Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Two Years of The Theophilus Project

Friends, Romans, Countrymen (and women),

As you may have garnered from yesterday's post, I am about to put another year of full-time ministry at FCC Longview in the books, which means another year of writing here at The Theophilus Project has likewise been completed since I started this blog in August 2011.

What follows (in italics) is, verbatim, the initial post here at The Project from August 2011, where I briefly offer my vision and hope for this new blog in light of the call I had just accepted (and now currently serve in).  I hope that I have lived up to these--and your--expectations in going about this ministry of writing and blogging.

The past two years have truly been a terrific ride.  While I write first and foremost, as the Jesuits would say, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God, I also write for all of you.  And over the past two years, the "you" has grown tremendously.  The Project receives literally over ten times as many monthly hits as it did at the time of its inception, and from this increasingly diverse variety of eyes and voices have come some fantastic comments and wonderful dialogues as a result of what y'all have had to say to me.  I am extremely thankful for your perspectives and for the investment of your time that you have put into The Theophilus Project.

It has been a pleasure writing for you these past two years.  God willing, I'll continue to do so for many, many more.

Yours in Christ,

Friends, Romans, Countrymen (and women),

After having let my old blogspot site languish for the better part of a year or two, I'm back at it in the blogosphere, and for a really great reason--I just recently accepted a call to serve as the pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Longview, Washington. My first Sunday there is September 25, but in the meanwhile, I'm laying the groundwork for my ministry there by doing things such as...well, starting a new blog.

The primary purpose of this blog will be to serve as a place to house all of my sermons, columns, and other written materials I'll be creating over the course of my ministry, but a significant secondary purpose will be also to simply talk about the life of a young and (hopefully) up-and-coming pastor. Our vocation is a little bit different than, say, being a doctor or a lawyer, and while you can get your impressions of living in those occupations from House or Law & Order, we pastors do not as of yet have a blockbuster television show that makes our lives seem more exciting than they are. Hence that second goal of this new blog.

In any case, and however you have found this particular corner of the internet blogosphere, thank you for stopping by. I plan to have a steady stream of new material from this point forward for the frequent visitors among you, and it is my hope and prayer that this blog might serve as a spark, and a home, for dialogue across any number of religious ideas. Look for the first of such posts in the next few days.

With that, back to the real life move--boxes, suitcases, and extreme amounts of whatnot. I love my shelves and shelves of books, but boxing and moving them is perhaps the best argument ever for just buying a Kindle instead.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Letters from the Soul: This Week's Newsletter Column + Preaching Schedule

September 2013: "Two Years"

Dear Church,

It's hard to believe, but this month will mark end of my second year with all of you and the beginning of the third. I realize that you who are older will likely scoff at a whippersnapper like me saying this, but seriously, where did all that time go?! It feels like only yesterday that my knees were shaking underneath my robe as I delivered that first sermon on Joseph's commissioning by Pharaoh in Genesis.

In any timeframe that we measure in years rather than days, weeks, or months, there will be some ups and some downs, but, I truly believe that our ups have far outnumbered our downs. You have allowed me to teach you, pray with you, counsel you, and lead you forward; and, know that this has not been a privilege that I have taken lightly. I continue to give thanks to God every day that God--through you--has called me here to be your pastor; and, I feel as blessed to be here today as I did on Day One!

But, our work together is also far from done. We are not out of the woods yet. We must continue striving to live out our "Big Faith for a Promising Future" motto. There remains great need in our community--not only materially, for mission and outreach, but also spiritually, for the Good News that God loves all and calls all to a relationship with Him.  And, as we grow stronger as a church, we also become better poised to rise to help meet those needs.

As we look to meet those needs, we do so while also paying honor to the past. This summer saw the passing of two stalwarts of our congregation: Berniece Hill and Dean Bridge. Their families have thanked me for all of your prayers and well wishes, and I pass that thanks on to you, knowing that this church has served as a loving community to us all for over 80 years, and, God willing, will continue to do so for many, many years more.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Ordinary Time 2013: “Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed”

September 1: Rev. Carole Elizabeth, guest preaching
September 8: “Dying and Rising With Christ,” Romans 6:1-11
September 15: “Recasting Eternity,” James 1:12-16
September 22: “Rediscovering Grace,” Galatians 1:13-20
September 29: “Becoming the Outcast,” Mark 2:13-17

Sunday, August 25, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Behold the (Digital) Man"

John 19:1-5

Then Pilate had Jesus taken and whipped. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and dressed him in a purple robe. 3 Over and over they went up to him and said, “Greetings, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. 4 Pilate came out of the palace again and said to the Jewish leaders, “Look! I’m bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no grounds for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here’s the man.”

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

It sounds silly, really, that this time of year, huge NFL fans will show up to exhibition games and first practices and training camp.  That behavior isn’t limited to us, though—European soccer fans do it, too, but this time, it meant a little bit more.  Here’s how England’s Daily Mail told it:

A terminally ill Feyenoord fan was given the greatest surprise of his life when he turned up to watch his side being put through their paces ahead of the new season.  Fans of the Dutch side traditionally turn up in numbers to watch the club’s first pre-season training session, but this time there was a difference.

Lifelong fan Rooie Marck was told he had terminal cancer and had days to live, and his dying wish was to see Feyenoord again.

His friends brought him to the training session in his bed, but little did he know that the huge crowd would be chanting his name, lighting flares, and unleashing a huge banner of him.  In floods of tears, Rooie met his heroes before being helped to meet the crowd, who were singing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Now, it is difficult to describe the banner itself, but if you can imagine a swath of material stretching from the very front row all the way up to the upper deck of the stadium, and now imagine that banner with a colossal, uncannily accurate likeness of a man who, though dying, was portrayed as a superhero—cape and all—by friends and strangers alike, you could see how such an image would move a dying man to tears.  They saw him not as the feeble young man wheeled into the grounds on a hospital bed, but as a hero for courageously enduring his illness.  Imagine if you were dying, and your friends saw you not as what you looked like at the moment of death, but what you looked like in your prime.  That’s what happened here.

Three days later, Rooie Marck died.

This is a sermon series designed to take us through to this point: the end of August, and it has been a slightly different series 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 these five Sundays tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we began with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging, before graduating last week to Twitter, and the we turned to a platform that I know is familiar to many of you because I am friends with you on it—Facebook.  Last week, we arrived at blogging, and this week we conclude the series by moving from the realm of words into the realm of images: pictorial blogs like Instagram, and video blogs like Youtube channels.

And I promise you—especially if you feel overwhelmed by all the digital jargon and technical terminology I have been throwing at you the previous four weeks—things like Instagram are very similar to the tools you already use, because, essentially, we are talking about online photo albums here.  Only instead of taking pictures with a traditional camera and taking the negatives to be developed (and yes, I am old enough to remember such a thing, don’t tell me I’m just a whippersnapper!), you take the pictures with a digital camera that works basically the same way—trust me—and then you post those pictures to your online photo albums, the way you would arrange film photographs in a traditional album or scrapbook.

And videos like those on Youtube work pretty much the same way, but instead of traditional cameras and digital cameras, we’re talking camcorders and media players.  You film something with a digital recorder—which you can find on most smartphones, or even digital cameras now—and you upload it to Youtube as though you would pop a videotape into your VCR.

And these two technological advances really have done incredible things for the world, and for the church, because for every person out there like me, who is completely word-oriented and a verbal thinker and who absolutely loathes having his picture taken, there is another person who thinks not verbally but visually, who thrives off of visual stimulation, and who loves being able to see, in the most literal sense, whatever is being spoken of at the moment.

Which is why this passage from John’s accounting of the Passion narrative is so striking.  At this point in the story, Jesus has been “tried” (if perfunctorily) by Annas, the high priest Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin, and they have bound Him over to Pontius Pilate because only the Roman prefect can issue a death sentence.

But bear in mind that this is the Passover festival as well, and the Pharisees are fastidious for upholding their laws regarding ritual purity.  As such, they cannot actually be present in the Roman viceroy’s residence whilst he questions Jesus.  They bring Jesus to Pilate, but after that, they must sit outside the palace gates and wait…which, with Jerusalem being a packed public city and all, is quite a visible gesture.  And so the trial of Jesus, much like prominent trials today, takes on a massively political dimension, one that Pilate is keen to emerge victorious from.

And so Pilate has Jesus beaten.  He has Jesus mocked, slapped, and crowned with thorns.  And THEN he has the cheek to step back outside to the Jewish leaders and say, “I find no grounds to charge him with?”  Well, yes, but that isn’t really the point from Pilate’s perspective.  The point  for him comes in verse five, where Pilate declares to the assembled Pharisees, in Greek, “Idou ho anthropos,” in Latin, “Ecce homo,” and in English, “Behold the man!”

It is one of the most famous images in all of Christianity, with artists as talented and renowned as Caravaggio painting portraits of the scene, of Pilate proffering a beaten Jesus and screaming out, “Behold the man!”  And it was done in Scripture because…do you remember what charge was, in fact, brought against Jesus?  That He was the King of the Jews.  And Pilate is saying to the Pharisees, “Look…I am so powerful that I can do this to your “king,” with impunity.”  And he is right, in a sense—the Pharisees cannot do a damn thing about it (even if they wanted to).

But it is that image, along with the image of Pilate symbolically washing his hands of Christ’s blood, that consigns him to the dustbin of the loathed in history.  Pilate won the battle but lost the war: he used imagery and theatricality to score a short-term PR victory over the Pharisees whom owed him their positions, but in the long term, Pilate would be rightly villainized, for, as it is written in the Apostle’s Creed, Christ “suffered” under Pontius Pilate.  Not under Caiaphas, the high priest, mind you, or Annas, or Herod, or any other of His political enemies.  Under Pilate.

That is the true power of imagery.  That is the true power of the visual sphere.  We can take an image, witness it, have it register in our minds, and be inspired by it or be repulsed by it.  And just like with words, we can be touched by fiction and non-fiction alike when it comes to images and art and video.  The banner of a young man dying of cancer, depicted instead as a caped hero, need not be nonfictional for its commentary to deliver a simple, powerful truth: we are, in many senses, what we see ourselves to be.

If you see yourself as a hero, you can act heroically.  If you see yourself as worthless, you might give up on yourself.  And if you see yourself as a Christian, you can work to act Christ-like.

And this isn’t me trying to get all New Age-y on you, either.  I’m a pastor, not a life coach.  But this is me saying that what you might see in the mirror is not what everyone else sees, that your image is not the same as other peoples’ images of you.

Because that is the underlying lesson behind this part of John’s Passion narrative: that even as Pilate and the Pharisees engage in this very public tug-of-war in which Jesus is the rope, who they see Jesus as is quite plain in Pilate’s “Behold the man!” exclamation: they see him only as a man, and a dangerous man at that.

But we know better.  Because the images and portraits of Jesus do not stop with the “Behold the man” scene.  They continue, with the march out to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the final words, being sealed in the tomb, and finally, with the tomb being discovered empty on the third day.

The images that others have made of Jesus Christ throughout the centuries are part of what move us in our own faith, because they depict the story that we have already been redeemed by: that there was a man to behold, but not just any man: a man who was more divine than any other who has come before or since, one whose divinity threatened everything about the established order of things that had led to the hurt and oppression of the vast majority of Israel’s people.

And so God decided to do something about it.  He sent His Son.

And how we tell that story—in word and in image alike—still matters a great deal.  Precisely because it can, and does, still move us to new heights.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 25, 2013

Thursday, August 22, 2013

One One-Hundredth of One Percent

To my recent spate of readers and commenters from the Church of Christ who were directed here by my exchanges with Doug Harvey: you might want to cover your ears for this one.

There is news out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, that a local Church of Christ congregation has delivered an ultimatum to the family of a local police detective who is in an openly lesbian relationship: the family can repent and publicly ask the church for forgiveness for their "sin" of publicly standing beside their police detective daughter during a legislative process ensuring equal protection for same sex couples...and if they do not do this, the family must leave the congregation that they have been members of for over 60 years.

Predictably, it was more than enough to send me oozing into a righteous fury.

Look.  I get it.  Scripture says that same-sex intercourse is sinful.  It says so in a grand total of six verses.  Those verses are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26 and 1:27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10.  (I'm not counting the story of Sodom and Gomorrah here, because Ezekiel 16:49 makes it very clear that Sodom was destroyed for far more than sexual immorality.)

Six verses.  Now, out of idle curiosity during our weekly Skype date earlier this week, Carrie and I calculated just how much of the Bible is taken up by those six verses.  According to this count, there are 31,103 verses in the Old Testament and 23,145 verses in the New Testament, for a total of 54,248 verses.  Divide 6 by 54,248, and you get 0.0001106, or a little over one one-hundredth of one percent (since one percent in decimal form is 0.01).

So, roughly one one-hundredth of one percent of the Bible addresses same-sex intercourse.  Let's compare that count, to, say, poverty.  Now, this is a little more translation-dependent, but this source puts that count at roughly 2,000 verses in the Contemporary English Version (CEV) translation.  2,000 divided by 54,248 roughly equals 3.7%, which may not sound like a lot, but it means that poverty is addressed by over 333 times more Bible verses than homosexuality is.

How about something a bit more general, like money as a whole, or stewardship?  This count puts that number at 2,350 verses, or roughly 4.3%, or over 391 times more Bible verses than the six verses that address homosexuality.

I could do this all day.  Divorce?  58, or nearly ten times as many as on homosexuality.  Adultery?  190, or over 31 times as many as on homosexuality.

Or...dare I say it, how about love?  450.

You get the idea.  And I haven't even touched the nature of God, or of Jesus, yet.  I'm just talking about what Scripture says about Christian behavior here.

So when I read about a church that decides to take an all-or-nothing stand on the basis of one one-hundredth of all of Scripture, I immediately think of what Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23: "You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!"

I asked this of Doug Harvey in one of our subsequent conversations, but at what point did homosexuality become a "here I stand, I can do no other" non-negotiable for conservative churches?  The Bible says more about slaves obeying their masters than it does about homosexuality, and we are perfectly fine with discarding those instructions (at least, on a literal level) because we know slavery to be morally wrong.

So why are we not doing the same thing here when we know that homophobia is also morally wrong?  Or, since when did "teaching the whole counsel of God" mean super-sizing these six verses at the expense of the other 54,242?  

And if you do believe same-sex intercourse is sinful, why would you try to kick out a family for standing by their lesbian daughter?  Aren't churches supposed to be in the business of teaching people, not exiling them?  If you believe someone is doing wrong, you don't throw them out, you hold them in fellowship and try to help them (Mark 2:13-17).

What on earth could it possibly be about these six verses that have caused us to lose sight of the larger themes of God's own Word as revealed to us in Scripture?

I just don't get my own religion sometimes.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Necessity of Grace

A couple of weeks ago, the hashtag #ConfessYourUnpopularOpinion was trending hard on Twitter, and I indulged in that trend by sending out the following tweet:
(For those of you who do not geek out on religious studies quite as much as I do: penal substitution atonement is the Christian doctrine that says God's wrath against humanity required satisfaction or appeasement, and that Jesus' death represents said payment for our sins or debts because He died in our place.  This is a fairly common belief in Western Christianity, as it crops up in all sorts of hymns and songs (think "Jesus Paid It All") in addition to our own theological discussions and colloquial expressions (ie, "Jesus took my place").

Penal substitution has largely been taught in the church only over the last millennium, after St. Anselm wrote Cur Deus Homo.  Anselm lived in the Feudal era of Europe, when people were tied to the service of a lord or monarch above them, and he projects that relationship onto Christianity, arguing that our relationship with God is like that with a feudal lord or monarch.  Which I always found sort of ironic, since feudal lords tended to be rather brutal to those underneath them, whereas Scripture is pretty clear that God is on the side of the poor.)

A couple of my pastor colleagues questioned me on Twitter on what theory I adhered to instead (more on that later), but this week, one of them, a buddy of mine here in town, followed up by asking me how I thought God appeases Himself for our sins.  I tweeted back:

It is difficult to convey in a 140-character tweet, but Erik got me thinking about why this is precisely the reason why I adhere to the theory of sola gratia (that we are saved by God's grace alone).  Grace is not something we can obtain by trading or bargaining for.  It is given.

I'm not the most systematic theologian out there, so please bear with me here: we, in our short-sightedness and oppressive evilness, killed Jesus.  To me, grace is the only possible source of authentic forgiveness for something as big as killing someone else's child, and if atonement is all about how we can become reconciled to God, forgiveness is perhaps the biggest step towards that reconciliation.

Herein lies the rub: if forgiveness is made possible by appeasement or satisfaction or repayment, then what need is there for grace?  More to the point, how can forgiveness of a debt that has already been paid be considered forgiveness?

Or, to put this in a more mundane example: MasterCard does not "forgive" my credit card debt, I pay off my MasterCard debt.  MasterCard is not showing me grace by allowing me to repay my outstanding balance, it is expecting me to honor the agreement we made when I obtained a credit card from them.

We are left, then with one of two options: that Jesus's death represents the debt being paid in full, and so forgiveness of the debt is no longer necessary--eliminating the need for grace.  The other option is that Jesus's death does NOT pay the debt in full, which creates all sorts of problems if you believe that Jesus was divine.  If God's own infinite divine substance is not enough to appease God, what possibly could be?  And if this God can never be appeased, then why bother worshiping Him?  We might as well all stay home on Sunday mornings and do the crossword--it'll have the same net effect on this God.

Ergo, I have come to believe that God--especially through what Jesus teaches in Gospels--is nowhere near legalistic enough to adhere to a framework of contractual obligation.  Instead, the Crucifixion represents God taking that contract and feeding it to the shredder: He tears up the contract that demands compensation for our transgressions, and He decides to err on the side of forgiveness, offering grace to all those who choose to accept it by following the example and teachings of the Son we had just killed.

In other words, God acts less like the judge interested only in ensuring our sentence is served, and God acts more like the father in the prodigal son narrative, who, despite being wronged by his son (note the lowercase "son," ie, us, not Jesus), welcomes him back into the fold with open arms.  After all, as the parable says, the father ran out to meet the son--before the son could explain to his father his change of heart and his humbleness in declaring himself unworthy of his father's name.

And all of this is possible because of grace.  If payment is what saves us from divine wrath, then what is the point of grace?  We might as well worship a God who is capable only of wrath, if we are fine for as long as that God continues to be appeased.

Yet Scripture tells us over and over again that God loves us dearly (most famously in John 3:16)  And because Scripture also tells us that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13), it can still be righteous for God to forgive and extend grace without being sated by payment.

And all of this is so because God possesses something we do not--incredible grace.  It is what puts God above us.  We may want satisfaction for wrongs done to us, like St. Anselm's feudal lord, but I have to believe that God is above that.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, August 18, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Blog of Luke"

Luke 1:1-4

Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. 2 They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. 3 Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. 4 I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received. (CEB)

“The Gospel Gone Viral: If the Bible had been Written Online,” Week Four

The CT scan confirmed what might have been the worst possible news for the mother of a little two-year-old girl: this was not simply a stomachache, or a case of the flu, but a neuroblastoma tumor in the abdomen, pushing down on the kidneys and liver.  It meant months of chemotherapy and hospitalization for her little daughter, Hazel: months of worry and joylessness with no end immediately in sight.  Until they made a “send pizza” sign out of masking tape for the window in Hazel’s room.  Here, I’ll let Hazel’s mother, Lauren, tell the rest of the story:

This sign was up for several days without even a single phone call asking to send up a pizza (which we completely expected!).  Then, on Saturday, it all changed.  Aaron (her husband) had left the hospital, while my father-in-law stayed with Hazel, to go home and spend some time with me and our other children.  I would return later that night.  While at home, we began hearing news that several pizzas were being delivered to the hospital.  After only a few short hours, we were told that someone had taken a picture on the street of our sign, had posted it to, and it had reached #1!  Then, someone ended up posting a link to our Blog, Facebook, and donation page, which then all went bananas!  Hazel woke up from her nap to the smell of pizza and wa so excited to chow down!  Several other children and nurses came into the room, with music playing, and had themselves a wonderful pizza party.  As of yesterday, there were more than 20 boxes delivered and more was coming!  We had such a great time!  However, due to the sheer number of pizzas and inquires from the media, the hospital has asked that the pizza deliveries end and thank everyone for their support…

We’ve been absolutely humbled and surprised by the outpouring of love and support from the online community and can only hope and pray that this brings awareness to Neuroblastoma and the childhood cancer community.  Awareness and funding is severely lacking, and to help get better treatments and outcomes for our children, we need all the support we can get!  I truly felt that God used this wonderful day to help life, not only our families’, but everyone on the 4th floor’s spirits.  We all need a little hope up here.

This is a 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 these five Sundays tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we began with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging, before graduating last week to Twitter, and last week, we turned to a platform that I know is familiar to many of you because I am friends with you on it—Facebook—but now we arrive at another platform that you may perhaps follow, but not indulge in participating in yourself: blogging.

Blogging is itself an abbreviation—though not much of one, because it only drops two letters—for writing on a “weblog,” or a “blog,” an online diary of sorts that is typically public, but can on some platforms be made available to only a select audience.  Which really is  all there is to it: a blog is a public, online diary, except instead of the limitations of a traditional pen-and-paper diary, your online diary can also include music, videos, links to other websites…the sky really is the limit.  And unlike platforms like Twitter that include a strict word count on entries, entries to your blog can be as long or as short as you like—which has meant that for many people, blogs have become a terrific source of in-depth conversation on a particular subject matter.

And that is probably the biggest substantive difference between keeping a traditional diary and keeping a blog: instead of being a recounting of the day’s events, a blog will often recount events (both personal and public) with a tilt towards a particular subject matter: there are blogs devoted to sports, cars, politics, art, you name it.  Just as the sky is the limit for what you can put on your blog, so too is the sky the limit for blogs that specialize in reflecting on a particular subject.

And this seemingly infinite list of subjects most certainly includes Christianity and other organized religions.  There is a proverbial boatload of Christian blogs out there online, waiting for you to read them, and this is where Luke comes into play as a model for us to follow today.

Unlike Matthew, Mark, or John, Luke begins his Gospel with a formal preface to the Gospel’s original recipient: an otherwise unknown man named Theophilus, whose name literally means “lover of God.”  Luke, then, is not trying to write to a hostile audience, but to someone who already knows God and loves God, but perhaps does not yet know the truth about Jesus Christ.

Or, rather, perhaps Theophilus knows about Jesus, but only in incomplete and inadequate ways.  The first words of Luke’s Gospel are an acknowledgement that many others have undertaken to create this narrative of the events of Jesus’ ministry, yet Luke sees the need to create his own record, a record that, as he puts it, has been “investigated carefully from the beginning.”  Luke follows this Biblical seal of quality assurance by saying that he wants Theophilus to know the real truth about everything that has just happened in Israel in the years and decades prior.

Which, let’s be honest: speaking as a preacher, this really isn’t that innovative of Luke to do.  He is pulling the oldest trick in the book for fleshing out a sermon: outline the ways in which those who came before you got it wrong, and then proclaim how you have gotten right.  That’s Preaching 101.  It’s also a not particularly humble way of proclaiming the Gospel, but it is still an easy trap to fall into, because we want to be right.  If we felt we were wrong, we would get different opinions and different beliefs.  Luke is no different from us in that regard.

But speaking as a historian, which Luke in so many words claims to be—by noting that he is not himself an eyewitness, but a documenter of the accounts of eyewitnesses—what Luke says is absolutely clutch.  Luke is saying that he wants nothing but the truth for Theophilus…well, that implies that there are some less-than-accurate accounts of what really happened floating around.

And in this singular way, the internet—and the world of social media, and of blogging—is not unique in the slightest.  Wack-a-doodle theories and delusions will exist regardless of the era.

Put a different way: if Luke is the orderly, reputable scholar or journalist attempting to get his findings peer-reviewed and published in a journal of repute, then who he is warning us against is the crackpot End Times fanatic who listens to too much late-night televangelism while writing on his blog that we have to return to only coining money, lest the Antichrist use ATM cards to brand us with the Mark of the Beast after the government unleashes the Four Horsemen that they have been secretly hiding in Area 51 along with evidence of extraterrestrial life.

And plenty of theories abounded about Jesus after He ascended—the Romans, of course, had geo-political motive to discredit Jesus entirely, but even within the nascent Christian movement, there were different theories: that Jesus was never actually dead because one cannot kill a God, or that the Resurrection had been staged to cover up a tomb robbery, and so on.  Luke is aware that such theories exist, and is saying, in so many words, “Please.  I did the work.  Trust it.”

That is the test that we need to apply to our own writing, whether it is in a traditional pen-and-paper diary, whether it is in a letter to the editor, whether it is in an online blog, or whether it is not writing at all: but simply speaking the Gospel to one another.  Because as the story of Hazel and her impromptu pizza extravaganza demonstrates, word moves faster than ever these days.  The words we say, the words we share, on behalf of the divine Word, these are words that must be offered with care, just like Luke, because after all, what right do we have to tell others to trust us, when we ourselves and our words are not yet trustworthy?  How can we claim to offer hope to people who are worried that Christians are out to deceive or manipulate them instead?

Speaking of Hazel, there is an epilogue to the story of the joy in her internet-inspired pizza party in the midst of a childhood cancer ward…the joy continues.  About ten days ago, her mother posted on their blog that Hazel’s latest blood cultures came back negative, and so she was able to go home.  This is not the end for Hazel’s healing: she will be undergoing another surgery this Wednesday, the 21st, because the tumor, though shrunken dramatically, is still present and they need to remove the rest.  And so the “orderly account,” as it were, of Hazel’s odyssey continues, at least for the moment unabated.  You can follow her at

And so I, my dear fellow Theophiluses—fellow lovers of God—have sought to share with you my own account of one girl’s life and struggle as a microcosm of something far bigger than ourselves: that in pain, there can still exist relief; that in illness, there can still exist joy; that in weakness, there can still exist strength; and that in trials, there can still exist salvation.

These are all truths that are easy—sometimes too easy—to lose sight of.  We get distracted just as easily by our own hurts as we do by a harmful interpretation of Scripture because both prey on the same thing: our own short-sightedness.  In exhorting Theophilus, the lover of God, Luke so too also exhorts us all as lovers of God to look beyond our own narrowness for the Christ who taught us and healed us and died for us.  And we receive with each passing moment newer and more exciting ways to fulfill that charge.  The world may be growing smaller, but the ways of hearing God’s message are getting only bigger.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 18, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Rev. Dr. Doug Harvey's Response to My Letter

(Yesterday, Doug Harvey replied to me with a lengthy and thoughtful reply to the concerns I raised to him in the letter I posted here on Monday.  I thanked him for taking the time and courtesy to reply, and I engaged several of the points he raised.  He then proposed the idea of the DHF linking to my letter on their website, while I also published his response to me here.  I was--and am--happy to do so, and so below you will find Doug's response to me, which I have not edited in any way.  -E.A.)


Thanks for your e-mail in response to the DHF postcard. At the risk of sounding disingenuous again, I appreciate thoughtful input at any time, and you provided it.

For just the reasons you outline, I wrestled with the statement about not trying to get churches to leave the DoC. I left it in because it reflects an important reality. DHF grew out of the Disciple Renewal movement. For the first ten years of our existence, we were strictly a renewal movement within the DoC, and strongly encouraged churches to remain in the DoC in order to lift up a clear evangelical voice. We found that churches often ignored our pleas and left the DoC anyway. Many of those churches had major issues down the road because they had made a hasty decision about who they "weren't" without giving enough thought to who they were. 

We saw a need for a fellowship that could include DoC and non-DoC churches without distinction, so those churches could remain connected with more than themselves. Of course this began to look more and more disingenuous as we continued to try to be a voice within while hosting a fellowship outside the structures. Frankly, I understood the frustration of the DoC folks who saw this as manipulative and I helped lead DHF to step entirely away from the vision of bringing evangelical renewal in the DoC.

You may find this hard to believe, but I don't even know whether or not some of our churches are still in the DoC. I do know some have left because I was in touch with them through the transition. And I know a couple that have remained in the DoC because of property reversion clauses. But in the middle are churches whose relationship with the DoC is not known to me, nor do I much care. DHF is about providing relationship and resource to those churches who desire it, regardless of their connection or lack of connection to the DoC. I purchased a DoC Yearbook in Orlando, and have noticed several churches listed there that I assumed had left long ago.

I readily agree that some of our materials reflect a bias that may look like we're trying to get churches to leave. Those materials were prepared to help churches sort through the issues, and the decisions of the DoC are pretty hard to spin positively from an evangelical perspective. We've had to be pretty blunt in order to penetrate the fog of obfuscation that is generally put up when evangelicals raise questions. The recent vote on sexual identity and ministry leadership is a great example. At my first General Assembly in 1977, the issue first arose and the resolution calling for civil rights for gays was clearly an attempt to grease the skids toward an eventual decision for an open and affirming position. For thirty-six years since then, the leadership of the denomination played a game of deception with the larger church, knowing full well they would pay a terrible price in membership and money if they pursued their desired agenda. When we tried to raise the issue, they invented a category of business called "items for reflection and research," and used it to derail any honest dialogue on the issue. 

When it became apparent that nobody was reflecting and researching, they created the "Discernment Process." As you surely know, that process was half-heartedly pursued for a couple of years, then simply abandoned. It never was intended to lead to discernment, but to stall open dialogue and decision until they felt they had the votes to do what they had decided to do years before.

All this to say we have to be pretty blunt to get past the dodges the General and Regional folks use to avoid telling the simple truth. "It's inappropriate to call for any decisions on this issue because it is being discerned." And "It's a decision for the Regions to sort out." And "Don't worry about it, it won't have any effect on your local church."

