Thursday, March 29, 2012

Did St. Paul Endorse Slavery?

(Author's note: This post is in response to an entry on CNN's Belief Blog by John Blake, entitled "How religion has been used to promote slavery." -E.A.)

In the Wednesday evening Bible study last night (you should attend! Really! /end shameless plug), we discussed a great many issues around Scripture, but one that I distinctly remembering is making the argument that all of us, if we are Bible-believing Christians, still pick and choose, whether consciously or unconsciously--or, as it is more elegantly termed, creating a canon within a canon. In other words, we cling to some messages of the Bible instead of others.

I personally believe that a great deal of the New Testament's richness lies in its theological diversity (indeed, the same can be said for the entire Bible). Each of the four Gospel writers frames Jesus in a slightly (or, the case of John, dramatically) different way. Paul's theology is distinct from James, whose theology is distinct from John, whose theology is distinct from whoever wrote Hebrews. And if that isn't enough for you, there's always everyone's favorite apocalypse, Revelation.

But there are questions within the New Testament that seem to receive conflicting answers:

For instance, New Testament, how do I get judged as righteous by God?

"Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." -Romans 10:9 (all Scripture quotes in this post are New Revised Standard)

"And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hell gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done." -Revelation 20:13

Or...New Testament, can women be leaders in the church?

"Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says." -1 Corinthians 14:34

"I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well." -Romans 16:1-2

I truly believe that it isn't enough to approach Scripture with a "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" mentality. We must struggle and wrestle with our faith for it to authentically become our own. And part of that is approaching Scripture with a reverent sense of discernment towards the inspired Word of God.

(For the record, I believe that women can be church leaders, and that we are judged on our deeds in addition to our faith. The latter is due in part to Roman Catholicism's influence on me in college and seminary, the former is a belief I have held for as long as I have been a Christian.)

Another such topic is slavery, and its role in Scripture. To be clear--the Belief Blog post I am referencing also tackles the issue in Jewish and Muslim tradition as well, and I do not make any claims of being qualified to dissect the issue of slavery in either tradition. I will be focusing here largely on Christian Scripture.

In any event, this is Mr. Blake's leadoff line:

"Which revered religious figure – Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Muhammad – spoke out boldly and unambiguously against slavery?

Answer: None of them.

One of these men owned slaves, another created laws to regulate - but not ban - slavery. The third’s chief spokesman even ordered slaves to obey their masters, religious scholars say."

That last bit--"the third's chief spokesman" is referring to the Apostle Paul.

However, the consensus of many New Testament scholars (not a unanimous consensus, certainly, but a majority) agree that Paul likely did not himself write the four letters attributed to him that most explicitly condone slavery--Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, and Titus. Indeed, Mr. Blake later cites J.D. Crossan, a Bible scholar whom I, too, hold in high regard:

"Crossan, along with some other biblical scholars, says there are actually two versions of Paul in the New Testament: the authentic, “radical” Paul who opposed slavery and a “Pseudo-Paul” inserted into the texts by early church leaders who were afraid of antagonizing Rome"

This hypothesis is fully explored in Crossan's collaboration with fellow Jesus scholar Marcus Borg in their joint work The First Paul. In any case, though, at least the part about pseudo-Paul (or deutero-Paul), an anonymous author who wrote in Paul's name, is widely accepted today. I can't speak as to the motives of why pseudo-Paul was included, but I do agree with Crossan that the letters authentically written by Paul are actually fairly anti-slavery. The universally undisputed authentic Paul letters are generally believed to be:

-1 and 2 Corinthians
-1 Thessalonians (some folks include 2 Thessalonians; I personally am not sure either way.)

Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus all are, to some degree or another, believed to have been written anonymously and attributed to Paul. Not coincidentally, that is where the bulk of the New Testament's pro-slavery sentiments are located (Colossians 3:22-24, Ephesians 5:5-9, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, and Titus 2:9-10, though it is worth noting that 1 Timothy 1:10 condemns slave trading--but not slavery itself). Indeed, the ONLY letter in that group that contains no pro-slavery sentiment is 2 Timothy.

Compare this record with these verses from authentic Paul-written texts:

"Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother--especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord." -Philemon 15-17

"You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters." -1 Corinthians 7:23 (in fairness, 1 Cor 7:21, two verses earlier, is much more complicated--it tells slaves to make use of their present condition more than ever, but it also says to not be concerned about being enslaved. On balance, I think the passage is more anti-slavery than pro-slavery.)

"For in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." -1 Corinthians 12:13

"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." -Galatians 3:28

I think, on balance, it is safe to say that Paul himself believed that his faith in Christ called him to an anti-slavery interpretation of life, but I certainly have had to pick and choose because of the many other letters attributed to Paul that endorse slavery. The basis for that picking and choosing was whether I believed the letters were actually written by Paul, or by an anonymous author writing in his name (a practice which may seem dishonorable to us today, but would not have seemed dishonorable back then).

Mr. Blake does make one other point that requires some treatment here--he writes:

"Jesus’ apparent silence on slavery and Paul’s ambiguous statements on the issue had dreadful historical consequences. It helped ensure that slavery would survive well into the 19th century in the U.S., some scholars say." (emphasis mine)

First and foremost, while I believe the authentic texts pertaining to Jesus and Paul (the Gospels and Paul's authentic letters) to be very pro-liberation and anti-slavery, it is important to recognize, with humility, that as much pride as I take in swaths of the American church being vehicles for the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century, there were also segments of the American church that opposed both movements, and that this opposition did indeed create dreadful historical consequences.

However--I do not believe Jesus was entirely silent on the issue of slavery. In Luke 4, He chooses, for His inaugural sermon, a text from Isaiah 61 that reads, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

Here, I think the overlaps are pretty obvious--release to the captives and the oppressed going free, both would apply directly to a state of slavery. And this is to say nothing of Jesus' numerous teachings against the accumulation of economic wealth, which, when you consider that the ancient Roman economy was a slave economy, was a condemnation of wealth gathered on the backs of slaves.

I realize that this was a more wonky, Bible-geek post than you may be used to from me, but it was one I think was well worth composing. I adamantly believe in Christianity as a vehicle and a source for equality, and that belief is rooted in what I believe are the authentic, Godly teachings of Jesus and Paul.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why This 26-Year-Old Hasn't Left the Church

My friend and colleague Phil Rushton—the associate pastor at Longview Community Church just down the block from me—wrote a very funny, very moving post on his own blog the other day about why he, as a hip 30-year-old guy, has remained in the church all these years. Because no good idea goes unpunished, I am now copying this idea into my own post! (Though Phil got this idea from a friend of his, who got it from the pretty durned awesome Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans. I think this is becoming a thing--Christian Piatt just made a very insightful list of his own.)

I know I rag a lot on what I feel the American church could be doing better as it is trying to pull itself out of decline. But I hope and pray that whatever criticisms I offer here are taken in the context of the absolute loyalty I have towards the church as the living, breathing body of Christ in today’s world. If I didn’t care about the church, I wouldn’t bother trying to make it even better. And I’ll continue to constantly jab it with a stick. It’s how I show my love for it.

So, for all of you who wonder what the church could or should be doing to keep its young people in the church, I give you, in no particular order, 20 of the reasons why I, a 26-year-old whippersnapper of albeit questionable hipness, serve the church:

1-When I was baptized, I made a covenant with God to dedicate my life to Him. I cannot bear to ever break that covenant.

2-The church has made me a better person. I have learned patience, gentleness, foresight, and emotional intelligence from the church—and we haven’t even gotten to my personal faith yet.

3-A life without living my faith is a life not being lived to its fullest. It would be like buying a brand new sports car and then never driving it faster than 45 mph. The church gives me life.

4-Four words: Free coffee every Sunday.

5-As an ordained pastor, I’m actually paid to study and teach the Bible stories that fascinated me as a child and that inspire me as an adult. I still can’t believe how good I have it.

6-The church has always been one of the strongest supports for me in providing fellowship, community, and accountability. As an introvert, those things don’t always come easily for me. Without church, I would probably be a fairly lonely person.

7-I enjoy the friendship of some truly great and generous colleagues in the church, and I trust them to go to them for advice and guidance fairly frequently.

8-The parish I am honored to pastor managed to raise roughly $4,000 worth of goods and funds for the Cowlitz County Battered Womens’ Shelter last year, and is currently stockpiling shopping cart after shopping cart of foodstuffs for the Kessler Elementary Backpack Buddies program, now through the end of their school year in June.

9-My parish has women serving as board members, elders, and deacons. A woman was the chair of the search committee that called me. My childhood pastor and my denomination’s General Minister and President are both female.

10-The consistently and cantankerously hilarious seniors who make up our daytime Bible study group never fail to make me laugh amidst the super-serious business of studying God’s word.

11-I cannot imagine being as heavily invested as I am in making the world a better place if I did not have the church.

12-It’s a great icebreaker. The “Can I talk to you about Jesus?” line is all about tone of voice and non-verbal communication. ;-)

13-Sometimes, I just need a little reminder that God loves me in spite of myself to make it through the day.

14-I work for an organization that guides you towards salvation and eternal life—seriously, how many people get to work with those kinds of tools every day? Not enough of us!

15-I can’t imagine a week being complete without being able to take time away to be in worship, whether on Sunday morning, or at Bible study, or in our preschool chapel, or in the everyday hustle and bustle of life.

Plus a few funnier reasons…

16-I wore my clergy collar for my new Washington driver’s license photo. Now I have a ready-made way to get out of a traffic ticket if I ever get pulled over.

17-If someone actually does think I’m a snake handler, it is always fun to string them along for a little while before admitting to them how boring a person I really am.

18-My collection of medieval-era monastic robes means that I am set for life when it comes to attending Renaissance Festivals.

19-If the parish ministry gig doesn’t pan out for whatever reason, there’s always televangelism.


20-I have faith that I will be going to Heaven when I die, and I have faith that I will see you there as well!

I would simply end this list by re-posting the quote from the 16th-century theologian Desiderius Erasmus that Phil likewise posted with his entry:

“I put up with this church, in the hope that one day it will become better, just as it is constrained to put up with me in the hope that I will become better.”

But Erasmus also wrote those words several hundred years ago. What keeps you in the church today, in this moment?

Yours in Christ,

Monday, March 26, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Minister"

James 1:19-24

19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.
22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. (CEB)

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

It isn’t an individual flight this time. It is the story of another minister, a story that helped inspire this entire sermon series. Last summer, a devotional written by the United Church of Christ pastor Rev. Lillian Daniel made the rounds on my Facebook online newsfeed, as friend after friend of mine breathlessly commented on the boldness of how this devotional was sticking it to the “spiritual but not religious” folks out there. Here’s what Rev. Daniel wrote:

"On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in sunsets! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories, and our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church."

This is it—the final Sunday of our sermon series! Today marks the fifth and final week of this sermon series that we are exploring together during the 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 the 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, the first week’s story, of the mothers who prevented their college-bound daughters from sitting in the same row as the shady, sketchy fellow (that’s me!), was a story where my vocation was not revealed, but in the stories of weeks two and three it was, to a Seattle-area schoolteacher and to an aging Eugene beatnik, then last week to an off-duty airline pilot and devout Pentecostal Christian, and today…well, I suppose from my colleagues!

Consider it a glimpse into the obviously warped mind of your pastor! We as pastors are walking, talking representations of that thing that has caused so much anger and consternation, yet offers people the vital tools of fellowship and community and accountability in their spiritual journeys with God—the church. And, like the church, we have our own shortcomings. If you have come to church…this church…looking for perfection, then, I’m afraid, I will let you down. The only question will be when, and how.

In the spiritual-but-not-religious world, that isn’t a concern. God never lets you down, because, I have to think, God in many such scenarios is simply an idealized version of yourself—God is an ideal Eric, or an ideal Bob. We begin to worship, if not quite ourselves, a version of ourselves. It becomes self-involved navel-gazing, and our spirituality suffers because of it.

James knew this—hear again what he said: “They are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves, and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” What he is saying is that we cannot be trusted to hold up a mirror to ourselves, because we would only hold that mirror up to the most attractive parts of ourselves, not our problem areas, not those areas that call out for improvement and growth. We forget what our whole selves look like, and it is the whole self that God demands of us—the good along with the bad. The ugly along with the beautiful. God demands the exact same of this world that He created—as Lillian Daniel conveys, we are more apt to find God in the sunsets, in the beaches, in the mountaintops, but what about finding God in the less pristine parts of nature? In the Gulf of Mexico oil spill? In Yucca Mountain? We are not only holding up a mirror to ourselves and seeing only the things we like, we are trying to do the exact same thing to God’s creation—we hold the mirror up to the world, and we decide to see God only in what we happen to like. We hold the mirror up to each other, to God's children, and decide to see God only in what we happen to like about them.

And so we treat the church the exact same way. We see in the church only those things that already confirm our beliefs and thoughts about it. If we think that the church is sexist, then when some bombastic church leader gets on television and says that women should stay silent in church, it confirms that bias. If we think that the church has a political agenda, then when we hear a pastor make some outlandish statement in support of this or that presidential candidate, then it cements that perception. We look at the church, and we see what we want to see. What worries me the most, though, is that we do it to people—we see only what we want to see in people, and sometimes, if we don’t like that person, what we DON’T want to see in them is God!

