Friday, April 18, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: The Myth that God Is Dead

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16: The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

When all the buzz about the new God's Not Dead film began to hit my radar, I posted this on Twitter:

Which might be an indication of my level of dorkiness (though I really probably only have the first half of The Holy Grail memorized.  Hey, confession is good for the soul), but in retrospect, that tweet was also an indication of just how seriously I take the argument over whether or not "God is dead."  Because if I am completely honest with you, I do not have a ton of patience with the "God is dead" kerkuffle.

The famous hypothesis that God is dead comes from the famous Thus Spake Zarathustra treatise by 19th-century philosopher (and moustache aficionado) Friedrich Nietzsche.  He writes, in part:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?

How shall we comfort ourselves, indeed.  Were Nietzsche simply talking about Jesus here, that might be one thing.  We did kill Jesus.  That is what this next 72 hours are all about--we, in our oppression and our darkness, killed God's Son.  But when Nietzsche asks "who will wipe this blood off us?" he *should* already know the answer to that question--it is the one whom we "killed," because the one whom we killed is incapable of dying entirely.

Of course, it is easy--probably too easy, really--to look around at the world and think that God is dead to it.  Thousands upon thousands of preventable deaths happen every day as a result of starvation, preventable illness, and violence, and here we are claiming to follow a God who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and demands peace.  Where is this absentee landlord of a deity who proclaims these things but does not ensure them?

In this way, the "is God dead?" question is really symptomatic of another existential concern that has plagued us for millennia.  Why do these things happen if God is good?  Naturally, we can say that God causes them as punishment, or that Satan causes them because "the devil made me do it," or that we do it to ourselves, both systemically and individually.  But there is also the reality that Solomon states in Ecclesiastes 9, which we just covered in our evening Bible study at FCC--the race is not for the swift, or the battle for the strong, or bread for the wise...for time and chance happens to them all.

Solomon is not saying that God necessarily wants such things to happen, only that such things will because of the inevitability of our own existences.  I tend to believe that not only does God not want such things to occur, but because of God's omniscience, He can see the worlds in which our preventable evils did not have to occur, and far from being dead, God feels the emotion and grief at seeing bad things occur that did not have to happen, perhaps even more so than us because unlike us, God can see with complete clarity a possibility of the only source of hurt and pain being not us ourselves--of it being only inevitability itself.

Okay, but then why didn't God create a perfect world?

God did.  We call that world Heaven.  And there, God is still very much among the living.

Just as God is here on earth as well.  Despite its imperfections.

Despite OUR imperfections.

God is a god of the why do you seek the living among the dead?

God lives.  God is alive.  And God will remain alive.

Even if...even when...we try to kill Him.

After all, we tried that once already.  And an empty tomb was the result.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 14, 2014

Baruch Dayan Ha'emet

Yesterday afternoon, I returned to my office at the church after wrapping up a board of directors meeting.  I had about fifteen minutes before my next appointment, so I decided to be a dutiful son and call the rents.  And the news my mom had for me left me absolutely gobsmacked: the Jewish Community Center in my hometown of Overland Park had been one of two sites of a shooting that had left three people dead on the Pesach--on the eve of Passover.

As more and more details about the shootings trickled out, and as I benefited from some much-needed sleep, my thoughts began to find their voice again.  And this is what they say:

I have hugged Holocaust survivors and prayed at the Western Wall.

I have celebrated the bar and bat mitzvahs of friends and I have celebrated Passover seders with others.

I used to work out in the JCC's gym, and my sister used to work in their summer daycare.  We grew up in a home a ten-minute drive away.

I have built up, over the course of my 28 years, a relationship with Judaism that I have, at every turn, benefited intangibly and tremendously from.  Its Scriptures are a part of my Scriptures, its traditions, a part of my traditions.

So even without being Jewish myself, it is so very hard not to take this personally.  Because my own faith owes a debt of gratitude to the historical faith that birthed it.  Because my own life owes a debt of gratitude to friends whose Jewishness was, and is, an integral part of their identities.  And because if people still hate other people because of their faith (or ethnicity, for that matter), it means that religious teachers like me still have not undone the prejudices that have plagued humanity throughout history.

There is a terrible irony in that all three of the three victims were, in fact, not Jewish but Christian--two were a grandfather and grandson who worshiped at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and who have close familial connections to my own Disciples denomination, the third was a Roman Catholic woman and mother.  A raging anti-Semite who sought to kill Jewish persons in the name of Adolf Hitler wound up slaying a trio of Christians instead.

There's a reason we call it "blind" hatred.  It really, truly, utterly blinds you.  In every possible sense.

I experienced my own blinding of sorts that afternoon--I was angry and upset and I honestly felt like it would be good to take a few swings myself at the perpetrator, Glenn Frazier Miller/Cross...even though he is 73 years old and even though I am a pastor teaching the way of the Prince of Peace.

But then, as I so often do, I reached for Scripture.  I remembered Paul's words in Romans 12:19-- "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"

Paul, a Jesus follower, is calling upon his Jewish heritage in this verse.  He is quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 and interpreting it to teach that God is the one mete out any retributive justice.  Not humanity.  Paul, just like me, is benefiting from the Jewish Scriptures in his life...and he is interpreting them in such a way to tell me a truth that is both profoundly Jewish and profoundly Christian: God is the only perfect judge of us.

There is a Hebrew saying, sometimes recited in Jewish tradition upon the death of a person: baruch dayan ha'emet.  It translates, roughly, into "blessed be the one true judge."  Blessed be the God who created us and  who receives us into the afterlife upon our earthly death.

And, His Son says to us in the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are you who face persecution for His sake.

Blessed are you who face hardships because you love and follow God.

Blessed are you, because God loves you right back.  And no racist epithets, no anti-Semitic poison, no ancient and shameful prejudices, can change that immutable, monumental, earth-shaking reality.

God loves you right back.  He always has.  He always will.  No matter what the haters may claim to say or do on God's behalf.

Blessed be that God who loves you.

Baruch dayan ha'emet,

Sunday, April 13, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Colt Surfing"

Matthew 21:1-11

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.”[a] 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them. 8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![b] Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Common English Bible)

“Colt Surfing,” Matthew 21:1-11

The images are a gallery of injuries—amputations, lacerations, surgical scars…not to mention the invisible but still insidious injuries like perforated eardrums and post-traumatic stress.  But upon their injured bodies, survivors of the Boston marathon bombings had inked personal messages of sentiment and hope as they posed for portraits at the marathon’s finish line—for many of them, it was their first time back to the site since the bombings.

Two days from now, on April 15, we will arrive at the Tuesday of Holy Week, but we will also arrive at the first anniversary of the Boston marathon bombings.  And one portrait from the finish line comes from Elizabeth Bermingham, a special education teacher in nearby Watham, who inked the word “resilient” across her arms. She said, in the caption to her photograph, this (in part):

How do you find resiliency day to day?  How do you find it in the big picture?  How do you become healthier, more normal, more typical, how do (you) come back from something like this, a tragedy?

I’d say in terms of resiliency and coming back and training for the marathon, and even coming back from having something happen to you and trying to feel more normal, it’s less physically centered and it’s more in your brain almost.  That it’s like your brain has to learn how to communicate again.  It has to bring this experience, put it into memory.  They’ve explained to us a bunch of different times in our group that flashbacks, and pieces of that, is your brain not quite communicating and not translating this experience into your normal memory.  That takes a long time, and it’s really difficult, and so as you run…what I’ve found as I’m running and as I’m out on the course, I find myself both thinking about last year’s marathon and then next year’s marathon, and trying to replace in my head the images of horror with images of triumph.

The second photograph of her in the collage is of her opening up the palm of her left hand, upon which another message is inked: Love wins.  How appropriate an expression to encapsulate a story beginning with searching for resiliency and ending with the transformation of horror into triumph.  Scarcely little else on earth possesses the power to do such things beyond love.  It is why we are willing to move heaven and earth for one another.  It is why, ultimately, Jesus is willing to come to Jerusalem to teach and to heal and to pray and to die.  It is because love, His love, wins.  And that triumph of love and life eternal over death and destruction begins here, today, on Palm Sunday.

The exposition of Palm Sunday is pretty straightforward for most of us—Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the upcoming Passover, and He decides to make a statement with His entrance into the city by, basically, having a victory parade.  Only without the victory just yet.

Jesus’ victorious entry into Jerusalem is depicted by Mark, Luke, and Matthew—whose version we will be studying today.  And it’s pretty standard fare—Jesus sends His disciples to Jerusalem to boost a colt from its rightful owner (you think “grand theft donkey” was a thing back then?  Imagine if we used that excuse today… “Hey, where are you taking that Ford Mustang?!” (Since that's probably the closest thing we have today to a tied-up colt, right?) “The Lord needs it!” Yeah, that’ll end well).

The disciples come back with the hot-wired…I mean borrowed…donkey, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem as crowds of people gather to shout Hosannas to His name and to literally lay down their clothing on the ground before Him so that Jesus does not have to ride in the dust and dirt.  But how Jesus does the riding is…well, it depends on just how literally you take Matthew’s words here.

Matthew’s larger point in verses 4-6 is that Jesus is fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, specifically from Zechariah 9, of a coming king.  To Matthew—and to us—Jesus is that king.  But Zechariah writes his prophecy in verse.  As the Presbyterian pastor and professor Thomas Long put it:

Now, superficially, it may appear the Zechariah quotation describes two animals—a donkey and a colt.  Actually, though, only one animal is meant.  “On a donkey, on a colt” is a textbook example of parallelism, a common device in Hebrew poetry where something is said once and then repeated for emphasis in a slightly different fashion.

Matthew, though, is writing his Gospel account in prose, not verse.  So, in order to cover all his bases, Matthew decides to report that there was both a donkey and a colt, and that Jesus “sat” on them both.  What that looked like—or how Jesus managed it—is your guess as much as it is mine.  Let it be an object lesson to us in trying taking the poetry in Scripture too literally.  Matthew is, which honestly understandable--if you are making a theological argument like that Jesus fulfills Zechariah's prophecy in whole, you might as well go all out) and as a result, he is depicting the Son of Man coasting into town half on a donkey, half on a baby donkey.

Which might make the whole thing seem a bit more comical to us—and that may well have been the point, since, as you may remember from previous Palm Sunday sermons I have given here, Jesus is in no small part modeling his entry after the triumphal entrances into Jerusalem by conquering foreign warlords like the Babylonians and the Romans, and He is, in a way, satirizing those triumphal parades by entering not on a great warhorse, but, again, on a donkey and a baby donkey.  There’s majestic, and then there’s…well, humble.  And I’ve never heard a donkey be called majestic.

Rather, it is not the steed in this case which requires the aura of majesty, but its rider.  Which, therein, lies still further irony.  Jesus is not decked out in His finest armor with a broadsword, scabbard, and helmet.  He is still the dirt-poor itinerant carpenter that His human form has always been.  The outward majesty comes not from Him, but from the respect the Jerusalem citizenry proffer to Him by way of refusing to let even the hooves of his mounts touch the dusty ground.

And there really is a profound sort of majesty in that level of humility, of putting the cleanliness of an animal’s hooves before your clothing’s well-being.  Your cloak probably doesn’t look too good afterward, but it is the humility behind the gesture that gets captured today in immortal images and photographs.  Think of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in penitence before the memorial to the Holocaust-era ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.  Think of the survivors of the Boston marathon as they take their pictures, artificial limbs and scars and all, at the finish line that could have claimed their lives.  Think of the beleaguered crowds in Jerusalem and their beleaguered Savior, to whom they cry out, Hosanna!  It means, simply, “Save us now!”  The expectation of salvation comes not from majesty in this case, but from humility.  Not from power, but from heart.

And so as we enter this week of passion, may God in all His wonder and splendor save us through the humble majesty exhibited by a nobody whose extraordinary life and resurrection made Him the greatest somebody to ever grace this earth.  Because one week from today, that nobody will have been rescued from the clutches of death itself.  Should we choose it, the destruction will be over.  And the great work of saving one another can begin again.

Hosanna, Hosanna in Excelsis!  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 13, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: "The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back"

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16 The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

This is an apropos entry for me to work on because we have just spent the past two weeks in the Tuesday morning Bible study that I teach going through the "little apocalypse" of Mark 13 (the "big apocalypse," of course, being Revelation).  Jesus ends this apocalyptic prophesy that reads an awful lot like the world ending by, in part, saying this: "I assure you that this generation won't pass away until all these things happen...but nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in haven and not the Son.  Only the Father knows. " (Mark 13:30, 32)

In other words: all these things Jesus describes (what we take to be the end of the world) will happen before everyone alive at the time has died.  But then He says that nobody knows when exactly that it will happen, not even Jesus Himself.

What on earth are we to make of this apparent (on its face, anyways) contradiction by the Messiah?

Well...first, there's the reality that Jesus admits He knows not the exact time and place, which might be reason enough.  Additionally, the "nobody knows when the day or hour comes" sentiment is repeated later in the New Testament by Peter (2 Peter 3:10--"The day of the Lord will come like a thief," ie, without us seeing it).  But there is also the possibility of the term "generation" being used metaphorically rather than literally by Jesus here--if a generation of believers, rather than strictly of blood kin, can last for centuries or millennia, who is to say that not all among this generation have passed away quite yet?

(It is worth noting as well that I am largely adhering to theological tradition in postulating that Jesus' second coming is a part of the end of time itself--in other words, that "the day of the Lord" also would at one point include, as John puts it in Revelation, the first earth and the first heaven passing away.)

Yet in spite of this uncertainty that is really quite plain in Mark 13, many preachers throughout history have been all too eager to capitalize on the cottage industry of trying to predict the end of the world, often for their own personal greed and gain.  I lived just north of Oakland in Berkeley during my time at seminary and was actually finishing up my degree when Oakland preacher Harold Camping infamously issued out his followers across the country to proclaim that the end would be happening in the spring of 2011 (and yet, here we are...three years later...imagine that).  There are the televangelists such as Jack Van Impe who have built entire empires off of predicting the end times.  There (were) and are sects/cults such as the Millerites and Branch Davidians who turned these predictions into something horrifically destructive.

And don't get me started on the kookyboots indulging of people who bought at all into the end of the Mayan calendar in December 2012.  And I say this as a diehard fan of the X-Files television show, whose entire premise is based upon an alien invasion that was scheduled to take place at the end of the Mayan calendar.  Suffice it to say that ranks right up there with Y2K in the disasters-that-weren't category.

Nobody knows when the world we inhabit will end--at least, with any sort of precision.  Astronomy says that the earth will eventually be incinerated by the Sun as it turns into a red giant star, but we are a few billion years away from that eventual fate.  If anything, destruction is taking place not on God's timetable, but our own--we are plowing through the earth's resources at an incredible and irresponsible rate, despite God's command to Adam in Genesis 2 to keep the land (rather than, say, exploit it).

Put simply: are you worried about when or how God will end things?  You shouldn't be.  Are you worried about when or how we will?  We probably should, at least a little.  Worry about how you live your life here--and if it is life in love and faith in God and in Christ, and of concern for your childrens' and granchildrens' future, your own ultimate future will probably sort itself out.

That's as close as I'll probably ever get to predicting the future.  And, my childhood Magic 8 ball obsession aside, I'm rather okay with that.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 7, 2014

One Millennial's Rainbow Connection: A Response to Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

As a very young child in the early 1990s, I had a great many television shows that I LOVED.  Garfield & Friends, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Captain Planet were Saturday morning mainstays for me.  But before any of those masterpieces of animation pinged my pint-sized radar, there was the Muppet Family Christmas, featuring both the full repertoire of Muppets and the cast of characters on my first television love, Sesame Street.  I so loved watching the Muppet Family Christmas that I would demand to watch it every day, some years all the way until May or June after Christmas.  This is also to say nothing of just how frequently I have watched just about all of the Muppet Studios videos on Youtube (and sang along with many, often with friends), or of how vociferously I once asked my soon-to-be in-laws when I first met them "where they stood on the Muppets."  (Fortunately for all parties, they were--and are--resoundingly pro-Muppet.)

I tell you these potentially embarrassing factoids about my neuroses not as a means of public self-flagellation (though I am certainly not above that), but as a way of saying that I, as a card-carrying millennial (see above list of favorite childhood television shows for further proof if necessary), have been shaped as profoundly and dramatically as any member of Generation X by the Muppets, Sesame Street, and the kingdom that Jim Henson built.  Jim may have died when I was but a lad of four, but more than probably any public figure, his work shaped the ethos that I was instilled with as a child.

Knowing this (was she trying to bait me into doing something like this?!), my mom tagged me on Twitter with an exceptionally well thought-out article by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens that was posted to Salon this past weekend entitled, "Millennials Just Don't Get It!  How the Muppets Created Generation X."  I promised her I would write something here about it, because as a millennial, I'd like to think I get it.  Just a little bit.

Now, granted, I was born in 1986, and as Stevens notes in her work, Gen X sometimes is considered to extend all the way to 1984, so I am certainly on the elder end of the Millennial generation and may well be more apt to be influenced by the Muppets and Sesame Street than a Millennial born in, say, 1996.  But whereas Stevens suggests that, "A college freshman might feel just as emotional about Barney, Power Rangers and the Teletubbies. While I don’t have a high opinion of the lobotomized purple dinosaur, he was certainly a “touchstone” to 20-year-olds," I would gleefully note that not only do I share her massive disdain for the lobotomized purple dinosaur, I shared it even when said overly trite therapod really burst onto the scene in 1992, as my first-grade friends and I competed to make up the most vicious jingles possible to the unbearably cloying "I love you, you love me" song.  And don't even get me started on the Teletubbies (the Power Rangers, on the other hand, I will defend to the death.  They were awesome.  But the assignment of their power suit colors was pretty racist).

In other words: perhaps today's twentysomethings do feel just as attached to Barney and the Teletubbies.  But speaking as a twentysomething, I have yet to meet any.  I suspect the twentysomething who still loves Barney will someday rank right up there with Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster by conspiracy theorists who go a-huntin' for elusive, rare, mystical beasts.

More to the point, though, is the reality that Stevens notes immediately afterward: We ALL have our nostalgia.  All of us.  And to consign the object of a millennial's nostalgia to a dopey dinosaur is to paint the generation that succeeds you with far too broad a brush.  And considering just how wide-ranging Gen X is--again, to quote Stevens, from at least 1961 to 1981--you would think that there would be more understanding and sensitivity to overly generalizing a generation.

Because to slap upon us millennials the label of "not getting it" is to, in fact, not get it: we may be obsessed with our smartphones and absorbed by our own special snowflake-iness (I have read the same awful articles that you have--and it has done wonders for my self-esteem.  Now I know that because I'm a millennial, I suck, and I'm sorry), but we also get that this is a community that we belong to by being a part of the human race.  Ironically, technology may have (read: probably has) isolated us in our one-on-one interactions, but it has made us more connected to the wider world than ever, and I believe that we, as a generation, have taken to heart the exact same values that Stevens lists off that she received from the Muppets: inclusion (look at how many millennials support marriage equality), global citizenship (look at how many of us believe in the importance of bettering the world), and education (we're on track to be the most educated generation in history).

Correlation without causation?  Maybe a bit.  Certainly, we had other major influences in our lives who have helped shape our destinies--the values of our Baby Boomer parents, the persistent torpor of the global economy, and a profound disillusionment with established institutions.  But the Muppets--and Sesame Street--mark, I believe, an exception which proves the rule to that disillusionment with institutions.  The Muppets have been around far longer than we, but because the values they espouse speak to not just one generation but to many, we are able to claim them as our own as well, just like the Gen X-ers.  Generation X is not the only generation to owe Jim Henson an immeasurable debt of gratitude.  We millennials are very much co-signers of said debt.

You may call us naive and self-absorbed if you want (we probably are, at least a little).  Say we are attached too much to the lobotomized purple dinosaur or to the Tubbies of Television (even though we probably aren't...seriously, has Buzzfeed EVER made one of those now-ubiquitous "Things you miss about your '90s childhood" articles that included Barney?).  Posit that we cannot possibly fathom your attachment to something that we ourselves are attached to, like Statler and Waldorf's incessant mockery, or Sam the Eagle's patriotism, or the Swedish Chef's...well, anything that the Swedish Chef does, really.  Or anything that his ingredients do to him.

You can argue any of those things.  But we millennials know in our special-snowflake hearts that we are able to claim the cultural heritage of the Muppets for ourselves as well.  Jim Henson may have died when we were very young--or even before we ourselves were born--but his creations continue to speak to us today, instructing us, teaching us, and guiding us like the Muppet Show of old.  And in this way, we millennials are not so unique after all.  Our connection to the Muppets is but one stripe of color in the Rainbow Connection that binds together lovers and dreamers alike...but it is a stripe of color that remains vibrant and vivid to behold.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, April 6, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Friends Don't Let Friends Be Heartless"

Jonah 4:1-11

But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. 3 At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” 4 The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” 5 But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a shrub,[a] and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. 7 But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. 8 Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” 9 God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?” Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!” 10 But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Common English Bible)

“Friends Don’t Let Friends…A Lent Alongside Jonah,” Week Five

Jean Winsor’s story is one of those that you do a double-take upon hearing. Not the first part—that part is sadly increasingly common, the part where she got laid off from her job of 12 years and couldn’t find work for over a year. The next part, though, is:

Her jobless benefits expired at the end of December. She wore extra layers to keep warm in a bid not to run up her electricity bills and contemplated selling her living room furniture to make her monthly mortgage payment of $481.

That’s when…Lee Bissell…read about her plight and offered to pay Winsor’s mortgage for a month. Bissell is not a millionaire with thousands of dollars to spare. In fact, she is a federal worker living in Herndon, Virginia, supporting a sick husband, a 15-year-old daughter, and an 8-year-old son. 

What resonated with Bissell was that Winsor had worked as a home health care aide for 12 years before losing her job. Bissell’s 64-year-old husband is struggling with end-stage dementia, and aides like Winsor have been a godsend. Bissell wanted to express her gratitude by helping one health care aide in need. 

And I love what comes next, what Lee says when asked to quote for this article: “I don’t know that I can do it again. But in that moment, it felt right. I feel really blessed I can do something like that and not worry about paying my own bills.” And that’s what this is all supposed to be about. Feeling strong enough and blessed enough to actually love your neighbor even when your own battle that you’re fighting is all-consuming. In the midst of a sick husband and two children, a wife and mother found the deep empathy necessary.

We are wrapping up this five-week sermon series today, because believe it or not, next Sunday—Palm Sunday—is the last Sunday of Lent!  Traditionally, the forty days prior to Easter Sunday make up the season of Lent, and those forty days correspond to the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and being tempted in the wilderness.  Lent is a season whose primary themes, then, are largely about denial of selfishness and repentance from our own past selfishness.  And really, there is no better story about selfishness in Scripture than that of the prophet Jonah.  Sure, you have individual stories about selfishness in Biblical heroes like Samson and David, but none of their stories involved getting belched out of a giant future sushi roll.  And really, selfishness is what defines Jonah, even more so than any other Biblical character.  He is the original prodigal, the original heir who renounces his Father hundreds of years before Jesus tells us His parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  So for Lent this year, we will be reading through, verse-by-verse, the entirety of the Jonah narrative.  It’s only four chapters long, so going verse-by-verse has definitely been doable in a five-week series.

We kicked off the series with Jonah having declined God’s generous offer to go preach on His behalf to the Assyrians in Nineveh by fleeing in the exact opposite direction, to modern-day Spain.  In doing so, he boards a ship in the Mediterranean Sea bound for Tarshish, and when the ship gets caught in a storm, Jonah is chosen by lot to be the one responsible for the storm and he is unceremoniously chucked overboard, at which point God intervenes and brings forth a giant fish to keep Jonah from drowning.  In those three days and three nights he spends as sushi food, Jonah finally stops running and utters the prayer in Jonah 2, but that is far from the end of the story, as we discovered in Jonah 3, in which Jonah obeys God’s command, preaches at Nineveh, and the entire citizenry, upon decree from the king, repents and believes in the Lord.  Which brings us to Jonah 4, in which Jonah…well, to put it charitably, Jonah doesn’t put his best self on display for God.

In fact, Jonah does pretty much the opposite—after prophesying Nineveh’s destruction, he basically builds himself a front-row seat to watch the epic, divinely-wrought destruction of the city.  And, of course, he ends up disappointed, even though he knows full well—from personal, firsthand experience, at that—that God is “merciful and compassionate…slow to anger, full of faithful love, and unwilling to destroy,” as Jonah himself puts it!  Yet still he wants God to do what he—Jonah—wants God to do, as opposed to what God Himself wants to do, which is to give grace to Nineveh.

Jonah may be a prophet of God, but he utterly lacks empathy.  Last week, I quoted Old Testament scholar Johanna Bos, who said, essentially, that from an ethical perspective, Jonah should not want to see Nineveh destroyed.  He should want to see these 120,000 people (and their dressed-up pets) form a relationship and a covenant with God.  But on a spleen level, on Falstaff-esque gut level, Jonah is, and would be, perfectly delighted to watch Nineveh burn to the ground instead.

I know this is the Old rather than New Testament, but still…that’s not very Christ-like, you know?  But it is, I think, sadly, very, very  Christian-like.  Love thy enemy?  Well, unless wishing fire and brimstone upon them constitutes “love” (in which case I think that you and I have dramatically different understandings of the term), we do not, as a general rule, love our enemies.  Even though our Lord and Savior commands us in no uncertain terms to do so.

And I’m not talking about simply, say, our military enemies.  Jonah is not at war with Nineveh here.  He simply wants to see it razed for spite.  And there are couple of things worth remembering here about this sentiment—first, said sentiment does not disqualify Jonah from being called by God to be a prophet.  Jonah is a profoundly flawed person, yet still he is able to be a vessel of God’s, even when (or perhaps especially when) he disagrees with God.  But secondly, just because you are “on God’s side” does not mean that God always gives you what you want.  God is not a holier version of Santa Claus, and asking for Nineveh to be sacked ranks right up there with asking for a pony.

In other words, humility is a necessary component to being any sort of a minister on behalf of God, because only when we put ourselves second are we truly able to reach for empathy—to reach for the practice of putting ourselves in another’s shoes and, one would hope, then putting them first.  It is what happened to Jean Winsor—a woman with not much more to live on than her felt a connection of gratitude and empathy, and did something to change her life for the good.  And it is sadly what does not happen to Jonah at the end of his story—though not for a lack of trying on God’s part.

God tries to get Jonah to experience some empathy by once again doing something for the guy—in this case, causing a shrub to grow miraculously to a height that provided Jonah even more shade than his DIY hut could—which, in the desert (keep in mind that Nineveh was in modern-day Iraq), is no small gift.  But then God just as quickly takes the tree away, and Jonah pities its loss not because he created it or nurtured it or did anything to help it grow—he only benefited from its presence.  But God *did* create the Nineveh people, and God has nurtured them and has sought them to grow, and such a relationship is—as it should be—a source of pity and mercy for God.  God is invested in Nineveh’s well-being in ways that dwarf Jonah’s investment in the well-being of this divinely-made and divinely-taken shrub.  God is, quite simply, invested in all of His children.

Maybe that should not offend Jonah to his core, but it does.  And it probably offends us as well, if we are truly honest with ourselves.  Because Jonah is an Israelite—a person with whom God has a particularly special relationship in the Old Testament.  They are His people, and He, their god.  And we as Christians can get up and talk until we’re blue in the face about everything that I just said—that God is invested in and loves all of His children—but there is still that small part of Jonah in each of us that is pulling for a special, VIP-level relationship with God.  We want that plum parking spot in Heaven.  We want to be recognized for our Christian-ness, even though Jesus again clearly discourages it.  We want God to think we are the special little snowflake that we think we are.

And when Jonah learns that, no, he is special just like everybody else and as such is wonderfully and beautifully unspecial as well, he throws a conniption and tells God that he’d rather be dead, like the child who claims that they would rather starve than eat their vegetables.  And having to admit that you are held on the same level as anybody else in God’s eyes is, in a manner, eating your spiritual vegetables.  It forces us to admit to the worth of other people we’d just as soon see as worthless.

That is why friends don’t let friends be heartless.  It prevents us from reaching for empathy for others and humility for ourselves.  Both of these are necessary, even vital, ingredients to us being able to fulfill the mission of God in this world, and so often we find ourselves, like Jonah, lacking severely in one, the other, or both.  We may be called by God, but it is our own inner brokenness that prevents us from fully understanding and realizing God’s mission for each of us.

Regardless, though, Jonah doesn’t come out of this ending looking very good, and it makes you wonder why exactly the compilers of the Old Testament felt led by God to include such a negative portrayal of a prophet in the Biblical canon.  A great many theories have attempted to answer this question, and Old Testament scholar Barry Bandstra concisely summarizes my favorite one:

It is a criticism of Israelite prophets, exposing their insincerity at preaching repentance, not really wanting to see it, and being disappointed (and taking it as a personal failure) when destructive judgment is not meted out by God.

If we demand repentance from somebody we don’t like, but don’t really want to see said repentance for whatever reason (it deprives us of that emotional club to beat them with, or it would make us question our prior assumptions about them, etc.), then we must seriously question the nature and character of our own professed faith.  We do not get to expect repentance, see it, and then call shenanigans.  We do not get to preach hellfire and brimstone and take any sort of joy in doing so (even if we claim outwardly that we are not).  We do not get to impose our selfish ethics upon God’s unbounded grace.  We get to do precisely zero of those things.

But, like Jonah, we still dare to do all of them at times.  Even after our own journeys of running away from God, running to the ends of the earth to avoid what God wants us to do, we have the audacity to demand from God destruction when God has shown to us only forgiveness.  And of course God would show us forgiveness.  Precisely because, like Jonah, like the king of Nineveh, like the people and animals and shrubs of Nineveh, we all need it.  Whether we can admit that or not.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 6, 2014

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: "The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves"

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16 The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

In the late 90s/early 00s, the Barna Research Group conducted a series of polls about the religious beliefs of Americans and discovered that, among other things, 82% (nearly 5 in 6) of us believe that the aphorism "God helps those who help themselves" is in Scripture.

No such quote actually exists in Scripture.  Some attribute this saying to Benjamin Franklin, others to the 17th-century British politician Algernon Sidney, and still others believe the sentiment goes as far back as the Greek fable-teller Aesop, but none of those fellows were among the authors of the Bible.

In point of fact, there are a great many verses in Scripture that speak to God advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and encouraging us to do the same.  James 1:27 is representative: "True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us." (CEB)  In a world without a social safety net, "orphans and widows" represented those most on the margins, those most at-risk, those with the least forgiving of cushions.

And God speaks out for them.  For those who cannot help themselves.  God calls upon us to help them.

This is also to say nothing of the fundamental reality that God's justice is a justice of reversal: while the poor are blessed, the rich are cursed (Luke 6).  God doesn't just call for help to those who cannot help themselves, He also actively judges negatively those who help themselves to too much.

A God who helps those who helps themselves is a convenient God for us as western capitalists.  And while much might be said for capitalism as an economic system, the notion that it is somehow endorsed by God is fiction.  No earthly economic system could be endorsed by God, because we have yet to come up with an economics that does not marginalize at least some people.

But God should not be convenient for us.  God, I have to think, never meant for Himself to be convenient for us.  While Jesus does say that His burden is easy and His yoke is light, it is a burden and a yoke regardless (and this is to say nothing of the demands He makes upon His followers and those seeking to follow Him, like the rich man told to sell all he owns and give the proceeds to the poor).

We may view God as a God helps those who help themselves, but we are projecting our wants upon God rather than allowing God to project His wants to us.  We use a myth to turn a radical, loving, amazing Creator into simply a patron deity of entrepreneurship.

And so, it is not the God, but the myth--like many myths--that is convenient and comforting to us.  And we would do well to shy away from such myths--the myth that God helps those who help themselves, or the myth that God wants us to be rich.  Because those myths ultimately fall into the same category as the burnt sacrifices of old--we may think that God wants them, but what God really wants from us is quite simple: to love Him wholly, and to love others like ourselves (Matthew 22).

As the great rabbinic teacher Hillel is said to have put it, everything else is commentary.

Yours in Christ,