Thursday, June 27, 2013

The DOMA Ruling: Five Ways I Wish Christians Hadn't Reacted

The Defense of Marriage Act fell yesterday on a 5-4 ruling from the United States Supreme Court.  Which you probably already knew.

The court's decision essentially invalidated the federal ban on same-sex couples receiving full rights and benefits under federal law.  It did NOT invalidate the bans individual states have placed on same-sex marriage, or on any DOMA-like legislation they may have enacted.

Now, me?  I was pleased as punch at the ruling, because I don't believe the government should be in the business of singling out a class of people for discriminatory treatment.  I even took to my Facebook page as soon as I heard the news, posting, "Ding dong, DOMA's dead."

But say you are against marriage equality.  Okay.  We disagree on this one, but here are five ways I hope you don't/haven't react(ed) to the DOMA ruling:

1. Kennedy was controlled by the gays

Enter Pat Robertson, stage kookyboots.  He wondered aloud on the 700 club if Justice Anthony Kennedy--who authored the majority opinion--did so because he might have gay law clerks.  Aside from the fact that Kennedy's clerks sexual orientation is none of Robertson's damn business, it pushes the harmful myth that the "gay agenda" exists because of secret pushers and moles in the government--not unlike how anti-Semitism pushes the myth of a Jewish-dominated media or politics.

2. The sky is falling, the sky is falling!

Enter Rep. Louie Gohmert, stage crazypants, who declared that the fall of DOMA represented "the end of a great civilization."  Talk about hyperbole.  The Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan represented the end of a great civilization.  A nuclear war would likely represent the end of a great civilization.  Gays and lesbians marrying one another?  Not so much.  If the logic goes that marriage is a building block to civilization, well--I think that ship has already sailed on the 50% divorce rate.  Get crack-a-lacking on  THAT.

3. The court's decision was undemocratic (darn those activist judges!)

Yes, you have a point that not everyone is on board with marriage equality, not by a long shot.  But overall demographics are trending in the direction of acceptance, and besides, it isn't the court's job to enforce the people's will--that's why the justices are granted lifetime tenure.  Besides, the court proved it doesn't kowtow to "popular" opinion with its gutting of the Voting Rights Act (whose renewal sailed through Congress in 2006 with overwhelming majorities in both houses) earlier this week, and if you're upset about the DOMA decision for this reason but not the VRA decision, I call shenanigans.

4. God will punish us for this

This is where the Bryan Fischer/Mike Huckabee argument comes in--the declaration of "May God have mercy on us" for violating His will.  First, color me impressed that mere mortals like Fischer and Huckabee are so finely-tuned to God's will.  Second, I read the same Bible they do, and the take I get from the Old Testament prophets and from Jesus Christ is that God gets wrathful over injustice, exploitation of the poor, and the worship of false idols.  The Bible isn't just about sexual morality, y'all.

5. Next up: beastiality, polygamy, and incest

Speaking of sexual morality...I saved this one for last because it so gets my temper going.  The slippery slope argument on this one (that marriage equality leads us to legalized polygamy, etc) is simply a fallacy.  I believe that God's design for marriage is one of consent and exclusivity: that is, a covenant between two adults who love each other.  That's it.  You know who else used the slippery slope argument?  People against interracial marriage in the '50s and '60's.  I'd say we have proven them wrong, wouldn't you?

I don't list all five of these reactions simply because they upset and frustrate me, or even because I find them all erroneous in some way.  No, I list them because believe me, non-churchgoing people take note of them.  They see these sorts of reactions and make conclusions--however fairly or not--about Christians and the church and the nature of God's love for THEM.  By reacting this way, you may be turning other children of God away from His message of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness because they think His church is all about judging and condemning people instead.  And to my non-Christian audience: as a Christian, I am sorry that some have reacted to DOMA in this way.  I promise you, I do not believe this is how God works.

And to my Christian audience, remember--someone's only experience of Christianity may be with you!  How would you handle such a responsibility to bear witness to Jesus?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Pastors and Their Congregations: What to Do, As Well as What to Say

As I noted earlier, thank you all for the extensive and affirming feedback for my "10 Things Pastors Need to Hear from Their Congregations" post of last week.  As I noted then, the response indicated that this is a conversation we definitely need to have, and so this post represents my attempt at continuing that conversation with all of you.

I hinted at it in how I wrapped up last Sunday's sermon, but I firmly believe that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures were written on a timeline of liberation: God liberates Joseph from slavery in Egypt in Genesis as a precursor to liberating His entire people from slavery in Egypt in Exodus, God inspires the judges and David to keep Israel free from foreign overlords, God speaks through His prophets to demand liberation for the people under greedy, corrupt kings in thrall to the Ba'als, and finally, God sends His Son to liberate us from sin itself.

And in light of that reality of Scripture, I find it both fascinating and worrisome that in church, we are apt to feel as chained down as ever by the customs and ways of the institution.  People may not feel comfortable bringing constructive criticism of the pastor to his/her face, so they repeat it behind his/her back.  Or, folks do not wish to rock the boat with a powerful lay leader or church matriarch/patriarch, and so they triangulate the pastor into this dispute.

Pastors, for their part (and I say this not just for myself, but also on the basis of many, many long and meaningful conversations with colleagues) feel chained down by the perception that while they are called to speak truth in love to their congregants, far more often than not, hard truths get placed on the back burner because like you, we pastors are not always interested in operating in authentic freedom.

And so while we have covered 10 things churches should say to their pastors, here, in the same spirit, are 10 things I wish more churches would DO for their pastors, in the spirit of creating a freer atmosphere in which the Holy Spirit can move and work:

1. Encourage Innovation

This is the big one.  If church gets a rap these days for being stodgy and outdated (and in my experience, it does suffer from that rap among non-churchgoers), it is largely because we have stifled newness for the sake of repetition.  But this can be a both-and, not an either-or: there is no reason to cast aside tradition, just as there is no reason to ignore novelty.  But what does encouraging innovation look like?  Well...

2. Honor the Job Description

If your pastor (or you yourself, if you are a pastor) do not have a job description, get your church crack-a-lacking on one ASAP.  Now, does the job description receive regular updates from your church's board or personnel team?  Does the church get to offer feedback on what goes into (or gets removed) from the job description?  Perhaps most importantly, how accessible is the pastor's job description?  Is it made widely available, or is it tucked away and people have forgotten what it really says?

3. Explicitly Value Renewal

Write into the job description--or personnel handbook, or church charter, etc.--evidence of your church's value of renewal for congregation and clergy alike.  It is not wrong to expect your pastor to lead your church in ministries of renewal or revitalization (like nursing hurting ministries back to health), nor is it wrong for the pastor to ask the church to provide avenues for his/her own renewal (like paying for retreats or sabbaticals).

4. Make Room for Physical Health

Ministry is a notoriously unhealthy profession, with pastors suffering disproportionately from obesity and all that it entails.  Long amounts of time spent writing and talking to people over sweets and soda are emphatically not what the doctor ordered.  Ensure your pastor has enough time in their day-to-day schedule to maintain a regular workout routine, and even consider providing exercise equipment at the church or paying for a gym membership.

5. Don't Let Wounds Fester

To springboard off of #4, spiritual health has a lot of overlap with physical health, including the reality of injuries and afflictions.  If the congregation has wounded you in some way, seek care from us immediately.  If we have wounded you in some way, seek reconciliation with us immediately.  Even a minor spiritual wound, like a physical wound, can get infected and grow into a much bigger concern if left unattended.

6. Know When to Make Your Case

Pastors are people--we have good days and bad, but regardless, Sunday in particular is not the day to come to us with any serious sort of grievance.  Why?  Our brains are like lab rats on Red Bull, and I promise you, we will forget everything you're saying to us.  Think about it--you wouldn't expect your favorite music artist to remember anything you shouted to them at a concert, right?  The same logic applies here.  It isn't personal, it's just human nature.

7. Similarly, Don't Ambush

Almost every pastor I know (including yours truly) has a horror story about being blindsided about something or other by a congregant or small group of congregants.  Soften the ground first by broaching the subject clearly--but not artificially urgently--over email or telephone so that we know what to expect.  We're silently thanking you for it, believe me.

8. Respect Our Time

A colleague of mine (who shall remain nameless) once slapped a sign to his office door saying something to the effect of: "I'm usually here, except when I'm somewhere else, but even then, I should still be here as well."  Recognizing that this is a job for us in addition to a calling, and that we too get tired at the end of the day and cannot work at all hours, is clutch.  Similarly, if we have blocked off certain hours (or a day) for studying and sermon preparation, PLEASE honor that.  If we are unprepared preachers, the entire church suffers.

9. Don't Butter Us Up

Yes, we pastors love being affirmed and appreciated, because a lot of the work we do is invisible to the vast majority of the congregation.  But because our work is so relational and interpersonal, we tend to have finely tuned BS detectors, and we often know when we are being genuinely complimented and cared for, and when we being brown-nosed.  Please don't try to manipulate our emotions, it is far more apt to do harm than good.

10. When In Doubt, Ask

Please do not go behind our backs to do things.  If you want to try something new, just ask!  Especially if it is something innovative or creative (see #1), I promise you, we will be listening with open ears.  Plus, if you get us on board, we are liable to do everything we can to empower you and make sure your new ministry goes well!  It really is a win-win.

As always, I welcome your feedback.  Pastors, what do you wish your church would do for you more?  Laypeople, what do you think you could do or not do to help facilitate your pastor's success within  your parish?  What have I left out?  What have I said that you might you take issue with?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, June 23, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "When Children Ask"

Exodus 12:21-28

21 Then Moses called together all of Israel’s elders and said to them, “Go pick out one of the flock for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood that is in the bowl, and touch the beam above the door and the two doorposts with the blood in the bowl. None of you should go out the door of your house until morning. 23 When the Lord comes by to strike down the Egyptians and sees the blood on the beam above the door and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door. He won’t let the destroyer enter your houses to strike you down. 24 You should observe this ritual as a regulation for all time for you and your children. 25 When you enter the land that the Lord has promised to give you, be sure that you observe this ritual. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ritual mean to you?’ 27 you will say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for the Lord passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. When he struck down the Egyptians, he spared our houses.’” The people then bowed down and worshipped. 28 The Israelites went and did exactly what the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron to do. (CEB)

“Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church,” Week Four

The refrains coming out of this tiny, minority community sounded noble, even courageous, when placed in a vacuum: “We feel that our culture is being threatened and we want to protect it and we want to nurture it…and suddenly, we don’t feel welcome anymore.”

Except that the refrains were coming from an all-white community of Afrikaners—of Dutch Reformed settlers—in South Africa.  This is the nation that the Dutch Afrikaners were responsible for decades for constructing and maintaining the apartheid system of segregation that systematically disenfranchised an entire nation’s indigenous peoples from their own government, and I have to assume the plaintive cries of preserving one’s culture were told without a trace of irony, despite the shameful past of this community’s forefathers repressing and threatening the culture of native South Africans for the better part of a century.

And it is a tradition that continued on to today in worst of forms in this small, cloistered community outside Pretoria.  The rules are clear and unyielding: no Jews. No blacks.  No Catholics.  Even people of mixed-race backgrounds need not apply.

And having served on a mission to South Africa seven years ago, I saw bits and pieces of this lingering mentality, but not like this.  I read about and hear about these stories now, and all I can think of is, “What is it that you are fighting so hard to preserve, really?  Is it tradition?  Is it culture?  Or is it a way you have grown accustomed to that should have gone extinct long ago?”  And in so many words, that describes the thought process of the church, over, and over and over.

We tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it in her memoir Bossypants, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be (and, ironically or no, that very line reflects the wonder and splendor of the divine name itself from Exodus 3: I Am Who I Am).

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  We kicked off the series by examining one of the initial tenets of the book: “fostering intergenerational relationships,” followed by “encouraging economic understanding.”  This past week, we had the theme of “cultivating unambiguous inclusion,” and this week, we arrive at the theme (and chapter) of “discovering affirming traditions.”  Carol writes in this chapter:

As new generations gather in a church, vital congregations learn to adapt their customs while keeping their traditions…Church members want new people to attend the church because they hope to lighten the load in fundraising events, keep dwindling programs alive, and support the diminishing budget.  Sometimes it happens that way, but more often, if the members become intentional about ministering to younger generations, they will move away from assimilating the new people into existing customs and begin a process of forming new communities.  The body will become aware of the gifts and needs of that particular group and respond to them by teaching the traditions of belief and practice in a more fluid, not rigid, way…

In the midst of this spiritual renewal, it’s difficult to point out the steps of the process.  Instead, forming spiritual communities is like painting: an artist sketches regularly, studies objects and figures, learns from the great works of history, and shows up at the sketchbook or canvas every day.  Much of what she produces may be inconsequential, but then suddenly something begins to move within her.  She picks up the brush, after some time she feels stirred internally and externally, and creates a work of great beauty.

In the midst of centuries of enslavement in Egypt, followed by the brutality of the ten plagues required to release the Israelites—and to prove the superiority of YHWH to the Egyptian deities—we would be forgiven for thinking of our religion in the same manner as the artist, for much of what was produced probably fell short of great beauty, of profound expectation, or of, quite simply, the warm-and-fuzzy love we might associate with God these days.  The circumstances of the Israelites in Egypt were not—and are not—a masterpiece in any way.

But out of those circumstances of enslavement and bondage comes one of the most immortal religious traditions ever to grace the globe, a tradition that lives on not only in Jewish tradition, but in Christian tradition as well under the aegis of the Passion story: the sacrificial lamb.

Part of the Passover tradition—and the holiday gets its name from the most literal sense of the term, for the Lord “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn—included a meal, prepared quickly to be consumed quickly: unleavened bread (possessing yeast that week was punishable by exile!), bitter herbs, and the meat of a lamb.

But whereas today, we might discard any part of the animal we did not want, God instructs the Israelites to use every part of the animal, including its blood: they are to use it to mark the lintel and posts of their doors, to protect them from the destroying capability of God’s own power.

And so a tradition was born.  The Passover became a part of Jewish religion, and then a part of Christian religion, for the Passion story takes place during the celebration of the Passover.

But notice how, in Exodus, when the first Passover is being prepared, it is not enough for Moses to simply instruct his people on how to do it—he also tells them why.  Because this is a ritual that will be adhered to for millennia, at some point our children, and our children’s children, will ask, “Why on earth do we do this?” And we can say, “Because God Himself calls us to do so.”

Imagine saying that in church today!  When someone asks us, “Why do you do this,” or “Why do you do that,” how often do we reply with, “Because God tells us it is right that we should do so?”

Or, more to the point, how often do we really reply with, “God instructs us to,” rather than, “Well, this is the way we have always done it?”

There are a many great things in the church that were nearly sacrificed upon the altar of “Well, this is how we have always done it,” like having Bibles translated into our native languages, rather than remaining entirely in Latin, or not renting out pews to families of the highest bidders.  God called us to neither make Scripture or the sanctuary inaccessible, yet for centuries, the church was in the business of doing both.  Why?  Because that’s how they had always done it.

In her book, Carol calls this sort of thing the difference between custom and tradition.  Traditions are the things that must be kept because they what make a church community distinct: traditions are what make us who we are today.  Just as the Passover led the Israelites—and, subsequently, the Jewish faith—to who they were and are today, so too do traditions like Easter, like Pentecost, like Epiphany all lead us to be the Christians whom we are today.

As such, we could no sooner stop doing those things than we could stop being Christians.

But then there are customs that we keep, and often for the best of reasons—it isn’t always that the reason is to nakedly raise money for the church at the expense of shaming the poor, as was the case when churches would do things like auction off pews.  But those customs—like clinging to the apartheid of old in South Africa—can at times segregate churches from the outside world: the world they are called to make better, the world God created for them, the world from which they receive new brothers and sisters who come in the doors and say, “Teach me about Jesus.”  It’s the sort of stuff that we won’t have a good answer for when our children ask why we do it.

What do we as a congregation do that maybe segregates us from the people we are called to serve and to reach on behalf of Jesus?  What do we do, that when our children or our children’s children come to church and ask us why we do it, will we perhaps not have a good answer for?

I don’t really know the answers to those questions, because I have been in the church my entire life. I am steeped in its ways.  This is where we lifelong churchgoers can be taught, as it were, by our newly-christened and baptized brethren: how do they see us, versus how we see ourselves?

And if it sounds like I am asking you to obey the dictates of others at the expense of what we choose to do, know that it is in fact quite the opposite.  The Passover—the entire story of Exodus, in fact—is a tale ultimately of liberation from the chains of slavery.  And I truly believe that one of the ways that we can remain true to that story today is by seeing what we have chained ourselves to—both inside and outside of church—and working anew towards cutting ourselves free.  For that is, I think, what God wants, in end: a people made free, liberated from themselves and from one another, because only when such liberation takes place can the authentic worship of the maker of heaven and earth truly begin.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 23, 2013

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Exodus International and the Nature of Forgiveness

(So far, the feedback from yesterday's post ("10 Things Pastors Need to Hear from Their Congregations") has been fantastic.  I truly did not expect the reception that post has received, and that has also indicated to me that this is definitely a conversation we are all in need of having.  I'll be out of town tomorrow and Saturday for my college reunion, but I'll have a follow-up post up next week. -E.A.)

As many of y'all know by now, yesterday the conservative Christian organization Exodus International--famous and infamous for its role in pioneering so-called "reparative therapy" (aka "pray away the gay") for gay and lesbian Christians--announced that its board had voted unanimously to permanently close its doors.

Immediate reactions from my friends and colleagues on social media was both swift and diverse: while many applauded this step that Exodus has taken--and the powerful apology from its President, Alan Chambers, that accompanied it--I also had a significant number of friends who expressed the sentiment, in so many words, that "saying sorry isn't enough" in this case.

(Full disclosure: I self-identify as a straight ally, and I believe very strongly in the church as a safe place for gay and lesbian siblings in Christ to come out and be affirmed for who they are.)

The nature of forgiveness is tricky because while it is clear that I should forgive someone for wrongs done to me (indeed, Christ commands as such), the question of forgiving someone for wrongs done to others is far murkier.

Honestly, I don't think it is my place to forgive Exodus on behalf of my openly gay friends who at a point in their lives went to Exodus for reparative therapy.

It goes wider than that as well, for it is probably not my place to forgive the wider church on behalf of my openly gay friends who have been so wounded by the church that they have never returned--nor do they (understandably) have any desire to.

At seminary, I had openly gay classmates whom I humbly would consider to be fantastically qualified to serve the body of Christ as ordained pastors, but who would face uphill-to-impassable resistance from their denominations and governing bodies simply because of their sexual orientation.

And I cannot--and should not--forgive their denominations on their behalf.

So while my heart swelled as I read Alan Chambers' apology, I realized that I had no forgiveness to offer to him, even as he acknowledged that there is--at least indirectly--blood on his hands with the line: "I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and some have chosen to end their lives."  

Yet I also have to think that acknowledgement of, and repentance for, this ultimate wrong represents the first step towards any true reconciliation, and I commend Alan for the courage he is currently showing.  My gut instinct is that his words were both honest and heartfelt, and I cannot imagine the inner pain and turmoil that it takes to write such a detailed apology for public consumption.

But forgiveness, in this particular circumstance, is not mine to give.

I pray for him--and all those associate with Exodus--that God will guide their future endeavors towards, as he puts it, "peace and the common good."  I earnestly hope that they are successful in this.  And if my gay and lesbian friends seek to forgive Exodus, I am more than happy to pray with them, counsel them, support them, and be there for them in every way that I know how.

But if there is one thing I have learned as an ally, it is that speaking for someone else--especially someone who has already been marginalized by the dominant voices in our culture--rarely does anybody any good.

This has simply been my experience, though.  Do you think I am selling forgiveness short?  Is there a way for heterosexual Christians like myself can offer forgiveness to Exodus in a way that is respectful to our GLBTQ brothers and sisters?

I am open to your words, for I am still processing all of this myself.

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

10 Things Pastors Need to Hear from Their Congregations

Earlier today, the Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans posted a short-but-insightful list of 11 things she, as a layperson, wished that we pastors said more often.  I commented that I thought the list was fantastic, and a fellow commenter suggested making a companion list of 10 things pastors wish their congregations said more often.

This is my attempt at such a list, and it should not be construed as a direct criticism of my parish--indeed, some of these items are things they already say to me that I wish other churches would say more frequently to their pastors!

1. How can I be praying for you?

I do a lot of praying with people and for people while rarely asking for prayer in return.  But I definitely need prayer in return, because I am not Super-Pastor.  Some days, I barely even feel like an ordinary, un-super pastor, because on my own, I am simply a very, very weak man.

2. I'm sorry.  I was wrong.  Please forgive me.

This is a direct copy-and-paste of Rachel's own #2 item, because it definitely fits for us as well.  Pastors have to withstand a lot of second-guessing and--in unhealthier situations--ad hominem criticisms, but we are called to turn the other cheek rather than repaying meanness for meanness.

3. Enjoy your time away.

For pastors, vacation time is sacrosanct and vital to our well-being, but I have had to engage in educational efforts to show why my vacation time (of which I get four weeks per year) is so vital, so that I might stop being asked, "How come you get so much time off?  I only see you once a week!"

4. Let's give it a try.

I think that while pastors may have a very hard time saying "no" to their congregants, congregations can be quite skilled at saying "no" to their pastor and their pastor's ideas.  It doesn't even have to be a "yes"--just agreeing to give something the old college try is often enough.

5. Here's what I liked/didn't like about your sermon today...

Don't get me wrong, I'll take the "good sermon today, preacher" compliments.  But you know why we love it when you engage us on the substance of what we said, even if you disagree with us?  It shows that you were listening, and it reminds us that our preaching and teaching is valued by you.

6. How can I help?

 A lot of our volunteers have set tasks that they do--and do well--at our church.  And I love that--reliability is a huge gift in the church.  But I also love it when someone comes to me, willing to help out wherever they can, because it shows they care about the church's needs, whatever they might be.

7. Is everything okay?

Part of serving a smaller congregation means that my congregants and I grow extremely familiar with one another, and many of them can tell if I didn't bring my A-game that day.  Showing concern for me first--rather than reaching immediately for criticism--means an awful, awful lot to me.

8. Don't stop being yourself.

I am lucky to serve a church that not only doesn't mind that their pastor enjoys scotch, plays poker, and is a loudmouth Kansas City sports fan--they embrace it, even if a stereotypical pastor would not drink or gamble.  Quite simply, I am affirmed for who I am.  They affirm Eric, not just "Pastor Eric."

9. Whenever you can make it is fine.

Pastors get a lot of invites to a lot of family events in the church--and I love going to such events, but when my schedule begins to crowd up, please do not be offended if I am only able to make a token appearance, or am running late.  It doesn't mean that I, or God, loves you any less.

10. Be not afraid!

I saved the biggest (for me) for last--quite simply, I am sometimes afraid to try things and risk either failing or upsetting church matriarchs/patriarchs.  But risk is a necessary dimension of ministering in the name of Jesus Christ, and pastors today cannot afford to be risk-averse!

Those are just my top ten, written more or less off the top of my head, based on my own experience and on the experience of my friends and colleagues in ministry.  What things do you wish your church would say more often to you (if you are a pastor) or to your pastor?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, June 16, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "We Were Slaves"

Deuteronomy 24:17-22

17 Don’t obstruct the legal rights of an immigrant or orphan. Don’t take a widow’s coat as pledge for a loan. 18 Remember how you were a slave in Egypt but how the Lord your God saved you from that. That’s why I’m commanding you to do this thing. 19 Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it. Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so that the Lord your God blesses you in all that you do. 20 Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 21 Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 22 Remember how you were a slave in Egypt. That’s why I am commanding you to do this thing. (CEB)

“Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church,” Week Three

The face of the 99-year-old woman ran like a map, with gentle wrinkles and creases diving and folding to create something that I imagined the flow of a river must look like if put to a human face.  And while you or I might not know her from Adam, that face tells a story.

This woman was the last of her kind—an ethnic Armenian living in the town of Chunkush in southeastern Turkey, where over 10,000 Armenians once lived before the purges of the Armenian Holocaust during the First World War, nearly 100 years ago.  She is also what writer Chris Bohjalian calls a “hidden Armenian.”  As he writes:

She…had grown up and grown old aware of who and what she (is)—Armenian—but forced to conform and remain silent.  That was the price of survival in the days after the genocide, and it’s a custom that, in small villages such as Chunkush, endures today…whenever we asked Asiya about being Armenian, she would shake her head ruefully and grow silent.  One time, her daughter chimed in: “No.  We can’t talk about that.”

No.  We can’t talk about that.

It is a refrain that I rarely hear, in all honesty, and only in very specific circumstances, like if I’m counseling someone through a past spiritual trauma, or if someone asks me about the rapture.

But I also hear it from Christians.  A lot.  About any number of things, but especially about the things that tend to divide us, like marriage equality, or the theological worth of eggplants.  And so we remain silent for fear of having our welcome revoked.  And how I wish that weren’t so.

We tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it in her memoir Bossypants, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be (and, ironically or no, that very line reflects the wonder and splendor of the divine name itself from Exodus 3: I Am Who I Am).

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  We kicked off the series by examining one of the initial tenets of the book: “fostering intergenerational relationships,” followed by “encouraging economic understanding.”  This week, we see the theme of “cultivating unambiguous inclusion.”  Carol writes in this chapter:

The law of Jesus was a relationship; it did not factor in the object of the action, it only mattered how the subject contrast, our mainline denominational churches endlessly debate who’s on and who’s off our lists… (but) the majority of young adults in our country…see their duty as spiritual people as being to treat others as they would like to be treated, and that means that they don’t tolerate intolerance.

Throughout the exchanges over the doctrine of salvation and acceptable views of sexuality, as our denominations stand with their clipboards (like bouncers –E.A.), negotiating who is good enough to be on our list, they frequently leave those under forty on the wrong side of the ropes.

When I hear arguments in the church, I am told that the church needs to stand up against the evil of a diverse culture, and not allow the world to taint the pure message of the Gospel.  Yet, as a part of an age group which welcomes diversity, it feels like the church is fighting against the very richness and difference of my generation, my friends, and me—a richness and difference that it perceives as somehow tainted and sinful.

A richness perceived as somehow tainted.

It is why a lot of younger Christians have had to “come out of the closet,” as it were, about views they have that may not tow the line that their church or denomination preaches: that they are accepting of gays and lesbians, or that they don’t believe that members of other churches or denominations are necessarily bound for hell.  It is a difficult thing to swim upstream like that, when you are already seen as naïve because of your age, or a heretic because of your conscience.

And so people—young people and new people especially—in the church may remain in silence, fearful of upsetting the delicate status quo.

Not unlike the foreigner whom Deuteronomy 24 tries to protect.

Among the 613 laws the Torah hands down, I have to admit that this is one of my favorites.  I know I am not supposed to play favorites with the Word of God—that the entirety of Scripture is God-breathed, inspired, and useful for teaching.  But we all have our favorite verses and passages, and this is one of mine.

Because for most of my childhood, I was one of those “hidden Armenians.”  My great-grandparents fled Armenia in 1915, at great personal risk and expense, for Russia.  Except a few years later, the Bolsheviks came a-knocking, and Russia wasn’t such a great place to be either.  And so my family fled illegally to the United States, where we have lived and died ever since.  We still have the fake passports my great-grandparents used.

And I tell that story because it is not unlike some of the stories I hear from all of you—making quiet exoduses from your previous church homes, whether because you had to relocate for a job, or because you felt or were told you were no longer welcome at the church you once were at.  And on a personal level as your pastor, I am so sorry for the pain that this causes you.

Part of coping with the pain means remembering where it came from.  It is why God is quick to remind the Israelites of why, exactly, they must provide for and care for the foreigner (in addition to the orphans and widows, who were similarly vulnerable populations in Biblical times): because they themselves were foreigners not so long ago, when they were slaves in Egypt.

When they were slaves.  It is a shameful memory that, being far removed from it ourselves, we would probably just as soon assume someone would want to forget.  So shameful, though, that it actually convinces me of the truth in this statement behind the law.  After all, if the Exodus hadn’t happened like that, who on earth would make up an origin story of their people being enslaved and let free through no great insurrection or rebellion of their own?

To admit, “we were slaves” is something that is—and should be—profoundly humbling.  And it is something we can and must admit to ourselves when we come to church.

Because for many of us, this is a church that we have grown to love.  We have worshiped here for weeks, months, years, sometimes decades.  And somewhere within that fabric of time, we are apt to forget what it was like to worship here for the first time, unsure of everything that was going on, not knowing what to expect, hesitant about sitting anywhere lest it be “someone else’s pew.”  Even for the most seasoned Christian, a church was once a foreign land for them as well.

And so we are charged to remember that once upon a time, we, too, were the foreigners in this church that welcomed us in.  We, too, were the strangers.  We too, came from the humble places.

Part of being in church might mean feeling like you are privileged—after all, we have this beautiful sanctuary in which to worship, we have these wonderful friends and family with whom to worship, and most of all, we have this God who came to earth and gave everything for us.

With that sort of array of gifts, we are liable to feel privileged, for the church is indeed a blessing.  But it is a paradoxical privilege—it is privilege that must humble us as well, for we cannot forget our pasts.  We cannot forget that there was a time in our lives—however long ago it may be, even if it was as a little child—when we did not know how to be a part of the church.

Within the scope and scale of our privileged habitat of the church, we have trained our ears to hear the name of Jesus proclaimed, to listen to his teachings interpreted, and to know His Word.

But it was not always thus.  Just as it was for the Israelites that they did not always have a home of their own.  In this way, we are very much alike.  We did not always have a church home of our own, whether because we were too young to remember it, or we did not have one that accepted us for who we are, or for any other reason.  Yet, part of having a home now means not only opening it up to anyone who might perchance stumble across it, but by proactively loving as ourselves that anyone who does find themselves drawn into the worship and fellowship and discipleship that takes place within these walls.  Because in the end, these walls have doors, not gates.  Let us keep those doors open.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 16, 2013

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Nature of Failure in Ministry, Part II

(If you haven't read the post immediately preceding this one--my post on how we as senior/lead pastors can fail at times--I gently suggest that you scroll down and do so, as this post is a follow-up to that one. -E.A.)

When I was asked by my now-regional minister, Sandy Messick, to prayerfully consider the job opening I now have--as pastor of Longview FCC--I realized after much prayer, deliberation, and counsel from trusted friends and mentors that the only way I could ever be able to accept this call is if I was okay with the possibility never achieving any of the objectives the church needed from its new pastor.

Read that again: the only way I could accept this call was if I was okay with the possibility of failing at this call.

To greatly oversimplify matters, the ministry I am predominantly involved in here is a church revitalization: when I arrived, we had an average worship attendance of 25-30 people in a sanctuary that accommodates a congregation seven or eight times that size.  We were far too small for our beautiful, historic building.  And, like many mainline congregations across the country, we were getting older and older.  It's a tough spot to be in, but I saw that this was a congregation that firmly believed that God was not finished with them, and I found that I shared that conviction.

But I had allow myself to be okay with the contingency that I would be the pastor under whose watch this congregation closed its doors, if  (God forbid) it ever came to that.

Because I didn't know if I could do what this congregation was asking me to help them do.

On a theological level, this is a practical sort of a leap of faith that existentialism's grandfather (and my theological mancrush) Soren Kierkegaard talks about.  Walking on solid ground only gets you so far--at some point, you have to leave your feet.

So I left my feet, and accepted this church as the place God was calling me to be right now, by trusting in Him rather than in my own skills (or lack thereof).

And, as I wrote in Tuesday's post, I felt like I had absolutely no idea what I was doing for my first few months here.  I am told, however, that I hid it well.

In thinking back over that time in my ministry here, though, I realized another truth that I had half-wittingly stumbled upon:

The whole shebang of ministry is like that.  Becoming a pastor is all one big leap of faith.

After all, the average length of a pastor's career in ministry (before either retirement or a career change) is only 14 years.  By that math, I have an average chance of being out of ministry before I turn 40.

Even in order to say "yes" to God and enter ordained ministry, I had to be okay with eventual "failure," of burning out, dropping out, and doing something else with my life.

Now, I want to emphasize that I do not believe myself to be burned out all: I routinely take time to pray and ask myself how high my job satisfaction is, and it is usually quite high.  I love what I do and where I get to do it.  But I have also experienced things that I can understand why someone would feel discouraged about ministry by.

After all, I'm on call 24/7, even on my days off.  As a solo pastor, I am constantly putting out little fires here and there.  And as an introvert, being around people for any sustained length of time exhausts me.

And in the midst of those influences, the pressure to do well is always there.

So despite my own weaknesses and shortcomings, I (and I imagine a great many other pastors) still fear failure.

One of the biggest things I have tried to do over the past two years of my time here is to purge myself of that fear.  I am not so naive or vain to say that I have been successful at achieving that goal.

But once I began to let that fear go, I did begin to see new and amazing things begin to happen at this church that I love and serve.

And for that, I know that I have God to thank.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Nature of Failure in Being a Senior/Lead Pastor...or a Senior/Lead ANYTHING

This June marks the four-year anniversary of my being continuously engaged in some form of ministry.  I began as an intern chaplain in the inpatient psychiatric ward of California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, before transitioning to parish ministry that autumn as a part-time student associate minister of First Christian Church in Concord, California, and then to my current position here in Longview.

And with four years of experience to look back on (I know, I make myself sound old, when I'm still not yet 30), I have realized that there is simply no substitute for the proverbial trenches.  Sitting in a classroom may not be yours (or mine, at times) cup of tea, but I have come to believe that it is infinitely easier to come up with answers from behind a desk, considering questions and examining case studies that are either purely hypothetical or carefully sanitized of any identifying information.

And probably the way I have experienced this the most has been in the transition from associate to senior pastor.  Because all of the sudden, the buck stops with me now.  Not only are all those case studies actually real people for me, but I also have become the person spiritually responsible for them.

Talk about the blind leading the blind.

I joke about this with my congregants, but there is a kernel of truth to this: I probably had no idea what I was doing my first three or four months on the job.  Sure, I knew I had to preach on Sundays, I had to sit in on and report to our Board of Directors meetings, I had to cast a vision for the congregation, and about a million other things.

I knew I had to do all those things.

I just didn't know how to do any of them.  Or at least do any of them particularly well.

Admitting that truth isn't me trying to knock on my seminary or my field education.  It's just reality.

I was a 25-year-old pastor who had (and has, now, at 27) plenty of desire, drive, and determination.  But I was still in over my head.

And that meant that I have had some pretty spectacular failures so far in my two years here, including:

-Attempting to get a Sunday evening Taize-style prayer service going.  I eventually had to take that poor worship service out back and shoot it.

-Mistakenly thinking that we could pull off having our new youth group on Saturday afternoons.

-And flubbing my sermon for a graveside funeral so badly that the deceased woman's daughter got up and basically filled in the blanks for me.

All of which leads me to say this, to all y'all:


We make mistakes.  Sometimes, big ones.

Which in turn leads me to say this to all my pastor colleagues:


(I know, I really should go into motivational speaking, right?)

Don't get me wrong--we should be good at our jobs.  I should be a good pastor.  And I should want to be a good pastor, because I have been entrusted with this expression of the body of Christ--this parish that I serve.

But being a good pastor doesn't cause God to love me more.  It doesn't get me an extra slice of grace or anything of the sort.

God loves the people we may think of as screw-ups too.

And so, ultimately, attaching too much importance to my successes--and trying to bury too many of my failures--is how I think many of us get led down the road of egoism.  We worship ourselves and our deeds rather than God.

And so, today, I have publicly admitted a few of my bigger goof-ups in ministry (see above).

Not because I think confession should be public.

But because it is liberating for me to do so.  It allows me to get the focus back on God.

And I encourage you to be able to do the same--in whatever arena in life you lead, be it at the workplace, at school, at home--wherever--be okay to admit your finite humanness.

Because, paradoxically, rather than chaining yourself to your mistakes, it helps to free you from them, while still keeping the lessons you have learned.

Now, if someone would like to tell me my penance as a part of this whole public confessional post, that would just be spiffy.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, June 9, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Year of Jubilee"

Leviticus 25:8-17

8 Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet[a] blown on the tenth day of the seventh month.[b] Have the trumpet blown throughout your land on the Day of Reconciliation. 10 You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year[c] for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. 11 The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines 12 because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. 13 Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee. 14 When you sell something to or buy something from your fellow citizen, you must not cheat each other. 15 You will buy from your fellow citizen according to the number of years since the Jubilee; he will sell to you according to the number of years left for harvests. 16 You will raise the price if there are more years, or lower the price if there are less years because it is the number of harvests that are being sold to you. 17 You must not cheat each other but fear your God because I am the Lord your God. (CEB)

Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church, Week Two

It has happened nearly 50 times now, in just under a year.  This young man had his brother pass away at only 30 years of age, and was surprised to see this in his brother’s last will and testament: a wish that he—his brother—go out to eat, and leave a hugely extravagant tip.  As he put it in his will: “and I don’t mean 25%.  I mean $500 on a (expletive) pizza.”

Well, this man who had just lost his brother did exactly that: he scrounged up $500, went out to eat with his family, surprised their waitress with the $500 tip, and posted the video to Youtube.

As videos are sometimes wont to do on the internet, this one went viral in a big damn hurry, and suddenly, people were stepping forward, asking if they could donate to make more $500 tips happen.  Enough people, in fact, that the $500 tip has been given 49 times in just under a year.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s $24,500.  From a man who had just lost a brother.

Each of these tips is on video, and posted on Youtube, and you notice a remarkable, but sorrowful thing: a number of the waiters and waitresses, after they get over the initial shock and joy of receiving such a tip, talk about what they could use the money for, and a great many of them, it involves paying off debts: car payments, student loans, credit cards, you name it.

The videos are heartwarming and inspiring and in every way encouraging to watch.  But they also highlight a new undercurrent running amidst my generation: the sheer amount of debt we face as the price for our educations and our cars in the face of an unyielding economy.

And all of the sudden, this year of $500 tips begins to look a bit like a latter-day Year of Jubilee.

Now, we tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it in her memoir Bossypants, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be (which, ironically or no, harkens back to the Divine Name itself--I Will Be What I Will Be!).

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  Last week, we kicked off the series by examining one of the initial—and crucial—tenets of the book: “fostering intergenerational relationships.”  This week, we turn to the next chapter’s theme of “encouraging economic understanding.”  Carol writes in this chapter: 

During stewardship time, when we plan how to encourage giving in our congregations, I often hear, “We are the most prosperous nation to ever live.  We’ve got to teach these young people how to give.”

As a person in her thirties, I wonder how this claim of prosperity holds up for my generation.  Can we be counted as part of this prosperity when our debts so heavily outweigh our assets?  We have lovely commodities available to us, but many young adults do not actually own much.  We are so busy paying off the interest that we rarely get to the principle.

We may need to learn how to give, but there’s something even more basic than that.  Some people in their twenties and thirties need to learn how to be a part of a supportive spiritual economy.  We do not know much about an ecosystem in which we can thrive, where our bodies are cared for and nurtured.  We have difficulty giving and receiving.

While on its face, this passage looks like most of Leviticus: dry, stultifying, and perhaps more than a little Big Brother-esque, it was in fact one of the great innovations of its day, and one that was a source of great hope for more than a few people, because it took the principles of the Sabbath, whirled them through a Scriptural centrifuge, and produced something that actually leveled the playing field for the masses through that difficult means of giving and receiving.

The Sabbath—that seventh day of rest—is incredibly important in Mosaic law—so much so that honoring it is one of the Ten Commandments.  And its importance got extrapolated beyond just the seventh day to the seventh year: Leviticus also commands—just before this passage on the Jubilee year--that every seventh year, farms and fields are to lie fallow.  Centuries before the invention of crop rotation, that was a big deal: to allow for the soil to regenerate itself with nutrients and rest in order to sustain generations more of Israelites to come.  Additionally, Mosaic law mandated that Israelite slaves be granted their freedom at the seventh year of their servitude, ensuring that enslavement did not have to be a lifelong institution.  And for laws which originated over 3,000 years ago, this is all extremely enlightened thinking.

And the Year of Jubilee takes the seventh-year law to the next level.  It says that every seventh seventh year—aka, every 49 years—all property will return to the original owner (or as Leviticus puts it, we shall return to our property).  This served a pair of functions: first, it ensured the prevention of the rise of a landed aristocracy that could simply buy up all the land and keep the people permanently enslaved as serfs or sharecroppers.

But second…think about one of the purposes we use real estate for today: as collateral for our own mortgages and loans.  It would have been exactly the same then as well.  And by returning all property—all collateral—to the original owners, the Year of Jubilee functionally brings about a forgiving of all debts, even debts in default.  If you have lost your property to a loan, it returns to your family sometime within the next 49 years, guaranteed by God’s own law.

Think about that for a minute—an unconditional forgiveness of all debts and defaults.  Does it sound like the action of anybody else we know of?  Of God Himself towards all of us, through Jesus Christ?

God forgives us our own debts because He understands our economic condition, as it were: He knows that we cannot possibly repay all the wrongs that we have ever done to one another, nor repay all the wrongs that we have ever done to Him.  We simply don’t have that kind of spiritual wealth.

Jesus’ death—and here, I’m probably going to shock a few of you with something you might consider heresy—was not payment for that debt.  Nothing can act as payment for that debt, for an entire existence of wronging one another and of wronging God.  It’s too much.

Instead, Jesus’ death represents not a payment of that debt, but a forgiveness of that debt.  Forgiveness is that crucial first step to true reconciliation, to being put back into a right relationship with one another—and the other, in this case, is both God and neighbor alike.

So maybe the takeaway from all of this is that we’ll never again sing the hymn, “Jesus Paid It All.”  But it’s a whole lot bigger than that.  It’s about God guaranteeing for us, just as He did for the Israelites at Sinai, a Year of Jubilee.  A forgiveness of debts.

That is the kind of economic understanding that we have come to hope for from God, but not yet from one another.  And perhaps that is the difference between a divine economy and a materia economy.  But that is also the difference between forgiveness and retribution.

The generosity to forgive is fundamentally borne out of understanding.  And understanding one another’s economic circumstances is a critical part of church vitality and church life.  Just as we understand each other to have a variety of spiritual debts that need to be forgiven, we must recognize that we all likewise have a variety of monetary debts that need to be forgiven.  And that sometimes, those debts are like weights upon our shoulders and chains about our legs.  Understanding that reality is the first step to true generosity and true forgiveness of debt.  So the question then becomes, how can we be as generous in our economic understanding as God is in His for us?

49 times thus far, a $500 tip has been given to a waiter or waitress in the name of a now-deceased young man.  And with every 49 years comes a Year or Jubilee.

There is no longer a civic legal requirement for a Year of Jubilee.  There is no government statute, no Presidential proclamation, no Congressional decree that says we must forgive each other our debts, much less offer any understanding and generosity for them.

And so we create our own Years of Jubilee, such as they are.  We get this radical notion in our heads that maybe, just maybe, we should live out that “do unto others” and “love thy neighbor” maxims the Bible piously says to us, and what happens as a result often goes viral and shocks us.

But it should not.  God has been teaching us these very things for millennia now:  Be generous with your forgiveness.  Be quick with your understanding of circumstance and condition.  Be radical with your generosity.  And everything else will take care of itself.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 9, 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sensitive Little Snowflakes: Being Christian on Twitter

Full disclosure: I love Twitter.  I'm probably unhealthily addicted to it.  (Shameless plug: you can follow me at @RevEricAtcheson)  I enjoy being able to follow my colleagues in ministry (as well as to troll them mercilessly), as well as the authors I read and many of the journalists who inform me.  And I have a particular soft spot for Twitter handles that spoof the church because, hey, we need to be able to make fun of ourselves.

But man, people get mighty agitated over a whole lot of nothing on Twitter.  In the last several weeks, I have had people unfollow me--ALWAYS accompanied with a parting message of either anger or snark--for the following reasons:

-Me pointing out that the Bible does not uniformly say that marriage is between one man and one woman (Deuteronomy 21:15).

-Me re-tweeting a tweet from Rachel Held Evans, an evangelical Christian author who believes in the shocking notion that men and women can perform the same tasks equally well.

-Me suggesting that Scripture, while complete for the means of salvation, is not a complete accounting of Jesus' message and ministry (John 20:30, 21:25).  In this particular case, I was told that I was accusing Jesus of being a a fellow pastor.

Each time, by itself, I simply thought to myself, "Hey, haters gonna hate."  I'm not the least bit hurt by all of these internet trolls, and I certainly didn't lose any sleep over any of them.

But I also started noticing a larger pattern of people getting angry over me pushing an idea outside of their comfort zone.

Now, had they simply unfollowed me, I would have totally understood.  There are loads of people I would never follow on Twitter simply because I value having a fantastic resting pulse rate and normal blood pressure--though there are a number of folks I do follow with whom I don't agree on everything because I have come to enjoy their perspective and value what they have to say.

Point being, though, is that my own theology and politics do not fit in with a lot of other peoples', and they don't have to hear what I have to say if they don't want to.  That's completely their right and prerogative.

But jumping ship while hollering insults as you leap...that's a different kettle of fish.  It's cowardice...digitally enabled cowardice.

You don't get to try to knock someone down while running away from them.

That's not how this works.  That is NOT how Christianity is supposed to work.

In Christianity, we are in the business of building people up, not tearing them down.  We build people up, enrich them with Scripture, nurture them with spiritual discipleship, and we tell them that we are there for them if they should stumble in any of it.

And if getting agitated over a smartass pastor like me tweeting something you don't like keeps you from doing that...I'm sorry, but that isn't a very Christian thing to do.

Agree with me, disagree with me--I'll be humbled that you're listening to me either way.

But sniping at people in 140 characters because you disagree with them?

That's why a lot of unchurched/spiritual-but-not-religious/whatever-you-refer-to-em-as folks don't like us.

Seriously.  That's why.

They see us as too quick to judge.  And based on some of my interactions on Twitter, I would be hard pressed to tell them that they are necessarily wrong.

I wish I could, though.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Seriously, Kids These Days, Right?

I got a lot of great feedback on Sunday's sermon--both online and in person--and I want to thank y'all for that.  It was a message that honestly has probably been a long time in coming, and that has been rolling around in my noggin for quite a while.

It is also a message that--and I say this as humbly as humanly possible--I think way more people in my town need to hear.

I love reading the letters to the editor in our local paper--it helps me keep a pulse on what people care about, and if the writer is a total crackpot, reading can be pretty amusing sometimes.  But other times, things jump out at you, like this one from yesterday's set.

On its face, it is a wonderful, kind letter, praising a teenaged hospital volunteer for all she does to selflessly give to her community, and I really like that this fellow took a few minutes out of his day to write her an extremely thoughtful open letter.

But then I stumbled upon this line towards the end: "More of our young teens need to have this mindset to succeed by giving rather than (by) what they can freely get without effort."

And I wanted to scream.

But I was sitting in my office, so I didn't.

The implication of this line is, of course, that most young people are just interested in being moochers, getting by on whatever freebies or handouts they can bilk from everyone else.

It is a stereotype that is not only hurtful, but also often inaccurate.

Because, first of all, lazy people exist regardless of age.  But second--and far more importantly--I know MANY teenagers and twenty- and thirty-somethings who are going all out in their lives to try to achieve their goals.

It's an interesting paradox: there are tons of news articles playing up this stereotype of young people as slackers, but seemingly just as many playing up the stereotype of young people as overstimulated, overscheduled, overprogrammed zombie drones being controlled by their parents and the adults of their parents' generation.

These are stereotypes that are mutually exclusive--you cannot have your cake and eat it on this one.

And while I think both stereotypes are inaccurate, I think the latter is far closer to the truth than the former.

Expectations for Generation Y are stratospheric.  We're the first generation to grow up with widely accessible internet and personal computers and all the other trappings of the technological revolution.

And it's fine that expectations are high.  They should be.

But only so long as everyone else knows that their expectations of us may not precisely match up with our expectations for ourselves.  Yes, we can respect the tradition we have inherited from the generations that have come before us, but we are not here to recreate it.

In other words: we, the Generation Y young'uns, are not here to bring back the glory days of the Boomers and Greatest Generation.

We are here to create something new.

That is why I used the "Behold, a new thing" phrase from Scripture as the tag for my sermon series on Carol Howard Merritt's Tribal Church book: because I think we have something to learn from Scripture in understanding how different generations view themselves and view the goals they set for themselves.  Humanity is set on a timetable of newness: remaining static has never been enough for us, nor should it ever be.

Which means that newness is integral to who we are--not who you might want us to be.

And so bringing back the glory days of the past may be what you want for us, but it is not what we want for ourselves.  Especially in the church.

All we ask is that you respect that, and not think ill of us for it.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, June 2, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Saul's Spears"

1 Samuel 18:6-11

6 After David came back from killing the Philistine, and as the troops returned home, women from all of Israel’s towns came out to meet King Saul[d] with singing and dancing, with tambourines, rejoicing, and musical instruments. 7 The women sang in celebration: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands!” 8 Saul burned with anger. This song annoyed him. “They’ve credited David with tens of thousands,” he said, “but only credit me with thousands. What’s next for him—the kingdom itself?” 9 So Saul kept a close eye on David from that point on. 10 The next day an evil spirit from God came over Saul,[e] and he acted like he was in a prophetic frenzy in his house. So David played the lyre as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand, 11 and he threw it, thinking, I’ll pin David to the wall. But David escaped from him two different times. (CEB)

“Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church,” Week One

The soccer legend’s face was a mask of grief.  Tears rolled down his cheeks as he haltingly explained to his club’s legions of fans that he would not be back for next season.  It isn’t something you usually expect from athletes whom we associate more with big contracts and mercurial spirits.  But it was a humbling sight to behold because of everything that has happened to him in the last three or so years: one of the world’s very best at this sport was let go by his massive club, FC Barcelona, after making a successful comeback to the game after undergoing a liver transplant as part of treating a malignant tumor that had threatened his life and livelihood.  The presser where the move was announced was wrought with understandable emotion—this great player was openly weeping at the thought of leaving this club that had stood by him for so long during his many treatments and operations, and as he left, he hugged and kissed on the cheek every single member of the team, the coaching staff, and the medical staff.  Every person.

The kicker, though, is that he probably wasn’t let go because of his medical history.  He had already come back—was playing in games and everything.  No, he was getting too old.  At 34 years of age, he had become too old.  And, as a player at least, he was being shown the door.

I know I make fun of all y’all Mariners and Seahawks fans—and Sonic fans if, you know, Washington still had a basketball team (zing!), but when it comes to one particular phenomena—the treatment and viewing of people based on their age—I think sports perfectly emulates the same fear we secretly have in church, that there is a sweet spot for how old or how young you must be to flourish, to be desirable.  There is enormous pressure for churches, like sports teams, to fit a particular perfect age demographic, lest they be overrun by newer, younger alternatives.

But such pressure is largely our own doing.  We tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be...much like the divine name itself: "I AM WHAT I AM."

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  And this first installment of our series, then, matches up to one of the first chapters of her book, entitled, “Fostering Intergenerational Relationships.”  Carol writes this in Tribal Church’s intro:

My husband, Brian Merritt, is a thirty-seven-year-old pastor…at a recent seminar, he referred to the book “Death of the Church,” which identified adults in their twenties and thirties as “Survivors.”  He introduced the term, took a deep breath, and braced himself as if he were driving into a predicted storm.  Sure enough, the sky began to thunder as the familiar outrage began, “Survivors?  Did you say ‘Survivors?’  What have they had to survive?”

“They didn’t have World War II or Vietnam.”
“They didn’t go through the civil rights movement.”
“They’re recipients of unprecedented wealth!”
“I open up the real estate ads, and I can’t believe how much people will pay for a house!”
“They are so materialistic.”
“You know, my nephew is still living with his parents.  He’s twenty-five years old.”

Brian typically (stays quiet) during these long rants.  When the storm subsides, he gently explains, “We’re called Survivors because we’ve had to survive years of being treated like this.”

When Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 am on a Sunday morning, he was referring primarily to race.  But churches get segregated on the basis of age as well.  And some of it is intentional—many church planters are trained to do basically what Rick Warren did with his Saddleback Church in the Los Angeles area: to go all-in to try to serve the needs of just one demographic—in the case of Saddleback, they even created a composite target congregant they wanted, and nicknamed him “Saddleback Sam.”  And if others outside that demographic show up, great, but you’re not going to bend over backwards for them.

And all of that is pretty antithetical to the entire basis of the existence of the Disciples of Christ, where our founders once referred to our unity as Christians as “our polar star.”  But unintentionally, the Disciples has made itself a church that younger people like myself haven’t been coming to anymore.  Believe me when I say it isn’t just here in Longview, it’s everywhere.  It has been a long time in the making, and it has a number of causes—Carol writes about how:

Newspapers and magazines often dressed young adults up as greedy slackers, ever-sponging off our parents never assuming responsible roles in society…even in their most noble struggles, younger generations were portrayed as a bunch of naïve youth who did not really know what they were protesting against…How could the church understand young adults if it continually looked at them through the tinted spectacles of older adults?

And that, I think, is the fundamental dynamic at play in today’s Scripture passage. (Yes…it took me this long to actually get to the passage I’m preaching on.  Carol’s book is that good.)  Saul is jealous of David—Samuel will go on to tell us that God is with David and not with Saul—but David also represents a threat to Saul because he is gaining popularity while Saul isn’t: when the people are chanting about David having killed his tens of thousands, they are, in so many words, saying: “our with the old, in with the new.”  They’re that giant sports team that shows their recovered-from-a-liver-tumor veteran the door, albeit much less gently, and with more fanfare. 

But there’s an added dynamic to Saul’s jealousy.  Saul is of another, older generation who looks at this young David, this boy shepherd-turned-soldier who has the hots for his daughter Michal and who sits in his court to play music—you can just imagine Saul getting all Clint Eastwood and growling, “Damn kids!  Get off my lawn!”  Seriously—that is what I see in this story, is that kind of dynamic: David is composing his own music—new and relevant and contemporary—and you can almost see Saul thinking to himself, “Kids these days and their noise!”

Yet instead of shaking his fist and moving on—Saul is still king, and in an absolute monarchy, the king can do pretty much whatever he wants—he tries to kill David by impaling him with a hurled spear.  Twice.  He is trying to cut off the source of youthful change in Israel at its roots.

And what Saul’s spears were to him, there are a myriad of things like that to the modern church—tools to cut off the influx of youth at its source.

At a Disciples church I visited once a number of years ago, the far older congregants fawned over me for being on my way to seminary—such a good boy, right?  My girlfriend at the time just sort of stood there until one of them turned and asked her—with what I am sure was the best intentions—“So, now, what do you do, besides take care of him?”

We never went back to that church.

It’s another way of dismissing young people, of dismissing our vitality and vibrancy, when we are put into situations like that.  We know when we are welcome on a deeper level than just, “Yay, new blood!”  You know who else gets excited about fresh meat?  Me, at Burgerville.

No, welcome and acceptance must go far deeper than that.  Acknowledgement, acceptance, and understanding of how young people interact, and how we have relationships with one another, are profoundly necessary because a church—and a tribal church at that—must be relational.

It makes sense, because it is fundamentally a part of Christianity itself--Christianity is a relational religion, built upon our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  But it is still sometimes tough.

Saul, in what he does here, shows that he clearly has no interest in a relationship with David.  And I have to think that this is largely borne out of fear—fear that like a sporting legend, he will be shoved out the door by his own people when his time is up.

And I am here to tell you this fear need not be a part of our religious life.  Indeed, it cannot—fear of one another does not lead to vibrant church life.  Christianity is built on love, not on fear, and certainly not upon fear of one another.  Being in Christ means that we need not fear one another.

For once that fear is gone, the real ministry can take place.  Incredible relationships can be formed across generations in a church that otherwise would not be formed.  I have found surrogate parents and grandparents here, grandmothers whom I relate to in ways I never have since both of my grandmothers died over a decade ago.  Those are the kind of voids in our lives that an intergenerational, tribal church that cares for one another can fill.  And those are the kind of voids in our lives that God longs to rush into as soon as we say “Yes!” to Him and to Christ and to the church and to one another!

That is what a tribal church is, and can be: a church that cares for its own by filling the voids that our usual circles and ways cannot.  It is what David and Saul miss out on.  But it is, I have to believe, what each of them long for, but could not find.  Let us find it in their stead.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 2, 2013