Friday, July 1, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

July 2016: "Setting Up the Sabbatical"

Dear Church,

As many of you know I am currently tentatively scheduled to spend the first three months of 2017 on sabbatical.

The letter of call I signed in August 2011--almost five years ago!--stipulates a three-month sabbatical after every five years of service, and I plan to take advantage of sacred and holy time away from day-in, day-out ministry by working on my Doctor of Ministry thesis at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry and teaching at Three Rivers Christian School. By taking on both of these tasks, I am not only furthering my professional education to benefit the church through SU-STM, but I also get an amazing opportunity to give back to the wider community through TRCS.

While I am on sabbatical from January 2 through April 2, my presence in your life will be different. I won't be available for the regular tasks of preaching, teaching, counseling, and leading that you rely on me to do. That does not mean that you will not hear from me--I'll still be around on social media and posting updates of my sabbatical to my online blog, but you won't see me at church on Sundays or in my office during the week like usual. 

Instead, an ad hoc search committe is, by the authority of our Board of Directors, being formed to recommend a candidate for the role of Interim Sabbatical Pastor, who would provide a part-time pastoral presence for the church during my sabbatical. and our Director of Children's Ministries, Jamie Lynn Devries, will provide input to the committee in a nonvoting, ex officio capacity.

I myself, though I have reached out to the candidates to gauge their interest in this position, will have no part in any of the committee's deliberations, nor will I have a vote on their recommendation to the congregation. This committee will be starting its work in earnest over the next couple of months to vet the candidates--who have been recommended to us by Sandy Messick, our Regional Minister and President--before them. They will surely appreciate your prayers for God's providence and guidance in making their recommendation, which hopefully can be brought to a congregational vote by October or November.

Even with the ministry of an interim sabbatical pastor, though, we will need our dedicated church volunteers to step up as well. I have already spoken to our Board and our Elders about the increased responsibilities they will face in the areas of decision-making (the Board) and pastoral care of our people (the Elders), and they too should be prayed for and cared for, as should Jamie, Charlotte, and our church staff.

I remain immensely grateful to the search committee that voted to recommend me to you five years ago--Judy Southard, Judy Ellenbolt, Alma Kudlacek, Don Powell, Lori Powell, and the late Darlyne Temanson--and for their foresight to include the sabbatical as a part of my letter of call. This time to work on my education--and to provide for the education of others in our town--is a precious gift, and it cannot be taken for granted. The purpose with which I am approaching it does, I hope, speak volumes to all of you about its value to me and to our congregation!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Thursday, June 30, 2016

My Mea Culpa

Over the weekend, Pope Francis had this to say in the wake of not only Pride celebrations everywhere, but also the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that targeted GLBTQ people specifically and claimed the lives of 49 of them:

I think that the Church not only should apologize ... to a gay person whom it offended but it must also apologize to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children who have been exploited by (being forced to) work. It must apologize for having blessed so many weapons...We Christians have to apologize for so many things, not just for this (treatment of gays), but we must ask for forgiveness, not just apologize! Forgiveness! Lord, it is a word we forget so often!

As someone who has been preaching intersectionality for years--that what harms you or oppresses you is intertwined with my experience and vice versa--Francis's exhortation was a much-needed message to my ears.

But it is also a challenge. Including to me.

Because I, too, have much to not simply apologize for, but ask forgiveness for.

For Francis isn't simply saying that the institutional church must ask for forgiveness--although it should, and it must--but that the individual Christians which make up the church must ask for forgiveness as well.

There is spiritual value in the catharsis that comes from that.

So, to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, I ask forgiveness for using the words like 'faggot,' or 'gay' as an insult, for thinking that sexual abuse could make me gay after I myself was sexually abused, and for not always speaking up when I should.

To my trans brothers and sisters, I ask forgiveness for not even originally understanding your sexual identity needs to begin with, for casually using terms like 'tranny,' and for ignoring how your needs aren't always the same as the needs for the GLB part of GLBTQ.

To women, I ask forgiveness for my objectification, for my inability to understand your experiences for what they are, and as experiences that I myself will not experience.

To children, I ask forgiveness for my lack of patience, my inability to share in your imagination, and for not always knowing how best to help you. The church in particular has been a scary and destructive place for many children and it simply cannot be that way.

In truth, Francis has been killing it over the past couple of weeks on reconciliation, and not only in terms of Christians and GLBTQ people the church has hurt, but also in his recent trip to Armenia, where he used the "G" word--genocide--to characterize the Armenian Holocaust--a characterization that Turkey continues to forcefully deny in the face of near-universal scholarly consensus.

Why does this matter?

Because It is not weakness to apologize, or to ask for forgiveness. Though for me personally, it is still a very difficult thing to do. I can be downright terrible at it, because like most people--and particularly, I think, pastors--I like to be right. I have seen this in myself, and I see it--sometimes very poisonously--in other people of faith. We like to be right.

