Thursday, June 28, 2012

Days Off and Your Pastor: The Need for More Sundays Away

Over a lunch of fajitas and salsa, I recently made a comment in passing to a colleague and friend about how my contract with FCC allows me to take a Sunday off every quarter (that is, three months) in addition to my four weeks of vacation time (four weeks per year is generally the standard for clergy).

His response?

“Man, I need to hire your agent!” (As though I had Scott Boras reppin’ me at the negotiating table.)

My response?

“Dude…I didn’t even suggest it.  It was my congregation’s idea.”

And it was.  I didn’t even ask for that to be put into my contract.

The thing is…in terms of my own personal self-care, that clause is possibly the most important one in my contract—in part because the contract template given to our churches by the denomination does not, to its serious discredit, include days off or sick time (but both of which I am allowed under FCC's personnel handbook).

And unlike vacation, which tends to be lopsided for pastors (we take a lot of it in the summer, maybe a week in the winter that overlaps with part of the holiday season), the Sundays off are quarterly—I accrue them every three months, which ensures me eight Sundays off per year, which averages out to once every six or seven weeks (6.5 to be exact).

Why is this important?

For me—and, I imagine, many of my colleagues—seven weeks is about the breaking point for us when it comes to the quality of our preaching.  Minute for minute, no other task of our jobs is as spiritually demanding and draining as preaching, and after a time, we reach a point of diminishing returns, when we are no longer at our best and need to ride the pine for a Sunday.

Think of almost any sport—the starters get a rest at some point in the game via timeouts, halftime, substitutions, etc.  Why should it be any different for senior/solo pastors?

Now…it doesn’t *always* work that way.  When I first arrived here last fall, I preached eight Sundays in a row without a break—that went okay for the most part.  But after Ash Wednesday this year, I preached eleven Sundays in a row, and I could feel the fatigue after the seventh or eighth Sunday…and so could my congregants—more than one asked me in April when I would next be allowing myself a Sunday off.  I made a promise to myself never to go that long preaching without a break again.

I am currently midway through a nine-week uninterrupted stretch of preaching, but the good news is that beginning in August, I will not go more than six weeks without a break until, I believe, February of 2013, which I am very grateful for.

Pastors are well-documented workaholics (a Duke Divinity School study concluded that a typical full-time Protestant pastor works an average of 50 hours per week).  This is in no small part due to the fact that our work never ceases.  The myth is that we all we do is give a sermon every week, maybe teach a couple of classes, and then get all of this vacation time.  The reality is that there is always next week’s sermon to be written, there is always another Sunday School or Bible Study curriculum to prepare, there is always another family in need of pastoral care, there is always another mission to support, and there is always the NEXT BIG THING™ to envision.

But giving your pastor a Sunday off every season, in addition to his/her regular vacation time, can create a healthier spiritual leader and, by extension, a healthier congregation.  Having seen this mechanism in action, and having endured some rough weeks in a vocation that I love, I firmly believe in it.

Question: What mechanisms for self-care for your pastors (or for yourself, if you are a pastor) have worked best in your experience?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, June 26, 2012, Bible Up!

(Author’s Note—this post was inspired by a comment on my Facebook page by Zack Frazier, one of my friends from my days as a college debater. –E.A.)

After a week of super-duper serious posts (!) about orthodoxy, statements of faith, and the Fortnight for Freedom, it’s probably time to lighten the mood here just a little bit…

Hence, combining the Bible and baseball. Sure, Marx might say that religion is the opiate of the people, but I think sports fill that role more so now than ever. So, feel free to indulge in a little feel-good humor as I take you around the baseball diamond of the nine translations of Scripture that I currently own. After noting that I had eight hard copy translations, I realized I only needed one more to suit up a (admittedly fictitious, and probably slightly demented) baseball team…enter the electronic version of the King James Version that I keep on my iPad!

So here we go…I give you Eric’s starting lineup for his team of Bible translations…

(And yes, this will be almost as geeky as you are expecting it to be.)

Catcher: New Revised Standard Version 

The catcher often acts as a sort of field captain for a baseball team—they’re not only calling the pitches, they also make adjustments, decide when to visit the mound, and do all of that from a unique vantage point—they are the only ones who can see the entire field of play from their position. The NRSV is, then, the field captain of my own Bible baseball team. For many years, it was my default translation, and still is when it comes to study Bibles. It does a lot of the heavy lifting that other translations aren’t always up for, and it has a prominent place on my shelf for that.

First Base: Common English Bible

Whether it is because of a single, walk, balk, hit-by-pitch, or a dropped third strike, first base is the base that hitters most frequently end up at from the plate. And the CEB is the translation I now most frequently end up at in my own study. It has become my default general-purpose translation, and I don’t think more than a couple days ever go by without me consulting it.

Second Base: Today’s New International Version 

The second base was (still is? Heck if I know…) known as the pivot spot because of the second baseman’s role in double plays hit to the shortstop. The TNIV pivots better than any other translation I’ve seen (except possibly The Voice, which I am not yet terribly familiar with). Its roots are in the conservative, evangelically-leaning New International Version, but the TNIV brought with it a fresh interpretation that includes gender-inclusive language and sensitivity to the ways the church has used Scripture to justify anti-Semitism. Sadly, the 2011 refresh of the NIV rendered the TNIV obsolete, but I still keep a copy of the TNIV around.

Third Base: New King James Version 

Third base, aka the hot corner, typically fields some of the hardest-hit grounders and liners in the game. I have to think that in the same way, the NKJV, as the go-to translation for The Gideons, fields some hard-hitting questions and situations from people who encounter it as a sort of first contact with Scripture in a long time. It isn’t my favored translation by any means, but it has its place in this lineup.

Shortstop: Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh 

The shortstop is the defensive player you expect to make the dazzling, highlight-reel plays—think Derek Jeter, Ozzie Smith, or (closer to home) Alcides Escobar. They are dynamic players capable of changing the gamestate on a whim. Similarly, the JPS’s Tanakh translation (which is Old Testament only) has the same ability to, whether by its translation or its excellent academic commentary, cause me to completely rethink my earlier conceptions of a particular Bible verse or passage. A dynamic translation indeed!

Left Field: Revised Standard Version 

The old (the full Protestant canon was published in 1952) RSV earns its spot in left field more for some of the crazier reactions it garnered than for its own characteristics, which have long since been eclipsed by the NRSV and, to an extent, the CEB. A number of hardline Christians accused the RSV of denying doctrinal issues such as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, and in one particular case, an American pastor actually burned a copy of the RSV from the pulpit, saying that it was from the devil. For taking one for the team against the more fringe elements of my religion, the RSV is my starting left fielder. 

Center Field: New International Version (2011 edition)

 Before 2011, there was no way I would put the NIV in center field, where so much ground has to be covered. Before 2011, the NIV seemed like simply a niche translation for someone like me—a translation that definitely lets its very evangelical roots shine through in some questionable translation decision—but it was (and is) still an extremely popular translation nonetheless. But in 2011, the NIV was updated to include a number of changes that addressed some of my biggest concerns with it (see the TNIV’s entry at 2B as well), and as a result, the amount of ground that the NIV has covered in its nearly 40 years of existence makes it well-suited for its task today, and for the task of playing center field in this lineup of the bizarre.

Right Field (har har har): New American Standard Bible 

By trotting out the RSV to start in left field, poetic justice and irony demands that I start the NASB in right field, since it was (is) in many ways a conservative response to the RSV. It is more literal than just about any interpretation I’ve come across, and takes the word-for-word translation philosophy to the extreme, where only a hard throw across the diamond will do to make the play…such is the life in right field.

Designated Hitter: King James Version 

The granddaddy of them all. Like venerable players nearing the end of their careers, the KJV is a perfect candidate for the DH slot because of its niche via its high-flowing prose and poetry…it isn’t always the best for everyday use anymore, especially given its many translation inaccuracies, but sometimes, if you wanna hit one out of the park with a beautiful swing, the KJV is exactly the translation for that one moment.

You'll notice that there is no pitcher on this team.  That is because  I do not want to run the risk of losing any of my translations for a year of rehab after having Tommy John surgery.

And that's my lineup!

How do your perceptions of different Bible translations stack up?  Do sports and spirituality mix well for you?  (And if not, can I help change that? =) )

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, June 24, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Michael's Lament"

Revelation 12:7-12

7 Then there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they did not prevail, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 So the great dragon was thrown down. The old snake, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth; and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, “Now the salvation and power and kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ have come. The accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them day and night before our God, has been thrown down. 11 They gained the victory over him on account of the blood of the Lamb and the word of their witness. Love for their own lives didn’t make them afraid to die. 12 Therefore, rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them. But oh! The horror for the earth and sea! The devil has come down to you with great rage, for he knows that he only has a short time.” (CEB)

“The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation,” Week Four
            It was one of those stories that began, as many stories that go viral do, in isolation—in the social isolation that comes with being ostracized and bullied.  The 68-year-old grandmother who still worked as a bus monitor felt the abuse pile up from her students—the profanity, the physical threats, and easily the most jarring, the taunts about her eldest son who had committed suicide.  Somehow, the entire ten-minute tirade from this group of teenage boys made it to YouTube, putting on full display not only their viciousness, but this woman’s humiliation.  I could never imagine how much I would want, if I were in her place, to be as the woman who brackets this story in Revelation—the woman in danger from the dragon who is given wings, that I could escape…not even from the dragon but from myself, that nobody, nobody might see me in my humiliation.  But…as it turns out, that is often when Heaven makes its next move.
Today marks the fourth week of our summer sermon series.  After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling.  Jesus preached a lot of turning the other cheek, the rest of the New Testament are a bunch of letters, and the stories of the conquest under Joshua, or of the wars with the Philistines under Saul and David, are far off in the deep recesses of the past, documented vividly in the Old Testament, but still a thousand or so years before Christ.  So, enter the book of Revelation.  After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later.  His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways.  I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over! 
The first week was mostly a crash course introduction to how exactly we are meant to read Revelation to begin with—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John himself, and could not begin to understand his mind—and in week two, we began going through his actual vision, and we started in a familiar, heartwarming place: the thought of Heaven itself, with angels gathered to worship around God’s throne.  Then last week, we began to delve into the realm of demons and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell with the appearance of the iconic four horsemen of the apocalypse, which represented the first great threats in John’s vision.
            This week, the new villain at hand is a familiar one—the dragon, representing Satan, whom Michael casts out of paradise in this famous story of the war between Heaven and Hell in Revelation 12.  It is no accident that we have arrived at this story on week four—the exact middle of our sermon series—because this is also roughly the middle of the book of Revelation, and by all accounts this story represents a significant turning point in the entire book because it depicts the first true defeat that evil is dealt in John’s vision thus far.
            But it is only a partial victory, as is clearly evinced by the heavenly voice that is heard in verses 10-12, proclaiming a victory for Heaven, and salvation, and the power and kingdom of God, but not for those of us stuck on earth!  No, in verse 9, the dragon is thrown not into hell, but into earth, and in verse 12, the heavens get to rejoice, lucky them, but woe to those of us still muddling along in this broken and fragmented world, because now we’re stuck with this thing called evil that we may not know how to resist, whether because we are too afraid to, or because we struggle to define it.  Either way, the result is the same—evil overpowers our own weakness.
            That’s the heart of the voice’s lament in verse 12, though…Heaven knew how to resist evil, but we still do not…or, at least, not all the time.  Or even most of the time.  Yes, we try to say please and thank you.  But if that’s all there is, then we’re members not of the Christian Church, we’re members of the Church of Be Nice and Chew With Your Mouth Closed.  Being able to recognize wrong and to resist it without becoming wrong ourselves, that’s a lot less superficial.  And that’s why, theoretically, the church should still be in business—to teach that!
            But if I am completely honest with all of you, I worry that the church indulges in wrong as well, much as we should not, much as we must not.  It’s easy to demonize other groups of people when we say I’m right, you’re wrong.  It’s easy because it has always been quicker to rally people when you give them a bogeyman to be afraid of, not a Savior to be inspired by.  But when we pastors reach for that, we begin preaching by the power of fear, not the power of faith.
            The paralyzing nature of evil itself, and of the fear it indulges, can be summed up in the name of the devil that John uses in verse 9—Satan.  That name first appears in the opening chapters of the book of Job, where God hands Job over to the power of this same creature, Satan, and in Job, the Hebrew “ha satan” literally means “the adversary,” or “the accuser.”  And so Job, in order that his faith be proved, basically gets hung out to dry by God—God lets The Adversary do whatever to Job, just so long as Job’s life is spared (though, it should be noted, not the lives of Job’s family).  Job’s livelihood is put to a screeching halt—he loses everything because of the nature of evil—and God’s own hands are tied by the wager He made with The Adversary.  It isn’t just that evil is destructive in Job’s case, it is that it is paralyzing as well.
            And I have to admit…I felt like, when reading through this text over…and over…that we had all become Job, that we have all been hung out to dry by God because God’s done His own housecleaning—He’s cast Satan out of Heaven, but then Satan just picks up and moves next door.  It’s like, as a little kid, when your parents tell you to clean your room, you just sweep it all under the bed instead.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?  It makes it feel like Heaven is in denial!
            Except that verse 12 means we know that’s not the case—in that half-verse of lament, Heaven knows exactly what it has sentenced Earth to by sending The Adversary to our backyard.  So what, exactly, is God’s excuse?  My short answer to that question is: we may never know.
            The long answer is that perhaps we are left, then, with the unenviable task of discerning what we believe to be evil, what we believe to be good, and what we believe, in true Goldilocks fashion, to be in the middle in a world full of shades of gray in addition to the black and the white.  But perhaps the better goal is not to identify certain things as good or as evil, but to identify how evil itself is formed, just like how goodness is formed.  And this is the best I’ve got for you:
            Evil exists because, to borrow from the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, its roots come from our own refusals to be ourselves—to be good people, to be loving Christians.  When we refuse to be ourselves by reaching for selfishness, we are modeling not the God who made us, but The Adversary, because he too has chosen not to be himself—he has chosen to no longer be the angel God created him as.  We as Christians are called to model the love of Jesus, and when we stop doing that, we indulge that darker side that exists within each of us.  And when enough of us choose to do that, we begin to see things like wars, massacres, evils so widespread, and sins so massive that they could understandably completely obliterate your faith in one another.  And other times, that sort of hurt and wrongdoing happens close to home, yet sometimes, occasionally, with a different end result.
            For there is an epilogue to the story of the bullied bus monitor.  An online campaign was set up to raise funds for her to be able to take a vacation, and it, like the clip of the bullying itself, also went viral.  The original goal was to raise $5,000.  As of Friday afternoon, it had raised over $500,000.  But perhaps more importantly, a number of the teenagers who bullied her have now emotionally, publicly—and in some cases, on national television—apologized to her, and swore never to do something like that again.
            We still know, deep down, the right thing to do…at least more often than not.  May that be enough to keep us following Jesus Christ.  After all, he and The Adversary do have one thing in common—they were both sent from heaven to earth.  And the choice to act like either of them remains ours.  Let us choose wisely.  Let us choose lovingly.  Let us choose to be Christ-like.  By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 24, 2012

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Fortnight for Frivolity

I promise I’m not trying to become a single-issue blogger.


Pinky swear.

But the US Catholic Bishops’ alliteration-happy “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign begins today. And even though I’ve got posts lined up for next week on Bible translations as a baseball team (that is, which translation would play which position) and on pastoral self-care…I can’t let this one go just yet.

So, God, forgive me.

And dear readers, forgive me even more.


Sometimes, little things annoy me, like the taste of dental floss, or the word ‘cumquat.’

I used to think that people saying, “Christianity is under attack in America!” like Chicken Little saying the sky is falling was one such little thing that annoyed me.

Then the bishops started saying it. And conservative Protestant pastors started saying it. And now how I long for the days when someone saying, “Christianity is under attack in America!” was but a little thing that annoyed me.

Look. If you want to know what Christianity under attack REALLY looks like, visit North Korea. Or China. Or Sudan. Or the 3rd –century Roman Empire. But not here.

What makes this so galling is that the bishops KNOW this. In discussing their “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” statement, their Fortnight for Freedom point man Rev. William Lori, the Archbishop of Baltimore, recognized “that our religious freedom problems in the U.S. pale in comparison to those problems abroad.”

In other words, they know it—they know that saying that we Christians are being attacked or persecuted in America right now is the height of frivolity—we’re ironically using our freedoms of speech and religion to say that our freedoms of speech and religion are being oppressed, and in doing so, we trivialize legitimate and profound instances of persecution of Christians today.

Which leaves me to worry that the bishops are simply ginning up a perception of being persecuted rather than, you know, actually being persecuted. 

And when church leaders become too heavy-handed like this in their political involvements (like sponsoring the Fortnight for Freedom), the church suffers. As scholar and editor Margaret Steinfels puts it, “Many Catholics, younger ones in particular, are put off in a serious way by religious leaders involving themselves directly in politics, such as telling us how to vote.”

This hits home for me in a big way—literally. Two weeks ago, a rally was held at the Civic Center in the heart of Longview to “assert that the president (Obama) and secular culture are attacking Christianity itself.”  I mean, sure, but in the same way that you attack someone in a pillow fight.  It might be jarring initially, but the damage is hardly permanent.

Now, no doubt parts of secular culture mock us to no end (see also: South Park, Richard Dawkins, and the goofy Darwin fish). But also no doubt, we sometimes deserve that mocking for pulling tone-deaf stunts like this.

There are REAL problems in the world that the Bible is explicit that we as Christians are called to solve. That the government wants my insurance company to cover Disciples employees’ contraception doesn’t even begin to make it to the top of that list.

Bishops, everyone...please take a step back. See the whole picture. There are far bigger problems that we as a church face. Poverty. Starvation and malnutrition. Homelessness. Violence. Not to mention all of the instances of persecution of Christians in the countries I listed above.

Why aren’t you dedicating a fortnight to campaign with the same fervor against any of those?

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Statements of Faith and the Hospitality of Orthodoxy

(Author’s note: This post can be considered Part II of a two-part series on ways of enforcing orthodoxy in Christianity today. Part I tackled the issue of created spiritual sameness by provoking differently-minded people to leave a church and can be found here. –E.A.)

Enforcing orthodoxy necessitates having orthodoxy to enforce. That might seem obvious, but it’s important to note, because this isn’t a chicken-or-the-egg scenario—the more orthodoxy you have, the more enforcement you tend to use (see also: being a Kansas City Royals fan and it being “our time.”)

I have always belonged to a non-creedal church—the Disciples of Christ. We famously bore the slogan, “No Creed but Christ!” and still insist on very few points of orthodoxy for our congregations beyond the following:

 -Belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior

-Belief in the priesthood and ministry of all believers

-Practice of baptism by full immersion

-Practice of weekly holy communion

And that’s about it. Nothing in there about the Trinity, or heaven and hell, or pre-, post- a-, or pan-millennialism. Nothing about humanity’s inherent depravity, or even the nature of salvation.

What can I say? We’re not picky eaters.  We want to make sure you're down with the essentials of being a Protestant Christian first before we worry about what kind of millennium you believe in ("Falcon" is an acceptable answer, at least in my church).

Except being a Disciple has made me picky in one way—I cannot, in good conscience, ever sign a statement of faith that went beyond the affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah, even if I agreed with everything that statement of faith said. As Christian Piatt points out, Jesus didn’t ask any of His disciples to sign a statement of faith when they signed up.

But I’d go even further—Peter didn’t ask his audience at Pentecost to sign a statement of faith (like we may now do in church with prospective members) in order to be saved—Peter told them to be baptized so that they could receive forgiveness, not right doctrine! So I'm not sure why I should proffer such a statement to the folks who visit my church. It simply does not come across as Biblical to me.

Like I said in my previous post, my church does have a short statement of faith on its website, and it is essentially the same as the short list I made at the start of this post. Our “essentials” for belief are quite minimal, and that is, in my mind, enough. It is enough for two reasons—one is theological. I am a sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) Christian in that I believe that the Bible contains all the instruction necessary for salvation, so going above and beyond it in creating orthodoxy seems very much unnecessary to me.

The other reason is more practical—I simply worry that extensive statements of faith turn away people who are unchurched. Granted, this may well be patronizing for me to hypothesize (since I was raised in the church and have never really walked in an unchurched person’s proverbial shoes), and if it is, please call me out on it:

I can imagine that if I were unchurched, and looking for a church, and saw on their website, say, a four-page statement of faith with plenty of Christian-y jargon that I didn’t understand, I’d feel intimidated, much in the same way that I would feel intimidated if I traveled to a foreign country where I knew neither the language or the culture.  I would imagine this may be especially the case for a person who is looking for community even more than they are looking for answers.

More to the point, I worry that churches are sacrificing doing ministry upon the altar of doctrinal purity, and that this single-minded focus on right thought—at the expense of right action—is destroying us as a faith. And by quickly reprimanding its nuns but dragging its feet over pedophile priests, the Catholic Church is perhaps the most powerful case study at what can go wrong when a church does end up prioritizing right thought over right action.

Because statements of faith necessarily bring up the question in the first place of how a church will enforce its orthodoxy. Private teaching and admonishment is one thing; public shaming and shunning is something else entirely, which is why I have had such objections to the way the American nuns are being treated. Even if the nuns are in doctrinal error, it feels like the Vatican is doling out a million-dollar fine for a ten-dollar crime, and the Vatican is having a hard time proving the crime at that (much less its severity).

So to churches considering amending their statements of faith, I would ask: how do you plan to enforce them?

In the end, I realize that orthodoxy must be defined, but I’m not exactly sure why it always must be defended so. Truth wins out by its inherent nature, and it doesn’t always need our flawed and sometimes narrow-minded attempts to go to bat for it. Sometimes it wins out on its own.

After all, one of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew) was a tax collector. Another (Simon) was a zealot. They were polar opposites. I could totally see some bureaucrat in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith demanding that one of them toe the doctrinal line to stay in their church.

But Jesus did no such thing.

And the Twelve remained intact, all the way up to Judas’s betrayal.

So…as Jesus said to us: do likewise.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Do You Leave a Church You Disagree With?

(Author’s note—this post can be thought of as Part I of a two-part series on the power of enforcing doctrine—and, indeed, of orthodoxy itself—in the contemporary church. Part II will be posted tomorrow, the 20th. –E.A.)

Sometimes, I feel like all I do on this blog is write about the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Writing about them is…I dunno…the Vatican and the American bishops feel so completely out-of-step right now that sometimes, pointing it out is like blowing up my toilet with a hand grenade rather than with a simple homemade cherry bomb. It’s overkill.

Yet Bill Keller, until recently the executive editor for the New York Times, wrote a…well, interesting column yesterday that, as far as I can tell, consisted of two things:

-A laundry list of complaints about how Bill Donohue, the perpetually pissed-off leader of the Catholic League, probably clubs baby seals and drinks kitten’s tears in his spare time.

-An offhandedly casual call to progressive Roman Catholics to take their ball and leave the Catholic Church because clearly their hierarchy has no interest in appearing welcoming to them.

As to the first, well, I would simply point you in the direction of South Park’s fantastic season 11 Easter episode, which, in true South Park fashion, rips into Donohue’s zealotry and single-mindedness with barely disguised glee. As is often the case when South Park takes on religious issues, you may not like their low-brow style, but they do get an awful lot of it right.

As to the second…ugh. I’ve been a Disciple my whole life. And I simply can’t imagine being anything else right now.

I don’t think that she would do this (read: this is purely hypothetical), but if my church’s General Minister and President, Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, were to, say, come out in favor of reprimanding Disciples academics for what they wrote, I’d be ticked off, but I probably wouldn’t leave the Disciples over that. I’d want to stay and try to change the Disciples rather than give up on them, because my Disciples identity simply isn’t something I can walk away from lightly.

Granted—if I personally were reprimanded by my GMP, I might well want to find the door myself, and fast. But the equivalent to that analogy would be Keller saying that the nuns should consider an exodus, not the entire moderate-to-liberal wing of the Roman Catholic Church.

I will also say that it does help that the Disciples are certainly less creedal and hierarchy-driven than the Catholic Church, and my own personal orthodoxy is fairly minimal (belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, belief in the priesthood of all believers, the inspired nature of Scripture, and maybe a couple of other goodies). But because my own orthodoxy is minimal, I feel like it is breathtakingly uncaring to suggest that a person abandon their lifelong faith identity as easily as Keller does, because such a suggestion implies that they can just shop around for another faith family like one would shop around for a better-fitting pair of jeans.

That mentality is not only denigrating to the person hearing that suggestion, it’s denigrating to the church. Honestly, it bothers me terribly that we have taken the mentality of “church shopping” to such an extent that whenever our church says or does something we disagree with, we are encouraged to call it a day rather than stay and try to gently win minds and hearts over. I really do worry that doing this only makes churches act even more like echo chambers, where the orthodoxy of each church reigns, and where less and less actual teaching takes place because you’re already preaching to the choir. 

This phenomenon, in turn, is one of the things that bothers me the most about a church using excessive means to police its own orthodoxy, and this includes massive statements of faith—sure, nobody can accuse you of false advertising regarding what you believe, but you’re also presenting, in many cases, a ridiculously long list of non-negotiables and saying that you will tolerate no dissent over a theological question as inane as which heresies are “damnable” or not (though you can scroll all the way to the bottom of this to find out!).

When we allow—or, in the case of Pope Benedict XVI, actively make—our churches to be such homogenous petri dishes of doctrinal sameness, it leads to more PR problems for the church.  In the end, we may wind up only adding ammunition to one of the strongest stereotypes that unchurched folks have of us--that we are clergy-led automatons incapable of independent thought who delight in being told what to do.

And that’s unfortunate.

Question: How do you know if a church is right for you? What would have to change for it to not be the church for you anymore, and what would you do about it?

Part II of this series will be a discussion on the hospitality dimension of statements of faith—that is, the pros and cons of extensive statements of faith vis-a-vis the unchurched crowd.  It is in part inspired by this recent post from Disciples writer Christian Piatt.

(Finally, full disclosure—my congregation’s statement of faith can be found here at the bottom of the page. It is fairly minimal, and it includes a point on the necessity for freedom of belief. Both of those aspects are by design.)

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, June 17, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Postmodern Parthia"

(...yes, I did indeed say in my last post that I felt we Christians overuse the term "postmodern." I'm just a bundle of contradictions.) 

Revelation 6:1-8 

Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory. 3 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword. 5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. 6 I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion,[a] and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.” 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 So I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth. (CEB)

“The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation,” Week Three 

The kick drum was booming, the lights were dimming, and the absolutely packed auditorium was filled with anticipation so intense that you could cut it with a blade.  And this was in 2003, yet I remember it well.

Nine years ago, almost to the day, I saw my first-ever post-sermon altar call.

Mind you, I have witnessed many altar calls and loved them—usually at the very end of a service, during the closing music, for people who wanted to dedicate or rededicate themselves to Christ and become members of that particular church.

This was, rather, a “turn or burn” altar call.

I was seventeen and on mission in Atlanta, Georgia, with the International Christian Youth Fellowship, the youth arm of the Disciples of Christ. We had worship every night, and on that first night, we got a…I’ll be diplomatic and call it an "intense” sermon that culminated in an altar call, because, you know, this ain’t All Dogs Go to Heaven—it’s Only Particular Christians Go to Heaven. That’s what the preacher said. Several of my friends, crying, walked forward.

I walked out.

It wasn’t because of the altar call itself.

It was because of the altar call under threat of hellfire.

It was because of the message that I felt denigrated my agnostic father.

It was because of the message made my friends—loving, caring Christians all—suddenly terrified for the fate of their souls.

I felt sick. And in that moment, I caught a glimpse of why my peers leave the church, why many of them never come back, and why this is one of the greatest threats to the church.

Today marks the third week of our summer sermon series. After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling. Jesus preached a lot of turning the other cheek, the rest of the New Testament are a bunch of letters, and the stories of the conquest under Joshua, or of the wars with the Philistines under Saul and David, are far off in the dusty recesses of the past, documented vividly in the Old Testament, but still a thousand or so years before Christ. So, enter the book of Revelation. After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later. His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways. I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over!

The first week was mostly a crash course introduction to how exactly we are meant to read Revelation to begin with—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John himself, and could not begin to understand his mind—and last week, we began going through his actual vision, and we start in a familiar, heartwarming place before today, this week, when we begin to delve into the realm of devils and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell with the appearance of the iconic four horsemen of the apocalypse, the first great threats in John’s vision.

There are four horsemen, one after the other, representing conquest, war, famine, and death--contrary to popular belief, there is no horseman in Scripture who represents pestilence. And it is also very important that they are horsemen. One of the greatest military threats that Biblical Israel faced was that of Parthia, an empire in modern-day Iran, whose armies were known for their fearsome and legendary cavalry. These cavalry fought primarily with two weapons—the bow and arrow, and the sword. These two weapons are wielded by the first two horsemen—conquest and war. The image of the Parthian cavalry is invoked by John because, quite literally, they represented to ancient Israel war and conquest, and that which follows—famine and death.

Famine from the resources used and destroyed by war, and from that famine comes the tyranny of the scales—the scales which were used to weigh pieces of silver and gold to pay for food (think of how we would use a cash register today). And when there is too little food, prices increase. It’s supply-and-demand, economics 101. A day’s pay for a quart of wheat, or for three quarts of barley, was the equivalent of price-gouging--imagine paying an entire day's salary for a loaf of Wonderbread! And when you can no longer afford food, starvation comes and death claims you.

What John is describing is, in fact, the reality that the greatest threats we face are from one another. Our ability to claim another’s life by means of violence and economic exploitation is the first threat that we see in the entirety of Revelation—chapter one is the introduction, chapters two and three are letters to various churches, chapters four and five are peaceful visions of Heaven, and here is the first threat to that peace—the threats of violence and scarcity. And whether we choose to admit it or not, they are the greatest threat the church faces today.

We can make all the noise we want about evolution versus creationism, or who is allowed to be married or not, but the number of deaths that they directly cause is relatively small to say the least. Yet an estimated 25,000 people die every day from hunger or hunger-related causes—that’s over 1,000 people every hour—and over 4,000 people die every day from violence. And the number of people who die because we teach evolution in our schools? Well…probably pretty close to zero.

The simple truth, the annoying, won’t-shut-up-and-go-away truth is, that there are REAL concerns facing the church today regarding what the four horsemen represent—there are real concerns about violence and starvation that we can do something about, by supporting, say, the battered women’s shelter in Kelso, and by providing for the Kessler Elementary School’s food aid for students. And I am so very, very grateful that these are what this congregation chooses to expend its resources on, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because to our unchurched neighbors, that is what they often want or need to see from us to recognize our faith as genuine. As James writes, "By your works, I shall know your faith!"

Because faith that misses the big picture—that pushes aside the big stuff to invent littler stuff to tackle—that is the sort of faith that is what is turning people away from the church today. The Barna Group, a California think tank focused on faith and culture, published a study last year that included these eye-opening facts: 22% of 18-to-29-year-old adults believe the church ignores the problems of the real world. 36% believe they cannot ask their most pressing life questions in church. And because of that type of stifling atmosphere—where, for instance, turn-or- burn pronouncements of hellfire and condemnation make up the message—because of things like that, 20% of people my age say that God is missing from their experiences of church.

When we ignore what the four horsemen represent, we create another great crisis, another foe, another Parthian army, that the current, post-modern church must face and conquer—of disbelief in us!

It would be disingenuous for me to ignore the concerns of the real world from the pulpit (that I never use!). It would be shameful for me to turn this church into a place where you could not ask any pressing questions. But neither of those things kept me from terror’s grip when I got in front of you last week and tore into the reality that there are churches that teach their children virulent homophobia from a very early age. Many of you told me afterwards that you noticed how nervous I was, or even that such nervousness was unlike me. And I’d like to think that it is, because it is not often that I preach with the fear in the back of my mind that by preaching what I believe to be true, that I would cause an uproar among you for daring to push the envelope.

I cannot say, and will hopefully never have to say, that I am sorry for preaching what I believe to be true. But I am sorry, very sorry, that I did not have more faith in you. I was terrified that I was about to cut this congregation’s throat by saying something you so would not want to hear that you would shut your ears to me. But I have learned that this is not so. And learning this restores my faith, and I hope it does for you as well, that this can indeed be a church which dedicates itself to the true crises that we face, rather than the crises which we manufacture.

For in the four horsemen, we have seen the faces of the evils that we are called to quell. And may our doing this provide to those who have walked away from the path of Jesus Christ a wondrous reason to return to it once more. Because I will say this for my generation—we may not always be certain of what our faith looks like, or even that we have that much faith, but we know it when we see it.

We know it when we see it.

By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 17, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Behind the Scenes of Sermon Writing: Five Rules I Live By

...but if I was a pirate pastor (note to self: excellent idea for a Halloween costume), these would be more like guidelines than actual rules.  Besides, really, these are guidelines because they work for me--whether they'd work for you or for others is anyone's guess!

Between my student associate ministry in Concord and my current solo pastorate here in Longview (plus a few pulpit supply gigs here and there), I just hit the 50-sermon milestone—I’ve given about a year’s worth of sermons in my career.

For a while, when people asked me how I had written them (presumably so that they could be better informed about how such a comedy of theological errors could come from the pulpit), I was never quite sure what to tell them—I just would sit down and write, and pray, and write some more, and let the whole thing simmer over low heat for a while like a good beef stew.

I realized that this was especially true for my most recent sermon—the “As it is in Heaven” sermon on Revelation 4. Because of the subject matter, I took an exceptionally long time to muster the courage to compose it—I was still writing content on Saturday night, whereas 9 times out of 10, if I’m working on a sermon on a Saturday, it is purely to give the sermon some polish rather than adding content, as I almost always write them much earlier in the week.

But one of the most important things after you leave seminary and enter full-time ministry is figuring out who you are as a pastor—as a teacher and a counselor and a leader, but perhaps most importantly as a preacher. I have finally begun to get to know myself a bit, so now, whenever you ask me how I wrote my latest Biblical atrocity of a sermon, I’ll point you here!

1-Prior Preparation Helps Prevent Poor Performance

With the exception of holidays like Christmas and Easter, I preach almost entirely in the format of sermon series—that is, in multi-week arcs (usually 4-8 weeks long), and these arcs are centered around a particular Bible story, or theme, or Christian book. 

This style necessitates planning these arcs weeks—and usually months—in advance. For instance, I have texts and general themes picked out for my next FOUR sermon series after the current one I am doing on Revelation, which will take me clear into December. Even if I won’t actually get to the nuts and bolts of a sermon until that week, its theme has likely been knocking around in the darker recesses of my brain for a long time. The benefit for me is that it forces me to maintain some in-depth continuity in worship rather than simply writing whatever comes to mind on any given week (while I definitely indulge in that, I try to do so here on the blog, rather than in my sermons).

2-Juggling is for the Circus

I’m also a series preacher in that I don’t preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, an ordering of texts published every year that is designed to allow a preacher to go through *most* of the Bible every three years. The RCL includes 1-2 Old Testament readings, a Gospel reading, and a reading from one of the letters of the New Testament (ie, Paul’s letters, or Peter’s, or John’s, James, etc). The RCL’s goal is admirable, but I worry that it might fall short at it because it necessitates skimming over great swaths of the non-Gospel, non-Psalm books, which forces preachers in turn to reach for the McNuggets, the most well-known passages of those underrepresented books, rather than for the whole thing.

And after trying originally to preach on the RCL for my first couple of sermons, I now know that I am really only good for one text per sermon—whenever I try preaching on multiple texts at once, it is the preaching equivalent of juggling, and when it goes wrong, it is nearly as spectacular a disaster. So while I may bring in a variety of Biblical passages to augment my sermon, it will almost always feature only one text, and this is another benefit of preaching in a series—I can structure the ordering of the texts to best suit my preaching’s needs.

3-Everyone Loves a Good Story

My childhood pastor was—and is—an excellent storyteller, and though I know that I am supposed to preach with my own voice rather than imitate someone else, I have tried to emulate the approach of beginning each of my sermons with a story or anecdote. Sometimes the stories are funny, sometimes they are serious, but every time I try to bend over backwards to make sure that the story fits the message, and not the other way around.

The stories also aren’t always about me and my experiences—of course, some are, but I’m also 26 years old, and some of the folks I am preaching to are three times my age, and have me beat but good on the life experience front, so I try to rely on a diverse array of stories beyond my own. I’ll try to consider not only what has been happening in my life, but in the lives of my congregants and in the world of current events before I settle on a tale to tell.

4-Keep It Simple, Stupid 

At the risk of speaking ill of any of my well-intentioned, dedicated, and extremely talented colleagues, I must admit that there are few styles of preaching I find more stupefying than the style that says you have to have exactly three (or whatever) distinct points to your sermon, and that (even worse) each point must begin with the same letter.*

To quote the ‘80s robot, “Like, gag me with a spoon.”

And so somewhat related to rule #2 on only using one text, another of the most valuable lessons I have learned was that a sermon should say only one thing, and say it well. It’s impossible for me to cram everything I know about the Bible into a 15-20 minute message, so I shouldn’t bother trying. Much like a good research paper, a sermon needs a thesis statement—or at least a bottom line. I have since learned that if I cannot sum up the basis of my entire sermon in a single sentence, then I need to take the whole thing back to formula.

*As an aside, is ministry is the most alliteration-happy occupation ever? Going through the newsletters of my colleagues’ churches, their columns often go by names like “The Pastor’s Pen” or “Musings from the Minister.” I simultaneously laugh and weep at my profession’s collective corniness, even as I indulge in it myself (see previous sentence clause’s use of “collective corniness”).

5-The Highest Technique is to Have No Technique 

Beyond those four basic rules (er...guidelines) listed above, I have few other requirements for how I write my sermons. Because I detest the overuse of the word “postmodern” (especially in the church, where, let’s be honest, we acclimate to change about as quickly as a polar bear would acclimate to the desert), I prefer labeling my preaching as “freestyle.”

What that means (to me) is that I place no artificial requirements upon my sermons when writing them—no needing X number of illustrations, or Y number of quotes from Biblical scholars, or Z amount of action steps. I just write. I pray a lot, I unpack my thesis wherever it leads and guides me to, I pray some more, I edit, and I try to wrap things up in a nice, tidy way at the end.

This has the ancillary benefit of actually decreasing my dependence on out-and-out quoting outside sources. That doesn’t mean I don’t use them, but that I am more apt to paraphrase or quote briefly rather than quoting extensively, which in turn leaves more room for my OWN words, and for God to use my voice to speak His truth. In this way, my preaching becomes my own, and God's own.

So…with apologies to Bruce Lee, I think that (at least, for me) it is best to describe my preaching technique as being no technique.

I don’t know if this was illuminating or useful in trying to explain how the sermons that get slapped up here every week come into being (or if it was merely an exercise in me talking about myself)…but it has been beneficial for me to try to explain my process, as it has helped me gain a more in-depth perspective into who I am, and who God has made me, as a preacher.

To fellow preachers and teachers of the Word out has God led you to your personal styles of offering the Gospel?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

They Be Rollin', They Hatin', Patrollin' Tryin' to Catch Me Writin' Heresy

(…Okay, I ran out of syllables towards the end, but I decided I’d rather have the title rhyme with the original lyric.)

Dear Bishops and Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church,


I love a lot of the work you guys have done over the years. You’ve elected some amazing popes recently, from John XXIII to John Paul II. Your ecumenical and nonviolence work has been the equivalent of a quantum leap forward for the world.

And this is to say nothing of the ministry I’ve benefited from via your rank-and-file clergy. One of my college chaplains is a Franciscan sister. One of my most formative seminary Bible professors is a Dominican priest.

So I’m a fan. A big fan, even.

Hopefully my emotional and academic attachment to the Catholic Church lends me just enough credibility to openly ask this on the day that the Vatican is now meeting with leaders from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious...

What the @#$%&!* happened?

I’m not even talking about the pedophilia scandal at the moment—my feelings on it are fairly well-formed.

But what happened to you men of power not feeling threatened by the theologies of articulate, compassionate, intelligent women religious here in the States?

Maybe it is because my childhood pastor is female, or that I was taught religion by women in both college and seminary, or that I belong to a denomination headed by a female pastor, or that I simply have to conclude the Apostle Paul was full of it when he wrote in 1 Corinthians that women should stay silent in churches after effusively praising the deaconess Phoebe in Romans 16 but…

What could it possibly be that has alarmed you so about a highly-regarded woman religious theologian saying that possibly some  aspects of human sexuality aren’t quite as black-and-white as they first appear?

What could it possibly be that has worried you so much about the LCWR that you’re putting cleaning your own house on the back burner so that my fellow Washington native Archbishop Peter Sartain can give them the third degree instead?

What could it possibly be that you take such a consistent pro-life approach in ethical debates, but are balking at covering contraception for women when contraception demonstrably reduces the number of abortions in countries with consistent birth rates?

Are you fearful of your actions stifling academic and theological creativity here in the States?

Are you concerned about how your church looks when you give Bernard Cardinal Law, architect of the Boston pedophile priest cover-up, an enviable position in Rome, but tolerate no doctrinal variance from the people who are actually on the streets, doing ministry day-in and day-out?

I’m genuinely wondering here, because I remember what the German Catholic theologian Hans Kung said about Pope Benedict XVI in 2009—that Benedict is enclosed in the Vatican and so sees only the Vatican world. And I feel like I’m beginning to understand what Professor Kung is saying.

I mean, here in the non-Vatican world, I give thanks every day that I belong to a church where I do not have to fear the possibility of my regional minister (my equivalent of a bishop) paying me a visit to tell me that I have committed heresy and that I need to be reined in by a bunch of randos who call themselves the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Besides, what would we call such a body in the Disciples? The Congregation for the No Creed but Christ? That’s a gas.

Yet even in that reality, I was still, in my gut, fearful of giving the sermon I just gave this past Sunday because of how much I’ve been pushing the envelope here regarding same-sex equality and the possible ballot referendum in November.

For parish pastors to be able to preach truth in love, and truth to power, necessitates our ecclesiastical superiors trusting in us, their rank-and-file clergy, that we will preach and teach Biblically-inspired messages of divine love.

When you do not trust us, we cannot do our jobs—the jobs you ordain us to do. And when we cannot do our jobs, the church, and Christianity itself, suffers mightily. 

Why can’t you see that?

Yours in Christ,
A Protestant pastor who loves your church and desperately wants to believe in you

Sunday, June 10, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "...As it is in Heaven"

Revelation 4:1-11

After this I looked and there was a door that had been opened in heaven. The first voice that I had heard, which sounded like a trumpet, said to me, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in a Spirit-inspired trance and I saw a throne in heaven, and someone was seated on the throne. 3 The one seated there looked like jasper and carnelian, and surrounding the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. 4 Twenty-four thrones, with twenty-four elders seated upon them, surrounded the throne. The elders were dressed in white clothing and had gold crowns on their heads. 5 From the throne came lightning, voices, and thunder. In front of the throne were seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God. 6 Something like a glass sea, like crystal, was in front of the throne. In the center, by the throne, were four living creatures encircling the throne. These creatures were covered with eyes on the front and on the back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion. The second living creature was like an ox. The third living creature had a face like a human being. And the fourth living creature was like an eagle in flight. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings, and each was covered all around and on the inside with eyes. They never rest day or night, but keep on saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is coming.” 9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one seated on the throne, who lives forever and always, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one seated on the throne. They worship the one who lives forever and always. They throw down their crowns before the throne and say, 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, because you created all things. It is by your will that they existed and were created.” (CEB)

“The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation,” Week Two

The eyes of the dying business mogul flitting about, taking in the entire room, filled with the people who had loved him the longest and dearest in life—his sisters, and his spouse, and then—for the longest time, his gaze settled upon his children. The doctors had given him a coin flip of a chance of making it through the night, and so they had all assembled as quickly as they could—as quickly as almost any family would. And they had arrived soon enough to, possibly, be the catalyst for this dying man’s final words, because those final words came after having seen all of the people who had come to lovingly escort him into eternity, and at that moment, having seen all of those faces, Steve Jobs gasps out, three times, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

His sister Mona Simpson, conveying the story of Steve’s death in her funeral eulogy, said that he had told her that he knew he was going to a better place. And I know that we’re supposed to see that better place in the form of the stereotypical white light that we’re supposed to run towards, but..if we as Christians are meant to bring Heaven, the Kingdom of a God of love, to earth, then to see our loved ones as we die is perhaps the greatest precursor to Heaven that we may ever have. And it is a privilege that I wish John would have had in exile on the island of Patmos.

Today marks the second week of a brand-new summer sermon series for each of us. After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling. Jesus preached a lot of turning the other cheek, the rest of the New Testament are a bunch of letters, and the stories of the conquest under Joshua, or of the wars with the Philistines under Saul and David, are far off in the dusty recesses of the past, documented vividly in the Old Testament, but still a thousand or so years before Christ. So, enter the book of Revelation. After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later. His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways. I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over!

Last week was mostly a crash course introduction to how exactly we are meant to read Revelation to begin with—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John himself, and could not begin to understand his mind—and this week, we begin going through his actual vision, and we start in a familiar, heartwarming place before we delve into the realm of demons and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell. So we begin with John’s vision of Heaven itself, not as it will be, but as it is.

Remember how I told you last week about how John begins writing in the present tense, rather than in the future tense? Well, the same holds true here for his vision of the heavenly throne of God. As he writes, “…on each side of the throne are four living creatures,” and “Day and night without ceasing, they sing, “Holy, holy, holy…” This, to John, is quite simply Heaven as it exists in its present incarnation.

A word about the living creatures—the lion, ox, human, and eagle—each traditionally corresponds to one of the individual Gospel writers. In Christian tradition, Mark the Evangelist is associated with the lion, Luke with the ox, Matthew with the human, and John with the eagle, and in this vision, they are as the seraphim, the highest order of angels, in Isaiah’s famous vision in the sixth chapter of his own book—“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, sitting upon a throne that was high and lifted up, and the edges of His robe filled the Temple, and seraphs were stationed around Him. Each had six wings…they shouted to each other, saying, “Holy, holy, holy…” Imagine the evangelists themselves—the writers of the Gospels of Jesus Christ—surrounding god praising Him, saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and our God.” Just as we go into Heaven hopefully surrounded by our loved ones, so too does God rule in Heaven surrounded by His own loved ones: those who dedicated their lives to spreading the Good News.

But the problem with proclaiming Heaven is that you are liable to hear as many versions of Heaven as there are Christians in the world. This is not even John’s only vision of paradise—we will hear another version of it much later in chapters 21 and 22! Which is, really, entirely fair. I cannot imagine that your first thought of what Heaven might be like has turned out to be your only thought of what Heaven might be like.

When I was a little kid, I saw all the paintings of Heaven being in the sky, where Jesus ascended to and where angels fly around…and then my parents started taking me on airplanes, and I didn’t see any of that, so I concluded that Heaven must be in outer space, and that everyone there was dressed like Neil Armstrong. I am perfectly fine with saying that, even though Jesus says we must be as children to come to Him, that my childlike vision of Heaven is probably wrong. But to the eternal discredit of the church, there are children being raised today with equally erroneous visions of Heaven that have far more drastic consequences.

Making the viral rounds on the internet over the past week or two has been a clip of a worship at the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Greensburg, Indiana. In that clip, a small child is singing onstage a song he was very clearly coached in by an adult, and the song is: “I know the Bible’s right, and somebody’s wrong. I know the Bible’s right, and somebody’s wrong. Romans one twenty-six and twenty-seven, ain’t no homos gonna make it to Heaven.” If you watch the clip itself, you’ll see the pastor nod his approval, and the adults in attendance immediately, with thunderous applause, give the child a standing ovation.

There are no words to convey my shame I felt when showed this clip by friends asking me, “is this what church is about,” that would teach a little child to say such things, because I believe it offends not only my personal conscience, but it offends Scripture. Look at how John ends chapter four—that God “created all things and by (God’s) will they existed and were created.” Gay and lesbian people were created by the same God who creates heterosexual people, and I have to believe that any version, any vision of Heaven, would affirm that reality when trying to guess at who gets in. And I know how many of y’all feel about same-sex equality; you’ve told me and shared with me, and that trust means so very, very much to me. God may have cast Lucifer out of Heaven, but you’ll never hear me predict from the pulpit any other exile.

Earlier this week, I received in the mail a pastoral letter from our church’s General Minister and President, Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, outlining the church’s current position on sexual orientation, which can basically be summed up in, “everyone is welcome.” It’s two pages on this sentiment, but the money quote is hidden at the bottom of the first page: “Human sexuality is not an “issue;” it’s who we are. It’s about all of us—including our friends and family members who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender—children of God with names and stories and a faith journey to recount.” As surely as God created all things by the sheer force of His will, God created these children with names, and with stories, and with faith journeys, and far be it for me to be like Saint Paul in First Corinthians and Timothy and pretend to know who gets in and who stays out, because one of the other parts of Revelation is the story of the dragon against Saint Michael, and as we will in a couple of weeks, reading it shows what happens to the presumptuous when they dare to take on the throne.

And so while it may be comforting and even exciting to imagine what Heaven will look like, I humbly ask that we instead return to the creatures whom God has surrounded that throne with—the animals of the four Evangelists, God’s loved ones who have surrounded Him, and who wrote to us of the coming of a Messiah of love, not of hate.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John…forgive us for not hearing that Messiah as well as we could have, or should have. And help us find the way to live out that prayer that we were taught in your Gospels, “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Because in the end, if I’m honest with myself, that’s all I really want. To see us, here on earth, surrounding one another as loved ones in Christ, as it is in Heaven—free of prejudice, free of shame, and full of faith in the God who made us all.

Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow! Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 10, 2012

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Publicity Hound, Part II

After my first foray into being interviewed by the local paper when I arrived at Longview FCC, I still to this day hear good-natured cracks from my friends over me wearing my Steve Jobs turtleneck sweater for the interview.

Thankfully, this second foray, an article about Taize-style worship, into local media exposure did not include a photo op.

My friend and colleague Rev. Phil Rushton and I are quoted extensively in the article, as we both have begun leading occasional evening services at our respective congregations that utilize the Taize style (in my case, I have also blended it with Quaker and emergent spiritual practices as well, but the article does make that clear, that what we hold is not an exclusively Taize-style service).

It's a good article that includes some thoughtful food for reflection from a couple of young bucks in the ministry who are both doing a lot of work in trying to re-think what church can look like for today.

But I do want to make one clarification: I am quoted as saying that, "I thought, 'why not, in addition to the traditional morning service, add some kind of evening prayer service?'"  This is not completely accurate.

The idea of an evening prayer service did not originate with me, it originated from within my congregation.  I cannot (and am not) attempting to take credit, especially a bow in public, for the creativity and spirituality of my parish.  The monthly ACTS worship we put on is their brainchild, not mine, and I am simply grateful to be allowed in to help guide that ministry!

Yours in Christ,

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On Socialism and Scripture

For longtime friends and readers, y'all probably know that my worldview, while Biblically-oriented, will sometimes veer left of center.

So I offer a disclaimer to this post--I do not identify as a socialist because I do not believe in a government-planned means of production.  Please do not say that I am.  I believe in providing strong social safety nets within the confines of capitalism.

But I am worried that some of my colleagues of the cloth are forgetting that our church was actually founded, at least in part, upon socialist principles in that it practiced the redistribution of wealth.  So, what follows is what I recognize may be a potentially polarizing post in that while I am not defending socialism per se, I do believe that it should not be assailed on the basis of Scripture.  As with all of my more polarizing posts, I hope that you see my heart in this and that I am trying to speak truth in love.

See, the Bible is quite clear that redistribution of wealth is, in fact, a valid spiritual discipline.  I would guide you to Acts 2:44-45: "All the believers were united and shared everything.  They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute to proceeds to everyone who needed them," (Common English Bible) as well as Acts 4:32: "...None of them would say, "This is mine!" about any of their possessions, but held everything in common." (CEB) and, finally, to Acts 4:34-35: "There were no needy persons among them.  Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles.  Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need." (CEB)

The context of these passages comes in the midst of the very birth of the Biblical church, which referred to itself as The Way (Acts 9:2).  They belonged to a nation under the rule of a foreign empire that did indeed bring with it many public works (to quote from Monty Python's John Cleese in the hilarious Life of Brian: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?!").

But the Roman empire did not provide anything along the lines of what we would think of today in terms of Social Security--the family unit in New Testament Israel were expected to provide for one another from birth to death.  It is easy to imagine how, for these new followers who likely had to give up many trappings of their previous lives, The Way had become their new family.

I think where all of this gets lost in translation is that the notions of "family" are radically different today--where the nuclear family, rather than the extended family, is the norm.  More and more folks (including yours truly) live by themselves.  Social isolation is arguably on the rise, in spite of the wave of social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.

So, who is our Biblical family?  The easy answer is to say, "Everyone!" but for most of us, our actions would demonstrate that we really do not believe that answer.  So the question remains--shamefully--inadequately answered by the church.

And where the church has had to step back--whether through disestablishment, or erosion of moral authority, or dwindling resources, take your pick--the government has stepped up by redefining family in the same mold as, ironically enough, the Roman Empire--citizenship.

There's a scene from an early episode in the first season of the television show The West Wing in which Martin Sheen's Josiah Bartlet says, in response to a terrorist attack on a US military plane, "(One) could walk across the earth unharmed, cloaked only in the words 'civis romanus sum.'  I am a Roman citizen."

I bring that quote on purpose, because it is precisely Paul the Apostle's defense when he is arrested brought before a Roman tribunal: "Paul said, 'I am a citizen by birth.'" (Acts 22:28, CEB)  And as Luke conveys, the Roman centurion Paul says this to becomes instantly alarmed that he has detained a Roman citizen.

We American Christians engage in the redistribution of wealth for the benefit of fellow citizens every time our taxes go to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, WIC, or any other number of government aid programs (full disclosure--part of the reason this is on my mind is because June 15 is a quarterly deadline for pastors to send in their quarterly Social Security taxes, which churches are by law prohibited from automatically deducting from our paychecks...long story).

We also engage in the redistribution of wealth whenever we give alms or charity.

If you have ever given to my congregation, you've engaged in the redistribution of wealth, because we maintain a discretionary fund to aid needy families with urgent financial crises.

If you have ever given to my denomination, you've engaged in the redistribution of wealth, because the Disciples maintains aid programs through the Global Ministries and Week of Compassion organizations.

So even though I do not identify as a socialist, I worry that using it as a slur or criticism to hurl at your opponents denigrates Christian Scripture and the Church.

And I realize that charitable giving is voluntary and paying Social Security taxes is not.  But if you're arguing that the US government should adhere to a more "Christian" set of principles on other issues (same-sex marriage, creationism, school prayer, take your pick), then that objection would not seem to hold water.

So...if you are a Christian who believes that socialism is, to borrow from Catholic Father Andrew Kemberling, "a foreign threat to our democracy," then I am genuinely interested in learning how you reconcile that belief with the Bible, and specifically with The Way as conveyed by Luke in the book of Acts.

Yours in Christ,

PS: For those of you who read my last post--Gus the Housefly died on the office floor last night, presumably of natural causes (that is--he was not swatted).  Requiescat in pace.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

10 Things To Know About Your Pastor

This is entry can be thought of as an extension of a point I was trying to make in last Thursday's post (where I remarked that we pastors, contrary to the beliefs of folks who put us on pedestals, do not have infinite wells of faith to draw on).  See, a number of other pastors have, in the past couple of weeks or so, offered up their own indexes and top ten lists of things they wish everyone would remember about them as human beings, rather than just as the pastor, aka SuperChristian.

This post, then, represents me throwing my proverbial hat into the ring with an attempt of my own at gently reminding everyone--clergy or not--of what is important to know about your pastor, whoever that person may be... (and, to be clear--this post was not catalyzed by any situation in my church at all, but simply by what I've been reading in the Christian blogosphere!)

1. We're human.

This is a biggie, and it's also first because I think the following nine all stem from this singular fact.  We're human.  We make mistakes, we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, we lose the forest for the trees, and we even get angry and jealous and all those other bad things.  Try to not simply see past those traits, but to allow us to wrestle with them.  We try to guide you, not fix you.  Please do likewise for us!

2. We work at all hours of the day (and night).

Just because I keep only 16 hard-and-fast office hours per week does NOT mean that I only work 16 hours a week.  I always work a couple of evenings a week, plus Sundays.  I may be returning emails at 9 or 10 at night.  I do some of my best sermon writing early in the morning, when I've just had my coffee.  As an aside, I think stuff like this is also why we're so annoyingly insistent on keeping our days off as actual Sabbaths.

3. We don't have a direct phone line to Heaven.

I never understood that metaphor anyways, because the most famous direct phone line was the Washington-Moscow red phone during the Cold War, and I'd like to think that we're not in a Cold War with God.  Either way--communicating with God can sometimes be just as challenging for us as it is for you.  We don't have a standing tee time with Jesus...even though that'd be really, really cool if we did.

4. Sermons take a lot of time and energy.

I probably spend ten hours each week on my sermons, easily, and that's to say nothing of the time I spend vision-casting the sermon series themselves.  Preaching them is also usually the most draining work-related task I have each week.  It's a frightening thing for us--not the speaking in public part (at least, for me), but that I am sharing my innermost beliefs about God, Jesus, and Scripture without any reciprocity--you are under no obligation to share those similarly deepest beliefs with me if you don't want to.

5. We're required to be patient about the darnedest things.

There's a reason why the term "moving at the speed of church" means "slow as molasses."  It has the side effect of calling us to moments of utter serenity, even at things that annoy us.  Like, right now, I am writing from my office while this Jupiter-sized housefly buzzes around, like he has for days, bonking his head against my window trying to escape.  Trying to swat a fly is an exercise in futility for me, and I thought he'd have left or died by now, but nope.  I call him Gus.  Gus the Housefly.

6. We don't remember anything that you tell us on Sunday.

Both of the outside posts I linked to at the start of this entry mention this one as one of their ten, and it is worth repeating here as well.  It isn't that you (or what you have to say) don't matter to us, it's that our minds are racing like mice on Red Bull going through a maze with cheese at the end.  And this includes EVERYTHING told to us on Sundays--my complete, utter inability to put names to faces has quickly become legendary at my church (though surprisingly, I never forget Gus the Housefly's name).

7. We may not be as good as you are at a particular part of our jobs.

A pastor, especially a solo pastor like myself, tends to be a jack of all trades but a master of none.  For instance, one of my congregants is a professional chef.  I know I'm supposed to have a hand in organizing fellowship opportunities for folks, but in creating a welcoming spread (because no church event can take place without food), I am light years behind this guy.  Other colleagues of mine may have a congregant who is, say, a Bible professor.  I can only imagine the trip that leading a Bible study in that situation might be!

8. We're not necessarily musically inclined.

I know the stereotype is that the pastor (or their spouse) should be able to sing or play a worship instrument, but you know what...nope.  I play the saxophone, which I have used in worship before but only infrequently, and my own singing voice is self-taught, so it is relatively rough and not really conducive to the role of lead vocals (plus we have a very dedicated lead vocalist already!).  One of my seminary professors told me how he was told to take voice lessons in seminary because "churches expect their pastors to be able to sing."  I'm glad many churches have moved past that mentality, but I also preach, pray, and lead communion, so me singing would come pretty close to turning worship into The Eric Show.  No thanks.

9. We know when we're on our game and when we're off it.

It doesn't take something as blatant as you playing block breaker on your cell phone, or doodling on your bulletin from the pew.  The vacant "Have I bought milk yet?" stare is usually enough.  After we have given enough sermons, we tend to pick up a sixth sense of knowing when what we're saying is hitting home and when it is falling flat.  I would borrow from stand-up comedy and say that we know when we're killing, but that isn't quite what we go for with a church.

10. We're worldly.

And I don't mean in the sense that we love money--we don't (unless you're a prosperity preacher).  But I'd say the ratio of secular to "Christian" music on my iPod is about 85/15.  I own very few "Christian" movies.  I love following soccer, baseball, and cycling.  I live and breathe the church when I'm on, and so when I'm off, I'd just as soon talk about basketball as I would about the Bible.  I swear with not uncommon frequency.  I love a good scotch, microbrew, or locally grown wine.  And I'm a-okay with all of that.

So that's my list.  Do you relate to any of these yourself, whether if you're pastor or are in another line of work or ministry?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, June 3, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Alpha to Omega"

Revelation 1:1-8

 A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ, including all that John saw. 3 Favored is the one who reads the words of this prophecy out loud, and favored are those who listen to it being read, and keep what is written in it, for the time is near. 4 John, to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen. 7 Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the one who is and was and is coming, the Almighty.” (CEB)

"The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation," Week One

The man’s weathered, whiskered face was a case study in emotional agony. Peering at me from inside his wire-rimmed glasses, he looked from a distance as any typical, run-of-the-mill, middle-aged father would—some salt and pepper in his hair, maybe a wrinkle here or there, but still in good shape. But once you fail to meet his gaze, to let your eyes drop from his, you notice the mighty scar that runs across the entirety of his throat—an artifact of his most recent attempt to take his own life, and hard proof of why he was talking to me in that moment.

Sitting across from him in a tiny room in the inpatient psychiatric ward at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, the most ministry that I could muster at the moment was to actually maintain that eye contact as he unpacked his entire life for me, from his Ivy League education to his failing marriage and even how he used to hit his children and how deeply he regrets it now. Especially now, now that he has been involuntarily committed to a 72-hour suicide watch. For him, for many people who are incredibly smart and delightfully articulate, time in the suicide prevention psychiatric ward draws out slower and slower like an eternity. With nothing but your thoughts—of which there are many—to occupy you at moments, such folks wrestle with the meaning of life, love, family, and God, and invariably are left contemplating one simple, profound, but incredibly difficult to answer question: “How in the heck did I end up here?”

So they ask to see the psychiatric ward’s chaplain. And my pager would go off, I would walk across the street from the main hospital campus, and I would hear the stories of people living in the margins, people whose own thoughts were as fantastical and wondrous as those of our author of the book of Revelation, John of Patmos. And the resemblance, I think, is hardly coincidental.

Today marks the beginning of a brand-new summer sermon series for each of us. After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling. Jesus preached a lot of turning the other cheek, the rest of the New Testament are a bunch of letters, and the stories of the conquest under Joshua, or of the wars with the Philistines under Saul and David, are far off in the dusty recesses of the Bible’s past. So, enter the book of Revelation. After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later. His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways. I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can at least promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over! 

In allowing ourselves into John’s vision, we must, absolutely must, accept this singular fact as price of our admission into the book of Revelation—we are not John. Each of us, by right of being here on Sundays, belongs to a mainstream religious community that John no longer has. To the extent John has any community now, it is simply with God. John has been cast away, shunted off to a sort of psychiatric ward—not one where he receives treatment for mental illness, but one where he is isolated from the more ordinary members of society.

Our challenge, then, is to meet and recognize this lonely, mystical apostle for who he is—not who we want him to be. Because that, I promise you, is where nearly every other Christian who has come before us and attempted to say that they know exactly what Revelation says falls into trouble. It may trouble us to admit, but by this point in his career, John is an extremist. He does not fall neatly into the camp of any other New Testament theologian—he is not at all like Paul, or Peter, or James, or the writer of Hebrews, and he bears no resemblance to the writings attributed to him in the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John. In Revelation, John marches to the beat of his own drummer, and over the next eight weeks, I would ask us, and I would ask you to hold me to account on this, to not force him into marching to the beat of our drum.

Probably the most common way we have fallen into that trap is the ways we have divided ourselves over what exactly the End Times, that moment when the Second Coming occurs and final judgment is upon us, really looks like. You’ve got people who believe in the tribulation, or in the rapture, or in the battle between heaven and hell. You have your millennialists and your premillennialists and your postmillennialists, and then you’ve got people like me—the panmillennialists. See, I’m a panmillennialist because (to borrow from Nadia Bolz-Weber) I think that everything will pan out.

And in this way, Revelation is an excellent sort of Rorschach test of how you take the rest of the Bible. Are you a person who claims to have all the answers, to possess the key that unlocks the doors to all the right interpretations, or are you a person willing to admit that the scope and grandeur of God’s grace is beyond yours or ours understanding? Or, most likely, are you some of both, and perhaps not exactly sure where you fall on that spectrum?

If so, I think that the opening lines of Revelation are a pretty good indicator that it means that the reason we aren’t getting anywhere is because we are asking the wrong questions. We treat Revelation as something that is meant to divine these sacred mysteries of the future, when in truth, John is speaking of the present. As he writes about himself: “ the servant who testifies!” As he writes about us: “blessed is the one who reads, and blessed are those who hear it, and take it to heart!” As he writes about Jesus Christ: “To Him who loves us!” And finally, in verse 8, what John writes about God, in God’s own voice: “I am who IS,” not simply who is to come.

What John is writing about is not simply the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet that signify the beginning and the end, no, John is writing about the Alpha TO the Omega, of everything that is happening between beginning and end. It is not merely the destination that Revelation speaks of, but the journey as well, from sin into redemption, from death into grace, from darkness into light, and from earth into heaven. No sooner would you want to flip to the very end of a good book to see how it ends (unless it's Harry Potter) than would you flip immediately to the end of your life and of your faith journey on this earth, and that is what John is avoiding here. His visions may deal with the world to come, but his reality is still firmly planted in the present.

Which is where we too must ground ourselves, if we are to accept John for who he is, the isolated, visionary, mystical, devoted sage that he is. Because just like a patient in a hospital psych ward, John has hit his rock bottom. And it is so, so very tempting for him to skip straight to the end, to leap over these trials and tribulations, these hurts and hang-ups and pains that he is experiencing, and as we will see over the next seven weeks, he entertains those hopes to skip straight to the end a great, great deal. But before that, and before God Himself, John reminds himself—and in doing so, reminds us as well—that his current situation, and his current ministry, is rooted in the present moments of time, where sin and strife still very much exist, and not in the future, much as he would wish for that to be so. In this way, John is echoing the depths of the serenity prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, that includes the lines that we take “this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that God will make all things right.”

That is the trust that John places in God in the present moment. It is the trust we place in God as well in our own present moments. And it is that trust that leads us to our own salvation.

By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longivew, Washington
June 3, 2012