Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Pastor Appreciation Month Matters

So October is, in addition to being the month of Halloween, Columbus Day, the World Series, and my mom’s sixtieth birthday (don’t remind her of it), also officially—somehow—“Pastor Appreciation Month.”

To the untrained eye, having a “Pastor Appreciation Month” understandably may sound a whole lot like having, say, “National Clean Out Your Fridge Day” (November 15, in case you were wondering) or “National Erectile Dysfunction Awareness Day” (May 3) or “Constipation Awareness Month” (December…and I could go on and on in this vein.  Seriously, there are some awesome ones out there).

But I would gently suggest to you that we pastors need our own month at least as much as your plugged-up bowels do.  Because Pastor Appreciation Month really does matter.  And it matters for reasons that go far beyond us being an emotionally needy bunch of God geeks in constant need of validation in a world that increasingly sees us as either irrelevant or mean-spirited when in reality we try so hard to be neither.

It matters because your pastor will never have the peace of mind that a 40-hour-a-week, 9-to-5, punch-the-clock gig brings.  The phone could always ring, with someone on the other side whose loved one has just died.  That phone does not know the meaning of terms like “days off” or “family dinners” or “overtime.” But we answer it anyways, because our love for, and our calling to, God and you is so strong.

It matters because in spite of the demands on our time (see above), we still deal with people who somehow still think that we only work one hour a week, or who ask why we get “all that vacation time” when we go off to a conference to improve our ministry skills.

It matters because despite the many, many thoughtful, loving, and amazing comments we receive from the angels in the church who provide us with loving, caring, feedback and compliments, it is one the outlier comment—the nasty remark said on the way out the door, or the passive-aggressive jab in an email or Facebook post—that we lose sleep over at night.

It matters because we not only tithe to the church (my point of view being that it would be mighty hypocritical for me to ask the church to make a financial sacrifice that I myself am unwilling to make), but we also will also sometimes pay out of our own pocket for work-related expenses, necessities around the church, and food for strangers who show up at the church door.  We do this because we know the church is always struggling to meet its budget, and we do this even though our own salary and benefits are, oftentimes, inadequate.

It matters because even as we genuinely rejoice with the welcoming of new members, we also agonize and ache inside over the members who have drifted away for one reason or another, and wonder where we may have gone wrong. 

(If you’ll allow me a brief aside here: Fellow pastors who follow my blog, if you read that last one and said to yourselves, “I don’t think like that, I know that people leaving my congregation isn’t my fault,” I KNOW you’re full of crap.  Seeing someone whose hands you held as they joined the church, whose dinner table you’ve sat at and broken bread over, whose kids you’ve played with…to see them drift away hurts.  Even if you know in your head it isn’t personal, in your heart, you still sometimes wonder why.) 

It matters because the burnout of our clergy is a real thing.  Literally thousands of pastors leave the ministry every month for varying reasons—with many of them swearing never to return.

It matters because even though we ultimately work for God, middle management (in the form of denominations, regional/conference/diocesan ministers, church boards, elders, etc.) has the hiring and firing powers over us, and roughly 1 in 4 of us have been fired or pressured to resign from a church, sometimes wrongfully.  Just about every pastor has a colleague or friend who we know was forced out of a position unjustly…and we wonder if that will ever happen to us one day.

It matters because much like waiting tables or teaching in a classroom, ministry entails having a people who have never done what you do and who have no training in what you do still think that they can do it better than you and end up saddling you with expectations that are impossible for you to meet.

It matters because you have a parish pastor to call your own and we, ultimately, do not.  Doctors can still have primary physicians, and lawyers can still have attorneys-of-record.  But pastors?  We usually do not have someone who we can call our pastor.

It matters because a pastor’s devout faith does not automatically inoculate them from self-doubt.  Pastors are still often their own worst critics.  I know I am mine.

And it matters because even with the boundaries pastors put up to try to keep at least part of their personal lives separate from their ministries, we still cannot help but love you and love God 24/7. It is in our DNA to love.  Your pastor probably loves you as a brother or sister in Christ more than you know.  And if I am your pastor…yes, I absolutely love you in Christ more than I can ever begin to say.  This is still such an amazing job I have.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

(photo credit: kevinspear.com)

Monday, September 29, 2014

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

October 2014: "Growth is Never Static"

Dear Church,

I am thrilled to report that with Lacie Cook's baptism on Sunday, September 28th, we have now had eight baptisms in the church in 2014. It has been such a wonderful experience to watch new members formally join our church family in this way, immersing themselves in the waters of renewal and arising as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ--performing these baptisms definitely counts as one of the perks of this gig!

Baptisms also represent the growth our church is experiencing, both numerically and spiritually. And with either type of growth, we can expect the church to change in new and exciting ways...including ways that may sometimes be unexpected and surprising!

We often want our beloved church to remain the way it is; I know I definitely felt that growing up in a church plant that started with 50 people in one worship service when my family began taking me there at ripe old age of six and grew into roughly 500 attendees on a Sunday between three worship services by the time I graduated college. We're not operating anywhere close to that scale, nor are we trying to, but even going from 50 to 60 people means that a church will see some new energy.

And that's ultimately a good thing. Far too often, I've experienced with both churches and denominations a wish to have more people, but to not have more ideas. Put differently: they want reinforcements to keep doing the same things that have been done for decades, but not necessarily to create new things to add on to or complement the existing ministries, programs, and activities.

But that's no way to go about growing the body of Christ, because it means the Church (big "C", universal church) is saying to potential new believers, "We want you, but only if you do what we'd like for you to do rather than what you may feel called to do with your own God-given gifts and talents." It isn't a very welcoming message, and a lot of people--young people especially--have felt that sentiment directed at them.

Ever since I arrived, I have striven to be intentional and up-front about my vision for this church as a safe space for people to try new spiritual practices and disciplines that might draw even more people in, and I hope you will hold me to that vision, because ultimately, the church isn't about what I want, or you want, or what any one person wants. It is what God wants, and as the early church leader Irenaeus said, the glory of God is man fully alive.

May our growth in spirit and in numbers continue in such a way that all our members, present and future, feel fully alive for God!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

You may also have noticed that on Sunday, I began a new sermon series, entitled "The Sermon on the Mount's Little Sibling: Luke's Sermon on the Plain."  If you're interested in seeing what comes next and/or in following along, here is the rest of the series in outline, which will take us through Sunday, November 2:

October 5: “Newton’s Third Law,” Luke 6:20-26
October 12: “Children of the Most High,” Luke 6:27-36
October 19: “On Planks and Specks,” Luke 6:37-42
October 26: “Omnia Munda Mundis,” Luke 6:43-45
November 2: “Upon Sand, Upon Rock,” Luke 6:46-49 

What is super-crazy to think is that the next full-blown sermon series that I'll be kicking off after this one is my Advent series. Holy freaking cow! -E.A.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "11,541 Red Chairs"

Luke 6:17-19

17 Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. 18 They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed. 19 The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone. (Common English Bible)


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

I grew up with the Bosnian war.  I grew up with its horrible stories beamed through into my childhood home on the television.  I grew up with the public deliberations by the US, Europe, NATO, on whether or not to intervene in an ethnic cleansing of a whole peoples on the front page of the newspapers that I would walk outside to pick up in my Power Ranger pajamas (yes, I owned pair.  I regret nothing).  Running on the heels of, and almost parallel to, the genocide in Rwanda, it was a quick 1-2 punch in the stomach in learning, at a very young age, just how cruel and terrible humankind is to one another.

In 1994, just after the new year, Serbian shells began to pelt the capital, Sarajevo.  Attacks at the airport shut down all humanitarian aid flights in and out of the capital.  Eventually, food would run out.  This would go on for 44 months—nearly four years—before the siege was finally lifted through NATO intervention in 1997.

After all was said and done, 11,541 Bosnians died in the siege of Sarajevo.  Their memorial stood upon a long avenue that leads up to the eternal flame that commemorates the Bosnians killed in the Second World War…an avenue that upon which rested exactly 11,541 red plastic lawn chairs, one for every person living in the city who was killed.  Every.  Single.  Person.

And for the children whose lives were taken, smaller red chairs were used to mark their places.

There are few things that I think we really can do to make a ground sacred, but remembering the dead in so vivid and heartbreaking a manner is, I have to think, one of the few.  Because it is the final testament to how we treat them—how we are treating a fellow person and child of God.

And where do we ultimately get those instructions on how to treat another person?  Well, from sermons like the one we are about to unpack over the next six weeks.  And just as we can take something as unremarkable as a length of street and turn it into something truly sacred and profound, so too is Jesus about to take a thoroughly unremarkable expanse of land and use it as the stage for the providing of some of His most profound wisdom. 

And it is nothing short of a transformation.

This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November.  And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing).  Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain.  So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, but before we even get to that, we must set the scene!

Christ has just called the twelve disciples, and He is taking them along, presumably for their very first instructions.  While this would not be Jesus’s first sermon in Luke (that came two chapters earlier, in Luke 4, wherein Jesus so pushes the buttons of his hometown synagogue by claiming that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that they try to kill Him by throwing Him off of a freaking cliff), it would have been the first sermon that the Apostles would have all heard together.  And, in what will turn out to pretty much be par for the course throughout His ministry, Jesus finds His little party being crashed by the people.  Specifically, people in dire, desperate need of His divinity.

And that should be a clue to us right off the bat: that before Jesus even utters another word to His brand-new crew, He first makes sure to take care of literally everybody else first.  It is an expression of Christian hospitality in its most radical form.  It helps to make this land, this plain, this level place upon which Jesus stands, holy.  Because, ultimately, it is the site of transformation for an untold number of people—literally.  Luke does not tell us just how many people are made whole by Christ in such a short passage.  But I can only imagine that it is quite many.

Really, it is because of works and miracles like this that we literally call this place the Holy Land.  Holiness happened here.  Holiness, as John’s Gospel says, pitched its tent here and lived among us.  But what makes the land itself holy?  It is, after all, when you get down to it only sand and dust and dirt, the very same elements from whence God drew Adam, and even then, the dirt did not become alive and set apart until God breathed life into it and made it so.

But over the course of many, many years, we have lost touch with that spark, that source of divine breath.  We became in dire need of it again, and so we were given Jesus, who breathes life, restores life, and redeems life.  Jesus acts, in this passage and in so many others, as the embodiment of a life transformed because He was never just our original human form to begin with.  He was always so, so much more.

And far be for us to elevate such a being, such an incarnation, to something higher than us—up onto a pedestal, a mount, a place above us mere broken mortals.  After all, God is up there and we are down here and that's the way it has to be, right?  But as opposed to Matthew, where Jesus is high up on the mountaintop to preach, here He remains in that level place, right where we are, in order to make us whole.

Jesus is meeting us where we are.  And in so doing, He is making this earthen ground we tread on, that dirties our feet and cakes our clothing, holy.  Because before teaching us how to act towards one another, He first shows us.  He shows us by meeting us where we are, seeing our most dire needs, and remedying them.

I know it sounds simple when I put it like that, but it is anything but.  We’re terrible at meeting people where they are and at meeting their needs.  We’re absolutely horrible at it, both because we want people to be where we are—spiritually, emotionally, mentally—and because we want to meet the needs we want to meet, not the needs that are there.  We look at someone else who votes differently from us or who reads a different translation of the Bible from us as someone who needs to be fixed, and we fail to see that those ‘needs’ aren’t even needs at all.

In other words, we make up needs that we want to meet because we can.  And because that’s oftentimes a heck of a lot easier than actually caring about and helping someone out.

And so we need the church—we need Christ—to show us the way.  To show us the way towards another person’s soul, to another person’s life, and to strengthen it and embrace it in God’s name.  We need one another to hold our own selves accountable for how we act towards the others in our own lives.  We need, in the most basic sense, a community.

And for this community, First Christian Church, almost 85 years ago ground was broken for the building in which we meet to be built.  The land below us was given a new purpose, a sacred and profound purpose, and in so doing, I have to think, was made holy.  Because this entire time, we have tried, with varying degrees of success but still with constant commitment, to meet our neighbors where they are as soon as they walked through those great wooden double doors.

But that is no longer enough, not today.  We must in turn go back out, to build the church outside of our great walls, and in turn make those spaces holy as well.  Your own home can be a holy land, your own kitchen table, your own gym, anywhere that you can meet the need of another person by offering them the love of Christ, you are emulating Christ upon the level place where He met the masses and healed them all.

And that is no small thing, I promise you.  I have people in my own young career in ministry who tell me about things that I was in some way involved in that impacted them positively: things that I had all but forgotten about until they reminded me that I had been there, that I had played some sort of role, and that their own lives, like the lives of the people in this short, almost thrown-away three-verse story of Luke’s, were transformed.

That’s what we’re going for here, people.  I’m under no illusion that y’all can instantly recall every word of every sermon that I’ve given here, or of every sermon that you have heard here, or of every Bible study, every Sunday School class, every Children’s Church session, that we’ve had together.  Our brains simply don’t work that way.

But I’d like to think that I can safely say that for all of you at some point, something that has happened here has transformed you somehow.  Something led you here, to this point.

That’s why, I think, the display of the 11,451 red chairs in Sarajevo so profoundly impacted me when I first read about it and saw the images.  Something got us to this point where, after we had once again slaughtered thousands of our neighbors because of some diabolical need we had convinced ourselves of, we then saw the need to make that besieged land sacred once more.  To make it holy once more.

To restore it once more.

And that is why I imagine we are here today.  To continue seeking that same restoration from profane into sacred, from broken into whole, from dying into living, from beaten down into lifted up.  It is that restoration that Jesus offered so many years ago.  And it is still offered to you today.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 28, 2014