Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Five Years Ago: Eastertide Water

Five years ago, in the midst of finishing up my first year at seminary, I went on a weekend retreat in Marin County with the classmates of one of my courses at UC-Berkeley--a course on how we culturally, medically, and religiously approach death.  The retreat took place on Easter weekend, and I presided at a communion service for my class while we were there.  Upon my return, I wrote this.  As Eastertide--the 50 days-long season of Easter--begins this year, I hope that I have begun to become the minister that I saw this month five years ago.  -E.A.

I have returned to Berkeley after spending the last 48 hours at a Zen retreat center in Marin County (for peoples unfamiliar with the Bay Area, that is the land directly north of San Francisco proper). I went there with a dozen other students in my class on death over at UC-Berkeley. It was a great experience for growth and fellowship. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I can't specifically remember the last time I went 48 hours without a phone or internet--it was probably during my trip to Africa in 2006.

The retreat center was very close to the ocean--after about a 20-minute walk, you were at the beach. I and several other students hiked over to the beach on Saturday afternoon...I mostly kept to myself for that time, in part because of the importance the Pacific Ocean has for me because of my Oregon connection. Recalling my grandpa's place by the Oregon coast brings back a flood of memories--his cooking, drinking gin with him on the porch, and listening to his plethora of stories. It also brings back the memory of the ocean off of the Manzanita beach, which remains one of the most spiritual places I have ever been to. If I had to pick one place to go on retreat to every year, it might well be that stretch of the northern Oregon coast.

And so I walked along the very end of the tide of the ocean, letting its crests wash over my legs and allowing its continual noise to serenade me. And after walking along the ocean for so long, I looked down to be surprised by seeing my feet as clean as they had ever been--which is no small feat, since I go everywhere in sandals or flip-flops.

The following morning, Easter morning, I took one final walk around the Zen center in the morning to bid farewell to the aesthetically beautiful settings that I had been surrounded by this weekend, and on the center's property is a small, sqaure garden bordered with lush, green hedges. There are four benches, each dedicated in memory of someone, that sit circularly around a wizened, twisted, beautiful tree which creates the central focal point of the garden. Even in an already extraordinarily beautiful setting, this garden might have exceeded everything else. This morning, as I walked around it for the last time, I took off my sandals to let the dew of the long grass wash over and cool my feet once more.

In the Gospel of John, there is no Last Supper with Jesus and the Apostles. Instead, we find only in John the story of Jesus washing the feet of each Apostle in turn, telling them to serve one another, just as He has served them. I often think that in the hustle and bustle of our increasingly stressed daily lives, it can do wonders to remember in how many ways the creation sustains us, in the food we eat, in the clothes we wear, and sometimes, in how the dew and ocean water of the California coast can soothe and clean someone's feet.

And then I remember that I, too, am called to serve...and in the dew of the grass and the waters of the ocean, I have caught a glimpse of the minister that I could become.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter 2014 Sermon: "He Goes Ahead of You"

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. 2 Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. 3 Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. 4 The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. 7 Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.” 8 With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9 But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.” (Common English Bible)

“He Goes Ahead of You,” Matthew 28:1-10

My feet are pounding against the hospital floor as I keep pace alongside the medical staff.

I am whispering prayers softly under my breath.

And pounding in my head is a throbbing headache that keeps time with my feet.

One day, one of the patients on my service is rushed down to the emergency room. I had just walked onto the floor to see the medical staff preparing to move the patient to the ER. I ask the patient if they would like for me to accompany them to the ER, they weakly say yes. I am suddenly and starkly aware of the trust that is being invested in me--it is one thing to talk to the chaplain in a laid-back setting of a hospital routine, it is entirely another to have him at your side as you are being brought into the ER.

On television shows, the ER is a place full of drama, attractive doctors and nurses, and of patients who either accomplish incredible come-from-behind recoveries, or die in the most heartbreaking manner. Television got it right in at least one respect--any death has the agonizing capacity to be heartbreaking. But sometimes, the similarities end there. And especially for family--in this case, the patient's father, who came down to the ER with us--it is a place for long waits, confusion, apprehension, and sometimes, outright fear.

As an intern chaplain, I could not tell a worried father why exactly his child is being taken in for x-rays, an echocardiogram, an MRI, or any other tests, but I could tell him that the x-ray is very close by, that they have not taken his child far at all, and that through it all, God's divine presence remains very much alive in the room and in his child and in her doctors. And through it all, I continue to give my own prayers, silently and spoken, as an offering to anyone, anything that was listening.

Days later, in the wake of this crisis, the patient referred to me as their angel. That meant a tremendous amount to me--I felt like it gave me far more credit than I deserved--but it was and is a powerful reminder of the impact we can have in a person's life, for both good and bad. While the word 'angel' often carries connotations of great personal virtue, I think that once you put aside that connotation, there is an interesting connection to be made. Just as angels are the ethereal go-betweens from heaven to earth, so too can Christians be earthly go-betweens from a person's fears to their hopes.  We are go-betweens from a parent's worry to their child's physical presence.

And so, I am sometimes seen by patients as a go-between from divine presence to the tangible, physical, fragile creation, even though to me I am, quite simply, human.  Even though I, like every other person ever born, will not resurrect the third day after my death and leave behind an empty tomb.  Even though I cannot begin to even come close to how divine Jesus was and is.  But choosing to follow Christ means being, literally, a “little Christ.”  That is what the word Christian literally breaks down into.  Little Christ.  We are images, go-betweens, reflections of the Christ who walked the earth and who, nearly 2,000 years ago, arose from the dead on this day.  But unlike the angel of Matthew 28, we do not—cannot—arrive on the scene by summoning a great earthquake.  We have to make do with our little, fragile, human selves to speak to the people who see the tomb.

And the source of that fright swings like a pendulum on Easter.  Previously, we might have been afraid for our safety with the execution of our Messiah, but now that He has risen from the dead, what are we to make of the world?  If death is no longer permanent, then is up no longer down?  Is cold no longer hot?  Death might represent an unyielding reality, but it is an unyielding reality that we could have been certain of, that we could have clung to, that we could have built an entire existence upon.  And now even death is no longer certain, because the stone has been rolled away.

And so while we know now, nearly 2,000 years after the fact, that this is good news—in fact, is the cause of THE Good News—the women followers of Jesus who are the first to discover the empty tomb understandably require a bit more convincing.  They require a bit more from this particular go-between of God’s.  And the angel delivers: “Be not afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here, for He has been raised, as He said.  Come, see the place where the Lord lay, and indeed, He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him.”

Now, the angel said, “Galilee,” but consider for just a moment the role that Galilee played in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  It was where He was raised.  It was His home base.  It was where he, in fact, spent much of his public ministry teaching and healing and praying.  Consider the role, then, and the subject, and look at what the angel is referring to by saying “Galilee.”  The angel is saying “home.”  He is going ahead of you to your home.  To His home.  He goes ahead of you not just to a geographical point that you can place on a map, He goes ahead of you to that which is emotionally closest to you, where you hang your hat, where you make your rest.  It would be like the angel saying to us, “Jesus is going ahead of you to Longview, or to Kelso, or to Castle Rock.”  Jesus goes ahead of you to that which is your own home as well as His.  He goes ahead of you wherever you may go.

For, once you draw the circle of homes even wider, the angel’s message becomes more profound.  Jesus goes ahead of us to our “forever home” as well.  He has died and risen again and will walk the earth and ascend for good 40 days from now.  He goes ahead of us to heaven as well.  He went ahead of us to heaven by being sealed away in the stone-blocked tomb, and He goes ahead of us again to Heaven when He ascends once more and leaves for us the Holy Spirit.

And in this going to-and-fro, from heaven initially then down to earth, as John says, to live among us, and then crucified and back to the afterlife, then resurrected and returned to earth, before finally arriving at heaven to stay, Jesus is that great, ultimate go-between for us as we search for heaven here upon the earth.  When we struggle in searching for answers to our questions, He is there maybe not to answer them with a simple yes or no, but to illustrate them with parables and stories and truths that are far more profound and dig far deeper than a one-word, magic 8-ball-type rejoinder.

Because there is a simple, earth-quaking, disturbingly unbelievable truth at work here on Easter Sunday: the tomb had a body in it yesterday, and now it is empty.  The man who was dead is now alive.  And nothing will ever be the same again.

Truth be told, that should probably frighten us.  There’s a reason the angel leads off with “Be not afraid,” and it isn’t just because of the earthquake that accompanies them.  It is because if you visit a grave, you expect for there to be a body.  And unless you already knew the resurrection had occurred, let’s be honest with ourselves: we would probably be scared stiff as well.  And, as an aside, the angel says “Be not afraid” so that the resurrection—the second life—of Jesus correspond to the birth—the beginning of the first life of Jesus.  In both scenes—here in Matthew and in Bethlehem in Luke 2—the heavenly host leads off with the immortal words “Be not afraid!”

And that is really what we take for granted here.  We know how this story ends.  It is like reading the entire Harry Potter series knowing that Voldemort would die at the end of the seventh book.  We have the advantage of two millennia worth of hindsight.  The female disciples of Jesus did not.

But they become the torchbearers of history that is made on this day.  The male disciples, having fled at Gethsemane 72 hours previous, are presumably still on the lam.  And it falls to the two Marys to assume the role of go-betweens from heavenly emissary to earthly disciple.  But Jesus goes ahead of them even to the male disciples: “But Jesus met them and greeted them,” Matthew writes.  Considering Jesus’ consistent welcoming of women into his inner circle, it is sublimely appropriate.

And now, today, Jesus invites you into his circle as well.  In point of fact, He already has.  It is a freestanding invitation to learn from Him, to follow Him, and to do so for eternity should you wish it, because by the empty tomb, that final barrier to eternal life has been shattered upon this day.  Earthly death has been conquered by divine love.  Love has won.

Which leaves perhaps only the most basic, most foundational, most profound of questions left for me to ask: are you willing to let that divine love guide you?  Are you willing to let it mold you, to reshape you, to go ahead of you?  Despite your fears?  Despite your worries?  Despite your trepidations and reservations and hesitations?  Are you willing to say yes?

If you are…then be not afraid.  You will see Him in your life.

For He is risen.  He is risen, indeed.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 20, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: The Myth that God Is Dead

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16: The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

When all the buzz about the new God's Not Dead film began to hit my radar, I posted this on Twitter:

Which might be an indication of my level of dorkiness (though I really probably only have the first half of The Holy Grail memorized.  Hey, confession is good for the soul), but in retrospect, that tweet was also an indication of just how seriously I take the argument over whether or not "God is dead."  Because if I am completely honest with you, I do not have a ton of patience with the "God is dead" kerkuffle.

The famous hypothesis that God is dead comes from the famous Thus Spake Zarathustra treatise by 19th-century philosopher (and moustache aficionado) Friedrich Nietzsche.  He writes, in part:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?

How shall we comfort ourselves, indeed.  Were Nietzsche simply talking about Jesus here, that might be one thing.  We did kill Jesus.  That is what this next 72 hours are all about--we, in our oppression and our darkness, killed God's Son.  But when Nietzsche asks "who will wipe this blood off us?" he *should* already know the answer to that question--it is the one whom we "killed," because the one whom we killed is incapable of dying entirely.

Of course, it is easy--probably too easy, really--to look around at the world and think that God is dead to it.  Thousands upon thousands of preventable deaths happen every day as a result of starvation, preventable illness, and violence, and here we are claiming to follow a God who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and demands peace.  Where is this absentee landlord of a deity who proclaims these things but does not ensure them?  (Subsequent edit: As a couple of my (admittedly smarter than me) friends have pointed out to me on Facebook, Nietzsche isn't necessarily arguing for "killing God," but against the religion of people who cling to the ideas of devotion, atonement, and redemption which he posits were invented not by God, but by man.  There lies a fundamental difference, though, I believe between invention and interpretation.  We may be--and in fact, are--guilty of the latter, but not the former.)

In this way, the "is God dead?" question is really symptomatic of another existential concern that has plagued us for millennia.  Why do these things happen if God is good?  Naturally, we can say that God causes them as punishment, or that Satan causes them because "the devil made me do it," or that we do it to ourselves, both systemically and individually.  But there is also the reality that Solomon states in Ecclesiastes 9, which we just covered in our evening Bible study at FCC--the race is not for the swift, or the battle for the strong, or bread for the wise...for time and chance happens to them all.

Solomon is not saying that God necessarily wants such things to happen, only that such things will because of the inevitability of our own existences.  I tend to believe that not only does God not want such things to occur, but because of God's omniscience, He can see the worlds in which our preventable evils did not have to occur, and far from being dead, God feels the emotion and grief at seeing bad things occur that did not have to happen, perhaps even more so than us because unlike us, God can see with complete clarity a possibility of the only source of hurt and pain being not us ourselves--of it being only inevitability itself.

Okay, but then why didn't God create a perfect world?

God did.  We call that world Heaven.  And there, God is still very much among the living.

Just as God is here on earth as well.  Despite its imperfections.

Despite OUR imperfections.

God is a god of the living...so why do you seek the living among the dead?

God lives.  God is alive.  And God will remain alive.

Even if...even when...we try to kill Him.

After all, we tried that once already.  And an empty tomb was the result.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 14, 2014

Baruch Dayan Ha'emet

Yesterday afternoon, I returned to my office at the church after wrapping up a board of directors meeting.  I had about fifteen minutes before my next appointment, so I decided to be a dutiful son and call the rents.  And the news my mom had for me left me absolutely gobsmacked: the Jewish Community Center in my hometown of Overland Park had been one of two sites of a shooting that had left three people dead on the Pesach--on the eve of Passover.

As more and more details about the shootings trickled out, and as I benefited from some much-needed sleep, my thoughts began to find their voice again.  And this is what they say:

I have hugged Holocaust survivors and prayed at the Western Wall.

I have celebrated the bar and bat mitzvahs of friends and I have celebrated Passover seders with others.

I used to work out in the JCC's gym, and my sister used to work in their summer daycare.  We grew up in a home a ten-minute drive away.

I have built up, over the course of my 28 years, a relationship with Judaism that I have, at every turn, benefited intangibly and tremendously from.  Its Scriptures are a part of my Scriptures, its traditions, a part of my traditions.

So even without being Jewish myself, it is so very hard not to take this personally.  Because my own faith owes a debt of gratitude to the historical faith that birthed it.  Because my own life owes a debt of gratitude to friends whose Jewishness was, and is, an integral part of their identities.  And because if people still hate other people because of their faith (or ethnicity, for that matter), it means that religious teachers like me still have not undone the prejudices that have plagued humanity throughout history.

There is a terrible irony in that all three of the three victims were, in fact, not Jewish but Christian--two were a grandfather and grandson who worshiped at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and who have close familial connections to my own Disciples denomination, the third was a Roman Catholic woman and mother.  A raging anti-Semite who sought to kill Jewish persons in the name of Adolf Hitler wound up slaying a trio of Christians instead.

There's a reason we call it "blind" hatred.  It really, truly, utterly blinds you.  In every possible sense.

I experienced my own blinding of sorts that afternoon--I was angry and upset and I honestly felt like it would be good to take a few swings myself at the perpetrator, Glenn Frazier Miller/Cross...even though he is 73 years old and even though I am a pastor teaching the way of the Prince of Peace.

But then, as I so often do, I reached for Scripture.  I remembered Paul's words in Romans 12:19-- "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.'"

Paul, a Jesus follower, is calling upon his Jewish heritage in this verse.  He is quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 and interpreting it to teach that God is the one mete out any retributive justice.  Not humanity.  Paul, just like me, is benefiting from the Jewish Scriptures in his life...and he is interpreting them in such a way to tell me a truth that is both profoundly Jewish and profoundly Christian: God is the only perfect judge of us.

There is a Hebrew saying, sometimes recited in Jewish tradition upon the death of a person: baruch dayan ha'emet.  It translates, roughly, into "blessed be the one true judge."  Blessed be the God who created us and  who receives us into the afterlife upon our earthly death.

And, His Son says to us in the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are you who face persecution for His sake.

Blessed are you who face hardships because you love and follow God.

Blessed are you, because God loves you right back.  And no racist epithets, no anti-Semitic poison, no ancient and shameful prejudices, can change that immutable, monumental, earth-shaking reality.

God loves you right back.  He always has.  He always will.  No matter what the haters may claim to say or do on God's behalf.

Blessed be that God who loves you.

Baruch dayan ha'emet,

Sunday, April 13, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Colt Surfing"

Matthew 21:1-11

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.”[a] 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them. 8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![b] Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Common English Bible)

“Colt Surfing,” Matthew 21:1-11

The images are a gallery of injuries—amputations, lacerations, surgical scars…not to mention the invisible but still insidious injuries like perforated eardrums and post-traumatic stress.  But upon their injured bodies, survivors of the Boston marathon bombings had inked personal messages of sentiment and hope as they posed for portraits at the marathon’s finish line—for many of them, it was their first time back to the site since the bombings.

Two days from now, on April 15, we will arrive at the Tuesday of Holy Week, but we will also arrive at the first anniversary of the Boston marathon bombings.  And one portrait from the finish line comes from Elizabeth Bermingham, a special education teacher in nearby Watham, who inked the word “resilient” across her arms. She said, in the caption to her photograph, this (in part):

How do you find resiliency day to day?  How do you find it in the big picture?  How do you become healthier, more normal, more typical, how do (you) come back from something like this, a tragedy?

I’d say in terms of resiliency and coming back and training for the marathon, and even coming back from having something happen to you and trying to feel more normal, it’s less physically centered and it’s more in your brain almost.  That it’s like your brain has to learn how to communicate again.  It has to bring this experience, put it into memory.  They’ve explained to us a bunch of different times in our group that flashbacks, and pieces of that, is your brain not quite communicating and not translating this experience into your normal memory.  That takes a long time, and it’s really difficult, and so as you run…what I’ve found as I’m running and as I’m out on the course, I find myself both thinking about last year’s marathon and then next year’s marathon, and trying to replace in my head the images of horror with images of triumph.

The second photograph of her in the collage is of her opening up the palm of her left hand, upon which another message is inked: Love wins.  How appropriate an expression to encapsulate a story beginning with searching for resiliency and ending with the transformation of horror into triumph.  Scarcely little else on earth possesses the power to do such things beyond love.  It is why we are willing to move heaven and earth for one another.  It is why, ultimately, Jesus is willing to come to Jerusalem to teach and to heal and to pray and to die.  It is because love, His love, wins.  And that triumph of love and life eternal over death and destruction begins here, today, on Palm Sunday.

The exposition of Palm Sunday is pretty straightforward for most of us—Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the upcoming Passover, and He decides to make a statement with His entrance into the city by, basically, having a victory parade.  Only without the victory just yet.

Jesus’ victorious entry into Jerusalem is depicted by Mark, Luke, and Matthew—whose version we will be studying today.  And it’s pretty standard fare—Jesus sends His disciples to Jerusalem to boost a colt from its rightful owner (you think “grand theft donkey” was a thing back then?  Imagine if we used that excuse today… “Hey, where are you taking that Ford Mustang?!” (Since that's probably the closest thing we have today to a tied-up colt, right?) “The Lord needs it!” Yeah, that’ll end well).

The disciples come back with the hot-wired…I mean borrowed…donkey, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem as crowds of people gather to shout Hosannas to His name and to literally lay down their clothing on the ground before Him so that Jesus does not have to ride in the dust and dirt.  But how Jesus does the riding is…well, it depends on just how literally you take Matthew’s words here.

Matthew’s larger point in verses 4-6 is that Jesus is fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, specifically from Zechariah 9, of a coming king.  To Matthew—and to us—Jesus is that king.  But Zechariah writes his prophecy in verse.  As the Presbyterian pastor and professor Thomas Long put it:

Now, superficially, it may appear the Zechariah quotation describes two animals—a donkey and a colt.  Actually, though, only one animal is meant.  “On a donkey, on a colt” is a textbook example of parallelism, a common device in Hebrew poetry where something is said once and then repeated for emphasis in a slightly different fashion.

Matthew, though, is writing his Gospel account in prose, not verse.  So, in order to cover all his bases, Matthew decides to report that there was both a donkey and a colt, and that Jesus “sat” on them both.  What that looked like—or how Jesus managed it—is your guess as much as it is mine.  Let it be an object lesson to us in trying taking the poetry in Scripture too literally.  Matthew is, which honestly understandable--if you are making a theological argument like that Jesus fulfills Zechariah's prophecy in whole, you might as well go all out) and as a result, he is depicting the Son of Man coasting into town half on a donkey, half on a baby donkey.

Which might make the whole thing seem a bit more comical to us—and that may well have been the point, since, as you may remember from previous Palm Sunday sermons I have given here, Jesus is in no small part modeling his entry after the triumphal entrances into Jerusalem by conquering foreign warlords like the Babylonians and the Romans, and He is, in a way, satirizing those triumphal parades by entering not on a great warhorse, but, again, on a donkey and a baby donkey.  There’s majestic, and then there’s…well, humble.  And I’ve never heard a donkey be called majestic.

Rather, it is not the steed in this case which requires the aura of majesty, but its rider.  Which, therein, lies still further irony.  Jesus is not decked out in His finest armor with a broadsword, scabbard, and helmet.  He is still the dirt-poor itinerant carpenter that His human form has always been.  The outward majesty comes not from Him, but from the respect the Jerusalem citizenry proffer to Him by way of refusing to let even the hooves of his mounts touch the dusty ground.

And there really is a profound sort of majesty in that level of humility, of putting the cleanliness of an animal’s hooves before your clothing’s well-being.  Your cloak probably doesn’t look too good afterward, but it is the humility behind the gesture that gets captured today in immortal images and photographs.  Think of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in penitence before the memorial to the Holocaust-era ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.  Think of the survivors of the Boston marathon as they take their pictures, artificial limbs and scars and all, at the finish line that could have claimed their lives.  Think of the beleaguered crowds in Jerusalem and their beleaguered Savior, to whom they cry out, Hosanna!  It means, simply, “Save us now!”  The expectation of salvation comes not from majesty in this case, but from humility.  Not from power, but from heart.

And so as we enter this week of passion, may God in all His wonder and splendor save us through the humble majesty exhibited by a nobody whose extraordinary life and resurrection made Him the greatest somebody to ever grace this earth.  Because one week from today, that nobody will have been rescued from the clutches of death itself.  Should we choose it, the destruction will be over.  And the great work of saving one another can begin again.

Hosanna, Hosanna in Excelsis!  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 13, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: "The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back"

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16 The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

This is an apropos entry for me to work on because we have just spent the past two weeks in the Tuesday morning Bible study that I teach going through the "little apocalypse" of Mark 13 (the "big apocalypse," of course, being Revelation).  Jesus ends this apocalyptic prophesy that reads an awful lot like the world ending by, in part, saying this: "I assure you that this generation won't pass away until all these things happen...but nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in haven and not the Son.  Only the Father knows. " (Mark 13:30, 32)

In other words: all these things Jesus describes (what we take to be the end of the world) will happen before everyone alive at the time has died.  But then He says that nobody knows when exactly that it will happen, not even Jesus Himself.

What on earth are we to make of this apparent (on its face, anyways) contradiction by the Messiah?

Well...first, there's the reality that Jesus admits He knows not the exact time and place, which might be reason enough.  Additionally, the "nobody knows when the day or hour comes" sentiment is repeated later in the New Testament by Peter (2 Peter 3:10--"The day of the Lord will come like a thief," ie, without us seeing it).  But there is also the possibility of the term "generation" being used metaphorically rather than literally by Jesus here--if a generation of believers, rather than strictly of blood kin, can last for centuries or millennia, who is to say that not all among this generation have passed away quite yet?

(It is worth noting as well that I am largely adhering to theological tradition in postulating that Jesus' second coming is a part of the end of time itself--in other words, that "the day of the Lord" also would at one point include, as John puts it in Revelation, the first earth and the first heaven passing away.)

Yet in spite of this uncertainty that is really quite plain in Mark 13, many preachers throughout history have been all too eager to capitalize on the cottage industry of trying to predict the end of the world, often for their own personal greed and gain.  I lived just north of Oakland in Berkeley during my time at seminary and was actually finishing up my degree when Oakland preacher Harold Camping infamously issued out his followers across the country to proclaim that the end would be happening in the spring of 2011 (and yet, here we are...three years later...imagine that).  There are the televangelists such as Jack Van Impe who have built entire empires off of predicting the end times.  There (were) and are sects/cults such as the Millerites and Branch Davidians who turned these predictions into something horrifically destructive.

And don't get me started on the kookyboots indulging of people who bought at all into the end of the Mayan calendar in December 2012.  And I say this as a diehard fan of the X-Files television show, whose entire premise is based upon an alien invasion that was scheduled to take place at the end of the Mayan calendar.  Suffice it to say that ranks right up there with Y2K in the disasters-that-weren't category.

Nobody knows when the world we inhabit will end--at least, with any sort of precision.  Astronomy says that the earth will eventually be incinerated by the Sun as it turns into a red giant star, but we are a few billion years away from that eventual fate.  If anything, destruction is taking place not on God's timetable, but our own--we are plowing through the earth's resources at an incredible and irresponsible rate, despite God's command to Adam in Genesis 2 to keep the land (rather than, say, exploit it).

Put simply: are you worried about when or how God will end things?  You shouldn't be.  Are you worried about when or how we will?  We probably should, at least a little.  Worry about how you live your life here--and if it is life in love and faith in God and in Christ, and of concern for your childrens' and granchildrens' future, your own ultimate future will probably sort itself out.

That's as close as I'll probably ever get to predicting the future.  And, my childhood Magic 8 ball obsession aside, I'm rather okay with that.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 7, 2014

One Millennial's Rainbow Connection: A Response to Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

As a very young child in the early 1990s, I had a great many television shows that I LOVED.  Garfield & Friends, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Captain Planet were Saturday morning mainstays for me.  But before any of those masterpieces of animation pinged my pint-sized radar, there was the Muppet Family Christmas, featuring both the full repertoire of Muppets and the cast of characters on my first television love, Sesame Street.  I so loved watching the Muppet Family Christmas that I would demand to watch it every day, some years all the way until May or June after Christmas.  This is also to say nothing of just how frequently I have watched just about all of the Muppet Studios videos on Youtube (and sang along with many, often with friends), or of how vociferously I once asked my soon-to-be in-laws when I first met them "where they stood on the Muppets."  (Fortunately for all parties, they were--and are--resoundingly pro-Muppet.)

I tell you these potentially embarrassing factoids about my neuroses not as a means of public self-flagellation (though I am certainly not above that), but as a way of saying that I, as a card-carrying millennial (see above list of favorite childhood television shows for further proof if necessary), have been shaped as profoundly and dramatically as any member of Generation X by the Muppets, Sesame Street, and the kingdom that Jim Henson built.  Jim may have died when I was but a lad of four, but more than probably any public figure, his work shaped the ethos that I was instilled with as a child.

Knowing this (was she trying to bait me into doing something like this?!), my mom tagged me on Twitter with an exceptionally well thought-out article by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens that was posted to Salon this past weekend entitled, "Millennials Just Don't Get It!  How the Muppets Created Generation X."  I promised her I would write something here about it, because as a millennial, I'd like to think I get it.  Just a little bit.

Now, granted, I was born in 1986, and as Stevens notes in her work, Gen X sometimes is considered to extend all the way to 1984, so I am certainly on the elder end of the Millennial generation and may well be more apt to be influenced by the Muppets and Sesame Street than a Millennial born in, say, 1996.  But whereas Stevens suggests that, "A college freshman might feel just as emotional about Barney, Power Rangers and the Teletubbies. While I don’t have a high opinion of the lobotomized purple dinosaur, he was certainly a “touchstone” to 20-year-olds," I would gleefully note that not only do I share her massive disdain for the lobotomized purple dinosaur, I shared it even when said overly trite therapod really burst onto the scene in 1992, as my first-grade friends and I competed to make up the most vicious jingles possible to the unbearably cloying "I love you, you love me" song.  And don't even get me started on the Teletubbies (the Power Rangers, on the other hand, I will defend to the death.  They were awesome.  But the assignment of their power suit colors was pretty racist).

In other words: perhaps today's twentysomethings do feel just as attached to Barney and the Teletubbies.  But speaking as a twentysomething, I have yet to meet any.  I suspect the twentysomething who still loves Barney will someday rank right up there with Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster by conspiracy theorists who go a-huntin' for elusive, rare, mystical beasts.

More to the point, though, is the reality that Stevens notes immediately afterward: We ALL have our nostalgia.  All of us.  And to consign the object of a millennial's nostalgia to a dopey dinosaur is to paint the generation that succeeds you with far too broad a brush.  And considering just how wide-ranging Gen X is--again, to quote Stevens, from at least 1961 to 1981--you would think that there would be more understanding and sensitivity to overly generalizing a generation.

Because to slap upon us millennials the label of "not getting it" is to, in fact, not get it: we may be obsessed with our smartphones and absorbed by our own special snowflake-iness (I have read the same awful articles that you have--and it has done wonders for my self-esteem.  Now I know that because I'm a millennial, I suck, and I'm sorry), but we also get that this is a community that we belong to by being a part of the human race.  Ironically, technology may have (read: probably has) isolated us in our one-on-one interactions, but it has made us more connected to the wider world than ever, and I believe that we, as a generation, have taken to heart the exact same values that Stevens lists off that she received from the Muppets: inclusion (look at how many millennials support marriage equality), global citizenship (look at how many of us believe in the importance of bettering the world), and education (we're on track to be the most educated generation in history).

Correlation without causation?  Maybe a bit.  Certainly, we had other major influences in our lives who have helped shape our destinies--the values of our Baby Boomer parents, the persistent torpor of the global economy, and a profound disillusionment with established institutions.  But the Muppets--and Sesame Street--mark, I believe, an exception which proves the rule to that disillusionment with institutions.  The Muppets have been around far longer than we, but because the values they espouse speak to not just one generation but to many, we are able to claim them as our own as well, just like the Gen X-ers.  Generation X is not the only generation to owe Jim Henson an immeasurable debt of gratitude.  We millennials are very much co-signers of said debt.

You may call us naive and self-absorbed if you want (we probably are, at least a little).  Say we are attached too much to the lobotomized purple dinosaur or to the Tubbies of Television (even though we probably aren't...seriously, has Buzzfeed EVER made one of those now-ubiquitous "Things you miss about your '90s childhood" articles that included Barney?).  Posit that we cannot possibly fathom your attachment to something that we ourselves are attached to, like Statler and Waldorf's incessant mockery, or Sam the Eagle's patriotism, or the Swedish Chef's...well, anything that the Swedish Chef does, really.  Or anything that his ingredients do to him.

You can argue any of those things.  But we millennials know in our special-snowflake hearts that we are able to claim the cultural heritage of the Muppets for ourselves as well.  Jim Henson may have died when we were very young--or even before we ourselves were born--but his creations continue to speak to us today, instructing us, teaching us, and guiding us like the Muppet Show of old.  And in this way, we millennials are not so unique after all.  Our connection to the Muppets is but one stripe of color in the Rainbow Connection that binds together lovers and dreamers alike...but it is a stripe of color that remains vibrant and vivid to behold.

Yours in Christ,