Monday, April 29, 2013

Some Thoughts on Jason Collins and What it Means to be a Man

So, previously and relatively obscure NBA player Jason Collins dropped a bombshell on the world: he's gay.

Which makes him the first active male American athlete to come out (men's national team soccer player Robbie Rogers did come out earlier this year, but he also retired in doing so).

And boom goes the dynamite.

By and large, there has been a great swelling of support for Jason, which is heartening to see, and which has loomed over the smattering of trolls who are taking potshots over the news (such as comparing the reaction to his coming out to the abortion horrors perpetrated by Kermit Gosnell.  No, I'm not making that up).

But probably the coolest support I saw came in the form of this pictorial article from the Gen Y-adored time-wasting website Buzzfeed.


Because it hacks a mighty big swing at what I have to think underlines a significant chunk of the Christian right's homophobia: the myth that gay men are all limp-wristed, girly-girl pansies.

In other words, it's the myth that gay men are not, you know, real men.  Manly men.  Like Christian men clearly are, with their battle-themed God ("Onward Christian Soldiers," anyone?) or, more recently, bragging on their "smoking hot wives."

All of which I find amusing, in an odd sort of way.  Because what I still sometimes hear, in reference to gay men, is a sentiment something along the lines of: "I don't care what you do in private, just don't rub it in my face."

But we Christian men are perfectly fine rubbing our heterosexism in the world's face on Twitter, Facebook...wherever social media allows us to basically act like a drunken King Xerxes in the first chapter of Esther, demanding that his smoking hot wife and queen, Vashti, be brought out in her crown so that his similarly drunken entourage (who probably wouldn't stand a chance today with Dotcom and Grizz) could ogle her.

So let's be honest: we're perfectly fine rubbing what we do in private in one another's faces...just as long as it doesn't gross us out.

I'm just wondering why there is the need for any of it to begin with.

I mean, sure, I get the notion that the fear is the wish.  But I don't think that's quite it.  I think the fear is that it isn't enough to simply be a man, we have to strut it, like we're peacocks instead of humans.

Now, don't get me wrong: I love so, so much about being a man that it is completely worth the decreased life expectancy and vulnerability to toddlers wielding wiffle-ball bats.  I love the bass timbre of my singing voice.  I love having a beard to thoughtfully stroke while I ponder the nature of God.  I love not having to ever deal with bra shopping.  All of this is great.  I love it.

But I also have never felt the need to impress the point that I'm a dude in my behaviors.  I have always figured I didn't need to advertise my masculinity to demonstrate it.  In other words, it's a tautology: I am a man, I self-identify as a man, so I'm masculine by definition.

And one of the great hopes I have with this new thing of male athletes coming out of the closet is that maybe we can finally put out to pasture one of the oldest and most harmful stereotypes in the book: that you can tell a man's sexual orientation based on how he behaves or acts out.  

It's the old Breakfast Club lesson, updated from the 1980s: it isn't that one of us is a jock, and one of us is a nerd, and a burnout, etc., and that is the only thing we can be.

Except that there is not merely only one thing a gay man can be.

There is not merely only one thing a straight man can be.

There is not merely only one thing that any man can be, other than simply being a man, fearfully and wonderfully made by God.

Thanks be to God for that.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, April 28, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Am I Cleopas?"

Luke 24:13-24

13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him. 17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast. 18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?” 19 He said to them, “What things?” They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. 20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.” (CEB)

Reactions to the Resurrection: Our Biblical Alter Egos, Week Two

The Diomede Islands are a pair of rocky outcroppings in the middle of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.  The smaller island, which is on one side of the International Date Line, belongs to the United States.  The larger island, which is on the other side of the International Date Line—and thus is 23 hours ahead of the smaller island, despite being separated by a matter of two or three miles—belongs to Russia (in 2008, I would probably crack that maybe this was what Sarah Palin saw from her house).  During the winter, in order to facilitate contact with the outside world, the people of these islands will carve a landing strip right onto the frozen seawater that separates the two islands, and two Frenchmen who were part of a bush pilot expedition up in Alaska last month decided, hey, you know what would be fun, since we’re already here?  Visit Russia.  As the journalist who was there, Brian Phillips, put it:

We were only supposed to look. That was the deal. We’d hop out of our planes, eat a sandwich, and take a picture of Russia. Then we’d head home. Anything more would be illegal… I turned to the villager who took care of the airstrip — Henry, his name was, he’d come out on a snow machine to greet us — and asked how far to the border.

“Oh, about 400 yards over yonder,” Henry said.

And I took off. I didn’t ask permission. Looking back, I can see that I was undergoing pretty intense mood swings as a result of the PTSD from all the amazing experiences I’d been having. But I was free, wasn’t I, in Alaska? It was slow going, because I was too free to bother with snowshoes and thus had to churn through 30 inches of snow.

I headed across the frozen strait, toward the jagged white rock of Big Diomede.  This was it, the actual end of America. Sure, we had borders with other countries. We had nothing close to this.

But then disaster struck—the plane the two French bush pilots were flying wouldn’t start:

Jay…tried to manually start their propeller with a two-handed spin, the way you see in old movies. The Frenchmen’s engine was as dead as the island rock…

Jay had it the worst. He was out there the whole time, crouched under the plane, trying to get the engine heated. Villagers from Little Diomede kept forming little peering semicircles a few feet away from him. Finally he walked back...

“We’re taking off,” he said. “Bernard and Christophe can stay in the village.”

The teachers had agreed to put them up at the school.  The last I saw of our two French pilots, they were being carted away on snow machines, half-bewildered, waving back at us.

And can you imagine being a traveler in that spot?  We have all been stranded while traveling before, but after having come so far, to the end of the world, you end up feeling left behind?
If so, then I have news for you…you’re just like Cleopas!

My intent behind this new sermon series was to recall that traditionally, the church held Easter to be not just a day, but a season—a 50-day long season that culminates in the story of Pentecost, of the coming of the Holy Spirit as depicted in Acts 2.  And so for the remainder of the season of Easter, we will be keeping the story of Easter alive by looking at how different followers of Jesus reacted to the news on the day of the Resurrection, and we began the series last week with the story of Mary Magdalene and her reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb, as told by Mark.  This week, we turn to the beginning of a very famous and well-loved story, the appearance of the Resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus to two followers: Cleopas, and Cleopas’s anonymous companion.  For the sake of storytelling, we’ll call him Bob.  Or whatever the ancient Israelite equivalent was to “Bob.”

So anyways, Cleopas and Bob are walking together to a town called Emmaus, which Luke tells us is about seven miles from Jerusalem.  It’s the day after the Sabbath, and three days after the beginning of the Passover, so you can imagine these two fellows were in Jerusalem for the Passover, stayed for a while to avoid traveling on the Sabbath, and set out the morning after the Sabbath ended.  And while seven miles is not a long way in our books—heck, that’s about the distance from Longview to Kalama—that’s a bit of a hike to two men traveling on roads that we know from, say, the parable of the Good Samaritan, were not the safest.

And that’s important—that we remember that roads were a haven for bandits and highway robbers, because Jesus suddenly appears, the two men are prevented from recognizing him, and—here’s the rub—they make no attempt to ascertain why this mystery man has come up to them.  They’re not interested in figuring out if this man is going to try to rob them or, worse, rob them, beat them, and leave them for dead like the hapless man in the Good Samaritan parable.

Cleopas and his friend have so despaired at the situation that has just unfolded in Jerusalem, with their Messiah having been betrayed and executed that they have basically given up.  Sure, they are going through the motions, but that seven miles might as well be the distance from the mainland United States to the tiny Diomede Islands, so far are they now removed from the trappings of life as they once knew it.

Imagine being stranded in an outpost as remote and as fierce as the Diomedes.  Now imagine that in a spiritual, rather than necessarily physical sense.  That’s Cleopas right now.

And if we were to continue this story, we would hear Jesus chiding—in no uncertain terms—Cleopas’s despair.  And so while it is wholly understandable—and completely human of us—to so despair at such points in our own lives, we are, in the end, not meant to.

When I preached my Good Friday sermon over at Community Christian Church, I said, in so many words, maybe we are not supposed to spiritually survive Good Friday.  Christ does not survive Good Friday physically, it is poetic balance that we not survive in spiritually.  But I think that there is Scriptural basis for this as well: Cleopas has clearly not spiritually survived Good Friday.  He has seen a holiday—the Passover—that is meant to solemnly but joyfully recall liberation from the bondage of slavery be overshadowed and co-opted by injustice and evil.

And so he does what any one of us would do when pressed to such a precipice, to the end of our ropes, to the end of the earth: he despairs.  Utterly, completely, totally, and without abandon.

And here’s the kicker: Mark’s version of the Resurrection narrative has already happened, the women have discovered the empty tomb and fled, and have finally started sharing the news but not found any takers for what they were saying.

Because secondhand stories are not enough to overcome this kind of despair.  Hearsay is not enough.  It’s Luke’s version of the Doubting Thomas story: only proof will do.

But we are not afforded such luxuries today.  We do not have a Messiah who arrives in bodily form and walks with us along our journeys and lets us put our hands in His side and touch His wounds.  We have to struggle and shuffle and stagger on with instead the promise that one day Jesus will return to walk with us and teach us and lead us and all the other things we wish, deep down, He would do today because sometimes, dammit, life is just too hard for us to take.

We look around, and see thousands of children die across the world every single hour from starvation, and think that it would just be easier to give up instead of to stem this tide.  But instead we beg all of you for donations of food every single week to give to the impoverished Highlands children who attend our neighboring Kessler Elementary School.

We look around, and see thousands of people struggling with addiction and all the things addiction can lead one to do, and think that it would just be easier to give up instead of to mitigate this plague.  But instead we host an amazing Narcotics Anonymous group that says to whoever comes: your addicition is beatable, your soul is salvageable, and you are worth that.

We look around, and see thousands of souls forgotten by the world and thirsting for the Good News of God’s love for them, and think that it would just be easier to give up instead of actually offering that love to them.  But instead, every day, in our deeds and in our words, we can decide to show the love of a Christ who is not yet physically here to show that love Himself--it's what Saint Teresa of Avila said: Christ has no hands but yours, no feet but yours.

But these hands and feet cannot feel such despair today.

The despair of Cleopas is completely human, completely understandable, and completely believable.  But it is also completely and wholly a luxury that we can only indulge ourselves in for mere moments at a time, because it strands us from one another; it separates us from each other, it leaves us out in the wilderness like a pilot on a frozen faraway island awaiting salvation.

We feel despair at our lives.  We are allowed to feel despair at our lives.

But then, we must start walking towards Emmaus again.  For Jesus commands it of Cleopas.  And, if we are Cleopas, then we must, as he did, continue walking toward a future that  may, God willing, provide less despair than today.  By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 28, 2013

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Being ethnic: Me, the Boston media coverage, and the conflation of race and ethnicity

(This post is based in no small part on my Armenian-American identity, which I write about at some length in the post immediately previous this, commemorating the Armenian Holocaust of World War One.  If you haven't, please read it as well.  -E.A.)

My current hometown of Longview, Washington, has a major problem with the illegal use and trade of methamphetamine.  It’s an absolutely terrible plague on a wonderful little town, and so, I have to show ID anytime my allergies kick in and I have to buy a pseudophedrine-based antihistamine.  The pharmacist who sells it to me cannot take it for granted that I loathe and abhor the meth trade, even though I do.

Whenever I drive down to Portland International Airport to fly somewhere, I must do as everyone else does and remove my shoes, undo my belt, and possibly get frisked by an intimidating, no-nonsense guard named Bruno.  The TSA agents cannot take it for granted that I loathe and abhor terrorism, even though I do.

But there’s a funny thing about that particular experience of airport security—it used to be a lot worse.  I’m Armenian-American on my mother’s side, with a dark olive complexion, black hair, and, depending on my mood and whims that particular week, either a goatee or a full beard (part of the benefit of being part Middle Eastern is that I can grow a full beard pretty much on command).

You can see where this is going.

In some ways, though, I am appreciative of such experiences.  I am otherwise a card-carrying member of the establishment: male, heterosexual, Christian, born to upper-middle class parents.  I am the proverbial Man.  I am not a part of the system, I frame and define the system.

And being treated with a tiny bit of suspicion because of what I look like has perhaps has given me the closest thing I’ll ever get to a tiny, tiny glimpse into what it is like to be African-American, or Latino/a, or Arabic.

In other words, after the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, I did not feel the need to rush forward with a tweet or a Facebook status update saying that I was shocked and saddened by what had happened.  I knew that people would take for granted that I was (full disclosure: I did blog to ask people to pray for the victims, but I viewed that as more of an act of solidarity than a disclaimer that needed to be made).

But as news trickled out of Boston that increasingly pointed towards the bombings being an act of terror committed by two Chechen brothers who also identified as Muslim, lots of people did feel the need to disclaim that they, or the ethnicities or religions they belonged to, loathed and abhorred this sort of violence.


I’m not just talking about having to make such disclaimers based on cranks like Fox’s Erik Rush, who, in staying true to his surname, rushed to judgment to blame, sans evidence, the Boston Marathon bombings on Muslims.

I’m talking about otherwise well-meaning people who listen to the crackpots and feel persuaded by them for whatever reason, but especially because the two brothers straddle a number of stereotypes rather than fit just one that we have constructed for ourselves.  This effect is discussed in excellent manner by Peter Beinart over at The Daily Beast.

I'm Armenian-American.  Armenia, geographically speaking, is a proverbial stone's throw away from Chechnya.  In other words, I am in the same boat, demographically, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, much as it disgusts me to admit it: we are both white men who are seen as "other" because while we are white, we are not WASP-y white: our ethnicities do not conform to the perceptions of our race.

And this is one way in how prejudices get formed, y’all.  We associate terrorism with Arabs and Muslims, never mind the reality of the many terrorist acts perpetrated by Caucasians (see also: Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and the majority of serial killers).

But violence knows no boundaries on the basis of ethnicity or race.  After all, the Nazi Holocaust was conceived and perpetrated by white people.

And if you read that last sentence thinking to yourself, “Hey, that’s not fair to associate white people with genocide,” well…you’ve just proven my point.

I know that sounds harsh, but that's about the size of it.

Let's stop associating violence the way we're doing.  We're all capable of violence, and every day that we choose whether or not to resort to it says something about who we are as human beings.

In other words: it definitely says something about the moral bankruptcy of these two brothers.

But it doesn't necessarily say the same thing about people who look like them.

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

98 Years and Counting: Recognition of the Armenian Genocide

Today, April 24, as the Remembrance Day of the Armenian Genocide, marks 98 years to the date that Ottoman authorities seized hundreds of Armenians in the streets of Istanbul, and thus kicking off the first ethnic-based holocaust of the 20th century.  I am Armenian from my mother's side of the family, and am American precisely because my family--my great-grandparents--fled their ancestral homeland as refugees during a time of war and under circumstances of dubious legality.  While this part of my family's history has given me some very strong opinions on the political question of immigration, that is a post for a different day.  Today, I simply offer the words I wrote on this blog precisely one year ago, under circumstances that have not changed: both the United States and Turkey continue to refuse recognition of the Armenian Holocaust as a genocide.  And so this remains for those of us in the Armenian diaspora a plea for recognition of a systematic slaughter that came to define the worst crime against humanity of the 20th century: the crime of genocide.  -E.A.

April 24, 2012

Though this is first and foremost a “Christian” blog, I hope you will permit me this brief moment of advocacy outside any of the usual topics of conversation that we have here.

I am Armenian-American from my mother’s side of the family—my great-grandparents immigrated here from the Ottoman Empire during the First World War as refugees from the Armenian Holocaust that began in 1915. My grandmother was full-blooded Armenian, and I am proud to be a third-generation American from her.

April 24 marks the 97th anniversary of the arrest and deportation of the Armenians in Istanbul that began the Armenian Holocaust, and it today serves for us as Genocide Remembrance Day (or, “Genocide Memorial Day” in Armenian).

As of this writing, 20 different countries and 42 different American states have officially recognized the Armenian Holocaust as genocide, per the recommendations of most genocide historians and scholars.

The Republic of Turkey—the country established from the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the end of the First World War—and the United States of America are not among those 20 countries.

Indeed, figures who have argued that the Armenian Holocaust was genocide have been prosecuted as criminals in Turkey under Article 301 of their penal code. (such as the cases of Orhan Pahmuk and Elif Shafak -E.A., 2013)

The US Congress has had resolutions made to recognize the Armenian Holocaust as genocide, and they have never made it to the floor for a full vote.

Yet, chronologically, from the Armenian Holocaust we arrive at the Jewish Holocaust (as well as the many non-Jewish victims), and the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur, and ethnic cleansing in places like Kosovo. We say "Never again," but have never followed through with that resolve.

In past years, I have written poetry or told stories to commemorate this day.

But today, I would simply say that memory is one of the most powerful abilities we have—and one of the most fragile. It can inspire and be warped; it can fuel reconciliation as well as animosity; it can create a person’s identity and erase it.

Not many other things can claim to be that powerful.

Love is one.

But they are also dependent on another. Love must be remembered in order to maintain its power. So...remember your love for one another. Remember the power that it has.

May that love one day finally overrule whatever need we feel to inflict violence upon one another.

In memory of the 1.5 million men, women, and children murdered in the Armenian Holocaust.

Yours in Christ,

“Do you know what still causes so much pain? It’s not the people we lost, or the land. It’s to know that we could be so hated.” –Charles Aznavour, in the film Ararat

Sunday, April 21, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Am I Mary?"

Mark 16:1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.[a] He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (CEB)

Reactions to the Resurrection: Our Biblical Alter Egos, Week One

Arlington Street stretches through the heart of Boston, packed with shops and businesses, and often packed with people.  But it also lies just three or so blocks from the site where two young brothers detonated a pair of homemade bombs filled with shrapnel—ball bearings and nails—that killed three people and injured over 175 more at the finish of the famed Boston marathon.

Where Arlington intersects with Boylston Street, Boston police would set up a barricade in the wake of the Monday bombings.  The following morning, on Tuesday, when people began to return to the scene, a woman placed a bouquet of flowers underneath the Wood & Wire sign advertising the business that had provided the barricade.

By noon on Tuesday, a dozen more bouquets had joined this first one.  Added to it were Boston t-shirts, lashed to the barricade with plastic ties.  Added to those were cards written to the three dead, including an eight-year-old child.

Out of a place once occupied by the deafening silence that follows an explosion, new voices were springing up, spreading out like kudzu across a barren crime scene.

And how fitting a tribute to the circumstances of the Resurrection, and the discovery of the empty tomb.  A barren remnant of a crime—the wrongful execution of Jesus Christ—remains, silent, for though we wished it otherwise in Palm Sunday, stones do not speak.  The stone that guards the entrance to the tomb is as silent as the dead it protects.

Until Easter.

Until that day when that stone is rolled aside, the tomb is discovered empty, and the silence of the world is broken.  Fanning out across the world, the disciples and Paul and others begin the long, laborious process of building this wayward little Jesus Movement into the Christos Ekklesia—the Christian Church.

Except that isn’t quite what happens here, in Mark’s telling of the Easter saga.  Now, my intent behind this new sermon series was to recall that traditionally, the church held Easter to be not just a day, but a season—a 50-day long season that culminates in the story of Pentecost, of the coming of the Holy Spirit as depicted in Acts 2.  And so for the remainder of the season of Easter, we will be keeping the story of Easter alive by looking at how different followers of Jesus reacted to the news on the day of the Resurrection, and we begin today with the story of Mary Magdalene and her reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb, as told by Mark.

All four of the Gospel writers are unanimous—Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb.  John depicts her as flying solo, returning to the tomb alone, but Mark, Luke, and Matthew have her as a part of a group of other female disciples of Jesus.  I could have just as easily, I suppose, entitled this sermon, “Am I Salome?” but I think more of us know who Mary is.

In any case, we are left with what has to be the most unsatisfying of all the Easter stories, for two reasons: one, you’ll notice that there are no appearances by the Risen Christ; there is only the empty tomb.  And second, the story of the empty tomb ends not in testimony, of the sharing of the discovery like in all the other Gospels, but in flight from the empty tomb and a fear-induced silence over everything that has just taken place.

And we should feel permission to be unsatisfied with this ending, because the editors of the New Testament were themselves.  The Gospel of Mark has two different endings which follow verse 8, but they were not a part of the earliest manuscripts—Eusebius, the fourth-century Christian and church historian, attested that the most accurate copies of Mark’s Gospel simply ended here, at verse 8.  In other words, verses 9-20 were likely shanghaied onto Mark’s Gospel later on.

I’m not saying any of this to impugn Scripture—it is, was, and will always be the inspired Word of God.  But if I’m honest with you…if I had been there, wherever there is, when the canon was closed, I would have probably asked for Mark to be closed at verse 8 as well.

And it would not just be for the sake of historical authenticity, it would be also to keep true to the spirit of Mark’s Gospel.  One of my New Testament professors in seminary was an expert on Mark’s Gospel, and she always referred to it as “a Passion story with an extended introduction.”  When you consider that Mark is 16 chapters long, and the theme of Jesus’ death largely dominates the Gospel from chapter 8 onwards, fully half of this story revolves around it.

And so when Mark finally does arrive at the empty tomb, the work of God has already been done, as evinced by the words of the angel who is seated where Jesus once lay—“He is not here; He has been raised!”

And that’s it.  Mark’s version of the empty tomb is, in a Zen-like way, absolutely perfect.  This is an incredible story—as New Testament scholar Douglas Hare put it, “We must remember that the story was no more believable in the first century than in our own day.  It must have seemed as ridiculous as some of the tall tales that are presented as “news” in or supermarket tabloids.”

But unlike the stories of, I don’t know, some B-list celebrity growing a second head or whatever, there is no sensationalism.  Unlike the tabloid purveyors of today, Mark does not gild the lily.  Instead, to take from Hare again, “The story is told in a simple, restrained fashion, without any defensive attempt to make it less incredible than it is.”

It is so incredible, in fact, that at least initially, it cannot be told.  The empty tomb is so shocking, so fear-inducing, that there are literally no words for the women who have discovered it, even when the words are spoon-fed to them by an angel.  That is how incredible this is.

That is how incredible, how against-the-grain, how world-turning-upside-down, how life-changing, how mind-boggling, how truly unbelievable the power of God really is.

And because we took a bit of that power from God way back in the Garden of Eden—when Adam and Eve took from God the knowledge of good and evil—we can do the same thing to ourselves—do things so incredible that the only thing they can inspire from us is wordlessness.

Sometimes those things are good.  But I fear that more often than not, those things that inspire such silence are evil.  Things like 9/11.  Things like the assassinations in the 1960s of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr.  And things like the Boston Marathon bombings.

What happened this week in Boston is something that I have no doubt we will also remember in vivid detail—where we were when we heard the news, how we followed the manhunt, and the reactions of all our leaders to the news that the younger brother was captured alive.  In the vague recesses of our memories, the details of any one day, any one week, or even any one month may escape us, as they have become victims to the cutting room floor by the ruthless editor that exists in our own mind that decides what to keep in our long-term memories and what to discard.

And based on the initial silence of Mary—and the other Mary, and Salome—we might well wonder if Jesus Christ would indeed become forgotten to all but the historians, a footnote in Israel’s struggle for liberation, another in a long line of claimants the mantle of the Messiah.

But because we know their story—simple, incredible, ungilded though it is—we know that at some point, they must’ve broken their silence and shared with the world what they saw and felt.

And it was so this week in Boston.  After the bombings, you could see the silence in the streets.  Arlington, Boylston, and much of the city center was barricaded off.  Deserted.  Empty.  Silent.

But like the women who followed Jesus, we returned.  They returned to the empty tomb bearing spices to honor the fallen Christ.  And we brought bouquets of flowers, t-shirts, cards, poetry, anything we could offer, to honor the fallen of yet another violent episode of American history.

Like Mary, our initial reaction was one of stunned, terrified, dreadful silence.

But time passed.  The story got told.  And, like kudzu, the reactions to the story grew and grew.

The story of the Resurrection grew into a church.  And the story of Boston has grown into things like the crowdsourcing of over $1 million to pay for the victims’ medical expenses.  It has grown into things like Big Papi, David Ortiz, shouting to the heavens, “This is OUR FUCKING CITY” and the FCC doesn’t even object.  And it will continue to grow as the story continues to be told.

Am I Mary?  If I were to discover the empty tomb, would I stay silent, and for how long?

Perhaps the best way to answer that question would be to look at yourself over the past week.  When I heard about Boston, was I shocked and stunned into silence?  For how long?  When did I start talking about it?  And most importantly, when did I start regenerating my faith in God and in one another by seeing the reactions of others to the same horrors I have just seen?  Because if the bombings were a Crucifixion, within our reactions lies a Resurrection.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 21, 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Where Conscience Stops and Community Begins

I was planning to have this post up earlier, but in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, I held off for a couple of days.  But this is definitely something I need to get off of my chest.

Across my home state of Washington, in the town of Richland, a controversy is a-brewin' over a florist who refused service to a same-sex couple (who had already been regulars at her shop) when they asked her to do the flowers for their wedding (Washington, of course, legalized same-sex marriage last November).   The state Attorney General has stepped in to issue a $2,000 fine, citing state statutory law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and so has the ACLU, who is demanding a public apology be issued to the couple, as well as a $5,000-dollar donation to a local GLBTQ youth organization.

The florist has cited her "relationship with Jesus Christ" as the reason for refusing this couple service, so great chunks of the local Christian community are up in proverbial arms about this "bullying" of the florist.


This isn't about freedom of religious expression, this is about living in community.

Since a lot of folks opposed to marriage equality cite the slippery slope argument (ie, if we legalize same-sex marriage, what's to stop us from legalizing polygamy?), this logic goes both ways: if business owners are allowed to refuse service on the basis of sexual orientation, what's to stop them from refusing service on the basis of, say, race?

In other words, what were the sit-in's staged in the Jim Crow south during the civil rights movement all about?

If you feel compelled to oppose marriage equality, that's your right--as Volatire said, I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.  I have congregants who I am sure voted against marriage equality in November, and even though I profoundly disagree with them on this, I don't love them any less because they are still my flock and are still part of the body of Christ.

But commerce isn't necessarily free speech.  And it most certainly isn't an expression of worship.

Is commerce an expression of values?  Absolutely.  For instance, I choose not to shop at Wal-Mart because of how they treat their workers and their extreme anti-union policies.  When your dad was a union lawyer for 15-some years, that's how you roll.  And stewardship involves commerce as well, but stewardship involves intangible religious benefits, not an exchange of goods.

But is commerce an expression of  religious worship?  I sure hope not, because I have no desire to proclaim my love of God by purchasing materialistic things with Caesar's coins.

So either we are saying that our expressions of religiosity include the obtaining of goods Jesus tells us not to put our stock in (Matthew 6:19-20), or we must admit that this has nothing to do with religious conscience, and everything to do with what demonstrations like the sit-in's are all about: institutional discrimination, the treatment of one people by another people not quite like them.

And that's what community is all about--it isn't about "you do your thing, I'll do mine," like some would suggest--that the business owner has the right to refuse service because its her revenue being lost.  No, community is about "I've got your back and you've got mine."

There are times when we are individuals and there are times when we are a collective.

I worry that far too often, we err towards the former rather than the latter, and in so doing not have the backs of people who are a part of minorities not our own.  Sometimes, you have to let your own stubbornness play second fiddle to the needs of others (see also: gun rights and the need for less violence in America).

And if I could say anything at all to this florist in Richland, it would be that.

This isn't about you.

This is about us.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 15, 2013


Dear readers,

I have a couple of blog posts in the pipeline for this week after being gone for the weekend, but for the moment, I humbly ask for prayers for the city and people of Boston in the wake of the marathon bombings that have killed multiple people and left many more injured--in some cases, severely so.  My sister Katherine is currently a graduate student at Boston University (she's safe and fine), and I had the great joy of competing in Boston during my days as a debater, and so the city holds a special place in my life.

In other words, things like these hit home.

In ways that perhaps other things should, but sadly don't.  I'm definitely guilty of this--it's sometimes hard for me to feel the same sort of personal connection to a bombing elsewhere in the world, even though I know the lives of the people there are worth no less than mine.

Empathy matters in moments like these.  The people who died today and were maimed today have parents and siblings and friends and significant others.

They could be us.

And if for no other reason than that, please lift them up to God today.

Yours in Christ,

"Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more." -Jeremiah 31:15

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Rarity of the "Missional" Church

Even though I am formally part of my denomination's Northwest region, I still get the newsletter from my old region in Kansas City emailed to me.  The regional minister there had an interesting column about how several college students he knew went "church shopping" (I mega-loathe that term and everything it implies but have yet to come up with something better) and called up the pastors at a number of local churches to say, "I'm thinking about visiting your church.  What's in it for me?"  As my former regional minister writes, these were some of the answers they received.  Italicized parentheticals represent my own snarky, tongue-in-cheek reactions when I first read this list.

We have one of the largest congregations in the city. You will meet lots of new people here.  (Twenty bucks says this church has a thriving "singles" ministry.)

Our facility and equipment are state of the art. You will be impressed.  (Because it just ain't the Gospel without the newest gizmos and tech toys.)

We have great music and relevant messages to improve your life. (I actually really like this one.  Music matters to a lot of people, and I think one of the biggest challenges the church faces today is remaining relevant.)

We are one of the friendliest churches you will find anywhere.  (Also a response I like.)

We are a Bible-believing church.  (As opposed to...what, exactly?  Does this mean y'all are pro-slavery because the Bible affirms slavery?)

We will help you avoid hell and get to heaven.  (Cool. I dig it.)

We have programs and opportunities for young people that are second to none.  (Like what?  Please explain these, otherwise I'm going to assume you've got some oceanfront property in Arizona too.)

You will find yourself welcomed into a caring community of believers.  (Thumbs-up.)

We will introduce you to Jesus the Christ and his Good News.  (Another great response, though it makes it sound like I'm being fixed up with Jesus at a cocktail party or something.)

We offer lots of opportunities for mission both in the community and throughout the world.   (I think this is the most interesting response of them all...I'll return to it in a bit.)

We will save your soul.  (Humblebrag alert.)

We have strong Biblical preaching.  (WTF is "Biblical" preaching?  Does the Bible itself actually preach?  Is it like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter?)

In Christ’s Spirit we will help you get your bearings, offer encouragement, and give you what you need for the journey.  ("In Christ's Spirit" would make a fantastic name for a Christian bar.  Note to self: if the parish ministry gig doesn't work out...)

We will show you how to lead happy and successful lives.  (I thought this was church, not a cabal of life coaches.  Paging Joel Osteen...)

We have one of the most beautiful sanctuaries around.  (I love our sanctuary at FCC, but I'd rather someone visit because of what was happening INSIDE the sanctuary rather than because of what it looked like.)

So yeah.  A diversity of answers, which just goes to show how diverse the body of Christ in the world truly is.  In that way, it's actually pretty awesome.  But it's also a little worrying.

Like I note along the way, there are several responses I did like among the ones I made fun of.  But one response stood out--the response about opportunities for mission.


Because look at how the question got framed--"I'm thinking about visiting your church.  What's in it for me?"

Only one church turned the question on its head and actually talked about giving rather than receiving.

Which is funny, in a sad clown sort of way, because it completely buys into the "church shopping" mentality that we pastors decry behind closed doors (and believe me, we do.  At great length).

Describing your church as "missional" (that is, in grossly oversimplified terms, outwardly-focused rather than inwardly-focused) is currently all the rage for a lot of churches.  But, as this (admittedly small) sample size would indicate...we aren't living that identity, at least not yet.

To my colleagues: when we treat the folks who come to us this way--as people needing to receive rather than also being more than capable of giving back--we are discounting the great scope and scale of their capacities for doing truly kingdom-sized work.

And to my brothers and sisters still searching for a church: lend an ear to their respective sales' pitches.  My personal, heartfelt advice to you would be to look for a church that sees itself not as a bubble, but as a river, flowing into the community that surrounds it, offering the life-giving properties it carries to anyone who asks for it.

Church can be an amazing thing after all.

But only if we let it.

Because, in the end, missional or not, the church is us.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 8, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "We Are Legion" (aka Part IV of IV)

Mark 5:1-9

Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the lake, to the region of the Gerasenes. 2 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a man possessed by an evil spirit came out of the tombs. 3 This man lived among the tombs, and no one was ever strong enough to restrain him, even with a chain. 4 He had been secured many times with leg irons and chains, but he broke the chains and smashed the leg irons. No one was tough enough to control him. 5 Night and day in the tombs and the hills, he would howl and cut himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from far away, he ran and knelt before him, 7 shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” 8 He said this because Jesus had already commanded him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!” 9 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He responded, “Legion is my name, because we are many.” (CEB)

“We Are Legion,” Mark 5:1-9

If you were there for Good Friday, you knew a small piece of the story of the woman I spoke of to begin my message, Pastor Kate Braestrup, the chaplain of Maine’s state search and rescue.  I return to her memoir Here If You Need Me  today, to retell this particular story.  She writes:

What are the odds of this?  On an ordinary weekday morning, a young woman named Christina left her dorm room at St. Mary’s College in Waterford, Maine.  She was planning to drive to Portland for a dental appointment and then to meet her mother for lunch.

A man was waiting in the parking lot—not for her, particularly, but for any one of the two thousand or so female undergraduates that might have appeared in that time and place…He forced her into her vehicle, made her drive him to a remote area, then dragged her into the woods and took her life.

After Christina’s body was found, a state police detective telephoned the offices of the Department of Probation and Parole.  She asked for a list of their clients in the area whose records and profiles suggested a capacity for violent assault.  Probation and parole provided a list of more than three hundred names.

And writing about this horrific tale years later, Pastor Kate reflects on the three hundred names by simply quoting Mark 5:9, when Jesus healed a Gerasene man possessed by them: “’We are Legion,’ the demons sneered, “’for we are many.””

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene demoniac, for we are many.  Evil is, and can no longer be seen as, a single devil with horns and a pitchfork, or Heath Ledger under Joker makeup with a plan to see the world burn, no, evil has many names, many voices, many faces.

Pastor Kate continues:

Within three days, the murderer was in custody…”Why did they let me out?” the murderer asked Detective Sergeant (Anna) Love.  “They should have kept me in jail, where I couldn’t hurt anyone.”  The Gerasene demoniac sought refuge among the tombs of a graveyard.  Perhaps he, too, sought refuge from his own potential for evil; what harm could he do, what sins could he commit, surrounded by those who were already dead?

Pastor Kate pauses the story here for the moment, and it’s here that I want us to pick up.  Because there is another dimension to the Gerasene demoniac’s self-imposed flight to the graveyard: it is not, as is so often for demons who are sent out, into the desert, where one truly is alone.  This demon is still around a community, it just happens to be a community of the dead.

And that action alone speaks volumes about not only the demon’s nature, but it’s crime as well. 

There’s a specific meaning attached to the demon’s name, Legion.  Today, we know the word ‘legion’ as simply connoting a large group or horde.  But in ancient Israel under Roman authority, it was the basic unit of the Roman military, like a regiment or brigade is today.

So a legion, a brigade of Roman legionnaires, would have represented a group of legionnaires numbering up to 5,000 in all.  These 5,000 would be divided up into centuries of 100, under the command of a centurion, which is how we get the modern meaning of the word “century” today.

But none of that matters right now.  Jesus is still faced with a man whose body has been invaded by so many demons that there are, literally, thousands.  It’s a dramatic standoff.

And it is supposed to be—if we were to continue into the story, we would see, of course, Jesus emerging over the demons by exorcising them from the man and casting them into a herd of thousands of pigs, who then leap en masse over a cliff and drown.  And I wish I could make this sermon about bacon.  But I can’t.

This story has anti-imperialist undertones—the “legion” of demons, representing the Roman military, are cast by Jesus into a herd of ritually unclean animals and killed.  It is the Gospel’s way of saying that the Roman Empire, and its occupation of Israel, was dirty.  Unclean.

But it’s more than that.

It’s more than that to us, today, for whom the idea of a Roman legion is a thing for history books.

For us, a legion can, quite simply mean to us today, a great many of people.

And it is here that the demon’s true crime lies.

The demon tries to claim the name of the multiple, of the plural, of the more than one.

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene demoniac, for we are many.

And to our modern ears, that line should send chills down our spines.  A demon, what we would tend to associate with evil itself, is claiming to be many.

Evil is many.

And therein is the true sin of the demon, its true delusion, its true lie.  Good can be many as well.

I can imagine that some of y’all sitting there and listening to today’s Scripture text, were maybe thinking to yourselves, “Wow, this really is an unusual passage for Pastor Eric to elect to preach on for the Sunday after Easter.  Is he maybe a few beans short of a full burrito right now?”

And that’s fair.  Not just today, but probably always.  I am always a bean or two short!

But I get it.  The Revised Common Lectionary’s recommended Gospel reading for today is the story of Doubting Thomas needing to actually be able to touch the Risen Christ in order to believe in the Good News—it’s a post-Resurrection tale.  Here, we are rewinding all the way back to closer to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and picking up there.  It’s an odd one-off.
But it’s a message that needs to be underlined: in the wake of the Resurrection, in the joy and confusion and fear and madness of the initial news of the empty tomb, it is, I think, crucial to remember that the empty tomb brought the disciples back together again, around it.  The disciples, who had been on the lam, hiding, ever since Jesus’ arrest, have gathered together.

What we do on Sundays is in mirror image to what they do—six days out of the week, we are going about our lives on our own, sometimes swinging by church for a Bible study or a potluck, or hanging out with someone at their home or at Starbuck’s, but in today’s day and age, with the pronounced division of living between household to household, we muddle about on our own.

Except for today.  And we gather together.  And except for last Sunday, when, like the disciples, we gathered around the empty tomb to be asked that soul-searing, mind-boggling, accusatory, reassuring, ridiculous-sounding question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And standing in precise mirror image to this gathering is another gathering, of the demons within this man, who do the exact same thing the disciples did…they bring themselves to the land of the dead.  The lonely demoniac, the evil many, seeks spiritual community not in among the living, but among the dead.  Just like us at first, before hearing of the Good News of the Resurrection.

And hearing that Good News changes everything.  The disciples can believe once more.  The church can be born, in the Pentecost story of Acts 2.  So we can worship the Risen Christ today.

It is the greatest reversal possible, and that is why this story made, in my eyes, such a wonderful post-Easter text!  It takes death and evil and isolation and reverses all three for a community who reads this story and sees an agent of evil claiming its name as the many, as the more than one.

And that reversal continues to this day.  Pastor Kate wrote later in her book about what she saw as this murdered girl whose body they discovered, as this girl’s restoration in this world:

It was in the image of those dear and decent men…moving with swift and loving purpose toward her body where it lay between the trees, bearing with them parenthood and friendship, grief and anger, order and care, and bearing beneath their badges their undefended hearts.

“We are Legion,” the demon sneers.  No.  WE are legion.

The reclamation of that name Legion, that name that represents the “many,” that is our post-Resurrection mission as Christians—to reclaim that name on behalf of the many who believe.  Of the many for whom Christ says there is forgiveness for sins.  Of the many who lived and died so that the church could light the world the way it has for two millennia.  Of the many who long to believe in something, anything, greater than themselves.  And of the many that is us, here, today.

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene demoniac.  No.  You, me, all of us, we are Legion.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 7, 2013

Saturday, April 6, 2013

We Are Legion: Part III of IV

Trigger word warning: suicide.

I know I said initially that this was a three-part series of posts.  It will be four instead.

Beginning at the age of 14, I began having increasingly frequent thoughts of suicide.  I became socially withdrawn, flunked out of advanced algebra, and by the time I graduated, I had been suspended from school twice for fighting.

After months of refusing, I eventually caved to my parents' wish to take me to see a psychiatrist.  He was able to immediately diagnose me with major clinical depression, and he put me on a regimen of antidepressants that I have continued in some form or fashion to this day.  Today, I am medicated and I am well, but I still remember how much I underachieved during my teenage years.

I remember it because even on medication, those episodes still return in minor forms.  Depression is like any chronic disease--I cannot be cured of it, I can only manage it.  I will likely be medicated for the rest of my life.

And I'm okay with that.  That's the way it has to be in order for me to function.

But it also isn't something that, for obvious reasons, I ordinarily share with people.

I'm writing about it right now, though, because Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Rick Warren (yes, that Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback and Purpose-Driven Life fame, and whom (full disclosure) I have occasionally criticized on the blog) killed himself this weekend after a lifelong battle with mental illness.

Matthew was twenty-seven years old.

It is how old I am.

Believe me, it hit home.  Please pray for Matthew's family, biological and church alike.

I worry that people sometimes rush to judge a suicide because of our own Christian orthodoxy that it constitutes a grave sin.  And I understand the logic behind that--I forget who said it, but suicide is our way of telling God, "Screw you, you can't fire me.  I quit."

We aren't supposed to quit on God.

But if we take a step back, and remember that depression is a mental illness, suicide becomes apparent as the result of terminal depression.  Roughly 3.5% of people in the United States who have depression eventually will commit suicide.  If we were to see depression as the disease that it is, it would be like saying that 3.5% of all cases of this disease become terminal.

Depression is not a moral failing.

It sounds simple, but I'm going to repeat it: Depression. Is. Not. A. Moral. Failing.

It is a disease.

I have always understood why folks might call depression a "demon," as though another's personal demon might be addiction or substance abuse, but I have recently begun to shy away from the urge to do that.  My depression isn't a demon, and the minute I say that it is, I am saying that having it is somehow wrong or somehow a moral weakness of mine.

And it isn't.

Because of how we normally associate demons with evil, saying someone's mental illness is a demon of their's implies an evil within that person which the person may or may not have control over.

And that's harmful.  It puts an unfair burden on the person suffering from mental illness, and it lends an inauthentic identity to the disease itself.

My depression is not a demon I have to be exorcised of, it is a disease I have to live with.

But for however long well-meaning people still put the words "depression" or "mental illness" in the same breath as words like "demon," we're going to have people engaging in extremely private battles with their illnesses and, in some cases, ultimately losing.

Read through the statement Rick Warren made again (in the CNN link above).  He wrote, in part, "But only those closest knew that he (Matthew) struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts."

I'm not suggesting that making personal struggles with mental illness more public is the way to go--as a PK (pastor's kid), Matthew likely already had more burdens growing up than your average boy.  And it is saddening that, based on Rick's statement, Matthew had been receiving treatment and it had ultimately failed.

What I am suggesting, though, is that maybe people might one day feel more free to explain their depression to people if they wish, rather than suffering mostly in private.

After all, a big part of what helps heal a person is the other people around them--medical staff, family, friends, and fellow patients.

In Mark 5, the Gerasene Demoniac confronts Jesus and the demon says, through the possessed man, "We are Legion, for we are many."

Far too often, the inverse is true of the people who suffer from these so-called "demons:" We are depressed, and so we are lonely.  And it is so for this man, the demoniac--he has gone into self-imposed exile in a graveyard, surrounded only by the dead.

We become lonely through a variety of ways, which has been in part the thrust of this weeklong blog series: we divide up one another.  I wrote about how we divide up the church, and then about how we divide up God's word.

We need not, should not, and cannot divide up ourselves.

For depression is, for better and for worse, not a demon.  It is a disease.

And like many other diseases, it can kill.  Even, sometimes, with treatment.

But also like many other diseases, it can be whipped.  It is possible.

If you are depressed, please, please, please do not be afraid to seek help.  Your family practice doctor can almost certainly refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist, and many churches and pastors should also be able to refer you to mental health specialists.

If you are actively considering suicide, there are hotlines you can call.  The National Suicide Prevent Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.  It is toll-free and staffed 24/7.

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene Demoniac, for we are many.

But we--the people who see and understand and live with mental illness every day--we are legion too, for we are many.

And with help, we can be the many who control our illnesses, instead of letting them control us.

So do not be afraid to seek help.  It is there for you if you ask for it.

My hope and prayer is that if I, and others like me, can be more open and courageous about mental illness, you--whoever you are--might feel courageous enough to make that life-saving request.

Yours in Christ, from someone who cares for you,

Dedicated to the men and women I met during my brief time as the intern chaplain of the inpatient psychiatric ward of California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.  I still remember seeing the scars on your wrists and your necks.  I still remember listening to your stories.  I still remember hearing your fear.  And I hope and pray that that fear has, like our time together, receded into the sea of years-ago memories.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

We Are Legion: Part II of III

(Note: This post is part two of a three-part series this week.  The third post will be my sermon this Sunday, while part one can be found here. -E.A.)

All translation is interpretation.

I remember my Bible professor's words pretty clearly, even though my attention span for classes waxed and waned seemingly by the minute then.

All translation is interpretation.

How we decide to translate Scripture says a lot about the suppositions we already hold about Scripture.  Take, for instance, the Revised Standard Version--long the go-to translation here at FCC.  A hardline conservative pastor famously burned a RSV Bible from the pulpit in his church, claiming it was from the devil, when the translation first came out.

Today, it feels like there are as many translations as there are denominations these days.

Just as the church as become a religious equivalent of Baskin-Robbins' 31 flavors, so too has God's Word been given that 31 flavors treatment as well.

Don't care for so-called "liberal" translations (whatever that means)?  No problem, stick to the New American Standard Bible or the original New International Version.

Don't get why translations have to be so stodgy with their word choice?  Well, here's The Voice or the Common English Bible for you.

Feel the Bible should read poetically?  The King James Version sounds right up your alley.

And so on.

I'm not saying we shouldn't strive to translate Scripture the best way we know how, with modern methods and scholarship--in fact, I have all of the above translations sitting on my shelf right now.  But this also partially proves my point: after the translations are all made, we--and I--tend choose the version of God's sacred word that most comports with who we already are.

How is this not a form of idolatry?

I'm not saying we shouldn't discern a valuable translation from the chaff out there--I have to consciously prevent myself from rolling my eyes every time I see a pastor preach from The Message.

What I'm saying is that even if you feel comfortable in church (and you should, while at the same time pushing outside your comfort zones), you should not be picking a Bible based on comfort level.

The Bible is meant to challenge as well as comfort.  It is meant to confront as well as to calm, and to criticize as well as to contain.

After all, another maxim I remember from my Bible professors is this (roughly paraphrased): the minute you're comfortable with everything that is in the Bible, you don't get it.  At all.

I had to admit as much in our Bible study last night, when, as we were going chapter-by-chapter through Luke's Gospel, we hit Luke 11 and the harsh teachings of Jesus that stem from witnessing an exorcism.

It's tough stuff, there's no way around it.

And it has to be that way.

When we try to use translations to blunt the edge, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

One such exorcism that the Gospels document is that of the Gerasene demoniac--the one who I note in my previous post said, "We are Legion, for we are many."

Last week, I talked about one way--worship style--we divide up the church, that we keep the church from being Legion, from being "many."

Could it be that we are doing the same thing to Scripture?  That we are making it more for the few like us, so that it appeals more to us, than for the many and have it challenge us even more?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

We Are Legion, Part I of III

I have been holding this series of posts in for a while now, and I think it all came to a head at Easter Sunday earlier this week.  So, here goes--one today, another later this week, and finally, my sermon on Sunday, all on the nature of Christian community.

Truth be told, our Easter service was a bit of a comedy of errors, including this particular gem committed by yours truly: inviting everyone to stay for coffee and cookies afterwards while we set up for our egg hunt, only to try to turn "coffee" and "cookies" into one word and very nearly saying a rather naughty word that you never, ever say in church.

Thankfully, in the receiving line afterwards, a congregant saved me--he said, "I thought you were going to tell us to stay for cocktails!"  I liked that line so much I kept it.

So yeah.  It didn't quite go off without a hitch.  But considering this was my first Easter preaching without worrying about getting sick in front of everyone from the norovirus, I'm chalking it up as progress.

Really, it's just church's version of Murphy's Law--anything that can go wrong, will.  And as a corollary to that, it will often go wrong in the most spectacularly public setting.  Like an Easter worship.

And I think that maxim is especially true for our style of blended worship.  While we have largely jettisoned the use of our organ, piano, and hymnals (from the 1970's) in worship, our praise team utilizes a highly diverse repertoire of old-timey hymns and newer praise material.  I preach using an iPad and a hands-free mic, but I also do so while wearing a robe and stole.

It's a very Disciples way of worshiping I think--our denomination tries to include a variety of theological perspectives, and it would make sense for us to do the same with our style as well as our substance.

But it also means we avoid cases like this, with separate and very different (in style, at least) worship services.  In those services, because you are specializing, you can focus and hone in more on doing one thing well, as opposed to experimenting with different things.  But it also comes with the corollary effect--for good and for bad--of dividing up the congregation.

We at FCC are too small for a second service, and honestly, I'm not going to push for one until we are ready.  There is something pretty awesome about having the intergenerational fellowship that happens at our church between some of the old-timers who have been stalwarts here for decades and some of our newer folk who have helped breathe new life into a historic parish.

In other words--we aren't in the business of trying to corner a demographic.

And I think that's the way Jesus would want us to go about it.  After all, women as well as men followed Him.  Zealots as well as tax collectors.  Fishermen as well as carpenters.  Gentiles as well as Jews.

So why not young as well as old?

Why not a legion instead of merely a demographic?

The Gerasene Demoniac of Mark 5--which I will preach on this Sunday--says his Legion, for he is many.

Let the church be Legion instead.  Let us be many.

Yours in Christ,

PS: I just learned about this while putting this post to bed.  Please pray for my alma mater, Lewis & Clark College, and our community as we grieve the murder of 19-year-old student Jacob Valdiviezo, who was shot and killed in San Francisco after being apparently mistaken for a gang member.  Please also pray for the victims of gun violence everywhere--their right to live should supercede our right to own guns.