At the same time, the number of Regions granting standing and ordination to openly gay candidates kept growing. Even those with express prohibitions in their policies played "Don't ask, don't tell" and ordained people they know perfectly well were gay, and then told evangelical questioners that they had never knowingly ordained any gays because no one said anything in the commission on ministry interviews.

So, yes, our materials do reflect a bias toward stating our concerns about the DoC in strong terms. But the effort is not to prescribe a particular decision, but to ask churches to quit averting their eyes and face the honest truth about the DoC. Of course, facing that truth will often lead evangelicals to the exits, but our issue is simply to put the truth out there while the denominational leaders use rhetorical dodges to avoid stating things they know are true. Good decisions (which go both ways) can only be made with facts on the table, not spin.

So, why did we send the postcards at all? Whether DHF exists or not, there is going to be a major exodus from the DoC over the next several years. After 12 years out of the DoC processes, a lot of people do not know we are here to offer our resources as they struggle with their future. We don't have a way of sorting out which congregations are aware of us, or interested in us, so we chose this shotgun approach. I did go through the mailing list and remove quite a few churches where I knew there would be no interest, but beyond that I didn't know how to target the mailing to evangelical-leaning churches and/or pastors.

Well, enough said. I hope this clarifies some of the issues you (rightly) raised. I know what something like that postcard can look like at first glance. I hope this gives a bit more clarity to our motives. I'm comfortable knowing you won't agree with everything I've said, but want to try to keep the communication lines open and as clear as possible.

Monday, August 12, 2013

An Open Letter to Rev. Dr. Doug Harvey, Executive Director, Disciples Heritage Foundation

(The following letter was emailed to Rev. Dr. Doug Harvey, the executive director of the Disciples of Christ spinoff organization Disciples Heritage Fellowship, which was formed from the network of pastors that founded the conservative Disciples Renewal movement in 1985, one year prior to my birth.  Despite my significant doctrinal differences with DR and DHF (especially regarding gay and lesbian persons), I have never felt any immediate need to reprove them...until now.  -E.A.)

Rev. Dr. Harvey:

You probably don’t know who I am, and that’s okay.  I am one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pastors of small Disciples of Christ churches throughout the country to whom you mailed postcards recently encouraging our churches to join your Disciples Heritage Fellowship, the phoenix organization that arose from the ashes of your evangelical Disciples Renewal movement that was ended ten years ago, when you and the Disciples Renewal movement decided that the only thing left for you to do was to leave the Disciples of Christ denomination.

I am writing to you as a younger pastor within the Disciples of Christ who does not adhere to many of the earlier ways of the church.  Even though Disciples are a noncreedal denomination (which I like), I want us to be more deliberate in articulating exactly what it is we believe.  I wish we would jettison preaching from a lectionary, I wish we were more aggressive in our branding and marketing efforts, and I wish we weren’t so afraid of evangelism in a variety of forms.  Believe me, there is a lot about the denomination I belong to that I wish I could change.

But you know what I really wish?

I really wish that other, more seasoned pastors like you would stop being so disingenuous with us.

The postcard you sent me contained this particular gem: “We do not encourage churches to stay or leave the Disciples of Christ denomination.”

If this is so, then why does the DHF website offer its visitors a twelve-page eBook of interviews with, and articles about, former Disciples pastors and churches entitled, “Why We Left?”

If this is so, then why does the DHF website also offer its visitors a thirty-page eBook entitled “In or Out?” that claims to be advice for churches discerning withdrawal from the Disciples, but the middle section (pp 13-17) reads not as advice for congregations, but as a list of grievances against central Disciples leadership?

If this is so, then why do you take gratuitous shots at the declining size of the denomination in an article about Disciple Renewal’s closing, as though to say that others are joining you?  (By the way: in the past two years, our monthly average worship attendance has nearly doubled, and we have added two Sunday School classes and an additional Bible study class.  FCC Longview is living proof that a church can grow in both numbers and spirit within the Disciples.)

And if this is so, why are you sending out these postcards to begin with?  Are you hoping that this is your version of Inception, where you are Leonardo DiCaprio planting the tiniest version of an idea in my head that you are hoping and praying will grow into me deciding, against my best interests, to lead the congregation I love out of the denomination that has raised the both of us?

So please, sir, forgive my immense skepticism when I read the line, “We do not encourage churches to stay or leave the Disciples of Christ denomination.”  It certainly feels like you do, and if so, I think it is necessary to call a spade a spade, especially considering that in this same postcard, you lay claim to the mantle of our shared Stone-Campbell heritage: “We are a fellowship of churches committed to the Campbell/Stone core values of biblical faith and unity around that faith.”

Unity around faith is indeed a core Stone-Campbell value: Barton W. Stone famously exhorted us to “let Christian unity be our polar star.”  What then, exactly, is unifying about attempting to sow seeds of discord within the Disciples denomination?  On a local level, many pastors rightfully decry “sheep stealing” (a term that I actually find troubling, since my congregants are my faith family, not my “sheep,” but have yet to find a better equivalent), the practice of one church actively trying to recruit members from another church in town.  How is what you and DHF doing any different, except on a larger scale?  Instead of actively recruiting members of another church, you are actively recruiting members of another organization to join your own.

So please, sir, spare me the platitudes that you represent unity in the name of the Stone-Campbell movement.  Unifiers do not try to incite the rank-and-file to desert.  And please, spare me the postcards and any other active attempts you may make at trying to get me and my church to abandon the denomination that we have considered to be home for 85 years, if for no other reason than self interest in that it reflects poorly upon you and your organization.

And finally, I gently exhort you in Christ to please engage in prayerful self-reflection over whether or not your current ministry is, in fact, living up to the ideals of not only the Stone-Campbell movement but also of the very Bible itself, whose truth you, like me, profess to love and hold firm to.  For, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:

There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all…We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”

I, for one, will have no part in being tossed to and fro by every wind of DHF’s doctrinal differences with the Disciples.  Please do not send such wind in my direction again.

Sincerely in Christ,
Rev. Eric Atcheson

Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Longview, Washington

Sunday, August 11, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Click "Like" if You Love Jesus!"

Philemon 10-21

10 Appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. 11 He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us. 12 I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart. 13 I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. 14 However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure. 15 Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord! 17 So, if you really consider me a partner, welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me. 18 If he has harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account. 19 I, Paul, will pay it back to you (I’m writing this with my own hand). Of course, I won’t mention that you owe me your life. 20 Yes, brother, I want this favor from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 I’m writing to you, confident of your obedience and knowing that you will do more than what I ask. (CEB)

“The Gospel Gone Viral: If the Bible had been Written Online,” Week Three

I have seen them on my news feed in part because sometimes one of y’all will share it—a PSA or APB for a child or a family that has suddenly gone missing under unknown or suspicious circumstances.  As big a deal as the Amber Alert system was when the government created it, we now have our own ad hoc Amber Alert system through the tools of the internet and social media.  But does that network ever work?  Well…here, I’ll let the real journalists from NBC News tell it:

A San Bernardino mother whose children were kidnapped 15 years ago was able to finally track them down using Facebook.  San Bernardino’s Deputy District Attorney says it’s the first time his office has handled a case like this one.  But in this digital age, it may not be the last.

(A father) of two toddlers, a boy and a girl, vanished with them in 1995.  Their mother reported them missing and 15 years passed.  At the time they were 2 and 3 years old.  So they’re now 17 and 16…but in those years, the Internet exploded and social networking sites revolutionized the process of tracking people down.

The mother got onto Facebook and typed in one of the children’s names and hit a Facebook page.  It was her daughter, and they started corresponding.  The mother even sent the teenager a family photo, dating back to before the split.  But the relationship stalled.  The teenager said, “Not interested in a relationship.  We just have a happy life.  Leave us alone.”

The teen’s Facebook page disappeared.  The mother, who still lives in San Bernardino, contacted (law enforcement).  They tracked the Facebook profile and the girl to Orlando Florida.  (The father) was then arrested and is now charged with two counts of kidnapping and two counts of violating child custody orders.  As for the mother and her children, they will have to build a new relationship…

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 these five Sundays tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we began with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging, before graduating last week to Twitter, but now we return to a platform that I know is familiar to many of you because I am friends with you on it—Facebook, which my International Affairs professor in college kept referring to as “Bookface,” as in, “What is this ‘Bookface thing’ you kids do?” 

And simultaneously, we finally stumble upon the real reason for Paul’s writing to Philemon.

Philemon has—er, had—a slave, named Onesimus (funny story: “Onesimus” is Greek for “useful.”  Paul is deliberately playing on words by inferring that they once saw Onesimus as “useless”).  Onesimus at some point ran away, under unknown (to us) circumstances, and found his way to Paul, presumably prior to Paul’s imprisonment, because Paul writes poignantly about how Onesimus has, in fact, lived up to his namesake and been useful in Paul’s life and work.

But the law interferes with this new setup.  As New Testament scholar Daniel Harrington puts it:

Slavery was an accepted social institution in the Roman Empire.  A slave who ran away from a master’s household had several options: turn to banditry, disappear into the subculture of a large city, flee far away, seek other menial work, or seek asylum at a shrine or temple.  It was customary to pursue runaway slaves and to reward those who captured them or aided in their capture.  By law, Paul had an obligation to send the runaway slave Onesimus to his master.

In other words, when you think of the laws governing slavery in Biblical Israel, think of the Fugitive Slave Act from the pre-Civil War America that we all learned about in 10th grade social studies: no matter your stance on slavery, you were bound by law to return any runaway slaves to whence they came.  It wasn’t so much an Amber Alert system so much as a means of keeping an enslaved people enslaved.  It is shameful now, and I believe that for Paul it was shameful then.

Because Paul makes the case that Onesimus not simply some merchandise being returned to its rightful owner.  Paul says that Onesimus is exactly the person whom we would put out an Amber Alert for, that we would ask law enforcement to move heaven and earth to find, whose picture we would upload to Facebook and ask our friends to share far and wide.  Paul says that Onesimus is no longer Philemon’s slave, but his brother.  And what many interpreters have generally held this final verse to mean—verse 21, where Paul says he knows that Philemon “will do more than I ask”—that Paul expects Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom.

And I can only imagine, based on this letter alone, what Paul might be able to do if he had Facebook today, because as much and as horribly as the Internet has been used for human trafficking—enabling prostitution via innocuous sites like Craigslist, or posting fake wanted ads to lure young women into being kidnapped—the Internet has also completely changed how we can find those same people—those enslaved children of God forgotten by all but their enslavers.

And believe it or not, that really does begin with what we choose to share or not share on a social media platform like Facebook.  Facebook is, for lack of a better term, an extremely detailed rolodex (you remember those, right?).  You can make available all the information that would be on your business or rolodex card (and you can set it so that the public at large cannot access that information), but you can also write updates on your profile to let people know what is going on in your life.  Whereas my parents, when I was a newborn, typed out and hand-mailed letters to friends and family updating them on my baby noises, shenanigans, and colic, now my friends who are parents can do all of that through Facebook.  Whether you get a new job, or get engaged, or have a kid, or just have a really fan-freaking-tastic cup of coffee that morning, you can write about it on Facebook and then watch afterwards to see how many of your friends will “like” or “share” your latest update.  It’s like a highly-addictive, obsessive-compulsive narcissism!

And that can, I will say, quickly turn into manipulation.  Seriously—those of us who have Facebook, how many of you see your feeds cluttered with things like this: “CLICK LIKE IF YOU LOVE YOUR LEFT-HANDEDED DYSLEXIC PET KOALA BEAR, IGNORING THE FACT THAT KOALA BEARS CAN’T ACTUALLY READ THIS OR ANYTHING AT ALL?”

It drives me nuts, and there actually is a word for it: it’s called “slacktivism,” a portmanteau of “slacker” and “activism.”  It refers to whenever someone takes a public stand for something in an effortless or trivial way—like clicking the “like” button Facebook on behalf of your left-handed, dyslexic pet koala bear, because, hey, owners of left-handed dyslexic koala bears gotta represent.

But it really is a profoundly meaningless way to go about communicating what you value.  If you value your pets, great.  Show me that by how well you treat them.  Do you value a person’s freedom?  Fantastic.  Show me that by how you might do as Paul does, by taking the time to advocate on behalf of someone who most likely wants nothing more than their freedom.

Paul does this in a remarkable way through this letter.  Remember earlier in the series, when I said that there’s a reason Paul also addresses this letter not just to Philemon, but to his entire household?  Well, this is it.  Paul knows that if he cc’s Philemon’s family on this one, they might be able to make this a family decision rather than Philemon’s yes-or-no to Onesimus’s freedom.  Paul shares, in a manner, the need for this man’s liberty with Philemon’s other Facebook friends.

This is what the Gospel gone viral could really be used for, you know.  Facebook has a “share” function, which does exactly what it sounds like: it allows you to share something that popped up on your newsfeed so that it will then appear on the newsfeeds of your friends and family.  And I think this sort of thing makes sense to my generation because we are still taught the same lesson that every generation before us has been taught: sharing is good.  We are supposed to share the things we like, the things we value, because it shows we value the person we are sharing with.
The way us whippersnappers live out that maxim—at least in part—is on the Internet, and we do that by sharing our things online.  Only instead of blocks or legos, it’s a news article or a picture.

And we can use this great means of sharing for unbelievable ends—the Internet, social media, Facebook, the whole nine yards, it isn’t just about banality and frivolity.  Families are found.  Parents and children are reunited.  Just as Onesimus will be reunited with his former household no longer under the yoke of slavery but under the guise of brotherhood, so too can we offer the Word of God to free others from the yoke of pain and hurt and evil, and offer them the love of Christian fellowship.  And believe me—that is a heck of a difference from simply passing along another “Click “Like” if you love Jesus!” status update.  Because I can guess how that conversation goes next: “Oh, you clicked a button because you love the Lord and Savior of humankind who, you know, freaking DIED ON A CROSS?  But you’ll click a button for Him?” 

No.  But will you do as Paul did, appeal to each other out of love, across God’s good creation?  Will you do more than click a button for your faith?  Will you live it out?  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 11, 2013

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Biblical Value of Satire...yes, Biblical

So, full disclosure: my favorite band for the past couple of years has been Mumford and Sons.  Yes, the quartet of guys who, despite being from West London, look like they're 49ers off to go pan for gold (albeit hipster 49ers).  And yes, their lineup fields a standup bass, banjo, and accordion.

And they get it.  They get what they look like, what their image is, and why people either love them or mercilessly loathe them.  While I look at their high-octane, emotionally-driven performances and see a reason for me to like bluegrass again, others (generally more unbearably hipster than me...which admittedly does not take a lot) look at them and see a whole lot of fluffy schlock.

And they get it.  As evinced by their latest music video, which is set to their Babel song "Hopeless Wanderer."

I won't spoil it for you, but if you haven't watched yet, you should.  I will simply say that instead of Marcus Mumford and his band of merry men, American comedians Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman, Ed Helms, and Will Forte dress up as the bandmates and shenanigans ensue.

It was a brilliant self-satirizing piece of mass media, and I laughed my ass off the first time I watched it.  It takes a minute or two for the comedians to start working as comic foils for the actual musicians, but once they do, it's priceless.

So like I said...they get it.  They get that the world--or at least part of it--sees them as a bunch of English eggheads playing dress up and cranking up the guitar strumming on camera.  And...this, to me, is the true brilliance in using allows them to acknowledge that in a way that comes across as humble for taking a dose of your own medicine, but still gives you the liberty to, you know, keep doing what you're doing.

In other words, you get points for being self-aware, even if said self-awareness doesn't actually change things all that much.

What does all of this have to do with the church?  Or with the Bible?  After all, Eric, you DID entitle this post "The BIBLICAL value..."

Easy, fellow Jedi.

The gold standard for church parody comes from Andy Stanley's Northpointe Community Church (as an aside, adding an "e" to the word "point," especially in church names, drives me nuts.  Who the hell decided that church names needed a silent "e" at the end, like we are all still living in Chaucer's England or something?  "I'm off to ye olde Northpointe Churche's Coffee Shoppe?"  Ugh).

And said gold standard would be this.  It's brilliant--it acknowledges what most people know to be true about A LOT of praise music (namely, that the lyrics are vacuous), it acknowledges what people also know about how A LOT of megachurch pastors preach, and it acknowledges how we at the church try to bend over backwards to be as hip and cool as possible.

And it's the exact same sort of logic--I show the video to my friends, but it doesn't change how I plan worship here at FCC.  We still do praise music.  We still have an overhead with PowerPoint.  I still preach in the round, with an iPad.  We do what we do, but we show that we are in on the joke about what people say about how we do it and reap the cred of being self-aware rather than being like the stereotypical church that lives in its own little bubble.

In this way, the Mumford and Sons music video reminded me almost immediately of the Youtube clip from Northpointe.

And if you want a precedent to blame this on, really, you can start with Jesus.  In John 1, when Nathanael the disciple hears about Jesus for the first time, he famously rhetorically asks, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

Jesus then meets him, and upon doing so, exclaims, "Truly, here is a man in whom there is no deceit!"

In other words, Jesus is saying, "Yep, my hometown is a hellhole!"  Since we're already talking about one Jason Sudeikis performance, we might as well toss in another...this is Jesus doing pretty much this.

Except he is saying it without having been present at Nathanael's utterance, which of course convinces this hapless, deceitless chap to follow Him immediately.  That's the major takeaway of the story.

But the aside of this story is that Jesus is, like Mumford and Sons and Northpointe, saying, "I get it.  I know what people say about me.  Here, let me put on some self-aware self-effacement to put you at ease."  He does so, and gains an apostle.

That's the value of satire in Scripture, in the church, and in life: it blunts criticism and humanizes the person who is parodying themselves.  It insulates you from knee-jerk reactions, and it potentially garners an ally or three.  And while there are no other records that I know of in Scripture of a full-blown conversion taking place because of a joke, who knows?

After all, in Christ, I'm a hoooooopless waaaaaaaaandererrrrrrrr...

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What I Know Now: 5 Things I Wish I Knew Then

Two years ago today, I preached my candidate sermon here at FCC for the job I currently hold of senior pastor.  It went well in that I apparently hoodwinked enough of my current congregation into believing that I knew what I was doing, even though the ink hadn't dried yet on my seminary diploma.  The church extended a call to me and, with few exceptions, I have been having the time of my life ever since.

There's a lot I know now that I wish I knew when I first took this job (or if/when I had taken any pastorate--none of what I am about to say really is exclusive to my particular gig).  And while I imagine that is true for just about any job, it is especially critical in ministry, I think, where a single error can quickly mushroom into something bigger.  Molehills can easily become mountains, especially if left untended.

So, what do I most wish NOW that I knew THEN about how to do this thing called pastoral ministry?  Here are my top five--in no particular order--bits of hard-earned wisdom I have learned on the job:

1. It's a marathon, not a sprint

Ministry is not a punch the clock, 9-to-5 job.  You work Sundays.  You work evenings.  Sometimes, you work on your days "off."  This isn't a gig where once you're off the clock, you are 100% off the clock.  One phone call can change everything.

All of this is to say that there is no proverbial finish line, despite the metaphors that Paul loves to use about running the race in 1 Corinthians and 2 Timothy.  There is always something more that could be done or will need to be done on any given day.  Pacing yourself is clutch in jobs like these where the work never really ends.

2. Safeguard your sermon time

I will usually set aside Wednesday every week as a day for study and writing--and even that will be insufficient to complete my sermon.  I often find myself shoehorning in a couple hours on it on Tuesday or Thursday (or, more rarely, Saturday...but I REALLY try to avoid that) as well.  And that's on the low side--I know some preachers who will spend 15+ hours on their sermon and studying.

The trick with sermon time is that it really is flexible--I will write my sermon outside my office as often as I will in my office--many times, I'll work at my kitchen table or at a local coffeehouse (I find being surrounded by other working people helps keep me accountable).  But with that big of a chunk of flexible time, it is REALLY easy to allow other obligations to nibble into it bit by bit, and before you know it, you're the frog being boiled alive...except instead of a frog, you're a pastor wondering where the day went and why your sermon is nowhere near close to done.

3. Never take for granted what people care or don't care about

I am sometimes surprised at what things folks in my congregation will choose to push back against me on, and at some other things that they are perfectly fine with and don't put up any fuss about.  While the surprise remains, I have to remind myself to not do another person's objecting or debating for them--in other words, I shouldn't assume people will or won't react a certain way to a new idea.

Mostly, this helps in the whole run-up to the thing I'm pitching: reminding myself of this maxim keeps me from spending too much time stressing and worrying about how things will turn out, and it also ensures that I maintain my faith in my congregants as complex individuals, rather than typecasting them in my mind one way or the other.

4. There's no such thing as "comfort zones"

I'm willing to bet that many of y'all may have this idea rolling around in the back of your minds that being a pastor is kinda like being a professional get paid to sit in your little prayer office, surrounded by the familiar words of long-dead theologians, and you get to pray and read Scripture and commune with God all day, and then descend from the mountain every Sunday to communicate your week's revelations to the mere plebians in the pews.  I'm willing to bet this because as a kid, I thought the same of my pastor.  Yes, I get to pray a lot.  Yes, I get to read Scripture a lot.  But the past two years have also been a crash course for me in building maintenance (with a speciality in aging historical structures), landlord-tenant relationships, television and print media, and website construction, among many, many things.  All of which, really, I am grateful for in the end, because this is a job that will--and should--push you.  Always.  The minute we stop letting ourselves be pushed, we start losing our effectiveness as pastors and as churches.

5. Don't take it personally

Okay, maybe I did save the biggest one for last.  But it's definitely true.  People will say things to you that they don't really mean, or people will treat you in ways they can only do because you're a pastor, as opposed to any other person at all in their lives.  And it isn't about you.  Really.  I promise, it isn't.

The same goes for what people in other churches might say about you or your church because they don't necessarily know you.  Churches are petri dishes of homogeneity--you're not likely to find much ideological (or racial, social, or economic for that matter) diversity in a lot of churches.  So it becomes easier to label the other churches as outsiders or heretics or somesuch.  Again--it isn't you, it's their impression of you.

These are just some of the things I wish I had known from day one, but that I have since learned and still try to take to heart every day.  What about you?  What do you wish you had known about church when you first arrived?  Or what do you wish you could have picked up on quicker?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, August 4, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Tweet of Paul to Philemon"

Philemon 4-9
Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers 5 because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. 6 I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that is good among us in Christ. 7 I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother. 8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, 9 I would rather appeal to you through love. (CEB)

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

As a 23-year-old unpaid intern in the chaplain department of California Pacific Medical Center, I split most of my time between two wards: the inpatient psychiatric ward, and the dialysis and kidney disease ward (with the occasional field trip up to the transplant floors).  My stories from the psych ward are for another sermon entirely, but here’s the thing about a dialysis ward:

It is not like any other hospital room.  You’re in a chair in a giant room, and everyone else is sitting in a chair just like yours around in a circle.  There is no privacy, no curtains, no walls, no doors.  You’re in the open, in the round, and prone.  You’re at the mercy of a machine to do things your body used to be able to do for itself.  Your movements are tethered to the necessity of always being near a treatment center.  And it is little wonder, then, that a transplant is often the preferred course to a lifetime of dialysis.

But transplants come with their own array of challenges—namely, finding a perfect match donor (and even then, nothing is guaranteed).  But after three years of living with kidney disease, a man’s illness was becoming worse and worse, and he knew it: he needed a new kidney.  As for what happened next…well, I’ll let the folks at Twitter tell this particular tale:

Not knowing what else to do, he turned to Twitter and wrote: “(Expletive), I need a kidney.”

Within a few days, 19 people offered to find out if they might be a match.  One of the people who replied was an acquaintance…who hadn’t seen (this man) in years.  After seeing the tweet, e researched the procedure, talked to people who had been through it before, and then decided to get tasted to see if he would be a match.

When the match came back positive, he decided to donate his kidney.  After the procedure, he sent a get-well-soon message back to (his acquaintance)—on Twitter.

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 is not 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 these five Sundays tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we began last week with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging.  This week, we graduate to the more advanced class of learning about this newfangled thing that people call Twitter, where people tweet at each other, but that has nothing to do with birds…or with that Angry Birds game you hear that all of those same young whippersnappers are playing nowadays!  (Seriously, whatever happened to Yahtzee?)

Last week, I talked about how this letter of Paul to Philemon was the closest thing we have in Scripture to an email—to a piece of personal and informal correspondence from Paul.  And in comparison to most of the rest of his letters, which were written and designed for public consumption, in the manner that open letters or letters to the editor are today, the letter to Philemon definitely reads as something more intimate.

Verses 4-8 are no exception, because after the greeting that makes up verses 1-3, Paul launches into a very heartfelt, very encouraging tribute to Philemon’s own character and work as a Christian.  Okay, so maybe Paul is buttering Philemon up for the major, major request that is to follow—and that we will get to next week in this series.  But considering how much of a crank Paul comes across as in other letters—my personal favorite being his exclamation in Galatians that he wished those who opposed his view on circumcision would castrate themselves—I’m inclined to believe that there is a groundswell of genuine, acute affection for Philemon.

And I say this in part because of a Greek word that appears in verse 6 in this passage—a Greek word that many of you have probably heard of: koinonia.  Koinonia is one of those New Testament words for which there is no good English translation, and that is partly due to the shortcomings of the English language itself: it tends not to be able to differentiate between the different forms of love very easily—it just calls every kind of love “love.”

Biblical Greek, by contrast, has a plethora of terms for the different sorts of love: there’s “philo,” the sort of camaraderie and brotherly love that the city of Philadelphia gets its name from.  There’s “eros,” or erotic love.  There’s “caritas,” or selfless love or compassion, from which we get our English word “charity.”  And then there’s “agape,” or an overwhelming sense of communal love.  It’s the big love, it’s the God-level love, the love that is meant to awe us.

And the human expression of agape is koinonia—a communion and a fellowship in something far bigger than ourselves.  We mere mortals may not be fully capable of agape, but we are capable of participating in koinonia, which is what Paul is saying about Philemon in verse 6: “partnership in the faith” is one way we translate “koinonia,” but to be honest, I don’t entirely care for that translation, because I think we—perhaps unconsciously—tend to think of a partnership as a two-person endeavor: two people or entities partner together, kind of in the way that we might say that two spouses are one another’s partners.  But koinonia is meant to have a potentially infinite number of partners and potential partners.  What Paul is saying here is that Philemon’s work as a Christian has a lot more partners than might first meet the modern eye.

So, what on earth does this have to do with Twitter and tweeting and people tweeting like birds?

Twitter, more than perhaps any other form of 21st century social media, has made people accessible to one another.  For all the worry—some of it justified—that social media has turned us into a cave-like people content to interact purely through 1’s and 0’s rather than with ink and paper and face-to-face contact, Twitter has allowed interaction with people you would have otherwise never known existed, or people you would otherwise have never had a chance at getting the ear of.  If you have an internet connection and an ability to put your thoughts down in 140 characters or less (often very difficult, I’ll grant you), it can be a tremendous tool for good.

Here’s how it works: You create an account, just like with email or Facebook.  You can then choose accounts of other people or organizations to follow…and the possibilities are almost limitless.  You can follow your friends and family (just like on Facebook), but you can also follow your favorite celebrities, athletes, news organizations, sports teams, humanitarian organizations, political leaders, you name it.  You can even follow this church or me on Twitter! (I’m shameless, I know.  First step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one.) 

The aggregate effect of all of this, though, has been a completely brand new way to deliver news: you can create a list of news organizations, and they will post links to their stories on Twitter as they get filed, which has made Twitter one of the quickest ways to receive the news today.  When the Tsaranev brothers were terrorizing Boston earlier this year, the news that one had been killed and the other apprehended was broken on Twitter.  When the 9.0 earthquake—and subsequent tsunami—struck Japan in the spring of 2011, Japanese government officials utilized Twitter to notify each other where rescue attempts needed to be made.  And, on a far more micro level, one someone breaks the news that they need a kidney donor, well…nearly 20 people almost immediately and selflessly step forward.

If that isn’t a sort of koinonia, of a communion that comes with belonging to a fellowship far bigger than ourselves, then I’m honestly not sure what is.

And so imagine if Paul had access to Twitter today: or if Philemon, in all his work as a Christian leader, did as well—what their partnership or fellowship in the Gospel might look like now.  After all, the letter to Philemon is Paul’s shortest letter by a considerable amount—to the extent that you can boil one of them down to a Tweet, this is it: “Hi, Philemon. Love your work. Sending Onesimus back to you. He’s your brother, not your slave. Lovies, Paul.”  It’s practically a telegram (you remember those, right?).  It’s just online instead of wired.

Think about how new ways of communicating can increase the koinonia of the church.  We are the heirs to the work of Philemon, and our tradition has had a great history of taking advantage at every turn of new tools to preach the Gospel.  A big reason why Martin Luther’s Reformation took off like it did was because the printing press had just been invented.  A big reason why the 1950s was a heyday for preachers was because television had just become widely accessible.

And so who are we, as heirs to the koinonia, to the wide partnership practiced by Paul and by Philemon, to dismiss out of hand new ways to spread the Good News?  Who are we to say we can only do one thing or offer the message of Jesus Christ in only one way?  Who are we to try to try and narrow our communication of a limitless, boundless, fenceless God?

It is easy to say that God does not fit into a box.  And it is easy to say because it is true.  But it is harder to say that our communication of that God does not also fit into a box.  And it is harder to say because we refuse to allow it to be true.  But it was true for Paul, and for Philemon.  It was true for the Apostles, and ultimately, for Jesus Christ itself.  Let it be true for us again.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 4, 2013