Wednesday, February 29, 2012

By Your Works: A Response to Steven James

(Author’s note: This post is a response to a CNN Belief Blog column that was on’s front page this past Sunday. The column’s author, Steven James, is a Christian writer. –E.A.)

Hi. I’m Eric, and I’m a Bible geek.

I can’t help it. I enjoy Biblical interpretation and exegesis, I love comparing translations side-by-side, and my Christmas list last year included a copy of the newly-released Common English Bible version of Scripture.

At the same time, I recognize that no English translation gets it right, and that my rudimentary Biblical Greek is not sufficient to thoroughly understand the texts in their original vernacular. Don’t even get me started on my Biblical Hebrew, it’s even worse, bordering on non-existent.

So, I am reliant on the preferences of scholarship and the trends of the English translations of Scripture, and I can therefore appreciate Mr. James’ point that our English versions really do, in fact, sugarcoat the original Scriptures. As a Christian proponent of searching out the historical as well as the theological Jesus in the original Scriptures, I am very sympathetic to his call to not sanitize my holy texts for the sake of my (not so) delicate ears. After all, as he says, the Bible depicts murder, torture, adultery, and all other manner of R-rated material. If I’m going to be offended by a little vulgarity, I’ve picked the wrong book to elevate to sanctity.

But here is where the argument falls of the tracks:

"I believe that Scripture includes such graphic material to show how far we, as a race, have fallen and how far God was willing to come to rescue us from ourselves.

God is much more interested in honesty than pietism…I find it encouraging that Jesus never came across as pietistic. In fact, he was never accused of being too religious; instead he partied so much that he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19).

Jesus never said, “The Kingdom of God is like a church service that goes on and on forever and never ends.” He said the kingdom was like a homecoming celebration, a wedding, a party, a feast to which all are invited.

This idea was too radical for the religious leaders of his day. They were more concerned about etiquette, manners, traditions and religious rituals than about partying with Jesus. And that’s why they missed out.

That’s why we miss out.

According to Jesus, the truly spiritual life is one marked by freedom rather than compulsion (John 8:36), love rather than ritual (Mark 12:30-33) and peace rather than guilt (John 14:27). Jesus saves us from the dry, dusty duties of religion and frees us to cut loose and celebrate."

First and foremost, I should note that none of this has anything to do with sugarcoating the Bible—this is an entirely different kettle of fish, as the subject has changed entirely from Biblical translation to theology. I believe the inclusion of words that may repulse us today is part and parcel of Scripture being a two-to-three-thousand-year-old array of documents. For instance, slavery repulses us today, but it is permissible in Scripture. So to say that such graphic material was included to emphasize our fallen nature, such a statement is problematic, because prose that might shock us today may well not have 100, 500, or 1,000 years ago. If more of Scripture shocks us today than it did yesterday, does that mean we have fallen even further into sin and need even more to have our fallen nature emphasized? If so, I suggest that we all immediately get out of the business of being Christian, because clearly it isn’t working.

What we are then left with, then, is that there is indeed such a thing as an evolving standard of decency. But the fundamental basis of the Christian faith remains unchanged: belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). What has evolved instead is our works, by which our faith is made known (James 2:18).

To be sure, we still have a long, long way to go—but fairness and equality are much more at the forefront of national and international issues now than they ever were even a century ago, when women and minorities had not been given full voting rights, when safety nets like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare were nonexistent, and when banning child labor was a non sequitur. All of those things—giving voice to the previously voiceless and ensuring a standard of living for all people, protecting the young, these all speak to the decency of society, and all are fundamental components of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By that standard, our faith is actually improving.

Of course, it is not the only standard by which we must measure the capacity to believe in greater good. People are still slipping away from organized religion (and the moral compass it can provide) in droves, preferring instead the nebulous identity of “spiritual, but not religious.” After being powerful and popular centers for community involvement in the 20th century, churches are swimming upstream to try to maintain their relevancy in a postmodern, individualistic world. And as a card-carrying member of Generation Y, whose spiritual heritage has been influenced by mainline Christianity, meditative Roman Catholicism, and contemporary and emergent movements, I get the impulse to run from those “dry, dusty duties” of religion. But here’s the thing—being saved does come with duties and obligations, which have nothing to do with the sugarcoating of Scripture!

Scripture says that our faith is kept alive by our works (James 2:26). Indeed, our works create faith within other people (Matthew 5:16). One purpose of the Church is to provide any Christian with the opportunity, theological framework, and spiritual support to do those works. The evangelist Billy Sunday got it all wrong when he said that the best thing that could happen to someone is to be saved and then immediately die, because that utterly robs that person of the opportunity to demonstrate that faith by working to make the world a better place.

God’s grace is not, and never has been, a get-out-of-jail free card (the big, fancy seminary term for the belief that grace functions this way is “antinomianism.” Try that one on for size at your next cocktail party!), but I worry that God’s grace is treated this way by the churches where you can become “saved” in a matter of minutes, even though experiencing grace can take a lifetime—in his amusing and insightful book “My Jesus Year,” author Benyamin Cohen refers to this brand of Christianity as “LensCrafters for the soul.” God’s grace is an earth-shattering, world-upturning, soul-quaking thing, and it cannot be reduced to something that excuses us from the duties and obligations of being Christian, indeed, of being human, to “party with Jesus” instead. When we do this, we demand too little of ourselves when God in fact demands more than just our faith. He knows we are capable of goodness and demands it as well.

