Thursday, July 30, 2015

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

August 2015: "General Math Money"

Dear Church,

The rapper Snoop Dogg (yep, actually gonna quote him in a church newsletter article) is reported to have said once, "If you stop at general math, you're only going to make general math money." It was a comment on education--the shallower you go into educating yourself, the less you will be able to provide for yourself in the marketplace of jobs and employment. It's a pretty sound life lesson--from a guy who led an army of angry gummy bears in Katy Perry's "California Girls" music video, but still, the lesson still stands.

And I think it is a sentiment that goes beyond simply measuring personal income--it is a part of our own income as a church as well. If you stop at just the pew, and never want to get plugged in to any of the programs, small groups, missions, or other amazing work we do, it's a tough sell to want to invest yourself into our church or any church. People don't feel like giving their time, talents, and treasure to an unfamiliar cause, and understandably so. Jesus knew what he was talking about when He said in the Sermon on the Mount, "where your treasure is, there your heart is as well"--we tend to invest our treasure to whatever is dear to our heart.

In other words, how we spend and give our money is an expression of values. If we value the experience of speeding down the highway, we may own a sports car or a convertible. If we value eating out, the chef at the Rutherford may know us on a first-name basis. And when we value and become invested in a church, we give back to that church community.

The tough thing for us, though, is that as we've grown in faith, numbers, and impact in the community, our finances haven't followed suit. It used to be that it would--growth in numbers would inevitably lead to growth in income for a church. But that isn't the case for us--we live in a tough community with lots of economic pain and hardship, and that definitely includes us. We have been drawing on our savings substantially lately, and that is simply not sustainable in the long term.

To that end, I have explored a few different opportunities for renting out parts of our beautiful facilities to longterm tenants like schools or other churches, but none of those opportunities panned out. So if we want to continue to be a church that offers way, way more to the community than simply general math, but to instead be that church we have always been that offers depth and profoundness and purpose to one's Christian identity, we will need to find more resources in order to be able to do that. Such resources have not as yet materialized, but I know that God is good, and we must continue to have faith that God will provide for us. But that provision also starts with us.

As you are willing and able to give, your financial gifts to the church go an awful long ways to not just keeping the doors open and the worship services on, they also make possible the life-changing, soul-sized work that I and all of you that I am proud to call my church are engaged in. And for the chance to be able to continue that work and to grow upon it, I thank you.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

New Sermon Series

August of this year is a month I have been looking forward to in a while as far as my preaching and teaching is concerned--it is where I'll be delivering the bulk of the sermon series that we just started last Sunday, July 26th--"The Writing on the Wall: Daniel & King Belshazzar," which goes verse-by-verse through one of my favorite stories in the Bible for its palace intrigue, suspense, and parallels to other stories like Joseph before Pharaoh: Daniel interpreting the writing that appears on the wall during a lavish feast thrown by the Babylonian king Belshazzar. We'll pick back up with that series for three more weeks in August, and I'm looking forward to all of it!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

"The Writing on the Wall: Daniel & King Belshazzar" 

July 26: "You Have Been Weighed," Daniel 5:1-9
August 2: “You Have Been Measured,” Daniel 5:10-16
August 9: “You Have Been Found Wanting,” Daniel 5:17-23
August 16: “Your Kingdom Will Be Divided,” Daniel 5:24-30

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

When One Kerkuffle Reveals a Larger Force

So, there's a blog I like (one of many), and it's called The Friendly Atheist.

What?  Pastor Eric is defending something called The Friendly Atheist?

Yep.  I've followed Hemant Mehta's blog, The Friendly Atheist, on and off for months.  Why?  We'll get to that later, I promise.

Mehta's blog, as the title would indicate, is indeed friendly, and it certainly tends to take a kinder tone to my Christian brethren than the banshee-like fundamentalists of atheism like Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and especially Richard Dawkins.

Let it be said that I come from a place of already distrusting Dawkins--not just because he refers to my religious affiliation as a disease in need of a cure (check out the picture of him in The Friendly Atheist Post I link you to after this paragraph), and not just because he actually tried to trivialize and minimize date rape on Twitter, and not just because he implied that the heroic Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is still immature and childish for her lifelong practice of Islam.  No, I'm leery of Dawkins for all of those things, because they paint the overall picture of a person who is painfully and ironically a mirror image of the Christian fundies he so despises: a bitter, grumpy, pissed off old white man who calls a woman malicious for correcting him when he thinks he knows a thing or two about something and in fact doesn't.

Lauren Nelson, one of the contributors to the Friendly Atheist, wrote a post taking Dawkins to task for this tweet:
Full disclosure: Lauren and I are friends from our days on the collegiate parliamentary debate circuit when she competed for Western Kentucky University and I for Lewis & Clark College.  She also emphatically does not need me to defend her, which is why I'm about to pivot in a couple of paragraphs to the larger point and purpose of this post.

Now, on the surface, I actually agree with everything Dawkins is saying, more or less: Islam needs feminism in its life, and it will be hard for the two to coexist, just like it is still nigh-impossible to get lots of Christian denominations to see the value of female pastors and leaders (of course, Dawkins would prefer that they didn't coexist, that Islam would go the way of the dinosaurs, but unfortunately for him, wishing ain't gonna make it so).  And we absolutely should be asking what we can do to help rather than dictating the terms.

But Lauren does a fantastic job of pointing out where Dawkins missed the boat entirely: it's not what he said, but the assumptions implied in what he said, namely, that Islam doesn't already have a feminist presence revolutionizing it.  It does, and Lauren does a great job of summarizing some of the wide breadth of pro-women movements within Islam around the world.

Rather than responding to Lauren on any substantive level, Dawkins simply tweeted this instead, mounting an online call-to-arms to his legions of followers that they had a new public enemy number one:
Now, first of all, "sheer gratuitous malice" isn't really Lauren's thing.  She doesn't suffer fools, but that should hardly be confused with sheer gratuitous malice.  And Dawkins accusing someone of sheer gratuitous malice?  Pot, meet kettle.

But all of that is largely beside the point.  Criticizing Dawkins for his heartlessness is like criticizing Comcast for its legendarily awful customer service: you're just confirming what the rest of us in our bones all know to be true.

No, what this is would be the luxury that celebrity status affords you: why bother with the intellectual heavy lifting of engaging and rebutting your critics when you can just sic your 1.2 million Twitter followers like digital attack dogs onto said critics instead?

Because truthfully, Dawkins cannot authentically engage what Lauren has said.  What she has said--while limited in scope to Dawkins's perspective on Islam and feminism--is in fact applicable to Dawkins's entire critiques of religion: he critiques religiosity under the assumption that there is only one way to be Christian, or to be Muslim, or to be a devotee of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Does Dawkins actually care that there is a Christian pastor--many, Christian pastors, in point of fact--out there like me who believes in evolutionary science, the Big Bang theory (the scientific hypothesis, not the television show), and the carbon dating of geologic artifacts?  Of course he doesn't, because my existence doesn't help him prove his narrative that there isn't (originally a typo that said 'is' ~E.A.) a strong Christian tradition and presence that upholds science, just as Malala's existence doesn't help him prove his narrative that Islam needs a feminist revolution that hadn't previously existed, but is in fact already alive and kicking.

There's a larger force at play here, then, beyond Islam and feminism or Christianity and science: this is fundamentally about how we view people who are not like us.  By and large, we tend to view them uniformly, which is how we in turn often end up alienating one another: we see the other as a block of people rather than as a sea of individuals, each replete with a combination of characteristics and values as unique as their very own fingerprints.

We then see each other not as who we are and as God made us to be, but as caricatures, with particular features exaggerated and drawing extra attention with other features receding into the background.

Dawkins himself is a pretty good example of this phenomenon: the militant and fundamentalist nature of his atheism makes him a caricature of atheism, rather than necessarily a true representation of atheism as a whole, any more than a similarly perennially pissed off crank like Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham is a true representation of Christianity.

And this, dear reader, is why I take a moment every once in a while to scan The Friendly Atheist page: because it forces me to engage a worldview not my own on terms and that does not give me the lazy out of dismissing its proponents as a part of some hysterical fringe group, camping out on the extremes of our religious spectrum.  It demands that I actually wrestle with why I make certain assumptions, just as Jacob wrestled with God in Genesis 32.

Believe me, it is right that I should wrestle with my beliefs and assumptions.  It is absolutely necessary for us to do.  An untested principle is no more useful to any one of us than wood that has not yet been sanded down, removing the roughness to reveal a smoothness that makes the wood useful for any number of things beyond the fire.

Part of the unconditional regard God calls us to hold one another in is, well, the unconditional part.  We cannot condition our recognition for and of one another on them holding the same worldview or set of beliefs as we do.  But we do, and with as lengthy as the statements of belief some churches demand their members ascribe to (like this one that is six pages long, with 18 sections and weighs in at over 3,200 words), who we proffer mutual appreciation and respect to becomes an exceptionally small circle.

To put it in Jesus's terms from Luke 6:32-36: if you only take seriously the people whose opinions you already agree with, what good is that to you?  Do not sinners even do that?

Rather than constructively and respectfully engage a critic, Richard Dawkins took the easy way out of inciting his followers to attack her.  That's not moral from either a Christian perspective or, I have to think, an atheist or agnostic perspective either.  But it is also symptomatic of a much larger disease, a much larger inner force that leads us away from seeking truth and towards confirming our own biases and prejudices, regardless of truth.

And, after all, do not sinners even do that as well?

Longview & Vancouver, Washington
July 28, 2015

Lauren has also written a postmortem analysis of this episode on her own website, which I highly encourage you to read as well.

Image: Rembrandt's Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer Reading Book Review: A Joyful Pilgrimage

(With how much I read, I will on occasion do full book reviews as a part of my overall corpus of writing about religion and spirituality.  Here's my latest review. ~E.A.)

With a great many entries into the memoir genre these days, opening one's story in medias res, in the middle of a story or anecdote (literally, "into the middle of things") is increasingly seeming to be standard operating procedure.  After all, with the legendarily short attention spans of today's readership, you have got to hook us and reel us in quick, right?

Well, sort of.  I genuinely believe--and I say this as someone who has opened a great many posts here on my own blog in the in medias res manner--that we are capable of hearing a story through if we know going into it that it will in fact be engaging and worthy of our time and attention.  Such is the case of Emmy Arnold's powerful, elegant memoir, A Joyful Pilgrimage, which you can download in pdf form for free at Plough's website here if you give them your name and email address.

Emmy begins her story, as they say in The Sound of Music, at the very beginning.  She describes her early life up to her marriage to Eberhard Arnold, a 20th century Christian theologian, and by starting with her formative years rather than dropping us in the middle of things, she does herself and her audience a service by giving us grounds to see her as a separate persona, a figure with both similar and different characteristics form her husband, which should inoculate us from the patriarchal tendency to wrap a wife up entirely in her husband's work.

This matters especially in the case of Emmy, because the founding and running of the Bruderhof (German for "a place of brothers") commune was very much a joint effort between her and Eberhard, and if you are searching for a case study of both the great joys and great obstacles of trying to create an intentional community from scratch, Emmy's memoir is a fantastic place to start, because although these events take place in the 1920s and 1930s, in terms of the overall lifetime of intentional Christian community, the Bruderhof movement is really quite young when you compare it to, say, the Benedictines, who were planting monasteries throughout Europe during the continent's Dark Ages.

The Bruderhof story, though, takes a hard turn into tragedy when the Nazi party raids it in the fall of 1933, only months after wresting away absolute power from the other Weimar Republic parties.  Throughout her retelling of this story, Emmy's prose remains both poignant and accessible, almost as though she were recounting the entire story to you from across the porch in a rocking chair over some tea or coffee.

That feeling of casual reminiscing, however, should not be taken for a lack of import--the sheer will and depth of belief in the justice of working towards education and equality for the many people adversely affected by the depression that hit Weimar-era Germany shines through as lucidly as the story itself.

Which is, after all, the entire point of the exercise of reading.  From someone else's story we learn about what we as children of God value and why.  And from Emmy Arnold's story, we learn about the necessity of building up one another, even if the unjust and broken systems around us continue to conspire to have that holy work come crashing down around us.

No tangible goods or services were exchanged for this review, and as with all of my reviews, all opinions here are entirely my own.

Update, 7/29: After posting this review, a rep from the Bruderhof community reached out to me via email; as it so happens, the Bruderhof movement that Emmy and Eberhard Arnold founded is still very much among the living in spite of the persecution endured in its formative years, which was really encouraging for me to learn.  You can learn more about them here.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "You Have Been Weighed"

Daniel 5:1-9

King Belshazzar threw a huge party for a thousand of his princes, and he drank a lot of wine in front of them. 2 While he was under the wine’s influence, Belshazzar commanded that the gold and silver equipment that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem’s temple be brought to the party so that the king, his princes, his consorts, and his secondary wives could drink wine out of them. 3 So the gold equipment that had been carried out of the temple, God’s house in Jerusalem, was brought in; and the king, his princes, his consorts, and his secondary wives drank out of it. 4 They drank a lot of wine; and they praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

5 Right then the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the king’s palace wall in the light of the lamp. The king saw the hand that wrote. 6 The king’s mood changed immediately, and he was deeply disturbed. He felt weak, and his knees were shaking. 7 The king yelled, calling for the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners. The king told these sages of Babylon: “Anyone who can read this writing and tell me its meaning will wear royal robes, will have a gold chain around his neck, and will rule the kingdom as third in command.” 8 Then all the king’s sages arrived, but they couldn’t read the writing or interpret it for the king. 9 At that point King Belshazzar was really frightened. All the color drained from his face, and his princes were also very worried.  (Common English Bible)

“The Writing on the Wall: Daniel & King Belshazzar,” Week One

It was the very first thing that greeted me when I walked through the door into the fitness center of my hotel at our denomination’s biannual General Assembly this past week: a scale.  Not like a subtle, tasteful, bathroom scale, mind you, or a scale you weigh vegetables on in the grocery store—that would have been pretty funny (“Okay, Joe, now help me fit my other elbow onto this!”).

No, this was one of those floor-to-wall scales you see in doctors’ offices, that they always ask you to take your shoes off before you go onto, and yet you still swear never takes into account just how heavy your clothes really are!

And all I could do was laugh and think to myself, “Okay, so that’s what they think this is about.”  Because unless you’re a competitive athlete or long distance runner, you don’t generally lose a statistically significant amount of weight in the course of a single workout.  But having the scale there, it creates the expectation that you should, and so you find yourself on it, thinking once again that it is adding way too much weight for your clothes, and you decide to exhale completely because it occurs to you: “Hey, air has weight, too!”

It’s funny—air is invisible, but of course we know it is there, when we feel the wind on our hair, or when a tornado blows the hat off your head, or pretty much 24/7 if you’re Wile E. Coyote being left in the dust by the Roadrunner.  And it has weight—if all of the air, essentially our atmosphere, were to vanish, Earth would weigh less.  Which is great for Earth if its training to beat that showoff Saturn in the next Solar System ultramarathon, but not so great for us.

But think about it: air is invisible, yet it has weight (Pastor, couldn’t you have gotten to that point without so many workout jokes?!).  Which is the case for God, too.  And that’s what matters about the first part of this story of Daniel 5: that God is very much present, even if not stated so explicitly.

This is a new sermon series based on a need and a desire that I know has been around here for a while now—last autumn, we read verse-by-verse through the first half of the book of Daniel in our Tuesday morning Bible study.  Why the first half?  It’s not because the sequel always sucks, it’s simply that Daniel really is two books masquerading as one—the first half of the book deals with Daniel’s story and biography, while the second half deal with his prophecies.  We had decided on trying to gain an in-depth understanding of Daniel the man’s circumstances and context, so we spent a couple of months on those first six chapters of the book which bears his name.  The study was so enjoyable and enriching that eventually, this sermon series was born out of it.

The fifth of these six chapters conveys a story from which we get one of our most common English idioms: “the writing on the wall.”  We’ve all used that saying at some point, right?  We all know what it means: that we can see the fate of something or someone before it comes about.  Well, this story is the source of that idiom, and we’ll be going through it verse-by-verse over the course of four weeks, beginning today with verses one through nine, which gives us the exposition of the story and King Belshazzar’s attempts to remedy his present dilemma, although that dilemma for him really comes down to something eminently familiar to all of us, something you can pick up in the Housewares section anytime at Target: his choice of dishes and flatware.

You see, the dishes that Belshazzar called for were the dishes taken from his ancestral predecessor as king Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah and the attendant sacking of the capital city of Jerusalem.  Some years previous (we don’t know exactly how many because the writer of Daniel’s biography doesn’t date this story), in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar led his armies against Judah a second time, having already done so once about a decade earlier, only this time, he took over everything, and fairly effortlessly at that.  Judah—the southern state of what was under David and Solomon the unified kingdom of Israel—was tiny compared to the much larger and stronger empire of Babylon, it would be today as though we decided to invade Lichtenstein or Luxembourg or some similarly small country—it just wasn’t a fair fight, and Judah capitulates almost immediately.

So Nebuchadnezzar sacks Jerusalem and, in what was pretty much standard operating policy for centuries and continued to be for centuries more, took all manner of loot back with him to Babylon: prisoners to be made into slaves or concubines, jewels, and the fine dishes in the temple to God in Jerusalem, the very same dishes that Belshazzar calls for to drink out of at his latest palace kegger.

Belshazzar does this for a reason—you don’t just ask for the glasses from this one particular temple your dynasty has sacked over the years without some deliberate attempt to make a statement of superiority and insult towards the people you conquered.  It is a statement that may well be invisible to us as modern readers—is that really a dimension of the story that occurred to you as you heard it read here just a little while ago?

So let’s talk for a little bit about what the dishes really represent: not just God—and, in Belshazzar’s mind, his superiority over God—but an invisible God, a God whose meaning is accounted for only by implication, a God who does not announce its divine presence here by means of a burning bush or a booming voice or a Messiah who can walk on water.

Now, you can say that God does indeed come about in a visible way here, because Belshazzar does see the writing on the wall, and he basically has a panic attack—wouldn’t you?  But while he can *see* the writing, he cannot *read* the writing.  The hand could be writing in pig Latin for all the good it does Belshazzar here.  The script may be visible, but its meaning remains invisible.

That invisibility of meaning matters, because it really does cut through the illusions we tend to build up for ourselves.  Forget “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” there’s a reason why “out of sight, out of mind” is an equally well-known saying.  We shove our stuff under the bed rather than actually cleaning.  We shove half-eaten food to the back of the fridge.  And we push God down below us, just as Belshazzar has done here with his sacrilegious use of the temple’s dishware, and then when God comes roaring back to land right in front of us, again like Belshazzar we cannot for the life of us understand what it is God is saying to us.

That tendency to put things and people into the realm of the invisible is not what God would have Belshazzar do, or us do, for that matter.  It may be disconcerting to us to hear that our proxy, at least for now, in the story is a pagan despotic king, but there you have it.  But we try to make God invisible whenever we too have a convenient reason to do so, be it our own personal revelry, or our unwillingness to consider the consequences of our actions and our decisions, or simply our own desire to simply put ourselves first, to take what we want and act like it’s also what God wants.

And for those habitual sins, we are being weighed, just as Belshazzar is, by that annoying gym scale.

That’s why it is so important for us, for each of you, to be able to take what you see that is invisible to others and actually make it visible to them.  For some folks, the genuine nature of God’s great love and grace isn’t fully visible to them yet, because they haven’t been truly loved by other people or haven’t been in a church community that has truly loved them, but you can help change that.

You can help make love visible, in a way that lifts burdens and lowers weights.  I see it happening in so many different ways.  One of the most amazing of them, in all truth, is how active many of our young moms here have been in trying to remove the stigma of breastfeeding in public spaces, that this is a profoundly important part of mothering that has for too long been made invisible, that we have made invisible because that is more convenient for us but decidedly less so for our mothers.

And what else in our lives and our community has been shunted off into the private sphere?  Think about Love Overwhelming, the low-barrier homeless shelter over in Kelso.  It isn’t as though they’ve attracted more shelterless people from elsewhere, no, these are all homeless people in our own Cowlitz county community, they’ve just been made more visible and now we don’t want to deal with them, we want them to go back to being invisible, because that is more convenient for us.

Do you notice a common denominator here?  We make people and things invisible when that invisibility suits us, not them.  And that isn’t how God ever meant for us to live with one another; God became visible whenever it was needed to do so, regardless of whether we wanted God to be invisible or not.  You think Moses wanted God to just show up like that in the burning bush, or that the Pharisees and Sadducees were happy that Jesus showed up on their doorstep on Palm Sunday?

God does not show up or disappear according to our convenience.  That has never been how this covenant works.  And yet, that is often how we treat God and God’s children.  They do not slink off into the shadows just because we would like them to because it would make our lives a little easier.

Nor does God slink off into the shadows, a defeated deity brought low by the military might of Belshazzar’s predecessor Nebuchadnezzar.  God shows up.  God makes Belshazzar sit up from his drunken stupor at take notice.  And take notice the Babylonian king does, going pale and weak at the knees; in fact, he probably had to be helped up, and his weight became visible and tangible to others.

We aren’t here to make people faint from fright at us.  But we absolutely are here to make sure that people sit up and take notice of what God is doing in their lives, of what God is calling them to do.

Which means that for someone else for whom God has long since gone the way of the dodo bird, as invisible and near-weightless as the air we put in our lungs, we have to be the ones to show God to them.  We have to be the ones to say, “God is still alive in you, God is still at work on you, God has not given up on you, and most importantly of all, God still loves you and always will.”

Can we do that, church?  Can other people see God through us?  Or will we be forever relegated to the forgotten state of the temple dishes, thrown away into storage, until a petty king has need of us?

By God’s grace, may we make God known.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 26, 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Between Life and Identity: To the General Assembly on the Armenian Genocide

What follows is the text of the speech I gave at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in support of Resolution 1519, my denomination’s recognition of the Armenian Holocaust as a genocide and a lament of the steadfast and stubborn refusal of the governments of the United States of America and the republic of Turkey to likewise recognize the Armenian Holocaust as a genocide. 

I am very grateful to Dr. Peter Makari of the Division of Overseas Ministries, the sponsor of 1519, for graciously encouraging me to speak in favor of a cause I have devoted a significant amount of time and energy to championing. Although my great-grandfather Krikor Mouradian died well before I was born, I remember visiting my great-grandmother Satenig as a small child, and it is my hope that in heaven, she and Krikor are proud of their eldest great-grandchild. ~E.A.

My name is Rev. Eric Atcheson, and I am the pastor of First Christian Church in Longview, Washington.  But it is my name wherein lies the question that sits before us now. I am a fourth-generation Armenian Congregationalist, and yet both my given name and my surname are Anglo. Having a name that is not Armenian in origin is now not uncommon for many of us in what now numbers in the millions of souls who make up the worldwide Armenian diaspora.

And it is not uncommon because 100 years ago, our families were forced into the most wrenching of decisions, one that no person, no child of God, should ever have to make: to have to choose between life and identity.

There is a pain attendant with having your identity be less than whole because of the reality that my entire existence, from the moment I entered into this world until the moment I leave it for the greater kingdom of God, is an extended consequence of a genocide. Had my family not needed to flee their ancestral homeland a century ago, had they been able to remain where their family had been for years and years, and their children’s children would simply have been Armenian, not Armenian-American, or Armenian-French, or Armenian-anything. Their identity would have been secure, able live on without the need for a new homeland.

And so I am a product of a genocide, which means that when the genocide is denied, year after year, I am denied. Who I am, how I came to be here, why I even exist, all of it is denied in favor of the convenient lie.

I emphasize that word, “convenient."  Because what we are saying to the world is, give us that which is convenient rather than that which is right.  Give us the military bases, give us the airspace, give us the strategic convenience of forgetting what we have done and what we have left undone.

But who cares?  It is only a memory of 100 years ago...and yet It is so much more.

It will always be so much more for we who are calling out to you, mightily, with one voice, to say, "Not in my name."

And so I ask for a yea vote for 1519. Thank you.

Columbus, Ohio
July 21, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Post I Never Thought I'd Write

This is the post I never thought I'd write, y'all.

This is the post in which I defend Planned Parenthood against the push by Christians to completely defund it.

I don't write an awful lot about abortion because, in all honesty, I don't see the potential in dialogue and persuasion in it.  More than any other issue, at least in my experience, abortion tends to create hardened partisans.  Meanwhile, I wallow somewhere in the middle, drowning in the nuances of reality, tugged on the one hand by the thought of the fetus and its potential for life and pulled on the other hand by the mother and her fundamental need to have her health protected.

In my own congregation, I think, these opinions are likewise split.  I have parishioners who fall on one side or the other of this question, and I encourage those passions as far as I see them leading my people closer to God, because in truth, Jesus didn't come to a world of black-and-white.  He came to a world filled to the brim, overflowing, with various derivatives of gray, and He emphasized relationships first--how else do you think He got a tax collector and a Zealot to follow Him in the same small group of the Twelve?

I say all of that, though, as a pastor who does possess some serious moral qualms about abortion.  I was already sympathetic to a late-term abortion ban before I saw the same footage you did of Deborah Nucatola describing, in clinical style, the extremely graphic nature of a late-term abortion (the editing--to the point of doctoring--that footage out of context is another can of tuna, and one I'll leave to this excellent post from the independent fact-checkers and internet rumor-debunkers at Snopes, but basically, there's no proof from that footage that PP does anything illegal with the fetal tissue it collects with the woman's written consent after such an abortion).

I have already been taught heavily in the Scriptural basis for believing in the inherent dignity and sacredness of life--a basis that shines through so very much of Scripture, even as parts of it call for war crimes like genocide and enslavement of prisoners.  And I oppose capital punishment in all cases in part because of its inherent inhumanity--the same inhumanity involved in a dilation-and-extraction procedure that might well give more importance to preserving fetal organs than the health of the mother receiving the abortion.  Just as we cannot guarantee that we can execute a grown adult painlessly, so too can we not guarantee that we are aborting a viable fetus painlessly.  And the thought of aborting a fetus that is capable of living outside the womb just devastates me.

But what devastates me equally--and if I'm fully honest, even more so, and I'll tell you why soon--is the thought of a world without Planned Parenthood.  Yes, defunding it would strip it of much of its ability to perform abortions.

But it would also strip PP of its ability to perform nearly 750,000 breast exams per year, and even more pap smears per year--the former being a crucial tool in preventing breast cancer, and the latter equally crucial in preventing cervical cancer, both cancers that disproportionately strike down women rather than men.

It would strip PP of its ability to perform nearly 4.5 million STD, HIV/AIDS, and HPV tests it performs every year.

And it would strip PP of its ability to provide affordable access to contraception for over 3.7 million people per year--contraception that should, in fact, be our strongest ally in getting rid of abortion in the United States, because until we can fulfill our latent conservative Christian dreams of legislating away peoples' biologically and God-given libido, hormonal or latex barrier contraception will remain our most surefire way to preventing the unwanted pregnanices that result in abortions.

Yet, none of the (overwhelmingly white and mostly male) Christians who rushed to engage me on Twitter could offer a viable alternative after I posted this:
What I heard were completely microcosmic solutions, of one local clinic here or there that was doing amazing work--and I don't mean or want to denigrate that at all.  But county-run free clinics across the nation suffer from an acute lack of funding and, by extension, staffing.

So where will we get the medical infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of millions of people after we defund PP?  Because, call me cynical, but I'm reasonably certain that any attempt to expand the free clinic network to put more services in underserved areas, hire more staff, and the like will quite likely be met by certain political quarters as another example of the terrible plague of "socialized medicine" and dismissed on spec.

So...what do we do?  Do we just write off the fundamental preventive health care needs of millions of people, mostly women and many of them impoverished?  Because a certain Messiah who healed untold numbers of people in addition to welcoming women, having women followers, and even having a woman (possibly multiple women) as the first witness of the Resurrection might have something to say about that.

I mean, think about that for a second.  Really think about it.  In the Bible, women aren't just the mothers of *first* life, the earthly life that comes from Eve.  They are the mothers of the *second* life as well, the eternal life that comes through understanding the will and teachings of Jesus Christ.

It was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who midwived into being the thought that Jesus could have even resurrected in the first place, and even after she had said it, the male disciples still had to rush over to see the empty tomb for themselves.

And this identity is in concert with the reality of women serving as prophetesses (Luke 2), judges of Israel (Judges 4), and deacons of the church in Rome (Romans 16).

How are we to honor our women, then, these mothers of not only life but of resurrection?  Surely, I hope and pray, not by endeavoring to take from them the tools of life that sustain their health.

I often find myself wondering how many of the Christians who say they are perfectly fine ending this vast network of accessible and affordable preventive health care belong to churches or denominations who, in spite of this lengthy Biblical tradition, exclude women from being ordained as pastors or serving in substantive leadership positions.  Because when you wholly set aside a voice from the tables and seats of power, it becomes that much easier to act as though the concerns those voices might put forth do not really exist, or that those concerns have easy solutions.  I've literally had male colleagues say about domestic violence victims, "Well, they can just leave, can't they," as though the entire problem of DV victims being threatened with even more violence or even death if they leave just plain didn't exist.  When it is only men at the table, magical, not rational or logical, thinking tends to ensue.  Trust me, I speak from experience.

This is why I so value the *other* aspects of what PP does and why a world without it worries me more than anything else here, even as I am grieved by some of the abortions it performs.  It, while not being a Christian organization and while being demonized by a great many Christians, performs what is in point of fact a very Christian and often, a very invisible-to-us-as-men service: keeping whole and healthy the bodies of women.

It doubly worries me that we Christians seem to be striving to rid our women of such care on the basis of false pretenses and outright lies.  Whatever else you may think of abortion, at what point did it become okay for us to break one of the Ten Big Ones (you shall not lie) to try to uphold another (you shall not kill)?  Because that is what happened with this PP footage: it was gathered based on an entire network of deliberate lies, years in the making, in order to deceive fellow human beings.

At what point did we decide that this was okay for us to do?  Do we really think that breaking one commandment for another is acceptable?  Is it okay for us to have other deities before God, for instance, as long as we don't make any graven images to those deities?  (Sorry, Buddy Christ.)  Is it okay for us to start stealing as long as it is only from people who take God's name in vain?  At what point did we begin compromising basic tenets of our Scripture's sense of morality like this?

(A couple of years ago, I wrote a guest piece for a friend's site that delved at greater length into this specific concern that went viral by my own modest standards.  You are invited to read it here.)

Is this really what we want to be known for, Christians?  Attempting to take health care from millions of our neighbors with lies and false pretenses?

I don't pretend to know what to magically do to end abortion other than to make access to contraception free and universal, to educate our children responsibly about the sacredness and science of sex, to tell the truth about the biology of our bodies, and to stop shaming our women for bearing children even out of wedlock when that is in fact precisely what we claim we want them to do rather than seeking an abortion.  I don't have many answers beyond those.

But I do pray.  And I pray that a greater clarity might come to us here, even if--especially if--it is a question of pure black-and-white to us.  Because love it or hate it, the issue of family planning includes so much more nuance than we in our ham-fisted natures are wont to admit: if we get rid of PP, would any subsequent health care be affordable?  Would it be geographically accessible?  Would it be equipped to aid victims of domestic violence or substance addiction?  And would we end up demonizing them in the same way we have PP?

Those are serious, important, life-saving questions I did not see engaged by the Christians who sought to engage me on Twitter, even after I brought them up.  Which convinces me even more that we do indeed need to wrestle and struggle with them, to make those questions part of our dialogue and discussion here.

Which is where I find myself at now.  I simply can't reach for black or for white in a world and a public health concern that is fraught with nuance.  Love me for it, hate me for it, I can't change it.  And given the choice, I wouldn't.  Because I have come to understand that when faced with a nail, I cannot simply be a hammer.  A hammer knows only how to do one thing, and I must know so much more than that.

Because we can't just legislate peoples' sex lives, y'all, even if--especially if--we wanted to.  We cannot just will abstinence into existence for everyone else besides us.  And in the meanwhile, unwanted pregnancies pile up, sometimes precisely because of our own unwillingnness to embrace the contraception PP champions as a means of ridding the demand for abortions to begin with.

So let's be more than the hammer.  Let's meet the nail with the full array of tools given and gifted to us, let's really talk, not mansplain, let's actually engage, not slut-shame, and let's, for God's sake, stop patronizing and minimizing the narratives and stories and experiences women bring forward.  They have been shoved into the private sphere for altogether too long.

I suspect that this might be a better way forward.  For all of us.

Columbus, Ohio
July 20, 2015

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Epic Discouragement of a Pastor

I love my work.  I love the privilege of being able to preach and teach as much as I love the ability to breathe.  I could no sooner separate myself from my own breath as I could from my identity as a teacher of the truth of humanity and its historical relationship with God Almighty.

I love the blessing of being allowed into peoples' lives at the birth of a child, at the death of a loved one, at the point of greatest need to experience, each in their own ways, God's own power and splendor, made real and knowable to us all, through the innate presence of God's Son Jesus Christ.

I love the honor of being invited to perform weddings and baptisms, funerals and renewals of vows, of being invited to offer what miniscule scraps of wisdom I have to offer to lend whatever sense of profoundness and greatness I can muster to something that in point of truth needs no further profoundness, no polish of further greatness: the witness of love itself.

But it is so very, very hard for me to do it.

It is beyond hard for me to preach in the name of God's justice and God's demand for dignity for all when I hear people like Franklin Graham say that Muslims should be banned from the United States after the terrorist attacks in Chattanooga, using our treatment of the Japanese during World War II as a precedent (because that was so moral of us).  Never mind that by the same logic, a Christian being radicalized like the Charleston shooter ought to be similar grounds for barring a Christian like me (or Franklin Graham) from the United States as well.

It is beyond painful for me to bear witness to a God of fundamental love and regard for humanity while I see people defend the Confederate flag rather than try to build up the black churches that have been set on fire, never mind trying to build up Mother Emanuel AME after it lost its pastor and eight other souls.

It is beyond wrenching for me to realize that we lament how the talking about these things "divides us," never mind the fact that we were divided to begin with, with our family and most of our friends looking and sounding and dressing exactly like us instead of like the diverse array of images of God, the imago dei, that humanity is able to outwardly proffer to its adherents.

I write this as I read the news that a fifth soldier (I had originally and erroneously written "Marine," but in fact Randall Smith was a petty officer second class in the Navy -E.A.) has died of his wounds in Chattanooga, after the terrorist shooting that had already claimed the lives of four of his comrades.  And already, I see the anger at the notion that people somehow care more about Caitlyn Jenner's ESPY speech than about the five folded flags that are about to be given out to five bereft families at five military funerals very, very soon.

Except that isn't it at all.  I, and just about everyone else I see and know, are reeling from Chattanooga as well.  But there is so much vitriol being cast about as well...possibly because the terrorist who killed the five soldiers is dead as well, so the object of our communal fury must be someone other than a corpse.  After 9/11, Osama bin Laden still remained belligerently among the living for nearly a decade.  Not so with our latest assailant.

So we lash out at each other instead.  We lash out at Caitlyn Jenner for accepting an award she did not ask for, but still merited consideration for, because if her coming out as transgender meant that somewhere else in America, a trans kid who was planning to kill themselves did not, then her bravery in fact saved a life.  And in a nation of 320 million people, I'm willing to bet that it saved more than one.

We lash out at black Americans for demanding the removal of the Confederate flag and for calling us out for caring more about defending the flag than about the burning of their churches, the murder of their people by different law enforcement officers, and the denial of equal educational opportunities to their children.  And they have to repeat it over and over, because we covered our ears after Eric Garner, and then again after Eric Harris, and again after Tamir Rice, and again and again and again--and now this time for Sandra Bland--because if you deny something long enough, you eventually begin to believe your own denials.

And we lash out at these attempts to remember and honor people like Jenner and Garner and Rice because they aren't us.  I have never seen any resistance or objection to remembering utterly horrific events like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, but as soon as we talk about remembering the death and pain experienced by people who aren't our skin color or our gender identity or our sexual orientation, we instead talk about how they "should get over it" and "remember how lucky they are."

Do we really think these are things that Jesus would say?

Or are we willing to admit that the Jesus who lived and died and resurrected for us is the exact same Jesus who lived and died and resurrected for the five Marines in Chattanooga, for Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, for Clementa Pinckney, for Caitlyn Jenner, and for you and for me?  And that this Jesus demands us to honor the stories and histories of those who don't look like us just as much as He calls us to honor our own?

Otherwise, what on earth is an Israelite Jesus doing talking to the Syrophoenician woman in Mark and Matthew, or the Samaritan woman and the centurion in John?  For that matter, what on earth is Jesus doing telling a Judean audience about a good Samaritan?

And what on earth are we doing trying to be church in His name?

I do this thing called ministry where I go about the sacred and mighty tasks I thrive on, the tasks of of preaching and teaching and counseling and building up all in a context that beats me up as much as it does you.  Maybe more so.  It makes the devilish temptation of apathy all the more, well, tempting.

I know it cannot be any other way.  A people that loves others as much as it loves its own is a people who never needed Jesus to come in the first place.

But in all truth, it is so very hard not to be discouraged by that reality, even though that reality is precisely why I know that what I do remains so very, very necessary.  It both redoubles my resolve to keep on doing it and piles on my existential despair for even bothering to do it.

Such is the painful, epic, discouraging-and then-encouraging paradox of ministry.

Vancouver, Washington
July 18, 2015

Image: Raphael's "St. Paul Preaching in Athens," public domain.