Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Church Outreach 101

(Note: In the tradition of taking a Sabbath rest every now and again, I’ll be on vacation now through Labor Day. I plan on being as unplugged from the internet as possible during this time, which likely means no blog entries from me, but I’ll return to writing on Tuesday, September 4. Thanks for understanding! –E.A.)

Over the past year of my ministry here at FCC Longview, I've gotten a lot of questions from friends, colleagues, or people I just met about how exactly I, as a young and (supposedly) vibrant pastor, have gone about trying to grow a historic, aging congregation with success.

If I'm being serious, I enthusiastically tell that person all about the different ministries and missions we've been trying here, the work of our praise team, our commitment to Bible study and fellowship, and yes, about how our Gothic-style building is in fact historic and beautiful.

In other words, I talk their ears off.

Now, though, if I'm simply being goofy, I've decided that I will instead use this cartoon instead (h/t to Christian Piatt):

How do you see spiritual growth happening in your faith community?  What outreach efforts have you appreciated or not appreciated the most?  Any funny stories from your attempts to share the Gospel?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, August 26, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life...and the True Vine"

John 14:6-7, 15:1-11 

 "6 Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.” (CEB) 

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 2 He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. 3 You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. 6 If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. 9 “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete." (CEB)

“Ego Eimi: The “I AM” Discourses of Jesus Christ,” Week Four

It was one of my last weeks there, a time when I was selfishly hoping to celebrate my two years of student ministry with the church in California I worked at before arriving here, but it was also one of the most painful: on one of my last days of work, I made a hospital call to the deathbed of a 90-year-old patriarch of the congregation who would pass away the following day.  And in a recently previous Sunday in worship, I had seen the mother of one of our young adults, Kelsey, who, devastatingly, had just been diagnosed with testicular cancer and as of now has been undergoing treatment for it.

His story, though, has a happier ending—he is not only living life, he is offering up his faith in new ways.  A few months ago, in the midst of his treatment, he preached at that church.  Obviously, I was here and so I didn’t hear him preach, but I did receive this message on my Facebook feed when I got home, which contained this little bit from his sermon…Kelsey said: “This place—church—is like the Olive Garden.  We serve complimentary bread with each visit, and when you’re here, you’re family.  But, unlike the Olive Garden, when you aren’t here, you’re still family.”

And it was one of those eureka moments for me, where the purpose of everything we do here as a church makes sense—as gnarly and messy and painful as life is for someone—even for you—we still have a place to grow, to live, and to be caught whenever we stumble.

This is it—we’ve made it to the last week of this sermon series—a series that has taken us through the entire month of August, and whose name, ‘ego eimi,’ is actually the Greek words “I am.”  A lot of Jesus’ most famous teachings are immortalized one-liners—turn the other cheek, do unto others, love your neighbor, that sort of thing.  We’ve done a pretty good job of remembering the one-liners themselves, but perhaps less of a good job remembering the contexts from which they came.  And the one-liners Jesus uses to describe Himself fall into the same camp—we may remember that Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Light, or that He is the Good Shepherd, but we may not remember the circumstances in which He said those things.  Well, all of those “I am” one-liners come from the Gospel of John, and we’ll be walking through John’s Gospel to visit almost all of these one-liners in turn.  We began with the first “I am” statement in John: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Bread of Life; and continued last week with His second “I am” statement: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Light of the World.  Last week, we came to the third and fourth “I am” statements: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Gate, and that He is the Good Shepherd.  And finally, this week, we have arrived at the final two “I am” sayings from Jesus: that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that He is the True Vine.

These two sayings take place in what is called the Farewell Discourse, which constitutes four entire chapters of the Gospel of John.  Given that John is 21 chapters long, this is impressive—a single sermon from Jesus makes up nearly one-fifth of John’s Gospel.  And it is called the Farewell Discourse because, well, that is exactly what it is—a good-bye to the twelve who have been with Him every step of the way, because as soon as chapter 18 opens, Jesus is betrayed and arrested.

In other words—life is about to get horrific, painful, gnarly, and, ultimately, lethal for Him.  But even then, He still dares to talk of how He is, among other things, life itself!

For John, perhaps more so than any other Gospel writer, Jesus was, and is, as the New Testament scholar Gail O’Day puts it, “the tangible presence of God in the world…humanity’s encounter with Jesus the Son makes possible a new experience of God as Father.”  What this means, she argues, is that “John is concerned with helping Christians recognize and claim their God and claim the distinctiveness of their identity as a people of faith.”

Like I said, Jesus says all of this right before being tried and executed, and of course He knows what is about to happen—He foretells it in all four Gospels, He knows His hour has come, and that what is about to happen to him is, as Paul writes in Philippians, not simply death, but death on a cross.  Nothing but pain and shame awaits the wretched soul put to death by crucifixion as opposed to almost any other means, which short of being thrown to wild animals, would likely have been more humane.

And of the ancient messianic figures who have founded religions that have survived the warp and weft of history, only Jesus died through martyrdom.  Judaism’s forefather, Abraham, died of old age.  So did Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.  The prophet Muhammad died from a fever in 632.  The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, after surviving multiple assassination attempts, died of old age in his 80’s some 400 years before Christ came to earth.  The way of Jesus is a unique way because of how that way ended—not just in death, but in violent death and ultimately, in resurrection.

Which is why I think Jesus turns to another metaphor to describe Himself—the True Vine.  This imagery, like that of the Good Shepherd from the 23rd Psalm, has its roots in the Old Testament, in this case from the book of the prophet Isaiah, who describes Israel itself as God’s vine; in both cases, God is depicted as the vine keeper, the viticulturalist.

But of all the things that were central to the agrarian Israelite economy and diet—and bear in mind, we know that Jesus was fond of using agrarian metaphors precisely like the Good Shepherd—Jesus chooses the vine.  Not a grain or barley crop, that would have produced bread, even more of a staple than wine, but the vine.  And as opposed to the billowing majesty of waves of crops—as the line from America the Beautiful goes, “amber waves of grain,” with nothing about vines or grapes!  I mean—I lived just south of Napa Valley for my three years of seminary, and while Napa itself is beautiful, the vines are these sort of chest-high rows of gnarly wood that comes out of the ground and, at least when there aren’t grapes, aren’t always that much to see.

Of course Jesus is saying that He is no ordinary vine, yet even with God as His vine keeper, His life will still end up like that of the vine—gnarled and twisty.  And so it is with us—even if, or when, we turn our lives and our trust completely over God, complete with all of the peace of mind and grace and love that it promises, doing so does not remove the obstacles in our lives.  It is not cruise control button, a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Even after identifying as Christians, we still struggle, in our jobs, with our families, with everyday life and all that it entails.  God is simply not a vine keeper who removes the thorns for us.

And if that is what we come into church, or into tomorrow, expecting from the divine, then we will most likely be met with overwhelming disappointment, probably not unlike what the disciples feel in the Passion story—disappointment in what is happening to their master, disappointment in themselves for their own fear, disappointment in everything that was wrong with the way their world worked.

The way, and the truth, and the life that Jesus is, and represents, and offers to us does not remove such disappointments.  It transcends them.

It is what we must do as a church—we cannot remove disappointment and hurt and pain and illness in peoples lives, but we can help them transcend those things, those wrongs, those evils.  We can offer a way out of brokenness, we can offer a truth of reconciliation, and we can offer a life of love and purpose and acceptance for each and every person who walks through our doors.

I learned this in California—that God did not undo an old man’s death, or removed a young man’s cancer.  God instead reached beyond those things.

After all, God did not simply undo Jesus’ own death.  God created something more.

And that, I think, is the mark of a true vine keeper.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 26, 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Appropriate to the Harm

Tomorrow, Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who confessed to the mass murder of 77 people, mostly children, that made worldwide news last summer, will be formally adjudged either guilty or criminally insane for his crimes against humanity.

Breivik's own motivations, sane or otherwise, are by his own admission rooted in his ideology, a disturbing miasma of racism, sexism, militarism, and Islamophobia.  He later claimed that part of his aim in executing the mass slaughters was to bring attention to those views.

To be honest, I am genuinely torn about protecting such speech in trial under free speech and right to defense laws.  On the one hand, I'm a big believer in our own First Amendment and everything that it affords.  On the other, I think that hate speech that could reasonably be seen as inciting or encouraging violence should probably be banned.

Norway, for better or for worse, let Breivik present his defense largely unencumbered, but it is, rather, the state's case that deserves mention.

The best, and most moving, accounting of the state's case I've come across is from this piece from the New York Times, which describes not only the state's attempt to find Breivik guilty and sane, but also the state's voice for the people who died at Breivik's hands.

One of the things that has always bothered me about the American justice system (and as I am the son of both a judge and an attorney, rest assured, there are many) is the bluster we put up in the courts about "victim's rights."

Far too often, I think, prosecutions care more about conviction and punishment rather than actual justice.

This isn't an ode to being soft on crime--even though I'm anti-death penalty, I was aghast to see that Norway's maximum punishment for murder is 21 years imprisonment, though observers expect Breivik to be locked up for the rest of his life.  I honestly hope that he dies in prison, never having had a day of freedom for the rest of his life.

But no matter Breivik's ultimate fate, justice has already begun, in a way that I think is really quite amazing: the Norwegian prosecutors, after presenting the autopsy report for each victim, also presented from the victim's family a biography of that person--and since most of the victims were children and youth, the biographies were about their (now unfulfilled) hopes and ambitions for their lives.

Each of the 77 victims was accorded this respect.  Every.  Single.  One.

Even in death, their presence was still heard--by Breivik, by the court, by the world.

And in 77 people, each somehow unique, I have to imagine there was fair amount of diversity in those biographies and stories, probably including the sort of diversity that Breivik himself abhors.

There is a legal saying, ad quod damnum, that roughly translated into English means, "appropriate to the harm."  In a nutshell, it means that seeking justice for wrong should correspond to the damage one has suffered.

The damage we as a people have suffered comes not only from the loss of life, but the emotional harm that comes from such shock at a loss as this that completely contradicts our fundamental hope that people can be, or even are, good.

May that be a part of Breivik's punishment as well: the shock and loss that comes from seeing one's worldview demolished.  

May he see his own evil ideals drown in a culture he has come to loathe.

May he be forced to live in the chattering and clanging din of a world becoming more connected and more multifaceted,  where the older ways of cleaving apart society upon arbitrary lines of identity are no more.

It is a penance that you can help exact, by helping to bring such a respecting, diverse world about in your own life.

If there is such a thing as justice, may it include such retribution as this.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Todd Akin, Ignorance, and the Myth of Individualism

(Potential trigger words: rape, sexual abuse)

Right now, the only thing that anyone, anywhere, with any remote talking-head significance is talking about is the newest luddite to burst onto the national media scene for saying something dumb and offensive: Missouri Congressman Todd Akin.

In case you missed it, this is what he said, verbatim, in an interview on Sunday:

“It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

I won't go into every single factual inaccuracy of that paragraph of sheer, unadulterated ignorance--there are simply too many, and people better qualified than me to fact-check medical science have already done an excellent job of doing so.

But I have friends--of both sexes--who are rape victims, who emotionally told me about what had happened to them at parties, during dates, or elsewhere.

You may have friends or loved ones who are rape victims as well, even if they haven't shared that deeply personal part of their lives with you yet.

So it's personal.

And it's personal in another sense because more than most crimes, sexual violence is still an intensely private matter--we grant anonymity to its victims in the media, after all.  Victims can go days, weeks, months, or years without the emotional and spiritual support of others, enduring the trials of pain, hurt, and post-traumatic stress utterly on their own.  Indeed, a majority of rapes likely go unreported.

More so than most experiences, abuse--and sexual abuse at that--demonstrates the simple truth that nobody is an island, and that nobody should be expected to wrestle with the remnants of abuse on their own.

By delineating different categories of abuse--whether "legitimate," or "forcible" (which is what Akin claims he meant to say)--we create hierarchies of abuse, saying that some abuse is more understandable than others, or easier to empathize or sympathize with than others, and such hierarchies are utterly artificial (last time I checked, rape is "forcible" by definition).

Around the same time Akin was busy preparing to stick both feet in his mouth, philosophy professor Firmin  DeBrabender wrote a piece for the New York Times on what he saw as the fiction of our self-sufficiency, given just how much we as a people rely on a government and collective presence in our lives--in essence, we pretend to be self-sufficient.

The money quote in this column, for me, is this:

We are not the sole authors of our destiny, each of us; our destinies are entangled — messily, unpredictably.

While the article is about economic self-sufficiency, this principle applies just as much to our emotional and spiritual well-being, too.

Not only do things happen to us that are beyond our control (things exactly like sexual abuse), but precisely because they are beyond our control, we cannot keep them from affecting only us, or only affecting some people more than others, or only affecting people who appear to us to be more self-sufficient.

This is why what Todd Akin said is so wrong--not simply on a factual level, but on a communal level.  He, or anybody else, cannot define rape as legitimate or illegitimate, forcible or non-forcible, precisely because such a destructive force defies our attempts to compartmentalize it.  Its destruction is epic, its memory is staggering, and we cannot pretend to arbitrarily define its limits.

And no person should have feel like they must begin to cope with such titanic violence on their own because a civic leader said that their abuse is somehow less legitimate than other abuse.

An individual person cannot cope like that on their own  Nor should they ever, ever be expected to.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, August 19, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "I am the Gate and the Good Shepherd"

John 10:7-18

7 So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest. I am the good shepherd 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. 17 “This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

“Ego Eimi: The “I AM” Discourses of Jesus Christ,” Week Three

The outdoor façade of the inpatient psychiatric ward of the California Pacific Medical Center is utterly unassuming.  Crammed into a compact building in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, it is dwarfed by the main hospital complex just across the street from it.  You would pass this building once, twice, many times and never give it a second glance.

But as soon as you walk inside, you are immediately hit with how secure it is.  The receptionist is in a completely glass-enclosed cubicle, and every door in or out of the waiting room has locks—even the door that goes back outside.  You are literally locked in, and must be let out by a psych ward staffer.

Even as the intern in the hospital’s chaplaincy program assigned to minister to the inpatient psych ward, I could not get in.  My ID card that let me into almost any other door in the hospital had to be brandished, and I had to sign in.  I even was allowed into the ward only on request—unlike almost every other hospital department, I was not allowed to make rounds to visit patients throughout the day.

But sitting in the middle of this hermetically sealed bubble of security and mental instability is a tiny courtyard of cobblestone and chairs, with umbrellas and trees to provide shade, and with the building surrounding it on all sides to block out the ambient noise of a crowded San Francisco, it was, and is, an oasis of calmness and peace where I would sit down and listen to the stories of schizophrenic and suicidal people who have known no such peace for a long, long time.

Guarded from the outside world—and the outside world being guarded from it—that small courtyard was where the most mentally ill and vulnerable people would go to find sanctuary…to find, as Jesus says here in John 10, pasture, a place not to be stolen and slaughtered and destroyed by the wolves of the world, but to be protected from them. 

It is a pasture that some of us so very rarely find.

We’ve made it to week three in this latest sermon series—a series that will take us through the month of August, and whose name, ‘ego eimi,’ is actually the Greek words “I am.”  A lot of Jesus’ most famous teachings are immortalized one-liners—turn the other cheek, do unto others, love your neighbor, that sort of thing.  We’ve done a pretty good job of remembering the one-liners themselves, but perhaps less of a good job remembering the contexts from which they came.  And the one-liners Jesus uses to describe Himself fall into the same camp—we may remember that Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Light, or that He is the Good Shepherd, but we may not remember the circumstances in which He said those things.  Well, all of those “I am” one-liners come from the Gospel of John, and we’ll be walking through John’s Gospel to visit almost all of these one-liners in turn.  We began with the first “I am” statement in John: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Bread of Life; and continued last week with His second “I am” statement: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Light of the World.  We now have come to the third and fourth “I am” statements: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Gate, and that He is the Good Shepherd.  But because both of these statements take place in rapid succession, we will tackle them both in one fell swoop here this week!

It is no accident that Jesus uses both images—the Gate and the Good Shepherd—at once here, and it all has to do with the reputation that shepherds would have had in ancient Israel, because it was a mixed reputation.  On the one hand, they contributed to the agrarian economy of their time, and the image of the Good Shepherd did not actually originate with Jesus, but with King David…after all, the 23rd Psalm begins with the immortal words, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

But the flip side of the coin is that shepherding was a destructive occupation—sheep eat anything and everything, they do their business wherever they darn well please, and before the arrival of the sheepdog, getting them to all go in the same direction would have been a little, I suppose, like trying to herd the proverbial cats.  In any case, the flocks of shepherds often ate up so much land that the shepherds themselves were really not that high on the socio-economic totem pole back then—you couldn’t imagine many young boys telling their parents, “I want to be a shepherd when I grow up!” (Less well-known is the parents’ retort, “Yeah, well, your dad’s a mason, so guess what?  You get to be a mason.”  I think it was the first ever instance of a parent telling their kid that life isn’t fair.)

More to the point, a gate around peoples’ properties was necessary to keep out not only burglars and bandits, but also, honestly, shepherds and their hungry flocks.  My New Testament professor in college said that Jesus saying that He was the Good Shepherd would be akin to today, someone saying that they were the Good Used Car Salesperson.

Which is what necessitates Jesus also saying, in this exact same passage, that He is the Gate as well.  A gated fence is pretty good at keeping out annoying sheep led by their inconsiderate shepherd.  But the combination of the two is an odd one—Jesus is saying that He can protect us from the shepherds/used car salesmen in life, but that He also is one of them.

Of course, you might say, “But pastor, that’s why Jesus says he’s the GOOD Shepherd.”  You know, like being the good stormtrooper in Star Wars, or the good Mariners fan.  But keep in mind as well, Jesus conjures up the image of the Good Samaritan as well, but that didn’t necessarily mean that all the other Samaritans out there were jerks, it just meant that the Samaritans had a bad reputation, and as we all know, reputation may or may not equate into actual reality.

No, it is important that Jesus says that He is a shepherd because with each and every step of His ministry, He has aligned himself with the people who need Him the most—the people whom the world has otherwise forgotten.  He heals women and children in a patriarchal ancient Near East, He converses with Samaritans and Syrophoenicians in a nationalistic Biblical Israel, and perhaps most importantly, He came to earth for each and every one of you, un-famous and unspoiled, thoroughly lacking in fame and fortune and other such fleeting trappings of materialist status.    

The sheep have inherent worth to the shepherd because they define his occupation—without them, a shepherd is just a guy in a field with a crooked staff.  And Jesus, in contrast to the hired hand, is utterly defined by, and devoted to, His mission to the sheep—to us.

Jesus’ mission is everything to Him, and that is the identity we are to live by as Christians.  A book I received as a baptism present as a child took a chapter to try to boil down each of the major world religions into one question—as in, what is the bottom line for each faith.  And what the authors came up for in Christianity’s case was, “How can I love the way that Jesus loved?”

More to the point, who are the sheep in our own lives?  And by that, I don’t  mean, “who should you love,” because the obvious, simple, and clear answer to that question is, “everybody.”  No, what I mean is, who is most in need of your care and ministry right now?

Because you will sometimes be amazed to find that the person most in need is the one furthest away—not geographically, necessarily, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  Put up around their souls has been a ward full of locked doors and foreboding walls, even if, on the outside, they appear completely unassuming and on the surface are blending in perfectly to their surroundings.  It is, after all, another characteristic of the sheep—to try to blend in with the herd, hoping to protect themselves through strength in numbers.

But inside, we may feel like instead that the chips are down and we’re down to our last card we can play.  It is in those moments of a person’s greatest need that Jesus would step in to intervene…that He steps in to intervene even still.

There is a line from the Jewish Talmud, made famous by Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, that says, roughly, “He who saves a life, it is as though he has saved the world entire.”  That is, to me, the Good Shepherd in a sentence.

It is also, in a sentence, how we too can, and should, and must live, uplifting and empowering and rebuilding one life at a time, until the world itself cannot possibly comprehend the wonder and splendor of the life it carries within.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 19, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Spirituality of Sports Allegiances

I began playing "organized" soccer almost twenty years ago, in 1993 (I put "organized" in quotation marks because it really wasn't all that organized--yes, it was run by the city, but the game itself was nothing more than a herd of seven-year-olds trotting after the ball whichever direction it went.  My family and I called it "herdball," and I think I may have my mild claustrophobia to thank in part for wanting to become a goalkeeper).

In 1994, I followed the World Cup as it was hosted here in the US on television and in the papers.  I was hooked.  And I've remained hooked.

Yesterday, eighteen years later, I was at the edge of my seat following the USA-Mexico game that was taking place at the vaunted Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, and started clapping happily to nobody at all when US defender Michael Orozco Fiscal scored the game-winning goal in the 80th minute, creating a 1-0 victory for the US...the first time ever that the US Men's Team has won an away game against Mexico in 25 tries (previous to this, our record was a woeful 23 losses and one lone tie).  I was ecstatic in a way that is rarely replicated by other events, except occasionally by my religion.

While I also follow baseball, basketball, and American football, soccer remains my first love in sports.  Nevertheless, I still understand when my congregants get excited this time of year  for the Seattle Seahawks' meaningless preseason games, or the sure excitement I will see from them this Sunday in reaction to Felix Hernandez's perfect game.  I even grin and bear it when they tell me they will be missing church on a Sunday to make a pilgrimage to that ridiculous temple of football mediocrity, CenturyLink Field, to take in a Seahawks game.

To which I wonder why pro football couldn't just play on ANY other day than Sunday.  Seriously.

Our sports allegiances, though, not only produce the same emotions as our spiritual preferences (amazing highs and occasionally terrible lows), they are sometimes as difficult to explain.  I am a Disciple for the same reason I am a Kansas City Royals fan--I grew up a Disciple, and I grew up a Royals fan.  Even though both organizations are in many ways endearingly and perpetually inept, I cannot bear to part with either.

As in sports, religious preference is simply not (or should not) be subject to the ruthless whims of cost-benefit analysis, or a simple list of weighing out the pro's and con's.  I resisted this reality at first, because at my core I am just as much a "head" person as a "heart" person (if not more so), but religion cannot, and should not, stop at what we think, or even what we do.  It must, by its very essence, affect how we feel...about ourselves, about one another, about the world, and about God.

I can no sooner explain my love of certain sports teams than I can explain my love for the Disciples.  Which is not to trivialize my religion by equating it with sports (hell, for some people, sports comes VERY close to being a religion).  It is to say that the roots of each are more intertwined that what might appear at first glance.

And I'm kinda okay with that.

What in your life has most shaped the preferences and allegiances you hold today, whether in religion, sports, schools, politics, etc.?  Do you see any overlap taking place?  And fundamentally, what makes you who you are?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Paul Ryan and Catholic Social Teaching

This post consists of religious commentary on American politics, and while combining the two often results in controversy, I definitely believe in what Stephen Prothero says that "substantive debates about Christianity and politics are potentially healthy."  Here's to the potential health of this one!

Anways...unless you've been living in a cave for the past four days, you probably know already that Mitt Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate on the GOP presidential ticket on Saturday.

Already, there is a rush to define this chap on the national scene from both political parties, the 24-hour media, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, religious leaders.

After all, Romney is Mormon, and Ryan is Roman Catholic.

If there are any sects of Christianity that have been more frequently and widely misunderstood throughout American history than Mormonism and Catholicism, I sure can't think of them right now.

But let's, in the "Oooh, new shiny thing!!" spirit, focus on Ryan's Catholicism for a moment.

One of the biggest knocks against Ryan is how his Ayn Rand-esque distaste for a social safety net for the poor is patently at odds with Catholic (and, I would argue, general Christian) social teaching.  His policy proposals include cutting Medicaid by a third while also raising taxes on the poor and middle class and dramatically lowering taxes for the uber-rich.

As a Christian educated in part by the Catholic Church in seminary, I feel it's a legitimate complaint to have.  After all, the Catholic catechism says, in part, "The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. (Cf. Isa 58:6-7; Heb 13:3) Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. (Cf. Mt 25:31-46.) Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God: (Cf. Tob 4:5-11; Sir 17:22; Mt 6:2-4.)"  (emphasis mine)

In addition to the Scriptures quoted above in the catechism, I would add James 2:15-16 to underscore the urgent nature of the church's mission as a vehicle for giving and charity: "Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.  What if one of you said, "Go in peace!  Stay warm!  Have a nice meal!"  What good is it if you don't give them what their body actually needs?" (CEB)

Asked about this discrepancy in an April interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Ryan had this to say:

"A person’s faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?
To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.
Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence."

Again, emphasis mine.

Keep in mind that the Catholic catechism does not disqualify the state from performing works of mercy--indeed, the catechism also states that states bear some (though not exclusive or primary) responsibility of "overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector."

Given that reality, I truly have no idea how Ryan does square his economic proposals with his church's social teaching.  Advancement of the common good is not a task abdicated by the state--it is in fact why our state was created: the Constitution preamble includes the phrase "in order to...promote the general welfare."

I'm not saying that government is always right.  But to assume that the government has no role to play in social justice and economic fairness flies in the face of Scripture, historical church teaching, and the spirit of the Constitution.

If Ryan disagrees with his church on this one, that's perfectly fine.  I know I don't agree with everything the Disciples have done over the course of their history.

But he should probably just come out and say so.

Update: Gary Weiss, writing for CNN, just came out with an interesting piece that touches on some of these same issues, and he concludes that Ryan "can either be an objectivist or a Christian.  He can't have it both ways."  Do you agree with such a dichotomy?  Do you disagree?  Why?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, August 12, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "I am the Light of the World"

John 8:12-20

12 Jesus spoke to the people again, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” 13 Then the Pharisees said to him, “Because you are testifying about yourself, your testimony isn’t valid.” 14 Jesus replied, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, since I know where I came from and where I’m going. You don’t know where I come from or where I’m going. 15 You judge according to human standards, but I judge no one. 16 Even if I do judge, my judgment is truthful, because I’m not alone. My judgments come from me and from the Father who sent me. 17 In your Law it is written that the witness of two people is true. 18 I am one witness concerning myself, and the Father who sent me is the other.”19 They asked him, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You don’t know me and you don’t know my Father. If you knew me, you would also know my Father.” 20 He spoke these words while he was teaching in the temple area known as the treasury. No one arrested him, because his time hadn’t yet come. (CEB)

“Ego Eimi: The “I AM” Discourses of Jesus Christ,” Week Two

The Christian author and theologian Diana Butler Bass is well-known on the lecture and seminar circuit—just a few years ago, she came to speak to a regional gathering of ministers here in Washington—and her big thing, as some of you probably know, striving to ensure the vitality of the mainline church.  In her books, she describes the rich, wonderful spirituality of many such churches that are full of life and spirit, but by the same token, she describes situations where spirituality falls flat for her, and she wrote this about one such seminar she attended several years ago:

“The day opened with the event chaplain, an Episcopal priest, taking those attending through a spiritual exercise of centering prayer.  She directed us to look around the room one last time as she turned down the lights; then she asked us to close our eyes…she drew our attention to where our feet touched the floor and had us listen to our own breath.  From the breath, she said, God would give us a sacred word on which to meditate.  Her words, she related, were “holy and blessed.”  “Breathe,” she told us, “breathe your sacred words.  About every  ten seconds, she demonstrated centered breathing by intoning her own words, “holy and blessed,” and inviting us to breathe ours.

As I listened for a sacred word to arise from my breath, I confess that I struggled.  Even in the quieting environment of the church parish hall, the only word that came to my mind was “anxiety.”  I tried to banish it, reaching out for holy blessedness, but only anxiety remained.

What caused my anxiety?  The whole thing struck me as painfully ironic.  Many people probably think this scenario aptly describes mainline Protestantism…churchgoers sitting around in the dark with their eyes shut.”

Welcome to week two brand-new sermon series for us—a series that will take us through the month of August.  A lot of Jesus’ most famous teachings are immortalized one-liners—turn the other cheek, do unto others, love your neighbor, that sort of thing.  We’ve done a pretty good job of remembering the one-liners themselves, but perhaps less of a good job remembering the contexts from which they came.  And the one-liners Jesus uses to describe Himself fall into the same camp—we may remember that Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Light, or that He is the Good Shepherd, but we may not remember the circumstances in which He said those things.  Well, all of those “I am” one-liners come from the Gospel of John, and we’ll be walking through John’s Gospel to visit almost all of these one-liners in turn, beginning with last week’s “I am” statement: Jesus proclaiming that He is the bread of life; and continuing this week with His second “I am” statement: Jesus proclaiming that He is the light of the world.

To be clear—there is nothing wrong praying with your eyes closed.  I would do it myself during the pastoral prayer if I wasn’t afraid of colliding with a pew or with one of y’all while walking up and down the aisle.  And I don’t think it was just the sitting in the dark with the eyes closed that might have been unnerving in the metaphor of that spiritual exercise as a description of what the church is like today—it is that, while in the dark and with our eyes closed, we are repeating the exact same thing, over and over and over.  And I think that is the case because it is very much not what Jesus would have done, or indeed did—He came to the world with a brand-new message, one simultaneously radical and comforting, both challenging and reassuring.  And it is easy to lose sight of that within the confines of the comfort zone of being church together.

Lest we forget, this is emphatically not a comfortable time for Jesus, when he is delivering this second discourse and says that He is the light of the world.  Immediately prior in John’s Gospel, Jesus places himself between a vengeful crowd and a woman caught in the act of adultery, and famously proclaims, “Whoever is without sin, throw the first stone.”  There are shades of that exact same sentiment in verse 15 of today’s passage, where Jesus says, “You judge by human standards, but I judge no person,” but it is verse 12, of following Jesus as a way to receive the light of life, that we most often remember today.

Also lost a bit in the mix is Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees who question Him right after He makes such a preposterous statement.  “You say this about yourself,” they say, “so your testimony cannot be valid.”  Bear in mind that under the Mosaic law which governed religious Israel at that time, multiple witnesses were required to corroborate any testimony.  But Jesus’ reply is elegant in its simplicity, and powerful in its truthfulness—Jesus does not testify alone because He is not alone.  Yes, Jesus has the Father.  But he also has all of you, and all of us.

Think of what it takes to testify to something in a court of law—you’re examined and cross-examined over sometimes the most minute and mundane details.  It requires you to know exactly what you saw, for you to have kept your eyes open, as it were.  And this is why Jesus’ words about testimony are actually a follow-up to His “light of the world” statement.

You see, in Biblical Israel, the notion of external light, believe it or not, was unheard of.  People thought of their own eyes as lamps—you close them—shutting them off, so to speak—and the lamp turns off.  You open them, and the lamp turns on.  To them, light quite literally came from within; it was projected out through your eyes and came into contact with everything you saw.

And Jesus is saying not that we are able to provide our own light, but only that He is—only He can provide the light of life.  It would be like somebody today saying that the earth is flat—except that they would be right!  And normally, our own blinders would cause us to close our eyes to such a person, writing them off as a nutjob, or at least as someone a few beans short of a full burrito.

Yet Jesus Himself was one such person—a person that many in the mainstream likely wrote off as a weirdo, a fanatic.  While immensely popular, Jesus also had many, many detractors.  He was a polarizing figure precisely because He went against the grain.  He did not do as we often do in church today—as, I have to admit, I often do in church today—going up and proclaiming feel-good niceties that taste better going down.  He came into a messy and broken world and in some ways made it even messier because some people simply did not know what to do with, or what to think about, this itinerant Jewish carpenter who would dare to call Himself the light of the world!

As is often the case, the medicine is often bitter initially, and it was so for the Pharisees, and the Romans, and the men of power who heard Jesus’ words.  Those who benefit from the status quo are scarcely in any hurry to ever change it.  But now that the church no longer benefits from the status quo the way it used to, with our image taking the hits of the scandals from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and megachurch financial improprieties, and even the simple fact that we are worse at our jobs than we once were—an estimated 90% of Cowlitz County, after all, does not attend a house of worship on any given week.

We are worse at our jobs as Christians because, honestly, as we became more like the Pharisees whom Jesus is talking to here in that we benefited from the status quo, we stopped seeing fit to change it.  We stopped deciding to think outside the box, to color outside the lines, to look outside the narrow scope and scale of what the church had done to become successful.

Jesus requires us to look elsewhere.  If we are to be competent witnesses today, we must keep our eyes, our sources of our own light, open to seeing the unexpected, and more importantly, to seeing God in the unexpected.  After all, one is called to testify as a witness because one has witnessed something worth testifying to.  If we miss it, if we allow ourselves to go without seeing God in our lives in ways that we may not expect, in ways that may even shock or scare us, our own testimony as the Church, as Christians, even as human beings, weakens.

And I do not just mean our verbal testimony, when we gleefully (or in my case, mildly sarcastically) decide to make our friends, family, neighbors, whoever, immensely uncomfortable by saying, “Can I talk to you about having a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?”  As James writes in the first chapter of his letter, we are to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers of the Word.

Testify to Christ’s Word by witnessing the Word in action in your own life, and being a doer of the Word, an agent of the Word, and I promise you, everything else after that will take care of itself.

Will you be so bold as to challenge the world that might otherwise benefit you with your own testimony?

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 12, 2012

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Stranger in a Strange Land

I realize this is a delayed and quickly put-together Thursday blog post, but it has just been one of those weeks!

But I do have one small morsel of food for thought (it's a quick but insightful read) for y'all from a minister who works for the Disciples' Church Extension office in Indianapolis.  The post is about experiencing church from a visitor's perspective (h/t to Claire, a seminary classmate of mine and my predecessor in the student associate position at First Christian Church in Concord).

The longer we go to church--and the longer we attend a particular church--the proportionally easier it becomes for us to forget how overwhelming it can actually be to visit our church for the first time.  The majesty of our buildings can become intimidating, the ritual of "will the visitors please stand up?" can seem trite at best and exclusionary at worst, and well-intentioned members may gang up on a family of visitors like sharks smelling chum in the water.

But, we've all been to church for the first time at some point in our lives, and we've all been to our particular parish for the first time at some point as well.

Just like it can be easy to forget all those times you've needed help when someone asks you for a hand or a favor, so too can it be easy to forget those times when you didn't know where the restrooms were, either, or didn't know when to sit, stand, or kneel.

I feel very fortunate to pastor a congregation that knows how to pull off community, fellowship, and hospitality well, because to be completely honest, it isn't always my forte.  I am good at answering peoples' questions, but not necessarily at anticipating the questions (you'd be surprised how many times we pastors are caught completely off-guard, even though many of us would probably never admit it), and that small bit can make a world of difference.

What have been your favorite or least favorite experiences when visiting a church for the first time?  What has worked for you and what hasn't?  What do you wish your church would do (or not do!) in welcoming visitors?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I Will Take You as My Own People, and I Shall be Your God

--Exodus 6:7

I feel like I just wrote about this in the wake of the Aurora shootings.  Now, a gunman has killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  Three other people who were wounded remain in critical condition at a local hospital.

And I want to scream at God the words of the prophet Habakkuk, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you, "Violence!" and you will not save?" (1:2)

I confess that I know next to nothing about the Sikh religion, but I can say that they number among the peaceful--indeed, pacifist--tradition of Eastern religions, and they were subject to immense amounts of unfair prejudice after September 11 because people ignorantly mistook them for Muslims (of course, the post-9/11 prejudice against Muslims was likewise unfair...it is a shameful testament to us that the Islamic community has had to emphasize so often that the vast, vast majority of them are peace-loving).

Whether we are Christian or not, we belong to the same God.  It is the promise of Yahweh to the Israelites in Exodus 6 writ large.  If we are all created of God, then we all must belong to that same God.

So I have to admit, I wonder how  we would have reacted if something like this had happened at a Christian church.  And I must likewise admit that I do not have an answer.

My larger point, though, is this--if we all belong to the same God, taking a person's life is a crime not just against them, but against God as well, for we are taking into our hands what should be solely in His--not just the creation but the cessation of life as well.  We are forcibly taking from God His children, just as though a person's son or daughter were killed.

Which brings me back to Habakkuk.  There are moments when I cannot fathom why God would permit the murder of His children.  I feel as though parent (and I do view God in some part through that lens) should do everything to protect their children.

So when God's children cry to the Lord for help, why does God not listen?  When we cry to God "Violence," why does God not save us from ourselves?

I cannot believe that violence is a part of God's plan--the first act of violence was not by God but by us: it was Cain killing Abel in Genesis 4, and indeed, God tries to talk Cain out of it.

And violence, if not a part of God's plan, has certainly been a part of our's for time immemorial.  Shamefully, that heritage includes the involvement of the church.

To be honest, we do not do more to try to recognize that violent history, and to stamp out its recurrences on a collective, national, and international level staggers me.  These deaths cannot be treated as collateral damage to how easy it is to obtain such destructive weaponry.  My gut instinct is that on an ethical, theological, and Biblical level, the preservation of life should come before the preservation of access to weapons.

I'm not trying to politicize anything.  But I do want a dialogue to start.  A life-affirming, love-producing, peace-proclaiming dialogue that could result in something special.

After all...blessed are the peacemakers.

Please pray for the families of loved ones lost violently and prematurely at the Oak Creek temple.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, August 5, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "I am the Bread of Life"

John 6:35-40

35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I told you that you have seen me and still don’t believe.37 Everyone whom the Father gives to me will come to me, and I won’t send away anyone who comes to me. 38 I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 This is the will of the one who sent me, that I won’t lose anything he has given me, but I will raise it up at the last day. 
40 This is my Father’s will: that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (CEB)

“Ego Eimi: The I AM Discourses of Jesus Christ,” Week One

Something profoundly amazing is happening in churches across America today.

People are worshiping around mealtime.  Breakfast, lunch, dinner…all are becoming opportunities for worship, not just the Sunday morning sit-stand-kneel routine.

There is a church in New York City called St. Lydia’s, whose entire Sunday worship life is centered around dinner.  Their meal and their worship has been combined into one singular act, where as they eat together, they hear Scripture read, they sing, and they pray together.

When I lived in Berkeley, before coming here, I would sometimes worship with this new church plant that met in the historic building of a former Disciples church, where we would begin every Sunday worship with a potluck meal together.  Instead of dinner and a movie, it’s dinner and a worship service.  We do something similar with our fellowship time that we always have after our morning worship, but here, we’re in pews, not gathered around tables where we can see each other and talk to one another.

I love this trend because it combines two of my greatest loves—food and worship—but I also love it because it is so Biblical.  Jesus uses the trappings of physical necessity—bread, water, wine—to describe what he offers as the trappings of spiritual necessity—love, and mercy, and grace.  And nowhere is this more on display than when Jesus is confronted after walking upon water in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Welcome to the beginning of a brand-new sermon series for us—a series that will take us through the month of August.  A lot of Jesus’ most famous teachings are immortalized one-liners—turn the other cheek, do unto others, love your neighbor, that sort of thing.  We’ve done a pretty good job of remembering the one-liners themselves, but perhaps less of a good job remembering the contexts from which they came.  And the one-liners Jesus uses to describe Himself fall into the same camp—we may remember that Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Light, or that He is the Good Shepherd, but we may not remember the circumstances in which He said those things.  Well, all of those “I am” one-liners come from the Gospel of John, and we’ll be walking through John’s Gospel to visit almost all of these one-liners in turn, beginning with today’s “I am” statement: Jesus proclaiming that He is the bread of life.

For me, one of the coolest things about Jesus in the Gospel of John is that He is a master of the double entendre.  When He talks to Nicodemus in John 3, and says that everyone must be born again, or born anew, Nicodemus goes, “How is that possible?” as though Jesus is talking about literal birth.  When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman in John 4 about the living water, she asks Him to give her that water so that she doesn’t have to come back to the well to draw more, as though this living water was, you know, actual H2O.  John’s Jesus is a clever teacher who is unafraid to give new depth and meaning to language in order to bring the message of God home to His audiences.

And this ability is put sublimely upon display here, in the bread of life discourse.  As with the examples I noted earlier—of birth and water—Jesus is taking something profoundly simple and foundational to life and turning it into something extraordinary.  It’s his entire ministry writ large: taking something so mundane and ordinary as everyday life and endowing it with extraordinary meaning.

Such is His status as the bread of life.  Much like today, then, bread was one of the most fundamental ingredients of a typical diet—long before the arrival of gluten-free this and wheat-free that, one could not go without bread any more easily than one could have gone without water.  Bread was absolutely crucial to physical survival, but because of the Passover, when the Israelites ate bread in their final meal before escaping slavery in Egypt.  Bread’s physical health importance was compounded by significant spiritual health importance.

Think of all the things we do as church—we talk together and share stories, we eat meals and perform service, we teach one another and love one another…all of those things are, I would argue, physical necessities.  We have to eat, we have to talk and socialize, we have to love and learn.  But only by doing all of those things as church can those physical and psychological necessities be completely fulfilled in their potential for nourishing us by providing a spiritual dimension.

Because I love driving and love road trips, the way I usually describe the spiritual necessity of Christianity is this: you can buy a new sports car and enjoy driving it, but if you never drive it faster than, say, 45 mph, what’s the point of getting a sports car?  You could have simply gotten a regular sedan.

Similarly, God could have created you as anything—a tree, a flower, a puppy, a mosquito…anything.  But God created you as you—a person capable of such rich spirituality that to not tap into that potential is like getting that brand new sports car—you could go through life and reasonably enjoy it, maybe get something out of it, but you would not be anywhere close to being the person God wants and hopes for you to be!

It is difficult to understate the gift of creation.  God, in His infinite grace and wisdom, made you, not as you want to be, but as you are.  It is so incredibly frustrating, that you were made with flaws and frailties, mortality and mystery, rather than with perfection and inerrancy.

And it would be clichéd to say that with perfection would come absolutely no meaning out of life—that part of the point of the destination is the journey, that without bad there can be nothing to define good, but the big thing here, in Jesus’ words, is that without our own finiteness, there is nothing to define God’s infiniteness to.  I’ll repeat that—without our own finiteness, everything about us that is limited and broken, there is nothing with which we can in turn compare God’s infinite nature to.

It is what makes creation so completely, wholly, unbelievably necessary.  Without creation, nothing can be compared to one another, and things like good and evil, weak and strong, are nothing without the other to define it.  And in turn, we, encased in our finite selves, are nothing without God’s infiniteness to define us and our finitude.

And that is what Jesus is saying, in calling himself the Bread of Life.  But bread isn’t just a one-shot thing—you don’t eat a piece of it and are nourished for the rest of your life.  Likewise, taking in the Bread of Life cannot be a one-stop experience for us, either—which is where the church comes in, to ensure that to experience God is never a finite proposition.

At its sacred best, the church is a deliverer of the Bread of Life—of Jesus Christ Himself.  We take ordinary people and show them their extraordinary meaning before God.  We take people in, feed them with coffee and food (has all this talk about food made you anxious for fellowship time yet?!), and nourish them with God’s own grace.  Jesus Himself does both—earlier in this very chapter is John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand—so of course we as the church should strive to do both as well, and the churches that do so beautifully are ones that are thriving in God’s presence—the churches like St. Lydia’s, or Jay Bakker’s Revolution church that regularly meets in pubs and bar and grills.

It sounds so simple, combining food and faith.  And it is.  What we do here isn’t rocket science.  It isn’t brain surgery.  We combine food and faith all the time here at FCC, and the early church also combined the two all the time with its house churches—in fact, fellowship time in the Biblical church wasn’t actually called fellowship time, or any of the other names we have for it—coffee hour, or social hour, what have you.  It was called a love feast.  As an interesting side note, the Roman Empire thought that “love feast” meant something, well, much more licentious, and they became notorious for raiding these love feasts—they would come in expecting to break up sexual orgies, and they’d encounter people praying and eating instead!

But the Roman Empire that misunderstood worship is an apt example for today—even though what we do here isn’t rocket science, it still is easily misunderstood, by Christians and non-Christians alike.  Even though our moral codes are spelled out in unambiguous language—to love our neighbors, to treat others as ourselves—we still misunderstand what that actually looks like.  Jesus has just fed the five thousand.  He has just walked on water.  And still He has to offer commentary on what those miracles actually mean.

We may know, deep down, what the feeding of the five thousand meant—that Christ’s infiniteness is such that He will never turn a person away.  But our own finiteness sometimes requires Jesus to spell that out for us in giant, block letters.  And so He does, by saying that He is the bread of life, that whoever comes to Him will never hunger, and that nobody who comes to Him will ever, ever be driven away.

Indeed, what we do here is not rocket science.  It is divine mandate.

And may us following it, acting it out, and living it bring eternal life for all of God’s children.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 5, 2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

“Heeding the CALL”

Dear Church,

Do you feel you might be gifted in ministries you haven’t attempted yet?

Do you think you might enjoy ministering or teaching, but are worried you don’t have the talent?

Is there a new spiritual discipline you’re meaning to try, and are wondering if now’s the time?

With the kickoff of another school year just around the corner in September, and with many of our weekday programs returning from summer break, I want to take the opportunity to announce to you the beginning of a new program starting this September: The Christian Academy for Life and Leadership (“CALL”).  What is CALL, you might ask?

CALL is envisioned as a small book study group and leadership seminar.  It will be centered around the book “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith,” by Rob Bell (currently retailing for $12 new on Amazon.com, and for only a few dollars used depending on where you look). 

The CALL group will meet once a month—on the evening of the second Monday of each month—in God’s Cave to discuss that month’s chapter of Velvet Elvis, as well as to discern our own gifts for ministry.  Most importantly, we will be discussing how we might use those gifts to further the spiritual life of our church in its current, 21st century context.  This is meant to be a safe place to explore what we are called to be as leaders and as Christians in a dynamic world!
If you are interested in participating, please let me know as soon as possible.  I hope to have the first meeting of CALL take place on Monday, September 10.  If you have any questions about CALL (or anything, really…), the proverbial door is always open!  As always, it is a joy and a blessing to be here as your pastor!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric