Tuesday, July 30, 2013

This Month's Newsletter Column + Preaching Schedule

Letters from the Soul: August 2013

Dear Church,

This past month, on behalf of our congregation, I attended the General Assembly of our denomination, the Disciples of Christ, in Orlando, Florida (seriously, Florida in July…worst idea ever).  It was a fantastic assembly, with lots of great work being done by our mother denomination across areas of spirituality, mission, outreach, and justice work.

While there, I used a significant portion of my time there to attend a series of seminars on giving. Walter Brueggeman, a Bible professor who delivered the initial lecture, noted that in 21st century America, with its extremely strong allegiance to individuality, giving and stewardship seem especially counterintuitive.  After all, why would I give *my* money to God’s church?

In this way, Christianity—though it remains the majority religion in the United States, and the plurality religion in the world—can still be radical and counter-cultural.  From the beginning, the Christian church has rejected the “what’s mine is mine” mentality in favor of a “what’s God’s is God’s” worldview, and the New Testament church managed their assets accordingly, pooling everything they had into a common fund and distributing it according to need.

We do our New Testament forebears credit, then, whenever we take what is “ours” and make it the church’s, because in the end, we do not as much own our things so much as borrow them from the resources of God’s good creation.  Returning those resources back to the Body of Christ and laying them at His feet is therefore not only right, it is just.

I encourage you, then, if you haven’t already, to make deliberate generosity—to the church, to each other, even to strangers—a spiritual discipline, one in which your relationship with Jesus Christ can grow and mature.  For, as our own Dr. Davenport always says, God loves a cheerful giver!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

This Month in Worship: "The Gospel Gone Viral" sermon series, continued

August 4: "The Tweet of Paul to Philemon," Philemon 4-9
August 11: "Click "Like" if You Love Jesus," Philemon 10-21
August 18: "The Blog of Luke," Luke 1:1-4
August 25: "Behold the (Digital) Man," John 19:1-5

Sunday, July 28, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "You've Got Mail"

Philemon 1-3

1 From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy. 

To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, 2 Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house. 

 3 May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (CEB)

“The Gospel Gone Viral: If the Bible Had Been Written Online,” Week One

The email could hardly have been more matter-of-fact.  From a person I had never met came a perfunctory email you would ordinarily see in the midst of a job search—which, being in the middle of our denomination’s search-and-call process, I for all intents and purposes was.  And after two searches for pastorates—one in seminary to fulfill my field education requirements, and one two years ago that culminated in bringing me here—I continue to remain amazed at how completely life-changing events and decisions are often spurred by a very simple interaction, an asking of, “Would you be open to X or to Y?”  This is what one such email to me said:

Dear Eric,

I'm currently gathering profiles for (a) congregation....the congregation is currently seeking a redevelopment pastor to engage the present congregation in new forms of ministry.  At one point, they were considering starting a new congregation.  After some very honest conversation, they have re-imagined their vision and are seeking to transform the current congregation, leaving open the possibility that transformation for them may still lead to a new worshiping community.  They are also seeking to expand their ministry in their neighborhood...

is this a challenge you might feel called to?  Please let me know your thoughts.  I would be happy to talk further, or submit your profile and see where the Spirit leads.

The email was signed from Sandy Messick, whom many of you know as our Disciples regional minister here in Washington state.  And the congregation she is describing in this email to me is us, in May of 2011.

It is an email that ended up changing my life, by bringing me from California back to the Pacific Northwest, and one that I hope has changed your lives for the better as well.

And when you get down to brass tacks, it all began not through an in-person appeal, or a handwritten letter, or even a telephone call: it began through an email.  And that has become the world in which we live.

This is a new sermon series designed to take us through the month of August, and it is a slightly different one from many of the sermon series we have had here in the past, which often revolve around a theme, a chapter of Scripture, or a book by a contemporary author.  This sermon series isn’t about a substance so much as it is about a style: the style of communication that has taken the world by storm within the past 15-20 years via the internet.  And I adamantly believe that online communication and social media represent a tremendous opportunity for us to offer the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lot of people.  Which is exactly the same way, I think, that the writers of the New Testament viewed their Gospels and Epistles.  With that supposition, we will be spending the next five weeks tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we begin with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging.

In choosing what I felt would be a sound Biblical parallel to email, I kept coming back to Paul’s letter to Philemon.  It is one of the letters that scholars believe Paul wrote from prison, whilst he was being incarcerated by Rome for preaching Christianity and generally being a pain in their neck about it.  This particular letter, which we will go through verse by verse over the first three weeks of this series, comes closest to being what we would think of as an email because it is an intensely personal appeal from Paul.  Many of Paul’s letters were written to entire churches and congregations: the church in Rome, the church in Corinth, the churches in Colossus, Ephesus, Thessaly, Galatia, and Philippi.  As such, they could be considered “open letters” for the public.

Philemon is different.  First, “Philemon” is himself a person, and not a place or a church.  Second, yes, Paul does add “and to the church in your house” to his greeting, in verse 2.  But if you think about how email works, you’ll recall that there is that sneaky “cc” function lying just below or next to the recipient line.  So, you can write an email to someone, but you can cc as many people as you want to it…and sometimes unintentionally, by accidentally hitting “reply all” instead of just “reply!”  (This totally hasn’t happened to me.  Like, ever.)  Paul is likely doing this on purpose, though, and we will get to why later on in this series.

But no, there is another reason why we can think of this letter to Philemon as a sort of “e-mail” from Paul rather than a formal letter, and that reason lies entirely in the first verse.  Usually, in his letters, Paul will identify himself through a series of titles marking him as an apostle and a follower of Jesus Christ.  But, as the New Testament scholar Ernest Saunders points out, in Philemon, Paul “forgoes his customary titles of apostle and servant of Christ and calls himself simply Christ’s prisoner.”

Keep in mind as well that there is a fairly standard formula for letter-writing in the Greco-Roman culture of the New Testament: you are supposed to offer a greeting in a certain style, move to the body, and sign off in a certain style.  It’s a little like that five-paragraph method of essay-writing, if any of you remember that from high school—you’re supposed to begin with an introduction, make your point in the three body paragraphs, and bring everything full circle in the conclusion.

Now, Paul certainly does adhere to this custom of always beginning with a greeting, naming who sent the letter (Paul and Timothy), the recipients (Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus), and the phrase “grace and peace.”  But he skips the honorifics for himself.  Some scholars have argued that this is because Paul, being imprisoned, saw anew the need to present himself humbly, as a prisoner of Christ (not just of the state), rather than an exalted apostle and church planter.

But in Colossians, another “prison letter” (Paul admits he is imprisoned in Colossians 4:3), Paul does use his usual honorifics of being an apostle…which leads me to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this is Paul writing in a slightly more casual manner—that this simple greeting, such as it is, is Paul’s way of writing in all lowercase letters, or without punctuation, or the myriad of other crimes against grammar that we might associate with email and online communication today!

And what if it is?  As we continue through Philemon, we will see just how emotional and life-changing this letter is—literally, a man’s freedom hangs in the balance with this letter.  And yet, with the stakes so high, Paul errs on the side of informality in his heartfelt greeting to Philemon!

This should tell us, then, that it is more than okay for us to sometimes drop the formalities of our evangelism if it helps us to get our point across, if it helps us to communicate with the other person in a more heartfelt, more meaningful manner.

And contrast that to how often we use communication for the mundane and everyday, often without even thinking twice about it.  We shorten “hello” to “hi,” we wave to people instead of shaking hands—or, as we whippersnappers like to do now, bump fists.

Email and text messages are no different than any of this.  They simply use a technology that many of us already know and take for granted, but that many of us also don’t want or don’t see any use for.  And that is a big part of my motivation behind this sermon series, to say that there is a HUGE use for new ways of communicating, even if maybe they scare us just a little bit!

Letter-writing was especially rare in Paul’s time simply because the literacy rate was so low—perhaps as low as 10%.  Now, at least in the industrialized world, we have literacy rates of 95% or higher.  We have a church that, thanks to the Protestant reformation, encourages the reading of Scripture in our own native tongues.  What would we be as a church, as an heir to the revolutionary belief that everyone should be able to read Scripture, if we arbitrarily drew the line and said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with this newfangled contraption, even if it could be useful to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to someone?”

Paul’s letter from prison to Philemon represents one such attempt, I think—not in terms of using a new technology, per se—not unless the ballpoint pen was invented much earlier than we thought—but in terms of presenting what he had to say in a more down-to-earth, casual manner.

And to be sure, I’m not endorsing the atrocities and crimes against grammar that do take place nowadays in email and texting.  All I am saying is that we have been gifted with a new method of talking, the likes of which the world has never seen before.  I can type words into a keyboard here in Washington, click “send,” and a colleague in Florida reads those words within seconds.

If such a phenomenon had taken place in ancient Israel, they would have called it a miracle.

But today?  We simply call it all part of a day’s work.

And part of a day’s work for your—and now my—regional minister in May of 2011 was to type off a quick email to a young, smartass then-seminary student in Berkeley, California to ask him a preposterous question: would you consider dropping everything to come and pastor this church?

One email was all it took to begin the process of fundamentally and dramatically alter the arcs of both of our lives, ultimately, I pray, for the better.  One email, from one person, on one day.

One day.  Imagine what the kingdom could look like tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 28, 2013

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Five Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Church

St. Stephens, the local Episcopal parish in town, posted a fantastic article from Shane Blackshear to their Facebook page, entitled "5 Ways to be Unsatisfied With Your Church."  All five of the entries on his list ring true to me, some especially so.  But because the post was written in the negative tense ("do not do X"),  I wanted to write a post in the positive tense (ie, "do this") as a parallel sort of perspective.  And so, I give you five--but by no means the only or best--ways I think you might be able to get the most out of your church:

1. Relationships matter more than doctrine

I don't care if I agree with every single item of a congregation's statement of belief (such a circumstance is already a long shot to begin with, let's be honest here)...if I don't see myself being accepted into this community, I'm not going to bother.  Doctrine is something that can be spoon-fed individually, but building a great cloud of witnesses takes a lot of relational investment, and part of being church means accepting those who want to help build that cloud with you.

In other words, if you come to this church, will you be affirmed for who you are, not just who they want you to one day become?  Can you build relationships and friendships there that will strengthen you in your walk of faith and that will be a source of grace and love to you, even if you don't agree with everything the lead pastor or preacher says?  Because in the long run, I think those are often more important.

2. Prepare yourself for Sunday mornings

Pray for a minute or two before going to church.  If you know what the Scripture your pastor will be preaching on is, skim through it once or twice.  Take a quiet moment or three in front of the mirror.  And leave the cell phone at home.

Now, I get it...that's not always possible.  Especially if you have kids (or a spouse who acts like a kid pre-coffee).  But I firmly believe that worship is something that we only get out what we put into it--preacher and layperson alike.  If I phone in my sermon, I am unlikely to feel that excited or inspired myself about the worship service (plus, I am doing both God and the entire parish I serve a disservice).  Similarly, if you phone in your presence--if you aren't really there, for whatever reason--please do not feel surprised if you do not feel moved.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3. Don't settle for what already exists

I realize that a big part of "church shopping" nowadays is seeing if a particular church can meet the needs of the person/couple/family doing said church shopping.  And that's for a good reason--you want a place that is able to understand and meet your spiritual needs.  But a good church will also encourage and empower you to build ways to meet those needs yourself.

One of the most successful ministries we have had here at FCC Longview during my tenure was a Pilates class that met on Saturday mornings in our fellowship hall.  I had no intention of ever having something like that--my idea of exercise is running on the elliptical until my lungs give out--but when we had a woman who happened to be a Pilates instructor become a member, a new ministry was born.  And out of that ministry came new ministries--a knitting circle, impromptu games of pool, and just good old-fashioned getting to know each other over coffee.  It was a fantastic way to do church, and it would have never happened if she hadn't stood up and said, "Hey, why don't we give this a try?"

4. Invest, invest, invest

Shorter explanation: Minimal investments usually reap minimal returns.  See also: you reap what you sow.

Longer explanation: I am almost too quick to pour money into the things I love.  A new Kansas City sports team jersey?  Check.  Want to visit my favorite sushi restaurant for lunch?  Check.  Part of this is because I only let myself become totally emotionally invested in a few things.  I'm the type of person who would rather have one or two best friends than a gaggle of acquaintances.  But if you're like me, church cannot be the sort of thing you half-ass your investment on.  Giving to the body of Christ is a powerful way to feel invested in, and connected to, the kingdom work it does.  And I'm not just talking money here.  If you are a dedicated attender of worship, Bible study, mission projects, whatever--trust me, the effect happens there, too.  Spiritually investing yourself is a holistic process, and it is how one ultimately gets the most out of the church.

5. Forgive, forgive, forgive

I saved the biggest for last.  Being a part of a community means that sometimes, your wants and preferences are going to take a backseat to others'.  Amazingly, sometimes church becomes the place where people are most apt to forget that particular fact of life and fight tooth and nail for things that, in the grand scheme of things, matter little.

Speaking as a pastor, I cannot be all things to all people, and the minute I try, I risk becoming nothing to everyone.  I cannot please everyone, and sometimes, the person I will be unable to please will be you!  Forgive me for doing so, and let us move on together in our work as Christians.  After all, how many times must I forgive my neighbor?  As many as seven times?

"Not seven times, but seventy times seven," replied Jesus.


May you always be looking for new ways to strengthen your relationship with the congregation you consider to be your home!

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In Christ, There is Neither Jew Nor Greek

I tried finding a gentle way to write this post.  I really did.

But I am still upset and saddened, even if George Zimmerman is using his newfound freedom to do good deeds.

Because an innocent seventeen-year-old boy is still dead, and even after following Trayvon Martin, disobeying a police order to stop following him, confronting him, engaging him, and shooting him to death, under Florida law, George Zimmerman did not commit a crime.

But what about under God's laws?

Of course there is the big commandment, one of the Ten: You shall not murder.

But whatever happened to, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord?" (Romans 12:19)

Or submitting to governing authorities (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2) rather than taking the law into your own hands?

Or, dare I say it, acknowledging that in Christ, racial differences are no more? (1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28)

I have to think that there is much about this entire affair that offends God, not the least of which is that even if the acquittal of George Zimmerman was the legally correct decision (and I'm no legal eagle, but people smarter than me kept saying that the prosecution screwed the pooch on this one), the spirit of justice was not served in this case.

Nor do I have much faith that justice will be served in similar cases in the future.

Precisely because we refuse to acknowledge that in Christ, racial differences are no more.

I caught the tail end of President Obama's presser last Friday where he talked at length about the Zimmerman verdict, and I have to say I agree with him about one thing:

What if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed?

Put a different way, why hasn't the NRA and its allies lobbied for black men to arm themselves to protect against vigilantes like George Zimmerman when, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, the NRA very publicly called for armed teachers at every school in America?

Most of the children and staff slaughtered at Sandy Hook were Caucasian.  As were the victims of the Aurora theater massacre, whose one-year anniversary has just passed, and some of our leaders then were quick to trumpet the need for wider gun ownership.

I know people like to say we live in a colorblind nation.  We like to say that America is the last great meritocracy, where someone can make it through hard work and talent.  We like to say that in America, like in Christ, there is neither Jew or Greek, Black or White, Asian or Hispanic.

I call shenanigans.

Why is it that we react to the shootings of white children and a black child so differently?

Seriously.  If we truly believe in colorblindness, or in Paul's words in Scripture, why do we react to one by calling for more guns, and react to the other by not calling for more guns?

And I REALLY do not want to hear anyone throwing the "race baiting" card at me.  I'm an ambiguously olive-skinned man with thick facial hair.  The times I have been treated with disrespect at airports after 9/11 were mortifying.  I once was asked by a TSA agent why I even bothered wearing the Christian cross I wear around my neck.  And I believe those experiences would likely be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg for me if I were African-American.

This is what I don't get about the people saying that by acknowledging racial disparities, we are promoting divisiveness.  That divisiveness was ALREADY PRESENT.  It's called white flight, it's called de facto segregation where, even if we are an integrated nation, our churches still tend to be some of the most racially homogenous institutions in the land.

If we really believe that all persons are equal in the sight of God, then let's act like it.  Let's ensure there is equal justice for the Trayvon Martins of the world who get confronted because of what they look like.  Let's ensure that there remains equal access to the coveted status of middle class for all peoples.  Let's ensure that we don't dismiss a person of color's experience without trying to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes.

None of these things are easy.  I won't pretend that they are.  But to pretend that we are a colorblind people is far worse, because in doing so, not only do we refuse to listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters of color, but we also perjure ourselves before the authentically colorblind God who made us all.

And that is why I'm still saddened by the George Zimmerman verdict. The civil laws were followed,  yes.

But in doing so, I worry that we incriminated ourselves before God's laws.

Yours in Christ,

Friday, July 19, 2013

Let Them Eat Big Macs

(Thank you again for your patience as I work through a week that threw me--and my church family--some curveballs.  I'm back now, though I won't be preaching this upcoming Sunday. -E.A.)

So a lot has happened in the world, perhaps most prominently (from an American news perspective) the George Zimmerman acquittal.  I'm still working on my post in response to it, and given the nature of the case--and my own emotions about it--I have been doing so with kid gloves, and that post will not be ready until next week.

Right now, though, I want to talk with y'all for a bit about something else that has been making the news: McDonald's trying to tell its employees that yes, you really can live on America's $7.25 minimum wage.

When I read this budget, I immediately thought of the old McDonald's jingle from my childhood, "Do you believe in magic?"  McDonald's obviously does, because magical thinking is the only way to make a budget like this one workable.

Now, lots of commentators have already noted several ridiculously out-of-touch characteristics about said budget, like the fact that it doesn't account for dependents or local cost-of-living variances.  Other commentators have noted how there are no line items for basic living expenses like gasoline or heat.  These are all excellent critiques of this intellectual exercise, but are ultimately incomplete critiques.

Why?  Because even when you discount the above two factors--having kids and where you live--the math reflects a terribly exploitative system of poverty economics.

Take, for instance, the ludicrous amount of $20/month penciled in for health insurance.  Part of the reason that figure is so absurd isn't just because individual coverage at an average level costs ten times that, it isn't even enough to pay for McDonald's bare-bones health care plan for its own hourly employees.  That plan costs $14/week, or roughly $60/month--three times what McDonald's is telling its employees that they should be paying.