Turkey wants to be, needs to be right. Its government craves being taken seriously (although, ironically, it has yet to show it deserves such serious consideration with its government's lack of regard for, say, the freedom of the press). And in the wake of the tragic terrorist attack at Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport, my heart grieves for the loss of life. But I also worry about Erdogan's government taking this as an opportunity to act in even more of a strongman fashion than it already does, and of taking Turkey down a road it ought not go.

Because trying to double down on what you believe is right doesn't always go as planned. Trust me, I know. I've seen it happen in churches all the time where they simply refuse to try something new because they're so committed to whatever it is they're doing--it could be in worship, or mission, or theology, or any number of areas--that they simply will not stop and reconsider that maybe there are other ways to do things.

Part of it is ego, I am sure. And part of it is pride.

But mostly, it is selfishness. We selfishly want to be right, and to avoid apologizing.

Apologizing and asking for forgiveness means to us on some level that we were not right. So, we try to minimize the number of times we have to, and we try to minimize our own sins, to make them seem as small as we can with whatever justifications and excuses are at hand.

But that simply is not what Jesus asks of us.

It is not what God asks of us.

We must see how our actions and our beliefs affect the lives of others, for good and for bad. Even as--especially as--an Armenian, my family's past as victims of violence intersect now with the life experience of the families who lost loved ones in Istanbul this week.

We lose sight of that reality, and of the harm we do need to seek forgiveness for, at our own peril.

This is my mea culpa.

Longview, Washington
June 27, 2016

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Honoring the Sabbath

My upcoming newsletter column will be an announcement--having already submitted a proposal at my congregation's annual general meeting this past January--of my upcoming sabbatical for the first three months of 2017.

Those columns, though, only have space for a few hundred words, and I chose to dedicate those to outlining for my congregation the process of calling a part-time interim sabbatical pastor to provide worship and administrative leadership in my absence.

But there is a larger discussion to be had here.

Many (perhaps most) churches still do not offer their pastors any sabbatical time, despite the fact that (a) it's Biblical (Leviticus 25:1-7; the people are to refrain from their usual work after six years, the seventh year is meant to be a rest for the land that physically nourishes them, much in the same way a pastor spiritually nourishes a people) and (b) church leadership experts have concluded that a sabbatical is an extremely useful tool in prolonging a pastor's tenure at their congregation rather than adding to the churchwide revolving door of pastorates, which has been at staggering proportions for years, with an estimated 1,500 clergy leaving their ministries every *month.*

I'm lucky--in my search and call papers with the Disciples of Christ denomination, there is a space to put in any request for sabbatical time to churches who might feel led to extend a call to me. Following my denomination's guidelines, I asked for a three-month sabbatical after every five years of service. FCC Longview inserted precisely such a clause into my "letter of call" (church-speak for "my contract").

But there is still education to be done. A sabbatical is emphatically not a vacation--in fact, while on sabbatical, I'll probably be working almost as much as when I'm on the clock now. My sabbatical will be devoted to two main tasks: working on my Doctor of Ministry thesis, and teaching public speaking, advocacy, and debate at a local Christian school. Both are meant to expand skills that I possess but haven't made much use of in parish ministry (academic research and academic teaching).

A sabbatical, rather, is meant to rest those parts of our souls most dedicated to ministry and exercise other parts of us that have atrophied, or to build up new skills elsewhere.

For pastors thinking of asking their congregations for a sabbatical, that is the best piece of advice that I can give: highlight how the sabbatical will grow you as a pastor and as a Christian. If your congregation has never given a sabbatical to a pastor before, they'll understandably want to know how and why your sabbatical won't simply be a three- or four-month vacation ("I work forty hours a week just like the pastor and I don't get to just drop everything for three months!").

It is an even tougher sell if there are people who still hold to that mentality that pastors must only work one day a week (Sundays), because our work during the week is invisible to the vast majority of the congregation. The most time-intensive of my tasks--sermon preparation and composition, Sunday School and Bible study lesson planning, those sorts of things--are all invisible to everyone, and even my visitations are usually either one-on-one or just me with a single family or household.

But it is the variability of those tasks that makes the sabbatical necessary. It is supremely difficult--and frankly, emotionally unhealthy--to go straight from a hospital visit with a dying congregant to a committee meeting, but every pastor I know, myself included, has had to do it at some point. Do that enough times, and it takes its toll on you if you are not careful.

So, the sabbatical really does matter for us pastors. And how we use it matters to both pastors and their congregations alike.

To that end, I wrote a simple, one-page proposal that I gave to everyone in my parish a year before I would begin my sabbatical, outlining what my contract offers, when I would take the sabbatical, how I would use it, what my level of involvement in church and denominational affairs would be, and how the congregation might fill my absence. Even if your congregation gives you (or your pastor) a sabbatical, it is an exercise that is very much worth doing.

In the midst of that, discussing how to pick up the things left behind in my absence has resulted in some amazing discussions. One of the hardest things about a sabbatical, I am told, is making sure roles are clearly defined so that people don't fall through the cracks, and preparing my lay leaders for my absence, far from inciting trepidation or worry, has brought up a belief that this is an opportunity to do ministry rather than to lament (or secretly celebrate!) my absence.

Ideally, every congregation with at least one full-time pastor could offer that pastor a sabbatical. We're a long way from that being the standard, but anecdotally, I can see it happening. More of my own colleagues are taking sabbaticals, hopefully wherever you are, you're seeing pastors there exercising that spiritual discipline as well.

For such an important spiritual discipline it is. It comes from one that made it into the Ten Commandments: honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.

It is a great gift to me that I serve a congregation that is doing that. I hope this post will help other pastors and churches do likewise.

Longview, Washington
June 23, 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Temple"

1 Kings 6:1-14

In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites left Egypt, in the month of Ziv, the second month, in the fourth year of Solomon’s rule over Israel, he built the Lord’s temple. 2 The temple that King Solomon built for the Lord was ninety feet long, thirty feet wide, and forty-five feet high. 3 The porch in front of the temple’s main hall was thirty feet long. It ran across the whole width of the temple and extended fifteen feet in front of the temple. 4 He made recessed and latticed windows for the temple 5 and built side rooms against the temple walls around both the main hall and the most holy place. 6 The lower walls were seven and a half feet wide. At the second floor the walls were nine feet wide, and at the third floor they were ten and a half feet wide. He made niches around the outside of the temple so the beams wouldn’t be inserted into the temple walls. 7 When the temple was built, they did all the stonecutting at the quarry. No hammers, axes, or any iron tools were heard in the temple during its construction. 8 The door to the stairs was at the south side of the temple. Winding stairs went up to the second floor and from there to the third floor. 9 He completed the temple with a roof of cedar beams and cross-planks. 10 Then he built the side rooms all around the temple. They were seven and a half feet high. He attached them to the temple with cedarwood.

11 The Lord’s word came to Solomon, 12 Regarding this temple that you are building: If you follow my laws, enact my regulations, and keep all my commands faithfully, then I will fulfill for you my promise that I made to your father David. 13 I will live among the Israelites. I won’t abandon my people Israel. 14 So Solomon constructed the temple and completed it. (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, Son of David & Bathsheba, King of Israel,” Week Four

By this point in time, you have likely heard all sorts of words from all sorts of people about the massacre of 49 souls at Pulse, the GLBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, simply because of who these 49 people were, who God made them, and who they loved.

You’ve probably heard some words from me as well, whether last week, at the beginning of worship, or on my blog, or on my Facebook page.

Today, I want you to hear from one of the people who was killed that night, a young man named, poetically enough, Eddie Justice, who was in one of the bathrooms with the shooter and took a couple of fleeting opportunities to text his mother, Mina, to tell her what was happening.

These are Eddie’s texts, with no editing by me:

Mommy I love you/In club they shooting/Trapp in bathroom/Call police/Im gonna die

His mother Mina texted back:

Calling them now/U still there?/Answer your phone/Call me/Call me

Eddie replied:

Call them mommy/Now/Im still in the bathroom/Hes coming/Im going to die

This cataclysmic realization that their space was no longer a safe space was visited upon both the victims and their families, as their loved ones tried desperately to reach them to no avail, as that sinking realization must’ve set in that they had just lost someone dear to them. From Andy Carvin:

CNN just described something I’ve never thought of: as investigators are inside the nightclub, where many of the bodies are still there where they fell, they have to tune out the nightmarish sound of all the deceased (persons) phones ringing constantly as loved ones try to reach them.

What I am going to talk about today—what we need to, have to, must talk about today—is the role of a safe space, a sanctuary, for God’s people. And this starts with Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.

This is a new sermon series for a new season in the church—spring is moving into summer, and just like a couple of years ago in 2014, when, if you’ll remember, we spent most of the summer reading verse-by-verse through the beginning of Acts, we’ll once again take on one big narrative in Scripture.

Only this time, that narrative will be the life and reign of King Solomon, a fascinating figure in Israelite history who has probably been somewhat mythologized and made into a King Arthur-esque national legend over the years, but who nonetheless represents an epoch centered around a singular truth that was not achieved again for hundreds of years, and then again for thousands: ruling over Israel as a unified and independent kingdom.

Believe it or not, a unified and independent Israel is a rarity in history. After Solomon, an independent and unified Israel would only really exist twice: during the short reign of the Maccabees (of whom you have probably heard via the Hanukkah story), and during present history since 1946.

So Solomon’s reign—and his father David’s before him—is unique. How Solomon is remembered matters because of it. And we’ll get a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem to his eventual downfall. We began by spending two weeks with the story of how Solomon comes by his divinely-bestowed wisdom for which he is eternally famous and then with Solomon applying that wisdom in this well-known story of two mothers, then last week we saw the beginning stages of planning out the Jerusalem temple, and now it finally gets built.

The temple served a similar purpose as our sanctuary, to be God’s house here on earth where God’s people could gather to worship in relative safety, security, and stability. It did that for near 400 years.

Until the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II came to sack Jerusalem in 586 BCE, Solomon’s temple served as a dwelling place for God and a place for God’s people to come and gather at the altar. It had a use, a purpose, a calling, to bring in those faithful pilgrims whose faith dictated that they should find God where God is said to dwell.

Without a temple, though, or far away from the temple, local houses of worship arose; in the Israelite Jewish tradition, we know them as synagogues, and for us, of course, they are churches.

But the part of the church building in which the main event takes place, the worship that sets us apart from any other sort of nonprofit organization or community agency, that takes place in what we call our sanctuary, and this sacred space did not come by that name by accident.

There is a long tradition of claiming safety by entering a sanctuary—safety from people hunting you, safety from the devil, safety from that which in the world would seek to do you harm. That is why sanctuary is not just a place but something that people claim—claiming sanctuary. It is a tradition that stretches at least as far back as the ascension of Solomon himself, when his father David’s army commander Joab claimed sanctuary from Solomon’s own army commander Benaiah by grasping the horns upon the Ark of the Covenant.

Joab’s claim for sanctuary was unsuccessful, though, and Benaiah slew him down right there before the Ark of the Covenant. Not unlike the 49 souls taken down in a hail of gunfire in Orlando.

Because for GLBTQ people, specially set-aside spaces like gay bars, gay nightclubs, and gay community centers were where they could go and know that they would be safe, safe from harassment, safe from bigotry, safe from a world still unprepared to accept them for who they were.

Those places like Pulse are sanctuaries in the truest sense of the term for GLBTQ people. Yet now, after Orlando, many of them are concerned again of what may happen to them, even in a sanctuary.

These places served such a function in large part because churches—with their sanctuaries, their “safe spaces”—had cast out their gay and lesbian population, forced them to rise and confess, to undergo unsound reparative therapy and emotionally scarring exorcisms, to endure scorn and ostracism and banishment, to be told they could not serve in any sort of leadership capacity, to be preached at that they were an abomination to the God who made them…the safe spaces for GLBTQ people were made out of necessity, and that necessity was the harmful and hateful message the church preached at them and is still preaching at them, from Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and the hateful ilk at Westboro Baptist Church all the way down to local congregations everywhere.

Spaces outside of church became the sanctuaries and the temples for GLBTQ people because we in the church would not permit them to make our churches their sanctuaries just as we have.

And when GLBTQ youth are two to four times more likely to be physically assaulted, to be bullied, to become homeless—not by choice but because their parents have disowned them—and to commit suicide, our behavior as a religious people is not taking place in a vacuum. It has had very real, very lethal consequences on a great many people.

And yes, the shooter pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and was Muslim, although by many accounts not a very devout one—his ex-wife says he rarely practiced, and his imam said he had never sought any spiritual advice from the imam.

But there is a saying about stones and glass houses that comes to mind. We may not summarily execute GLBTQ people like in Saudi Arabia or Iran, but our treatment of them has for damn sure still caused many of their deaths all the same. And if you think death by gunfire in a nightclub is still somehow better than death by beheading in a public square, see if you can call up one of the parents, or siblings, or significant others of one of the 49 people we lost this weekend at Pulse.

We do not get to push for bathroom laws and adoption bans and marriage bans on GLBTQ people one day and then claim to be their champion the next. That is bearing false witness at its very worst.

Solomon builds his temple, and God says to him, “I will live among the Israelites. I will not abandon my people Israel.” As long as Solomon walks in the ways of God—and even when he stops doing so later in life—God does not abandon God’s people.

Yet this is what the church, for decades, centuries, has said to queer people: because of what you do, you are not walking in the ways of God, and God has abandoned you, and God will punish you. We did not take to heart the lesson of Solomon—and of his father David as well—that God does not abandon God’s people quite so easily as that.

Let me be unequivocal: if you are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, God loves you exactly as much, in exactly the same way, as God loves me. Period. Full stop. That’s the only way grace works.

So may we make this sanctuary live up to its title and its billing. Only when our welcome is more extravagant even than our Gothic revival architecture will we be living up to what God demands of us and what God demanded of Solomon at the building of the temple in Jerusalem.

A temple…a house for God in which God may dwell among us, as our creator, our rock, and our salvation. For all of us.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 19, 2016

Friday, June 17, 2016


Six days ago, as many of us slept, forty-nine people were murdered at the GLBTQ nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, simply because of who they were and who God made them to be.

We have seen this same thing before. One year ago today, nine people sitting in Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were similarly murdered in a hail of bullets simply because of who they were and who God made them to be.

In Orlando, it was GLBTQ men and women, mostly Latino/a. In Charleston, it was African-American men and women.

None of them checked off all of the boxes of the majority image in America: white, heterosexual, and male.

They may have checked off one or two. But not all three.

And this is to say nothing of the fact that white, straight, men can similarly be the victims of horrific mass murders--just look at the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings.

And that's sort of the point. We're all in this together. What affects you also affects me.

Intersectionality has become something of either a buzzword or a dog whistle word, depending on your perspective, but it possesses a far deeper meaning than either of those roles would have it possess.

For too long in our history, we took our quests and movements for equality and divorced them. Some second wave feminists allied with virulent segregationists during the 20th century. Some GLBTQ activists allied with the obscenely anti-woman fundamentalist Mormon churches over sexual behavior laws.

Now, though, they are being pitted against one another, as blatantly and transparently as possible. I see gay and lesbian friends being told, "Islam wants you dead." I see my female friends being told the same thing, or at least that Islam wants them totally oppressed.

We'll set aside for a moment the fact that conservative Christianity is likewise destructive towards women and GLBTQ people--something I pleaded with us to recognize in my blog post about Orlando. As one of my classmates from seminary put it, conservative Christians condemning Islam over GLBTQ issues is like "hearing a fox condemn his twin brother for attacking the chickens. Hate is hate."

Can we stop for a moment and realize that we are being told by others--who have their own sinful, selfish motives and thinking at work--who to hate? These commands to hate are not coming from God, or from our own inner consciences, but from people who are simply doing what they have always done: try to take advantage of others more vulnerable than they.

I'm not interested in accommodating those voices. I'm not interested in giving them credence. They are, I believe, using Scripture for their personal ends and not for God's ends.

If you throw Scripture at me, I will remind you that Jesus says that love of neighbor is one of the two laws that the entirety of Scripture hangs upon.

If you throw Scripture at me, I will remind you that Paul disapproved of ALL sexuality, not merely homosexuality.

If you throw Scripture at me, I will remind you that the Biblical model of marriage includes specific provisions for polygamous marriages.

Just as the abolitionists who would hear Scripture thrown at them about keeping slaves and respond with the Bible's overarching message of justice, love, and liberation.

I have two degrees in this, am in the middle of a third, and have a lifetime of Sunday School under my belt.

I'm done with views of the Bible that cannot see it for what it really says, and (just as crucially) what it has left unsaid.

Because those views are continuing to prevent us from seeing that my fate only matters because yours does as well. The deaths of the people in Pulse matter just as much as the deaths of the people in Mother Emanuel, and if you stay tuned for my sermon this Sunday, I think both peoples were killed in their respective sanctuaries, in places they believed that they could be safe with one another.

But no.

That is no longer the case.

Perhaps it never really was the case.

And if that is so, it is precisely because we have decided that we are not, in fact, in this together.

Yet more than anything else, that is what the Gospel teaches.

The parable of the Good Samaritan. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well. The feeding of the five thousand. Many of the most famous, most beloved stories in Scripture have that moral at their core, that humanity is not, has never been, and never will be an island.

Pushing people so far away that we see only their differences, and pushing them so far down that we only see them as small and minor figures in our worldview, is not of God.

Charleston should have taught us this.

Orlando should have taught us this.

What I worry, then, what I truly fear, is the truly cataclysmic dimensions of the event that it might actually take to teach us this and have it actually stick this time.

That we are together. We always have been.

To believe otherwise, I have come to know, is to succumb to a terrible temptation.

Like Christ in the wilderness, then, we must resist that temptation with the Word of God and a loving heart.

I would like to think that we remain capable of doing so. Together.

Vancouver, Washington
June 17, 2016

Images of Mother Emanuel AME and the memorial to its shooting victims courtesy of Garden and Gun magazine

Monday, June 13, 2016

What Dreams May Come: A Devout Reflection for Orlando

Dreams play such a tremendous role in the Bible. It is a dream that Joseph interprets to Pharaoh which saves the people of Egypt from a seven-year famine. In all likelihood, it is a dream that Isaiah had in the year that King Uzziah died in which he first saw the Lord. And it is a dream that Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, receives that pushes him to (a) not divorce Mary for being impregnated out of wedlock, (b) flee to Egypt in order to save Jesus's life during the Massacre of the Innocents, and (c) return home to Israel once Herod is dead.

Early Sunday morning, while most of us slept, rested, and dreamed, fifty souls in Orlando, Florida went to a far more permanent sleep at the hands of yet another domestic terrorist armed with an assault-style rifle.

You already know as much by now, you don't need me to tell you.

No, this is about me needing to tell you.

I have gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender friends who have undergone reparative therapy to try to "pray the gay away." I have GLBTQ friends who have literally tried to exorcise their sexual identity as a demon. I have GLBTQ friends who have been sexually assaulted, been homeless, and attempted suicide.

All they have wanted--all they have ever wanted, and wished for, and dreamed of--is a world that is safe for them to live in as equals, not as inferiors, not as hunted animals, and most certainly not as mass murder victims.

Yesterday, it was bathrooms. The day before that, it was adoption, the day before that, marriage. The day before that, being able to teach in public schools.

Today it is death.

When will it stop?

And more to the point, how will it stop? Will it take exorcising the homophobia and transphobia out of every single heart the way we have tried exorcising homosexuality in the past? Will it take fundamentally changing our understanding of the First Amendment and outlawing hate speech?

I really don't know anymore. But I need to tell you.

As a Christian, life comes first. Life uber alles.

And for far too long, what our GLBTQ brothers and sisters have lived is not life, not the kind of life God wanted for them, and that is *our* fault.

Not just fundamentalist Islam's fault, although certainly it is its fault in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria.

But Fundamentalist Islam didn't cause us to pass bathroom laws.

Fundamentalist Islam didn't make us ban same-sex marriage.

Fundamentalist Islam didn't inspire a few small-minded jerks at school to bully me and pick fights with me when I was a teenager because they thought I was gay.

Nope, Omar Mateen may have pledged himself to the Islamic State, but he was a born-and-raised American citizen.

And when his imam says that Mateen never came to him for spiritual advice (even after reportedly growing more spiritual after a divorce), when his emotionally and physically abused ex-wife says that Mateen was never particularly devout in his faith, and when his father says the tipping point was Mateen witnessing two men kissing, this looks is less a case of straight-up religion and more a case of using religion to justify one's virulent homophobia.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

It should, because that is how homophobic and transphobic preachers like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham have made their living for decades.

It is how the homophobic and transphobic politicians like Rick Scott, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee who are today denying the GLBTQ identities of the victims, and denying the homophobic motives of the shooter, have similarly made their livings for decades.

We do not get to suddenly claim to be the champions of this bleeding and hurting community when just yesterday we were doing everything we could to legally oppress them.

That is not Christ-like of us. That is shameful.

What is the root cause of our bigotry? Is it really our Scriptures, or is it our sinful human condition that uses those Scriptures, proof-texted into unrecognizability, as a facade for our own hate?

Us taking those verses out of their original context to justify our own prejudices is never something God wanted for us. If you need proof, look no further than the fellowship of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Women did not consort with men, and Judeans most certainly did not consort with Samaritans, and all of this was taught at the time backed up with Scriptures.

Yet Jesus set those teachings aside, and changed the world for one lonely person as a result.

That person went and told the good news of someone who had cast aside those societal prejudices imposed upon her through religious teaching, and still more came to believe as a result.

No wonder John made sure to include that story, even as the other three Gospels did not.

The Samaritan woman did not die. She exists today.

She is that gay or lesbian, bisexual, queer, or transgender neighbor of yours, left to cast out for and carry water in the heat of noon in the high desert, away from the help or assistance of their other neighbors.

She poses no threat to you. She never has.

And she dreams of a world in which more people might treat her with the dignity and respect that Jesus did.

Orlando showed once more, in the most brutal way possible, that this world is not that world she dreams of, not by a long shot.

Passing the buck will not do if such a world is ever to come about. We are big on responsibility and accountability but short on it when it comes to ourselves, and when it comes to fostering a world in which homophobia and assault-style rifles are equally easy to acquire, we should hardly act shocked at ourselves for creating such a world.

We knew what we were doing all along.

And that's on us, and us alone.

We need to be able to confess that if we are to be set free of our own blinders, our own ignorances, our own nagging unfounded suspicions of the other.

Once we do, though, the real work can begin again.

For the truth of the Scriptures--those exact same Scriptures that get warped and twisted by fundamentalists of Christian and Islamic stripes alike--is that our sinfulness need not be the final word.

A vision, a dream, for a better, more loving, more living world has already been laid out for us. 

It can play as big or as small a role in your life as you let it.

For the people of God, the Josephs, the Isaiahs, those dreams were a source of hope amid fear, a source of light amid darkness, and most of all, a cause for action rather than for despair.

What dreams may come, then, if only we actually started caring instead of condemning, including instead of inciting, and living instead of dying?

