will not be available for those regular day-in, day-out things that I usually do as your pastor. I won't be around on Sundays or at Tuesday Bible study. I won't be sitting in on Monday morning staff meetings with Charlotte and Jamie. And I won't be making trips over to St. John hospital for pastoral care.

That does not mean you will not hear from me—I will be updating my blog throughout my sabbatical to let all of you know what I am up to, and you will still hear from me in this newsletter column each month, just like usual. And though I will not be physically present at the church, please know that all of you will be spiritually present in my prayers, just as you always are and just as I always hope that I am in your prayers.

I know that while I am away, you will be in good hands--we have some very talented guest preachers lined up, and both the board of directors and the elders have stepped up to be responsive to some of the things that I would ordinarily address in the course of my ordinary workdays. I will still miss all of you, though, and I look forward to my return to the office in April!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric