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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "On Planks and Specks"

Luke 6:37-42

 37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” 

39 Jesus also told them a riddle. “A blind person can’t lead another blind person, right? Won’t they both fall into a ditch? 40 Disciples aren’t greater than their teacher, but whoever is fully prepared will be like their teacher. 41 Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s or sister’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Brother, Sister, let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You deceive yourselves! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.  (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Four
The mother’s words soared out of the page as I read them—convicting me in a way I hadn’t experienced in some time, and certainly not after being inundated with so many pleas for help—many of which I was simply completely unequipped to meet—that I had simply become worn down, inadequate and impatient with the aid our church has to offer.  Helping actual, real people and families became a line to check off on my to-do list, like preparing for a Bible study or writing a blog post or downloading my sermon for that week off the internet… (yuk yuk yuk)  And that is never a sustainable mentality to do ministry in.
I confess this weariness to you to underscore the impact that a mother’s words had on me.  This is, in part, what she had to say:
When our son Ryan was living on the streets of Seattle, using drugs and doing all kinds of awful things to afford them, I prayed that the people he encountered would remember that he had a story.  I prayed that the police officers, the nurses, the pedestrians he bumped into and the people he stole from might have the insight to know that he never chose to become an addict.  He never wanted to be miserable.  When he was a little boy, he never dreamed of growing up to become imprisoned by addiction.  I begged to God to bring people in his life who would trust that Ryan had a story, who would see the image of God in Ryan and who would reflect that image right back to him.
Now I pray each day that God will allow me to see His image in every person I meet, be that person the homeless guy on the corner, the man in the truck who flipped me off for forgetting to signal before my lane change, or the angry, entitled woman screaming at the checkout guy in the Costco line.  I want to remember that I don’t know their stories and to extend to them the same mercy and grace I wanted people to give to my son.
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 last week’s instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us.  So, naturally, the degree of difficulty once more gets doubled down, as Jesus admonishes us in no uncertain terms against one of our favorite pastimes: judging other people.

And don’t lie to me and say it isn’t a favorite pastime—we all do it.  You, me, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Whateverthehellelseisoncrappydaytimetelevision.  It’s part of our programming, because if we judge someone else to be wrong, it means that we are right for having pointed out their flaw or their sin.  It means that we have, if even only a little bit, managed to assert our moral superiority over the other person.
Christians these days, let me tell you, we are all about asserting that moral superiority.  We love playing that card, we love it oh so much.  From scolding unwed couples in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways to shaming addicts for a choice that has turned into an illness, we still retain the role we had way back during the Spanish Inquisition of policing everybody else’s own morality, only this time, we don’t use physical torture devices (unless you count awkward singles’ ministry groups).
And why wouldn’t we?  Part of our faith is believing, knowing, that we’ve come across some sort of truth, and truth is inherently right.  Which means that if we have this truth, we are right also.  And we are right in thinking this, at least at first: we have come to believe that God loves us and expressed that love through the message, life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But being right in this singular area of our lives can cause us to be wrong in so, so many other areas.
Because, see, this solid rock of Christ’s love that we stand upon is only a rock and only as solid in our lives as we apply it to be.  There are things in faith’s wheelhouse, things that it is exceptionally good at dealing with.  A loved one is sick?  Your faith can comfort you in the form of prayer, the community of a church, and the love expressed in the Bible.  Upset at how someone is being treated?  Your faith can make you strong enough to speak out for them and to uplift them before those who are hurting them, because, after all, blessed are the meek.

But—and here, I am going to say something that might rub you a bit the wrong way—that faith is not inherently good.  Faith may be true, but truthiness (because Stephen Colbert made that a word) and goodness are not always 100% the same thing.  No, rather, faith is only as good as the person who has it.  It is like anything else we possess that can be used for good or for bad depending on the person who is holding onto it.
We know, we’ve seen, all sorts of people whose faith has turned them into truly terrible, despicable people, and I don’t have to name them off for you—fundamentalists-turned-hate-groups, religious terrorists of all stripes, the proponents of the caste system in India—and there is a common denominator at work here: namely, that these are all people who have let allegiance to such a narrow strip of their faith turn their lives into something utterly false.

It’s a paradox.  A painful, violent paradox that a bit of truth leads someone to living a false life.  But that is what we see happening: people who rush to apply laws and doctrines that have no place in a 21st century world simply because they have come to believe that the truth they once knew to be saving for them demands as such.  They become prejudiced because everything must be filtered through such a narrow, primitive lens.  After all, if you are judging the world by only one or two very specific, narrow criteria, it streamlines the whole process of judgment.  You don’t have to think, you don’t have to wrestle, you don’t have to struggle.  Thumbs up or thumbs down.  Good or bad, all on the basis of that prejudice.s (unless you count awkward singles'ch retain the role we had way back during the Spanish Inquisiti

I know that this is a loaded word, prejudice, so let’s break it down before we continue on: literally, the word is a compounding of the prefix ‘pre’ (meaning before or prior to something) and judice, from the Latin word juris, from which we get words like judicial, judicious, judgment…and judgmental.  We might say someone is ‘prejudiced’ in terms of being, say, racist or sexist, but literally what the word ‘prejudiced’ means is an adjective describing someone who has judged ‘pre,’ prior or before they should do so.  It describes someone who has, quite literally, rushed to judge.

And so far, I have been talking about pretty extreme examples of this: fundamentalism, terrorism, bigotry, and the like.  But lend an ear once more to the mother’s story about her son that I read to you at the very beginning.  Confronted with a shelterless drug addict on the street, how are you liable to react?  Not just externally, but internally.  Pity?  Anger?  Compassion?  Judgment?

Because realistically, that’s what this passage has to say to us.  The chances of any of us coming face-to-face with, say, a member of ISIS in order to rebuke them for their crimes and prejudices is probably nil.  But the chances of us coming face-to-face with someone in active drug addiction, or a teenaged mother, or any of the other groups of people we are liable to pass more subtle forms of judgment on today?  I’d mark those chances at a near certainty.

So are we willing to admit now that we might indeed harbor prejudice, and not in the terms of racial or sexist lines?  That we might harbor prejudice towards someone based on a particular characteristic of them?  That we might think this characteristic, be it a religious affiliation, or a sexual orientation, or a partisan identity, completely defines them when in fact they are far more multifaceted and multidimensional than we could ever possibly know in that moment?
Or are we still happier to point out that speck in their eyes while ignoring the logs in our own?
We talk an awful lot about surrender here in church—surrendering ourselves to Christ, surrendering our lives to God, but what I’m not sure we know what any of that means anymore.  Our lives represent a series of choices, points in the road where we can go one direction or another.  I can choose to do this, to say that, or to not to.  Which means that every day that I wake up, and that you wake up, and get out of bed, you can choose whether to be a Christian, a good person or not.
What if making that choice really meant surrendering all other choices?  What if choosing the will of Christ really meant surrendering our will to judge?  Do you think that we could do that?  Or is that a part of our selfishness that we still feel the need to clutch onto, that we simply cannot live without?
A lot of you here have also been the subject of another person’s prejudices.  I know because you have told me.  And those stories…those stories of how it felt to be seen only as an addict, only as an unwed parent, only as a person with their hand out needing help…those stories are living proof of the Gospel’s truth here.  Proof painfully gained, wrenchingly remembered, that what Jesus says here is indeed part of that greater truth that we have come to know: judgment that does not come from God or from Christ will rarely cause us to reconcile with God and with Christ.  Our judgment of one another—your judgment of another person—is not what will ultimately restore right relationship between God and a wayward sinner who is casting about for the way back home.
So judge not.  Condemn not.  And I tell ye, ye shall be forgiven.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
October 19, 2014

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Resignations, Golden Parachutes, and Erring Towards Transparency

On Tuesday, Mars Hill Church's co-founding and teaching pastor, Mark Driscoll, tendered his resignation after a six-week leave of absence in the wake of the allegations made against him by many former staffers and congregants.  My prayers this week are with Mars Hill as well as Driscoll himself, that they may both emerge from this period of turmoil and transition made better and more whole by God's presence.  I fervently hope that this tumultuous, churning experience will result in some sort of spiritual good for them.

I tweeted this when the news first broke:

Driscoll permanently vacating the pulpit of Mars Hill, whether by hook or by crook, was probably what needed to happen.  Giving has plummeted, more and more documents and stories of the toxicity within the church are coming to light, and the writing on the wall was becoming increasingly obvious that Mars Hill would face an uphill battle if Driscoll remained at the helm.  I had hoped at the time that it looked like Driscoll had seen this and wisely stepped aside.  If it is, then he absolutely did the right thing.

But there's the dollars-and-cents dimension to it as well.

For a bit of context: in late August, 9 current MH pastors/elders signed a letter asking Driscoll to step down for the good of both Mark himself and the church.  As of October 6, all nine have either left or experienced change in their positions at Mars Hill.  Only three did so voluntarily through resignation.  The rest were either laid off or had their eldership revoked, even as other MH campus pastors who had not signed the letter were offered other opportunities within Mars Hill even as their own campuses closed.

I'm emphatically NOT an expert on Washington state labor law (or on any law written after the first century, really), and it may well be nigh impossible to prove retaliation in a court of law, but it if it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a get my point.

Anyways, some of these pastors were let go with as little as one month's severance.  Meanwhile, reports are that Driscoll himself is entitled to an entire year of full pay and benefits if he voluntarily resigns, per his own contract with Mars Hill...which might explain why he voluntarily stepped aside even though his investigators did not find enough cause to disqualify him from ministry.

According to internal Mars Hill memos, that annual pay was, as of 2012, between $500-565,000, or 7 to 8 times more than the median household income of $65,677 in Seattle that year.  And a $100,000 pay raise for 2013 was apparently on the table.

Now, I'm not disputing that the pastor of a church of Mars Hill's size should be paid more than your average parish pastor (ie, me); they should, just like Bill Gates is entitled to higher pay than the guy who runs the corner computer store in Davenport.

No, what concerns me is the multiplier at play here--not only was Driscoll making more than the people whose tithes paid his salary, he was being paid way more than most of them.  Similarly, he wasn't just paid more than his associate pastors and lead pastors of individual campuses, he was paid way more.

Assume, for argument's sake, that a laid off staffer at Mars Hill was being paid that median household income of $65,677 (it's impossible to tell how much Mars Hill workers are paid, but at least some jobs there seem to be in that $65K neighborhood)--their month of severance pay would amount to $5,743 and change.  Even if we figure on the low end that Driscoll's yearlong severance pay ends up being $500,000, he would be receiving about 87 times more in severance pay than the people his church just laid off.

87.  Eighty-seven.  Eight Seven.

What we are seeing here is the church equivalent of a golden parachute.  Because financially, Driscoll is going to be fine.  He'll be back in the saddle eventually, and can probably still command substantial speaking fees in order to support his wife and kids.  A half-mil (at minimum) severance package doesn't just cushion the financial blow of a pastor stepping down: it covers it in pillows and marshmallows and down feathers.

And that's just fine for Driscoll personally--after all, he's the guy who spends over $200,000 of his church's money gaming his own book to New York Times bestseller status, so I'm pretty sure the person Mark Driscoll cares most about is Mark Driscoll.  But I'm not as sure the same can be said of his worker bees who have found themselves without work in this year of pain and turmoil at MH, many of whom also surely have families to support in addition to bills to pay.  Per the "one month severance" link above--some of those pastors are resorting to gofundme crowdsourcing in order to make ends meet.

It's a saddening Christian witness to see happen.  Think about how much good funds like that $200,000 could have done, and could do now, in similarly cushioning the financial blow of pastors suddenly finding themselves out of work.

And really, the church administration has brought this upon itself.  Financial opacity combined with admissions of significant funds not being used for what they were earmarked for is a surefire recipe for financial collapse (and the job losses that inevitably follow)--just ask the folks who were left standing in the wreckage of First Family Church near my hometown in Kansas.

My parish publishes monthly financial reports that document every single expenditure for our monthly board of directors meetings, and those meetings have, without exception, been open to the entire membership of the church to sit in on for at least as long as I've been here.  If anyone in the church wanted to know how the money was being spent, it was (and is) put out there in black and white for them.  It's a win-win for everyone involved: our membership has open access to information that they are entitled to have, and our volunteer servants who are tasked with making sometimes big decisions on behalf of the church are protected from any whiff of malfeasance.  It may make some actions tougher in the short term because I or anyone else can't simply do whatever they want, but in the long term, it is almost certainly more beneficial.  Exceedingly so.

I get that this isn't really feasible for a church of MH's size, but in the question of convenience over transparency, churches have to err these days on the side of transparency.  Especially when it comes to how we are spending our members' tithes.

Sadly, though, it appears as though far more in tithes will be going towards one person leaving Mars Hill than the dozens others who had been laid off before him.  And such disparate distribution of funds is neither Biblical or spiritual in nature.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I'm a Christian Pastor, and I Suck at Following Christ

I say this on Sunday mornings, but one of the biggest reasons I felt compelled to do the sermon series I am currently preaching--a six-week series on the Sermon on the Plain that Jesus preaches in Luke 6--is because that sermon contains within it so many of the commands of Jesus that I think we find the toughest to follow...all wrapped up nicely in one fell swoop with a nice little bow on top of it.

"Turn the other cheek?"  That one's in there.

"If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt as well?"  Check.

"Judge not, lest you be judged?"  Yeppers.  (Stay tuned for this Sunday's sermon, because that particular one is what's on tap.)

And this sermon series really is for my benefit as well as for my congregation's, because I sometimes suck at this stuff too.  Even though I am paid to do ministry--even though I'm, in a manner, a Christian who has gone pro.  If you rated me like an athlete, I might get plus marks in, say, teaching Bible study or in baking pies for potlucks, but I'd definitely get dinged for fundamentals by Mel Kiper or Keith Law or ESPN's talking head of the sport of your choice.

This isn't quite the same as my "I've Sold Out the Gospel" post that I put up here last week.  In that go-around, I mostly talked about my professional role as a minister and how I've fallen short there.

No, I'm pretty bad at this as a regular person in my private, everyday life as well.

And honestly, I think we all probably are in some form or fashion.  One of the things about Scripture is that it is so encompassing of so many areas of our lives (fashion, diet, and conflict management all get pretty thoroughly covered, in addition to, you know, our relationship with God and whatnot) that we tend to gravitate towards it in the areas of our lives where it is easy for us to adhere to it.

To be honest, I think that is part of the reason why so many Christians so strongly proclaim verses like Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 that condemn same-sex relations, but less strongly proclaim, say, Luke 14:33: "So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (NRSV)

Personally, I think this is at least in part because for someone who, say, identifies completely as heterosexual, they have no problem following Leviticus's commands against same-sex relations.  It is natural for them.  So it is easy for them to follow.

But a command like Luke 14:33 runs counter to just about everything we have been taught in the American zeitgeist of building our own wealth and counter to our own biologically programmed tendency to hoard things up to save for times of want.  It's unnatural for us to follow.  So we push it aside for the stuff that is easier for us to follow and to point to.

But that means that we suck at following Christ as well.

(As an aside: I have heard it said (and even seen it said in Bible commentaries) that the reason we don't have to give up all of our possessions in order to follow Christ is because it was a specific commandment to the rich man who came to Jesus in Luke 18, asking how to inherit eternal life, and because it was given specifically to this man, we are not bound by it.  But Luke 14:33 is a command given to a "large crowd" per Luke 14:25.)

And in my private life, my private spiritual life especially, I can sometimes shy away from the tough stuff as well.  Which is profoundly ironic, not just because of what I do for a living, but because the Bible is all about working through the tough stuff.  God found Moses while the latter was in self-imposed exile after committing murder.  God gave King Ahab a reprieve for rigging the justice system to murder a man whose land he wanted after Ahab showed genuine repentance.

And yet, I struggle with the tough stuff that the Bible generates for me.  Like Leviticus 18 and 20.  Like Deuteronomy 20 and its command for the Israelites to kill of entire tribes of people wholesale--to basically commit genocide.

I wonder how in the hell I wound up following a God who somehow saw fit to include THAT in His recommended reading to us, and I begin to shy away once more from Scripture despite what it might have yet to still tell me.  I begin to shy away from the source that might offer me, if not answers, the right direction forward towards answers.

I know that might sound like a paradox: going to Scripture for my questions about Scripture.  I know that doesn't always sound like it would make sense.

But messily, painfully, wonderfully, it often does.  At least to me.

So when we read the Bible selectively...when we read the Gospels and what Christ has to say to us hope and prayer is that we might be just brave enough to critically ask ourselves why we are doing this to our spiritual practice.  Because that selectivity keeps us from following Jesus as we ought.

And I should know.  I've been keeping myself from following Jesus as I ought to as well.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, October 13, 2014

Anonymity is My Name

The phone call is always the same.  Sameness is not mutually exclusive with urgency.

"Pastor, this happened and so-and-so is here and the doctors said they don't think it is going to be much longer, can you please come?"

Of course I will.  Far more than meeting with city hall employees about parking lot erosion or trying to understand what our plumber is telling me about one of the church's water heaters, going to the bedside of the dying is something I am very much trained to do and called to do as a part of my vocation as a parish pastor.  Ministering to the dying is by no means easy, but it it is definitely closer to my wheelhouse than paper-pushing, and is, for me anyways, far more spiritually enriching and rewarding.

So I go, and like the phone call, the scene in the room is always the same as well.  The bed of the person who is passing away is always in the center of the room, and family are gathered around in a circle, maybe with a few folks sitting down or orbiting around the room.

Here's the thing: it's really tough to try to break into a circle, even if you have been expressly invited.  I have only known this person for a few years at most, and here they are surrounded by people who have known them for decades, perhaps their whole lives.

I am here as a pastor, but it is tough to not feel like an impostor, a gate-crasher, Vince Vaughn's and Owen Wilson's sidekick in Funeral Crashers, their ill-advised (and fortunately entirely nonexistent) sequel to Wedding Crashers.  A colleague of mine once openly wondered if putting a cardboard cut-out of him in the room might not be better because he felt so helpless sometimes in those moments.

"Will you pray with us?"

Of course I will.  At long last, something I can actively do to help, to not be that helpless cardboard cutout.  Prayer is sometimes more difficult for me than I let on, but that never stops me from trying.  The prayer usually worms its way out of my lips regardless of how much of a spiritual writer's block I'm having in that moment.  And really, in those sorts of moments, the family does not need or demand soaring prose.  They need comfort.  They need reassurance that the presence of God is truly at work in the room.

And since God conveniently hasn't come to earth in human form since we killed Him when that happened last around 2,000 years ago, big old imperfect me is who they are left with to help channel the divine spirit of the Almighty into their little circle of love and sorrow.

 Once you've taken several of these calls, you begin to notice the signs of death growing nearer.  You can anticipate when the moment is about to happen.  And when it does, it is all that you can do to thank God for the life this person led, for the people whom they loved and who loved them in return, and for the unbelievably profound privilege that you have been gifted in being present at their transition from broken earth into glorious paradise.

"Can we call you later?"

Of course you can.  I know that "later" may well be days or even weeks after the fact: some families want to bury their dead right away, others need some time and space to get back to something approaching neutral in order to begin planning their loved one's memorial service.  So I don't always know when I'll get that call, but it doesn't really bother me.  I know how to get in touch with them as well.  And I will if I'm worried about them.  I'm like God's overly-benevolent spy network.  You can run from my pastoral care, but you can't hide from it forever.

The family begins discussing what happens next, and at that point, I know that what they need now is the help of a funeral director, not their pastor.  Of course I am happy to be there for those meetings as a source of moral support, or to help point them in the right direction in making arrangements, but at this point, I know the most immediate soul-sized need has been met.  A life has been extinguished and God's presence has been made known.  Everything else that I can help them with can wait.

And so I go around the room, offering hugs and handshakes and prayers as I go.  A family member might walk me out, offer me my coat as I cram my hat back on and walk back out into the rapidly chilling Pacific Northwest weather.

I climb into my car and place the key into the ignition.  As I pull out of the driveway and make my way back onto the busy thoroughfare that brought me here, I begin to realize something: nobody else who is driving by knows what I know.  Nobody else around me has just witnessed what I have just witnessed.  To them, I am simply another driver to honk at if I change lanes too suddenly or to flip off if I don't drive fast enough for them in single-lane traffic.

I've become anonymous again.  I've become just another person again.

And what's odd about it is...I absolutely need that.  After what has just happened, I need to be just another person to someone.  I have been so moved, so drained, so emptied, of my spiritual abilities that I need to not be "Pastor Eric" for a few moments.

Even if it means getting honked at.  Even if it means getting cussed at.

I need those moments when, after something utterly profound has happened, I rejoin a world that has not seen what I have seen.  A world that is unaware of my calling and of my experiences.  A world that has no need to place a mantle upon me, a pedestal beneath me, or a pulpit around me.

A world in which I am given my own space to reflect on that loss.

A world in which, for at least moment, I simply am, and nothing more.

A world in which, for at least a moment, anonymity is my name.

What a gift from God such moments have become for me.

Yours in Christ,

(Author's note: This vignette reflects not any one particular story, but is rather built upon the many times I have been called to a death in my still-brief pastoral career.  Each of these deaths I can recall by memory.  Each taught me something about love.  And each ultimately pointed me, in their own way, towards God's glory.  Ad maiorem Dei gloriam. ~E.A.)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Children of the Most High"

Luke 6:27-36

 27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. 32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. (Common English Bible)

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

There are only two days, out of 365 in the year, when my high school cafeteria didn’t smell like a perpetual pit of body odor and teen spirit. One of those two days was the Evening of Jazz fundraiser the school jazz band I played in would put on. The other was the multicultural fair, which without fail always managed to produce the smells of amazing food from around the world as kids would set up shop to show off their own ancestries and cultures for their classmates.

I always set out a booth for Armenia, the country my mom’s family is from. I’d have unleavened Armenian bread and honey set out for folks to take, I’d have sketched a to-scale (to the best of my mediocre abilities) a map of Armenia, and I’d do my best to not answer questions in a completely stupid manner. I’d also try to get around to see everyone else’s booths, and one year, there was a kid I had never met before with a booth for the country Azerbaijan.

Now, for a little context: Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over land (what else?) for six years in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and even today are enemies in every sense of the term. Think the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Capulets and the Montagues and you get the picture.

Anyways, I remarked offhandedly to this classmate of mine, “You know, if our governments had a say here, we’re supposed to hate each other.” And I’ll never forget his reaction: he chuckled, rolled his eyes, shook his head, and said, “I know, right?” Like it was the most ridiculous thing in the world—since, after all, it kind of was. And it is. It still is. Because, in the end, we are supposed to love our enemies. Because love, if it is as strong as we say it is and believe that it is, has a real chance at turning enemies into something other than enemies at least sometimes.

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 two weeks ago, 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. Last week, 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 don’t get any easier to swallow with this week’s instructions.

After all, this week’s passage includes the ol’ “love your enemies” bit that we all know but all refuse to follow. Or, at the very least, that we follow by coming up with a completely cockamamie definition of what constitutes ‘love,’ a definition that could only be applied to someone who was, in fact, you enemy (like, “I will love this person by shunning them in order to show them the error of their ways, because how dare they be born gay or out of wedlock?”).

But that’s not all! We aren’t just supposed to love our enemies, we are supposed to give to the people who mug us! If anyone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt as well. No way we do that today. If someone takes my coat, I hang onto my shirt, thank you very much, and we are liable to mace our assailant if we get the chance. Because that is what is realistic, right? And we live in the real world, right? We cannot always afford to be idealistic, right?

Well…no. It’s quite the opposite: in the real world, in the realistic world, in the broken and sinful world that we inhabit, we cannot afford to NOT be idealistic. Without our ideals, we run the risk of slipping into a nihilistic mentality of valuing absolutely nothing: not ourselves, not our loved ones, and certainly not God.

Which is why Jesus instructs us otherwise, and those instructions can be split into two different trains of thought, the first in verses 27-31, the second in verses 32-36. And really, I could do a sermon on each of these blocks of text, but we’ll try to tackle them together, going in reverse order.

By way of commentary on verses 32-36, I would simply quote from the Bible scholar Sharon Ringe: 
The usual pattern of repaying one favor with another simply perpetuates relationships based on calculation and mutual advantage. Such relationships represent no more than business as usual, particularly in a society (like those in which both Jesus and Luke lived) defined by systems of “patronage.” In a patronage system, a person’s status in the society is determined by those whom have to depend on that person, and by those, in turn, on whom that person must rely. Personal relationships in a patronage system are marked by calculations of debts and credits: Who owes what to whom? …If you help me, I will owe you my loyalty as well as material compensation. At best, you will have a chip you can call in for a future favor. At worst, the less powerful person becomes virtually a slave of the more powerful. 

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which you were defined not by what you did and who you were to people--a mother or father, a husband or wife, son or daughter, brother or sister--or by your profession, but by how much you owed.  Think of how embarrassing or humiliating it would be to lead off conversations not with "So what do you do?" (which can still be a loaded question in some cases) but with, "So who do you owe?"

And so much of Jesus’s teachings in Luke’s Gospel especially center around this imperative need of liberating the enslaved from their bondage—it makes sense. But I can hear the rejoinder: wouldn’t, say, “giving to everyone who asks of you” turn us into slaves because we would have nothing?

Well…yeah, you have nothing. Which means you no longer have your love for possessions, material wealth, and monetary riches to bind you down like Jacob Marley in Scrooge’s wacky dreams.

Because it isn’t just the living that can enslave us. Humans have enslaved one another for millennia, but the things that we have created likewise have enslaved us. Things like greed. Things like hatred.

And in order to be able to receive the full import and effect and impact of Jesus’s teachings, we first have to be honest with ourselves about what it is that enslaves us. The obvious answer is sin, but what sort of sin? We aren’t all equally tempted by different wrongs; some tend to creep up on us more than others. But one of those temptations that tends to be pretty universal is us wanting to do wrong to people who have wronged us, or crossed us, or have otherwise qualified themselves to be our enemies.

And before I really begin unpacking that statement, I want to nip this in the bud: Jesus advocating nonviolent remedies to violence did not make Him, or the Gospel, any less dangerous to those in power who felt threatened by Him. Nor does it make Jesus any less dangerous today. A number of pastors rail against us portraying Jesus as some sort of hippie who wanted everyone to hold hands and hit the peace pipe, presumably because they’d rather Jesus be made in their non-hippie image.

It’s an example of a strawman fallacy: the creating of something that doesn’t exist (the strawman) in order to attack it. Jesus wasn’t dangerous because He was a “peace, love, and rock n’ roll” chap or not—He was dangerous because if people actually did what He said here, if they actually all decided not to turn to violence and selfishness and greed, there would be no Roman Empire, no powerful temple aristocracy to prop up the Empire, no need for the countless ways in which those in power oppressed those not in power in order to keep on staying in power.

In other words: Jesus was dangerous because if we all actually did what He’s saying here, we wouldn’t even recognize the world, so changed it would be from its present state. And that scared an awful lot of people in His day. It still scares an awful lot of people now, probably including people who, these fears notwithstanding, otherwise would identify themselves as Christian.

To be perfectly honest and candid with you, it scares me sometimes. Because I know there is no way I can follow the instructions of Luke 6 all of the time, or even most of time on occasions. But being able to admit that humbling reality is part of that freeing process, that liberation from sin that Christ promises you and I alike. And the idea is, when we are completely free, we will be able to do all of these things, no problem…and in so doing, we will truly have become, as Jesus calls us, children of the most high.

And children of the most high know no enemies. They are like the children we have today: whose enemies are not ISIS, or Al-Qaeda, or the political party we voted against in the last election, or the church down the road whose doctrine makes us throw up in our mouths, or even that jerkweed who cut us off on the 5 without signaling. No, their enemies are their invisible friends, or the kid who won’t share their shovel with them in the sandbox. Enemies who aren’t really enemies. Jesus says we will be children of the most high…well, it stands to reason that we might just need to be a little bit more like the children of the exactly regular high folks as well—us. Like our children. Like the fellow child I came across in that dingy high school cafeteria. The kind who recognizes enemies who aren’t really your enemies, but friends. Family. Relatives. Loved ones.

That is what being children of the most high promises us.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 12, 2014