What dreams may come when I fall to sleep in such a world? I pray to one day know.

To my GLBTQ friends--I love you all.

Longview, Washington
June 13, 2016

Rainbow Pulse ribbon image courtesy of Blogspot.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Given For Water"

1 Kings 5:1-12

Because King Hiram of Tyre was loyal to David throughout his rule, Hiram sent his servants to Solomon when he heard that Solomon had become king after his father. 2 Solomon sent the following message to Hiram: 3 “You know that my father David wasn’t able to build a temple for the name of the Lord my God. This was because of the enemies that fought him on all sides until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. 4 Now the Lord my God has given me peace on every side, without enemies or misfortune. 5 So I’m planning to build a temple for the name of the Lord my God, just as the Lord indicated to my father David, ‘I will give you a son to follow you on your throne. He will build the temple for my name.’ 6 Now give the order and have the cedars of Lebanon cut down for me. My servants will work with your servants. I’ll pay your servants whatever price you set, because you know we have no one here who is skilled in cutting wood like the Sidonians.” 

7 Hiram was thrilled when he heard Solomon’s message. He said, “Today the Lord is blessed because he has given David a wise son who is in charge of this great people.” 8 Hiram sent word back to Solomon: “I have heard your message to me. I will do as you wish with the cedar and pinewood. 9 My servants will bring the wood down the Lebanon Mountains to the sea. I’ll make rafts out of them and float them on the sea to the place you specify. There I’ll dismantle them, and you can carry them away. Now, as for what you must do for me in return, I ask you to provide for my royal house.”

10 So Hiram gave Solomon all the cedar and pinewood that he wanted. 11 In return, Solomon gave an annual gift to Hiram of twenty thousand kors of wheat to eat, and twenty thousand kors of pure oil for his palace use. 12 Now the Lord made Solomon wise, just as he had promised. Solomon and Hiram made a covenant and had peace. (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, Son of David & Bathsheba, King of Israel” Week Three

It might be the most lopsided trade I’ve ever seen, and yet, it cost neither party in the grand scheme of things a great deal. And that’s saying something.

Diana Hussein, a Dearborn, Michigan communications worker about my age, had, many years ago, named her Twitter account @DietDrDepper, after the pop she happened to be drinking the day she logged onto Twitter for the first time. This was years ago, before Twitter had gotten the audience it has now, but still, it’s surprising that the suits over at Dr. Pepper didn’t snap that screenname up.

Diana kept her carbonation-infused screen name until this past year, when she reachedout to Dr. Pepper because, as a beverage company that sells bottled water under the brand name Deja Blue (get it? Yuk yuk yuk), she thought that they might be in a position to help her beloved neighbor to the north: Flint, Michigan.

So she struck a deal with the Texas-based beverage company: she’d hand over the keys to her Twitter screenname if they’d send Flint some water to help them through the horrific leaded water crisis that was imposed upon them by the leaders of their town and state.

It was a trade in which neither side had to give up much, but that ended up making a big difference for hundreds of people. Diana gave up a Twitter account and just as easily started another. For a conglomerate the size of Dr. Pepper, 40,000 bottles of water was a good deed they could easily afford to do. But for hundreds of people in Flint, those bottles of water meant another day of life.

Rarely, though, are compromises and trades so easily admired. For one to be of any real consequence, both of the sides involved have to give up something of real value, which means that there are those who will miss that which is traded or given away in exchange for something else.

So we instead hype up our end of the deal, to say that the other party is getting more than what they may in fact be getting. You see this phenomenon all the time in sports, where, as Jonathan Rand, a former Kansas City columnist put it, “(There is) the kind of deal you hear fans suggest on call-in shows. They suggest taking three guys who have become expendable and putting them in a sack to obtain a premier player. You chuckle because the suggestion assumes the other team’s front office just fell off a potato truck.”

Put a different way, it’d be if my Kansas City Royals called up your Mariners and offered to trade y’all Drew Butera, Brian Flynn, and Scott Alexander for King Felix. And if you’re hearing that and asking, “Who?” then that demonstrates my point.

Trade—real trade—is sacrificial by definition. And it is a lesson that Solomon has to execute most harshly when it comes to, at long last, building his temple in Jerusalem for God.

This is a new sermon series for a new season in the church—spring is moving into summer, and just like a couple of years ago in 2014, when, if you’ll remember, we spent most of the summer reading verse-by-verse through the beginning of Acts, we’ll once again take on one big narrative in Scripture.

Only this time, that narrative will be the life and reign of King Solomon, a fascinating figure in Israelite history who has probably been somewhat mythologized and made into a King Arthur-esque national legend over the years, but who nonetheless represents an epoch centered around a singular truth that was not achieved again for hundreds of years, and then again for thousands: ruling over Israel as a unified and independent kingdom.

Believe it or not, a unified and independent Israel is a rarity in history. After Solomon, an independent and unified Israel would only really exist twice: during the short reign of the Maccabees (of whom you have probably heard via the Hanukkah story), and during present history since 1946.

So Solomon’s reign—and his father David’s before him—is unique. How Solomon is remembered matters because of it. And we’ll get a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem to his eventual downfall. We began by spending two weeks with the story of how Solomon comes by his divinely-bestowed wisdom for which he is eternally famous and then with Solomon applying that wisdom in this well-known story of two mothers, and today, we move forward to begin the story of how Solomon went about building the Jerusalem Temple.

And really, that building of the temple begins with a truly awful trade to imagine once you really begin contemplating the nuts-and-bolts of it: eventually, in 1 Kings 9, Solomon will hand twenty cities over to King Hiram’s rule, except that those cities are so dilapidated that Hiram objects to being given them saying to Solomon, “Are these towns you’ve given me good for anything?”

The fact that Solomon is giving land for goods puts to lie some of the hyperbolic descriptions of his wealth in the first place, and the apparently shabby state of those lands further puts said hyperbole to the test, but it is the larger issue of exchanging land for goods—as opposed to, say, for peace, which Israel has successfully done in the present day with both Egypt and Jordan—that is troubling.

After all, we’ve done the whole exchange-land-for-goods rigamarole here in the States with the Louisiana Purchase, and it was a precursor to all sorts of violence against the American Indians who inhabited those lands. Who knows what Hiram’s plans were for these twenty cities?

I would like to think that those plans would not be quite so bloodsoaked, because Hiram is described first and foremost as a righteous man, but that is no vaccination against bloodshed—just look at the staggering amounts of violence that Joshua committed to achieve his goals, or Samson.

Here, though, four chapters earlier in 1 Kings 5, Hiram’s price is not quite so steep, though still epic to behold: he asks Solomon to provide for his (Hiram’s) royal court in exchange for the prized cedar and pine wood that will constitute the temple. This ends up being the equivalent of one million gallons of wheat and one million gallons of pure (not watered down, as was sometimes the case) olive oil.

The price of Hiram’s resources and aid is high, but it is a price that Solomon is prepared to pay, and setting aside the more disturbing price of the cities and their inhabitants for a moment, as that is another passage altogether, it begs the question for us: just how much are we willing to trade, to exchange, to give up in our own spiritual life to demonstrate, as Solomon will in the building of the temple, our own devotion and fidelity to God? How much is too much for us to giving up? Or, how little is what we are comfortable with giving up?

Because before you say “Someone as rich as Solomon could have easily paid Hiram’s price,” remember what I just said about the 1 Kings 9 story—that it in all likelihood actually demonstrates that there were very real limits on Solomon’s wealth and splendor. So it really is quite probable that this massive expenditure of wheat and oil is in fact a very real strain on Solomon’s billfold.

Yet he spends it anyways. And not as a fool who spends their bonus responding to an email from a Nigerian prince, for it has been established by now that Solomon’s gray matter was hardly lacking to say the least, but as someone who, at least now (though certainly not later in life) is genuinely concerned for following in God’s footsteps.

We can be as concerned as Solomon is, but often our own sacrifices do not measure up. We are not willing to turn over to God everything in our lives, but rather, only that which we can do without. God demands our whole selves, not scraps from the table, but it is those gamey, unattractive scraps that we may be wont to offer because, well, we won’t miss them.

Think about it: how often do you rush through your prayers, or neglect them altogether? How often have you tried to start a devotional or prayer practice, only to give it up a few weeks in? I’m just as guilty of this behavior as you might well be, and it’s because even giving up that little bit of time to God when we could be doing something else, that takes a surrender of self that can be extremely difficult for our selfish souls.

A compassionate woman gives up something entirely nominal—a Twitter account—and for recompense, asks that a stricken city be given water. Would you have taken payment instead? And would you have used that payment towards something you wanted or needed? That’s the sort of difference we are talking about here.

God wants true surrender of us, not a halfhearted giving up of the fewer, smaller things just so we might hope to retain control over the bigger things, no, if anything, that needs to be reversed. We, in our frail, finite, and sinful shells, probably only should be trusted with the fewer and smaller things, and trust God with those far bigger things.

We are so stingy sometimes with how we give of ourselves. And that simply is not what God’s intent for us to be really is.

So give more of yourselves. And give that extra portion not simply freely, but reluctantly if you must. Resentfully, even, if you need to. At least that way, your sacrifice will be real and authentic.

Because God asks us to give of our whole selves. After all, God did not make us only partially. No, God made us in our totality.

Let us surrender back to God in equal measure.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 12, 2016