Monday, September 30, 2013

Thank You

First, a quick update on our building, for you who are wondering:

Four rooms were primarily affected: the upstairs kitchen and meeting room, and the bride's room and adjacent storage closet on the main floor.  Everything has been cleaned up, dried, and dehumidified, and once we know exactly what we are looking at from our insurers, we'll get started on bids from contractors and carpeting specialists to restore what was lost.  Everyone seems to have taken the flood damage largely in stride...I may well have been the one who took it the hardest.  As I explained to the congregation during a town hall meeting yesterday (for the purposes of outlining everything I just paraphrased here), I think I took this whole matter personally, as though this was meant specifically to get me down, even though it was nothing more than a freak act of God.

I had already been fragile because of a few hurtful interactions with people outside the congregation (seriously, even if a pastor isn't YOUR pastor, please be nice to them), and in some ways, this was the straw that broke the camel's back.  I was convinced that we would get distracted by this, lose all sorts of momentum that we had been building up towards with the September launch of all of our activities and groups, and so on.

None of which, of course, proved to be accurate.  Our Sunday Schools, our Bible studies, the rebooted youth group, all of it is humming along just fine.  The only program directly affected was our upcoming Children's Church School, because we had to turn their classroom into an impromptu storage closet to salvage everything in the affected rooms.

And while their pastor was staging a nutty, my congregants kept on keeping on.  I can't say enough about how much more resilient they were than me during the past two much so that several of them saw how the whole matter was affecting me and offered me the sort of emotional support that I am typically there to offer them.

So, to y'all who did reach out to me to be a source of emotional and spiritual support over the last couple of weeks: thank you.  There are many of you, both inside and outside of the congregation.  Know that your thoughtfulness and care was appreciated by me.

And I'm back to writing.  I have a number of posts lined up for the upcoming weeks, and I look forward to getting back to blogging as a regular part of my ministry.

As they would say on The West Wing...break's over.  What's next?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, September 29, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Becoming the Outcast"

Mark 2:13-17

13 Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. 14 As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. 15 Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. 16 And when the scribes and[b] Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (CEB)

“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week Four

As the dad—and writer—put it, his family was a pretty standard-issue All-American family straight out of central casting: wife, teenaged son, teenaged daughter, lovely home, affluent lifestyle, the works.  Until they got it into their heads that they should travel to Africa on mission as part of their conscious decision to live more simply and give away the proceeds.  He writes:

(O)ur family had arrived here in Abisu #1, which we were thrilled to find on our very detailed, two-sided map of Ghana.  Amazingly, in a country no bigger than the state of Oregon, we have spent two days visiting village after village too insignificant to be mapped.  That said, Abisu #1 doesn’t even get its own name, instead sharing it with nearby Abisu #2…

As we emerged from our vehicles in Abisu #1, Hannah, her brother Joseph, Joan, and I might as well have been wearing neon arrows screaming “LOOK HERE!”  Like it or not, we are the center of attention.  We are the outsiders—not just people from somewhere else, but the most foreign people for miles, miles uncrossed by villagers who don’t have transportation.  Small children point.  They call us “obruni” (white person) as they see what they’ve never seen before, people with pale skin.  They want to touch us, shake our hands, feel our arms, understand whether we’re different.

For our teenagers, it’s a new world of being the “other.”  For all of Hannah’s and Joseph’s lives, they have been the majority: white kids in a mostly white world, English-speakers in an English-language society, affluent in an affluent community.  Now we are the different ones, the ones with the name that the majority calls us.

It’s one thing to say you are a stranger in a strange land…but think of all that entails when it involves a land so remote it literally isn’t found on the map.  It isn’t just that you have a toe, or a foot, outside your comfort zone, you are eons away from your comfort zone; it is zooming away in your rearview mirror.  And to be honest, for most of us, that is the only way we will ever be outcasts.  And, at least in that way, it is the only way we can relate to this part of Jesus’ ministry.

This is a new(ish) sermon series revolving around a new book, by a fairly new(ish) pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after beginning the Revolution church movement in Phoenix, he has gone on to plant Revolution churches in Atlanta and New York City, and he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  The chapter I am borrowing from this week is called “Becoming the Outcast.”  Jay writes in it (in part):

Jesus was constantly with the wrong people.  Why was he talking to women?  To Samaritans?  To tax collectors?

Jesus never seemed to have a moral standard for the people who came around Him.  On occasion, the Gospels tell us He encouraged them to “sin no more,” but He never kept them out because of their sin.  On a regular basis, His disciples or the religious leaders were scandalized and offended by those Jesus welcomed into His presence.  Women.  Prostitutes.  Tax collectors.  Romans.  Lepers.  Beggars.  Samaritans.  In fact, Jesus got the most angry at those most focused on sin: the religious leaders who would classify other people as “sinners.”

Jesus ate with the wrong people.  He hung out with the wrong people.  He demonstrated through His life that there aren’t wrong and right people.  There are just people.

