Thursday, May 26, 2016

Summer Reading: "Called to Community" Review

One of the perks of this job is the reading material. In order to serve in my vocation the best way I know how, reading what others smarter than I have to say is imperative. To that end, I occasionally will post a review of a particularly good or interesting book that I've read lately.  My June newsletter column--which I'll have posted here within the next week or so--will contain even more recommendations, but for now, here is my latest review.  ~E.A.

I'm an introvert. Community and connection doesn't always come easy to me. But I know that I still need it in my life--personally, spiritually, vocationally, the whole nine yards. And that extra shove to engage in community-building can come from a variety of different sources--a loved one, a trusted colleague, or even a book.

Enter, then, "Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People," which was just released this month by Plough Publishing (ten bucks on Kindle, eleven and change in paperback), a volume of fifty-two chapters from various Christian authors--of both past and present eras--that illustrates the different godly aspects of living in community.

There are fifty-two chapters for a reason: you can cover one per week, which really makes this something of a devotional book, and one that is a bit easier to fit into my sometimes slapdash spirituality as a weekly devotional practice rather than a daily devotional practice, which I have always been absolutely terrible at maintaining.

In the genre of devotional literature, then, Called to Community offers something a little different: thematic and weekly rather than daily or centered around a single author, denomination, or Christian tradition.

The authors curated for this series are diverse in a number of ways--there are plenty of female writers present, as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant writers alike, and are thoughtfully arranged by volume editor Charles Moore, who himself pens a few entries for the book.

But the bottom line is, are these various entries selected for Called to Community any good? For the most part...yeah, they really are. A few are ones I had already come across in one context or another, such as an excerpt from C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, but plenty were either from works by authors I knew of, or, more delightfully, my introduction to a writer whom I previously had never encountered.

Nor are these contributors all across-the-board cheerleaders: the challenges of living in community--real, radical community rather than the lipstick-level interactions we often content ourselves with--are discussed at length in several of the fifty-two chapters, from a variety of perspectives.

For me as a pastor, blogger, and Christian, such honesty is refreshing. That level of straightforwardness ought not be so rare a thing in my line of work, but that too is a part of community: it should (in theory) breed further authenticity and honesty in each of us.

And perhaps that is this book's real gift.  The jury is still out on if I can even manage to keep up a once-a-week devotional reading practice. But at least with Called to Community, there is good enough reason to at least try to make the effort, because it treats community for what it is rather than what we might want it to be or not be: something amazing, something difficult, and something ultimately worth striving for.

Longview, Washington
May 26, 2016

Disclaimer: My copy of Called to Community was complimentary from the publisher; however, all opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Sneering at Speech"

Acts 2:1-13

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. 5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” (Common English Bible)


Pentecost 2016

Thirty-five thousand dollars.

That’s how much Quinn Duane and her parents had invested in her wedding to her fiancé when, one week before the big day, her fiancé called off the whole thing: engagement, wedding, the works.

That really isn’t enough advance notice to get all of your security deposits back.  And most importantly, someone’s heart had just been broken in one of the most painful ways possible.

But then, something amazing happened: the wedding was back on.  Well, not the wedding itself, but the reception was.  And instead of celebrating the happy couple, Quinn’s parents decided to celebrate their city’s homeless population, inviting them over to the banquet hall they had booked to enjoy salmon, tri-tip and gnocchi.

The first person through the door was an older woman who lived in a homeless shelter for elderly persons too impoverished to afford to rent a place to live.  She was followed by families with children and newborns, grandparents, people from all walks of life who could have used a lovely meal served to them with dignity.

It is that last point that is worth harping on.  It is one thing to hand someone a sandwich wrapped in saran paper, or a can of food that is rapidly approaching its expiration date, the sort of food we tend to reserve for the homeless but not for ourselves.  That may fill their stomach, but it is another thing entirely to serve someone rather than only feeding them.

The poor and the hungry who came to Quinn’s ‘wedding’ were not simply fed.  They were served.

Quinn herself was not there—it would have been too emotionally painful to her—but her parents’ gesture was an incredible act of love in the face of a sneer that, no matter how honest, tore their daughter’s life apart.  They reacted with grace in the face of a sneer, just as Peter does here in Acts 2, when the Spirit descends upon the many guests, just as you can imagine it did at Quinn’s reception.

The book of Acts of the Apostles is the second of a two-volume set composed by Luke—the first volume being, of course, the Gospel that bears his name.  Because they are separated in the Bible by John’s Gospel, it is easy to think that this was Luke’s follow-up sequel to the immense popularity of his debut work.  Like Acts is the Gospel Part, II: Electric Boogaloo.  Or his Gospel is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Acts is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Or his Gospel is the Star Wars trilogy, and Acts is The Phantom—no, wait, not even going to go there.

But the truth is that Luke-Acts was actually written as a singular cohesive story broken into parts, so the more apt comparison might be the seven-volume Harry Potter series after all...

And we see this cohesiveness at work with the Pentecost story itself.  Fifty days ago, Jesus was crucified, and ten days ago, He ascended to heaven, and the disciples cast lots to replace Judas Iscariot with Matthias in order to keep their number at an even twelve.  Luke keeps us going at a neat, tidy pace up to this fiftieth day after the Passover, when the Festival of Weeks is celebrated.

What is the Festival of Weeks?  In the grand scheme of things, it was not the biggest holiday on the calendar, certainly not being so close after the big to-do of Passover.  One commentator I read says that traditionally, the time between escape from Egypt and arrival at Sinai for Moses and the Israelites was, in fact, fifty days.  So not as big a holiday as the Exodus itself at Passover, but a significant occasion nonetheless, because the Israelites have arrived where they will be given—through Moses—the law from God, and so this festival exists to celebrate the giving of the law.

So this festival celebrating the giving of the law is taking place.  And by this time, the disciples maybe are a little worried and a little antsy.  Jesus has promised them the coming of the paraklesis—the paraclete, which we translate as the Holy Spirit—except that Jesus has beat it back to heaven without leaving behind said Holy Spirit.

However, the Festival of Weeks provides a great chance for the Holy Spirit’s arrival—not only does it give a reason for all the disciples (and not just the Twelve—Luke says devout Jews from every direction were here to celebrate the festival) to all be in one place, but it is also spiritually appropriate.  After the Passover—the liberation of God’s children from the bondage of slavery—comes the law.  And after the Resurrection—the liberation of God’s children from death and evil—comes the Spirit. 

And this coming of the Spirit includes everyone, everyone who traveled from near and far alike to celebrate this festival.  They are, many of them at least, well outside of their comfort zone because they had just elected a new member and have been trying to go about their work without the presence of Jesus.  And the travelers are outside of their comfort zone because…well, they are far from their physical homes, even as they gather near their spiritual home.

And so outside of these comfort zones, they utilize one comfort zone they still have—language.  Except, instead of speaking the lingua franca of the day, Greek—which was most peoples’ second language, like how English is today in many parts of the world—they are speaking each their own native, first languages.

And yet they understand each other perfectly, though it does not look like it on the outside.  The passersby sneer, “They are drunk on new wine,” as though all of this glossolalia could only be the result of inebriation.

It is an incredibly cruel retort to a people who are having a very real and authentic experience of God, to basically be accused of public drunkenness—a crime—on unfounded grounds, when you have just gone through an incredibly painful—life-changing as well, yes, but still painful—ordeal of the Passion.  They have just been publicly insulted in a really personal and unwarranted manner.

Yet Peter does not write them off.  He goes on from this passage to preach an incredible sermon—incredible because if you knew him at all during the Gospels, you wouldn’t recognize the theological depth of what Peter is saying in comparison to his bumbling blockheadedness back when he was following Jesus around everywhere.

The sneer did not cause Peter to lose faith, not by a long shot.  And that is the whole point of the Pentecost story, only writ even larger, on a humanity-sized scale.

The Pentecost story is, at its core, one of how God has not lost faith in us yet.

Only fifty days after the killing of His Son, God sends to us the Holy Spirit.

It is an amazing act of reconciliation to that very same humanity that had crucified God’s Son, and in that way, the Pentecost story is a natural successor to the Easter story.  Rejuvenation of spirit ought to follow resurrection, and reconciliation ought to follow the giving of new life.

A wrenching act, a display of separation and scorn, splits up a future husband and a future wife—much as, say, the prophet Hosea would speak of in his analogizing the relationship of God to the people—and the family of the heartbroken bride does not lose faith, no.  They sought the rebuilding and rejuvenating of other people even in the midst of their own pain and hurt for their daughter.

God seeks out our own rebuilding of ourselves, even in the midst of our own hurt and pain but also in the midst of God’s own hurt and pain…you don’t think the crucifixion of Jesus didn’t pain God to the very core?  I can only imagine that it did.

Yet here we are, seven weeks later, with God having not only restored Christ to the world that tried to end Him, but the Spirit to a group of disciples who had at one point probably thought they had lost it entirely.

And as a result, they understand one another, despite different languages, despite different backgrounds, despite different life stories.

Even more importantly, though, they probably understand God a little bit better now too.

They understand why they still matter to God.  Why they have, in truth, always mattered to God.

Such are the ways of the Holy Spirit in the lives of they who choose to be led by it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 15, 2016

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Apparently, This Blog Takes Requests Now: A Response to John Wesley Reid

Like every writer or athlete or pizza delivery driver with an awful sense of direction, I go through slumps where trying to draw words out of my noggin is like trying to draw water out of a rock (unless you're Moses).

Sometimes, like this week, it is because I have got two funerals and a baby dedication all in one weekend and my brain has a finite amount of RAM.  Other times, it is because schoolwork has finally caught up with me.  And still other times, the creative cortex of my brain has simply decided to go on strike without first giving me advance notice (apparently, my brain is unionized).

So, during those slumps, I sometimes actually appreciate being asked if I am up for writing about something, like when a message landed in my inbox earlier this week from a good friend with an article attached to it and a single line of text: "Please eviscerate this article in a future blog post."

For this particular article, by John Wesley Reid (with a name like that, he really ought to lock up the lead role in the inevitable God's Not Dead 3: Revenge of the Sith Atheists), entitled "Five Trends Millennial Christians MUST STOP Doing," I was only too happy to oblige.

Why?

Because the very first item of the five is tolerance.

Yes, tolerance.

One of the most positive notions in the English language.

And why, oh why, should we stop being tolerant?

Because "Tolerance flies in the face of the gospel...Jesus was the prime example of love, but never does He display an ounce of tolerance."

Never, you say?

Oh boy.  Buckle up, my little care bears, because there's a lot of Scripture I'm about to throw at you (all Scripture quotes are from the Common English Bible translation.

"Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a (Samaritan) woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” -John 4:27

"If people hear my words and don’t keep them, I don’t judge them. I didn’t come to judge the world but to save it. Whoever rejects me and doesn’t receive my words will be judged at the last day by the word I have spoken." -John 12:47-48

"Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." -Luke 6:37

"John replied, “Master, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he isn’t in our group of followers.” But Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him, because whoever isn’t against you is for you.” -Luke 9:49-50

Jesus tolerates a Samaritan woman arguing with him, despite the shocking nature of their interaction.  He proclaims a lack of judgment over even those who reject Him, saying that it is by the word He speaks--His teachings--that we are judged.  He teaches that a lack of judgment and condemnation are the keys to avoiding judgment and condemnation ourselves.  And he puts all of those teachings into practice when an unauthorized exorcist is reported to Him, and Jesus instructs His followers not to do anything, because "whoever isn't against you is for you."

Undoubtedly, this section about tolerance is largely directed at the GLBTQ community--I say this based on dog-whistle type phrases such as "Instead of hating sin for the separation that it causes between us and God, they accept the sins of others in the name of “loving them for who they are," a fairly obvious nod in the direction of sexual orientation.

The fruit of intolerance, in the case of GLBTQ people, is horrific, though: GLBTQ youth are far more likely to commit suicide, become homeless, and be bullied or assaulted at school compared to their straight or cis peers.  And when Jesus has an awful lot to say about us having life, these sorts of life-denying realities are a severe condemnation of Christianity's treatment of GLBTQ people.

We cannot simply "hate the sin, love the sinner" when it comes to sexual orientation, because saying that sexual orientation is a sin leads to these extraordinarily harmful--and sometimes lethal--effects.

Not only must we continue to be tolerant, we must learn to be even more tolerant, if we are to actually model ourselves on a Jesus who came that we might have life, and have it in abundance (John 10:10).

We Christian millennials are also told to stop neglecting theology.  Which, okay, fair enough.  Theology is important.

But it isn't more important than people.  I've said this before, but I'm going to keep repeating it until it starts sinking in: we have to start being more relational and less doctrinal.  Doctrine doesn't trump actual souls.

Apparently, the problem with this is "When theology is neglected Christian millennials succumb to weak cultural ideas and defective scriptural interpretation such as “Jesus just said to love people, so why should we be opposed to gay marriage?” and “the Bible says not to judge, so don’t tell me that I shouldn’t be sleeping with my boyfriend!” when the Bible actually tells Christians to judge each other (Matthew 7:24, 1 Corinthians 5:9-13)."

Frankly, I think millennial Scriptural interpretation is being rather essentialized here; most of us, I'd gander, are aware that Jesus didn't "just" say "to love people."  But more importantly, while Reid is slamming "defective scriptural interpretation," he in fact cites one verse (Matthew 7:24--ironically, a chapter that begins with Jesus explicitly telling us not to judge) that has nothing to do with Christians judging each other--that's a verse about the parable of a house on sand versus on rock, which is instructive rather than judgmental--and another verse that says Christians may judge each other but *not* people outside the church; in fact, Paul is explicitly saying in 1 Corinthians 5 to leave that judgment up to God.

So if someone outside the Christian faith is "sleeping with their boyfriend," guess what?  Simply love them and pray for them.  Don't judge them.  Even Paul says so.

None of that, by the by, is a takedown of accountability, the dismissal of which is also lamented by Reid: "If you call them out on wayward behavior they will notoriously accuse you of judging them and use the Bible to support their plight."

Tis is a strawman argument at best; I can say from personal experience, and with a high degree of confidence, that the millennial Christians I know, minister to, and am colleagues with in ministry (a) have very strong senses of personal sexual ethics--adultery repels them just as much as it does their elders, and (b) believe in accountability as something to be entered into with humility, not authoritarianism.

Put a different way: accountability has to be a two-way street.  If we have learned *nothing* else from the repeated sex and finance scandals involving far too many churches to count, it is that accountability cannot simply remain a top-down concept.  I keep my congregants accountable for what they say and do by engaging them in counsel and dialogue, but they have also kept me accountable when I have flown off the cuff with an un-Christian remark or gesture.

But hey, I guess this makes us notorious, I guess?

The church, which is currently suffering from a colossal deficit of trust among millennials, desperately needs that sort of reciprocity in accountability.  It is not that millennials are anti-accountability, not at all.  It is that we tend to be anti-unidirectional accountability.

Alas, all of that probably is construed as "church-bashing," which is yet another entry among the five on Reid's list.

Oh well.  If signing up to spend my one and only glorious, humble, wonderful life ministering within and without the church's confines qualifies me to say this, it is entirely possible--and sometimes necessary--to love something by critiquing it.  Not simply in a "dissent is the highest form of patriotism" sort of way or what have you, but simply in a "we're not going to be knee-jerk cheerleaders" way.

Because that, too, avoids true accountability.

It saddens me to see other Christians say that the church deserves a free pass on that level.  It communicates a sense of moral superiority and privilege, an expectation that we should not be scrutinized in the same ways as everyone and everything else.

When did the church I know and love become so fragile, so much like a house of cards, that it could not stomach such critique?

I don't pretend to know the answer to that question.  I'll simply content myself with saying this: the church needs what millennials have to offer.  Full stop.  For the church has always been reinventing and regenerating itself from generation to generation.  And if we stop that greatest of traditions now, by pushing away our fellow young believers, then, *then* there might actually be grounds for worry about the future of the body of Christ in this world.

But not a minute before then.

Thanks for reading.

Vancouver, Washington
May 14, 2016

Sunday, May 8, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "All Things"

Mark 9:14-29

When Jesus, Peter, James, and John approached the other disciples, they saw a large crowd surrounding them and legal experts arguing with them. 15 Suddenly the whole crowd caught sight of Jesus. They ran to greet him, overcome with excitement. 16 Jesus asked them, “What are you arguing about?” 17 Someone from the crowd responded, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, since he has a spirit that doesn’t allow him to speak. 18 Wherever it overpowers him, it throws him into a fit. He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and stiffens up. So I spoke to your disciples to see if they could throw it out, but they couldn’t.” 19 Jesus answered them, “You faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 They brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a fit. He fell on the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been going on?” He said, “Since he was a child. 22 It has often thrown him into a fire or into water trying to kill him. If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!” 23 Jesus said to him, “‘If you can do anything’? All things are possible for the one who has faith.” 24 At that the boy’s father cried out, “I have faith; help my lack of faith!” 25 Noticing that the crowd had surged together, Jesus spoke harshly to the unclean spirit, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you to come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 After screaming and shaking the boy horribly, the spirit came out. The boy seemed to be dead; in fact, several people said that he had died. 27 But Jesus took his hand, lifted him up, and he arose. 28 After Jesus went into a house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we throw this spirit out?” 29 Jesus answered, “Throwing this kind of spirit out requires prayer.” (Common English Bible)


“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Six

Four tours of duty in Afghanistan across a twenty-year military career.  Three times in those four tours, he was almost killed.  Yet still, Sergeant Joseph Serna returned to the United States at least physically intact, if not entirely mentally intact—as many soldiers from war zones sadly do, Sgt. Serna suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and it eventually landed him on the wrong side of the law as a result of substance abuse, and I’ll let the Washington Post pick it up here:

While Serna’s years in combat earned him three Purple Hearts and other military accolades, like many combat vets, he’s been unable to leave the battlefield behind him.  Since returning to the U.S., the decorated Green Beret has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and been charged with driving under the influence.  He entered the veteran’s treatment court program…over which…State District Court Judge Lou Olivera presides.

Serna had fought to stay sober, appearing before Olivera 25 times to have his progress reviewed.  He confessed to Olivera that he lied about a recent urine test last week…in response, Olivera sentenced Serna to one day in jail.

The judge drove Serna to the jail in a neighboring county…As Serna sat down on the cot in his cell…he heard the door rattle open again and saw Olivera standing before him.  Olivera sat down beside him.  Someone came and locked the door.

This was a one-man cell so we sat on the bunk and I said, ‘You are here for the entire time with me?’” Serna (said).  “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I am doing.’”

A Gulf War veteran himself, Olivera was concerned leaving Serna in isolation for a night would trigger his PTSD.

So, Olivera stayed with Serna the whole time, conversing with him and trying to help rebuild him.

In a moment of weakness, of unbelief in perhaps himself, or in whether he could actually live and cope with life, Serna had done something colossally dangerous to himself and others.  But he was also able to cry out, like the father in Mark 9, “Help me in my unbelief!”  And someone actually did.

This has been a sermon series for the church season of Easter, which is now almost up.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that the earth is round.  I believe that milk spoils.  I believe the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.  But that’s all belief does.

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

Right action, though is what is front and center for the father who comes up to Jesus here in Mark 9.  His son has been stricken—apparently for many years now—and when the son was presented to Jesus’s disciples for help, the disciples were unable to successfully exorcise the boy.

So the father does what you have to think any desperate parent would do for their child: he created a large commotion within the crowd in order to get Jesus’s attention.  After all, if the disciples cannot adequately utilize God’s healing capacities, you might as well try anything you can to go directly to the source right?  The father is successful in doing so, and pleads vividly and emotionally with Jesus, “If you can do anything, help us!  Show us compassion!”

To which he actually gets something that closely resembles a rebuke from Jesus, well, actually, he gets two of them.  The first is that “faithless generation” rebuke, the sort of thing my millennial ears have grown used to hearing about, you know, my generation’s noise/music, sense of fashion (or lack thereof), and our insistence that we’re all special snowflakes.

But the second rebuke is what I want to focus on: “If you can do anything? All things are possible for one who has faith (or believes, depending on your translation—see, isn’t this a needed sermon series after all?).”

That had to be mortifying for the father, don’t you think?  All you want—all you’re looking for—is for your son to be well and whole again, and the one person (well, God-in-flesh person) who can help you, and he’s going to correct your begging first?  As us faithless generation whippersnappers say, “WTF?”

But of course, Jesus’s gentle rejoinder—and really, it can also be seen as encouraging, rather than scolding, to tell the father that if he does indeed have faith, more and more possibilities open up—has the desired effect on our desperate dad, who cries out to Jesus the line that inspired and entitles this entire sermon series to this point: “I believe!  Help me in my unbelief!”

It is, for me, one of the most amazing, most powerful, most profound paradoxes in the entire Bible: I believe.  But help me in this unbelief I also have.

This father may believe, but it is impossible for him to do so every minute of every day.  He sees his own limitations in a moment of sheer, unadulterated humility—and even humiliation, if you consider that this is all taking place amid a large crowd, and they may well be judging him, thinking, as was a popular worldview at the time that sin (not germs or genes) caused physical conditions and illnesses, “What on earth kind of sin could you have possibly done to demonize your boy like this?’

Which brings us back to the fact that the father was causing a commotion to begin with.  He was willing to risk that level of humiliation and judgment in order to finally, at long last, maybe have a healthy son again.

Just as a judge in drug court was willing to risk a level of humiliation to stay in jail to maybe, just maybe, have a healthy fellow veteran living life again.

Can you imagine one of those two veterans sitting in the jail cell together, one saying to the other those same words of the anonymous father, “I believe, help me in my unbelief?”

Can you imagine the one, the battle-tested veteran with PTSD, pleading for help in his own quest for wholeness, and being encouraged in return, it’s possible.  It’s doable.  It.  Can.  Be.  Done.  All things are possible for one who has faith.

It is not just a platitude.  It is not something that you ought to find in the interior of a greeting card or a fortune cookie to glance at fleetingly and then cast away forever.  It is not a trite cliché to be trotted out in commencement speeches and motivational halftime speeches.

For it is what a wildly despairing father needs to hear in order to recognize and proclaim this vital truth about himself, that while he may well have faith, he still needs help in those moments when he does not, when that faith weakens, or is questioned, or goes missing.

Our faith may quiver and quaver, our beliefs may be tested and questioned, but Christ still remains.

Christ always remains.

And in Christ, the stricken boy is indeed made whole.

May we, like the boy, like the father, like the Green Beret, like the judge, like the puzzle and tapestry and maze of grace and wonder and hurt and goodness that is humanity.

For in the midst of that humanity, Christ still remains.

Christ always remains.

And He remains to help us in our unbelief.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 8, 2016

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Deep Calls to Deep

This is one of the hardest weeks I have had in professional ministry.  I've had two lifelong congregants who I loved dearly pass away within four days of each other.  My grandmother-in-law is dying.  I have ethics and boundary training--an utterly soul-deadening experience that we pastors must undergo in order to keep our ordained standing, similar to a doctor or lawyer keeping up their license to practice law or medicine--all day on Saturday.

It is a truism in pastoral ministry that these sorts of weeks where everything that can beat you down will, those sorts of weeks come in waves.  Right now, the water is exactly at chin level.

But it is that mental image that sent me running for my Bible to dig up what has become one of my favorite Psalms--Psalm 42.  I will be reading it at one of my members' interment soon.  But I needed it today as well.

Perhaps you do as well, I do not know.  But on the chance that you do, the text is below.  As you read it, I could really, really use your prayers over the next week or two.

My thanks to my childhood friend--and current pastoral colleague--Rev. McKinna Daugherty, whose treatment of this text on September 11, 2011, introduced me to its great and profound truths.

Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Longview, Washington
May 5, 2016

Psalm 42

To the leader. A Maskil of the Korahites.

1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God.

My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.

7 Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.

8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

9 I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”

10 As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

My Resume of Failures

I wish I could tell you that this is the best blog post I will have ever written.

But it isn't about that.

And that's sort of the point.

It's about my own mistakes, my foibles and my failures, my swings-and-misses and my airballs--of which there are many.

And before we all take this collective swan dive into this ocean of mediocrity, his idea is most emphatically*not* mine.  I saw a CV of Failures from Johannes Houshofer, who noted that he in turn got the idea from Melanie Stefan.

The idea is that we celebrate success and prosperity so much that we really have attached a stigma to failures--not just being a failure, but committing any sort of failures at all.  Someone can be--and I would say have to be--successful and still fail at times.  Failure is a crucial part of the job description.  If you're not trying and failing at things every once in a while, then you're simply not trying hard enough at life.

In church, even though we talk about being "broken" and "fragile" and being in need of "restoration" and "wholeness," the truth is, we still designate failures as safe or not safe to really share openly among one another.

Pastors can be especially guilty of this, because our entire profession is capable of being one, big collective neurosis: our bookshelves are packed with books by "successful" pastors, we face continual pressure to keep growing the church (especially in light of its numerical decline), and us admitting weakness when we may be on a pedestal--and, in fact, when we have been actively climbing up the pedestal ourselves--is utterly anathema.

Yet we follow a Savior whose career was cut short by execution.  By our modern standards of success, it is hard to label His ministry as such (yes, I know that He was also resurrected, but that was a triumph you don't exactly put on a resume..."33: Crucified.  33: Resurrected from the dead.  33: Ascended to heaven to be at the hand of God.") and yet, here we are, using Caesar's tools to measure God's kingdom.

I'm a part of that, too: I have a permanent separate post for my CV, and I do take some measure of pride in my humble accomplishments so far in my brief career.

But, in the interests of balance, here is a (admittedly limited) resume of failures for your consumption and, hopefully, inspiration:

Objective: To be a comprehensive comedy of errors of my educational and vocational life

List of undergraduate colleges I did not get into because my high school grades sucked:

Oberlin College
Whitman College
Grinnell College

Number of varsity-level debate rounds I lost in my college career: 78. 79 if you count the epic bollocking I got from the Irish national team at the Air Force Academy in 2008.

List of awards I did not get but could have been eligible for if I had been better at what I do:

Graduating with honors in religious studies
National Parliamentary Debate Association All-American
Paul Wesley Yinger Preaching Award

List of ministry-related jobs I have been considered for and did not get:

Senior Pastor, unnamed Disciples church
Associate Pastor for Church Growth, unnamed Disciples church
Clinical Pastoral Education intern, unnamed San Francisco Bay Area hospital

List of ministry ideas I've tried *just in the past five years* that totally went belly-up:

A Sunday evening Taize-style prayer service
A young adult Sunday School class
A coordinated youth group of three different mainline congregations in Longview

List of people whose weddings or funerals I made some sort of mistake during:

Pretty much all of them, whether it was simply stumbling over a word or forgetting an entire paragraph of an obituary or preaching on the wedding at Cana to a family of extremely strict Nazarenes.

List of years that I have successfully managed to lose weight *and* keep that weight off:

LOL

Longview, Washington
May 3, 2016

Sunday, May 1, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Simon, Son of Jonah"

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” 


14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18 I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” 

20 Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ.  (Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Five

It was a simple question.

But simple questions can very easily be the most offensive, most dangerous of questions.

And Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds had just been asked the most loaded question of all.

Are any of you Jewish?

Master Sergeant Edmonds had, along with thousands of other Allied troops, been captured by the German Wehrmacht at the Battle of the Bulge during the Second World War.  At the POW camp in Germany, the camp’s commandant demanded to know which of his new prisoners were Jewish.  Edmonds ordered his entire group to step forward.

Putting a gun to Edmond’s head, the commandant repeated the same order: Jews, step forward.

Again, everyone identified themselves as a Jew.

And the camp commandant backed down.

I do not know how many lives Roddie Edmonds saved with that gesture, but he saved enough that he is one of only five Americans to be named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust memorial organization Yad Vashem, which he was this past December.

Who do you say that you are?  That question will likely vary depending on the context in which you are asked—and may none of you find yourselves in the circumstances of a genocide to be asked it.  That question cuts to the very root of where our beliefs often come from—our identities and our experiences.  And that identity gets asked of Peter by Jesus, when Jesus asks Peter who He is.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that the earth is round.  I believe that milk spoils.  I believe the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.  But that’s all belief does.

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

Today, we’ll be talking about that difference in light of one of the most famous declarations of belief—or faith, we’ll get to that distinction later—ever made, by Peter in response to Jesus.

The “Son of Man” (or the “Human One” in the CEB translation) is a common term for Jesus to use throughout Matthew to refer to Himself, so it isn’t as though He is springing a brand new moniker on Peter for the hapless fisherman to stumble over.  By this point, sixteen chapters deep into Matthew’s Gospel, we know—and Peter knows—full well that Jesus is asking Peter who Peter says that Jesus is.

Peter, perhaps taking a page out of the book of contemporary politics, artfully tries to dodge the question entirely: “Some say John the Baptist or Elijah, still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

If you’re keeping score at home or in your seat, that’s four different possible answers that Peter threw out in the span of a single sentence, hoping that maybe one of them is in fact correct.  He is like the student who fills in every bubble on their multiple-choice test: at least one of the answers has to be correct, right?  Might as well cover all of my bases!

Except that what Jesus has asked Peter isn’t a multiple-choice question, it is an open-ended question: there are an infinite number of potential answers.  However, there is but one completely correct answer, and fortunately for Peter, he finds it next: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

It is the first part of that baptism recitation I mentioned earlier, and it is at this point that Peter actually begins going as, well, Peter.  His given name is Simon bar Jonah—Simon, son of Jonah.  But he is given a new name in faith by Jesus, a name which means “the rock,” from the Greek “petros.”

On this rock, this sometimes-clueless, sometimes-cowardly fisherman of a rock, Jesus builds His church.  And how sublimely appropriate it is that He should do so.  Peter is not a Herculean person, a symbol of Hegelian perfection.  He does not cut a silhouette of mystique or power, at least not until Acts, when his mere shadow is able to cure people of their ailments, illnesses, and injuries.

He is simply Peter.  He is simply Simon, the son of a fellow named Jonah.  But Peter, in his complete, utter ordinariness, in his you-couldn’t-tell-him-from-Adam anonymity, in that level of sheer humbleness of being unknown to the world to this point, Peter still is able to proclaim truth, even if it is only to an audience of One.

For the One to whom Peter proclaims the truth of his faith is the most important One of all.

The truth of who you are—and of who you believe this Son of Man to be—is a simple question indeed.  Even if it is answered only for an audience of one, the impact of the answer is still great.

Answered for an audience of one, the simple, terrible question, “Who among you is Jewish” was answered in such a way that life was made to go on for prisoners of war at the mercy of their fascist overlords.

Answered for an audience of one, the simple, but great question, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and do you accept Him as your Savior?” brings newfound life to the lost and hope to the redeemed.

And answered for an audience of One, the question, “Who do you say that I am?” took an unassuming laborer and made Him into the foundation of faith for billions across time and space.

Peter may well have believed in Jesus long before this point—we have to think that he did, or else he wouldn’t up and leave his home, his family, and his work otherwise—but his willingness to stop hiding behind what others said, and to rely solely on what he thought about Jesus, that’s an act of faith.  It’s a faith in oneself to realize that they made the right decision in following Jesus, and it’s a faith in Jesus in realizing that He is very much worth following in the first place.

Who do you say that *you* are?  Someone who believes, or who has faith, or who wonders, doubts, questions, and all of the above?  Someone who lives out their faith or who struggles at it, who feels they can follow Christ or who is worried about getting lost along the way?

For who you say that you are has an effect on who you might say Christ is as well.  Peter had become sure of who Christ was, but not yet sure of himself—so he relied at first on the opinion of others in answering Jesus’s question to him.

In that way, we are as Peter—potentially unsure of ourselves, even if we have been following Jesus for a long time now.

But sometimes, a more bold answer is required, and we must move from belief into faith as Peter has done.

May the example of Peter, the rock, be a source of strength and foundation for you, even amid the doubts and the worries and the fears of your lives.  Peter had them.  I have them.  We all have them.

Your faith is strong enough to encompass all those things, though.  Let it be that strong and able.  Let it be that redemptive.  And let it be that which gives you hope enough for God’s own grace to remain in your life as it always has.

We may be as small and as ordinary as Peter.  But maybe it is okay for our faith to be that big.  Maybe even more than okay.

Let that soul-sized faith be a rock for you, upon which you can build your life and faith anew.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 1, 2016