Sunday, December 14, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Tapping into Anger"

Jeremiah 12:1-4

If I took you to court, Lord, you would win. But I still have questions about your justice. Why do guilty persons enjoy success? Why are evildoers so happy? 2 You plant them, and they take root; they flourish and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts. 3 Yet you, Lord, you know me. You see me. You can tell that I love you. So drag them away and butcher them like sheep. Prepare them for the slaughterhouse. 4 How long will the land mourn and the grass in the fields dry up? The animals and birds are swept away due to the evil of those in the land. The people say, “God doesn’t see what we’re up to!” (Common English Bible)

Two years ago today, on December 14, 2012, a madman took an arsenal of high-powered guns and ammunition to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where, after having already shot and killed his own mother at their home, proceeded to then end the lives of twenty children and six of their teachers before committing suicide.  The massacre prompted much talk and navel-gazing from us as Americans, but very little substantive action was ever taken on a grand level as a result of Sandy Hook.

And so, this past week, one of the mothers who lost a child to the depravity of this mass murderer penned an open letter to the world on the Today show’s website.  Nicole Hockley wrote, in part:

To the mom I used to be:

Two years ago, on December 14, 2012, the world changed and you changed with it.  A disturbed young man with access to high-powered firearms went to your sons’ school and killed six educators and twenty first-graders.  Your eldest son Jake survived, but was changed by the day he discovered some monsters are real.  He describes it as the day “when hell came to my school.”  Your youngest son, Dylan, your beautiful baby boy…was killed.  Shot multiple times, dying instantly in the arms of his special education assistant who also died while trying to protect him.

The tragedy changed every single aspect of your life, not only because of the obvious absence of your child, but because of the constant hole inside you that can never be filled.  Your eldest son has been forced to grow up way too fast because of the unfathomable loss of his baby brother.  The pain has altered the lines on your husband’s face.  The way you look at the world has changed.  Your interactions with family and friends seem foreign.  You’ve become much harder.  No longer brimming with optimism, you are now someone far more realistic and still. 

Imagine tapping into that deep reservoir of hardness.  Imagine trying to reach for that kind of emptiness and use it for anything.  A lot of us would want to lash out, and so, too, I think, would the prophet Jeremiah, in this passage.  But that is only one small part of tapping into our anger.

How many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something
along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  We started out with Hannah’s chapter entitled “Realizing How  Much You Have,” last week, we heard from Hannah in her chapter entitled, “Experiencing the Lives of Others,” and this week, we’ll hear from her in her chapter entitled, “Tapping Into Anger:”

Some of us know right off the bat what we want to get involved in.  Whether it’s orphaned children, global warming, or abortion, some of us just know our thing.  But for those who haven’t latched onto something yet, one great tool to determine the answer is to think about what makes you really angry.  We care about issues because our gut says, “This is unfair—I should fix it.’

I cannot think of anything more unfair than a terrorist attack that snuffs out the lives of twenty children before they’ve learned to write in cursive—and I use the term “terrorist attack” very deliberately, because a terrorist can be white and American and still inflict mass terror on a people.

No, there is nothing fair about Newtown.  We’ll talk about it today, many of us across the United States, maybe even a few of us in churches, but then we will go right back tomorrow to the peppermint mochas and the light displays and that godawful “Christmas Shoes” song.

So what do we do with our fleeting moments of anger and despair at the injustice that is endemic to how we live today?  I mean, we’re just as prone to experiencing injustice now as in Jesus’ time, or even before, all the way back to Moses or Abraham.  In the span of over three millennia of recorded human history, we truly have evolved very little in the ways of fairness and justice, despite the presence of laws that are supposed to make us a civilized people and despite the presence of religion centered around a God who is supposed to make us a loving people.

And that’s where Jeremiah cuts in.  He is a prophet, a mouthpiece for that loving and just God, and what are almost the first words out of his mouth in this chapter?  “Why do guilty persons enjoy success?  Why are evildoers happy?  YOU plant them, and they take root; they flourish and bear fruit.”  Jeremiah is going through the exact same lament any of us would, bemoaning the state of the world and asking God, basically, why do such good things happen for such bad people?

On a micro-level, we might see this…a jerk in our neighborhood receiving a windfall, or a good-for-nothing so-and-so winning a jackpot lottery ticket, but those sorts of things tend to inspire envy rather than anger, and while anger goes unmentioned in the Ten Commandments, envy absolutely gets called out and prohibited.

So…back to the original question of just a few paragraphs previous: what are we to do with anger when we feel it?  A growing school of thought among Bible scholars and pastors is to include our anger in our prayers, to bring that anger to God.  After all, God’s a big boy, God can handle it.  At the very least, God could certainly handle it from Jeremiah, who demands that God take the evildoers around him and “butcher them like sheep, (and) prepare them for the slaughterhouse.”

We may well recoil at this sort of vividly violent wishing on Jeremiah’s part, but we ought not to, lest we come across as holier-than-thou to one of the greatest of Hebrew Bible prophets.  After all, how many of us—myself included—have not at one point wished ill upon another person purely out of anger or out of spite?  So let’s dispense with turning our noses up at what Jeremiah is saying, and instead turn our ears to what he is saying instead.