The type of inclusion Jesus practiced gets you in trouble.  This type of inclusion you just don’t do.  This type of inclusion gets you labeled as an outcast.  This type of inclusion gets you killed…

Jesus saw Matthew (Levi) and said to this traitorous outcast, this untouchable dirtbag, “Let’s try to change the world.”

Here’s the thing about being an outcast: sometimes, it can make you a persona non grata: someone invisible to other people, like a ghost in a community of flesh and blood.  But other times, it can make you the center of attention, of rumor, of intrigue, as though you came branded with your own scarlet letter upon your body.  In both instances, what the community around you is communicating is that you are different, and in both instances, it can be awkward at best and outright hurtful and destructive at worst.

Levi, also known as Matthew, would fall into the latter category.  As a tax collector, he would have not only been a very visible member of his community, he also would have been a very visible reminder of the Roman occupation of Israel.  As you can imagine—because of how we are as Americans—the Israelites were (and Israelis are) a fiercely patriotic people, and being reminded that they were the vassals of a pagan empire would have galled them at every turn.  But to make matters even worse, Levi—if you hadn’t guessed by his name—was himself an Israelite.  So, in essence, he is a collaborator, a traitor to his own people.  He would have fit in incredibly well as a cartoon villain in any number of comic book universes.  He and Benedict Arnold would have gotten along spectacularly. You get the idea.

But there’s still yet another layer on this giant cake of awfulness that makes Levi such an outcast.  Many of you have heard me say this, but tax collection did not work back then as it does today.  Much as you might like to complain about the IRS, they are downright pleasant compared to the tax collectors of Biblical Israel who were, for wont of a better term, state-sanctioned thugs.  They would win the right to tax certain areas at auction, and in order to make a profit, would demand more in taxes than what the auction rights cost them.  So they lined their own pockets by basically stealing from their neighbors, and the Roman Empire turned a blind eye to this because they didn’t care how their legions got funded so long as they got funded.

And Jay goes into this at great length in his book as well, about exactly how hated the tax collectors were, the sheer magnitude of the loathing with which the populace held them in.  Even today, it truly is difficult to understate or overestimate.

And because of this, because of how they earned their living, tax collectors most definitely fell into the category of really bad sinners.  And it probably would have galled not just the Pharisees but you and me to see Jesus not just dining with Levi, but sumptuously dining with him: the Greek says they were reclining at the table, not just sitting, which says that this was a luxurious setting, where they lay on couches to eat rather than around a simple table.  Jesus is enjoying a feast that is bought and paid for with dirty money.

But here’s the thing, and why today’s lesson really matters: the Pharisees are perhaps the worst possible messengers to say this, because they, too, are Roman collaborators: they serve the temple high priest, who was a political appointee—he was appointed by whomever the Roman prefect was at the time!  So the Pharisees are criticizing Jesus for hanging out with, if you can imagine it, people just like them!

And so when Jesus says, “I came not for the righteous, but for the sinners,” we should in fact read this as an invitation to the Pharisees, that Jesus is inviting them because they are in the exact same boat as Levi the tax collector!  But the Pharisees, of course, will not do so.

Now, we can say that people like Levi are outcasts because of the choices they made, except that there is one other wrinkle in this hypothesis: sons were often expected to apprentice in the vocations of their fathers.  Joseph was a carpenter, and so Jesus was a carpenter too.  Zebedee was a fisherman, so his sons James and John, the Apostles, were likewise fishermen.  And so, it is likely that Levi was the son of a tax collector.

Can you imagine having THAT hanging around your neck as a kid?

So, really, this passage is about more than just socializing with people who have made themselves outcasts by the choices they made, but also by socializing with people who had little to no say to begin with on being made outcasts.  Because that, in a nutshell, is what privilege means: you had no say in what you were born into.  Levi had no say in perhaps being born to a tax collector.  Sure, maybe he could have gone and done his own thing, but at what cost?  Disassociating himself from his family?  Either way, he would have to become an outcast, either with society or with his own family.  What an unenviable choice to potentially have to make.

Becoming an outcast, then, requires us to in turn cast aside identities that we were born with, identities that we may have had no say in making, in order to understand the identities of others.  And I have to believe that doing so is a fundamentally Christian exercise, because it is what Jesus Himself does.  As Paul says in Philippians, though being made of divinity, Jesus emptied Himself of it and took the form of a mortal, of a slave.  Jesus was willing cast aside the greatest status of all in order to come, not for the righteous, but for the sinners.  Not for the healthy, but for the sick.  And not for those who were like Him, because there could not possibly be anyone else like Him.  No, He came for those who weren’t like Him.  As must we. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 29, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Rediscovering Grace"

Galatians 1:13-20

13 You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But God had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace. He was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach about him to the Gentiles. I didn’t immediately consult with any human being. 17 I didn’t go up to Jerusalem to see the men who were apostles before me either, but I went away into Arabia and I returned again to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I didn’t see any other of the apostles except James the brother of the Lord. 20 Before God, I’m not lying about the things that I’m writing to you! (CEB)

“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week Three

The journalist’s question was an innocuous one.  Can you give us an example of (seeing a person three-dimensionally)?  But it stirred within the elderly, venerable priest a memory of this event was as strong as ever, even though the incident had occurred twenty-some years ago…a girl at the school in his parish had become pregnant, and as he recounts it:

It was one of the first times something like this had happened in that school.  People had a number of opinions about how to deal with the situation; some were contemplating expulsion, but no one took it upon themselves to think about how the girl must be feeling.  She was scared of peoples’ reactions and wouldn’t let anyone come near her.  Until one young teacher, a man who was married with children…offered to talk to her and work out a solution.