I see it all the time, in how these strangers, and many, many more, have in turn treated me—that, as soon as the cat was out of the bag, as soon as they knew that I am a pastor, their entire demeanor and attitude towards me changes, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. I wasn’t Eric anymore, I was whatever the church had been to them, and, I gotta be honest with you—that’s an immense burden to carry, and I don’t really think that I am up to it. I cannot speak for the entire church, none of us can. The way the church has hurt people in the past—I meet spiritual-but-not-religious people who assume that I must be out to hurt them as well, or that I only want to be able to control them, to tell them what to do and give them lots of rules to follow. All of those things they are worried that I will do, they violate exactly what James is telling us to do—be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger—but they are what I, and we, are all associated with now! And so we turn people off from church, and become unable to fulfill one of the greatest spiritual callings ever—to support and guide and challenge one another in a way that you simply cannot do by yourself.

And believe me, there are times when I think to myself that it would be so much easier if I did every single one of those things in this stereotype, if I was quick to judge, if I preached angry sermons, if I fought fire with fire. But then I stop, and I recall the pilot, and the tattooed Eugene native, and the teacher, and the mother, and I realize that all of them, and all of you, deserve a community of love, not of fear.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 25, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

An Obligatory Post Regarding the Tim Tebow Trade

Longtime friends of mine can already probably guess I what I really think about the latest splash the Denver Donkey--er, I mean, Broncos--have made in the player transaction department by signing Peyton Manning for a #@$#$%load of money and subsequently trading incumbent quarterback Tim Tebow to the New York Jets. As a born-and-raised Kansas City Chiefs fan, I am genetically predisposed to mega-loathe everything about the Donks (I try not to use the word "hate" on this blog, so I settle for John C. McGinley's term from the sitcom Scrubs--"mega-loathe"). So, the Oscar the Grouch in me simply detests all of the fawning attention being lavished upon Denver right now.

Being a Chiefs fan largely works out for me now, working in Washington state, since the Seahawks and the Chiefs stopped being in the same division several years ago (compare this to my seminary years in Berkeley, just north of Oakland and its hordes of rabid Raiders fans--I wouldn't even bother wearing my Chiefs jersey from August through January). But Tim Tebow, he of the Heisman-winning, Jesus-thanking fame, transcends mere hometown team alliance for an awful lot of people, especially evangelical Christians. Colorado is home to many, many evangelical churches, and we are home to a number of them here as well.

Tebow was a big name even before his faith really hit the national stage because of his uncommon athleticism, but his appearance in a pro-life television ad during the Super Bowl two years ago likely sealed a lot of his admirers--and gave him plenty of new detractors. It took a lot of guts for Tebow to do a commercial on what is probably the most controversial political topic today, and that counts for something with me. But I still couldn't admire it because Tebow had done the ad with the Colorado-based Focus on the Family organization, which, among other things, I consider to be a homophobic organization. To cite one example, Focus sponsors the Day of Truth/Dialogue, which is an event expressly meant to rebuke the Day of Silence, an event designed to raise awareness of the bullying of gay and lesbian children. When gay and lesbian youth are demonstrably more at risk to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers and you actively try to hinder efforts to curb the bullying of that demographic, it makes me wonder how "pro-life" such an organization actually is.

I realize that this is tagging Tebow with guilt by association. Tebow also does amazing outreach work through his various foundations--raising funds for hospitals and orphanages, aiding children with disabilities, and sharing his own religious testimony with lots and lots of people. But I have to admit, that ad, as moving as it was, left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, even though it also gave him a lot of fans outside of the typical Broncos fan base, as well as probably some even more hardcore fans within that typical Broncos fan base.

And he's now going to a city dominated not as much by evangelical megachurches, but by a hodgepodge of religious affiliations, not the least of which is the Church of Sunday Morning Brunch, and where people are probably, on the whole, more pro-choice than in Colorado. I wish him nothing but the best on the field, as he is no longer wearing a blue-and-orange jersey, and I do hope his presence and testimony is of benefit to at least some folks in his new team's city, much in the same way that Jeremy Lin has caught fire with the New York Knicks faithful--it's pretty incredible to see an athlete who has said his dream after retirement is to go to seminary, become a pastor, head up a non-profit, and work with underprivileged kids in inner-city communities suddenly find his basketball jersey to be the hottest commodity in town. If it's making God more accessible in new ways, it's exciting.

One of the biggest things I have learned in Christian ministry so far is the importance of making God more accessible in new and exciting ways (precisely through ministries like mission and testimony). But it is not something I think of someone like James Dobson as really doing. What words we use to express our faith matter immensely, not just in who we bring to God but in who we hurt as well. And by working with Focus on the Family, Tim Tebow made some folks feel hurt, myself included.

It is always cool, for me, to see famous figures talk spirituality, because even if I don't agree with them, they tend to make for pretty entertaining news (see also: Tom Cruise's Scientology). But when it happens in a way that is overtly polarizing, I worry that there might not be a way we could do it better, and most certainly in a way that wouldn't turn off people who already feel (often understandably) suspicious of the church.

And, go Chiefs.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Good Faith

Last week, Father Marcel Guarnizo, the Roman Catholic priest who, for the last few weeks, has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy over his denying communion to an openly lesbian Catholic woman at her mother's funeral Mass ended his silence with this statement.

Here's the 30-second version of the facts (as relayed by both sides in their public statements): Prior to the beginning of the Mass, Barbara Johnson indicated to Fr. Guarnizo that she had a same-sex lover, and introduced her to Fr. Guarnizo. When the time came for communion, Fr. Guarnizo placed his hand over the host (the bread/wafers) when Ms. Johnson came up, preventing her from receiving communion. Ms. Johnson says that Fr. Guarnizo told her this was because her same-sex relationship was sinful, but he denies that there was any public reprimand.

Now, I'm willing to take Fr. Guarnizo's statement at face value when he says he was incapacitated by a migraine and that this is why he did not accompany the family to the gravesite and sent another priest in his stead. It is, in fact, both pastoral and commendable of him to ensure that a priest was there for the family when I am sure all he wanted to do was to lie down and take care of his aching body.

But by asking us to believe his story, Fr. Guarnizo is asking for good faith on our part, to believe his good word, which is a courtesy he never extended to Barbara Johnson when she came before him to receive communion. This is made even more egregious when he recognizes in the previously linked statement that good faith is the diocese policy and that he agrees with it:

"I understand and agree it is the policy of the archdiocese to assume good faith when a Catholic presents himself for communion; like most priests I am not at all eager to withhold communion. But the ideal cannot always be achieved in life."

From a Biblical perspective, that good faith is absolutely clutch. Saint Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 11:28, "Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink of the cup." (TNIV) Paul says this in a passage detailing how to avoid abuses of communion--Paul wants to make sure that communion is taken "worthily." What that worthiness is, exactly, remains unclear from Paul's words alone--he simply says in the following verse that we must "discern the body of Christ," lest we pronounce judgment upon ourselves. That's fine, but Paul doesn't exactly tell us what that means. For my church, and generally for the Disciples at large, "discerning the body of Christ" is taken to mean belief in Christ Himself. If your discernment has led you to affirmation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then my church teaches that you are worthy to receive communion.

We do not ask you for a statement to that effect before serving you communion, though. We take your word for it that you believe you are ready before God to receive communion because Paul is in fact explicit about that part of the equation--everyone examines themselves. Not "Your church ought to examine you," or "Your pastor ought to examine you," but "you ought to examine yourself." If you feel led to partake of the Lord's Supper, it is my pastoral obligation to serve it to you. I consider denying communion to a person who has asked for it to be a violation of my vows of ordination.

I realize that what the Roman Catholic Church teaches vis-a-vis the relationship between confession and communion prevents this particular theology of mine (or of the Disciples)--I believe their teaching, per Canon Law 920, is that to receive communion, a person must be in right relationship with the church by having received the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least yearly, and serious sins must be confessed before receiving communion.

But that begs the second question--is a same-sex relationship something to confess to as a penitent? I say no. But in his statement, Fr. Guarnizo says, in part:

"Such circumstances can and will be repeated multiple times over if the local church does not make clear to all Catholics that openly confessing sin is something one does to a priest in the confessional, not minutes before the Mass in which the Holy Eucharist is given."

What room is there for grace in this mentality? It is simply assumed in this statement that a homosexual relationship is a sin (and I realize that the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church reflects this belief). Now, I can certainly hear confessions of sins from people, but as a Protestant pastor, I do not require it, because I lack the divine capacity to determine which sins jeopardize right relationship with God. As such, even were I to consider homosexuality a sin, I still would not withhold communion because I would be speaking for God in a capacity far beyond what I am capable of doing. In other words--even if homosexuality is a sin, where is the grace?

Fr. Guarnizo, I am sure that you are a good person, even though I imagine you and I likely disagree on a wide array of theological issues. If I were to ever meet you, I would no doubt love to sit down and talk to you over some coffee (or a beer, if that's your poison).'re not only unnecessarily shaming a grieving woman who did not need to be ashamed, you're also unnecessarily upping the degree of difficulty for the rest of us pastors who feel called to love gays and lesbians the exact same way we love everybody else and are trying to undo the decades of damage the church has done to its relationship with many, many people in the queer community.

Please, for the love of the God whom we both serve, stop.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, March 18, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Firebreather"

Daniel 7:9-10

9 As I was watching,
thrones were raised up.
The ancient one took his seat.
His clothes were white like snow;
his hair was like a lamb’s wool.
His throne was made of flame;
its wheels were blazing fire.
10 A river of fire flowed out
from his presence;
thousands upon thousands served him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood ready to serve him!
The court sat in session;
the scrolls were opened. (CEB)

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

(Author’s note: To protect the confidential nature of many of these conversations, I’ve refrained from using personal names, and names of some airlines and destinations were changed. –E.A.)

A United flight from San Francisco to Denver in the spring of 2009. I was almost finished with my first year of seminary and was en route to home in Kansas for a week to spend my spring break. Seated next to me on this leg of the flight was an off-duty airline pilot, who quickly saw me reading my Bible. Not long after sitting down and exchanging the usual pleasantries, he began a very specific cross-examination of the nature of my spirituality:

“You’re a Christian?”


“So, you’ve been baptized?”

“Yep, when I was 10 years old.”

“I mean, have you ever been baptized by fire?”

“Well…I’m olive-skinned, so maybe I got a little crispy on the way out?”

“Well, have you ever spoken in tongues?”

“Um…I took French in high school.”

“So you say you’re a Christian, but you’ve never received the gift of the Holy Spirit?”

By this point, I’m just sitting there incredulously, stunned, as though someone had whacked me upside the head with a blunt object. Which, in a spiritual manner, this man had. The only cogent thought I had left was, “Man, I sure hope his airplane, wherever it is, has a bumper sticker on it like the ones I have seen on cars that says, ‘In case of rapture, this plane will be unpiloted.’”

It was not my finest moment as a Christian witness.

This Sunday marks the fourth week of this sermon series that we are exploring together during the 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 the 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, the first week’s story, of the mothers who prevented their college-bound daughters from sitting in the same row as the shady, sketchy fellow (that’s me!), was a story where my vocation was not revealed, but in the stories of weeks two and three it was, to a Seattle-area schoolteacher and to an aging Eugene beatnik. This week, it is revealed to an off-duty airline pilot and devout Pentecostal Christian.

If I were completely honest, I was only half-kidding myself when deciding that I wanted this pilot to have such a bumper sticker, because I am not sure I can come up with a situation in the flow of ordinary, day-to-day life in which you have to so completely surrender your autonomy to the will and skill of another person. If you are hospitalized, sure, or imprisoned, but for more run-of-the-mill experiences, I think flying is it. And for the cranks out there, yes, there is a reason I compared flying on a plane to being imprisoned. But that is neither here nor there—it is not simply the lack of autonomy that comes with either situation, it is the complete surrender that I want to talk about for a minute.

Complete surrender is something that was demanded out of the Israelite people not once, or twice, but many, many times, by God and man alike. The kings and men of power of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome all demanded religious concessions from Israel, all the while on the other side of the ledger, God was demanding religious faithfulness. And the demands of their conquerors ended up galling not only the prophets, but the rank-and-file Israelites themselves. When a Greek ruler demanded that a statue of him be put in the Jerusalem temple, the Israelites had had enough. Under the Hasmonaeans, better known as the Maccabees, they temporarily won independence, and from this context, the latter half of Daniel was born.

You see, Daniel is a book of two halves. The first half contains all of the famous stories we know and love: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the writing on the wall, and Daniel in the lions’ den. The second half, beginning with chapter 7, is a series of vivid, apocalyptic visions of the coming resurrection and judgment of the dead. And the scene of judgment begins here, at the end of verse 10: “The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.”

I know that judgment has been used like a cudgel by Christians because that is exactly how I felt in my conversation with the pilot—I felt judged by him, and I felt like I had been clubbed by something dense and heavy. Being judged is a terrible feeling, but the anticipation that you will be judged is just plain stressful. But as intense as the imagery here is, it would have been the preferable scenario for Daniel—lest he and his family and friends be judged by yet another foreign despot, he’ll take his chances with the Ancient of Days, surrounded by fire as He holds court. As bizarre as it might sound to us, Daniel is preferring to be judged by his fire-wielding God, because he and his people have already been judged by his fellow men, and they have paid a heavy, heavy, price for their military losses. It brings a brand-new dimension to the Biblical dictum that I spoke of last week—to judge not by appearances, but by right judgment.

To his credit, this off-duty airline pilot was probably trying to judge me by what he thought was right judgment. But no matter how great his faith, no matter how deep his convictions, he had no right to judge my faith. And that is exactly true for me, as well, in my relationship to you. I have no right to judge your faith. Indeed, in search and call, they always caution us, the pastors, to remember that God has been alive and at work at the parishes we are joining long before we were ever there.

Make no mistake, there is a judgment that we await. But it is one by God, and not by humanity. It is not something many mainliners like ourselves talk about, because the thought of judgment might conflict with our image of God as absolute love. But what if divine judgment is preferable to human judgment? Because for Daniel, it absolutely was—it was the far better option. Maybe that is the case for you as well. If the hardships of your life, the crises and battles you have had with others, or the things you see in the news about our own short-sightedness, greed, and prejudice have caused you to doubt your own faith in humanity, then it absolutely is the case for you as well. Divine judgment is not a threat, or a death sentence—it is an escape. We will try, and try, and try, to bring God’s kingdom to earth, to continue Christ’s ministry of love and healing and wholeness, because that is who we are as Christians, as Disciples of Christ—we cannot separate the two! But when we fail at that—and we will—it should be comforting, rather than fear-inducing, to know that the ministry we have done will be judged not by the fundamentalist who looks at us and shouts that we are not true Christians, or by the atheist who reads the Bible and declares that we are living a lie, or by the cynic who asks why we are even trying to make the world a better place, but by the God who created us, redeemed us, loves us, and has faith in us still today. Surrendering your fear to your faith is something that I think you cannot do just once, in a born-again experience—it is something that you must experience continuously, from getting on an airplane to visiting the doctor to coming to church. And in those experiences, may you see, and hear, and feel, God’s grace all about you, and know that the promise of that grace exists not just now, in this world, but always.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 18, 2012

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Faith vs. Fury

Much like my "Through the Looking Glass" post served as a hindsight reflection on my MLK, Jr. Day sermon, I woke up this morning realizing that my immediate previous post, "Faith vs. Fear," similarly needed a post-mortem epilogue, if for no other reason than purely selfish ones regarding my own peace of mind.

So, here I am at 7:00 am, clackety-clacking away on my laptop as I chug coffee like the addicted caffeine fiend that I am.

I cannot bear begrudging people their fears, if for no other reason than I am so very capable of fear myself. I think what I worry most about is when that fear intersects with anger, and how those two immensely primal, immensely powerful emotions combine to create a volatile psychic mix.

Because while there is plenty about the health and vitality of the 21st century American Church that worries me, and causes me to be fearful for it, there is even more that it does that hurts me, that makes me feel like I should be angry.

It hurts me that some Christian pastors and leaders are perfectly comfortable getting on television and saying that a Mormon is unfit to be president because he is not a Christian. (Side note--I am currently working on a post about how many churches, at least in practice, if not necessarily on paper, seem to proffer different definitions and qualifications for what makes one a Christian. I may not buy what the Book of Mormon says for a nanosecond, but if Mormons believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then in my book, they're Christians.)

It hurts me that some of the same Christians harbor beliefs that our President is a closet Muslim--but even if he were a Muslim, really, how is that any my business?

It hurts me that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, a church I have grown to love immensely from my time at Lewis & Clark College under the spiritual leadership of a Franciscan sister, and from my time at the Graduate Theological Union with the academic guidance and emotional support of a Dominican priest (as well as a number of Dominican, Franciscan, and Jesuit classmates), dragged its feet for years upon years regarding a plethora of child abuse scandals, using all manner of cover-ups and justifications for not taking action.

It hurts me that a myriad of televangelist and megachurch pastors contributed immensely to the current deficit of trust many Americans have with the church through their various financial improprieties.

It hurts me when I see a church care more about right doctrine than right action. Because honestly, I think teaching doctrine is easier. I have so many platforms with which to do it--I preach every Sunday, I teach Sunday School, two Bible studies and two preschool chapel services, and I have this blog. Demonstrating right action, that's a taller order, but as James writes, it is the measure of true religion (Jas. 1:27).

It hurts me that American Christianity, wide swaths of which were integral to the abolitionist movements of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century, is instead associated not with the preaching of equality before God, but the preaching of the prosperity gospel.

And you don't need to get me started on my disappointment with the decreasing potency of my mainline brethren--mostly because I already did.

And I have to admit--to you, to God, to everybody--that this hurt does lead me towards anger, which in turn saddens me even more, because I desperately do not want my anger to turn into fear. I worry about expressing my hurt and anger because I still do not really see it as pastoral.

But it is there. And I have to recognize that anger and fear often go hand in hand. And that I am susceptible to it to, and need you, and others in my life, to help keep me from falling too far into what Jonah calls "the pit." My prayer is that my acceptance and acknowledgement of my own fear and fury will actually make me a better pastor, and a better Christian.

And in turn, I would simply ask that if you do see someone feeling burned by how religion has treated them, or how religion has acted in the public sphere (as there are sadly no shortage of such folks), do a brother or sister a favor and try to lift them up. My faith has made me a far better person than I ever could have been without it, and I know that every time someone reminds me, in their own way, of God's love and grace rather than of humanity's failings, I invariably end up feeling closer to God. I have to think it is the same for a great many others as well, who could benefit immensely from a Christian in their lives offering love and grace and willing to meet them where they are emotionally and spiritually at.

As Jesus says in Luke's Gospel...go, and do likewise.

As for me--help me to do likewise.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Faith vs. Fear

I am quickly realizing that I suffer from a very unfortunate affliction: I am an informed, opinionated person who, deep down, really, really dislikes giving offense to people.

It would be so much easier if I was one or the other rather than both. I could not make waves because I didn’t care to, or I could make waves, consequences be damned.

The latter is how I often viewed my more conservative and evangelical religious brethren—as folks willing to make waves, regardless of the consequences. Such courage was enviable if for no other reason than uncompromising people are easy to admire. We see it as laudable to stick up for your principles, but as I have learned from conversations here in Longview with friends, colleagues, and seminarians, when you may be more moderate in style, forming your opinions in shades of gray sometimes takes some serious explanation.

I have written a lot lately on the historical faults of my mainline Protestant tradition, and one of those faults is that stereotype that we really are spineless wimps who are perpetually and irrationally terrified of giving offense.

The thing is, though, don’t most people of faith still carry irrational fears? I mean, I realize that faith helps us allay our fears and act out of love rather than fright or self-preservation. But it often is only capable of that up to a point in many of us—including me.

It is something I worry more about, because just as more evangelical Christians might look at me and ask, “Eric, why the heck aren’t you more courageous about being a bold witness for your theology?” I am now in turn apt to not admire their boldness, but to ask, “Why the heck aren’t you more courageous about our religion’s place in society itself?” We see politicians pandering to the fears of the hard right wing of my religion when they pass bans on Sharia law, or criticize the US Air Force Academy’s construction of a worship site for Wiccans and other neo-pagans. Phrases like “taking our country back” imply we are in fear of losing something we once had.

My question is simply this: If you believe Christianity contains the truth of God’s very essence and nature (which I am guessing that, if you self-identify as a Christian, you do), then what does it matter if other faiths are being given a leg up in what is undoubtedly a Christian-influenced American public sphere? If all of the religions of the United States are put on an equal playing field, shouldn’t Christianity still be fully capable of calling people to it because of how compelling and truthful our message is?

Put a different way—if what we are saying is right, then why do we need a leg up from the state by putting down the faiths of others? Shouldn’t we be winning souls on the merits of our own faith, rather than by suppressing the faiths of others?

One of the greatest crises facing American Christianity in the 21st century is, in my eyes, the various charges of hypocrisy put to us--we say "love thy neighbor" but exclude them if said neighbor is gay; we say "blessed are the poor," but we preach prosperity theology. And we fight for religious freedom...but only if it is the freedom to practice the same beliefs as ours.

I had a very heartfelt conversation recently with someone about same-sex marriage being legalized in Washington. Even though she personally opposes it, she believes it must be legal because the only way she can guarantee her own religious freedom is to guarantee that the Christians who do believe in same-sex marriage (ie, yours truly) have the freedom to put their beliefs into practice as well.

It was a profound learning moment for me: an example of someone so secure in her faith in God that she did not feel the need to suppress another’s spiritual practice. So, I strive for the same mentality. The only way I know that Christians can worship as they wish at the Air Force Academy is if Wiccans can also worship as they wish. Rather than being anti-Christian, that is actually profoundly pro-Christian, and pro-faith.

On paper, that would simply be a case for the Establishment Clause that guarantees freedom of religious practice. But really, it is the sort of faith made possible by an absence of fear. While it may always be easier to rally people to belief by invoking a devil or bogeyman figure (enter our favorite punching bag, Lucifer), it is preferable to me to bring people to belief by invoking God, for it is through God, and only God, that I receive any spiritual power whatsoever to make the world better. I must be secure enough in my faith in God, rather than in my fear of evil, if I am to do good in this lifetime. I know of evangelists who try to scare people into faith, but that simply is not me. I'd rather call someone to faith and repentance out of their sense of love, not their sense of fear.

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. Indeed, one tempers the other. The opposite of faith is fear. And fear should not be winning this struggle, but, ironically, one of my fears is that it is.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, March 11, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Beatnik"

Isaiah 56:6-8

6 The immigrants who have joined me,[a]
serving me and loving my name,[b] becoming my servants,[c]
everyone who keeps the Sabbath without making it impure,
and those who hold fast
to my covenant:
7 I will bring them
to my holy mountain,
and bring them joy
in my house of prayer.
I will accept their entirely burned offerings and sacrifices on my altar.
My house will be known as a house
of prayer for all peoples,
8 says the LORD God,
who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others
to those I have already gathered. (CEB)

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

(Author’s note: To protect the confidential nature of many of these conversations, I’ve refrained from using personal names, and names of some airlines and destinations were changed. –E.A.)

An Alaska Airlines flight from Oakland, California, to Portland Oregon, on Saturday, August 6, 2011. Unlike in my previous two sermons, I have not changed any of these details for the sake of preserving the anonymity of my co-stars, because this flight was different—this was the flight I was taking in order to be interviewed for the position I currently have—your pastor—and to preach my call sermon here the following day. And seated next to me on the short hopper from Oakland to Portland was a fellow who was traveling for a family reunion in nearby Eugene, Oregon—a short drive south on I-5. He also looked the crunchy, granola Eugene stereotype: though middle-aged, he had a ponytail snaking all the way down his back, and both of his arms were covered in tattoos. A not uncommon fashion statement in, say, my former home turf of Berkeley, but, as I am realizing, a little more uncommon in a small town such as Longview. And while everything about this man, from his destination to his appearance may scream to you, “NOT a churchgoer,” after repeating my favorite four-word phrase (“I am a pastor”), he asked me where at. I told him I was flying up to interview here, at this church, and that, truth be told, I was quite frankly rather nervous. Then, a remarkable thing happened: the rest of the flight was spent with him pastoring me—encouraging me, reassuring me that I would in fact do great—in short, everything that I would want to do in ministering to a complete stranger, he did for me, and he has since become my gold standard for how I approach each encounter with a brand-new person in my life.

This Sunday marks the third week of this sermon series that we are exploring together during the 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 the 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, the first week’s story, of the mothers who prevented their college-bound daughters from sitting in the same row as the shady, sketchy fellow (that’s me!), was a story where my vocation was not revealed. And last week’s story revolved around a high school teacher and how he described his own work to me after learning that I am a minister. This week’s sermon, then, is a paean to the traveling Good Samaritan, the stranger performing random acts of kindness, even at 30,000 feet.

There is another reason why this anonymous counselor came into my life at exactly the right time—at that moment, as the flight was taking off—I was absolutely convinced, beyond a doubt, that this weekend was going to go HORRIBLY for me. You see, at the airport, I had purchased a bottle of Arizona tea, and the bottom of that glass bottle literally fell clean off only a minute after I bought it. There was zero rational explanation as to why or how—all I knew is that I now had twenty ounces of sweet tea all over the slacks I was going to wear to my interview in just a few hours’ time. Fortunately, because I know that I am that clumsy when it comes to food and drink, I had packed an extra pair of slacks—but nevertheless, I had convinced myself in the interim that this was a truly terrible omen, and I was going to absolutely crash and burn here, and it was going to be all my fault! (Or the fault of a renegade bottle of tea.)

And it is that cyclical, self-destructive mentality that this passage from Isaiah 56 is responding to. Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible, weighing in at a massive 66 chapters, but those 66 chapters were written in three different sections before being put into the canonical blender and producing the book we know today. The first section, chapters 1-39, is attributed to the prophet Isaiah himself, who prophesied during the 8th century BCE. The second section, chapters 40-55, are dated to around 540 BCE, which is during the time that Israel and Judah were under Babylonian rule, some 200 years after the historical Isaiah. The Babylonian exile lasted for about 50 years—from 586 BCE when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II sacked Jersualem to 537 BCE, when Israel was liberated by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and it is one of the most defining events of the entire Old Testament—the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah all prophesied during this 50-year exile, and many of them argued that it was the fault of Israel itself for falling into the hands of its foreign overlords--if only Israel had been more faithful to God, if only Israel had been more dutiful, more obedient, if only, if only, if only!

Chapter 56, this passage, is the very beginning of Third Isaiah, the last part of this book that comes right as the Israelite people are returning home, having been freed by Cyrus to worship God as they wished. Now, before this, God had been a deity exclusively for the Israelites—the fundamental basis of the covenant with Moses upon Sinai was that we would be God’s people, just as Yahweh would be our god. And after 50 years of brutal Babylonian rule, an anonymous prophet’s very first instinct is not what would likely be your’s—to condemn the people who did this to you and your family, friends, and neighbors. But here, in Scripture, it isn’t. That same covenant between Moses and God is being extended to all people who elect to obey God’s command. This is grace in its purest, most unadulterated form. Read out of context, this passage simply sounds nice and feel-goody: “Oh, Israel is allowing anyone who wants to worship God to be able to do so, how nice of them!” That isn’t it at all; or, at the very least, that is a very small part of the picture. This is a people beaten and broken down by foreign empire after foreign empire, starting with Egypt in the Exodus story, and then Assyria, and then Babylon, and to those empires, they are saying, “Welcome. Please, join us.” This is not simply religious universalism—this is religious universalism coated with profound faith in other people.

Almost every time throughout history when God’s people have tried to determine for ourselves who is worthy to worship God and who is not, we have done so with disastrous results. Churches to this day use Scripture to justify separatism on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, and even, for a fringe few, race and ethnicity. But whenever we have tried to pull something like that in Scripture—judging people based on those factors, rather than on right judgment—we always get burned. The prophet Samuel thought that Eliab, the tallest and oldest of Jesse’s sons, would be the next king of Israel, but it was instead the youngest, most humble son—David. The disciples sent away the young children from Jesus, only to have Jesus tell them that only by making themselves like children can they enter Heaven. There is a reason why the expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has become a cliché—it’s because we do it all the time!

And by the stereotype of the proverbial book cover, my travel companion on that day may not, in any of our eyes, been what you think of in a minister. And we would be so very, very wrong for thinking that. I can only venture a guess, but I would think that when God next sends to you a vessel of His grace, a messenger of His love, it will not be through your identical faith twin. It will be through the person you least expect. So, my challenge to you is this—to then ask yourself why that person would be the one you least expected to bless you, to answer honestly, and to approach each person you meet thereafter with the expectation and the hope that they may be the next one to deliver to you, in their own way, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 11, 2012

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Medium is in the Message

In the wake of Super Tuesday earlier this week, I've been drowning in talking head analysis about why Mitt Romney can't nail down the left-handed, auburn-haired soccer mom vote, or why Newt Gingrich has been reduced to a regional candidate, if by "regional" you mean "Marietta, Georgia," or why Rick Santorum is madly in love with all things Dark Ages, or why Ron Paul...well, in the case of Ron Paul, the jokes write themselves.

But amidst the punditry chatter, I read a couple of stories about how "perception matters" for these poor fellas, where if they do not win the media-spin sweepstakes, they begin tanking, and the next thing they know it, they're being asked to drop out by whichever money-fueled, patriotic-sounding super PAC their opponent is aligned with.

Man, do I feel the same way as a mainline Christian pastor.

Both in and out of the church, people ask why folks like me are dedicating themselves to propping up what they feel is a dying organization: the mainline church. Enough people start asking that, and it is cemented as perception. Church memberships decline, and suddenly that perception is accompanied by data. Mix with gasoline, and you have a Molotov cocktail that has claimed many a Protestant congregation with the explosion of weakened perceptions and horrible PR.

Sarah Morice Brubaker, a theology professor at the Disciples-affiliated Phillips Theological Seminary, wrote a column a couple weeks ago for one of my bookmarked sites, Religion Dispatches, in which she puts our perception problem thusly:

"Yes, yes, woe is the mainline! Somehow, through feats of ecclesial failure so masterful that they defy logic, we have managed to be:

—A narcissistic liberal echo chamber that tolerates no dissent.

—A bunch of please-everyone spineless wimps who stand for nothing except vague and gooey middle-class niceness.

—Clueless 19th-century rationalist holdovers who still believe it’s possible to look at things objectively because, I don’t know, our schooling was so full of Moustache Grooming 101, practicums in The Care of Tweed Frock Coats, and private lessons in Somber Intonation that we simply never got around to critiques of modernity, or something.

Pretty impressive, no?"

(Just in case you didn't notice, her tone is quite purposefully tongue-in-cheek here.)

It's funny because it's true, though, right? The mainline church had its day in the sun, when, as Disciples pastor and blogger Christian Piatt notes, "Back when institutions were inherently trustworthy, and back when churches were the social epicenters of a community, Sunday worship was more or less a given."

Put in election-year terms, we had our moment when everybody wanted a piece of us, but then we pulled a Rick Perry and started fumbling the message so badly that all people could do was laugh at us as they either stayed home on Election Day or jumped ship to one of the sleeker, sexier outfits around, like the Church of Rick Santorum's Sweater Vests, and now people are asking why we aren't getting out of the game already.

We mainliners made a simple, but fundamentally destructive, mistake: we mistook the enduring nature of our MESSAGE (that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God) as indicative that our MEDIUM (where we sing from hymnals to slow organ music and proceed to sit, stand, and kneel for an hour or so while our pastor ascends to the pulpit so that s/he can stand above us sinners when addressing us with a rigidly three-point sermon) was somehow meant to be equally enduring.

We've confused the two, when the reality is that even in Scripture itself, preachers and teachers used the communication styles of the time to spread the Word of God. New Testament writers like Luke and Paul used Greek writing styles to spread the word of a Jewish Messiah. Old Testament books like Genesis borrowed from the mythic style of Mesopotamian religious narratives in composing stories like Noah and the flood and the Tower of Babel.

Scripture already shows us in its own pages how we can communicate the same message differently from generation to generation. But church has often been resistant to any change of that sort, and we are paying a heavy price for it today, for our inability to realize that the medium was in the message this whole time.

And I truly do not think it is that people are resistant to the message of the Disciples--in fact, I think that what we have to offer is EXACTLY what people both need and are asking for from a church: the recognition that we are not judges, but healers; called to mend brokenness, not create it; to teach right action rather than right doctrine; to, above all else, communicate the Gospel not in terms of saved versus unsaved, or light versus dark, or sin versus righteousness but in terms of being LOVED versus unloved.

So, if ever you were wondering or worrying that as a mainline Christian pastor, I was one of those "please-everyone spineless wimps," please rest assured--I believe, with every ounce of my being and every fiber of my faith, that I have been called to preach a Gospel of love and equality, where social justice transcends political boundaries because it is taught as an issue of divine command rather than of political conscience, and where your faith is tempered in the fires and forges of your doubts by the lesson that your faith must be wrestled with and struggled with before it truly becomes your own.

If any of this appeals to you, the doors to God's house are wide open--not only in our sanctuary, but in bookstores, coffeehouses, wherever you may run into one of us.

I'll see you there.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Letters From the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

“Mistake-Inspired Ministry”

Dear Church,

Reading one of the many online “blogs” that I follow in the course of my ministry and mission, I was struck by one entry written by a fellow who described the role of grandparents in the life of the church. Not grandparents in the family sense—those who have grandchildren—but grandparents in the Christian sense: people who have devoted years upon years of their lives to being and building the church and are now being called to helping younger generations build upon what is now here.

And that is where we find ourselves as a family of faith—ever since you called me to be your pastor, we have, in one fashion or another, been looking at how to pass the proverbial baton from generation to generation so that our community may continue to benefit from our presence, and so that our neighbors may come to know the grace and love of God as revealed by Jesus Christ.

But, just as in any relay race, where there is a chance that the baton will be dropped from runner to runner, so too is there a chance that we as a church may make mistakes—ideas we have for outreach may not work, new ministries may not get off the ground—and for those who have helped sustain this church through thick and thin, it may hurt to see those sorts of things happen. But if we are making no mistakes, we are not really doing ministry—we are being far too safe, far too insular, and far too scared to actually go out on a limb for Christ’s message of absolute, unconditional, unlimited love for all people.

So let us continue to spread that message, and if not all our attempts to do so succeed, let that be okay. Let us not merely learn from our mistakes in ministry, but be inspired by them to do better!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, March 4, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Teacher"

James 5:15-18

15 Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. 17 Elijah was a person just like us. When he earnestly prayed that it wouldn’t rain, no rain fell for three and a half years. 18 He prayed again, God sent rain, and the earth produced its fruit. (CEB)

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

(Author’s note: To protect the confidential nature of many of these conversations, I’ve refrained from using personal names, and names of some airlines and destinations were changed. –E.A.)

Another Southwest flight, this time from my boyhood home of Kansas City to Portland, Oregon, on September 12, 2011. Seated next to me was a schoolteacher from Kent, Washington, one of the many suburbs of the Seattle-Tacoma area—he told me he was planning to catch the shuttle from Portland to Sea-Tac after this flight. As introductory conversations are apt to do, after revealing he was a teacher, he in turn asked me what my profession was.

And to myself, I thought, “Can I use one of my lifelines?”

But, that annoying commandment “Thou shalt not lie” reared its ugly head, and I uttered what I think have to be the four most loaded words in the English language: “I am a pastor.”

“Oh, where at?”

“I’m about to start in Longview, this town in Washington, just north of Portland.”

“I grew up around that area!” We proceed to shoot the breeze about how pretty it is here.

“But I never really go to church all that often now,” he admits. I brace myself.

“I realized that I am more spiritual than religious.” Bingo. He proceeds to explain why church is not for him in a way so apologetic, it is like he is worried that I’d faint from the shock, the shock, I tell you, of hearing that a person living in the Seattle area did not go to church!

I quickly realize that it is in the best interests of my sanity to talk more about his line of work than mine, and I begin asking him questions about his teaching—he’s a business and technology high school teacher, loves the creativity and innovation that comes with his field, but then he says something that floors me—he shifts gears entirely and talks about how the Kent schools are becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse—one of the most diverse school districts in the state of Washington, in fact—and about how much it matters to him to foster this diversity between Caucasians and students of color. And he was talking about the needs and ethnic values of his wide array of students with such care and precision, it was obvious that he knew them incredibly well, and cared about them tremendously. And I smiled.

This Sunday marks the second week in a new sermon series that we are 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 the 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, last week’s story, of the mothers who prevented their college-bound daughters from sitting in the same row as the shady, sketchy fellow (that’s me!), was a story where my vocation was not revealed. In this story, and in all others, it was. And that contrast is important to note—because while in the first story, I was treated with wariness and suspicion, in this story, a stranger practically fell over himself trying to be apologetic and kind to the young man of the cloth sitting next to him.

But the act truly wasn’t necessary—not that I don’t appreciate kindness of strangers—but that I didn’t need his sudden turn in behavior and demeanor upon learning what I did for a living, and that was due in no small part to what he did for a living, and how dedicated he was to it. After all, the entire scope and grandeur of the Judeo-Christian tradition is wrapped up in the vocation of teaching. The Hebrew term “rabbi” literally means, “teacher.” These teachers interpreted Old Testament law. Our Christian teachers, beginning with Peter and Paul, interpreted the teachings of the rabbi we know to be our Messiah, Jesus Christ. And the letter of James, most likely written anonymously but named in honor of James, the brother of Jesus, has, at its core, the spirit not of a preacher in the mold of Peter or Paul, but a teacher—as the Bible scholar Frances Taylor Gench puts it, a teacher “who is anxious to help believers see the implications of Christian faith…for how they live out their lives…James urges believers to apply Christian faith to every aspect of life.” Like other New Testament teachers, and Paul especially, James’s words often take the world-weary tone of a sighing and scolding schoolteacher, irritated once more by whatever shenanigans their students pulled this time (and to the schoolteachers who are in our congregation—I was NEVER that student. Okay, I was ALWAYS that student).

I say this because James essentially ends his letter—his letter goes on for only two more verses after the conclusion of today’s passage—by pointing out what would have been a painfully obvious example to his 2nd-century audience: the prayer life of Elijah the prophet! In that era of Judaism, and the Christianity that was just beginning to emerge, pointing out Elijah would be like playing the George-Washington-Never-Told-A-Lie card today. Everybody has heard of it. Elijah was one of the most prominent figures of the Old Testament, right up there with Moses and David, and it is he, along with Moses, who appears with Christ at the Transfiguration. It is he who is invoked at the Crucifixion when people wonder if Christ is calling upon someone—Elijah—for deliverance. By pointing to Elijah, James is making his argument for the power of prayer as accessible and understandable as possible. It is not just that prayer can work wonders, or might work wonders—it is that it absolutely, without a doubt, already has. And that’s what it means to be a good teacher, doesn’t it? To make your lessons accessible, to teach something that may be old as something that can be made new again. Those are, to my mind, the two of the greatest challenges the church faces at this moment in time, and at both, we are trying hard but needing to do so much better.

And prayer, prayer that does work wonders, James says that it came from this great figure of Biblical lore, but Jame does not go through the whole spiel that I just gave you about Elijah’s stature—he says that Elijah was a person just like us! Which is not meant to diminish Elijah at all—it is instead the mark of teaching at its greatest: teaching that is not simply informative, but inspirational. Here is this great Biblical figure, who brought King Ahab to his knees, who bested the priests of Ba’al, and James is not saying, “Who are we, compared to the likes of him?” He is saying, “YOU can be to God as he was.” Isn’t that what a teacher at their greatest can do for a child, or for a person? My job is not simply to tell you that God loves you and to do good things in His name. My job is also to tell you that through God’s grace, anything is possible for you, for this family of faith that we call our church, and that if you were to ask me how I knew this, I would tell you about this letter, written in the name of the brother of Jesus Christ, that told me that I could indeed answer the call to which God was leading me. And in turn, I would ask you to do the same for others, because if nothing else, one of the things I hope you can take away from this sermon series is that those moments of teaching, learning, and sharing faith come in the most unexpected and wonderful of ways. Whether on an airplane, or in a food court, or at a coffee shop, it is upon you to carry your faith outside these walls. As Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Teach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 4, 2012