And to add insult to injury, that $14/week plan only covers the first $10,000 of medical expenses.  That's not a whole lot more than a trip to the emergency room.

See, this is why the McDonald's sample budget should be so galling to us, as Christians and as Americans: when you are not paying your workers enough to even be able to afford the lowest level of health care coverage you offer, you're committing an injustice.

And I could go on and on in this vein--this is a budget that assumes someone will work full-time at two different jobs for minimum wage.  That's an 80-hour workweek, but none of it is covered by laws regarding overtime pay because that workweek is split between (presumably) two different employers, both of whom have long since learned that they can create more "jobs" by making all such "jobs" part-time.  Sure, this looks better on paper, because these employers are driving down the unemployment rate, but it's not helping out their employees at $7.25 an hour for three days a week.

There is also only $150 budgeted for a car payment.  Why is this a red flag?  Lower monthly payments imply a longer life of the loan, which means more of that $150 is going to interest on the loan rather than to the principal on the car.  And take it from someone who is still paying off his used Nissan Sentra: $150 is very low as far as car payments go.  The same goes for the $600 allocated to rent or a mortgage in the case of the latter: a low monthly payment indicates more interest is being paid.

The bottom line is that this budget represents the view a company that is not only fine with compensating its employees below a living wage, but is fine with financially punishing its employees for being paid so little by forcing them into higher-interest loans, into functionally working overtime without being paid for it, and into being unable to afford the company's own health care plan.

And like I said--this should offend us.  It should offend us as Christians because God and Jesus Christ are on the side of the poor (Isaiah, Luke, and James especially attest to this reality--there are far too many verses for me to cite here in one go).  And it should offend us as Americans because private corporations are functionally using our tax dollars to subsidize their profits by having us pay for their employees' food, rent, and health care through SNAP, Section 8, and Medicaid rather than doing it themselves.

Scripture tells us to pay the worker their wages (Deuteronomy 24:15, 1 Timothy 5:8).  But McDonald's instead says, "Let them eat Big Macs."

If only their workers could afford those, much less more nutritious food and safer living situations.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Apologies for the brief hiatus

Friends, Romans, Countrypeople--

I must apologize for what is becoming a short break from the blog.  I am currently in Orlando, Florida, attending my denomination's biannual General Assembly, and thought I originally anticipated being able to maintain a presence here on the blog during this week, I am having to balance doing some long-distance ministry with a family at FCC back in Longview, and they come first.

I realize that A LOT has happened in our crazy little world over the last few days, but these circumstances are dictating me to put the blog on the proverbial back burner for now.  However, I plan on being back in action here in a few days.

I appreciate your patience, and I hope y'all had a happy Bastille Day this past weekend!

(Because, hey, why not give a shout-out to Bastille Day?)

Yours in Christ,

Thursday, July 11, 2013

An Open Letter to the Pro-Life Movement (Especially in Texas)

(I know that especially compared to my last post, this one probably feels like a sharp turn into hardass-ville.  A friend and mentor from my college years (whom I have written for frequently in the past) invited me to write about the recent reproductive legislation in Texas (and Wisconsin) from a progressive Christian perspective, which I was more than willing to do.  I do consider abortion to be one of the issues I am the most moderate on, and I wrestle and struggle with my feelings about it often.  I hope that dilemma comes through to you in this piece, which was originally published here. -E.A.)

Hi.  You likely have no idea who I am, and that’s fine.  I will simply say that I am just like you, really.  I share your deep belief in God as revealed through Jesus Christ, and I actively seek to do God’s will in my life and my work as a Christian pastor.  I believe in the inherent dignity and sacredness of life, and because of that, I oppose the death penalty and adhere to a very narrow interpretation of just war theory.

In other words, I am exactly the sort of person you should theoretically be able to persuade, to get on your side, to believe that abortion in all or most circumstances should be illegal, because the theological foundation is already there.

But instead, I honestly find myself repulsed by what your state legislatures are doing in your name, and believe me, it isn’t because I somehow skipped over Psalm 139 and what it says about being knitted in my mother’s womb, of being fearfully and wonderfully made by God.

It’s because I have read the entire Bible too, and I worry that in what your leaders are doing, they (and you who voted for them) have skipped over another part of Scripture: Exodus 20:16.

You shall not bear false testimony.

Yep, one of the Big Ten.  Commandments, that is.

For instance, if you take Scripture—and its commandment for truth-telling—so seriously, then why do you tolerate the use of pseudo-science to deceive women, like telling them that abortions somehow cause breast cancer, or by voting for candidates who claim that women’s bodies can somehow magically shut-down a rape-induced pregnancy?

If you take Scripture—and its commandment for truth-telling—so seriously, then why do you condone your political leaders claiming that they want to shut down womens’ health clinics for the sake of womens’ health, as opposed to the sake of limiting access to abortion?

If you take Scripture—and its commandment for truth-telling—so seriously, then why do you try to downplay the statistical reality that universal access to contraception is empirically proven to reduce the frequency of abortions?

If you take Scripture—and its commandment for truth-telling—so seriously, then why do you allow your leaders to actively shut down the voices of women (and their monopoly on the direct experience of child-bearing) to the point that Texas state senator Leticia Van de Putte has to ask what a woman has to do to be recognized in a debate about her womb?

I could go on and on.

See, this is what I don’t get about the pro-life movement, even if I sympathize tremendously with your end goal of dramatically reducing the number of abortions.  You are letting that end goal justify your means…which, in this case, is a combination of fakery and deception.  You are pursuing an ostensibly Christian goal through means that are not Christian in the slightest.

To be sure, Wendy Davis is a hero to millions of Americans right now (and a villain to others).  But in following this saga, I found myself identifying with another female Texas state senator during Sen. Davis’ epic filibuster as well: Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who, despite her pro-life credentials, actively opposed SB5 because it would limit access to women’s health care.  And really, the word “despite” is inappropriate in that previous sentence.  I have to think Sen. Zaffirini opposed SB5 precisely because she was pro-life: life doesn’t just come from the womb, it continues outside the womb, and limiting access to care that upholds life outside the womb just does not seem to be on your leaders’ agenda at the moment.

And that might well be because of their beliefs about God and Scripture.  Perhaps sacrificing a woman’s well-being at the altar of protecting the unborn is just part and parcel of a Biblically-oriented politics.  After all, Scripture also says that a rape victim must marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), and that a wife being unwilling to be paraded around by her husband in front of his drunken friends is enough grounds for divorce (Esther 1:8-22).  For all I know, God actually approves of this use of half-truths and pseudo-science and denial of the realities of women’s health for the sake of preventing more abortions.

But I doubt it.  Because my own reading and study of Scripture tells me that God, too, is pro-life: for women as well as men, the born as well as the unborn.  And I have to think that more abortions would be prevented if we simply told the truth: about the science of pregnancy as well as of how to prevent it, and about how women’s health is a crucial and necessary component to an authentically pro-life religious ethos.

Thanks for reading.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Entertaining Angels Unawares

(I have sat on this particular blog post for several weeks now, trying to convince myself that I am not crazy.  But I cannot get out of my head the notion that this might have been a God experience.  I figured I will just tell you, and let the chips fall as they may. -E.A.)

I could hear the popping sound as clear as day even amid the noise of the scrimmage game going on as my right ankle buckled and I collapsed to the ground.

At first, it felt like a run-of-the-mill ankle sprain--something that, over the course of twenty-some years of playing organized and pickup soccer, I am reasonably accustomed to suffering and subsequently DIY treating.  But the pain lingered higher up my ankle, in the area where my Achilles tendon attaches to my leg.

It wasn't a full tear of my right Achilles--which is one of the toughest of all athletic injuries to recover from.  I knew that it wasn't a full tear, and after talking to Carrie, she confirmed that my foot and ankle would be in much worse shape if that had been the case--but the more I noticed the location of the pain and recalled the popping noise, the more I was sure I had made at least a small rupture in the tendon.  So I went about my usual DIY treatment regimen: ice, elevation, compresses, etc.  I kept my right foot in a brace for a couple of weeks before flying down to Berkeley, California in mid-June to serve as a groomsman at my seminary roommate's wedding.

And the wedding was beautiful--it took place in the botanical gardens in Berkeley's Tilden Park.  But the specific spot of the outdoor wedding was on a lawn that sloped downward, and as such, trying to balance my stocky, 6'3" frame on an unsteady Achilles tendon proved to be an intense exercise in pain exacerbation.

A funny thing happened, though, on the plane ride back to Portland that I took that night: a mother and her four-year-old daughter sat next to me on the plane, and for the most part, it was a rather uneventful ride.  The girl was a fantastic traveler, and despite the constant dull throbbing I felt in my foot, I even managed the impossible: falling asleep on a plane with a little kid sitting right next to you.

But as we were beginning our descent, she looked over to stare out the window over the green Portland landscape as the plane slowly descended, and she finally became interested in this big bald fellow she had been sharing a plane ride with for the past two hours.  Her eyes getting big, she pointed at me and squealed, "YOU HAVE NO HAIR!!"

All I could do was laugh.  Her mother was embarrassed, I think, but I could not have cared less--I am perfectly fine being completely bald.

But it was enough for this little girl and me to chatter up a storm for the short remainder of the flight, and as I got up to set my bags on my shoulder, we waved goodbye to each other.

Then I started walking.

And I noticed that I was walking completely pain-free for the first time in weeks.

It wasn't a fluke, either--within three days, I was able to complete a 5K on the elliptical, and within another three weeks, I had returned to my normal level of fitness: 4 miles at a resistance of 10 or 11.  I have not only stayed pain-free, I have recovered.

And all I could think about afterwards was that verse from Hebrews 13: do not forget to entertain strangers, for in doing so, some have unknowingly entertained angels.

And I'm not saying that my Achilles would still be hurting if I hadn't talked and laughed with this little girl.  But the difference in how it felt was so stark, it was like night and day.  I have to think something happened.

And I realize that millions of other people seek miracles of healing and never find them.  Which is what really keeps me from indulging in enough hubris to be certain that that's what this was.  It is hard for me to say that I have had a miracle when so many other people need healing much more urgently than I do.  There is something in humility and humbleness that I feel like should keep me from claiming that.

But...for weeks of searing pain being taken away, I am immensely grateful.

For having the gift of my mobility return to me, I am very grateful.

And no matter which way you cut it, I know that I have God to thank for my health and my wholeness.

And so I pray that I might continue to entertain angels unawares.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, July 7, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Before the Bethlehem Star"

Numbers 9:15-23

15 On the day the dwelling was erected, the cloud covered the dwelling, the covenant tent. At night until morning, the cloud appeared with lightning over the dwelling. 16 It was always there. The cloud covered it by day,[d] appearing with lightning at night. 17 Whenever the cloud ascended from the tent, the Israelites would march. And the Israelites would camp wherever the cloud settled. 18 At the Lord’s command, the Israelites would march, and at the Lord’s command they would camp. As long as the cloud settled on the dwelling, they would camp. 19 When the cloud lingered on the meeting tent for many days, the Israelites would observe the Lord’s direction and they wouldn’t march. 20 Sometimes the cloud would be over the dwelling for a number of days, so they would camp at the Lord’s command, marching again only at the Lord’s command. 21 Sometimes the cloud would settle only overnight, and they would march when the cloud ascended in the morning. Whether it was day or night, they would march when the cloud ascended. 22 Whether it was two days, or a month, or a long time, the Israelites would camp so long as the cloud lingered on the dwelling and settled on it. They wouldn’t march. But when it ascended, they would march. 23 They camped at the Lord’s command and they marched at the Lord’s command. They followed the Lord’s direction according to the Lord’s command through Moses. (CEB)

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

It could not have been more painful.  She had been working on her car’s brakes when suddenly, the car’s jack buckled, and the entire thing came crashing down on her foot.  After her doctors assessed the nerve damage to her foot, she asked them to amputate her leg below the knee.

Yet, thus began a new calling for her.  Her day job, amazingly, enough, was as an occupational therapist for paraplegic persons at Washington University in St. Louis, and she put all of her professional skills and ingenuity to work on her recovery, and on her very public attempts to reassure others who had had recent amputations.  This work culminated recently in her posting a time-lapse video to Youtube of her building a prosthesis with Lego bricks from her childhood.

The LegoLeg, as she called it, was not functional enough to walk in, but she is able to stand and put weight on it.  Her new goal is to build a LegoLeg that she can walk in.  And from her home in St. Louis, she has begun to move the hearts of thousands of people, simply because she found a brand new use for a childhood toy: to stand instead of sit, and to one day walk instead of not.

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 have now spent five weeks on this book and on this sermon series, and we have arrived at the final installment, whose theme is “nurturing spiritual community.”  Carol writes in this chapter:

The aging congregation in Rhode Island that I pastored had a steady stream of dying members.  Each time I buried someone, I soon got another call about a dear friend in intensive care, or a kind man who had just passed quickly and quietly.  Intense waves of grief washed over the family members, and as I sat with the loved ones, I longed to have someone sit with me.

In the midst of this, I had an early miscarriage.  I felt life and hope drain out of me, but I still didn’t have the support that pastors need in their own periods of sadness, denial, and bargaining.  I said goodbye to a couple of close friends who moved away, and could not find much strength to fill the void…

It was a dark year in my life, and I stumbled and tripped all the way through it.  I didn’t know how to ask for help, and when I did, I had the terrible feeling that somehow needing it was the wrong thing.  I figured that other pastors must have gone through the same things, but talking to others in the denomination about my weaknesses made me feel…well, weak.

Carol writes these words in a chapter about her discovery of moving prayer—literally, praying while moving.  And for her, it is one significant way in which spirituality gets nurtured.  And it makes sense to me on a personal and religious level as well—personal because I’m this fidgety young thing who doesn’t always sit still, and religious because of stories like this from Numbers.

Numbers might just be the most underrated book in the Bible.  It is sandwiched between two legal masterpieces—Leviticus and Deuteronomy—and is known primarily for documenting the first-ever census of the Israelites.  Which, I mean, is cool and everything, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to a plague of locusts, you know?  Numbers is so underrated that I’m willing to bet that its most famous passage is something most of you know, but had no idea that it came from Numbers: it’s the prayer “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord deal kindly and graciously to you, may the Lord make His face to shine upon you and give you peace.”  It’s Numbers 6, but I didn’t know that until I took an Old Testament class in college.

But anyways, Numbers 9.  Everything between here and Exodus 20, when Moses is given the Ten Commandments—so, the second half of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first nine chapters of Numbers—all of it takes place at Sinai.  It’s a pretty big intermission on the journey to the Promised Land, and you can imagine that after such a lengthy—and meaningful—break, that setting back out on the trail again wasn’t the easiest thing to get up and go do.  You lose inertia and momentum, and that ups the degree of difficulty substantially.

And so in Numbers 9 (the more I say it, will anyone start to get that Beatles song, “Revolution Number Nine” stuck in their head?), God intervenes to dial that degree of difficulty back down.  He manifests a supernatural phenomenon to guide the movement of the Israelite camp—a cloud by day, and fire by night.  And this supernatural cloud and fire guides the Israelites from point to point by settling at wherever they are to encamp for the night, and staying there until God tells the Israelites to break camp again, at which point it would go on ahead to the next point. 

Now, I’m not sure exactly how well this divine GPS navigation system worked—after all, it took the Israelites forty years to traverse a patch of land that Google Maps says should take you only about five hours to drive across (yes, I actually looked up how long it takes to drive from Cairo to Ramah.  Now you have some idea of how your pastor spends his day of sermon prep).  Yet still, it was, and is, miraculous nonetheless, God-Garmin or not.

And compared to the Sinai narrative—where all of this legal code is handed down to Moses and the Israelites basically in one place and in one fell swoop—this is a gradual revelation of God’s presence.  In other words, God works both ways.  God can overwhelm us in a singular instance of wonder and splendor, and God can also guide us bit by bit and piece by piece.

Because this is not the only time in Scripture when God uses supernatural phenomena to guide people somewhere.  It is how, in Matthew’s Gospel, He uses the Bethlehem star to guide the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem.  It’s the exact same sort of thing—God sends a divine manifestation that moves and guides a people to a promised destination.  For Moses and the Israelites, it is the land that they shall call home.  For the Magi—and for us—it is to the Christ child whom we shall call Savior.  In both instances, God uses the gradual journey to lead us to something far greater than ourselves.  In other words…God works both ways.

Which means that the church must work both ways as well.  I worry that far too often, we treat bringing someone into the church, or to the point that they want to be in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ, as the finish line, the objective, the target to aim for.  The evangelist Billy Sunday once famously said that the best thing that could happen to someone is to die immediately after converting to Christianity, because they had just achieved all they needed to.

And that can’t be how a tribal church operates.  A tribal church isn’t just there for the mountaintop moments, those fleeting instances where God’s grace and presence overwhelms us to the point of being called to Christianity.  A tribal church must be there for all the moments that come after as well.  A church that is only in it for the born-again experience is acting like a fair-weather friend: there for when things are at their best.  No, a church must be more than that.

And that is the best way I can come up with, after six weeks of preaching on this, to define what a tribal church looks like to me.  I know many of you have asked, and this is the best answer I can give: a tribal church creates a tribe around a common cause and belief—the existence of God as taught and embodied by Jesus—and then cares for that tribe in sometimes the most basic of ways, but ways in which its members can be cared for in no other way, and that is why I think most tribal churches are intergenerational, theologically diverse, and increasingly creative.

A young woman who had just endured an utterly painful, life-and-limb-altering experience had elected to nurture a community around a common cause through the internet, and the result was, well, a new prosthetic made of old childhood toys.  And the attention it received after going viral contributed to the building and growing of another community, an online tribe of people.

Behold a new thing, indeed.

For, just as God creates in us a new thing when we finally say “Yes!” to His call, so too do we then, in turn, create in others new things as well.  It’s a divine chain reaction, a God-inspired ripple effect that affects not just us, but our entire tribe.  For just as there was no way of knowing for most of the Israelites just exactly what God had in store for them after the Exodus out of Egypt, so too are we allowed to be amazed and inspired anew at how God guides our spirituality in the desert as well as on the mountaintop, and on the path as well as at the destination.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 7, 2013

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Some Thoughts on What De Tocqueville Called "The American Experiment"

(I realize that this post is being written against the backdrop of a military coup in Egypt, but this post was originally planned as an Independence Day reflection.  Nevertheless, I think both angles are applicable here. -E.A.)

When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his two-volume magnum opus, "On Democracy in America," his purpose was to analyze why our representative democracy model of governance was succeeding here, whereas similar models were not over in Europe, especially in de Tocqueville's native France.  By and large, it is a positive portrayal of how our nation works--and keep in mind, this was an analysis written while we still had institutional slavery and were violently oppressing vast populations of American Indians.

In other words, we have come a long way.

But at least two of de Tocqueville's observations about our democracy remain extraordinarily true in my experience: first, that a democracy, if left unchecked, can devolve into a "soft despotism" that is more widely labeled today as a tyranny of the majority--that is, the majority gets what it wants at the expense of the minority's rights.  And second, that religious life here is so strong precisely because of, and not in spite of, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, guaranteeing separation from church and state.  If these two sound unrelated at the outset, I promise you that they are, in fact, very much intertwined.

Because we live in a nation far different than the Biblical Israel in which Christianity was founded--different in terms of language, culture, geography, social ethics--the whole nine yards.  Including, it must be noted, majority religion.

Christianity was not founded as a majority religion, nor was it a majority religion ANYWHERE for the first 300ish years of its existence, until Constantine the Great rolled along and instituted it as the Roman state religion.

And I have to think that somewhere in the midst of the past 1,700 or so years, we Western Christians have forgotten what it is like to be the minority.  There are nations today in which Christians are severely persecuted--Egypt being one of them--but the United States is currently not such a nation (though our history includes substantial persecution of Roman Catholics and Mormons).

It's truly an irony from my perspective: the American Christian church bemoans its loss of status, yet even as recently as 2008, it was getting same-sex marriage bans passed in states across the country, even in more left-leaning states such as Oregon and California.

But because of the setbacks dealt recently towards "traditional marriage" proponents--like the recent Supreme Court rulings striking down DOMA and Prop 8--I keep hearing this refrain that Christians are being persecuted here.

And that does not pass the proverbial smell test to me, because when we do things like trying to uphold DOMA, we are engaging in a form of that "soft despotism" that de Tocqueville writes about.  We are enabling the majority to have its way at the expense of a minority's rights.

Repealing laws that engage in that isn't persecution--it is a balancing of the scales.

And it is something that we have been good at in the past, and something we must continually strive to improve at.  Because if we are going to say that America really is the place where anyone can get a fair shake, that we are the last true meritocracy, that we, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., judge on the content of character, then we need to take seriously the praise that a French political philosopher doled out in heaps to our model of governance nearly 180 years ago.

We can be the newest and greatest version of the experiment of democracy that began all the way in ancient Greece.

But we have to want it.

And part of wanting it is recognizing that American Christianity is a religion, not a hegemon.

I do not expect such recognition to be easy, but it will not make the sky fall, and the nation we share will be better for us having done so.

I wish all of you a happy and safe Fourth!

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

July 2013's Newsletter Column + Preaching Schedule

Letters from the Soul, July 2013

"Belonging to a Tribe"

I have truly enjoyed this past “The Tribal Church” sermon series with all of you, and I hope you have found it as enriching as I have! Working on this series has made me consider what it means to be a part of a tribal church, and I do think that part of being in a tribe means that not everyone is necessarily a member. But—church is such a tribe where everyone has the potential to become a member! So, how do we go about offering a welcome to strangers in our strange land who are interested in the little tribe we have going here on the corner of Kessler and 20th? 

The first thing we can do is also the most important—we can share with our friends and loved ones how much our faith and our church mean to us! This isn’t the same thing as going up to someone and giving them the “turn or burn” spiel, this is sharing with other people a source of God’s love for you in your life! 

There are also a great many other things to welcome newcomers to our little tribe (such as inviting them to stay for our hospitality hour), but I think the most important thing we can do is this: don’t assume anything! Remember, brand-new guests may not know that they are sitting in your favorite pew, or that there is nursery care available if they choose to use it. The gift of your patience and compassion means a great deal to many people, perhaps more than you might realize! 

So as we go about being this tribal church that cares for one another, I invite you to ask yourself: how can you use your God-given gifts to roll out the proverbial welcome mat for someone who might feel foreign in our spiritual home?

Yours in Christ,

July 2013: Upcoming Sermons

July 7 (continuation of current "Tribal Church" sermon series): "Before the Bethlehem Star," Numbers 9:15-23

July 14 and 21: Guest preachers

July 28 (new sermon series, "The Gospel Gone Viral"): "You've Got Mail," Philemon 1-3

Monday, July 1, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Wife of Lappidoth"

Judges 4:1-10

After Ehud had died, the Israelites again did things that the Lord saw as evil. 2 So the Lord gave them over to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, and he was stationed in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 The Israelites cried out to the Lord because Sisera[a] had nine hundred iron chariots and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. 4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth,[b] was a leader of Israel at that time. 5 She would sit under Deborah’s palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraim highlands, and the Israelites would come to her to settle disputes. 6 She sent word to Barak, Abinoam’s son, from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “Hasn’t the Lord, Israel’s God, issued you a command? ‘Go and assemble at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand men from the people of Naphtali and Zebulun with you. 7 I’ll lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, to assemble with his chariots and troops against you at the Kishon River, and then I’ll help you overpower him.’” 8 Barak replied to her, “If you’ll go with me, I’ll go; but if not, I won’t go.” 9 Deborah answered, “I’ll definitely go with you. However, the path you’re taking won’t bring honor to you, because the Lord will hand over Sisera to a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 He summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh, and ten thousand men marched out behind him. Deborah marched out with him too. (CEB)

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

The young Presbyterian pastor was “teaching the last confirmation class at my house.  The thirteen-year-olds munched on Papa John’s pizza as we discussed the Trinity, how to pray, and church polity.  I didn’t go into a full description of the constitution of the church, just the basic things that they needed to know, like the importance of lay people in our church government.  I explained that “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word “presbvterios,” which means “elder.”

“Oh!” exclaimed (one of the students), who’d stopped chewing her pepperoni and wore one of those faces that every teacher longs for, that one which indicated that she finally got it.  “So that’s why everyone at the church is so old!”  (The pastor’s) smile fell.  Teenagers have an amazing knack for truth telling.

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” and “cultivating unambiguous inclusion.”  Last week had the theme of “discovering affirming traditions,” and this week’s theme is “promoting shared leadership.”  Carol writes in this chapter:

Many congregations long for intergenerational growth.  Yet once it happens, they are rarely prepared for the stress that can also develop.  Often, churches do not realize that inviting young members into their congregation means allowing them to have some weight in decisions, and sharing power can be the largest obstacle in the way of ministering with young adults.  And, as Ethan Watters notes, “Things that change precipitously from one generation to the next are usually greeted by the older generation as the death of everything good and right.”  And all too often, younger generations find themselves…trying to navigate through change in the middle of a heated battle for the summit of some sand hill.  But no one likes to fight on his volunteer time.  So, young people simply end up walking downhill and resume wandering in another direction.

The story I told at the very beginning of this sermon *also* comes from this chapter, because, quite frankly, it was hard to top, for both truth-telling and for humor.

Because it is true.  Sometimes, we expect our leaders to look a certain way.  We want our church elders to be “elderly,” which means our deacons should be... “deaconly?”  Or, we want our presidents to look “presidential,” which as far as I can tell means being somewhat tall and having fantastic hair.  We want our beauty queens to be long-haired and elegant and without an ounce of body fat.  And we want our churches to, well, look like us.  If we walk into a church with lots of young people, and we are a young person, we are supposed to react like its catnip.

But that’s not us, here at FCC.  And I don’t think that’s Biblical Israel, either, under the judges.

In a manner, Biblical Israel had a democracy of sorts during the time of the Judges—Israel itself was not a formal nation, more a confederation of the twelve tribes, and whenever a threat arose—usually one of war, and in this case, war against the foreign ruler Jabin, who had oppressed Israel for twenty years—that threatened the interests of all twelve tribes, the Israelites would all rally behind a collective leader who was called a judge, and would then rule for many years, until a new set of circumstances dictated the need of a new judge.  It wasn’t a formal democracy, but it certainly was closer to a meritocracy than the absolute monarchy that followed.

And I feel secure in saying that precisely because of Deborah.  We live in a country with full rights for women, and we are still waiting for our first female president, but Biblical Israel, with some awfully draconian laws concerning women—especially regarding marriage—has now a female judge, whom we know only as the wife of some dude named Lappidoth: Deborah.

Deborah was not like the kings—and many of the judges—for a simple reason: she ruled collaboratively.  In this case, she judged Israel—ruling on disputes, dispensing counsel, and the like—but in military matters, she led alongside an Israelite man named Barak…but if you read through their interactions in this passage—especially Barak’s declaration of “I’ll only go if you go” in verse 8, it’s kind of clear who wears the pants in this relationship, and who irons them.

In other words, even with a man leading beside her, Deborah’s judgeship over Israel breaks the norm.  And that is what we must be doing in the church today.  We must break the norm. Because, honestly, being in the norm is what can sometimes get us into trouble.  If we get complacent with where we are, and too comfortable in what we are doing here, our spirituality is liable to atrophy—to grow weaker from disuse.

And that is a difficult thing to admit, because it implies that all of us—myself included—are NEVER done growing as Christians.  There are always growing edges, always learning curves, always some other dimension to this thing we call being a Christian.

But I worry that we are frightened by those growing edges and those learning curves to the point of active resistance—that we become, as Carol noted, like the generation who sees new things happening and bemoans the downfall of everything good and right.  In fact, I am willing to bet that there were some Israelites—maybe even quite a few—who saw the reality of having a female judge lead them and shook their fists at the way things had become!

And I think the church—and Christians—can be particularly prone to that.  We elevate previous incarnations of the church, stretching all the way back to Acts of the Apostles, to almost mythical status, and suddenly whatever the church we have now does, it cannot ever quite measure up.  The doctrine has become too loose.  The music has become too sacreligious.  The preacher has become too young.  (Ruh-roh!)

But promoting shared leadership means being able and willing to accept some leadership from unlikely sources.  And I think we have done that in a big way here already, not only by saying to ourselves, “Hey, there’s this 25-year-old pastor in Berkeley, let’s pluck him out of there and make him ours even though he’s just a pipsqueak,” but also by allowing new leadership to ascend to our Board of Directors and to our elders.  Out of all the themes presented in the Tribal Church book, this is one where we are, at least on paper, probably ahead of the curve here.  With myself and Justin, we have two board participants under the age of 30.  Trust me, that is a rarity.

And I think that is a rarity because visitors to a church see things very differently from long-times members.  If you’ve been around the church a while—and some of you have heard me say this—you’re liable to view the church like, say, the Soviet planned economy in Cold War Russia: you are assigned a job that meets the pre-determined needs of the collective.  The church thinks it needs a 6am sunrise sing-a-long service?  You’d better be there with bells and whistles.  But the visitor or brand-new member is more apt to look at that and say, “Why?”  They’re the ones who would, at the risk of just killing this metaphor, get packed off to Siberia for dissent.  They questioned the pre-determined needs of the collective, and as a result, they weren’t welcome.  And you’d be amazed how often that happens in the church.  It’s astounding.

Promoting shared leadership, then, doesn’t just mean letting newcomers into our way of doing things, it is them letting us into their own deepest hopes and dreams for this wonderful thing that we call the Christian Church.  And that’s the way it should be, in the end, because we cannot always look for our leadership in the most expected of places.

If we did, Israel would have never called the wife of Lappidoth to be their judge and leader.

The Pharaoh of Egypt would never have called Joseph, an incarcerated slave, to be his governor.

God Himself would never have called Moses, an exiled murderer, to lead and liberate His people, nor would He have called David, a baby brother shepherd boy, to unite Israel as a nation.

And most importantly, the Son of God would never have come as a humble, itinerant carpenter.

Promoting—and thus also submitting to—this sort of leadership is rarely a straightforward, orderly affair.  We have tried to make it such, with formulaic prayers of salvation and memorized creeds, but the reality of godly leadership is such that it transcends our attempts to place it neatly and tidily into a box, for no other reason than that God Himself is so, so much bigger than that.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 30, 2013