When he saw her during recess, he gave her a kiss, took her hand, and gently asked, “So you’re going to be a mother?” and the girl started crying uncontrollably.  This gesture of closeness allowed her to open up and talk about what had happened, and it allowed them to arrive at a mature and reasonable response.  It meant that she did not have to give up her schooling or face life with a child on her own.

What makes this touching anecdote all the more remarkable is the identity of the storyteller: Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, in an interview only a few years before he would become Pope Francis, who made such big news with his first extensive media interview as pontiff.  And while the conversation was about seeing people three-dimensionally, for who they are, I would also submit that this conversation is just as much about seeing people through the lens of grace itself.

This is a new sermon series that revolves around a new book, by a fairly new(ish) pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after beginning the Revolution church movement in Phoenix, he has gone on to plant Revolution churches in Atlanta and New York City, and he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  The chapter I am borrowing from this week is called “Rediscovering Grace.”  Jay writes in it (in part):

If you’re not unsettled by grace, you should be.  Grace is unsettling.  For it to be grace, it has to be unfair.  It’s “wild, and outrageous, and vulgar.”  No one is ever completely happy with grace.  Grace makes you uncomfortable.  It doesn’t make sense, and it never will…

We might not have earned grace before we’ve received it, but we think that we have to continually earn it again now that it’s ours.  We do this because we desperately want to have some control over grace.  We want even the smallest ability to claim that we somehow earned this grace, because then we can have some measure of certainty that we’ve got it.  Which in turn allows us to say that other people don’t have it…

We don’t react well to the idea that the murderer or the terrorist or the abuser or the bully are covered by grace, that they can be transformed as easily as we can be.  Grace cannot be that easy, that simple, that widespread, and that…UNJUST.

When we really start to understand it, we will always find grace offensive.  And that’s exactly the way it should be.  If we start to feel comfortable with grace, then we’ve lost what it really means.

This was one of those chapters where I really wish I could just quote every word, let every sentence hang in the air for us to grasp its gravity.  Truly, by distilling this chapter down to 200 or so words, I am not doing it justice.

Nor am I likely doing justice to Paul’s own words here in Galatians 1.  Galatians is not a happy letter—Paul is writing to them out of frustration over a great many things, and more than once, Paul’s frustration gets the better of him…in a debate over circumcision, Paul even exclaims (while going for a truly awful pun?) that he wishes his opponents would castrate themselves.

But before Paul admonishes the Galatians—and he does, at great length—he first admonishes himself.  He makes it perfectly clear that under any other circumstances, he should be the very last person to be lecturing them on matters of spirituality and morality, because on his own, Paul himself is neither spiritual or moral.  He can only teach because Christ has since taught him.

This passage from Galatians is a telling glimpse into Paul’s own humility, and it acts as well as a very powerful and correcting mirror that I must hold up to myself, because if I am completely honest with myself, it bothers me that Paul receives this strange, miraculous thing called grace….because I don’t like Paul!  He is an adroit, thought-provoking teacher and preacher, but he is also a stubborn-as-nails crank who was a party to murder and received not only a revelation from Jesus Christ, but a new calling and a pardon as well.  Now, I may be a stubborn-as-nails crank too, but I’ve never killed anyone, so why do Paul and I share the same job description?!

I have come to understand…I have been called to understand…that this is so because of another thing that Paul writes about here: that he had himself completely empty.  No influence from other teachers, no being told by others what to believe, just pure, unadulterated revelation.

And therein lies the paradox for religious teachers…like myself, but also like all of you if ever you are called upon to testify to your faith or bear witness or offer some sort of Christian perspective on something…ever.  The Word of God trumps the word of a person every single time, but we are persons with mere words, small “w” words.  We are not the Logos that John speaks of in His Gospel, and we never will be.  But we try to be.  We try to be when we try to over-define grace, to paint its boundaries with brushstrokes so broad that it may in fact exclude us even if we do not even realize it—or, perhaps worse—when we do realize it and are in denial.

It’s a natural tendency of ours, though, and not just in the realm of theological treatises.  We want to have control over things.  We long for it, we yearn for it.  We want to be able to achieve whatever it is we want, wherever we want, whenever we want.  We want to be like God.

And so, though it does not look it quite on the surface, everything that has happened to our venerable church facility—the burst pipe, the flood damage, all of it—is a pretty darn good illustration of what grace versus control really does look like.

Going through all the steps of the process of drying out and restoring our historic building, I wanted to just be able to wave a magic wand as opposed to having to wait a week for dehumidifiers to do their thing.  I wanted to be able to send the water away through sheer force of will, I wanted the water damage to just go away—in a way that did not strip apart walls and ceilings and floors.  I just wanted to put everything back to how it was.