By your works, God shall know your faith. It is why I believe that the chance for salvation is universal, for Christians and non-Christians alike. I cannot imagine that someone would do good without some sort of faith, even if it is only faith in the good act itself. That may not yet be a faith in God, but if you have the capacity for faith nonetheless, I believe that God sees it. And, by God’s grace, such good is, I pray, enough to merit your entry into Heaven.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, February 27, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Mother"

Genesis 27:5-13

5 Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau went out to the field to hunt game to bring back, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I just heard your father saying to your brother Esau, 7 ‘Bring me some game and make me some delicious food so I can eat, and I will bless you in the LORD’s presence before I die.’ 8 Now, my son, listen to me, to what I’m telling you to do. 9 Go to the flock and get me two healthy young goats so I can prepare them as the delicious food your father loves. 10 You can bring it to your father, he will eat, and then he will bless you before he dies.”

11 Jacob said to his mother Rebekah, “My brother Esau is a hairy man, but I have smooth skin. 12 What if my father touches me and thinks I’m making fun of him? I will be cursed instead of blessed.”

13 His mother said to him, “Your curse will be on me, my son. Just listen to me: go and get them for me.” (CEB)

“Tales of Five People You Meet in (the) Heaven(s): Stories of Fellow Travelers,” Week One

(Author’s note: To protect the confidential nature of many of these conversations, I have refrained from using names, and in some cases, destinations and airlines mentioned in this sermon series have been changed. –E.A.)

A Southwest flight from Kansas City to Oakland, January 2009. I had just completed my first semester of seminary, had come home to Kansas for the holidays, and was on my way back to the San Francisco Bay Area to begin the spring semester of coursework. On my flight were a pair of mothers accompanying their teenage daughters, and as I was sitting down towards the back of the plane, I could hear their conversation in the aisle about how it turned out that both of their daughters would be starting college that semester. The flight was already packed to the gills, and seeing no other seats available, I could see the mothers glance at 23-year-old me, then glance at each other, and with knowing looks, slid into the two seats next to me so that their daughters would then sit elsewhere—away from the fellow who is clearly very sketchy at first glance! Their daughters safely secured from having to sit next to the obviously ill-intentioned me, the mothers continued their conversation, comparing notes about schools and how each would cope with Empty Nest Syndrome, even though this meant that they were giving up the chance to share this flight with their respective daughters. And me? I could only smile.

This Sunday marks the start of a brand new sermon series that we will be exploring together during this church season of Lent, which is traditionally meant to be a time of repentance, prayer, and confession for Christians the world over. It is, then, a journey of inner discovery, and of understanding anew the amazing power of God’s grace. But unlike Christ in the wilderness, it is not a journey of discovery that we are required to make alone. Indeed, many of us thrive on journeys only when we have a companion to travel with—and so I’ve created this sermon series, “Tales of Five People You Meet in (the) Heaven(s),” a play on the title of Mitch Albom’s 2003 book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” Based on my own experiences of travel when the person sitting next to me suddenly learns that I am a Christian cleric, we nonetheless begin the series with this moment, on the flight from Kansas City to Oakland, when my vocation was not revealed, as a baseline to compare my future stories to.

I use this seemingly minor anecdote for another reason, too—one that I just mentioned. That we are not alone in the wilderness. One of the most frequent images we evoke of God is that of parent. Tradition always referred to God as “God the Father.” The Lord’s Prayer, in the Roman Catholic tradition, is called the Our Father for how the prayer begins. And that sort of a theology of a God-Parent is entirely Scriptural. But it is Scriptural not simply for the masculine sense, of God as Father—no, it is Scriptural because God acts also as mother in these texts. In Isaiah 66, the final chapter of Isaiah, the city of Jerusalem is referred to in the feminine—Jerusalem is a “her,” a “she.” But something remarkable happens at verse 13—the voice shifts, and it says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” In Proverbs, wisdom itself, divine in origin and thus a part of God, is described as “Lady Wisdom.” And this is to say nothing of the many, many women in Scripture through whom God works all manner of miracles and ministries—Ruth and Naomi. Rahab. Deborah. Esther. And, here in Genesis, Rebekah.

The common denominator with these characters is their ability to protect their people from the unknown. Rahab harbors Israelite spies in a foreign city. Esther preserves her people from a genocidal plot that had not yet begun, but was in the works. Deborah rises up as a judge to lead the Israelites after Joshua’s conquest, at a time when Israel did not yet know if they would ever have a king! And Rebekah, in this story, is protecting her favorite son, Jacob, the younger twin of Esau, from the unknowns and punishments of having to go without the blessing of his dying father, Isaac, going so far as to promise to take upon herself any repercussions on his behalf. She’s taking the role of the God figure here—trust me, obey me, and I’ll protect you.

And that is a very mother-like thing to do—to promise to try to protect your child from any calamities coming their way. It is, I am guessing, why these dear mums on the airplane were quick to run interference for their daughters, even when I plainly was more interested in my ipod. But it is also a very God-like thing to do, but it is something that many churches these days are declining to do for their members, choosing instead to shun them in the name of, and I am not making this up, masculine ministry where godliness is next to not cleanliness, but manliness.

It’s a thing for a lot of churches. See, many churches, including ours, are largely constituted of women. Men have been leaving church in droves, though at the same time most pastors are still men, or in some denominations, are entirely men. To try to stem this tide, and in some cases, tsunami, of exoduses from the church, many congregations create specific men’s ministries—men’s groups, men’s breakfasts, men’s Bible studies, men’s retreats, you name it. Which is great, because it lets me toy with the image of you know, as a little kid, having a tree house and not letting the opposite sex in because they had cooties? So I imagine these fellows meeting over Twinkies in a tree house with a fingerpainted sign on the door that says “No Girls Allowed,” with at least one of those words misspelled.

But the gender gap in churches is, in the end, far from comical—especially when some of the most popular new churches today—churches like Mars Hill in our neighbor to the north, Seattle—continue to preach on women as the “weaker vessels” in the battle of the sexes. And it pushes people away from the church, away from the most important vessel of the love of Christ in this world. More than that, it is not Scriptural. This story in Genesis ends with Jacob—not Rebekah—running away from home to avoid the wrath of Esau. This is a story not simply about a parent’s relationship with their child, it is a story about the bravery that is required to even become a good parent, a devoted parent, in the first place.

Which may seem like an odd topic for me to use in a story about two women who I barely even spoke to, whose paths barely crossed mine—bravery. But, ever since 9/11, how many of us, those of us with cell phones, immediately call or text somebody as soon as the plane’s wheels are on the ground? Or, how about the bravery of actually being authentic in a conversation you’re having with a complete stranger who you are forced to spend the next five hours with? Or…the bravery of actually calling yourself a Christian, of coming to church during Lent, of all times of the year, to hear messages about your sinfulness, about your need to repent and turn to God in this season of confession as we prepare for Resurrection Sunday? It would be easier to just stay home on Sunday, or to worship at what I like to call “The Church of Brunch.”

My point is this—bravery, Biblical bravery, is not just what the movies, the tales of heroes, or the news stories of dramatic life-and-death would have us believe, because many of us may never actually find ourselves in such a circumstance, yet still be called upon to exhibit courage. Bravery encompasses those stories, yes, but includes many, many more. If you have ever felt, as Jesus did during the 40 days in the wilderness, cut off and forsaken from God, and yet still you prayed, and yet still you came to church each Sunday, that is an act of bravery as well as an act of faith. And even if the heroic bravery of conquest and combat is something that traditionally has been associated with the male gender, if you want stories of bravery in everyday life from Scripture, for my money, you cannot beat this story about a mother named Rebekah.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 26, 2012

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday Sermon: "The Morningstar"

Luke 4:1-13

1 Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”[a]

5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[b]

9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[c]”

12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[d] 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (CEB)

"The Morningstar"

The Reverend Lillian Daniel, an immensely talented pastor in the United Church of Christ and a Christian visionary in her own right, writes in a book on pastoral ministry that she co-authored, called “This Odd and Wondrous Calling,” about her experience as a pastoral intern at a parish while in seminary. She says: “I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon. It was to be a mighty word from god that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others. As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah, our new intern is preaching. I see it’s time for our annual scolding.” Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few annual scoldings.”

Now, we have no seminary intern here to deliver us our annual scoldings—you just have me! And it would be all too easy to dismiss Ash Wednesday as the day when the parish pastor administers said annual scolding. After all, we have come to a place in the life of the church—the big church, not just our parish, but the entire church—where it is easier to either preach exclusively about God’s love or exclusively about God’s wrath. God is either your chummy pal who you could always shoot some pinochle with, or God is this perpetually infuriated son-of-a-gun with serious anger management issues. There is no in between. And those polarities are appealing to people—they are simple, easy to remember, and Scriptural in the sense that in Revelation, God says to us that because we are neither cold nor hot, that we are lukewarm, He will spit us out of His mouth. So if our faith is in a God who is not lukewarm, maybe that lukewarm God will not spit us out of His church? But…no, that cannot be it, either. The truth is, honestly, that I think many, perhaps most, churches are guilty of idolatry in the basest, most fundamental sense of the term—they have gone and made God in their own image, rather than the other way around, of trying to craft themselves in God’s image. Which is perhaps the most profound sin of all…after all, the very first two commandments of the Ten Commandments are to have no other Gods before Yahweh, and to not make for ourselves any idol or graven image. In trying to make God like us, we violate both commandments.

The temptation in the wilderness, the story in Luke, and in Mark, and in Matthew, thought not in John, is, then, the opportunity for Jesus try to create God in His own image as well. The tempter, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, whatever you want to call him, appears, and tries again and again and again to goad Jesus into using His Godlike powers for selfish purposes. The things Jesus is asked to do, to turn stones into bread, to call upon angels to save lives, these are the powers of God in the Old Testament, the God who sends manna to the Israelites on Sinai, and who sends down the chariot of fire to save Elijah from earthly death. What Jesus is being asked to do in the wilderness is to play God, to take on the role of the Father who has, for the moment, left Him in the wilderness. The first time that Jesus is forsaken, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language, is not upon the Cross, it is here, at the very beginning of His ministry. Here, in the wilderness.

And we are still at the very beginning of our ministry together. This venerable church is nearly 85 years old, but our ministry, the ministry of you and me, is barely six months old, still just an infant. We are in the wilderness together, we are in the beginning of ministry together, and so we, too, must resist the goading and taunting of evil to try to play God. We must take the high road.

And it is because of our own circumstances together, of being in the wilderness together, that I actually prefer to use a different title for the tempter, one that is not used as often—The Morningstar. In astrology, traditionally this is Venus, the planet named after the Roman goddess of temptation, but that is not why I find the name appropriate. I find it appropriate because Venus appears in the sky in the mornings—hence her other name. No, the name of the Morningstar is appropriate because the Latin name of Lucifer, when translated into English, literally means “the light bearer.” And that is the core of evil’s power, that it offers to us the light of false comfort and hollow hopes. We may find short term solace in the harm we do to our fellow human beings, by denying their humanity, by ignoring their needs and pains and poverties. All of those things may make us feel better about ourselves, but that is us giving into the temptation that cruelty and evil provides, that is the equivalent of us being goaded into trying to turn stones into bread.

The ultimate irony of this name, Lucifer, actually comes from the 14th chapter of Isaiah, where the king of Babylon is referred to in Hebrew as “Helel,” which roughly translates into English as the “Shining One,” and many translations do elect to actually use the name of the Morningstar. And Isaiah says unto this king, this kingdom that will one day destroy Judah, Isaiah’s home, “How you have fallen from heaven, Shining One, the son of dawn!” Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great, Revelation says. And fallen too, are we, when we elect to follow the ways of Babylon, to hurt the lives of others in order to make ourselves feel greater than the humble beings we truly are. Fallen are we, the church of Jesus Christ, fallen are we who fall short of the simple, yet great commands, of our Lord and Savior to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do unto them what we would want done for us. And so God demands our repentance, because it is right—neither easy or convenient—but because it is right to do so.

It is right to do so because only through repentance can we reclaim our broken selves. Only through repentance can our souls that have been shattered by sin be made whole once more. The calling of the Disciples of Christ, to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, that calling is to pick up those fragments that have been caused by sin and to carefully and lovingly place them back together into the whole body of Christ—the whole body, the body that is not sustained by bread alone, the body that could leap from the earth’s top and survive even without God’s angels being called down, the body that can even survive the Morningstar’s threat at the very end of the story to return until the opportune time. Because it is Christ, and none other, who can one day reclaim the name of the Morningstar, the Shining One, the light that is meant to guide us rather than deceive us. It is even so in Scripture—in Revelation 22, the very last chapter of the Bible, Jesus proclaims to John on Patmos, “I have sent my angels to you…for I am the root and the descendant of David, I am the bright Morningstar.”

You see, that is the promise that our repentance holds—that it would, one day, perhaps far away in the mist and fog of the distant future, be a part of Christ’s reclamation of the divine light. Evil dared to make itself in the image of God, the image of Christ, and, by extension, the image of us. And in doing so, evil has enjoyed many, many successes. But here, in this story from Luke, evil has come to a tired and hungry man and leaves empty-handed. When evil comes to you, in the temptation to do what is convenient and what is easy, rather than what is right, know that you, too, have the power to make evil leave empty-handed. And that is not because you dare to create God in your own image, it is because God dared to create you in His.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 22, 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ashes to Sunlight, Revisited

Today is Ash Wednesday--the day in the traditional liturgical calendar when Christians gather at their parishes to offer confession and repentance for their sins, and to have ashes imposed upon their foreheads as a sign of that repentance.

Ashes are also a sign of death and mourning--and as such make an appropriate symbol for a day centered around the confession of sins--sins that Paul says the wages of which are indeed death.

I considered such a (for me, extremely) orthodox angle for my Ash Wednesday sermon that I will be delivering in just a few hours. Ultimately, I decided not to, electing instead to discuss the nature of evil and its role in our lives as borne out in the story of the temptation in the wilderness in Luke 4. But, for better or for worse, the idea of sin = death is still an idea that gets kicked around in the ol' noggin this time every year.

When I came here to Longview, I entitled my first sermon series "From Ashes to Sunlight," as a nod towards the mythical phoenix that was the partial inspiration behind the Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes's book "The Phoenix Affirmations," on which I based the sermon series. Mythology says that out of ashes, a new thing is reborn. Out of the dust of death, life is created. (Cue "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King.)

But compound this meaning of rebirth with the symbolism the ashes have for mourning--whether it is the mourning of a person, or an event, or of a point in time. I have to think that across the board, my fellow mainline clergy and denominations are mourning the passing of their heydays of the mid-20th century, when all they had to do was throw open their doors, and the people would fill the pews. You did not have to work at marketing through media, or interacting with people on Facebook or Twitter (or Blogger!), you could focus on other, more tried-and-true aspects of ministry that had stood the test of time--the sermon, the Sunday School class, the Wednesday night Bible Study.

But those days, and those ways of doing church, have long since gone the way of the dodo bird. We may be trying to rebirth something out of the ashes, but that something is the phoenix of old, the church of the 1950s, not the church of the 2010's. We are trying to create the exact same phoenix as what once flew, not the new phoenix that is crying out to be created.

So, if we impose ashes upon ourselves on this day, let it be as a sign of our mourning, yes, but not for the mourning of our church and what might have been if we had played our cards right in the '70s and '80s. Let it be in mourning for what we still could be doing today but aren't. Let it be in mourning for the people here at home, and the people across the world over, who still suffer the foolishness and pain of oppression and inequality. Let it be in mourning for the church that has seen its moral authority decay not from declining membership, but by misuse of its own power in abuse scandals and financial improprieties, for that is real sin. Letting your membership decline is inept, but not evil. Ash Wednesday, at its core, is about mourning our evils, not our incompetence.

Even though those two may well often feel like one and the same to you--sometimes, they do to me as well. But it is important to know the difference.

God's blessings to all of you as you begin your Lenten season!

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Week in the Life: The Pastor's Schedule

(Author’s note: This post is the second in a two-part series as an answer to that jokingly clich├ęd question, “What does your pastor do the other six days of the week?” Part One can be found here. -E.A.)

Monday: I keep office hours from 9:30 am – 5:30 pm on Mondays and Thursdays. I tend not to get many visitors, so my office hours are typically devoted to the day-to-day, week-to-week administrative tasks of running a church: email, phone calls, online ministry, writing newsletter or blog material, planning worship and other events, and so on. I also help out at the two weekly chapel services that our preschool hosts, which are at 11 am and 2:30 pm, and which make for good breaks from the many stacks of paper I often find myself occupied with on Mondays.

Tuesday: This might be my favorite day of the week because it is devoted to two of the things I enjoy most about ministry—Bible study and visitations. I arrive at the office at 9 or 10 am to study and prepare for the 11:00 am adult Bible study. After Bible study, I’ll grab lunch, and then I usually devote the afternoon to pastoral care, checking in on folks, calling our homebound congregants, that sort of thing—our Bible study includes a prayer chain, so it, along with Sunday morning itself, are my two most reliable ways to hear of any prayer concerns. I also have local ministerial association meetings and the like scheduled on Tuesday afternoons, but if I don’t have that many visits or meetings, I’ll often get a jump on that week’s sermon writing as well.

Wednesday: This one is pretty straightforward. Wednesdays are blocked completely for sermon preparation. I try to work a couple of months ahead with texts and titles (I currently have texts and titles picked out for each Sunday through May) and one week ahead with the sermons themselves. I have found that I usually need 8-10 hours to create a sermon that meets my standards, and I know some pastors who will typically spend 12-15 hours or more on a sermon. Wednesday evenings are also when the night Bible study class meets from 6:30-8:00 pm.

Thursday: See Monday, though there are exceptions—my Disciples clergy group generally meets once a month on Thursday mornings, in which case I’ll wander in sometime in the afternoon, and Thursdays often include senior lunches or other fellowship circles that I will stop by at to say hi.

Friday and Saturday are my days off, unless I am doing something like officiating at a wedding or a funeral. More frequently, there will be a weekend event like a rummage sale or a music jam session that I will swing by at in order to make an appearance at for an hour or two. A lot of pastors take off Monday instead--and I've been asked occasionally why, as an introvert, I do not take Mondays off to recharge after Sunday--but I really like having an actual "weekend" instead of two separate days off.

Sunday: I teach the youth/young adults Sunday School class plus preach and lead worship in the morning, followed by fellowship time. Afternoons tend to rotate between four events: first Sundays are often when my pastoral relations team meets, second Sundays are when I hold visitor/new member sessions (appropriately nicknamed “Second Sundays”), third Sundays are Board of Directors meetings, and fourth Sundays are “Congregational Conversations,” sort of a monthly town hall-type meeting. During evenings, I will occasionally I stop by the local Narcotics Anonymous group meeting that convenes in our church to offer pastoral support and to be a listening ear.

And that’s a fairly typical workweek. I don’t keep strict track of the number of hours I work in a week, but with the occasional evening appointment, it usually works out to around 45 hours a week. If there is a funeral or other such special service that week, it will be more like 50-55, and I'll try to take a morning or afternoon off during the subsequent week to compensate. I come from a family of workaholics, and my seminary was insistent about pounding the need for self-care into my head, so I'm usually pretty good about making sure that my days off are legitimately days off. I try as hard as possible to keep Friday as a true Sabbath where I do no work (even email), but I'd say at least twice a month I find myself doing something work-related on a Saturday.

Was this what you might have expected for a pastor's workweek? For a wider array of perspectives, try checking out this from a UCC pastor. The post is several years old, but still very much relevant, and was the inspiration for this two-part series.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, February 12, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Mortal Words"

Exodus 4:10-17

10 But Moses said to the LORD, “My Lord, I’ve never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before, and certainly not now since you’ve been talking to your servant. I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.”

11 Then the LORD said to him, “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the LORD? 12 Now go! I’ll help you speak, and I’ll teach you what you should say.”

13 But Moses said, “Please, my Lord, just send someone else.”

14 Then the LORD got angry at Moses and said, “What about your brother Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak very well. He’s on his way out to meet you now, and he’s looking forward to seeing you. 15 Speak to him and tell him what he’s supposed to say. I’ll help both of you speak, and I’ll teach both of you what to do. 16 Aaron will speak for you to the people. He’ll be a spokesperson for you, and you will be like God for him. 17 Take this shepherd’s rod with you too so that you can do the signs.” (CEB)

“…With All My Wonders: Moses at the Burning Bush,” Week Four

The video clip of the eighth grader was actually filmed completely silent—the only sound is the music that acted as the clip’s soundtrack. With tears rolling down his cheeks, the boy held up to the camera index card after index card that told his story of being bullied in school ever since the first grade. He showed, on camera, the scars on his body from when he had tried to cut himself, he rattled off all of the immature, hurtful names he had been called, he wrote how he was so, so sick of building himself up only to be torn down again, and again, and again, and the clip simply ends with him saying, “But I’m not going anywhere, because I’m stronger than that, and I have a million reasons to be here.” And the clip fades to black. He posted the clip to the website Youtube in August, and now, six months later, as of yesterday, it has received nearly 9,250,000 hits, it had inspired a slew of responses from other people, telling their stories in the same way and reassuring this boy, whose name was Jonah, that there are people out there who do care about him, and who are grateful to him for having touched their hearts and lives. There is no explaining how something goes viral on the internet in today’s day and age. We can call it coincidence or dumb luck as much as we want, but when something speaks to our souls, to the essence of who we are, you will be amazed at how quickly it will carry. Indeed, it is the only way, I have to think, that any of us would be Christians today—because of how a divine word has spoken to each of us.

This week marks the final week of the four-week sermon series that we are walking through together. This series, “With All My Wonders,” will travel verse-by-verse through the story of Moses at the burning bush in the third and fourth chapters of Exodus. It is, I pray, a spiritually fulfilling segue from the Christmas season into Lent, for Lent always begins with the story of Jesus being called and then sent into the wilderness, just as Moses was—called by God here at the wilderness of the burning bush, and then sent to the wilderness of Egypt—a land he had not lived in for forty years. Remember where this story is in the chronology of Exodus—it is not that Moses is a native Midianite, called by his own God. No, Moses is a Hebrew child raised as an Egyptian (in the royal family, no less), but then he is cast into exile for murder, and he finds the beginnings of his redemption not in the glory of his former royalty, but in the fire of the presence of God. The first week, we explored the fundamental character of God, how a God of only a small, select people could become a God of all people, and then, we took on the job of actually trying to name such a universal, all-encompassing, all-everything deity, which was God’s response to Moses’ first weak excuse to not answer his calling to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery. Last week, we heard Moses’ second excuse—the “what if they don’t believe me” excuse, and this week, we hear Moses’ final excuse—the “I can’t speak well enough” excuse.