And what he is saying really is the angry lament of what should be all of us: why does God allow evil to prosper?  It’s the biggest existential question in a life of faith, and it’s the biggest because there is no good answer.  We can blame the devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, or Beelzebub, or whatever we’re calling him nowadays, but that’s incomplete because we usually just end up treating him like a biblical bogeyman or a conveniently created invisible friend to blame all of our wrongdoings on…because, again, if we are to be honest with ourselves, evil works within us and through us precisely through some of that very same anger and spite that we use to wish ill upon others.

We can blame God, but that’s just passing the buck in the worst possible sense.

Or, we can look inwards, towards ourselves.  We may not be the people who have most directly brought ruin to the world—we may not be the warlords in the global south, or petty despots running a countries as absolute dictators, or even the jerk who steals our internet and cable (I know, first world problems), but as long as we fail to care about soul-sized concerns that prevent people from having a certain minimum security about their livelihood, we are part of the problem, too.

But I also know we are aware of that—one of the best things that has happened to me this holiday season was the church lunch we had together on Thursday—several of us all gathered in the library, set out tables and chairs, and shared the comfort food of chicken and macaroni and cheese together, and the conversation around the table wasn’t centered around the more superficial aspects of Christmas—the visits to Santa or the recipes for egg nog—but about our own experiences of seeing and being part of true, back-breaking poverty around the world.  The stories came from peoples’ time in Africa, and Asia, and Mexico, and all points in between—there was a lot of life lived in the people in that room, and it showed that day over lunch.

And believe me, trust me, when I tell you that this is absolutely what Christmas is all about. When God came to earth, He did not do so in the form of a pampered, catered-to prince, ensconced in some palace far from the people, no God came to earth in the form of a baby boy as poor as the dirt He was born in.  God spoke to us with His birth, and that choice of how He was to be born was an emphatic choice for those of us who have been put down in the dirt as well, those of us who have been brought low by the iniquities and evils of this world and pray to be lifted up again once more.

There is an ending to Nicole Hockley’s letter to the mother she used to be, and to all of us.  It is an ending that demonstrates how she has tapped into that emptiness and powered on to work towards the real, substantive change we desperately needed on this day two years ago and never truly found, and I leave it here as the most appropriate ending to today’s message, without any further comment:

I am beginning to feel some of my old optimism returning, because more and more people are engaging around this issue.  Our conversation is gaining momentum.  I sense a sea change is coming.  I know everything we’re doing at Sandy Hook Promise will protect more children.  We’re fighting a good fight.

But after every sort of victory, there’s also a moment of incredible sadness for me, for whatever happens, I know I still can’t bring Dylan back.  That hole will never be filled.  No matter how many lives get saved in his name, or in the name of others, I can’t go back.  But you can go forward, and make a difference.  With love, Nicole Hockley


Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 14, 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column + Sermon Series Outline

(I got caught up in all of my writing as November turned into December--so much so that I forgot that I had posted this month's newsletter and new sermon series outline!  Apologies. ~E.A.)

December 2014:   "Homes, not Mangers"

Dear Church,

Every year, at some point during December, I get out my nativity set that was a gift from my family and place it on my desk. Carved of wood in the West Bank by ethically-supported artists, it sits in my office as a reminder of the scene in which the Christ first came bodily into this world. And I am willing to bet many of you have nativity sets yourselves that you use to decorate your own homes and desks during this time of year!

I have been thinking a lot about the manger scene lately, though, and to be honest, not all of it has been good. We all know *why* Jesus is born in a manger--there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn. But inns back then didn't necessarily operate on the first-come, first-served basis that hotels do today with their roms. The more likely scenario is that the innkeeper simply didn't see Mary and Joseph as important enough to shelter in his establishment, which is saddening for any family, but especially a family with a nine-months-pregnant wife.

The rest of the story is well-known to us: Jesus is born, wrapped in cloth, and laid in a manger, and He is visited by the shepherds and, according to Matthew's Gospel, the magi. And as He grows, He becomes homeless once more, as Joseph and Mary escape into Egypt from Israel, and as an adult, He is homeless yet again: "Jesus replied, 'Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.'" (Luke 9:58)

Just because we follow a homeless Savior, though, does not mean that we ourselves have to make one another homeless. To the contrary, we are called to save one another from it, to create homes for each other. It is something that many of you have yourselves done this year for Habitat for Humanity as a house has been built for our own Dave and Donna, but it is also something we called to do spiritually, to create and provide spiritual homes for each other.

Christmas is a season where, both in spite of and because of the nature of the season, people are apt to feel spiritually homeless. How can you work to invite them in out of the emotional and religious cold and into the warmth of acceptance and grace? How can you act to make sure that the people in your life have places to rest their heads? And what are you prepared to give of yourself to ensure that in the many Christmases to come that all of God's children have a spiritual and physical home--and not a manger--to bring themselves to when it is time to celebrate the birth of our Lord?

I cannot pretend that I have the answers to those questions. But they are questions we must ask ourselves nonetheless. The circumstances of Christ's birth demand that of us.

I wish you and yours a very safe, blessed, and merry Christmas, and a similarly joyous New Year!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

This Month in Worship: December 2014 

About as soon as Thanksgiving ends, we usually enter the church season called Advent, which marks the beginning of a new year on the church calendar as well as the beginning of our awaiting of the baby Christ. Just as Lent is meant to be a time for repentance and preparation for Easter and the coming resurrection that we know is around the corner, so too is Advent meant to be a time of repentance and preparation for Christmas and the coming birth that we know is around the corner. 

In describing the arrival of Christ, I especially love Paul's words in Philippians 2, where he writes, "(Jesus), though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness." Christmas, as Paul puts it, is about Christ emptying Himself, and yet, we tend to make it about fortifying ourselves...if not on all of the presents, certainly on the egg nog! 

So my sermon series will be about one family's quest to empty their own material lives by half: halving the size of the house they live in, going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards. They then gave away all of the proceeds! Kevin and Hannah Salwen, the father and daughter of this family, wrote a book about it, entitled "The Power of Half," and it will serve as the basis for our Advent sermon series as I take you through passages of one of the Old Testament prophets whose life was emptied out when his home country was conquered and he himself was sent into exile: Jeremiah. 

We'll hear from Jeremiah as well as from Kevin and Hannah as we strive to empty ourselves in preparation to be fulfilled by the coming of the baby boy in Bethlehem, and I'm excited to share in that with you!

Advent 2014 sermon series: “The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything” 

November 30: “Realizing How Much You Have,” Jeremiah 22:11-17
December 7: “Experiencing the Lives of Others,” Jeremiah 8:8-11
December 14: “Tapping Into Anger,” Jeremiah 12:1-4
December 21: “Inspiring Others to Join You,” Jeremiah 40:1-6
December 24 (Christmas Eve, 7:00 pm): “Into Heaven,” Luke 2:1-20

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

10 Secrets Your Pastors Wish You Knew About Them

It's Christmastime, and us pastors are enjoying getting to spend that season with you and with lots of other folks who find this to be a time to reconnect with a church community after months or even years away.  It is a busy time for us, but often an enriching one as well.

To take a bit of advantage with that renewed focus, I want to share with y'all several secrets about pastors everywhere--not every pastor may have all 10 of these apply to them, but I'm willing to bet at least a few apply to almost all of us.  And as a disclaimer--not all of these apply to me, either.  These are based on both myself and on what has been confided to me by different colleagues at different times.  Nor are these necessarily a reflection of the church I serve, either.  But they are, I think, a reflection of the experiences of many pastors, and my hope is that you would take them to heart as you pray for your pastor(s) this Christmas season!  (You are praying for your pastor, right?  Even if it is for them to get a modicum of theological sense?)

1-We care about you, often more than you much that sometimes, it hurts.

The tears I shed with you are real.  The hugs I give you are genuine.  I've lost sleep at times praying over and worrying over the crises happening in your life and how best I can help you and be there for you.  I'm not your pastor simply because I am paid to do it--I'm your pastor because I love doing it and I love you.  And I always will.  For as long as God continues to work in me, my prayer is that my love for the people I serve will be unchangeable.
2-Just because you stopped attending does not mean that we have forgotten about you.

Intellectually, I understand if/when a family stops attending--they move away, or a major life change has happened--but that doesn't mean it doesn't cause pain.  I sometimes find myself terribly missing people who have drifted away.  I stay in contact with them if I am able to, and I reassure them that I and the church continue to be there for them, but it's like seeing a loved one go, because, well, I love them too (see #1).  I wish I didn't have to see them go, but I have had to do exactly that.  And so, like the prophets of old, we lament and we mourn those whom we have lost.

3-Much of our work is invisible to most of the church.

Honestly, close to a majority of my work time is spent alone--my preparation for the Bible studies I teach, the writing of my sermons, my own personal prayer and study time, the returning of emails/phone calls/etc., all of those are tasks that I fly solo on, and they probably constitute half of my full-time workweek.  And as an introvert, this suits me fine, because those are periods when I can recharge after, say, an emotional hospital visit or an intense pastoral counseling session or a particularly energetic outreach day.  But those are also demanding, draining tasks in other ways as well, even if you aren't there to see them being done, which leads me to...

4-We work for God.

Our call to ministry came from God, and it is God to whom our lives are pledged in sacred service.  Everyone else--regional ministers, denominational staffers, boards of directors, personnel committees, whoever--is middle management.  That isn't to say we aren't accountable to those who manage us, because we are, and we ought to be.  It is to say, though, that our ultimate boss is, well, everyone else's ultimate boss as well, and we take guidance from God first.  Or at least we try to.  It does not mean your input is always valued, it simply means that God may have, in our prayer practices and study of Scripture and our partnerships of accountability, revealed a different direction for us to take.

5-We’re terrified that our impact in your life is limited to Sundays.

