Thursday, January 31, 2013

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

“Lost in the Wilderness”

Dear Church,

The liturgical season of Lent—a time meant to represent the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry—begins with Ash Wednesday on February 13 and concludes on Good Friday (the day of the crucifixion), which this year falls on March 29.  Traditionally, we are taught that we are supposed to give something up during Lent as a symbol of our togetherness with Jesus as he fasted in the wilderness.  Because Jesus also faced the temptations of Satan while in the wilderness, tradition dictates that we, too, should give up something that tempts us. 

In past Lenten seasons, I have given up Facebook, video games, beer, and liquor entirely, among other things.  But I haven’t yet settled on something to give up for Lent in 2013 (fortunately, I still have a couple of weeks to decide!).

However, we aren’t constrained simply to giving something up for Lent—we can also take something up!  Just as Jesus urges us to take up our own personal crosses, we can take up new spiritual practices during Lent.  For instance, one of the things I always tried doing while in seminary was reading verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible that I otherwise wouldn’t have much occasion to read (like, say, one of the minor prophets).

All of this is to say that we truly are not constrained in ways to seek and worship God.  In planning out your Lenten journey, feel free to think outside the proverbial box, even if doing so means you are blazing new trails and walking new paths.

After all, part of being in the wilderness means risking getting lost.  Feel free enough and brave enough to do so, with the knowledge that God will still always find you in the end!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Janus Dilemma

January is named after the Roman doorkeeper deity Janus, who, it is said, had two faces--one facing forward towards the future, and another facing backward to the past.

The first time I saw a painting of my birth month's namesake as a kid, I may have freaked out a little bit.   It's a bit unusual.

And lying in Janus' appearance is one of the many reasons Christians either describe themselves or are often fine with being described as "single-minded."  Single-mindedness, as opposed to double-mindedness (which we have since associated with wrongness or evil--see also the Batman villain Harvey Dent/Two-Face from The Dark Knight), is a divine attribute of the one true God who is of a singular, divine mind and substance, whereas we have pagan deities with multiple faces and heads.

(We'll ignore for a moment that the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel depicts the cherubim angels as having four faces...clearly, we've gone a bit overboard in our colloquialisms that refer to wrongness.)

Nevertheless, a pagan deity like Janus is, and should be, a sympathetic figure to mainline Christians like myself today.  Not because we should worship such an idol--we shouldn't--but because his situation of standing betwixt past and future in the mythical doorway of the present is one that we find ourselves in as the Christian Church.

If it's a drum whose cadence I regularly beat, it's for a reason...I remain stuck in the middle of a denomination that looks like it is in its twilight but which expects pastors like me to lead a renaissance of Christian spirituality.  I attend clergy meetings in which I am the youngest pastor in the room by 20 years, and I have to tread the line of respecting the work of my more senior colleagues while also making clear that I am making my own path.  I have to explain the ways and questions of my generation to those foreign to my generation without turning myself into a token of my generation.

I'm not saying any of this is a bad thing--I'm saying it is simply an unwritten part of my job description, one that I found myself ill-prepared for and have had to teach myself on the job as I went.

Where it does overlap with my job description, as it were, is bitingly but succinctly encapsulated by point #8 in this article by fellow mainline pastor Rev. Gary Brinn.  He writes:

When you insist on “the way we do things in this church,” I'm wondering when you stopped worshiping a living God and started worshiping a building and its resident bureaucracy. Give me half a chance, and I'll help you drop the average age of worshipers and give this church a future. Many thousands of churches close every year. This doesn't have to be one of them. But it's your choice. When you are ready to look forward instead of backward, I'll be there to lead the way. That is, after all, what you keep telling me I'm supposed to do.

In a paragraph, this is the challenge and the dilemma that not just Gary, not just me, but all of us, have to rise to meet.  It kills me inside that there are Disciples churches that have basically decided to die the way they have always lived and to sign their own death warrants and die a slow, painful, death rather than even take a shot at revitalization.  Worship of the past is, in its own way, a form of idolatry.

This should not be confused with respecting the past, which a young whippersnapper like me must always be conscientious to do.  But as a church, with so many of our members firmly in the remembering the glory days of the past, we must also take another face to look towards the unknown future, building upon the glories of our past in the hope and prayer of making something even better than what we ourselves had.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, January 27, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "A Time to Tear, A Time to Sew"

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens: 2 a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted, 3 a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up, 4 a time for crying and a time for laughing, a time for mourning and a time for dancing, 5 a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces, 6 a time for searching and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for throwing away, 7 a time for tearing and a time for repairing, a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking, 8 a time for loving and a time for hating, a time for war and a time for peace. (CEB)



“A Time to Tear, A Time to Sew,” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

A Time to Be Church: Ecclesiastes and Envisioning Our Promising Future, Week Three

The way the news article put it, they thought it would be the worst place to have a church.  People wondered if this particular parish in Manhattan’s Times Square could even survive its surroundings. 

Because this was not the Times Square of today, but of 35 years ago, and then, as NBC bluntly put it, “Times Square was ripe with drugs, pornography, and prostitution.”

But the priest who took over Saint Malachy’s in 1976, rather than proposing to shutter its doors, reached out to the community, to the business owners, to the theaters, and yes, to the owners of the pornography stores.

And the church lives to this day.  Not because, I truly feel, of any miraculous act of God, but because a place with drugs and sex workers…well, isn’t that the best place to put a church?  If we were to actually follow Jesus’ model and completely go for broke, wouldn’t the church plant its parishes where they are needed most, rather than wherever the money happens to be?

It is a metamorphosis that speaks to our own story as a church as well.

This is the final installment of a relatively brief sermon series for us to begin 2013.  This series is only three weeks long, which I think is about as short as a sermon series can be and still be called a series—otherwise, it would just be a two-volume set, right?  But we’re going to give the trilogy look a try for the rest of January as we press forward with a new year of being church together.  And the purpose of this series is to take a very famous and well-loved poem—the “To everything there is a season” stanza in the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes—and in it see where we are headed as a church.  A lot has changed in this past year and a half since I had the great blessing of being called by you to be your pastor, and so just like when I first arrived here by offering the “Ashes to Sunlight” sermon series, I want to touch base with all of you once more as we look at what possibilities there are for us as a church in the increasingly rapidly changing cultural and religious landscape that is the Pacific Northwest.  The challenge is, just as the author of Ecclesiastes often looks back, we must, by nature of where we are, look forwards!

I have to admit that I was surprised when I moved here at a number of the concerns facing the Longview-Kelso area.  I arrived right in the midst of a protracted labor dispute between the ports and the longshoremens’ union.  I would see meth cooks riding around on bicycles with opaque water bottles that housed their ingredients, as the friction and motion from the bike mixed them together.  And I have seen what happens when a high birth rate combines with high unemployment.  The number of impoverished children we have in our community is obscene.

I don’t say all of this to knock on Longview—after all, it has become my home as well, and I love it here.  I say all of this because denial is much more than simply a river in Egypt, and our struggles as a parish do, I think, mirror the struggles of our hometown as a community.  In both cases, we worry that our best days are behind us—those of you who have been here long enough remember this church’s heyday in the days of Jim Whitaker, but you also remember the days before the mills began huge amounts of layoffs.

And so we hurt, just like the town around us.

But you’ve got to be kidding if you don’t think this wasn’t also the case for Jesus, or even for Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes.  Upon Solomon’s death, Israel immediately began a decline in the starkest possible sense—there was a revolt, and Israel was divided into two between Solomon’s son Rehoboam and the chief overseer of the crown’s forced laborers (its slaves, basically), Jeroboam.  A prophet even took a piece of fabric meant to represent Israel and tears it up into twelve pieces to represent the twelve tribes, and he hands ten of those swatches over to Jeroboam.

No wonder, then, that Solomon, in all of his wisdom and foresight, would want to include a line about there being a time to tear and a time to sew in his poem here.  That time to tear was almost upon his own kingdom!  And, in many ways in Israel and the Middle East today, we’re still working on the sewing together part.

But here’s the insult to injury, the final kick in the ribs—the reason people gave Rehoboam for their revolt was because he had promised to redouble the “yoke of Solomon” in the form of heavy taxes and heavy punishments.  But the man leading the revolt against this “yoke” was the man who had helped implement it as Solomon’s chief slave driver—Jeroboam!  It would be like a politician, after winning their election by savagely eviscerating every possible thing about their opponent’s private life, suddenly pushing for cleaner campaigning rules!

It isn’t a radical metamorphosis.  It is a tearing up of a kingdom between two villains—there are no good guys in this story.  And so we might forgive Solomon’s own jadedness thoroughout Ecclesiastes—if these are the people surrounded himself with, I might well become a cynic, too.

But as I’ve returned to each time in the past two weeks, this poem also proves that such cynicism does not—and cannot—define Solomon.

There is a time for every work under heaven, he writes—not just the stuff he likes to do, not just the stuff he knows will happen, but for everything, there is a time.

Including a time to change.  In life, in the world, in the church…there is a time to close your eyes, gather your courage, and take that leap of faith into something brand new, that leap of faith that mandates that your feet leave the ground.

I’m a Kansas City Royals fan, born and raised.  I’m very patriotic about my hometown in that way.  And to be  completely honest, I think our current general manager is terrible at his job.  I’m talking as bad as Bill Bavasi, all you Mariner’s fans. 

But he did say something about a trade gone awry that actually has stuck with me for a number of years.  He said, “If we aren’t making any mistakes, then we probably aren’t trying very hard.”

In my time here thus far as your pastor, we have tried a few things together that haven’t quite worked out, like the Sunday evening ACTS prayer service and the plan to supplement the band with a choir of fire-breathing platypuses.

And that’s part and parcel of being the church together—sometimes, the spaghetti won’t stick to the wall.  Which means that there is a time tear those things down and to build something new back up.

After all, 35 years ago, people said a church couldn’t survive in the Times Square center of Manhattan.  And guess what?  People say the same thing about a church in the center of a town—that’s us!  People say that all the growth happens in the suburbs and the exurbs as metropolitan areas geographically expand into more and more land.  People say that churches in the center of towns are finished, because the model of folks coming into town for church no longer applies.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Trust me when I say that if we offer a church life that actually speaks to people where they’re at, rather than where we think they should be, and if we create the kind of atmosphere where people feel safe enough not only to entertain their faith but their deepest doubts and fears about it and be guided rather than scolded, then we’re doing something right.

There is no one-size-fits-all vision for church growth.  But here, we’ve taken our own steps towards growth.  And those steps haven’t involved installing a light show, or putting Lori on a drum kit with a kick drum, high hat, and snares, and we haven’t yet installed a mechanical platform that allows me to ascend into the sanctuary on a cloud of dry ice like in Iron Chef.  Believe it or not, there are other ways of evangelizing and growing that don’t involve all the bells and whistles.

Because, in the end, it’s the message that matters most.  It’s why Jesus could get away with coming to Earth when He did, far from the era of instant news and smartphone technology and social media.  In the end, no matter how you package it, the Gospel is the Gospel.

In other words, while it matters how you package it, it matters far more how you live it.

And that, too, is something that Solomon allows us time for.  For there is a time to build up, there is a time to love, there is a time for peace, for seeking, for keeping, for embracing, and healing, and speaking out.

And I know that there is a time to be the church.  Because all of those things are us being the church.

That’s our time.  That’s our calling.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 27, 2013

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Death Note

I turn 27 today.  At 4:03 pm Central Standard Time in 1986, I was born via cesarean section after refusing to cooperate and come out headfirst like a normal kid.

Late last night, close to the stroke of midnight central time when it would become my birthday where I was born (as opposed to where I live now, on the West Coast), I was driving home from a hospice center where the father of a congregant passed away after a long, losing battle with cancer.

So just as I'm celebrating my life today, members of my church family are mourning the loss of another life.  And I mourn as well.

Perhaps on another day in another year, it might cause me to simply listen to The Lion King's "Circle of Life" on repeat.  But not today.

I was asked by the hospice nurse to fill out a spiritual care form to document my ministry with the family over the past few days.  At the bottom of the page was a box to check whether the patient had passed away.

I hesitated for a second before marking off that box.

In that moment's hesitation, a flood of memories came back of my stint as a chaplaincy intern in California Pacific Medical Center's Clinical Pastoral Education program in San Francisco.

There, I had to document in a patient's chart log any pastoral care I gave--including at times of death.

You haven't lived until you have tried to sum up another person's dying in a paragraph of clinically dry language.

The writing of those death notes was one of the emptiest experiences I have ever had in ministry.  Sitting down amid the hustle and bustle of a nurse's station, I'd have to tune out everything else around me to try to summon the will to describe my work at another person's death.

And after the anger I've struggled with lately over things far outside my control (see also: my immediate previous entry), I have to admit that those memories flooding back to me acted as a pretty strong and necessary hip check.

Dying is part of the involuntary bargain we made in being born, the involuntary bargain that gives us the greatest possible gift with the greatest possible cost of eventually losing it.

Here's to hoping and praying and knowing, on a day when I am looking back on my own life, that there is still more life that awaits us all on the other side.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Few Words on What Constitutes a Christian

I love the church.  And I love where I get to build the church.  I lived in the Pacific Northwest (Portland) for college, and the region was like a playground for me.  After completing seminary, I was more than happy to return, be located close to my grandfather, and enjoy the hiking, beaches, and sheer green that my neck of the woods has to offer its ridiculously lucky inhabitants.

And Portland friends, forgive me...but I even like Seattle.  It has a nice theater scene, the freakin' Boeing museum, and all the coffee you could want (actually, we have that, too).

But it also has some stuff that, if I'm completely honest with you, I'm a little bitter exists and thrives here.

So, in the interest of full disclosure: I don't care much for Mark Driscoll's ministry at his famous Mars Hill megachurch.

I have good friends and colleagues who do.  But I don't.

By the account of former Mars Hill elders, he comes across as terribly arrogant.

By the account of former Mars Hill members, he comes across as quite unforgiving.

And by his own words, he comes across as painfully sexist (in fairness, he later apologized for this one, but with a "I'm sorry if anyone was hurt"-esque non-apology).

But he managed to put the cherry on top of this totally terrible-tasting trifecta of a sundae by yesterday tweeting the following, which has now been retweeted at least a few thousand times:

"Praying for our president, who today will place his hands on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know."

And I'm not proud of this, but it's true: that statement alone--and everything that it implies--was enough to send me oozing into a fury on what was otherwise a day of celebration and historic significance.

Because no matter how I look at Driscoll's tweet, I can only interpret it one of two ways: either he's parroting the "Obama-is-a-Muslim" fantasy of the lunatic fringe right (in which case we can add "racist" to the above list of arrogant, unforgiving, and sexist), or he's saying that mainline Christians aren't real Christians.

I'll dispense with the former by simply saying I do not think Mark Driscoll is a racist.  And in any case, there's a pretty important commandment in Scripture about bearing false witness to your neighbors that I try to follow.  So I don't think that's it.

But as to the latter...as a mainline Christian who is pretty fluent in evangelical jargon and is comfortable in both mainline and evangelical circles, can I just say, GROW UP, WOULD YOU PLEASE?

I won't pretend to know why Mark said what he said in that tweet.  For all I know, he was trying to be provocative (it certainly wouldn't be the first time), and I've risen to take the bait.

But I have to say...it sickens me that conservative evangelical Christians deign to determine for themselves who constitutes a Christian and who does not.  To me, that is a form of playing God, with all of the immaturity (both emotional and spiritual) that entails.

It sickens me that a pastor with the pulpit Mark does is using it to repeat an insidious and disproven lie--that our President is not a Christian (not that it would matter if he were something else--I vote for a politician's policies, not their religious affiliation).

And it sickens me personally because it is an affront to my faith and MY relationship with Jesus Christ that pastors like Mark claim to so highly value.  I've never been born-again, or at least I don't identify as born-again.  I was raised from birth in the church.  I've never recited the Sinner's Prayer, in which I ask Jesus to be my Lord and Savior.

I simply said, upon my baptism at age 10, that He already WAS my Lord and Savior.  Becuase He is.  Not because I made it so.

I believe President Obama is a Christian until and unless he says or does otherwise.  He deserves the benefit of the doubt from me on this particular pecadillo.

But know this: the people who say that he isn't a Christian aren't just throwing stones at the President, they are throwing stones at millions of their brothers and sisters in Christ who have a different faith journey than they do.  They are insulting a faith journey that can, and should, result in a growing of faith, the performing of mission and social justice, and the attainment of salvation.

And no matter which way you cut it, impugning that is just plain sinful.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, January 20, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "A Time to Seek, a Time to Lose"

Ecclesiastes 3:1-6

There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens: 2 a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted, 3 a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up, 4 a time for crying and a time for laughing, a time for mourning and a time for dancing, 5 a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces, 6 a time for searching and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for throwing away (CEB)


“A Time to Be Church: Ecclesiastes and Envisioning a Promising Future,” Week Two

The gardens encompass an entire city block, standing as a tiny oasis of green in the urban wilderness at the heart of downtown San Francisco.  Locals and tourists alike will come from around the Bay Area to visit the museums and restaurants that surround it, to see a free outdoor concert played, or to simply lay down on the grass on one of those rare, precious days that San Francisco sees a bit of sunlight.

Others, though, will come for a very specific reason: the city’s memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. is there, and it stands as a two-story waterfall, as 120,000 gallons of water circulate through over and over, from the glass-like top to the ground where you can actually walk behind the waterfall to see, etched in stone, two of Martin Luther King’s greatest quotes, including this from his famous “I Have a Dream” sermon of the book of the prophet Isaiah at our nation’s capital:

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. 

You can reach out and touch the words themselves, immortalized in the bedrock of the waterfall, and, honestly, it is many ways like walking into here every Sunday: you can literally walk in, reach out, and touch history itself.  What a wonderful gift that is.

This is a new, but relatively brief, sermon series for us to begin 2013.  This series is only three weeks long, which I think is about as short as a sermon series can be and still be called a series—otherwise, it would just be a two-volume set, right?  But we’re going to give the trilogy look a try for the rest of January as we press forward with a new year of being church together.  And the purpose of this series is to take a very famous and well-loved poem—the “To everything there is a season” stanza in the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes—and in it see where we are headed as a church.  A lot has changed in this past year and a half since I had the great blessing of being called by you to be your pastor, and so just like when I first arrived here by offering the “Ashes to Sunlight” sermon series, I want to touch base with all of you once more as we look at what possibilities there are for us as a church in the increasingly rapidly changing cultural and religious landscape that is the Pacific Northwest.  The challenge is, just as the author of Ecclesiastes often looks back, we must, by nature of where we are, look forwards!

In case you weren’t here last week (Go Seahawks?!), here is my basic gist of Ecclesiastes:

The writer of Ecclesiastes—traditionally believed to be King Solomon, the son of David—would definitely have been seen as (spiritually starving) today.  He is the author of immortal lines like, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” “time and chance happens to us all,” and, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” 

If books in the Bible were Winnie the Pooh characters, Ecclesiastes would be Eeyore.  If books in the Bible were Dr. Seuss characters, Ecclesiastes would be the Grinch.  If books in the Bible were Sesame Street characters…well, you get the idea.

And as much as we might want to write of Solomon today as a Debbie downer, he is becoming increasingly a part of our target audience for today.  Because he’s also someone who, I think, wants to be optimistic, even if he cannot manage it all of the time.

Yet, being optimistic almost gets confused with naivete today.  It is difficult for us to be optimistic, at least as difficult as it was for Solomon, and he had a freaking palace!

And so, I imagine, we may spend a moment or two this holiday weekend to reflect upon the legacy of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and marvel at how far we have come, as a people and as a nation.  We will feel heartened as a result, and we will continue to go about the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day lives.

But there’s something missing in that ritual.  Yes, we do right to seek out the legacy of a pastor and leader such as Dr. King.  But if all we do is reflect on it and sit on it, we are doing nobody and nothing any favors, the least of which is that legacy of Dr. King’s.

After all, Dr. King proposed to move heaven and earth precisely because he could not be satisfied with the status quo.  He sought not only to lose the shackles of a world segregated, he sought to seek a world of equality and justice.  I cannot imagine that he would have been content with playing it safe, with coloring within the lines, and with never making waves.

That’s where we find ourselves as a church—not just us, but the entire church.  We are cautious, afraid of losing what little we still cling to.  At a regional clergy meeting I attended this week, the topic of the meeting was how the church can minister to the millennials—essentially, my generation.  And wouldn’t you know it, with me there, they had a real, live millennial to talk to!

But the worst part of the meeting was not having to rep an entire generation, but hearing a colleague talk about all the churches they know who refuse to change anything about how they do things, even though they know that in doing so, they are signing their own death warrant as a congregation.  They would rather die in the familiarity of their cocoon than attempt resurrection.

That’s not what the church is about.  It’s not what Dr. King was about.  And most importantly, it’s not what Jesus was about.

Jesus’ ministry only lasted either one or three years, depending on which Biblical scholar you ask.  Even for the divine Son of God, there’s only so much you can do in that time…after all, as Solomon himself says, time happens to us all, and it definitely happened to Jesus—he went from being a newborn baby to a child teaching in the temple to a fully grown adult.  But he so changed the world that I have to think that he absolutely proved true the notion that one year of incredible beats however many years of mediocre.

In order to find what we truly seek, we have to be willing to lose so, so much to begin with.

That’s what faith is, in a nutshell.  It isn’t a zero-cost proposition.  Being a Christian entails a certain amount of risk—not in the afterlife, but in this life…it’s the risk that you might make your heart and soul vulnerable to a community that pledges its love and support to you.  It’s the risk that you might actually care about other people in ways you never could before.  And it’s the risk you take that any of that might one day cause you to rethink everything about the world.

There’s a reason why it’s called a leap of faith.  You have to leave the ground at some point.

And this is something I know this church has had to do in a big way simply by calling me here.  Doing so was your way of saying, “God is not finished with us yet,” and I absolutely believe this has been borne out so far in our year and a half together.  We have engaged the community in new ways of doing mission, of feeding schoolchildren and planting gardens; we have begun new studies of Scripture and new ministries of music.  We do so much precisely because we have had to decide, as a community, to take the risk that a few years of awesome outweigh many more years of dreariness, and I absolutely expect us to continue to do so much, and to do even more.

This is, I think, the message that the King Solomons of today, those who are starved spiritually, could stand to hear from the church.  Not the judgment, not the anger, but the inane notion that we are here because we aren’t satisfied with keeping the world as it is.  We want to make it better.

And sometimes making the world better means making ourselves better.  Making the church better.  Making the church into something that speaks to people and continues to change lives.

This time a year ago, I wrote on my blog about trying to preach in memory of Dr. King for the first time in my ministry.  And in doing so, I realized a deep fear that I had to confront about myself as a pastor and a preacher—that what I want from myself and from fellow clergy is whatever it was that Dr. King took with him when he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.  Many of us try, in our own ways and styles, to be as inspiring and impactful as him, but we are mere shells compared to him.  Competent fakes, but fakes nonetheless.

The church, though, does not have to be that way.  And if it sounds like I am lowering expectations for myself but not for you, that is not at all the case.  The church is an amazing thing, an institution that has illuminated the world for nearly two thousand years.  And it has managed that incredible feat precisely because it lives out, day and day again, the maxim we focus on today from Solomon’s poem: there is a time to seek, and there is a time to lose.

By engaging in the seeking, we risk the losing.

It can be no other way.  Because if it were, our faith costs nothing.  Our faith means nothing.

But as we know…as we must know, it means everything.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 20, 2013

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Struggling With Forgiving

Every July, I used to get up ridiculously early to watch the Tour de France be broadcast live on OLN (later the Versus network).  The rents--especially my dad--teased me for it, saying, "All they do is pedal!" and after commercial breaks, "Wow, they're still pedaling!"

But I loved it.  I enjoyed learning the strategy of something that is, on the surface, solo (a bike ride) be treated as a team sport.  Being able to watch it live meant an awful lot to me.

So...it's personal.

But I also lost both of my grandmothers within a year of each other to cancer.

It's personal.

My mother had a double mastectomy in 2006 to pre-emptively ward off the very beginnings of breast cancer.

It's personal.

I feel like my faith and trust were used by someone who, while doing fantastic work for cancer victims worldwide, also perpetrated one of the most systematic frauds known to sports.  And in doing so, my faith in other people...I have to admit, it has taken a hit.

And tonight, the come-clean interview (I'm not sure it qualifies as a mea culpa just yet) of Lance Armstrong by Oprah Winfrey sees the light of day.

It comes at a time when I am not exactly at my most forgiving.

I get the forgiveness comes with the job description of being a Christian, and of being a pastor: "How many times must I forgive my neighbor?  As many as seven times?"  "No, but seventy times seven," said Christ.

But I also have no capacity to forgive for wrongs done to more than just me--and by this point, Lance Armstrong's bullying of his detractors is extremely well-documented.

But it isn't just that.

It's everyone who has been affected by cancer--who has suffered it themselves, or suffered alongside a loved one with cancer.

I cannot forgive things done to them.

I think we tend to see forgiveness as being facilitated by remorse or contrition--someone says they are sorry and means it, and the other person accepts the apology and forgives them.

I will admit that my own quest to forgive a cheat and fraud who inspired the world would probably be helped if he does, in fact, express remorse in his interview tonight.  To be honest, I do not have faith that he will--all of this smacks of someone who is sorry not for cheating, but for getting caught cheating.  Still, I hope to be proven wrong.

But in the end, none of that is necessary.

Nor should it be necessary.

Because it would mean I am still defining myself and my actions by someone else and their actions.

Whether I forgive wrongs done to me is a decision in my keeping alone.

And that is as it should be.

And so I struggle with forgiving.

How very Christian--and very un-Christlike--of me.  Broken, finite, human, Christian me.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Upping the Inclusion Ante

A year and a half ago, in Nashville Tennessee, I was present at my first Disciples of Christ General Assembly as a voting delegate (all ordained clergy with standing are automatically eligible to vote at GA).  I was very happy to see that a resolution condemning youth and child bullying was up for passage, and as expected, it passed in a landslide.

There was one brief wrinkle, though—a colleague (though also a stranger to me at the time) got up in opposition of the resolution, claiming it was a thinly-veiled product of the GLBT-affirming wing of the Disciples (whatever that means…though it should be noted that I was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Make the DOC Gay Okay,” so, you know…maybe there is a machine after all=) ).  His comments received mostly crickets in response, but I happened to run into him by happenstance not long after the vote.  Not feeling like picking an argument at a sacred gathering, I instead blurted out the first thing that came into my head:

“Dude…I don’t agree with a single thing you just said, but damn, it took guts to say that.”

And it did.  Being grossly unpopular is never easy—just ask anyone who has survived junior high.  That doesn’t make what he said right.  But taking a stand usually involves some degree of courage.

And today, I must say that I am very heartened by the courage being shown on the other side of this issue (aka, “the pro-gay wing”) in the run up to this year’s GA in Orlando, Florida.  First Christian Church in Concord, California—the congregation I served for two years as their part-time student associate minister—is one of a number of Disciples congregations sponsoring a resolution to be voted on at the GA.  And this resolution reads, in part:

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) declares itself to be a people of grace and welcome to all God’s children—inclusive of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, or physical ability;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) affirms the faith, baptism, and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that neither are grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church, but are a part of God’s good creation;


FINALLY, BE IT RESOLVED that all expressions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as a people of grace and welcome, are encouraged similarly to declare their support for the welcome and hospitality to all Christians, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, or physical ability.

(You can read the full version here.)

Mine will be a “yes” vote when this resolution comes to the floor of the GA.

Why?

Because while respecting the congregational autonomy the Disciples is built upon (with the term “are encouraged” in the final clause, rather than “are mandated”), this resolution essentially validates the ordination of GLBT clergy on a denominational level, which is something that needs to happen.

Why does this need to happen?

First and foremost, I believe it is Scriptural—not only does Scripture not prohibit gay and lesbian clergy (1 Timothy 3:1-13), but it also states that all are given spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-11).  These two are not mutually exclusive…ergo, it is entirely possible to be gay or lesbian and have the spiritual gift of ministry.

And it is not only Scriptural—in accordance with the current ethos of inclusion both inside and outside the Disciples, it is, quite simply, the right thing to do.  We have, for too long, allowed the church to remain a place where condemnation of a person based on their sexual orientation remains somehow acceptable.  This resolution is one small part of righting that longtime wrong.

Finally, this can be a great boon to the ranks of the clergy.  Yes, some congregations and pastors will get very upset if this passes.  But much like how the ordination of women eventually created a brand-new wave of God’s servants (in a number of seminaries now, female students outnumber male students), I hope that so too might the universal ordination of gay and lesbian Disciples pastors, who might offer a new source of Christian ministry in the coming years and decades.

Indeed, I had a number of openly gay and lesbian classmates at seminary who I would consider to be (from my own human perspective) extraordinarily qualified to serve as ordained clergy.

And while this takes a step beyond simply saying “gay bullying is wrong and sinful,” we’re also not asking anyone to reinvent the wheel here.

We’re not trying to do rocket science or brain surgery.

We’re just trying to live the Gospel by, just as Jesus did, making the ranks of Disciples teachers open to all qualified persons.

It’s really not that complicated.

And I am both proud and eager to be a vote in support of that effort.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, January 13, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "A Time to Build Up and a Time to Break Down"

Ecclesiastes 3:1-3

There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens: 2 a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted, 3 a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up (CEB)


The medical student—a young man about to become a doctor—couldn’t believe his eyes.  In the midst of his home country Liberia’s civil war in 2004, soldiers wounded from battle began pouring into the hospital that he was stationed at.  He recalled, several years later, "One of the soldiers was not happy with how a nurse was taking care of his wound, and he slapped the nurse.  A doctor came over, to speak with the man. The soldier pushed his head through a window.”  As The Atlantic put it, this doctor:

“Explained that the attending physicians refused to treat the soldiers after the incident, and that many physicians subsequently fled the country, forcing the hospital to shut down.  "The minister of health at the time was the only surgeon in Liberia. And he was teaching anatomy, so he had a very strong influence over the medical students," (he) said. The sitting president, "through this minister, appealed to us to keep the hospital open. So we, the medical students, took over the hospital." At the time, this student had just advanced to his third year (in medical school). He was a student on a pediatric rotation, and he instantly became the head of pediatrics.

After becoming a full-fledged attending, the doctor told of having to perform so many operations outside of his field of specialty, including even operating on his newborn daughter when there was no other surgeon in the sub-Saharan country who could perform the procedure that would correct his child’s birth defect.

Everywhere around him, he saw a health system that had been broken down—or that had not been built up to begin with.  The time to be broken down was over.  The doctor switched fields completely, moving from being a general practitioner to practicing surgery, and he is now the chief surgical resident of a 270-bed Christian hospital in Cameroon.

There, despite low pay and relatively little prestige, he and 25 other doctors practice their craft.

There, lives are saved so that they may be built up again.

This is a new, but relatively brief, sermon series for us to begin 2013.  This series is only three weeks long, which I think is about as short as a sermon series can be and still be called a series—otherwise, it would just be a two-volume set, right?  But we’re going to give the trilogy look a try for the rest of January as we press forward with a new year of being church together.  And the purpose of this series is to take a very famous and well-loved poem—the “To everything there is a season” stanza in the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes—and in it see where we are headed as a church.  A lot has changed in this past year and a half since I had the great blessing of being called by you to be your pastor, and so just like when I first arrived here by offering the “Ashes to Sunlight” sermon series, I want to touch base with all of you once more as we look at what possibilities there are for us as a church in the increasingly rapidly changing cultural and religious landscape that is the Pacific Northwest.  The challenge is, just as the author of Ecclesiastes often looks back, we must, by nature of where we are, look forwards!

The Liberian doctor’s story is a dramatic one, but one whose drama should not overshadow its relatibility to us as a church community.  Because spiritually, even if not physically, we have been there!  Spiritually, we were in the situation that many third-world hospitals are in physically—lots of worry that we did not have the means to meet the needs of the community in which we lived.

And believe it or not, misery loves company for a reason.  There are lots of other churches in the same boat we were and are in—wondering how we can speak to the spiritual needs of a new generation of believers who feel starved by the lack of spiritual nutrition in today’s day and age.

The writer of Ecclesiastes—traditionally believed to be King Solomon, the son of David—would definitely have been one such person today.  He is the author of immortal lines like, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” “time and chance happens to us all,” and, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” 

If books in the Bible were Winnie the Pooh characters, Ecclesiastes would be Eeyore.  If books in the Bible were Dr. Seuss characters, Ecclesiastes would be the Grinch.  If books in the Bible were Sesame Street characters…well, you get the idea.

And as much as we might want to write of Solomon today as a Debbie downer, he is becoming increasingly a part of our target audience for today.  Because he’s also someone who, I think, wants to be optimistic, even if he cannot manage it all of the time.  And I say this precisely because of this poem in the third chapter of Ecclesiastes.

The Second Great Awakening-era Methodist theologian Adam Clarke had this to say, in part, about the poem:

God has given to man that portion of duration called time; the space in which all the operations of nature, of animals, and intellectual beings, are carried on; but while nature is steady in its course, and animals faithful to their instincts, man devotes it to a great variety of purposes; but very frequently to that for which God never made time, space, or opportunity. And all we can say, when an evil deed is done, is, there was a time in which it was done, though God never made it for that purpose…It is worthy of remark, that in all this list there are but two things which may be said to be done generally by the disposal of God, and in which men can have but little influence: the time of birth, and the time of death. But all the others are left to the option of man, though God continues to overrule them by his providence.

What Adam Clarke is saying is that, much how Solomon himself would likely see things, what is done is done, and it is that way precisely because that is how God created the world to be.  But, he says, we always have the option of doing all other manner of things.  There is a time to plant and a time to sow, but we are the ones who actually choose when to sow and when to reap.  God gives us the time and will to do so, but whether we actually do…well, that’s up to us.

And I absolutely, without a doubt, believe that God has given us this time as a time to build up after having been broken down.  Much like the world itself, we are capable of rising from the ashes of fire and dust and creating a new thing!  Just as Adam went from being mere dust and dirt  to being living merely through the breath of God, so too is it so for the church!

I warmly encourage you to attend the Annual General Meeting in two weeks’ time, because that is precisely what we will be discussing and voting on—creating a new thing…two new things, really.  One is a change to our Constitution to reflect how one formally becomes a member at FCC.  I am so, so proud to say that we have had four different households in the past two months come forward in our membership sessions to say that they wish to join us, and I want our Constitution to accurately reflect the journey folks now take to become a part of the body of Christ.

The other new thing is a change to our bylaws over how our Board is structured.  The changes are not huge—there will still be most of the officer positions you recognize—Moderator, Vice-Moderator, Member-at-Large, etc., but we are proposing combining some of the officer positions in order to help make the board more nimble, flexible, and responsive.

But enough with the boring stuff.  You’ll hear more about it in my State of the Church address at the Annual General Meeting, where, much like the President’s State of the Union address, I expect you to give me a standing ovation after every three sentences.  (In fact, why doesn’t that happen already during my sermons?)

To everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born, and a time to die.

A time to plant, and a time to sow.

A time to kill, and a time to heal.

And there is a time to break down and a time to build up.

Thank God for that.  For that time is nothing less than one of God’s great gifts to us.  Let us use it well as we move forward in this new year together.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 13, 2013

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Louie Giglio's Self-Thrown Pity Party

Maybe we pastors should get out of the blessing-of-government-functions business for good.  After all, the state has no business telling us how to worship, and when we do try some version of state-sanctioned worship, it doesn't always end well (see also: the outcry over Rick Warren delivering the benediction at President Obama's first inaugural ceremony in 2009).

The thing is, I honestly didn't care that much about Warren's presence at the first inauguration.  I don't agree with everything he says, but the President, just like any one of us, has the right to seek spiritual leadership from whomever s/he wishes.  If we don't like it, we can support a different politician who more closely shares our religious preferences.

That being said, the way that Louie Giglio is behaving in the wake of the outcry over his overt homophobia from the 1990's is embarrassing to me as a pastor and as Christian.

The controversy stems from a sermon Giglio gave in the mid-1990s, from which CNN (among others) reports he offered some extreme views on homosexuality, including the "pray the gay away" notion that homosexuality is an affliction from which one can be cured.

Notably, in the midst of this controversy, Giglio has NOT, to my knowledge, renounced those views.  Instead, he withdrew from his role of delivering the benediction at President Obama's second inaugural ceremony (the same role Rick Warren had at the first inauguration).

Again, there's nothing wrong with that.  If Giglio feels his presence is inappropriate, withdrawing is probably the best course of action.

It's how he has gone about doing so that has left me shaking my head.

In a statement published in part by NBC, Giglio says in part, "Due to a message of mine tha thas surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation and the prayer I would offer will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration." (emphasis mine)

The fact that Giglio is playing into a terrible stereotype--the sinister specter of the "homosexual agenda"--means he most certainly has not repented of his earlier homophobia, and in all likelihood still holds on to some of those beliefs.

More inexplicably, though, I seriously have no idea where Giglio gets off acting like he is the victim in all of this by the gay and lesbian community.

For decades--longer than I have been alive--gays and lesbians have been unjustly demonized by many, many Christian churches.  In the cases of people like Matthew Shepard, they have paid for that demonization with their lives.  Meanwhile, Christianity continues to be the most popular religion in both the United States and the world, and unlike the queer community, the First Amendment explicitly protects us.  And yet, Giglio, rather than actually owning what he says and believes, has the chutzpah to suggest that he is being drowned out by a community who has been marginalized and oppressed by the church for ages.

And not that it's perhaps of any great concern, but it's stuff like this which makes my job--and the jobs of many other pastors--of healing what is already a terribly broken and sinful world harder.

But more importantly, it makes the lives of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ more painful.  And it shouldn't.

And for that, I have to think it makes God's mercy even more necessary than it already was, if that's even possible.

Give us grace, Lord.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Javert Redeemed?

(Trigger word warning: suicide.  Also, there be Les Mis spoilers in this post.  You have been warned.)

Like everybody else and their mother, I spent a day of my holiday vacation seeing Les Miserables at the theater.

As can be expected if you know me at all, I loved it.

(Full disclosure: Les Mis was the first musical I was involved in back in high school, as I played saxophone in the pit orchestra for Shawnee Mission South's production my junior year.  I reprised that gig my senior year when we put on Footlose.  I loved Les Mis then, too.)

Though plenty is lost in the book-to-musical transition (and how could it not, with Hugo's novel as long as it was...as my sister put it, "Victor sure didn't take any shortcuts"), the musical does stay pretty true to the novel itself, and I appreciated how the movie included a number of nods to the novel that were not, in fact, in the stage musical.

But one thing always gets me.

It's the finale, when "Do You Hear the People Sing" is reprised by almost the entire company.

I say "almost" because a few key players are missing.  Marius, Cosette, and the Thenardiers are still alive.

But Javert, who has died, is typically not portrayed as being present in the finale that is sung by the ghosts of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Eponine, Enjolras, and all those who were killed at the barricades.

I find that odd.

Why?

Because, if it isn't obvious by Valjean's lyrics in the finale ("forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory"), the presence of all the departed characters is meant to represent heaven.

Javert, the legalistic policeman who unflinchingly enforces the law to the letter, is not in heaven.

Yet, it is hard not to see his release of Jean Valjean and Marius as an act towards his own redemption, and a step away from the rigidity with which he administered justice in the past.

In essence, that moment that Jean Valjean is "born again" (for truly lack of a better term) as a result of witnessing the Bishop of Digne's kindness for him...I have to think that this was Javert's own such moment.

Had he lived.

There are two different reasons people have given me as to why Javert is not depicted in the finale--one is because he simply is the antagonist, but I think his release of Valjean puts to lie that theory.  He is capable of change, and of eventually acting morally even if it means breaking the law.  Perhaps that one act did not make up for a lifetime of Pharisee-esque legalism, and I am willing to admit that possibility.

But the other reason is far more sensitive--it is because Javert committed suicide, and suicide is traditionally treated as a sin in Christian teaching (though, interestingly enough, Moses, Elijah, and Jonah all asked God at one point to take their lives...following God is not always easy).

But the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (and though I am not Catholic myself and do not agree with everything it says, I do still see Catholic moral teaching as relevant to contemporary Christianity) states that, among other things, anguish can diminish the moral responsibility of suicide. And Javert was nothing if not anguished when he made the terribly wrong decision to drown himself.

So if God judges us according to His mercy, as I believe from Scripture that He will, I confess that I left the film wondering why Javert was not present in heaven.

Because, in the end, my faith tells me that he just might be.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, January 6, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "As Dreamers Do"

Matthew 2:1-12 

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: 6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”[a] 7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route." (CEB)


“As Dreamers Do,” Matthew 2:1-12

The African prisoners had just valiantly and violently won back their freedom from the slavers who dared to sell them.  Aboard a tiny slave ship bound from Cuba, they immediately sought out the direction of the sun—where it rose (in the east) would tell them in which direction home was.  By day, every day, they sailed in this direction.

Yet every night, two of the slavers who had been spared in order that they might help operate the ship would take the wheel and turn it westward once more, using the stars to tell which direction lay away from their prisoner’s homes in Africa.  The stars that might otherwise have continued to guide the Africans to their homes were instead exploited by their captors for a far more cowardly purpose.  And so, the ship made a zig-zag pattern up the eastern coast of the United States before landing in New England.  The legal drama that ensued ensured the fame of the Amistad Africans, whose valor was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie by the same name.

Like most Hollywood stories, it was made into a movie because it was a compelling saga.  It’s a compelling saga because it is one of people risking much for that which we take for granted.

Of course we take for granted that our default state is one of freedom.  We need know nothing of how to lead an insurrection, or navigate the high seas, or win over a complex legal system in order to enjoy what it is to be free.

Neither, then, must we know altogether that much these days to know God.  After all, a great number of churches will tell you that simply by getting on your knees and reciting a few words, you can achieve permanent salvation.

Because after all, salvation is a whole lot easier when someone else has done the work for it.

And those someone else’s who we think of—the disciples, Mary and Joseph, and most importantly, Jesus—would, I honestly think, be astonished at just how easy we have made it to become “saved” today.  There’s a reason we call it “cheap grace.”  Sometimes, in religion, you get what you pay for.

And the story of the Magi illustrates this maxim perfectly—getting out of spirituality what you put into it.  They put much of themselves in.  They give of their time, resources, and even physical safety without hesitation.  And though Scripture does not explicitly say so, Matthew implicitly says it all over the story—they reaped much religious richness for having done so.

And it isn’t just the giving of the gold, incense, and myrrh—the gift of presence mattered, in many ways, a lot more than it does today.  I realize that’s a bit of a stunner in this day of Facebook, where you wish someone a happy birthday by “liking” their status, but travel today involves next to none of the risks it entailed in ancient Israel.  There’s a reason why Jesus begins His parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke with a highway robbery victim—He invoked a crime so commonplace that it ensured His audience knew exactly what He was talking about.  And the Magi are traveling with those gifts—just like your mama told you never to carry a bunch of cash on you in case you get mugged…well, these fellas clearly weren’t listening to their mamas.

But Matthew tells us that isn’t the only risk the Magi took—they’re doing this at the behest of King Herod the Great—who got that moniker not by being a swell guy, but for all of the building projects he undertook as king, including the expansion of the Jerusalem temple.  We know from Matthew that Herod is a capricious, ruthless, calculating ruler—immediately after this passage in Matthew’s Gospel comes the massacre of the infant boys of Bethlehem, and the descent into Egypt by Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus.

And Herod is asking them to do this in secret—as verse 7 puts it, “Herod secretly called for the wise men…then he sent them to Bethlehem.”  What we remember as an act of devout worship by complete strangers began as a cloak-and-dagger spy mission…still fit for the Hollywood big screen, but certainly of a completely different genre.

So the Magi are not just risking their personal resources—whatever it cost them to obtain the gold, incense, and myrrh—and they are not just risking their time…and as men who were able to get an audience with the King of Judea with relative ease, their time was likely quite valuable.

They are risking their own personal safety if they get caught, be it by highway bandits or by Herod’s own soldiers, in which case they wouldn’t be robbed…they would most likely be accused of high treason to the crown.

And all for what?  That’s the million-dollar question, right?

They took great risk because they show great love.

It’s the moral we learn in Luke 7, from the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee—Jesus says to Simon, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, for she has shown great love.”  As a woman in ancient Israel, she took great risk in coming to Jesus alone.  But she showed great love, because she dared to dream that her sins were forgiven.

The Magi took great risk in coming to Jesus, and I can only think it is because they were like the anonymous woman—because they were capable of great love.  They were capable of navigating the stars and undermining a king and proffering great material gifts because they dared to dream that it could be so, that on the basis of a star, they believed that the true King had come to earth.

And in spite of all their risks, their lives were secured at the end of the story on the basis of…a dream.  We do not know who warned them in their dream to not return to Herod, but we can presume that they found their way home by that other road.

Their’s is an example we would do well to follow as we begin this new year, casting aside the shackles of what was a brutal December.  Indeed, we have already lived through the massacre of the innocents.  Matthew writes in quoting Jeremiah, “Rachel wept for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

We have wept for our nation’s children, for our world’s children, who are no more.  And we will continue to do so, because, in the end, being Christian is to be as the Magi are…to be dreamers capable of risk.  To be dreamers capable of feeling pain.  And to be dreamers who must, must be unafraid to turn themselves inside out and to assume all manner of vulnerability when worshiping the God who made them.

It’s what keeps that grace from becoming cheap. 

It’s what keeps our faith from becoming mere words and breath.

Their’s is the road to follow…a road that twists and turns away from the Herods of the world.

A road that guides us by starlight to baby boy.

And a road that has been trod by the many who have come before us.

That is the moral of the Magi—that we must do as they did.  We must do as dreamers do.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 6, 2013

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ready for 2013?

...in case it wasn't obvious from my previous post, I kinda am.  Even though 2012 was, in fact, a wonderful year for my congregation--our worship attendance grew by over 45%, we began a new children's Sunday School class, we started participating in a new mission program for our neighbors at Kessler Elementary School, and we repainted the entire freakin' building.  God has provided an abundance of will and energy to do great things here.

So, not bad for a year's work!

But I also wanted to give y'all a heads-up for some of the material I've got rolling around in my noggin for 2013...

First and foremost, I'll continue posting all of my sermons and columns here.  That part won't change.

What will, however, is an attempt by me to try to build a bit more continuity on the blog.  I've noticed that I preach better within larger arcs of continuity--hence why I preach almost entirely in sermon series throughout the year.  I've wondered if that might hold true for my blogging as well as for my preaching.

In that vein, I'm considering different options of what might make for a good series of blog posts.  I have thought about interviews with other young pastors in the Pacific Northwest who are, like me, engaging in building and rebuilding ministries with their churches.  I have also thought about making our Bible studies here at FCC partly accessible online, in that I would post a series of reflections based on what came out of those studies--questions, struggles, commentary, my own notes, etc.--for you to follow along and contribute to with your own discussion.

My own posts will likely continue in similar veins, though--a mixture of commentary on current affairs from a progressive Christian perspective and behind-the-scenes reflections on what ministry is truly, astoundingly, like.

Regardless of what I end up writing for the blog this year, I am very excited--and optimistic--for the prospects the year holds for my ministry here.

Which almost certainly means I need to go knock on wood immediately.

What are you most looking forward to in 2013?  What are you most hoping for?  What would you most like to see here at the Project in terms of posts, series, and content?

PS: Pasted below is also my preaching schedule for January, so that you can follow along with the new sermon series that begins on January 13.  It will be the first explicitly vision-casting sermon series I've done since the "Ashes to Sunlight" series when I first arrived here in 2011.  It will be based on the "to everything, there is a season" poem in Ecclesiastes 3, and I am really looking forward to it!

Yours in Christ,
Eric

January 2013 Worship Messages

January 6 (Epiphany Sunday): “As Dreamers Do,” Matthew 2:1-11

Post-Epiphany 2013: “A Time to Be Church: Envisioning a Promising Future”

January 13: “A Time to Break Down, a Time to Build Up,” Ecclesiastes 3:1-3
January 20: “A Time to Seek, a Time to Lose,” Ecclesiastes 3:1-6
January 27: “A Time to Tear, a Time to Sew,” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8