Friday, July 15, 2016

So Your Church Is Now A PokeStop. Now What?

As I was putting the final touches on this post this morning, I began reading the horrifying reports out of Nice, France. I debated for a while whether to hold off on this post. But as I say at the end of this article, this is a game that has actually humanized a lot of people to a lot of other people. In other words, it is a very real tool to use against terror if we choose for it to be. Because of that, I hope you are able to take something very profound and authentic from what might otherwise simply be, on the surface level, a how-to article about responding to a simple game. ~E.A.

The first generation of Pokemon games--Red and Blue (not Yellow--that game was too goofy for me)--were a formative influence in my childhood. There weren't many pets that I could have as a kid owing to allergies my sister and I have, so my choices were fish or Pokemon. I tried both and learned that Pokemon stick around longer and don't ever need to be flushed down the toilet.

Now, twenty years after that first generation of games, Pokemon Go has arrived and genuinely taken the country (and Australia, New Zealand, etc.) by storm. It puts the quest of catching Pokemon into the real world rather than the make-believe world (called Kanto) of the original games, meaning that people now must physically travel to different real-world locations to catch Pokemon as well as to find Pokemon-catching supplies and opponents to train their Pokemon with.

Niantic, the developers of Pokemon Go, and Nintendo, the developers of the original Pokemon games, installed many of these "PokeStops" and gyms at churches, as well as other prominent public spots (parks, monuments, landmarks, that sort of thing), so now, all of the sudden, churches across the country have reacted--or been forced to react--to this brand-new existential identity and change in purpose and vocation: how to approach the people who have arrived on their doorsteps not for Jesus, but for a chance at catching Charizard?

As a pastor and Pokemon fan, if I may, offer these few suggestions to colleagues and churches around the world wondering how best to do this brand-new form of outreach that has presented itself to us:

First and foremost: make clear that people are *welcome* at your place of worship. Put up a sign, a post on your church website or (in my case) church Facebook page that explicitly welcomes Pokemon Go players to your campus and makes it clear that they may play the game on your property (with the understanding, of course, that they respect your property--which the vast, vast majority of players seem to be doing).

Secondly, though, do more than simply extend a verbal welcome: extend a material welcome as well. You'll note in my Facebook page post that I let players know that we have coffee and ice water on Sundays, and that on days when our sanctuary is open (which isn't always possible since my office is in a separate building from our sanctuary), I'll be putting a Lure (which brings in Pokemon for players to catch) up on our church's PokeStop. All of these are material examples of communicating to players that, again, they are welcome at your place of worship.

There are more active forms of engagement on top of the more passive forms of simply setting out drinks or Lure Modules--consider hosting a contest for players if your church is a Gym, with the winner getting a prize from the church like a gift card. If this game is still kicking come Easter in April, I hope to be able to host a Pokemon hunt for children alongside our regular Easter egg hunt!

But perhaps most importantly, once players are present on your property, actually make the effort to initiate and maintain a relationship with them built on kindness and compassion. I created a thread on the Pokemon Go subreddit to thank the redditors there for their celebration of the various ways in which churches around them were making that effort to be caring and compassionate towards their newfound trainer-guests.

What that thread became, though, largely, was people in turn thanking *me* for offering up a grateful Christian witness to them in contrast to the negative experiences with religion some of them have had, and even had very recently as a result of this new game.

After Dallas, after Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, and now after Nice, we desperate need more of that which helps us to see the humanity in one another rather than the bogeyman in one another. We need tools that aid autistic children in socializing, that aid body-shamed, out-of-shape souls in getting outside without that fear or shame, that aid churches in seeing people outside their immediate orbit of week-in, week-out worshipers who may or may not actually be representative of the communities in which these churches are.

See the humanity in your new visitors, my colleagues and other churches. Embrace them, welcome them in, and show them the love and hospitality of Jesus Christ.

In the midst of the terrors of the world, our ways of compassion and grace may well depend upon it.

Seattle, Washington
July 15, 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Proverb and a Taunt"

1 Kings 9:1-9

Now once Solomon finished building the Lord’s temple, the royal palace, and everything else he wanted to accomplish, 2 the Lord appeared to him a second time in the same way he had appeared to him at Gibeon. 3 The Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your cry to me. I have set apart this temple that you built, to put my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. 4 As for you, if you walk before me just as your father David did, with complete dedication and honesty, and if you do all that I have commanded, and keep my regulations and case laws, 5 then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, just as I promised your father David, ‘You will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’ 6 However, if you or your sons turn away from following me and don’t observe the commands and regulations that I gave you, and go to serve other gods, and worship them, 7 then I will remove Israel from the land I gave them and I will reject the temple that I dedicated for my name. Israel will become a joke, insulted by everyone. 8 Everyone who passes by this temple, so lofty now, will be shocked and will whistle, wondering, Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and this temple? 9 The answer will come: Because they deserted the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt’s land. They embraced other gods, worshipping and serving them. That is why the Lord brought all this disaster on them.” (Common English Bible)


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

I want to tell you a story about something that happened right here at the church, just a few months ago, sometime in February.

This was wintertime, which meant that I had my full beard as opposed to the goatee I usually wear the rest of the year. Worship and fellowship time had both long since passed, and I was out on the front lawn walking my dogs when I saw two walkers admiring our lovely Gothic building.

I walked up to them and introduced myself as the pastor and asked if I could help them or tell them anything about the building. They expressed their thanks for my offer and we made small talk for a few minutes before one of them sort of squints and asks, “So is this still a Christian church?”

I’m honestly dumbfounded at this question. Our big sign on our front lawn does say “First Christian Church” after all; it’d be mighty rich of us to advertise ourselves as a Christian church if we were instead devotees of, I don’t know, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Richard Simmons.

So I say, “Yes, of course, this has always been a Christian church.”

The man’s response absolutely floored me—and his walking companion. “Well, I ask because you really look like you’re one of those Muslims.”

His companion apologized profusely to me, but it didn’t do much for my immediate dumbfounded humiliation. The guy’s question implied that I had somehow managed some sort of stealthy campaign to turn one of the most historic churches in Longview into a secret mosque, and the suspicion with which that gets asked, and implied…no good can come from that, only pain.

And in truth, it wasn’t the first time I had been mistaken for a Muslim with suspicion. Or, for that matter, for a Jew, Latino, Italian, or even East Asian. I’m from everywhere, I know.

This happened here, literally on our front door, in 2016. Not, say,  in Selma circa 1960, but Longview in 2016. Racial ignorance is very, very real here, just like elsewhere.

After September 11, both my father and I—for he, too, wears a full beard—began being treated with suspicion in ways neither of us had previously experienced at airports. I had a ticket agent, upon seeing my ID, bug her eyes out and ask if that really was my name (as though my real name was, in true Team America fashion, Durka Durka Durka). Another time, a TSA agent reached for my cross that I wear around my neck and asked me why I bothered wearing it. And my dad once had a TSA agent straight-up admit to him that he was not “randomly selected” for invasive screening, but that he had been profiled based on his appearance.

That last one is important, because being profiled based on your appearance has become a deadly thing. Philando Castile, the 32-year-old African-American school cafeteria supervisor in Minneapolis who was shot dead this week—you probably saw his story on the news—for doing nothing more than attempting to comply with an officer’s orders, was similarly profiled.

How? Because the officer who pulled him over—ostensibly for a broken taillight, saidafterwards that the wideness of Castile’s nose resembled someone who was wanted for armed robbery.

The wideness of his nose led him to getting pulled over. The taillight was just a pretense. Over the past fourteen-odd years, Castile—who by all accounts was a model citizen—was pulled over 52 times. How many of those occurrences likewise were really only under pretense?

We saw another situation of when profiling led to lethal violence this week in Dallas, when a young military veteran decided it was time for him to start shooting white police officers. Never mind the fact that over the past seven years, the Dallas PD has been a role model in good policing and in minimizing excessive force from its officers. And never mind the fact that shooting at police officers, no matter which way you cut it, is simply evil and diabolical. It is sin, full stop.

And that sort of danger—I may have felt humiliated by those moments of racism in my life, but I never felt like my life was in danger. That is my own privilege in contrast to people of color and police officers.

I’m theoretically supposed to be using this sermon as the next installment of my summer sermon series on Solomon, so here it is. Today’s passage, which takes place after the temple in Jerusalem has finally at long last been completed, depicts another dreamlike conversation between God and Solomon—although really, God does most of the talking. God tells Solomon, in so many words, not to get complacent, not to rest on his spiritual laurels and lapse into idolatry, but to continue striving to uphold the covenant that his ancestors have made, and continued to make, with God.

God says to Solomon that otherwise, Israel will, in the words of the New Revised Standard Version translation, become “a proverb and a taunt” among the nations. This will happen, God, says, if and when Israel abandons the God who liberated “their ancestors out of Egypt’s land” to embrace, worship, and serve idols.

The invocation of the exodus out of Egypt here is important, because it recalls a reality that, in pointing out and interpreting thusly, I understand I may well upset some of you. But sometimes, that’s my job.

When Moses went before Pharaoh, he didn’t say, “Let all the people go,” he said, “Let *my* people go.” It was him saying, in essence, “Hebrew Lives Matter.”

Not “All Lives Matter.” It was blatantly clear in Egypt that Egyptian lives mattered, or at least mattered more than the lives of their Hebrew slaves.

“All Lives Matter” is one of those idols. Not because it isn’t true—taken by itself, absent of its context, of course it is self-evidently true—but because it has become not something to say to assert truth, but to silence another truth, which is that the lives of people of color need to matter more than they have historically mattered, just like the lives of the Hebrews needed to matter more than they did in Egypt’s land.

So God liberated them from the hand of Pharaoh.

God ensured that their lives would matter.

The danger, then, for Solomon, is in falling away from the ways of the God to whom His people profoundly matter. This, as I have said all along, is what Solomon will sadly eventually one day do.

It need not be, however, what we do. Solomon can act as a proverb to us, just like the ones he wrote and that are handed down to us in Scripture through his book of Proverbs.

Solomon’s own weakness can serve to keep us from our own, that weakness to stray from the teachings of the Prince of Peace who said, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, *but I say to you*…”

Evil done to repay evil will always and forever remain, evil.

What we do to others to silence them—through our own words to talk over them, through our lack of care or attention to their voice, narrative, and experience, or, in the case of another lone gunman in Dallas, Texas, through diabolical violence and murder—will always and forever remain evil.

What we do to others to profile them—through our prejudices and our bigotries, through our small-mindedness and incapacity for seeing a wider and larger world—will always and forever remain evil.

And until we learn those lessons and really, truly begin to apply them in our lives, then we are, I fear, destined to reap the wages of Solomon…and not the fantastic material wealth of his royal court, but the fraying of our relationship with—and covenant between—the God who so fearfully and wonderfully made us.

Out of nothing but some dirt and love.

May our own capacity for love, then, arise from the dirt and ash of the wreckage of this past week.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 10, 2016

Saturday, July 9, 2016

God is Not Neutral, There is a Balm in Gilead, and We Need it Now

But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first. -Matthew 19:30

But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort. How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry. How terrible for you who laugh now, because you will mourn and weep. How terrible for you when all speak well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets. -Luke 6:24-26

All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up. -Luke 18:14

I'm sickened by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castle. I'm sickened by the killings of the five Dallas police officers. I know all of you are as well. Sickened by it, sick of it, tired of it, worn out by it.

And I'm not even the one in the real danger of any of this. Yes, whenever I grow my full beard out I sometimes get mistaken by prejudiced or ignorant yokels for an ISIS operative, but every time people have treated me in a racist manner, it has made me feel humiliated, not endangered. I certainly never felt like my life was in immediate danger, at the very least.

Imagine seeing this happen, over, and over, to people who look like you. Who could be you. Who, on a communal, I-am-because-you-are level, are you.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sinsick soul

Amadou Diallo.

Oscar Grant.

Trayvon Martin.

Mike Brown.

Eric Garner.

Tamir Rice.

Sandra Bland.

Freddie Gray.

Eric Harris.

Walter Scott.

Rekia Boyd.

Akai Gurley.

Laquan McDonald.

Renisha McBride.

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

How long is the list going to get? How long before God reminds us once more that in the divine kingdom, not ours, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, that the exalted will be brought down and the humbled shall be exalted?

Patrick Zamarripa.

Brent Thompson.

Lorne Ahrens.

Michael Krol.

Michael Smith.

How long, O God, indeed.

There is a balm in Gilead

It will, I fear, take us much, much longer, because as I write these words, the news is coming out of Dallas of now five police officers shot and killed--and several more seriously wounded--by a sniper at what had up to that point been a peaceful protest.

I tweeted out in response: God is not neutral. God sees the violence against black lives. God sees the violence against police. God is with the victims.

God is with the victims--the dead and dying, those clinging to life in operating rooms, those terrorized and traumatized by what they have just experienced.

God is not neutral in these moments. God chose to send a message with Jesus Christ, a message of nonviolence in the face of violence, of love in the face of hatred, and of resistance in the face of diabolical evil.

God sees the wrong done by us to one another because of how we look--in Baton Rouge, in Minnesota, and in Dallas.

God sees it, and is set against it.

God has always been set against it.

There is a balm in Gilead

We cannot be neutral, either. We cannot be passive. Love is an active verb. Like the balm in Gilead, love is something we must not simply exhibit, but seek out. We must seek it others, demand it in others, especially when they refuse to show it.

My godchildren are black. They're early on in elementary school and haven't really learned what pure hate looks like yet, but they will, because they'll be taught how this country, for hundreds of years, treated people who looked like them.

Their parents do an amazing, awe-inspiring job of show them love and teaching them how to love, just like my parents did for me.

But my parents' love didn't inoculate me from the hate. I experienced my first racial slur when I was ten years old.

Again--I'm not black. I identify as white. I just don't look white enough sometimes.

That is why God is not neutral. Because we are not, and despite our #AllLivesMatter claims, we never have been.

There is a balm in Gilead.

In response to the protests over the killings of Sterling and Castile, I've seen people say "I would've mowed those protesters over," as though their armchair machismo somehow validated their resentment towards a people seeking justice.

How much need we still have for the message of Christ, that the last will indeed one day be first and the humbled will be exalted. Having to protest and demand and plead just to be treated like the human being you are, that's an experience I will never have because I never needed it to be treated like a man and not a beast.

How humbling it must be, then, to realize that your desire to inflict harm on other people comes from a subhuman place of yourself, that there is part of you, in seeing others as beast, that is in fact truly beast-like in nature.

I just don't know how to tell such people that, at least in any way that they would be listen, feel moved, and beg God for the grace and forgiveness that I know is out there, because I have felt it too.

There is a balm in Gilead.

I don't know how much sense this post makes anymore. I've revisited it so many times, and tried to cram so much into it, that I've violated one of my own cardinal rules of writing: try to say one thing at a time, and say it well.

But my heart is too broken for that sort of discipline and restraint. It needs healing, fixing, caring.

It needs that balm for the sinsick soul. For I am indeed sick with, and of, sin--my own, yours, this country's, this world's.

There has been a diagnosis. And there is indeed a cure.

It is time for the healing to begin.

There is a balm in Gilead.

Vancouver, Washington
July 9, 2016

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

It's Our People: A Response to Donald Trump's Son-In-Law Jared Kushner

Dear Mr. Kushner,

I don't know you, obviously. You're the shadow leader of a major campaign for president, and I'm a small-town pastor with a modest blog. By all accounts, you and Ivanka have a delightful family and the two of you come across--at least in almost all the media I see you in--as genuinely well-mannered, considerate, and authentic.

Despite the very existence of your father-in-law's campaign that you are, again by all accounts, having a big hand in running.

I read the column by your employee Dana Schwartz, who writes for the paper you own and that has (obviously) endorsed Trump. It meant a lot to me to have someone whose livelihood you have considerable power over--you could fire or demote her at a moment's notice--actually speak truth to power and ask for an accounting of yourself for your support of your father-in-law even in the face of what was, by all reasonable interpretations, an anti-Semitic tweet directed at his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

To your credit, you did so, penning a thoughtful response in the pages of the same paper Ms.Schwartz used to rightly call you out.

But if you'll kindly permit me, your words deserve a further calling out, and I may be in a position to do so. For you are the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and I am the great-grandson of survivors of a genocide that was, for all intents and purposes, the dress rehearsal to the Holocaust: the Armenian Genocide.

The Armenian Holocaust was executed at profound cost to my family. Among the 1.5 million dead was my great-great grandfather Sarkis, who was murdered in 1915, as was one of my great-grandfather's brothers, Madiros, who was only a couple of years older than I am now. My great-grandfather and his bride, my great-grandmother, fled across Russia all the way to Vladivostok as refugees and smuggled themselves into the United States illegally. We still have their fake passports.

So please trust me when I say that I understand the gravity of your narrative of your grandmother's experience in the Novrogroduk ghetto. Your retelling of that experience is both harrowing and tender at the same time, a reminder to all of us of what can happen when the very worst parts of our sinful human natures are stoked.

And whether you are able to see it or not, that is precisely what your father-in-law is doing--and has been doing--throughout his campaign. As many other observers have noted, the Nazi Holocaust did not begin with the death camps and the gas chambers--they were predated by the Nuremburg Laws, Kristallnacht, the imprisonment of political opponents in concentration camps, and the widespread dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda.

The exact same is true of the Armenian Holocaust. I would refer you to a sermon I preached on April 24 of this year, which is the remembrance day for the Armenian Holocaust, and specifically to this passage:

In December 1914, Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Minister of War, fought the Battle of Sarikamish against the Russian army, which was aided by a number of Armenian volunteers. It was a disaster for the Ottomans—Enver Pasha had failed to both keep an adequate operational reserve force and accurately predict how the Russians would react to being attacked.

But such reality often does not suit men of power and of egos. Enver Pasha blamed the defeat on the Armenian soliders who had fought alongside the Russians, because many of the Armenian soldiers were themselves Russian citizens, but also partly because the Ottoman Empire had initiated a series of pogroms and massacres of its Armenian populations in the 1890s (which had led to more Armenians immigrating elsewhere, including to Russia, to begin with).

This was only a part of the Armenian community, though, and in fact many were still enlisted in the Ottoman armed forces—until Directive 8682 was issued in February 1915, which ejected all ethnic Armenians from the Ottoman military, under the pretense of community-wide disloyalty.

These two actions, along with others, provided the pretext for the execution of 1.5 million Armenians throughout the remaining duration of the First World War.

Accusing the ethnic Armenians within Turkey of disloyalty, of having an impure agenda, was what gave the three Pashas--Enver, Talaat, and Mehmed--the pretext to commit the genocide, but that genocide was, just like the Nazi Holocaust, preceded by build-up efforts to isolate and alienate the Armenians just as German and Polish Jews were isolated and alienated twenty-some years later.

Your inclusion of your grandmother's narrative is incredibly poignant. But it doesn't tell the story of how she and millions like her came to be so demonized in a country that once was home.

And how they came to be demonized--and how my family came to be demonized--is through tactics disturbingly similar to what your father-in-law is employing.

No objective observer could really believe that the tweet about Clinton had a sheriff's star, because who is associated with the hateful, bigoted stereotype about money and corruption--sheriffs, or Jews?

No objective observer could really believe that Trump's tweet about black-on-white homicide was anything other than race-baiting, because who is associated with the hateful, bigoted stereotype about being superhuman, violent thugs--African-American men, or white men?

No objective observer could really believe that Trump's tweet tying together the Nazi swastika with blatantly anti-Hispanic imagery was anything other than a racist slap in the face to non-whites, and Latino/a's in particular, because who is the swastika associated with, white pride, or Latino/a pride?

These are not your father-in-law's racist, anti-Semitic supporters, either--though you do try to pass the buck onto them. None of them, so far as anyone can tell, hijacked or hacked Trump's twitter account. Your father-in-law, and he alone, is responsible for what he says. You compare it to Bernie Sanders's supporters desecrating the American flag, but Sanders never instructed his supporters to desecrate such a venerable, revered symbol of our country. Your father-in-law, on the other hand, told his supporters he'd pay their legal fees if they beat up protesters at his rallies.

So, why are you absolving him of it by foisting it off on his followers? And, more to the point, why does it not disturb you more that your father-in-law has so many bigoted followers?

You're once again ignoring a larger pattern at work here. This isn't just about a solitary tweet from your father-in-law, it's about multiple tweets, multiple statements, and multiple incitements to violence from your father-in-law in addition to the numerous hateful tweets, statements, and acts of violence from his followers.

It's our people who are being targeted here, and by "our," I don't mean strictly Jews or strictly Armenians. It's "our" people in the sense of any people who have been marginalized, cast out, demonized, and persecuted simply for who they are. People of color. Women. GLBTQ persons. Muslims. The differently abled. All of whom your father-in-law has maligned, but all of whom have something great and glorious to offer to us, if only we were to cede them the safe space with which to do so.

I know that we're of different faith traditions, Mr. Kushner, but I believe that we worship the same God, and I genuinely hope that you will find some time soon to do some very real soul searching. Your father-in-law is saying many of the same things--and using many of the same tactics--that the people who tried to kill both our ancestors used in their evil machinations.

Please ask yourself just how much more, and for how much longer, you wish to be a part of such an inhumane effort.

Thanks for reading.

Sincerely,
Rev. Eric Atcheson

Sunday, July 3, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Kohanim"

1 Kings 8:54-62

As soon as Solomon finished praying and making these requests to the Lord, he got up from before the Lord’s altar, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out to heaven. 55 He stood up and blessed the whole Israelite assembly in a loud voice: 56 “May the Lord be blessed! He has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. He hasn’t neglected any part of the good promise he made through his servant Moses. 57 May the Lord our God be with us, just as he was with our ancestors. May he never leave us or abandon us. 58 May he draw our hearts to him to walk in all his ways and observe his commands, his laws, and his judgments that he gave our ancestors. 59 And may these words of mine that I have cried out before the Lord remain near to the Lord our God day and night so that he may do right by his servant and his people Israel for each day’s need, 60 and so that all the earth’s peoples may know that the Lord is God. There is no other God! 61 Now may you be committed to the Lord our God with all your heart by following his laws and observing his commands, just as you are doing right now.” 62 Then the king and all Israel with him sacrificed to the Lord. (Common English Bible)

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

It was a scene you would think had been ripped straight out of the pages of a Law & Order script (although the trial did make onto television screens anyways via Court TV)—a zealous prosecutor tearing into a wholly unrepentant murder defendant. And what made this particular murder defendant so unrepentant was because he thought what he had done was ordained by God.

Ray Hemphill served as the de facto exorcist of his brother David’s Faith Temple Church in Milwaukee, and in 2004, the brothers went on trial for the death of a young boy who had autism and whom Ray had killed in 2003 while attempting to exorcise the boy of his autism—which, of course, as a disease and not an actual demon, cannot be exorcised.

This led to this vivid exchange between David and prosecutor Mark Williams, as Dr. Paul Offit, M.D., recounted in his book Bad Faith:

Hemphill: My church is going to do exactly what the word of God tells us to do.
Williams: So, you’re saying God is giving you the power to take away…
Hemphill: I say he has the power! If I lay down on someone and he passes away—God took him. I didn’t!

That’s a horrifying passing of the buck there, a complete dereliction of authority, because far too often, we put ourselves in the hands of people who will try to claim authority over us in the name of God with no such actual claim or calling. Think of the televangelists—Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Peter Popoff, Robert Tilton—or the faith healers who tell you, as the Hemphill brothers did, to reject modern medical science, like Kenneth and Gloria Copeland or Benny Hinn.

And just as there is such a thing as medical malpractice or legal malpractice, there is such a thing as spiritual malpractice. Fortunately, we have a baseline for what a cleric, a priest, a minister, should proffer as a message, because it comes to us from a king who acted as a de facto priest: Solomon, who, unlike many absolute ancient monarchs, does not claim divinity himself. And that actually really does matter here.

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

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

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

So Solomon’s reign—and his father David’s before him—is unique. How Solomon is remembered matters because of it. And we’ll get a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem to his eventual downfall. We began by spending two weeks with the story of how Solomon comes by his divinely-bestowed wisdom for which he is eternally famous and then with Solomon applying that wisdom in this well-known story of two mothers, and then we moved on to the building of the Jerusalem temple itself. Now, today, the temple has been completed and Solomon has been praying at its dedication ceremony.

In this role of prayer leader-in-chief, Solomon is taking on a very traditional role of an ancient king: a high priest, demigod, or whatever state of being that made the king (in the eyes of the state religion) the person closest to God of anybody else.

Solomon is a mediator between God and God’s people in this story in a way that is really very new to the Israelites under monarchical rule. Solomon’s father David, while a talented psalmist, didn’t lead his country in the same sort of reverential religious rituals as Solomon is now doing—David famously danced before the Ark of the Covenant, not prayed before it.

It is more than simply a reflection of the differences between the temperaments of these two kings, though. It is an indicator of what they each thought their job description as king was. As Biblical scholar Norman Gottwald puts it, “The combined work of David and Solomon moved Israel a long distance from “chieftainship” to “hierarchic kingship” along a trajectory that catapulted Israel into the forefront of ancient Near Eastern states.”

Okay, what does that mean, though? Remember: before the kings (the first being Saul, and then David, and now Solomon) Israel did not have a central ruler; rather, charismatic leaders called the judges would arise to unite the tribes, often against a common external enemy. Israel was less a unified country then and more a loose confederation of tribes.

The kingship changed all of that. It made Israel an “is,” not an “are.” But crucially, unlike most ancient absolute monarchies, the duties of religious leadership did not transfer right away to the king; rather, they remain with the prophets. In fact, Samuel—the last judge of Israel and Saul’s prophet during his kingship—scolds Saul so harshly for Saul deigning to offer a sacrifice to God in Samuel’s absence that Samuel pronounces that Saul’s dynasty will end with him.

Solomon, though, employs no such prophets, at least as documented in 1 Kings, even though Saul had Samuel and his father David had Nathan. In truth, that probably has something to do with Solomon’s eventual slide into idolatry, because one of the most valuable things religious teachers can do is to help keep their people accountable to God—out of love, of course—for their actions. And Solomon will sorely need someone in the future to be able to point him back towards this day, and these prayers that he is uttering, and say to him, “Whatever happened to that believer?”

For a great depth there is to the belief that Solomon is professing through this prayer. He is calling out to a God who is first and foremost to Solomon eternal and faithful, a God who keeps promises, who does not abandon people, of whom Solomon says, “There is no other.”

More than anything else, that is what separates God from us. God is capable of such patience in love, such endurance in grace, such durability in mercy, that those sorts of qualities are really a one-way deal in the covenant between God and us. Even the very best of us can stumble and forget God in a moment. Solomon certainly did.

Which is why the whole notion of a purely human high priest, or a human elevated to demigod status, does neither that person nor their followers any favors. Nor does it do any favors to the very real tradition of priesthood that stretches all the way back to Moses’s older brother Aaron.

The Hebrew word for this priesthood is kohanim (the singular, kohan, is where we get the common surname Cohen), and as a plural, it deliberately invokes an authority far greater than any one person.

The Disciples of Christ believes so deeply in the priesthood of all believers—the idea that you are all a part of the kohanim—that it is one of the only four or five points of settled doctrine that our tradition upholds, along with the Messiahship of Jesus Christ, the weekly partaking of holy communion, and the performance of believer’s baptism by immersion.

So it isn’t just me. It isn’t just you. It’s all of us.

It means that my authority is enmeshed with yours, and yours with mine, so that we might not have a circumstance like the church of Ray and David Hemphill, or of Peter Popoff, or Robert Tilton, or any number of others who elevated themselves to demigods among mortals and whose flocks paid the price for their chutzpah and ego.

Solomon may be a king of unmatched power and splendor, but his message to the people is fundamentally one of humility before God: “May you be committed to following the Lord your God with all your heart.” Not “May you be committed to following Solomon.” But “May you be committed to following God.”

He is in the role that so many others in other contexts have occupied as demigods: the Egyptian Pharaohs, who claimed to be the god Horus made flesh. The Roman Caesars, whose fathers were deified upon their deaths.

But not Solomon.

He is made of the same stuff we are, and, in truth, by his eventual temptation by idols, is the same sort of sinner that we are, as we too feel the pull and push of our own idols, whatever they may be--greed, lust, a certain Seattle-based football team...

Yet all of us have been delivered here, as sinners called and redeemed, and sent out to likewise call and deliver other sinners.

We are all, though so flawed, still a part of that priesthood of believers, that great cloud of witnesses.

What a gift from God that is.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 3, 2016

Friday, July 1, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

July 2016: "Setting Up the Sabbatical"

Dear Church,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Thursday, June 30, 2016

My Mea Culpa

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

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

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

But it is also a challenge. Including to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does this matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that simply is not what Jesus asks of us.

It is not what God asks of us.

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

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

This is my mea culpa.

Longview, Washington
June 27, 2016