Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

"Santa's Healthy Eats"

Dear Church,

This will be the third Christmas I have spent as a minister in a parish setting, but only my first Christmas with all of you. Whenever I spend the holidays somewhere new, I always love seeing which Christmas traditions different families and different churches hold dearly to—my pastor in California would collect nativity scenes, my dad in Kansas would always make lasagna for Christmas Eve dinner—those sorts of things.

My own Christmas tradition was pretty basic, really—as a child, my parents taught me to always leave a piece of fruit or some vegetables out along with the cookies and milk for Santa Claus. You have to figure that the old, rotund fellow already has an expensive enough health insurance premium, to say nothing of the group plan the elves are asking for because they really need a union, so it was probably best to offer healthy food. It may have had more to do with my parents wanting to teach me healthy eating habits, but that part just went in one ear and out the other.

I think there was another reason for offering Santa more than just the milk and cookies, though—it was to offer him something more than the expected minimum. After all, Christmas is the day when we welcome our Savior into the world, and the Magi who came to visit him did not give him a varied assortment of junk food, the random holiday fruitcake, or the re-gifted sweater. They lavished Him with the very best of what they had to offer—gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Theirs is an example that we can all take heed from—that Christmas is a time to promise our newborn Savior that we, too, will give Him not simply whatever we feel like giving, but the very best of our talents and of ourselves. If the cliché is that the true joy in Christmas is in the giving, then may our giving of ourselves once more to the Christ Child be the greatest joy of all.

A very Merry Christmas to you and yours this holiday season!

Yours in Christ,

Monday, November 28, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "Spending Less"

Ezekiel 7:18-20

18 They will put on sackcloth
and be clothed with terror.
Every face will be covered with shame,
and every head will be shaved.

19 “‘They will throw their silver into the streets,
and their gold will be treated as a thing unclean.
Their silver and gold
will not be able to deliver them
in the day of the LORD’s wrath.
It will not satisfy their hunger
or fill their stomachs,
for it has caused them to stumble into sin.
20 They took pride in their beautiful jewelry
and used it to make their detestable idols.
They made it into vile images;
therefore I will make it a thing unclean for them. (TNIV)

“The Advent Conspiracy: Spending Less, Giving More, Worshiping Fully, Loving All,” Week One

The heart of the capital city was a mixture of technology and heartbreak—high atop a hill stood the American embassy, with plentiful communication arrays along the roof, down the road was the Continental Hotel where all the Western expatriates stayed, but down in a valley off of the main traffic circle stood a rickety church filled to the brim with the poorest of the global poor. American missionaries, including myself, had come to visit them, and what clean water they had that day had been given to us, that we might be able to wash our hands before having lunch with them. There was no running water—a woman had a pitcher to pour water over our hands. It was incredibly moving. I still have pictures of it. But it also was not, it is not, right.

In 2006, I spent three weeks in Africa on a trip sponsored by Global Ministries, the overseas mission arm of the Disciples and the United Church of Christ. And in Luanda, the capital city of Angola—one of the absolute poorest countries in the world—I saw some of the most extreme poverty ever, and one of its most defining characteristics is a lack of safe drinking water, a circumstance that is one of the leading causes of death of children in the entire world. It would cost the world somewhere between $10 and 11 billion to provide clean drinking water to everyone who now does not have it. And, last year, in 2010, on Black Friday alone, we spent $10.7 billion. That one day of holiday shopping—it could have paid for clean water worldwide.

This Sunday begins a new sermon series for us, as well as a new church year for us. This is the first Sunday of Advent, the season the church traditionally dedicates to preparing the way for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. And…well, we do prepare for Christmas Day, but these days, it feels like it is more for the arrival of Santa Claus than the arrival of Jesus—the arrival of presents and stocking stuffers, rather than the arrival of our salvation. And so in response to this, three pastors across America started this project a few years ago called “The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?” as a means to preach preparing for Christ’s coming by giving differently. This project which promotes clean drinking water revolves around four main themes—spending less, giving more, worshiping fully, and loving all Via the major prophets who preceded Christ—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—plus Jesus’s mother, Mary, we’ll explore a different theme in each of the 4 Sundays of Advent, beginning with today’s theme, spending less.

An old parable told by preachers to this day is that there was this very old, extremely wealthy fellow who finally passed away after a long, long life. His many relatives, interested in how his estate would be divided up, went up to the pastor after the funeral and asked, “So…what did he leave behind?” To which the pastor simply replied, “Everything.”

It is the exact same lesson as that of Ezekiel 7 that we are reading today, though perhaps it goes down a little easier when the word is delivered by a kindly preacher in robes compared to a theatrical Old Testament prophet who would eat parchment scrolls for shock value. Wealth provides no protection from death. It can forestall it, yes—people who are wealthier tend to live longer lives. But, as my parents tried to teach me as a kid, he who dies with the most toys still dies. And, as Ezekiel says, if we are still so foolish to cling to our wealth when death is at our door, that wealth, that gold and silver that we have hoarded up, will have become so unclean that nobody will want it. The reality is, though, that greed means that we still do want it, no matter what the Bible tells us. It is why bankers and executives continue to give themselves raises even as the rest of the lower and middle classes suffer. What does it matter if my gold and silver will be distasteful to me in death? I like having them right now! And I have to tell you, it hurts me so much on a gut level to see that happen—to see the rich get richer—when I look around our community with its above-average unemployment, with its citizens who call us literally every single day asking the church, “Can you please help us before our power gets shut off?” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it—until the power bill goes unpaid.

Spending less is a message we are never given by the church of our consumerism culture. Whenever we attend worship at the church of consumerism, be it at the altar of the television set, or a newspaper, or a computer, we are preached at, exhorted to, earlier and earlier in the year, to spend more at Christmastime. It is like a cartoon I saw the other day of the Thanksgiving turkey giving the old stage hook to Santa Claus to drag him offstage, while the turkey shouted, “Wait your turn, fat boy, November is MY month!” I saw my first Christmas commercial this year on November 8—a full 47 days before Christmas—and it was not for any charitable cause, like the clean water well-digging done by the Advent Conspiracy. It was for Wal-Mart, which, among many other successful corporations—Apple, Nike, Volkswagen, I could go on and on—have become successful at marketing their respective brands by actually studying how we, churches and other religious groups, even cults, have marketed our own denominations over time. You want to blame someone for why it feels like we worship at the Church of Apple, giving praise to the Holy Spirit of the departed Steve Jobs? They learned how to package their message from us!

But let’s say that in between all of the advertising noise calling us to spend more, you do decide to spend less…okay, spend less than what? What you spent last year? Spend less than your next-door neighbor? Spend less than the average person? What does spending less look like? The best answer the Advent Conspiracy gives is, is celebrating Christmas simpler for you this year? Are there fewer moving parts? Fewer stressful shopping trips to make? Fewer credit card bills to stress over? Because here’s the thing—I’m not asking you to give less to your loved ones, only to spend less. What you lose in quantity of moving parts this Christmas, we will plan on making up for in quality—in fact, that is exactly what we’ll be talking about next week.

C.S. Lewis wrote that one of the best ways to avoid falling into the trap of love of money—the root of evil, according to Scripture—was to give more than we can spare. As he says in his magnum opus, Mere Christianity, “If our expenditure on comfort, luxury, and amusement is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch us, I should say that they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures exclude them.” I mentioned a few weeks ago in a sermon about how CEOs and other suits will try to base their compensation on being paid “above average” in their field, even though mathematically, someone must be below average too! Here is the same conundrum, but turned on its head in a wonderful way—Lewis says we must be, as Christians, above average in our giving—and if we all give more, then we are required to give more still to remain above average in what we give away. And here’s the kicker—we need to be able to view what we spend on Christmas not as money we are giving away, but money that is still going to comfort and luxury—it is just not our own comfort, or our own luxury. Gold and silver, as Ezekiel refers to wealth, remains gold and silver, whether in my hands or yours. It is up to us to transform that gold and silver into gifts—not the thirty-dollar necktie that he wasn’t going to like anyways, or that twenty-dollar scented candle that she was just going to re-gift, for they are still, at their core, gold and silver—but into the soul-sized gifts that can change a person’s world. What we spend on Black Friday alone could give the entire world clean drinking water. Imagine what the kingdom will look like if we used that money for Biblical gift-giving this Christmas. May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 27, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Some Thoughts on Thanksgiving

I'll just come out and say it...

the entire premise behind the holiday of Thanksgiving bothers me just a tad. It's the same logic behind Valentine's Day--deliberately show candied affection for your significant other on that one day out of the year, just in case you don't during the other 364. So, with Thanksgiving, it feels like we are supposed to deliberately show thanks this one day out of the year, just in case we're terrible at it the other 364. Then again, Thanksgiving can trace its roots back to the Puritan pilgrims. Valentine's Day is a Hallmark holiday through-and-through.

But because of that little buggering concern, you will probably never see me give a Thanksgiving-themed sermon entitled "How to Have an Attitude of Gratitude." Though, in fairness, that is also partly because I feel like a sermon with that title is something that you are much likely to see Joel Osteen give, or maybe Jim Bakker before his fall from grace.

Yet if Thanksgiving isn't a one-shot opportunity to cram our giving of thanks into one turkey-laden day, then what can we make it into? Right now, the cliche is that it is an excuse for us to eat dinner with people who annoy us and then watch football. Cliches exist for a reason--there is usually at least a germ of truth in them. But in being more deliberate about the relational aspects of a holiday like this--after all, thanks has to have a recipient, we can't really just give thanks to ourselves and expect that to do--can work wonders.

So, in a way, it is my upcoming Advent sermon series writ large--just as we may stray from the authentic meaning of Christmas, so too do we stray from the authentic meaning of Thanksgiving. But, in preparing for this sermon series, what this preacher has learned is that this most certainly does not mean that any holiday, no matter what its side effects, is beyond redemption.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Please do yourselves, and the world, a giant favor and not actually go shopping on Black Friday. Use that time to cultivate relationships with people who you may otherwise have little time and energy to talk to because of work, distance, and the like--after all, Black Friday has become a de facto holiday here. With that said, a Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours tomorrow!

Monday, November 21, 2011

NOT this week's sermon

A certain preacher did not preach last Sunday. So, for those of you who were here looking for yesterday's sermon, I am afraid that there isn't any.

However, I can give you a sneak peek into what the sermons for the next few weeks will be like!

Back when I was doing my part-time student associate pastorate at FCC Concord, my senior pastor there gave me a book to read entitled, "The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?" It was co-written by three pastors, one of whom (Rick McKinley), I was familiar with in passing because his Imago Dei church is in my former hometown of Portland, Oregon, and I had actually visited Imago Dei on a couple of occasions.

The book itself is staggering on many levels, but first and foremost (to me) because of this: I felt like I was reading a book written by someone who understood my generation of millennials in a way that other pastors had tried to and failed by either repeating the same sermons of the past, or by skewing far too hard to the right in excluding people and characteristics that I would still consider to be a part of the body of Christ.

In short, the book is about reclaiming Christmas from the consumerist culture that currently surrounds the American holiday season, and the idea is that we can do that by both engaging in alternate gift-giving that is more meaningful than offering a sweater that he won't ever wear, or a fruitcake that she'll just re-gift next year (my granddad on my mom's side of the family swears that there is only one fruitcake in the world, and that it gets passed around every year at Christmas). That alone was enough to earn my permanent adoration, as my family can certainly attest to the peculiar and powerful loathing I reserve for having to gift-wrap ANYTHING.

Then, with the money you save from alternate gift-giving (which should be a pretty penny, since the average American household spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 on Christmas alone), you give to charity instead--in the Advent Conspiracy's case, this is Living Water International, an NGO in the business of drilling clean water wells in the Global South. But it can be any charity you wish.

Let me tell you, for a dorky little do-gooder who is just idealistic enough when he isn't being a cantankerous cynic, that book was some powerful stuff. Two years later, beat up and dog eared, it is now serving as the basis for this year's Advent sermon series, which begins this Sunday, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

I hope to see you there.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, November 13, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "My Name is Christian"

Mark 9:33-41

"33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Whoever Is Not Against Us Is for Us

38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly be rewarded." (TNIV)

“From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations” Sermon Series, Week Seven

The most awe-inspiring church service I have ever sat in was not in a language that I could understand, or in a land that I could navigate, or at a time that I would normally have woken up for. The Church of the Annunciation is a great basilica in Nazareth run by the Franciscan order of Roman Catholic priests, and during my pilgrimage in 2010, I slipped into the domed sanctuary that morning to see, in the grotto where tradition says that Gabriel appeared to Mary, a Catholic mass being performed. I had come halfway across the world to dig up artifacts and tour holy sites, and on this day, all of that globetrotting and adventure-seeking was set aside precisely because I had come halfway across the world—only to feel completely at home in a church I had never seen and would likely never see again, because as I saw the mass unfold, from homily to Eucharist, it called out to Protestant American me, saying, “You are one of us.”