Speaking well—everybody says that speaking in public is the most common fear that people have, even more common than a fear of death. If that is so, then Moses has lots of company. But if it is so, then why do we use our memories and spend our energy to make sure that the greatest sayings of our leaders are immortalized? Everyone, when they hear “I have a dream,” can think of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Ronald Reagan. And we always search for the next big saying, the next sound bite that will be immortalized for generations to come. There are people who, as part of their jobs, parse through each inaugural address, each State of the Union speech, looking for what will be that memorable quote, that quote that you hear it and you immediately associate it with a person. But for all of that work, usually, the things that people see, the things that do go viral, that spread like wildfire, are the things we never thought would appeal to so many people across such a wide spectrum.

And that’s how it is for Moses. The quote we probably associate with Moses is, “Let my people go!” You hear someone say it, and that is who your mind jumps to. It almost was not like that, though, because Moses simply does not think he is capable of creating immortal words—only mortal words. And at this point, he is right—Moses’ final plea to God, “O my Lord, please send someone else,” it really sounds like begging! That’s what it sounds like—Moses is out of excuses, and all that is left for him to do is beg God not to do it. These are not immortal words from Moses, they are very, very mortal words instead. And that is what we ourselves use, 99.99% of the time—mortal words. It’s the small talk we make to a coworker in the hallway, or the chatter over the phone at lunchtime, or even, honestly, most sermons here, at church. Now, sometimes I definitely wish that my words would never be remembered—last week, when I mentioned how I was reading the local paper—and then I ad-libbed the line that I read the paper because I was in it—most of you got the joke, that it was because the paper did a very nice piece on the church a few months ago. But one person said to me afterwards, “At first I was thinking, “He was in the paper? Oh no—did he get arrested? What did he get arrested for?!”” Now you know why I always preach with a manuscript, because otherwise I would accidentally lead folks to believe that I have a rap sheet! Again—sometimes you want your words to be mortal, to have a finite lifespan. This is why Moses makes such a wonderful main character for us—his excuses, weak as they may sound to us now, are probably some of the exact same excuses that we would make in his shoes! Or, in his bare feet, since he removed his footwear back in the previous chapter. It is probably embarrassing for Moses that his excuses are immortalized in Scripture, but it makes him much more human to us.

The very existence of Scripture, though, proves to us that though our words may last only for an instant, they can affect an eternity. We are called by God, and by Christ, to spread the Gospel, to witness to our communities, to offer our testimony to those who will listen. And nothing short of that will do. God has heard our excuses, God has heard our pleas to be sent to do something, anything, else. God has heard the uncertainty of our hearts and the doubt still in our souls, the doubt we have not for Him, but for ourselves, and to that God has said, “Who made you the way you are? Who gave you words to speak? Wasn’t it me,” as though we had forgotten! The problem is…sometimes, I think we have. Either we do not realize the power our words as Christians have—that when we speak as Christians, others will often see us as representing the entire Church—not just this congregation, but the entire Christian Church. Martin Copenhaver, a United Church of Christ pastor in New England, says that he would often tell people he just met for the first time that he was a lawyer—which was his wife’s occupation, so he could plausibly handle a casual conversation about the law if need be. Let me tell you, I did the exact same thing in seminary—I would tell people I was a graduate student in history, or archaeology, or Middle Eastern studies. I got very creative with my lies. But we are called instead to be creative with our truths—with God’s truths.

In that regard, Moses had it easy—God gave the staff Moses carried the capacity to perform all God’s wonders.

There is no such staff for us.

There is no burning bush.

As St. Teresa of Avila said, Christ has no hands but yours, no feet but yours. And right now, God has no voice but yours.

Who made man’s mouth? Who made us deaf, mute, seeing, and blind?

It was your voice who did.

It is you!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 12, 2012

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What Pastors Do

This post is inspired by the new meme that is currently making the rounds on Facebook. So far, I've seen 'em for lawyers and producers, so I figured I would step up to the plate for my own vocation.

(To see a sample of what I'm talking about, click here)


What my parents think I do:

What my friends think I do:

What my church thinks I do:

What society thinks I do:

What I think I do:

What I actually do:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

To Be A Sanctuary

In fairly rapid succession, three significant events have happened on the West Coast regarding sexual ethics and Christianity--the Washington state senate passed a marriage equality bill, which the House is also expected to pass and Governor Chris Gregoire is expected to sign; the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that California's Proposition 8 (a ban on same-sex marriage) was unconstitutional, and less politically inclined but still garnering significant ink in the blogosphere, documents from Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church in Seattle were revealed to have placed a young man under an onerous and judgmental yoke of church-administered "discipline" for his pre-marital sexual activities.

All three of these stories hit close to home to me, quite literally--I currently live in Washington state, and I lived in California when Proposition 8 was on the ballot in 2008. And all three stories do, I believe, share a common denominator--a propensity for the Church to do one of two things regarding a person's sexuality: sit in judgment, or never discuss it for fear of giving offense.

As to the former, the Gospels are abundantly clear that we are not to judge one another (Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37, John 8:1-11, 15). While I may judge societal ills from the pulpit (which I never actually preach from!)--violence, poverty, and the like, the repeated use of "neighbor" in Matthew 7 and the use of "no one" or "nobody" in John 8:15 indicates that even as a pastor, I have no authority to judge another individual person. That is the purview of God, and God alone.

And as to the latter, I meant every word of my sermon last Sunday when I said that church HAS to be a place where people feel safe enough to be themselves without judgment, because that is the ONLY way we can answer the call to engage the tough stuff rather than simply duck it, to answer the call that church was made for more than etiquette, and to truly tackle divisive wedge issues we may disagree on, and still love each other the next day.

Yet I have many gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans friends for whom church was a hostile entity, quick to judge and slow to love, friends who I have apologized to for how their churches treated them. Statistically, gay and lesbian youths are much more likely to attempt suicide or be homeless than heterosexual youth. While I am surely familiar with what Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 both say about same-sex intercourse and have my own interpretation of those verses, I fear that many churches, in hastening to jump from chapter 18 to chapter 20, skip over chapter 19, which contains this immortal verse: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (19:18) If churches have been hastening to condemn same-sex couples for violating Levitical law, it seems we have violated Levitical law ourselves in doing so. And not just any Levitical law, but one that Jesus cites in Matthew 22 as one of two laws upon which hangs the entirety of the law and the prophets.

So, my biggest question is, at what point is the Church (the entire body of Christ, as a whole) going to admit we have not been loving our neighbors as ourselves, and that this has caused dire consequences?

For while I have spoken so far about the Church as it relates to gay and lesbian persons, this is where I believe the Mars Hill story becomes exceedingly relevant--a church that is incredibly popular in my age bracket, located in Seattle, just a two-hour or so drive north of me, tried to force a young man who confessed to extramarital sexual activity to bare his soul while banning him from dating anyone (inside or outside the church), and asked him to sign a contract to that effect. When he refused, Mars Hill pastoral leadership circulated an open letter asking church members to not associate with this fellow on any other basis than to admonish him for what he did--in a word, ostracism. Being disowned. Kicked out. Exiled. The same risk that many gay and lesbian persons have faced when coming out to their families and/or churches. You see where I'm going with this, how all three of these events are intertwined?

So my next question is, when does this stop? When will churches respond to sexual relationships between consenting adults--even relationships that they may consider to be sinful--with unconditional love instead of conditional love or outright separatism?

I have always resisted the movement to re-label Christian places of worship from "sanctuaries" to "auditoriums" or "worship centers." Part of that resistance is rooted in tradition, but an even bigger part of it is what the term sanctuary conveys at its most fundamental level. In Scripture, the sanctuary in Jerusalem was where someone looking for a safe haven would turn to. After David's death at the start of 1 Kings, Joab, David's disgraced military commander, fled to the Jerusalem sanctuary hoping to survive the politics of Solomon's succession. Taking hold of the horns of the altar, Joab proclaimed his belief in the sanctuary as a place of safety, but he was killed anyways. It is an eerily applicable metaphor for how I fear the role of the Church has become for many, many people--what was once a shrine for sinners (all of us, from Joab on down) to save themselves is now a place where people can see their spiritual lives forcibly ended.

It is time for the power of the word "sanctuary" to make a resurgence, to apply not only to the physical worship space of the church, but to the entire church, so that all may know that from wherever they may have come, and whoever they may be, they are welcomed into the body Christ without judgment and without condition.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, February 5, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "I Want to Believe"

Exodus 4:1-9

1 Then Moses replied, “But what if they don’t believe me or pay attention to me? They might say to me, ‘The LORD didn’t appear to you!’”
2 The LORD said to him, “What’s that in your hand?”

Moses replied, “A shepherd’s rod.”

3 The LORD said, “Throw it down on the ground.” So Moses threw it on the ground, and it turned into a snake. Moses jumped back from it. 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Reach out and grab the snake by the tail.” So Moses reached out and grabbed it, and it turned back into a rod in his hand. 5 “Do this so that they will believe that the LORD, the God of their ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God has in fact appeared to you.”

6 Again, the LORD said to Moses, “Put your hand inside your coat.” So Moses put his hand inside his coat. When he took his hand out, his hand had a skin disease flaky like snow. 7 Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your coat.” So Moses put his hand back inside his coat. When he took it back out again, the skin of his hand had returned to normal. 8 “If they won’t believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second sign. 9 If they won’t believe even these two signs or pay attention to you, then take some water from the Nile River and pour it out on dry ground. The water that you take from the Nile will turn into blood on the dry ground.” (CEB)

“…With All My Wonders: Moses at the Burning Bush,” Week Three

I have seen their television shows. I have been to their services. I have heard their preachers’ messages. And all I could come away with was a mix of befuddlement and envy at the crowds that they had attracted to hear what I considered to be a half-baked message. I had become one of those mainline Christians who burned with this bizarre, contradictory half-suspicion, half-envy for the megachurches around me. And while that envy for most mainliners might be only for the size of the congregation—and because size denotes stability—for me, the envy also came with the sheer conviction with which they spoke of their born-again, getting saved, whatever you want to call it experiences. It wasn’t that I wanted to worship as they did…I wanted to believe as they did, to be unshackled from doubt and skepticism and cynicism and any other –ism that threatened to shrink my faith to the size of a mustard seed. But then I remember what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus had to say about envy, that it always lasts longer than the happiness of those whom we envy. And then, sometime after that, I remember that I’m a Christian pastor and that the Bible has some things to say about envy as well! But still…it would remain—I want to believe the way that someone else, who wasn’t me, believed.

This week marks the third week of a four-week sermon series that we are walking through together. This series, “With All My Wonders,” will travel verse-by-verse through the story of Moses at the burning bush in the third and fourth chapters of Exodus. It is, I pray, a spiritually fulfilling segue from the Christmas season into Lent, for Lent always begins with the story of Jesus being called and then sent into the wilderness, just as Moses was—called by God here at the wilderness of the burning bush, and then sent to the wilderness of Egypt—a land he had not lived in for forty years. Remember where this story is in the chronology of Exodus—it is not that Moses is a native Midianite, called by his own God. No, Moses is a Hebrew child raised as an Egyptian (in the royal family, no less), but then he is cast into exile for murder, and he finds the beginnings of his redemption not in the glory of his former royalty, but in the fire of the presence of God. The first week, we explored the fundamental character of God, how a God of only a small, select people could become a God of all people, and last week, we took on the job of actually trying to name such a universal, all-encompassing, all-everything deity, which was God’s response to Moses’ first weak excuse to not answer his calling to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery. This week, we hear Moses’ second excuse—the “what if they don’t believe me” excuse.

The need for belief here for Moses is striking, but it is not the sort of belief that we might think about. Moses has not yet gotten to his lack of belief in himself—that will be next week—but now his lack of faith is in the Israelite people—Moses now believes in God, and has heard God’s name, so it’s not lack of faith in God—it’s a lack of faith that Moses has in his fellow people to believe him. This is certainly a better excuse than Moses’ first excuse for not accepting this calling to liberate God’s people—the excuse of “I don’t know your name, God”—but it is also probably a more depressing excuse for us. Moses’ first excuse, one of shock and confusion, has given way to a second excuse that betrays real uncertainty with the reactions of others.

And are we not exactly the same way ourselves? I have so loved getting to know each of you over the past five months, and a common theme in those conversations we have had is that we really, really don’t want God to be someone who we have to fear or distrust, but there’s also a reality that we must resign ourselves to that we cannot always trust the children of God the way we also trust God. We are asked, in Scripture, and by me, in each sermon every week, to put our faith in God. That’s fine, but we still lock our doors and guard our assets. It’s the old Middle Eastern adage: trust in God, but tie your camel. I may preach every Sunday about believing in God, but I worry that less often I preach about how to believe in a child of God not named Jesus.

And I have realized that I must stand before you and confess that this is a weakness of mine, to ask you to believe in other people. Not just to believe in one another—in the people gathered here today. That part is easy, because this, what we have here is a family. It is so much harder for me to stand up here and say to you that everyone else out there is good, and kind, and inclusive, and respectful. We look around the world, and we know that this isn’t always the case. Earlier this week, a letter to the editor appeared in The Daily News, you may have read it, saying that there was no way you could be accepting of homosexuality and still believe in God. As Christians, we are called to love and not condemn, to include and not judge. I realize that in my five months here, I have not strayed into any controversial waters from the pulpit, but I have already had long, meaningful conversations with a number of you about this very subject because of what is happening in Olympia. And I think, from the bottom of my heart, that’s wonderful, because church needs to be…it has to be…a place where we can feel safe to talk about even incredibly divisive issues and still love one another, rather than shout at someone else that they must not believe in God. So I promise you, if you feel the need to have a pastoral sounding board on this or any other issue, if you need a listening ear or a different perspective, my door is always open. And I hope in turn that everyone else will feel safe enough to talk to each of you about even the toughest of issues, and that you would, as my pastoral mentors, to a person, instructed me, to offer truth in love as a way of proclaiming your faith in a loving God.

Because that’s what Moses is up against here—he’s not worried about his friends and family in Midian believing him, he’s worried about the Israelites back in Egypt believing him. It isn’t his immediate family and faith community, it’s everyone else who also calls themselves Israelite—he does not yet know how to speak truth to them in love. It scares him to his core, and God, not being at His most sympathetic, does things that would maybe only scare Moses further—turning his staff into a snake and turning his hand leprous. God’s first signs and wonders are not performed upon Egypt, or Egypt’s gods, but instead, are performed on this fellow for whom it is going to get worse before it gets better. Before he can fulfill his calling, he must be struck by God with leprosy, he must see the waters turn to blood, so that the Israelites may believe, so that Moses might be reassured that everyone else out there outside of his family and friends might actually mean him well when he arrives to lead them.

And that’s where we are often at, aren’t we? We believe in God. We may harbor our doubts, entertain them, even reach for them, but at the end of the day, we believe in God. How much are we willing to believe in the people outside of this church? In the people who we may never meet? God does these things to Moses, the staff turning into a snake, the hand becoming leprous and clean again, so that everyone else might believe what he says. We do not have that kind of a trump card, an ace in the hole that we can pull out because we heard God’s voice speaking to us directly in a burning bush. But what we do have, and always will have, is the capacity to believe through our doubts, to have faith through our uncertainties. That is the conundrum of Moses, at its core, in this story. And though we will not see it yet, it turns out that there is just enough belief to bring about the Exodus itself, to bring about the long-awaited escape to the Promised Land, and all because of one of the most powerful prayers there is, one that I have to think that Moses cries out here today, to simply say, “I want to believe!” By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 5, 2012

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Letters From the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

"Pocket Lent"

Yeah, I went there. That title is a pretty awful pun. In the spirit of the season, please forgive me.

A few Sundays ago, I was given a Lenten devotional book after church—one of those 40-Days-40-Devotionals books that many Christian publishers print every winter for the upcoming spring Lenten season, which begins this year on February 22. Many of those books can be wonderful tools for spiritual practice, but they are also an unfortunate metaphor for how the Lenten season gets treated in many Protestant churches—some of which do not even formally celebrate Lent.

Lent is not about following the church calendar for the sake of following the church calendar. Like the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Lent is meant to be a season of penitence, confession, and repentance for Christians. Yet, while many synagogues will draw standing room-only crowds for Yom Kippur, many churches have to wait until Easter to draw those crowds—folks will arrive for the happily-ever-after ending, but the trick is inviting them on the 40-day journey to the cross to begin with. Just because Christ was alone for the 40 days in the wilderness does not mean we must be alone for our own 40 days of Lenten wilderness!

So, in this Lenten season, I encourage you to not only give something up or take on a new spiritual practice for Lent, but to integrate that practice into the rest of your life so that you may share in it with the people closest to you. And in doing so, may Lent and all its spiritual richness not be consigned to your back pocket, but instead be brought front and center in your life, and the lives of those around you.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric