Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Earning Power of a Religious Studies/Theology Ph.D...is it Worth it Anymore?

While attending a college friend's wedding this past weekend, I sat next to one of our mutual (and now retired) professors from ye old Lewis & Clark College.  And among the many topics we chatted over while awaiting the beginning of the ceremony was the difficulty of newly-minted Ph.D.'s to get into the  full-time academic job market.

This is a topic that directly affects the livelihood of several good friends of mine who are working toward their own doctorates in graduate school right now.  They are intelligent, talented, and driven--and I want to be able to see them find work in their fields.  But I also want to  be able to see them do so at a proper wage, and I'll be honest: on both a micro and a macro level, that doesn't seem to be happening very often.  On a micro level, I see professorships be vacated by retirement and left unfilled--including, in some cases, endowed professorships.  On a macro level, I see pay being stagnant across many fields, but especially in my home field of religious studies and all that it entails: theology, ministry, and Biblical scholarship.

And even though I think to myself that I may one day return to school many years from now, it would not be to become a full-time professor.  Because...honestly, I'm not sure it is worth it for me.

A disclosure: the worry I am about to express should not be taken as any sort of anti-intellectualism on my part.  I appreciate the academy immensely for all it did for me, but I am also well aware of its limitations, especially in the current era of tightening budgets and vacillating enrollments.

But why isn't it worth it for me?  To answer that, let's try a (admittedly simple) experiment inspired by the 100 Reasons Not To Go To Grad School Blog.  Here, I am talking largely in utilitarian, dollars-and-cents terms because, let's be honest, student debt is going to get worse before it gets better.

Now, it took me three years of full-time study to earn my Master of Divinity, and I was extremely blessed to attend seminary on full scholarship (though I did go into debt for my living expenses):  I had 80% of my tuition waived by a scholarship from my alma mater, and my denomination covered the other 20%. Compare this to a hypothetical doctoral student. We’ll give this student some advantages that many graduate students do not often receive—we’ll assume that this doctoral student completes their doctorate seven years after I complete my master’s (according to the Washington Post, only 50% of humanities Ph.D. students complete their doctorates within ten years of completing their bachelors). 

We’ll also assume that this student receives a stipend for those entire seven years. Now, graduate student stipends vary widely from school to school and field to field, but humanities grad students tend to be some of the lowest paid. A quick Google search discovered full year (as opposed to academic year, which would be even less) minimum stipends ranging from $15,000 or so at Virginia Tech to over $26,000 at Yale. So let’s split the difference and say that this student’s stipend is $20,000 per year and that their tuition has been waived for each year that they are in the program, so that we are both on equal footing regarding student debt.

Finally, for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that both my current annual pay of cash salary, payroll tax offsets + housing allowance ($45,000 total) and this student’s $20,000 stipend are frozen during the seven years that the student is in school and I am in the workforce. Over those seven years, I will have earned $175,000 more than the grad student, and I will have had over $44,000 contributed to my church pension fund to boot.

Now, let’s imagine that the grad student miraculously avoids having to work as an adjunct for $3,000 per course and immediately after graduation, lands a post as a tenure-track assistant professor at Generic Theological Seminary. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average salary during the 2010-2011 academic term (the most recent term I could find easily accessible data for) for a tenure-track assistant professor in theology is $52,240, and the average starting salary is only $50,620. 

It generally takes roughly six years to earn tenure, during which time a professor holds the rank of assistant professor. Being generous and assigning the average overall salary of $52,240, rather than the $50,620 average starting salary, that student will earn $43,440 more than my frozen $45,000 salary during those six years (this assumes neither of our salaries are increased), bringing the long-term discrepancy between our pay down to $131,560.

 Our faithful graduate student then earns tenure after those six years and is promoted to associate professor. The average salary for an associate professor of theology or religious vocation is listed as roughly $59,600. So, let’s go through this exercise again. Assuming it takes our grad-student-turned-associate-professor another six years to make full professor, during those six years as an associate professor, the grad student will make $87,600 more than me, bringing the long-term discrepancy between our lifetime earnings down to $43,960.

 Finally, the rank of full professor entitles our student to the relatively big bucks of the field--an average salary of roughly $74,270, or $29,270 more than my salary. It will still take our student roughly 18 to finally be in the net positive in their lifetime earnings compared to mine—by which point we will both be in our mid-to-late 40’s, a full 20 years or more after I have finished my master's degree and have spent those 20 years accumulating experience in a vocation that I love: parish ministry.

So...is it really worth it?  For me, it really isn't.

Now, I get the simplistic nature of this thought experiment: it doesn't take into account huge lifestyle variables like family size, location and cost-of-living, etc.  And as academic gigs go, humanities and religious studies in particular tend to be low-paying, even though I presented a relatively optimistic scenario--ie, a candidate getting a tenure-track position without any adjuncting.

But this whole setup does affect me because I am talking about my friends, good people who will be tasked with the tremendous and necessary job of training the set of religious leaders and clerics who will replace me, and I want them to be able to do that great job without worry for their livelihood.

And I'm not sure that will truly be the case.

It concerns me.  And if you care at all about the future of your congregation or your denomination, or the body of Christ itself, it should concern you as well.

Yours in Christ,

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

(+ a new upcoming sermon series!  Also, on a blog programming note, I will be on vacation until June 2, so posts between now and then may vacillate between sporadic and non-existent.  Consider yourself warned!  -E.A.)

“School’s Out: Here’s a Summer Reading List!” 

Dear church,

 As always, I have been using part of this year to eagerly devour some new and exciting spiritual reading material, and like last June, I humbly offer to you three of my recommendations for books to keep you company during those lazy days of summer:

“My Year of Biblical Womanhood,” Rachel Held Evans, 2012
 I absolutely devoured this book when it first came out last year and am already combing through it all over again!  Evangelical Christian writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans documents, A.J. Jacobs-style, a year of her attempting to live out—as literally as possible—the Biblical commandments found specifically for women in passages like Proverbs 31, Titus 2, and Ephesians 5.  The result is a heartfelt and hilarious memoir—with contributions from her husband, Dan—that I have been unable to put down.

“Love Does,” Bob Goff, 2012
I got to see the Seattle-based Bob Goff speak here in Longview earlier this year (courtesy of the Three Rivers Christian School), and based on what I had learned from him in this book, he could not and did not disappoint.  In Love Does, he recounts a series of memories, stories, and anecdotes from his life, which range from childhood recounting to adventures in Uganda, liberating children from modern-day situations of slavery!  Read his stories and be inspired by the way God continues to work in our world!

“What We Talk About When We Talk About God,” Rob Bell, 2013
Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been writing thought-provoking books for years—his 2005 debut, Velvet Elvis, has been the foundation of our monthly book study here—and his most recent effort is a thoughtful, reverent attempt to frame who and what God is in new and exciting ways.  Utilizing Scripture, experience, and theological (and even scientific) know-how, he tries to convey the sheer size and scope of God’s goodness and creative power, and he preaches a compelling message in doing so!

So those are some of the books that will be on my shelf this summer.  How about you?

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Eric

And brand-new for June: The “Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church” Sermon Series:

June 2: “Saul’s Spears,” 1 Samuel 18:6-11

June 9: “The Year of Jubilee,” Leviticus 25:8-17

June 16: “We Were Slaves,” Deuteronomy 24:17-22

June 23: “When Children Ask,” Exodus 12:21-28

June 30: “The Wife of Lappidoth,” Judges 4:1-10

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Over the weekend, I had been putting together a blog entry based on a Washington Post article about how fewer and fewer seminary graduates are going into parish ministry.  After everything that has taken place in Oklahoma, with dozens dead (official counts have varied), and Lord only knows how many yet made wounded or homeless, I'm going to hold off on that post for a day and *hopefully* post it tomorrow.

In the meanwhile, though I just want to say a few of things about the whole when-bad-things-happen-to-good-people question (for which the seminary term is "theodicy"):

One--I do not believe God punishes on a macro scale anymore.  Maybe He did once upon a time--like with the flood, or with the ten plagues--but I do not, do not, do not believe that God sends natural disasters as punishment.  That's superstition, not religion.

Two--I likewise do not believe in the "the dumbass was asking for it" type of argument--the "why did people bother settling down in a place where tornadoes (or earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, etc) happen?" line of argument.  Because natural disasters happen everywhere, and people don't always get to choose where they live--they don't get to choose where they are born, and have to go where they can find jobs, education, and so on.

Three--as a Christian, as an ordained pastor, and as a human being, I am appalled by people who indulge in either number one or number two (Pat Robertson, Westboro Baptist, and John Piper, I'm looking at you).  Period.

Finally--remember that this will not be the last natural disaster.  Others will come, and Oklahoma will fade from memory.  Honestly, how often do we recall the Haiti earthquake, or Hurricane Katrina, with any frequency anymore, even though Port-au-Prince and New Orleans are still recovering from the aftermaths of both?  I was--am--heartened to see prayers for Oklahoma all over Facebook and Twitter, but please, please, do not let those prayers, thoughts, and actions be a one-time only thing, because others will face the exact same destruction and heartbreak at a later point in time, and we must remember that we are all in the same boat together, even when we forget about earlier tragedies to focus on the one at hand.  Our collective memory can be better, and that's all up to us.

Lord, in your mercy, hear those--our--prayers.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, May 19, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "I Live the Resurrection"

Acts 2:1-15

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. 5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” 14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! (CEB)

Pentecost Sunday 2013

The Canadian, jazz-trained singer stood poised with a microphone in her hand at center circle of the ice rink, prepared to sing the national anthem before a game between Portland’s hockey team, the Winterhawks, and some team from Canada that I frankly could care less about because it’s Canada.  So she’s traveled here to on the hook for both the Star Spangled Banner and O Canada.  And her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner starts out beautifully—she has a truly wonderful voice—but it begins to go off the rails after she makes a small lyrical mix-up: “the twilight’s last gleaming” became “the twilight’s first gleaming.”  Like I said, a small mistake.  But you could see the effect that one error had on her confidence, because she just completely blanked on the lyrics going forward—and I mean that in every possible sense: there was a moment of silence right in the middle where the crowd actually began to chuckle.

It was brutal.  Speaking as someone who gets up every week in front of a group of people—albeit hopefully a more forgiving crowd—I cringed as I saw it unfold.  Despite my pet peeve of how some performers will drag on a national anthem performance longer than one of my sermons, I felt terrible for her.

But the crowd redeemed itself in a big way—after the umpteenth stumble by their performer, they began singing the Star Spangled banner in unison, allowing her to regain her composure and return to the original lyrics…and then accompanied her all the way to the grand finish and gave her an extended standing ovation.  And because I have to think this singer probably felt mortified on the inside for having choked up on such a public stage, it was a touching gesture.

But there’s a kicker to this story, as there so often is—this jazz singer tapped to perform the national anthems?  Well…she’s also primarily French-speaking.  And when I read that about her, whatever else I thought about her performance, I had to give her props for wanting to sing out of her element for something important—two national anthems.  It’s a type of courage that lots of us, if we are truly honest with ourselves, probably do not have.  I’m not about to get up here and just break out a completely different style of preaching on a Sunday.  You might not be about to go sing anywhere, except the shower.

Allowing ourselves to be put under the microscope outside of our comfort zones is remarkable.

And it is precisely what happens in the Pentecost story that Luke conveys to us in Acts 2.

The book of Acts of the Apostles is the second of a two-volume set composed by Luke—the first volume being, of course, the Gospel that bears his name.  Now I’d like to think that this was Luke’s follow-up sequel to the immense popularity of his debut work.  You know, his Gospel is A New Hope, and Acts is The Empire Strikes Back.  Or his Gospel is X-Men, and Acts is X2.  Or his Gospel is Caddyshack, and Acts is…no, even I won’t go there.

But the truth is that Luke-Acts was actually written as a singular cohesive story broken into parts, so the more apt comparison might be the Narnia series or the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And we see this cohesiveness at work with the Pentecost story itself.  Fifty days ago, Jesus was crucified, and ten days ago, He ascended to heaven, and the disciples cast lots to replace Judas Iscariot with Matthias in order to keep their number at an even twelve.  Luke keeps us going at a neat, tidy pace up to this fiftieth day after the Passover, when the Festival of Weeks is celebrated.

What is the Festival of Weeks?  In the grand scheme of things, it was not the biggest holiday on the calendar, certainly not being so close after the big to-do of Passover.  It was originally a harvest festival of sorts, a gathering of the first fruits and a thanksgiving to God, but over time, the Festival of Weeks turned into a celebration of God’s giving the law to Moses upon Sinai.  Don’t ask me how a day devoted to celebrating squashes and radishes turned into a day celebrating the laws and rules, I don’t know how they pulled that one off, although one commentator told me that traditionally, the time between escape from Egypt and arrival at Sinai for Moses and the Israelites was, in fact, fifty days.  So we’ll go with that.

Anyways, so this festival celebrating the giving of the law is taking place.  And by this time, the disciples maybe are a little worried and a little antsy.  Jesus has promised them the coming of the paraklesis—the paraclete, which we translate as the Holy Spirit—except that Jesus has beat it back to heaven without leaving behind said Holy Spirit.

However, the Festival of Weeks provides a great chance for the Holy Spirit’s arrival—not only does it give a reason for all the disciples (and not just the Twelve—Luke says devout Jews from every direction were here to celebrate the festival) to all be in one place, but it is also spiritually appropriate.  After the Passover—the liberation of God’s children from the bondage of slavery—comes the law.  And after the Resurrection—the liberation of God’s children from death and evil—comes the Spirit.  If it felt like God had maybe missed the first deadline with Jesus’ ascension, His timing was in fact sublime.  As one Bible professor, Paul Walaskay, put it:

It stands as proof to all the world that God Almighty, the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, the God of the kings and prophets of Judah, the one who created all that is, is at work among this small band of people.  This same God, who breathed the creative breath of life over the face of the deep, has again breathed the divine breath of creation into these Galilean Jews.  This is a major theological theme for Luke (one is tempted to say THE major theme).

In other words, the coming of the Spirit doesn’t just mirror the fifty days between liberation and law-giving, between escape from Egypt and arrival at Sinai.  It mirrors the creation itself, the manner in which God gathered Adam out of dust, and in Genesis 2, breathed life into him.  Just as God breathed physical life into Adam, the Spirit breathes spiritual life into not just the Twelve, but all the people who had gathered far from their homes…people who were here, outside of their comfort zones, simply because God called them to do so.

And this includes the Twelve.  After all, the Twelve are outside of their comfort zone because they had just elected a new member and have been trying to go about their work without the presence of Jesus.  And the travelers are outside of their comfort zone because…well, they are far from their physical homes, even as they gather near their spiritual home.

And so outside of these comfort zones, they utilize one comfort zone they still have—language.  Except, instead of speaking the lingua franca of the day, Greek—which was most peoples’ second language, like how English is today in many parts of the world—they are speaking each their own native, first languages.

And yet they understand each other perfectly.  Even though they are in the same situation as this jazz singer—far from home, and expected to communicate in a language NOT their own.  And yet they understand each other.  Like how the crowd eventually understood, and began singing alongside their singer to complete the Star Spangled Banner.

And here in Acts, they understand each other though it does not look like it on the outside.  The passersby sneer, “They are drunk on new wine,” and don’t you just love Peter’s retort to that accusation?  “Of course we are not drunk, it’s only nine in the morning!”  It’s almost like Peter is implying, “But hey, once it gets to be noon, all bets are off.  After all, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

Despite being outside his comfort zone, Peter is able to laugh off the insult.  And it is what I hope for all of us when we fall into the same circumstances as Peter, or the Twelve, or the poor jazz singer whose performance is likely going viral on Youtube as I speak.

We are supposed to bounce back.  Even if we are walking on terra incognita.  Even if we are traversing the great unknown.  That uncertainty doesn’t automatically take away our resilience.

And that is so, so important for us to remember, because when and how we bounce back…well, that is today’s way—or one small way, at least—of how we live the Resurrection.

The Twelve lived the Resurrection by bouncing back after hitting rock bottom during Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and the promise Jesus made to them—that He would send the Spirit to them—is all part of this.  The Twelve are living the promise Jesus made to them.

And the promise that Jesus makes to us is that we, too, can be resurrected—we, too, can transcend the petty deaths of the world, of mocking and scorn and rejection and hatred.  We, too, can be reborn from the nickel-and-dime evils of the world that should not cause us to cringe, should not cause us to lose sleep at night, should not have such power over us, and yet they do.

We are supposed to be focusing ourselves on big, incredible, soul-sized things, but yet we let ourselves get taken down so easily that we can never get to the big stuff.  We never actually end up living the Resurrection ourselves, even if we hear it preached every Sunday in church.

The story of Pentecost tells us different.  We can live the Resurrection.  We can venture outside the bubble, outside the safety blanket, without being torn down by one another.  All we have to do is live what Pentecost depicts—understanding one another, understanding their language, when they say, “I live the Resurrection,” even outside our usual ways of doing so.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 19, 2013

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Race is not for the Swift

I was raised on a steady diet of sports as a kid.  My parents--my mom a swimmer, and my dad a runner--were keen to make sure they raised their children in an active lifestyle, and so I grew up playing basketball and soccer around the clock.

When the World Cup came to the United States in 1994, I had already been playing recreational soccer for a year or two, but I absolutely fell in love with the sport.  I started playing on club teams, and I eventually dropped basketball in order to play soccer year-round.  With the exception of my high school years when marching band overlapped with soccer, I played soccer in some form or fashion from the time I was learning cursive to the time I was preparing to graduate seminary.  I no longer play, but this year I began coaching a local U-12 boys team as a way of paying forward everything the sport has given me: fitness, motivation, self-esteem, friends, and most of all, a great deal of fun.

So it was a sucker punch in the gut to read this story from the Oregonian about a man who was walking a soccer ball from his hometown of Seattle to Brazil in time for next year's World Cup as a means of raising awareness, publicity, and funds for One World Futbol, an organization dedicated to making durable soccer balls for Third World children who might not have a proper field to play on--and where a regular soccer ball might puncture and become useless, or where (more likely) they may not have had access to a proper soccer ball to begin with.

This man--Richard Swanson--had journeyed through my hometown of Longview just the previous week--the local paper even did a profile on him--before heading into Oregon down the 101 highway, where he was tragically struck and killed by the driver of a pickup truck (who, it must be noted, did everything right after the incident: staying at the scene, cooperating fully with police, etc).

So it was saddening to read this for two reasons--because this happened so close to home and because this happened in the service of a cause I believe in (see also: my link on the blog to Grassroot Soccer, an organization dedicated to fighting the spread of HIV).

I get why some people scoff at sports--that they are like the gladiator fights of yore in ancient Rome, designed to distract the masses from how lousy their lives are.  And we spend far too much money on sports today, especially at the college level where many student-athletes are exploited for four years of eligibility by athletic departments and an NCAA that doesn't actually care about their education.  And sports fans are sometimes real jackasses (like the racist fans seemingly endemic to European soccer these days).

But if you think that sports don't have meaning, look again at the confidence and fitness that literally millions of kids have built as a result of playing sports.  Look again at how sports can bring people together across almost any other barrier--some of my greatest joys from my mission to Africa in 2006 were in playing soccer with the children of a Soweto-area slum.  Or, just look again at a video like this.

Much like church itself, sports can be used for both good and bad by us.  And death in the service of the ideal good in either arena is something to mourn.  When I read of Mr. Swanson's death--and of how he died--the verse from Ecclesiastes immediately came to mind: the race is not for the swift, nor battle for the strong...for time and chance happens to them all.

The race is not necessarily ours to run.  But a call to service means that we run it anyways.  Despite the risk.  Despite the risk of time and chance happening to us as well.

But it is, in the end, a risk that must be taken.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, May 12, 2013

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

John 20:24-31

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus,[a] one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” 26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” 28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” 30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name. (CEB)

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

Part of being a pastor means you sometimes field some interesting questions.  And by “interesting,” I mean “funny.”  And by “funny,” I mean “sometimes haha-funny and sometimes sad-clown-funny.”  Now, these questions typically include the basics, like, “Are you allowed to drink?” and “Are you allowed to play cards?”  and “Are you allowed to dance?”  (By the way, the answers to all three, in order: yes, yes, and yes, but for the sake of others, I have an abstinence-only policy.  But that category also includes astoundingly-coincidental funny, like when I was once asked on consecutive days, by completely different people, how I felt about the Bible story of Solomon offering to saw a freaking baby in half as a sign of his divine wisdom.  And I guarantee you, every pastor has a story like that.  My favorite comes from Rob Bell:

One time I was asked to speak to a group of atheists and I went and I had a blast.  Afterward they invited me out for drinks and we were laughing and telling stories and having all sorts of interesting conversation when a woman pulled me aside to ask me a question.  She had a concerned look on her face and her brow was slightly furrowed as she looked me in the eyes and said, “You don’t believe in miracles, do you?”

As I listened, I couldn’t help but smile, because not long before that evening I was approached by a churchgoing, highly devout Christian woman, who’d asked me, with the exact same concerned look on her face, complete with furrowed brow, “You believe in miracles, don’t you?”

It’s as if the one woman was concerned that I had lost my mind, while the other woman was concerned that I had lost my faith.  There’s a giant either/or embedded in their questions, an either/or that reflects some of the great questions of our era…(including) can a person believe in things that violate all the laws of reason and logic and then claim to be reasonable and logical?

If you find yourself in that exact same dilemma of needing things like evidence and proof and reason and logic in face of the necessity of faith then guess what?  You’re a little like Thomas!

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 with the story of Mary Magdalene and her reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb, as told by Mark.  The following week, we turned 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.  And last week, we explored an equally well-known story: Jesus’ exhortation to Peter, towards the very end of John’s Gospel, to “feed (His) sheep,” which is traditionally taken hand-in-hand with Jesus commissioning Peter as the rock the church is to be built upon.  We conclude this series, then, with another well-known story almost immediately preceding Peter’s commission: the saga of “Doubting Thomas.”

And this is one of those stories where the perspective we have been taught—the company line, so to speak—has probably warped how we read this story today.  Most notably, the adjective used to describe Thomas in this story—apistos, in the Greek of verse 27—does not mean “doubting,” but “unbelieving.”  It’s not that he’s incapable of faith, it’s that he prefers evidence.

And okay, maybe you hear that and think, “Doubt, unbelief, you say potato…”  Except that this matters.  It matters because people have already come to Jesus before, crying to Jesus the exact words, “Help me in my apistos—help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9)  Thomas is in this exact same mold of saying, “Help me in my unbelieving,” and that should make him relatable.  But what makes him unique is how he demands to be helped in his unbelief—he needs to be able to not only see the Risen Christ, but to touch Him as well, to place his hands in Jesus’ pierced side!

In other words, despite being disciple for three years by Jesus, Thomas is still having the exact same struggles with his belief and unbelief that random passersby did in other Gospels!

Perhaps we’re being a little too hard on Thomas here.  Thomas is one of those characters who clearly is meant to reflect a universal part of ourselves—that part of ourselves that comes by our skepticism honestly, because this world will beat up and break down an idealist in a New York minute.  There’s more to it, and that’s Thomas’ predilection for realism bordering on pessimism.

Thomas makes one other notable appearance in John’s Gospel—in chapter 11, at the outset of the story of the raising of Lazarus.  Jesus tells His posse that Lazarus has bit the big one, but that it’s okay, because Jesus is going to raise Him from the dead in order to demonstrate the glory of God, and the disciples don’t want Jesus to do this because they’re safely back in Galilee, and Jesus is a wanted man in Judea.  And Thomas says, “Let us go so that we may die with Him.”

What a ray of freaking sunshine.

If the disciples were Winnie the Pooh characters, Thomas would be Eeyore.  If the disciples were Sesame Street characters, Thomas would be Oscar the Grouch.  If the disciples were Barney characters, there would be no Thomas because he’d get kicked off the show after refusing to sing along to the “I love you, you love me” jingle.  You get the idea.  Thomas is a bit of a crank.

And that’s how unbelief different from simply having doubts.  It’s different by a country mile.  Doubt is like iron from the Biblical proverb—iron sharpens iron, and doubt can sharpen faith.   Pastor John talked about this very theme when I was away last month—doubt can mature a belief, lead it to new levels, and cause us to mature as Christians. But unbelief…that can bring us way, way down if we let it.  Unbelief is what discourages us and gets us to give up on our quests, on our goals, or even on living out our faith.  Unbelief, if profound enough, can break a person.

And the point of this story of “Doubting” Thomas is that this sort of unbelief that is destructive and hurtful and broken is also very much reversible.  Even if it takes something as miraculous as a bodily appearance by the Risen Christ Himself, Thomas is not so set in his cynicism and his Eeyore-ness that he is unmovable.  He is not the Rock, the Petros, the Peter of last week.  Thomas is movable.  Thomas can be reached, even if only by extraordinary means.

But once he IS reached, the transformation is palpable.  Thomas sees Jesus, and Jesus repeats Thomas’s words right back to him, down to the letter, and the narrative doesn’t actually say that Thomas put his hand in Jesus’ side, only that Jesus invited him to, and that alone is enough for Thomas to exclaim with recognition, “My Lord and my God!”

There’s a lot in those five words.  For twenty whole chapters now, people have been assigned different titles to Jesus—the Word, the Lamb of God, a prophet—and Jesus Himself has been assigning different titles—the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, the True Vine—so His resume of job titles is already several pages long.  And yet, it is appropriate that all these titles culminate in this one title: my Lord and my God.

For it is no coincidence that Thomas utters these words.  They are plucked straight out of Psalms 35, where the Psalmist exclaims, “My God and my Lord,” which Thomas is mirroring here.  And it is a common theme throughout the Psalms, this refrain of “My Lord and my God,” and it sometimes takes on slightly different vocabulary depending on the Psalm in question.  But my favorite version comes from Psalm 42, which ends simply with these words: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, my help and my God.”

I love it because it is what the Resurrection has promised us—a chance to AGAIN praise Him.  It’s the again part that gets me, it isn’t enough to have hope just once, or to experience God only once, or to praise Him only once, no, hoping in God means we get to do so again and again and again.  Being able to reach for hope means more than just refusing to indulge in unbelief, it means that we are being given that AGAIN—that chance to once more live in God.

Am I Thomas?  Well, he is also called Didymus—the Twin.  So, somewhere out there, Thomas has a doppelganger.  Presumably, a physical lookalike.  But Thomas has many a spiritual twin as well, people like you and me who find unbelief easier than belief because unbelief cannot ever disappoint us.  If we are right, then we get to revel in being right, and if we are wrong, we get to revel in our meager expectations being exceeded.  It’s a win-win on a micro level.

But on a macro level, it can be very hurtful.  Enough people decide to quit on believing in something better than ourselves, and that something cannot force its way in.  Jesus does not bludgeon or coerce Thomas into belief, He invites Thomas into belief, just as He does for all those who were not there to see His Risen self.  It’s why John ends His chapter the way He does—in some ways, it acts as an end to the Gospel, with chapter 21 as a sort of epilogue.

“But these are written so that you may believe,” John says.

“Help me in my unbelief,” we might cry in return.

And so John tells us a story of one of our own, and of what is truly possible, if only we believe.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 12, 2013

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

“My Mom’s Greatest Hits”

In honor of Mother’s Day this year, I am offering up a heaping helping of maternal wit and wisdom on the necessity for a day honoring our mothers from my very own mother.  Please enjoy:

Whenever my mom wanted me to do something I really didn’t want to do when I was a kid, she would often play that trump card that is a part of any ethnic mama’s deck: guilt.

“Eric, don’t forget who labored to give birth to you.”

“You didn’t labor to give birth to me, mom, I was a C-section.  You were anesthetized.”

“Yeah, but who carried you for the nine months prior?  More than nine months, in fact, that’s part of the reason you had to be a C-section.”

At which point she basically had me dead to rights and I had to do whatever she asked me to.

Or, for instance, when the month of May rolled around every year:

“Mom, why is there a Mother’s Day?  Shouldn’t that mean there’s a Kid’s Day too?”

“There already is a Kid’s Day, Eric.  Every other day that isn’t Mother’s Day is Kid’s Day.”

Touche, mom.

Finally, because I come from a family of bookworms, the giving of books as gifts is a time-honored practice in my family.  In response to one such gift, my mom said:

“Thanks, honey.  It reminds me that I’m still going to write my own book someday.  It’s going to be 500 pages long, and it’s going to be called “My Children Make Me Crazy,” with 250 pages about you and 250 pages about Katherine (my younger sister).”

Mom, if you ever do write that book, you have my permission to use these 310 words to make a small dent into the 250 pages about me.  Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Tangled Web of Kermit Gosnell, Mark Driscoll, and Why Denying Climate Change is Anti-Life

I have largely held my fire on commenting on the murder trial of abortion doctor (and alleged killer of babies following a live birth) Kermit Gosnell for a variety of reasons, but for two in particular: one, I have been infuriated by the right's complaint that the so-called left-wing media isn't devoting enough ink to covering Gosnell's trial, when in fact outlets like The Nation and NPR covered Gosnell's arrest way back in 2011.  This reaction infuriated me because it spoke to just how partisan our news consumption had become: if conservative Christians had actually bothered to follow the outlets that they instead routinely demonize, the Gosnell house of horrors would not have hit them like a house of bricks just this year.  And so, instead of asking why their conservative publications were acting like Gosnell's trial was some sort of surprise, the blame game on the other side started anew.  So I stepped back.

But the other--and far more meta--reason I have remained reticent is because more than anything else, abortion is the singular topic in my mind where I stand almost no chance at actually having a constructive dialogue with people.  I consider my politics to be very moderate when it comes to abortion: I think it should be completely illegal after viability (unless the mother's health is in jeopardy), and even before viability I am intensely uneasy with it.  But that alone is enough to make me a supporter of baby-killers to hardline pro-lifers (never mind that I am adamantly for a lot of the things designed to help young children succeed, like Head Start and subsidized preschool, when many of them are not) and enough to make me a denier of women's health to hardline pro-choicers (never mind the fact that I am adamantly for universal access to birth control as a public health issue).  I will say, though, that I hope Gosnell spends the rest of his life in a prison cell (I wouldn't want him executed because I am against the death penalty, but that's the topic for another post).

But I'm not trying to make this sound like a pity party for the cheese-stands-alone situation that I feel like I am in.  No, it's just that in my experience, abortion in the Christian arena is the single most polarizing issue there is, even though there are complex Scriptural and public health debates to be had on it.  But as such, I don't engage those debates because I find the chances of having safe, constructive dialogue (much less having any chance at persuasion or changing someone's mind) to be basically nil.  That is my experience and my choice, your mileage may well vary.

Except to say this: I totally and completely get the principle of being against abortion because life comes from God--it's Psalm 139, which reads in part:

You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb. I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful—I know that very well. My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my embryo, and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me, before any one of them had yet happened. God, your plans are incomprehensible to me! Their total number is countless! If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand! If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you.

But here's the pivot--if we are to respect the sanctity of life because life comes from God, then why for His sake are we unwilling to do the same for the planet when it comes to climate change?

And I'll be honest--this question comes after I screamed while reading yet another dickish pronouncement from Mars Hill's pastor Mark Driscoll that seems tailor-made to piss off a compact Sentra-driving Christian like me.  If you didn't click on the link, what he said (this time at the Catalyst Conference) was this:

I know who made the environment, and he's coming back and going to burn it all up.  So yes, I drive an SUV.

Driscoll followed this up with a gratuitous potshot: "If you drive a minivan, you're a mini-man," and by several accounts, a number of people got up and walked out.

So, if you're playing along at home: preserving human life is imperative because human life comes from god.  But preserving the earth isn't necessary because the earth comes from God.

What.  The.  F*ck.


How do you show your appreciation for God's creation on the one hand by protecting it at all costs (the unborn), but pillaging and abusing it on the other hand (the earth)?

And this is even before we consider the implication that our children are the one's inheriting the earth from us, and that maybe, just maybe, it would be pro-life of us to bequeath to them an earth that is habitable and sustainable.

Or the implication that Scripture is patently clear that we aren't supposed to know when Jesus is to return--the day of the Lord, it is written, comes like a thief in the night and we know not when or where (1 Thessalonians 5:2).

Or the implication that every time an oil rig blows up in the Gulf of Mexico and kills 11 people while trying to ignore safety conerns in order to churn out more oil to meet the demand of SUV-driving narcissists like Driscoll, that isn't very pro-life of us, either.

If you're going to wear the label of pro-life, please feel free to do so loudly and proudly.  But please, for the love of God, actually be pro-life for not only all the living, but also all the unborn: not just the unborn who are growing and developing in the womb as I write, but the unborn who are to come in the months, years, and decades ahead, who will inherit this amazing, divinely-breathed creation that we inhabit.

Be pro-life for them as well, I beg you.  Preserve their God-given home so that they may appreciate it as we have.  They, and I, will thank you in Heaven.  After all, Heaven is where, Jesus says, we all receive our rewards.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, May 5, 2013

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

John 21:15-19

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” (CEB)

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

The anonymous adjunct college English professor, writing his memoirs about, as he titled it, toiling away “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” reserved some of his most poignant commentary for the day that students alternately welcome and dread—the day grades are due:

I went to the campus to turn in my grades after that first semester…in the registrar’s office, little knots of instructors…drank coffee and did last minute averaging.  The air was thick with weary sigs, sarcastic commentary, and the click of calculator keys.  (They) required instructions to turn in an additional form when a student received an F.  The office floor was littered with these things, discarded forms with mistaken entries and blank extra copies…the helpful secretary had a big stack of the things on either end of her counter.  “Anybody need more?” she asked.  “Anybody need more F forms?”  Several instructors wondered aloud: when were they getting rid of these things?  It really was too much of a burden to have to fill out so many. (emphasis mine)

I braced myself for the howls of outrage.  I thought surely I’d be fired; I waited for the torrent of irate emails from the students.  But no such response came.  The students were silent.  They were used to failure.  They’d been failing for years.  This was just another bad report card, although now there was no requirement that they have a parent sign it.  Not a single student complained. 

Some weeks later I got an official looking letter from the college.  I worried until I tore it open to find my contract for the following semester.  A helpful adhesive arrow at the bottom showed me where to sign.

The anonymous professor confesses that in one semester, he had to flunk nine of fifteen students in one of his classes: a fail rate of a full 60%.  In this professor’s stories, you get the distinct impression that there is something wrong here, a cycle of failure that leads to horrific feelings of inadequacy for teacher and pupil alike.  And after his thrice-declared denial of Jesus during the Passion story, Peter is probably feeling like he, too, might be somewhere in that same cycle of failure and inadequacy: failure at his having denied Christ, and inadequacy for everything that means to him.  And if you have ever felt the same way, you may well be a bit like Peter as well!

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 with the story of Mary Magdalene and her reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb, as told by Mark.  Last week, we turned 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.  And this week, we will explore an equally well-known story: Jesus’ exhortation to Peter, towards the very end of John’s Gospel, to “feed (His) sheep,” which is traditionally taken hand-in-hand with Jesus commissioning Peter as the rock the church is to be built upon.

Peter, of course, is not his real name.  His given name is Simon, but Jesus renames him Peter around the same time Jesus also says he is that rock of the church.  Why?

Because Peter—Petros, in the New Testament Greek—literally means “rock,” and more specifically, it is a commentary on Peter’s thick nature.  Jesus is channeling His inner Charlie Brown and saying to Peter, “You blockhead!”  Jesus is, in so many words, calling Peter stupid.

So Peter might be a few beans short of a full burrito, or a few fries short of a Value Meal.  Fair enough, nobody ever said that following Jesus requires a Mensa-level IQ.  Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself—it’s really pretty straightforward.

Except that it isn’t.

Because what happens when our deeply programmed, ingrained-in-our-bones instinct for self-preservation conflicts with either one of those teachings…which it will do all the time?

For Peter, this happens, like I said, during the Passion when he is asked three times if he knows Jesus of Nazareth, and three times he demurs.  Here, in John 21, days (if not weeks) after that low point of Peter’s discipleship, the three times that Jesus asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” are meant to mirror the three previous denials Peter uttered.  The same is true of the thrice-repeated exhortation from Jesus: “Then feed my sheep.”

But of course, Peter is not meant to grasp the poetic and Scriptural significance of the three-times bit.  And perhaps it is unfair to expect him to.  Instead, how he responds is perfectly human: he feels hurt.  He feels slighted.  He feels, dare I say it, inadequate, as he senses the need to declare, with increasing vociferousness and emphasis, his love for Jesus.

And Jesus, with swiftness and brevity, deflects each escalated layer: Feed.  My.  Sheep.

The reply is brilliant in its simplicity.  As the New Testament scholar Gail O’Day puts it: “Peter’s former denials do not prevent him from participating in the work to come.  Yet, Jesus’ repeated commands make it clear that there must be a direct relationship between love for Jesus and Peter’s actions.  Peter’s care for the sheep will show his love for Jesus.”

The same is true for us, and that, too, makes us Peter.  Our care for the sheep will show our love for Jesus.  The sheep remain Jesus’, which is what makes it selfless of us—we must care for that which does not, cannot, and never will belong to us.

And you know what the tendency is for us to do with things that we borrow, that don’t really, in the end, belong to us: to borrow from that awful restaurant manager in Office Space, it’s to only do the bare minimum!  We are meant to feed the sheep, but if they’re not our sheep, well, deep down, we’re probably fine with stuffing them full of Pixie Stix and Twinkies rather than on actual food (hey, I was in high school once, too, I know what we will sometimes eat for lunch).

So the trick, then, is to not only avoid spiritual high-fructose corn syrup for ourselves, but also to avoid spoon-feeding everyone else with whatever the religious equivalent of Twinkies is.
And that’s tough.  That takes a lot out of a person, which is precisely what Jesus follows this up with: Peter might feel invincible now, in his youth, but this ministry that he is about to undertake in Acts of the Apostles will use him up, leaving him old and weary.

And sure, Peter could just stick the apostles in front of the TV tuned to The Bachelor or Khloe and Kim Take Miami or whatever crap people watch today (I probably just offended someone by calling their favorite show “crap.”  To them, I say: please stop watching dumb TV). 

But Peter doesn’t do that.  And neither should we.

Despite our own inadequacies—real or perceived—we still have to care for one another.  Not because we belong to each other, but because we also belong to God.

And that means something.  It means we can’t just take care of each other in the easy ways, the ways that don’t leave us weary and tired.  It isn’t enough to simply proclaim our love for our pet dog by clicking “share” underneath a “SHARE THIS IF YOU LOVE YOUR PET DOG” graphic on Facebook.  It isn’t enough to simply text someone a chain message telling them how to find good luck if they forward this to X number of people while reciting the alphabet backwards.

We don’t get let off the hook that easily.

And sure, now I sound like such an old fuddy duddy now, going off on modern technology and whatnot.  But that misses the forest for a tiny, tiny tree.  Rather, the world we live in is set up to create these cycles of failure and of feeling inadequate.  It makes us think that we can never, ever be good enough—not for ourselves, not for each other, not for our families and friends and co-workers and classmates and teachers and students, and certainly not for God.

And sometimes, that may well be true.  But that does not mean it has to be universally true.

It was true for Peter at one time—when he lied about knowing Jesus of Nazareth.  But that doesn’t mean it had to be true for him here, when Jesus asks Peter only if he loves Him.

Am I Peter?  Well, if confronted by a God asking me the same question Jesus is asking here—do you love me—then yeah, I’m going to feel insecure and inadequate.  Because despite my best moments, there are other moments when I’m a real petros—when I’m a real blockhead.

And if that’s the way you sometimes feel too, then the Resurrected Christ has something important that He wants you to do, and that He instructs you to do through Peter:

Feed the sheep.

It ranks right up there with love God and love your neighbor.  It’s not complicated. It’s just love.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 5, 2013

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On Machismo and Sexual Paradigms: An Epilogue to Monday's Post

My immediate previous post--on Jason Collins coming out as gay and being the first active male American athlete (the possibly soon-to-be-unretired Robbie Rogers notwithstanding) to do so--generated a bit of buzz on Facebook, and the response made me realize that there is still more that needs to be said before this particular subject can be put to bed here on the blog.

Namely, what grabbed my attention in all of the hubbub this week was one seemingly almost cast-off line from Washington Post columnist Mike Wise as he went about calling for consistency from Collins' religiously-oriented critics:

If the outrage at Collins is all about religion, where was the contempt for Shawn Kemp's and Antonio Cromartie's serial fathering?  Really, why is an openly gay athlete evoking such fervor while a womanizing athlete is just one of the fellas?

If I  may be so bold as to suggest an answer to Wise's question (a question which I think has significant merit), I would submit that the reason we don't come down on womanizing athletes the way many have on Jason Collins is because womanizing still largely fits within the frat-boy paradigm of a guy openly bragging on his "smoking hot wife."

Again, a word of caution: I am not universally condedmning such expressions of attraction.  Seriously, it's okay to say your significant other is the hottest thing since Vesuvius.  That's great.  Please, be enthusiastic in your love for one another.

It's when it becomes a cultural expectation that things become a bit more worrisome, because it leads to things like bullying of gays and lesbians, or of women who feel called to be ordained pastors, or of younger pastors trying to right the wrongs of previous generations in the church on questions of sexuality and gender.

It leads to things that we should never, in any sane world, be willing to tolerate.  And yet we do.

In point of fact, I think a big reason why we are more willing to tolerate--or at least forgive--behaviors like adultery, divorce, and having children out of wedlock is because those are all things that fit within that exact same paradigm that encourages guys to blather on about their smoking hot wives.

Jesus, when asked in Mark 10 about the Mosaic law's allowing for a man to divorce his wife (but not the other way around--for a wife to divorce her husband), taught not that the rights of divorce should be given to the woman as a means of evening things out, but that these rights should be taken away from the man, for, as He put it: "what God has brought together, let no one separate."

But wow, do we have a problem today with even suggesting that maybe we shouldn't be allowed to do certain things that we have become accustomed to doing, like divorce and it's 50% frequency rate.

I know I'm not the first person to make this argument, and I surely won't be the last, but based on Jesus' words in Mark 10, if you aren't fighting for a ban on divorce with the same fervor that you are fighting for a ban on same-sex marriage, that is hypocritical to do.

As Mike Wise pleads with us, at least be consistent.

And if we can't be, then maybe at least be a little more humanly decent to people who aren't like us.

It's a start.

Yours in Christ,