It is so difficult to overstate that sense of belonging in a world like Israel. I was staying at the Nautical College in Acre, a town that was shelled heavily with Hezbollah rocket fire during Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon. Our drives to Jerusalem would take us within sight of the heavily armed and armored walls that separated the West Bank from Israel proper. I spoke no Hebrew, no Arabic, I had tiptoed to the Western Wall and offended nuns with my covered head at the Church of the Beatitudes, it was a place and time so colossally different from where I was first taught of Christ, in America. But in that church service, I belonged in the Holy Land.

And so begins the seventh and final week of our sermon series together, “From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations.” This series is based on a book written by a United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Eric Elnes, who has pastored a very successful church in Arizona, where they have made amazing use of a diverse array of tools and talents available to them in doing ministry. Eric then wrote this short book called “The Phoenix Affirmations,” after the town in which it was composed, but also for the image of the phoenix, rising from the ashes. And we have talked about a lot of things these past seven weeks together, and I am not even going to try to recount all of them in just a few seconds, because this week is the big one, it’s the take-home, it’s the call to serve—this week’s theme is, “Acting with meaning and with purpose to serve, and to strengthen, and to extend God’s realm of love.”

We’ve all heard that cowboy-ish, Clint Eastwood-esque saying—“If you’re not with me, then you’re against me.” President George Bush said it after September 11. If you’re a film buff like me, Kevin Bacon’s character says it in the latest X-Men movie that came out this past summer. And it is an attitude that more than a few churches have held, both past and present. They point to sayings of Jesus, like “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light, nobody comes to the Father except through Me” from the Gospel of John. And in response to that kind of a bunker mentality, I would guide those brothers and sisters to this story, here, as living, divine proof that you can proclaim Christ as the way to Heaven without being a prickly so-and-so about it, because Christ literally takes that mentality of “if you’re not with me, you’re against me” and turns it on its head—now it’s “only if you are against us can you not be for us.”

And for Jesus, that really is a winning strategy. Even the unchurched often hold Jesus in very high esteem, if only as a moral teacher. In America, at least, precious few are truly against Jesus, so by His logic, everyone else is with Him. Even ardent atheists can hold to the ideas that Jesus taught about loving your neighbor and giving to those who have less than you, yet we still will draw a line at what we do or don’t do based on a shared belief with someone. Say the Red Cross, a nondenominational charity, comes to me, a religious pastor, and asks, “Pastor, can your church host a blood donation drive?” What do you do? Jesus tells us that people and charities in the secular world are not necessarily against us—which means that they are still for us, even if we do not see it, so let us be for them as well. So of course you help the Red Cross!

Now, that’s a softball of a scenario I lobbed to you. The question gets decidedly thornier if the person or charity is involved in a religious wedge issue like abortion, or..Israel v Palestine. But, this, this is how someone can fly halfway across the world and feel so welcome at a mass—though I was not Catholic, or Israeli, or Palestinian, that I did not live there or had any right to say who should, it was a place for me, that told me I belonged there as a beloved child of God.

The Church of the Annunciation produced the exact opposite atmosphere that critics now say churches are about—the emergent pastor Brian McLaren writes of how church members “seem to want…a rigid, sectarian environment where the boundaries between “us” and “them” are constantly reinforced and celebrated, an insular environment which maintains aloofness, fear, or disdain towards the world and its problems.” I am not saying this church does any of those things. But you may know of churches that do. This sounds an awful lot like the same song I was singing when I was talking to you a few weeks ago about Biblical hospitality, and how it eclipsed simple tolerance. And it is—but the difference in today’s message is, how can you carry that hospitality, that sense of mission, into the community, into every other part of your life that is not contained within the brick and mortar of our beautiful sanctuary? How do you extend God’s realm of love, of belonging, rather than merely maintaining that realm within the church?

This time, it is the disciples, not Jesus, who provide the answer. And, as the disciples are wont to be, they show us what not to do. Their failure is twofold—they not only argue over who receives the highest honor in God’s kingdom—when Jewish tradition typically teaches that in death, all may become equal once more, having been freed of earthly riches. And then right afterwards, they are snitching on this anonymous fellow who can do what they can’t—only twenty-some verses earlier in this very chapter, the disciples attempt an exorcism and fail! So I suspect this rejection of the successful exorcist, whose only name to us is that of Christian, it was less about the exorcist using Jesus’ name than it was about jealousy. Both of these cases, at their roots, are about putting yourself before Jesus, about putting your individual identity before the identity that Christ gave you, the name of Christian, the name that literally means, “little Christ.” Before I am Eric, my name is Christian. Before you are Don, or Judy, or Doc, or Justin, your name is Christian.

Fundamentally, then, the single best thing that we can do to extend God’s realm of love is to put Jesus first. It’s an awful cliché to utter, especially towards the end of a sermon, and it is awful precisely because those exact same churches that Brian McLaren talks about—the ones insistent on making an “us and them” schism, the “answer” churches I talked about last week—talk all the time about giving yourself up to Jesus, putting Jesus first in your life, and then, when you violate one of their answers, when you do not tow the party line on those thornier wedge issues, when you actually want to help heal the world’s problems rather than avoid them, you suddenly become one of the “them,” not the “us,” and the church is acting not as Jesus would, but as the disciples would. The very early New Testament church called itself “The Way,” not “The Answer.” Putting Jesus first is not an answer—it is a way, it is the way, to extending God’s realm of love past these walls. I saw it in Nazareth—a church that because they put Jesus first, not the Holy Land first, or the church first, or themselves first, but because they put Jesus first, I felt like I could belong there. And the good news is that you do not have to travel halfway across the world to feel that belonging in your journey—know that you can do so here as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 13, 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "Copernicus Lives"

Matthew 5:17-20

"The Fulfillment of the Law

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (TNIV)

“From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations” Sermon Series, Week Six, Nov. 6, 2011

In Georgia, Pastor Andy Stanley’s Northpoint Church created a video for Youtube that was a gentle parody of their rock concert-style megachurch worship, in which the parody of the pastor stands up there and simply repeats word-for-word after the narrator, “I have all the answers.” And that is pretty much how I want you to view me—I have all the answers. I am a Magic 8 Ball in a white robe and Oakleys. Should we include an extra casserole for this month’s luncheon? Answer is hazy, try again later. But if it’s a pizza casserole, then okay, yeah, do it.

Okay. I don’t have all the answers, as any of y’all who are three times my age will know. But it is what more and more churches are demanding of their pastors these days—gone are the parishes that my Disciples church in California would call the “journey churches,” where faith was about a lifelong search for truth, in favor of “answer churches,” where the answers, such as they are, are spoon-fed to the congregation. In explaining his irritation with such churches, a buddy of mine said to me, “Look, my nephew is a year old. He wants to be spoon-fed? Cool. But if he wants to be spoon-fed at six, no can do. Here’s a fork, feed yourself.” Church is not about treating you like the one-year-old incapable of feeding himself, it is about empowering you to find your own spiritual nourishment for those other six days of the week when you are not here in this sanctuary, worshiping with us.

And so begins the sixth week of our sermon series together, “From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations.” This series is based on a book written by a United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Eric Elnes, who has pastored a very successful church in Arizona, where they have made amazing use of a diverse array of tools and talents available to them in doing ministry. Eric then wrote this short book called “The Phoenix Affirmations” after the town in which it was composed, but also because the image of the phoenix, being reborn out of the ashes. We’ve talked about a lot of things these past six weeks, from the role of Scripture to worship itself to the church in mission to the nature of God’s infinite love for us! But the glue that ties all of those themes together is that of belief—of faith itself. And so appropriately, this week’s theme is, “recognizing that faith, science, doubt, and belief all serve the pursuit of truth.”

Now, if it feels like we have heard this particular message in Scripture from Jesus before, about the law and the prophets, it is because, basically, we have—week one of this sermon series was based on the passage in Matthew where Jesus says that upon the commandments of “love your God” and “love your neighbor” hang the entirety of the law and the prophets. But the message is a little bit different this time—that none of these laws may be set aside, that none of them shall disappear. Jesus begins His ministry here by teaching to uphold the entirety of the law equally, but elsewhere in Matthew, He says that two laws—love God, love each other—are clearly more important than any other laws or any prophetic teaching. What gives?

In today’s passage, Jesus is saying what I promise you that every visionary, every genius, every scientist has had to say at one point in their work—I am here not to abolish everything you know, I am here to transform it! I am here not to destroy your world, I am here to make it better, please, just have faith that I know what I am doing! It was true for Christ, it was true for the Church reformers from Martin Luther on down, it was probably true for the secular visionaries we idolize today, like Steve Jobs and Christopher Reeve. All of them probably had to give the same disclaimer—I am not here to end your world, I am here to improve upon it! And it is tough to hear, because of that old cliché that has a lot of truth to it—the devil you know beats the devil you don’t. In life, it is almost always much easier to stay inside a cocoon of familiarity—but the feeling that it is actually safe for us? Well…that’s more illusion than anything else.

I’ve said this in previous sermons and I will continue to swear by it, the church is called to be proactive. If all we do is react to what is happening around us, then to be completely honest, we might as well close our doors right now. The pursuit of answers, of truth, is proactive—it is not that the truth is already obtained by us and we are willing to dispense it to whichever sinner walks through our doors. No—we know that we have obtained one precious piece of truth—that Jesus is our Messiah and Savior—and that from that bit of truth we go out to learn even more. But Jesus used so many techniques to find truth—He preached, as He did here in the Sermon on the Mount, but he also told stories, he healed, he traveled, he fed people, he did all of these different things and not one was greater than the other, but all were tools to truth. And I worry so, so, much that today’s church has settled on just a few tried and true ways to search for truth—the same kind of worship that preaches the same kind of theology, followed by the same kind of coffee hour where the same kind of casseroles are served and the same corny jokes are told. It would be like if all Jesus did was to retell the same two or three stories over and over and over—by the final chapter of the Gospels, instead of receiving the Great Commission to go forth and make disciples, or the command to tend to God’s sheep, we’d be treated to our seventeenth rendition of the Prodigal Son, except maybe this time with finger puppets.

And this is where the church can take a great lesson to heart from the not-church world—the secular world, science and all of its complexity, computers and technology, because those sorts of things—science and technology—are always trying to improve upon themselves. After reading one too many articles about how the late Steve Jobs was like a sort of spiritual-slash-corporate priest for Americana, I simply realized that I, too, felt this way about the man for one simple reason—he never, never stopped trying to make his work better. Do not confuse this with having a work ethic—it is about being willing to take risks as well for the sake of improvement.

The best story I can offer to you is that of Nicholas Copernicus, the Renaissance priest and scientist who decided, stubborn old bird that he was, that the earth actually revolved around the sun, and not the other way around—which is pretty remarkable when you consider that the theory he was disagreeing with was Aristotle’s, written well over 1,500 years before Copernicus began his work. Because of that—because he was going against 1,500 years of established belief, Copernicus put off publishing his work for fear of controversy, for fear that the world would not see the Christ in his message—that he had come not to abolish everyone’s beliefs, but to transform them. Copernicus finally relented and published his work—and the day the first copies were complete, he was in bed, having been stricken by a crippling stroke. According to legend, that day, a friend placed his book in his hands and Copernicus looks up, sees his book, and dies, immediately and peacefully, knowing that in his work, he lives, and will always live.

And so when Christians today clam up at change, be it in the form doing everything the same way time and time again, or in the form of disputing every scientific theory that overlaps with Scripture, or even in the form of doubting what tomorrow will even look like, a new challenge is issued to us, a challenge to curiously, inquisitively, even perhaps a tad fearfully, wander outside to see where God’s divine presence might lead us next. If God is a God of the living, a God meant to bring this ancient and dusty book we call the Bible to life, then know that there are answers out there still that we have yet to find. I cannot promise you that I know what God’s entire truth looks like—after all, I have very few answers to give. But I can promise you that I will be there to wander with you, every step of the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 6, 2011

Thursday, November 3, 2011

This Month's "Letters From the Soul" Newsletter Column

"Truth Attracts by Its Own Splendor"

Dear Church,

I have taken to heart the belief that I was called here in part to help this Christian community grow in numbers as well as in spirit. It is both a practical necessity and a Biblical imperative for a church to make disciples. And we will be adding and trying a lot of new, different, and hopefully exciting things in our creation and nurturing of 21st century disciples here in Longview—new programs are being added every month to provide fellowship in Bible study, music, even television and film. The earliest apostles made use of whatever they could to spread the Gospel—word of mouth, the written word, and in the case of leaders like Paul, traveling the world over to preach and to teach. May we do likewise in using our creative energy to find new and exciting ways to offer the Gospel to our neighbors!

And in doing so, remember as well that we must not lose sight of the fundamental truth upon which I have to think the entire Church was created—that God loves us without abandon and without condition. The single best way we can communicate that truth is by in turn unconditionally loving every single person who comes through our gothic sanctuary doors because, quite simply, truth attracts by its own splendor. Seeing that truth in action is as attractive as any other form of evangelism that I know of, simply because of its authenticity.

I know far too many people, especially my age, who have felt deeply hurt and wounded by organized Christianity in the past, because what passed for sacred truth in their churches was the belief that God didn’t love them as they were. No more. It is not enough to allow someone in and to tolerate their presence, or to give them permission to stay. The church exists to allow someone to grow and evolve. May our offering of the Gospel to the community do exactly that.

Yours in Christ,