Most of your life is lived away from the confines of the church and its community presences—in your homes and workplaces, your gyms and favorite haunts, and I don’t see any of that.  Not that I want to—I’m a pastor, not a government agent—but it means that I have no way of knowing if what I am saying to you and teaching to you on Sundays is making any difference, or if you’re just going through the motions the other six days a week.  We have radar for when something might be off in someone’s life, but we’re not psychics.  If we’re making a difference in your life, let us know.  And if we’re not, conversely, let us know, and tell us (gently, please) how we might be able to.

6-We wish our churches wouldn’t sweat the small stuff.

To borrow from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, pastors can cook up all sorts of cockamamie theories about God or Jesus or Scripture, and nobody bats an eye, but then the pastor suggests changing the color of the carpet, and everybody loses their minds!  Which is to say...we desperately want you to care about the soul-sized stuff we care about: bringing people into a right relationship with God, seeking God's will and justice and mercy in a hurting world, and about doing these things with more enthusiasm than engaging in yet another debate about which dishes do or do not qualify as 'casseroles.'

7-We have our own ministerial bete noires.

I get that we're all on the same team here, trying to offer the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people.  But that doesn't mean I am necessarily on board with how every other minister does it, because I have seen how the teaching and behavior of many pastors have wounded their followers.  So whenever I see anyone sharing a quote from, say, Joel Osteen or Paula White, I have to suppress my gag reflex, because what many famous pastors teach sadly is not always a healthy form of Christianity (like Osteen's and White's prosperity gospel theology).  I know that can sound like jealousy, and for some of us, it may well be, but for others of us, it's a form of protectiveness.  (And to be honest, I am sure there are pastors who would not want to see their parishioners reading the screeds of a miscreant like me.  Probably a lot of pastors.)

8-We're learning as we go along.

I cannot begin to emphasize how much of what we do as parish pastors was not taught to us in seminary, because how seminary education works (in my experience) is to get you to think like a minister, not how to actually do ministry.  And so instead of taking classes on people management, business administration, and abnormal psychology, we can elucidate the finer points of the eschatology of asparagus during the papacy of Adrian IV.  For much of our work as pastors, there is no real instruction manual (not that it doesn't stop the pastors of megachurches from trying by writing their many, many books about how much they rock), and we have to figure out what we're doing one day at a time, which means that we are bound to make mistakes (see below).  Please forgive us when we inevitably do.

9-We're not perfect.

We're not fragile little playthings who faint or get offended the moment some utters a swear word around us--in fact, many of us got into ministry precisely because we are aware of just how dark our dark sides really are, and we know just how much we have to rely on God's love and grace to prevent ourselves from indulging in those darker parts of our personalities.  In fact, we'd just as soon rather you not edit yourselves around us--we crave authenticity, it is what we do our best work with.  So let it be one of your gifts to us.

10-We're not invulnerable.

On the contrary, we are incredibly vulnerable.  We have to be in order to put our beliefs and hopes about God on display in worship week in and week out.  We don't always show you when we're hurting, but we hurt.  Sometimes, a lot.  For the world around us, for you, and for ourselves.  For all the amazing compliments we might get from an appreciative church, it is the one nasty comment or the one passive-aggressive text message that derails us emotionally.  We can't help it.  Maybe we should.  But we can't.  Having a thick skin helps, but even the thickest of skins can be pierced by the right words.

Pastors, what do you wish your churches knew about you?  Non-pastors, what do you wish your pastor could talk to you about?  What am I leaving out on this (admittedly non-exhaustive) list?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 7, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Experiencing the Lives of Others"

Jeremiah 8:8-11

8 How can you say, “We are wise; we possess the Lord’s Instruction,” when the lying pen of the scribes has surely distorted it? 9 The wise will be shamed and shocked when they are caught. Look, they have rejected the Lord’s word; what kind of wisdom is that? 10 Therefore, I will give their wives to others and their fields to their captors. From the least to the greatest, all are eager to profit. From prophet to priest, all trade in falsehood. 11 They treat the wound of my people as if it were nothing: “All is well, all is well,” they insist, when in fact nothing is well. (Common English Bible)

“The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything,” Week Two

The Abers were a heavily indebted suburban family with a mortgage on a three-bedroom home, student loans, and maxed out credit cards.  They drove used cars and could not afford health insurance after the…father…lost his long-time job as a computer engineer.  His unemployment had run out and he could not find work.  The…mother (Ann) worked for $9 an hour as a full-time hospital receptionist.  Their three children, ages 16, 10, and 8, lived at home.  Their daughter, 16-year-old Alice, was pregnant.

Ann made $1,324 a month after taxes, but the families (sic) total expenses were $1,545 per month, and even with a combined $540 in food stamps, the family couldn’t make ends meet.  Within a month of time compressed into one hour, the family didn’t even buy groceries for the first two weeks.  And when Alice was arrested for bringing a weapon to school, the family couldn’t immediately afford to bail her out…(and) they managed to pay their mortgage with cash, but then got an eviction notice because they had no record of the payment.

The Abers, fortunately, are not a real family—they are a figment, a fiction invented for the purposes of a simulation run by our own Community Action Program here in Longview, for folks here in town to try to simulate living within the means of an impoverished family.  Unfortunately, though, the challenges faced by the Abers are the exact same ones faced by families here in town—families who may be your neighbors, families who may in fact be yourselves.

And at least for an hour that day, people tried to live out the Biblical dictum of walking in another person’s shoes—albeit still presumably with their own warm shoes still on, in a heated room rather than out in the elements or in an inadequate home with boatloads of deferred maintenance.  But that sort of empathy is what is required of us, if we are to ultimately live out a truly Christian life.

How many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  Last week, we heard from Hannah in her chapter entitled, “Realizing How Much You Have,” and this week, we’ll hear from her in her chapter entitled, “Experiencing the Lives of Others:”

A major problem of motivation is that most people cannot even begin to feel what people with less means go through every day.  Many people feel pity for people less fortunate than themselves.  But the big leap is from pity to honest understanding.  For me, a very important step in our project was to look at my life compared to others.

Have you ever heard the old Indian folktale of the blind men and the elephant?  In the story, a group of blind men touch an elephant and then describe what they are feeling.  One rubs the tail and thinks the elephant is like a rope; others compare the parts to a wall or a snake.  The point of the fable is that people see only a small portion of reality.  We live in a narrow world, and it’s so important to see things from different perspectives.

So what on earth does this “experiencing the lives of others” sentiment have to do with what Jeremiah is saying here in his eighth chapter?  Because, if you recall what I said in last week’s message, Jeremiah’s world is one of complete and utter loss: of his home, of his homeland, of his country, of his dignity as an Israelite Jew.  And he cannot escape this life of his that he has been consigned to when Babylon conquers Judah, sacks the capital city, Jerusalem, and destroys the Jerusalem temple that King Solomon built.  As Hebrew Bible professor Louis Stulman writes:

Jeremiah himself…is a prisoner of such a world.  He cannot escape (and neither can we).  The prophet from Anathoth is never afforded the opportunity to speak as mere outsider or messenger.  He must participate in the anguish of God and in the death of Judah’s world.  Like the God of Israel, Jeremiah endures the pain of rejection and bears the sorrow of scorn and reproach.

Jeremiah is immersed in this travesty, there is no possible out for him.  That is why we need to try to understand and experience his life if we are to take full meaning from his prophecies.  And in point of fact, he lends a word to how we manage to isolate ourselves from the experiences of others in this passage from Jeremiah 8, when he says, “How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,’ when the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?”

The passage for today begins with that verse, but that verse actually comes from the middle of a prophecy—I had to do something I really don’t like to do for the sake of giving an effective sermon, and slice out all of the context of the preceding verses, but otherwise, there would be no way for me to effectively communicate this sentiment to you in one go.  Don’t blame Jeremiah, blame me.

So how does the ‘lying pen of the scribes’ factor in here?  The scribes were a part of the religious elite in Jerusalem, who, along with the priests and the monarchy itself, were responsible for the handing down of religious teachings and traditions from one generation to the next.  And as we established last week, the scribes completely fell down on the job in acquiescing to Shallum’s and Jehoiakim’s move away from the worship of God that their father King Josiah insisted upon right back towards the Ba’als that Israel had been enthralled with for far too long already.

The scribes’ false teachings lead, Jeremiah says, “the wise (to) be put to shame…dismayed, and trapped.”  Trapped in what?  Trapped in a world put forward by the scribes, by the priests, by the king himself, constructed only around one narrative, that the only acceptable form of worship is the worship of the Ba’als, and at the expense of experiencing the genuine worship of God.  The scribes, under the king, shut off an entire world, an entire reality, centered around the love of a God who called them to be His children and to treat His children justly and lovingly.  A God who is actually worthy of our worship.  A God who was experienced by others, possibly even these scribes’ parents.

But they shut off others from that experience.  And Jeremiah is rightfully taking them to task for it.

And today, voluntarily in our choices of what perspectives and viewpoints we consume, we tend to act just like the scribes of Jeremiah’s time: we shut ourselves off from the experiences of others.

Let me use an innocuous example--I can probably find a Kansas City Chiefs bar in the greater Portland area somewhere where I can pretend I am still in Kansas City and not living amongst you, my lovely Seahawks fans!

But that is a problem in the big world, though…for us as people, for us as the church, for us as Christians.  Because we can talk until we are blue in the face about how we are not of this world and are merely passing through and to remain uncorrupted by the world—and while that last bit is in fact Scriptural (James 1), that does not mean we should not have roots in this world that extend far beyond the bubbles we set up for ourselves around hearth and home.  Because without venturing outside of our bubbles, we are liable to do the same thing that Jeremiah laments at the end of this passage: to not recognize the wounds and hurts of God’s people, to insist that everything is well when everything is not at all well.

And that—more than anything else—is what is, I think, characterizing the national debate taking place right now over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Some of us, instead of seeing a concern, insist that all is well, all is well, when so, so many of our brothers and sisters of color will tell you things are anything but well.

It isn’t just Ferguson, or New York, or “race relations,” whatever that means, either.  It’s everything.

We sit down to a festive meal in a warm dining room with our family and we think to ourselves, “All is well,” when just down the road, when just across the river, when just a stone’s throw through town, a person in addiction is choosing that night between getting shelter or getting high.

We decorate our Christmas tree with ornaments and tinsel and lights, we admire the beauty of our handiwork, and we think to ourselves, “All is well,” when halfway around the world, another Christian, or another person, or another family, has no house to decorate to begin with.

And I can well imagine that two thousand years ago, at an inn in Bethlehem, an innkeeper looked at his books for the night, saw that he had a full house, and thought to himself, “All is well,” even as a nine-months-pregnant teenaged girl labored to give birth to the Messiah this innkeeper had awaited.

Far too often, our lives are imperfect and incomplete, and we use our religion as a security blanket to make that broken state of affairs okay, or at least excusable, so that we can continue to worship God in comfort, when in fact worshipping God has never, ever, been about our personal comfort.

God, even in the form of a tiny newborn son, was always far, far bigger than our personal comfort.

That’s what these attempts are to get us who are not impoverished to try to experience poverty.  Without experiencing others’ discomfort and danger, we are always going to be less liable to care about it…and to care about finding a solution to it.

May we, then, take as our example the Christ who had divinity itself and surrendered it in order to experience our human discomforts and dangers, so that, as a human He might one day save us all.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

December 7, 2014

(Note: If you'd like to take part in a short poverty simulation like the one I talked about today, please click on the "Spent Game" link on the side of my blog.  Spent is a program run by an agency in Durham, North Carolina, and their awareness work with this simulation is top-notch.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Devout Reflection in Memory of Eric Garner

You don't look like me.  I must be afraid of how you approach me.

You don't sound like me.  I must be afraid of how you speak to me.

You don't dress like me.  I must be afraid of your choice of fashion.

You don't go to the same church as I do.  I must be afraid of your God.

You don't have the same experiences I do.  I must be afraid of giving them credence.

You don't have the same friends I do.  I must be afraid of hanging out with them.

You don't make money the way I make money.  I must be afraid of you possibly scamming me.

You don't listen to the music I listen to.  I must be afraid of its lyrics.

You don't watch the television shows I watch.  I must be afraid of subliminal messages in them.

You don't stay quiet when white people hurt you.  I must be afraid of reverse racism.

You sell your cigarettes out on the street.  I must be afraid of your moneymaking misdemeanor.

You die tragically in full view of the world.  I must be afraid of confronting what has happened to you.

You aren't me.  I must be afraid of you.

And in so doing, I have become afraid of a world that could ever be truly just.

Eric Garner, as a white man, I am so, so sorry for your death.

I am sorry that this system that white men before me have built has shown no interest in honoring your death with the truth.

I am sorry that unedited, unadulterated videotaped evidence was not enough to speak for you.

I am sorry that while I share in the hurt of your family, friends, and black brothers and sisters, I am unable to share fully in their fear.

I am sorry that you will not receive even a crumb justice from a judiciary that is broken and sinful to possibly be beyond repair.

I am sorry for all of the souls who have come before you in this tragic pattern: Michael and Trayvon, Tamir and Amadou, and so many more.

And I am sorry for my own fears.  May the God we both lived under save me, and everyone, from our fears that have caused us not to see you for who were and are.

Go with God, my brother.

Yours in Christ,
Another Eric

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dispatches from Middle Earth, Part IV: The Cloud Piercer's Lament

(While this technically wraps up my earlier series of posts about New Zealand and mine and Carrie's time there, this is much more than a "what we did" post.  Rather, the themes I write of here reverberate far beyond any one country or place, and I hope that they speak to you as well.  I believe that they will. ~E.A.)

In the middle of our honeymoon, Carrie and I went for some hiking on the tallest  mountain in New Zealand, Aoraki/Mt. Cook.  Mt. Cook is the mountain's Anglo name (after the captain who "discovered" New Zealand); Aoraki is its Maori (the indigenous peoples of NZ) name.

"Aoraki" is difficult to translate accurately into English; traditionally, though, the name was translated as "Cloud Piercer," which, at least when C and I visited it, was plenty accurate, with its 12,000+ foot peak jutting majestically through the clouds.

It holds a lot of appeal to hikers and mountaineers for obvious reasons: beyond being the country's highest peak, it is incredibly, almost unfairly, beautiful.  Edmund Hillary is said to have trained on Mt. Cook in preparation for his successful run at Mt. Everest in 1953.  And when the sun is out, the glaciers and glacier lakes shimmer in an almost otherworldly etherealness.

It also is a deadly peak, having claimed the lives of a number of people ever since the early 1900s.  Early on the Hooker Valley trail, you can take a short walkoff to the memorial that stands in memory to the people who went to rest on the mountain forever:

The front of the monument contains a plaque with the original names for whom the monument was erected:

But as you begin to walk around the entire monument, you begin to grasp the sheer scope and scale of the loss of life that has happened here:

What I found most remarkable about this was that the plaques were dedicated to people literally from all over the world, who had nothing else in common except that they died here, on the slopes of Aoraki.

It reminded me--cheesy though it may be..,no, scratch that, cheesy though it most definitely is--of the lesson Harry Potter was taught in his choice of Gryffindor when he was sorted into Hogwarts: that it is, in the end, our choices which define us, and just as Harry's choice helped define him from Voldemort, so too do our choices still hold sway on how we are remembered--in a loved one's scrapbook, in a folded, creased obituary copy in a drawer, or in a plaque, potentially thousands of miles from where you were born and raised, marking the spot upon which you passed from this life into life eternal.

And there were many beautiful monuments elsewhere that Carrie and I saw marking that passage into life eternal for New Zealand's heroes who served on her behalf in the World this one in Queenstown, commemorating Queenstown's dead in World War I and demonstrating that not all arches are necessarily triumphant:

And this walled monument to the fallen of Auckland during World War II in the Auckland Museum:

All of the reverence of a war memorial that you'd expect is present in this hall of names, panel after panel, wall after wall, of the names of the dead, and yet, the memorial does not end merely on its past.  At its end, there is the glimmer not merely of optimism or of hope, but of almost desperation in the plea for a world in which the swords are beaten into plowshares and the spears are beaten into pruning hooks:

Let these panels never be filled.

Let the lone bare wall on the monument upon the Cloud Piercer's slopes never be filled.

Let the blank spaces awaiting more names on war memorials the world over never be filled.

Let our need to memorialize the deaths of our heroes be extinguished, not for lack of heroes, but for lack of need for their heroics in the face of violence.

And then maybe, maybe, the God driven by our hatred from the depths of our hearts and from the deepest regions of our souls will return to the broken earth once more.

It is a hope I still have.

Yours in Christ,

All photos from Eric Atcheson.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Realizing How Much You Have"

Jeremiah 22:11-17

11 This is what the Lord says about Shallum son of Judah’s King Josiah, who succeeded his father Josiah as king but who is now gone from this place: He will never return! 12 He will die where he’s been exiled and never see this land again. 13 How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption and his upper chambers with injustice, working his countrymen for nothing, refusing to give them their wages. 14 He says, “I’ll build myself a grand palace, with huge upper chambers, ornate windows, cedar paneling, and rich red decor.” 15 Is this what makes you a king, having more cedar than anyone else? Didn’t your father eat and drink and still do what was just and right? Then it went well for him! 16 He defended the rights of the poor and needy; then it went well. Isn’t that what it means to know me? declares the Lord. 17 But you set your eyes and heart on nothing but unjust gain; you spill the blood of the innocent; you practice cruelty; you oppress your subjects. (Common English Bible)

“The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything,” Week One

The 57-year-old pastor hardly seemed like the most worthy candidate for an experiment in homelessness.  He had a family and a thriving megachurch in Sacramento, California, and besides, he had already tried it out for a few days already—living on the streets for a short time as a part of a fundraiser for a mission to provide more food and shelter to Sacramento’s homeless population.  What more could he learn about just how much he already had by doing it again?

But return to the streets Pastor Rick Cole did, this time for two weeks.  And the experience was utterly and completely transformative.  I’ll let Pastor Rick tell you himself, through an interview with Harry Smith of NBC News:

“I’ve walked past people that stay in some of the places of homelessness.  And really almost not even noticed them, not considered their plight and what’s going on in their life.  Now I was living among them,” Cole (said).  “I think I began to experience how people ignore others.  I became the one ignored.  People walked by me like I didn’t exist.”

“It might be like, man, those people just need to get a job.  They need to get themselves out of the hole they dug for themselves,” Cole said of attitudes he’d heard—and shared at times—before his two-week stretch on the streets…

“Once we try to go to sleep at night, it was really sketchy because there’s people walking up and down this river all night long.  So you wake up kind of startled, not sure what’s going on.  So it felt, actually, very insecure.”

After the experience, Cole said the “holes” he found were filled with addiction and mental illness, bad breaks and bad decisions.  Who was he not to help?

“They matter to God.  They matter to me, and now I’m trying to figure out why they didn’t matter to me before.”

Okay, I have to cave and admit that it is officially the holiday season, even though I really wish it wasn’t.  Hear me out, now—how many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  Hear Hannah’s words about this experience:

If you have a front door, you have so much more than the people in the villages of Ghana.  Imagine your family living in a one-room house made of mud, with no running water or electricity.  Imagine never traveling more than a few miles from you home, always on foot.  Yet the people in Ghana appreciate what they have, even though it seemed to me when we visited them like they had nothing at all.  They take pride in their homes by sweeping them out daily, and they keep their clothes clean.  People used to say to me, “You don’t realize how lucky you are,” and I would just brush it off.  It was true, of course; I just needed to recognize it.

But realizing what you have can be tough.  First you need to start by acknowledging that you have a good life.

And acknowledging that you already have a good life is exactly what Jeremiah is demanding of King Jehoiakim of Judah.

Now, this requires some explanation, so bear with me here: Jehoiakim and Shallum are brothers—they are the sons of the last righteous king of Judah, Josiah, who recovered the Torah scroll and reinstituted the worship of YHWH after many, many years of worship of idols in the Holy Land.  Shallum only reigns for about three months before being deposed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II in 608 BCE; he gets packed off to captivity in Egypt, and we never hear from him again—he will, in fact, die in exile in Egypt.  It’s like a reality television show, “Judah’s Next Top Monarch,” and Shallum gets voted off in the first episode.

But there would be reason to vote him off—in just those three months of his kingship, he managed to completely disregard the religious reforms of his father Josiah, meaning there was an immediate return to the worship of idols.  Then after Shallum gets voted off the island, Jehoiakim rules Judah for eleven years, until 597 BCE.  As it happens, he is no better than his big bro, but we’ll get to that.

So this is the time frame in which this particular prophecy from Jeremiah happens—about 600 years before the birth of Christ.  And to put that into perspective, 600 years ago, Columbus had not yet sailed to North America; in fact, in the year 1414, he would not be born yet for another 38 years.

And here’s the thing: the conquering of Judah that will happen about 10-20 years after this passage, in 586 BCE, (and the destruction of Jerusalem, including the temple to YHWH) so utterly defines Israel’s identity and history as a conquered people that over six hundred years later, it still gets referenced in parts of the New Testament, especially in Revelation.  That’s how big a deal this defeat will be, though, like I said, at this point in Jeremiah’s career, we are at least a decade away from it.

But Jeremiah is already warning King Jehoiakim about it—the coming Babylonian army, Jeremiah says elsewhere in his book, is divine punishment for the exact sorts of sins that he lists off here to Jehoiakim: refusing to pay his employees, building himself grand and unnecessary palaces, and cruelly “spill(ing) the blood of the innocent” and “oppress(ing) his subjects.”

And if you think we don’t practice those exact same sorts of sins today, I have news for you.  Wage theft—the not paying or underpaying of one’s employees—is a practice that has cost American workers literally hundreds of millions ofdollars of rightfully earned wages.  The building of grand and unnecessary palaces?  Well, maybe not as much here in Longview, but elsewhere, as nearby as Seattle, you can pick up a 17,000 square foot house for a cool $11.8 million.

And spilling the blood of the innocent and oppressing the people?  I would be remiss if I didn’t at least speak of Ferguson, Missouri, today.  A lot of folks have said to me that this isn’t about race, but let’s consider the title of the sermon for a minute: realizing how much you have.  And I look out on our little congregation and I see mostly white faces, including my own.  Do any of us wonder if our lives might be different if we woke up tomorrow and were African-American?  Do we think there will be people out there who would treat us differently because of that one change, even if in every other respect we were to wake up tomorrow exactly the same?

Because while I’m white, I’m also ethnic—I’m Armenian-American, and just ambiguously enough that most folks can’t peg my ethnicity.  In my still-young life, I have had racial slurs hurled at me from people who thought I was Chinese, Jewish, and Arab.  And I’m white.  So let’s consider what people of color go through, then, and maybe we might realize what privilege we have in being white.

We don’t need a show of hands here, but is my talking about this making any of y’all feel a bit uncomfortable?  Good.  Sometimes that’s what preaching needs to do.  I’m not entirely comfortable right now, either—I was nervous putting this into the sermon, because I know it’s easier for me to just talk about the Christmas season.  But being Christian has never, should never, be about doing what is easy versus doing, ultimately, what is right.

And so Jeremiah lays all of this at the feet of the king, and rightfully so, because in the absolute monarchies of old, that is exactly where the buck stopped: the throne.  And in our own lives, ultimately, the buck stops with us as well.  We can choose, every day, if we are going to be a good person and a faithful follower of Jesus, or not.

That is why Jehoiakim’s excesses so galls the prophet Jeremiah, and ultimately, so galls God.  He could easily choose to follow in the footsteps of his righteous father, King Josiah, and he chooses not to.  Similarly, we can choose to follow in the footsteps of our own righteous father, God, and yet we still will at times choose not to.  Which is why we need prophets like Jeremiah in the first place, to hold us accountable to tell us when and where we are slipping.

Part of where we slip, though, is so often forgetting how much we have--and not just the possessions, but the experiences, the memories, the stories that make up our lives as well.

It is partly why I ended up doing this year’s Advent sermon series on Jeremiah.  In years past, my Advent series have usually been on Isaiah, because Isaiah is the Hebrew Bible prophet who most explicitly foretells the coming of Jesus: it is Isaiah whose book prophesies “behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and she shall call him Emanuel, which means God-with-us,” and it is Isaiah whose book prophesies the coming of the suffering servant to set the people free.

But Isaiah lived long before the Babylonian exile.  He did not live to see everything taken from his nation and his religion.  He had things that Jeremiah could only dream of having.  As do we.

Harken back to the story of Pastor Rick at the very beginning of my sermon: it wasn’t just the money that he had and the homeless did not: he talked so much about the regard and respect that people gave him as a pastor that was not given to him as a homeless man.

Think of what you have—what other people would long to have and give anything to have.  And then ask yourself how, instead of hoarding it for yourself like a certain king of Judah, you can begin to give it away, bit by bit, piece by piece, as your gift to a desperate world this Christmas.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 30, 2014