Except for that carpet on the stairs and second floor.  We needed to be put out of its misery!

Here’s the thing, though: all of those things, the water being extracted, the damage being removed, the money to make it all happen: that has nothing at all to do with me.  I did not choose for our denomination’s disaster relief arm, the Week of Compassion, to step forward and offer a four-digit grant to help mitigate our insurance costs.  I did not ask for the kindness and professionalism of the specialists who have helped guide me—and, by extension us—through this process.  And I had no way to force out yours or anyone’s understanding and prayers for this latest obstacle to get resolved.  All of those things were offered to me and to us!

Just like grace.

And that’s the zen part of this whole grace thing: in order to get it, to really, truly get it, we must give something up too.  And what we give up—what we are loath to ever give up—is control. Because what we can control is truly very limited, and beyond ourselves, it is limited purely to the surface and the outer layer.  We cannot control what is inside.  So, what interests us lies only on the outside.  We begin to see everything outside ourselves as two-dimensional, lacking that inner quality that God places, because since it is of God, we cannot control it.

Think back to that young girl who became pregnant, decades ago at this school in Argentina.  Imagine her being reduced by other people to just two dimensions, rather than three: she is no longer a person but a thing to be controlled, to have rules set over by the school, to be suspended or expelled, to be punished or exiled.  And here comes this fellow from the school—and as a teacher, someone with authority and control in the school—and he treats her in accordance with, as crazy as it sounds, Jesus’ teachings: do unto others.  He did unto her.  And it mattered greatly.

Yet I have a hard time, a very hard time, extending the same sort of treatment to a religious teacher like Paul, to be able to see him three-dimensionally, as not just a sinner, but a sinner called and redeemed!  But I promise you this: the closer you get to it, the closer you will get to truly grasping the scope and grandeur of this ridiculous thing we call grace…something so ridiculous, something that extends so far, that to understand it without that surrender would make us think it vulgar or offensive.  And perhaps it is.  But there is a reason we call it “amazing,” too.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 22, 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stepping Away (For a Bit)

Hi y'all,

Over the weekend, a pipe burst in the second-floor kitchen of main building of our church, flooding the second and main floors.  We still don't know yet exactly how much damage was done to the property, but all the water has been extracted and the restoration specialists have been amazing.

But it has still added another huge plate to the many others I am spinning at the moment, and I need to take a week or two to focus on getting us here at the church through this--and through the other many things going on this month, including a wedding.

So while I will continue to post my sermons every Sunday, I won't have time for my regular  midweek updates until October, and hopefully I'll hit the ground running again here on the blog.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.  I promise the midweek hiatus is only temporary.  In the meanwhile, please pray for us here at FCC Longview as we bounce back from the damage the flooding has caused.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, September 15, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Recasting Eternity"

James 1:12-16

12 Those who stand firm during testing are blessed. They are tried and true. They will receive the life God has promised to those who love him as their reward. 13 No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death. 16 Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. (CEB)

“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week Two

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-Jewish theologian who eventually immigrated to—and taught in—the United States, tells this story (in Elie Wiesel’s The Sunflower) of a rabbi he once knew:

(This) rabbi, a scholar of extraordinary renown, revered also for his gentleness of character, entered a train…the rabbi, a man of slight stature, and of no distinct appearance, found a seat in a compartment.  There he was surrounded by traveling salesmen, who…started to play cards…one of those present said to him: “Either you join us, or leave the compartment,” took the rabbi by his collar, and pushed him out of the compartment.  For several hours, the rabbi had to stand on his feet until he reached his destination.

But this was also the destination of the salesman.  The rabbi left the train where he was immediately surrounded by admirers welcoming him and shaking his hands.  “Who is this man?” asked the salesman.  “You don’t know him?  He’s the rabbi!”  The salesman’s heart sank.  He had not realized who he had offended.  He quickly ran over to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness.  The rabbi declined to forgive him…he then went to the rabbi’s house and said, “Rabbi, I am not a rich man.  I have, however, savings of three hundred rubles.  I will give them to you for charity if you will forgive me.”  The rabbi’s answer was brief:  “No.”

The salesman’s anxiety was unbearable…when he shared his anxiety with some people in the synagogue, they were deeply surprised.  How could their rabbi, so gentle a person, be so unforgiving?  Eventually the rabbi was asked why he had not forgiven the salesman.  He said, “I cannot forgive him.  He did not know who I was.  He offended a common man.  Let him go to a common man and ask for forgiveness.”

What forgiveness really means to us—and how we ask for it—says a great deal about our presence in heaven or in hell—not just in any afterlife, but in the here and now.  And it matters.

This is a new sermon series that revolves around a new book, by a fairly new(ish) pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after beginning the Revolution church movement in Phoenix, he has gone on to plant Revolution churches in Atlanta and New York City, and he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  The chapter I am borrowing from this week is “Recasting Eternity.”  Jay writes in it:

When Jesus was asked if he wanted to bring down hellfire (Luke 9:54), He said, “You don’t know what you’re asking for.”  Perhaps when Christians talk about hell today, Jesus’ response would be the same…

(But) if I was saved from something, I was saved from myself.  We all have obsessions; we have dark places and secret desires.  That’s hell.  And when we give in to those things—and they take different forms for different people—we discover hell.

And then there are the things that happen to us that cause us hell.  Death, disease, loss, divorce—I’ve been through them, and the people who got me out of those dark places are the ones who bore the fruit of the kingdom of God: patience, kindness, self-control.  They taught me to find joy even in my sorrow.  To be patient with my grief.

And so I hope for life after death, but I believe in life before death.

Last week, we talked about how the Sadducees, one of the two main temple factions (the Pharisees being the other) in New Testament Jerusalem—had essentially stopped believing in an afterlife because their current life—the one they were living—was as good as it would ever be.

But Jay follows up in this chapter by explaining to us the dangers of concern only for the afterlife, and not for the here-and-now-life.  Because to him, heaven and hell are not so much abstractions, or distant worlds to be theorized over, but they are, in a sense, what we live in today.  Even in our lives today, we can catch glimpses of heaven and of hell.

Crucial to this worldview, I believe, is one key perspective: that it is not God who brings hell upon us.  We do it to one another, and we are capable of doing it to ourselves.  And that is why I was led to this passage from James—not the apostle James, but the James who was the brother of Jesus and the first archbishop of Jerusalem.  James puts it starkly: God tempts no person.  We instead tempt ourselves.  And we make available for ourselves a wide array of things to tempt one another with: power, money, sex, substances, you name it.  James says we are tempted by our desire for these things, that they lure and entice us in, sometimes without us even knowing it.  It’s the old frog-being-boiled-alive analogy: if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, he’ll hop out, but if you stick him in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature…well, you can guess the rest.

But here’s the curveball that life throws at us: we can become so concerned with our fate in the afterlife, of whether we go to heaven or to hell, that we forget all about the circumstances around us.  We neglect to see that the temperature of the water around us is rising, so focused are we on the horizon that we cannot see that the world we live in has begun to boil over.

And I have to think that this is in part why God—through Jesus—made the path to heaven so simple.  Notice I did not say “easy,” or “straightforward,” or anything like that.  I said simple.  And it is.  Which is the most important law, the scribes and temple authorities ask Jesus.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these hang the entirety of the law and the prophets.”  When Jesus says this in Matthew 22, He is not making our religion easier, or more straightforward, but He is making it simpler.

And I have begun to wonder if He did not do that precisely so that we could free our minds from the concern of heaven so that we could once again focus on the heavens and hells we live in now.

Because ultimately, those heavens and those hells that we live in now, in this life, all come from the same place: within.  Whether it is what we do to one another, or what we do to ourselves, we are responsible for what happens to us today, not just tomorrow.  But when all we see is tomorrow, we lose sight of how bad today really can be for people.  We say, “We just saved your soul!  You’re going to heaven now,” and the person we are talking to says, “Yes, but what about the today where I live in poverty, or where I am homeless, or where I am starving?”

In other words, just as religion that does not care about tomorrow—the belief of the Sadducees that there is not, cannot, will not, be anything to look forward to after death—is a dangerous religion, so too is a religion that does not care about today also dangerous.

Think again about the salesman in the story I told you, who offended the traveling rabbi and could not receive forgiveness.  He swings this pendulum from not caring at all about the present moment, because who does when they are physically assaulting someone, to caring only about the moment in the here and now when he can be forgiven for what he did to this holy man.  And the rabbi, in turn, is trying to teach him that he is looking for forgiveness in all the wrong places, because he is not finding it at either extreme of this pendulum.

We sometimes search for heaven and for hell, for forgiveness and grace and salvation and justice, in all the wrong places, and in so doing, we sometimes begin to focus on only one, rather than all of the above.  We focus on a god of judgment, rather than a god of both judgment AND mercy.  We focus on a god of wrath, rather than a god of both wrath AND love.

And, amazingly enough, in all of this theologizing mess, we are apt to lose sight of ourselves, of the roles that we play in all of this, of our own accountability and culpability in creating the heaven or the hell that another person might be living in right now.

Ultimately, I think we are apt to do that because it is an incredibly easy way to let ourselves off the hook, to turn our eyes from a great and terrible reality: this God who steps forward to offer us grace and salvation and mercy and all of these things, well…one of those things this God does not offer us is temptation.  And it might be easy enough to say, well, He doesn’t need to!  We do such a good job of tempting ourselves!  And we would not be wrong for thinking that.

But such an answer is ultimately incomplete.  We tempt ourselves not only with the things I listed earlier: power, money, sex, and so on, but also with the belief that we are made better than what we really are, that we deserve whatever heaven or hell we are living in because, hey, it means God likes me more than some other poor schlub who has it worse off than me.

But James—and Jay—says that God does not work that way.  And instead, when God sees such a perspective from us…well, it becomes yet another thing that we have to be saved from.  Fortunately, God has something to say about that, too.  And like with all these other temptations, He shows us a way out.  He shows us the way of Jesus Christ.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 15, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11: My 10th Anniversary Sermon, "On The Heights"

(In 2011, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday.  Before "officially" beginning my work at FCC Longview, I preached one last sermon at my childhood congregation in Kansas City with an old friend from youth group who also became a pastor and was recently ordained herself.  This is that sermon, based on Habbakuk 3:17-19 (below).

There will always be evil in this broken, fragile world.  But the sooner and more able we are to respond to evil with God's word, the better off I believe we ultimately shall be.  I believed then that God's love could triumph over evil.  And I believe it still.

In memory of the 2,977 men, women, and children who lost their lives to terrorism on September 11, 2001.  -E.A.)

Habakkuk 3:17-19

17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.

The rocker was no stranger to controversy. In decades past, his lyrics were appropriated by presidential campaigns, NGOs, and any number of people who decided their interpretation of his songs fit their own mission. But when he announced a series of ten concerts in New York City after a short hiatus from his work, an unprecedented thing happened…the New York police force’s largest union, the Patrolmens’ Benevolent Association called for a boycott of the entire series. What makes this story newsworthy is that the rocker was Bruce Springsteen, and in 2000, he had just penned the mournful song “41 Shots” in tribute to Amadou Diallo, the African-American immigrant and street cart vendor who was shot and killed by four white New York City police officers in his apartment in 1999.

But Bruce is also from the New York area, and just over a year after the boycott of his performances, the terrorist attacks that we remember today took place. Rejoining his longtime friends in the E Street Band, he penned a new song, called The Rising, for the eponymous album he would be releasing. And like so much of our painful pasts, the memory of the pain and hurt of the boycott was pushed aside.

You’ve probably heard this song at some point in the last ten years—and if you remember its bridge lyrics, they recall the New York sky, beginning as a backdrop for sorrow and tears before being transformed gradually into a sky of love, and of fullness, and of life itself. It is not often that poetry is put to events so fear-inducing. But every once in a while, across our history, it does happen.

The prophet Habakkuk likely began his career before the sacking of Judah by Babylon in 587 BCE, but much of the book attributed to him contains oracles concerning Babylon and the coming strife attending to Judah. His book begins with a cry that has been echoed by humanity from the Pearl Harbor and the World Wars to Oklahoma City and 9/11—“God, how long must I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” In the oft-cliched question of why bad things happen to good people, Habakkuk has already arrived at his answer—either God can act and ruthlessly chooses not to, or God cannot act and is grieving right alongside us in our suffering. And based on that, Habakkuk creates three chapters of poetry in his dialogue with God; in fact, the final chapter, the one from which today’s reading comes from, was meant to be sung, as evinced by the final line of “to the leader, with stringed instruments.”

And so turning to music in our own times of suffering and of need is a practice as old as time itself. And transcending that time are images played over and over again in our minds and ears as we hear the notes played and the lyrics sung. Habakkuk then, and Springsteen now, offer to us the image of the sky—Habakkuk says “heights”—as the backdrop for hope itself, not for the death that has arrived on their doorsteps, but for the promise of renewal that God offers us, and we can fulfill that promise simply because God has created us to be extraordinary in the depths of our grace and compassion when the need arises to do so. It is not that God would see the hurt and violence that Habakkuk sees, that we see, and do nothing, it is that God has already done so much in creating us. Even amidst the jingoism and prejudice that 9/11 gave light to, I still remember the numbers of people lining up to donate their money, their time, their labor, their blood, whatever they could of themselves, because of one immutable, unchangeable, unbelievable reality—with God, all things become possible, all hatred will meet its opposite, and our salvation will never be any further away than it was before. The extremity of 9/11 brought out terrible parts of us, but it also brought out truly inspiring parts of us as well. It is our painful task to take the bad along with the good, and it is our difficult task to transform the bad into good, not unlike how the sky itself can be transformed, from sorrow into life, from blackness into light.

There is an epilogue to this selflessness, and it is that such actions can transform situations both before and after 9/11. After 9/11, many of our first responders began suffering from medical conditions. But people are stepping up to heal them as well, just as the responders had stepped up on that day. And before 9/11, Bruce Springsteen would not have been welcome in many a New York police cruiser, but after that day, the rock star returned home to honor his city. The real tribute in remembering 9/11 is not in public displays of patriotic piety as much as it is in the day-in and day-out work of elevating it into a place into our communal memory that remembers, and memorializes, and grieves, but that does not hate. And ten years later, that task is still incomplete. But we are working towards it, step by step, bit by bit, piece by piece, soul by soul.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Olathe, Kansas
September 11, 2011

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

We are Legion, Reprise: Suicide Awareness Day

(Today, September 10, is World Suicide Awareness and Prevention Day.  What follows is an unedited re-post of an intensely personal installment from the weeklong "We Are Legion" series of blog posts from earlier this year.  This one was written in the wake of the suicide of Pastor Rick Warren's son Matthew, who was (is) my age.

Even when you feel completely, utterly unloved, God still loves you.  Please, always, always remember that. Don't be afraid to seek help if you need it.  -E.A.)

Trigger word warning: suicide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew was twenty-seven years old.

It is how old I am.

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

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

We aren't supposed to quit on God.

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

Depression is not a moral failing.

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

It is a disease.

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

And it isn't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in Christ, from someone who cares for you,

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

Sunday, September 8, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Dying and Rising With Christ"

Romans 6:1-11

So what are we going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? 2 Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it? 3 Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. 5 If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. 6 This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, 7 because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. 8 But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. 10 He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. 11 In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. (CEB)

“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week One

The webfeed wasn’t the greatest, but if you squinted, you could make it out: a pair of arms, one rotating after the other, bracketing a swim-capped head.  That was all you could see of her on the feed.  That was all you could see of history being made, of Diana Nyad, a courageous 64-year-old woman who finally, after four abortive attempts, became the first person to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, sans shark cages or safety tethers.

And as I watched her swim, it began to dawn on me: her emerging from the Gulf waters, triumphant, is not so different from what we would consider a baptism: an immersion into waters so miraculous that they forever change the person we are, because in being baptized, in being immersed, we reflect the image of Christ Himself—not only in His baptism, but in our being buried in the likeness of His death, and lifted up against in the likeness of His resurrection.

And it’s a funny thing, resurrection…we have witnesses to the empty tomb, to the angels who appeared, to the risen, bodily Jesus.  But now we have far, far more witnesses to the resurrections that happen today—not from death into life, but from limitations into immortality.  We live and die with our successes and our failures, and in this way, we do indeed die and rise with Jesus.

This is a new sermon series that revolves around a new book, by a fairly new pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after planting the Revolution church in New York City (as part of the same movement he began in Phoenix), he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  And so we begin this series with the chapter in Jay’s book entitled “Dying and Rising With Christ.”  He writes in it:

Afraid of God’s wrath, we’ve created an elaborate system to prove to ourselves exactly how far we are from those who deserve hell.  In other words, we’ve made sin our ultimate concern.  We’ve built rules and regulations so we don’t go anywhere near sinning.  And in doing so, we’ve recreated the law…

A few years ago, I would have read this chapter, thrown the book across the room, labeled the poor idiot who wrote this chapter a heretic, and preached a sermon about Jesus dying for our sins so (as long as we believed in him) God wouldn’t throw us in hell. 

But today I wonder if Jesus died for our sins in a completely different way than we think.  Maybe it was so we could understand exactly what the kingdom of God is like.  Maybe it’s not about giving God his pound of flesh so we would be spared hell.  Maybe it’s about showing us a way of dying to ourselves and rising again…

Jesus died and rose again after three days.  Saul died, blinded on the road to Damascus, and rose again.  Perhaps this dying and rising is what atonement is really about.

There’s an old joke about a person who goes into a completely empty sanctuary as a first-time visitor on Sunday morning—they are the first ones there for worship!  And they pick a seat and make themselves comfortable.  The second person to enter the sanctuary is a lifelong member and, seeing the new person, walks up to them and, in the completely empty sanctuary, says:

“You’re in my seat.”

We laugh because there is some degree of truth to this, right?  If y’all really wanted to mess with me when I first started, you would have kept switching your usual seats on me like I was a substitute teacher.  Although Jean did try to tell me her name was Alice for my first month here.

But church is a place where, let’s be honest, we like our rules.  We love ‘em.  We love rules that are written down, codified into bylaws and constitutions, doctrines and creeds, and we love rules that are simply adhered to because, well, that’s just what we do.  We love coming into church and knowing that everything is going to be a certain way.  Seriously, what would y’all do if I just got up one morning and said to all of you, “Okay, today we’re going to try snake handling?”

But when we indulge in those tendencies too much, bit by bit we have done what Paul is warning us about here in Romans—and what Jay is warning us about at first in his book: we are re-creating the law.  It’s not the same law as before, sure—there’s nothing about our church that says you can’t eat shellfish, or wear polyester, or pierce your slave’s ears.  But that does not mean that we are not in thrall to a law—it is just a different law than that of the Old Testament.

And that law is all-encompassing.  It really is all-inclusive.  It covers not only unofficially assigned seating on Sunday morning, it covers what sins are safe to confess in church and which ones aren’t.  It covers who we can accept and who we can’t.  It is, in effect, one great big seating chart: it says that those of us who live by the rules get to sit up front like the good pastor’s pets we are, and everyone else can just hang out in the spitball-throwing section behind us.

And so, despite Paul’s admonitions, we die to the law once more.  Because we still try to seek personal glory and satisfaction in the law.  We refuse to, as Jay puts it, die to ourselves, because why would we want to die when we have such a privileged spot in the kingdom of God already?

That was the dilemma that some of Jesus’ opponents faced in ancient Israel.  Not the Pharisees, who got way more ink in the Gospels, but the Sadducees, a rival temple authority faction that was even more reactionary than the Pharisees.  And the Sadducees had it made: they were a part of the elite, the 1%, the made-in-the-shade-with-cherry-lemonade crowd.  Life was as good as it would ever possibly be in that time and place.  So the Sadducees just stopped believing in any afterlife.  They decided that in their worldview, there was no heaven and no hell.  Because why would you hope for heaven when you could already have everything you wanted here, on earth?

When we start talking about legalism and rules and church, people often say that they are worried about us—the church—becoming like the Pharisees.  I’m not.  I’m worried about us becoming like the Sadducees, with no hope of heaven or promise of eternal fate, good or bad.

And so the Sadducees, in putting limits on the possible, by labeling it as impossible, shut themselves off from a fantastic new source of God’s grace: His Son, Jesus Christ.

Imagine being told to settle for the possible…actually, don’t imagine it: recall it.  It has surely happened to you at some point.  But then, something happens that completely changes what we believe to be attainable.  A man walks on the moon.  Or a doctor discovers a vaccine for polio.

Or a 64-year-old woman swims literally from one country to another.

And here we are, content in the rules and laws of our own little kingdom that we have built for ourselves, and we think, perhaps with inspiration but more likely with a dash of fear and trepidation, “Imagine what this kingdom will look like tomorrow!”

And when we get to that point—where we fear that what we find glory in will be lost to us—we are already dying inside, because we moved from creating and building something to holding onto it.  We are interested only in our piece of the pie, not in how the rest of the pie tastes.

Perhaps this should not surprise us.  After all, one of the biggest differences between us and Jesus is that while He was more than equipped for both the dying and rising parts, we really only come out of the box equipped for the dying part.  We’re good at that.  We’re good at dying.  It’s probably partly why we resist it so fiercely: we know that we can slide into it so damn easily.

But unlike Jesus, we aren’t naturals at the rising bit.  We don’t resurrect automatically after three days.  Resurrection, the act of being reborn, can be years or decades in the making because, yes, while we can have those born-again moments, those God experiences that cause us to cry out, “I have been to the mountaintop and I cannot unsee what I have seen, for I have cast mine eyes upward and saw the face of God,” at some point, we come down from the mountain again.

We return to the valley.  We fall back into the abyss.  Instead of being lifted up after our baptism, we plunge back under the cold water instead.

Put a different way: we’re good climbers, we Christians.  But we haven’t learned how to fly just yet.  We’re good at getting ourselves up for those brief, fleeting moments of ecstasy and divine communion, but we don’t know how to stay there, not for any sustained length of time, anyways.

Maybe we aren’t meant to, or designed to, or intended to.  But I doubt it.  Because in place of our need, our craving, to be in God’s presence, we build up these laws and these rules instead to comfort us, to act as a security blanket in what we perceive of as the absence of God’s grace.  We say that we are in because others are out, we make ourselves the kingdom while relegating others to exile, and in doing so, we make it all the more difficult to do what it is that Jesus—and Paul—is, in fact, calling us to do: to let Christ in to do the rising for us, to show us how it’s done.  And then, as He would say to us, we can then go, and do likewise.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 8, 2013

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Five Items That Every 21st Century Church Office Needs

(If y'all remember my recent attempt to be systematically theological or somesuch in this post explaining my views on penal substitutionary atonement, take a moment to read through a friend's response to it here.  Rev. Evan Welcher is the pastor of a congregation in western Iowa, not far from my own hometown of Kansas City, and we correspond frequently on Twitter.  While he and I obviously have differing opinions on the atonement, I truly appreciated the thoughtfulness, care, deliberation, and mutual respect his argument contains, and in responding to me, he does me the courtesy of framing my main thesis far better than I originally did: "Grace that is paid for is not grace at all."  I commend his post to y'all as a perspective on what the other side of this particular coin looks like.  -E.A.)

Here at FCC, I am lucky to work with Charlotte, our hardowkring, kind, and very competent office secretary.  One of my Achilles' heels in the workplace is office work: I am not, nor have I ever been, a good organizer or administrator, and she does a good job of seeing what my eyes miss and keeping me accountable for things that I forget.

But that job--not only of working well with the church pastor but of simply being able to work well, period--was made unnecessarily difficult for a long time because of outdated software and office equipment, and so during my first two years here, we have, bit by bit, upgraded almost everything in her office: we bought a new printer/scanner and shredder, a new wireless modem (along with a new wireless tower to expand our network to the main building as well as our office building), a new (refurbished) copier, and just last week, a new desktop computer, along with the newest Microsoft Office software.

The difference has been phenomenal.  I think we have only had one mechanical breakdown of any piece of office equipment that required the calling of a repair specialist, and even that was a pretty easy fix, saving us both time and money.  The new Office software should be able to allow us to bolster the production value of our church materials and publications.  And our responsiveness to a great many tasks has become more efficient and streamlined.

Yet I have also seen a great many church offices that do still operate with outdated equipment and software, and it is a shame because I know that while church budgets are usually very tight, we pastors also have a terrible tendency to be penny-wise and pound-foolish, unwilling to make upgrades that might, in the long run, actually be better for our congregations.

In light of this, here are five items that I have come to believe that no church office should be without.  If you're from a bigger church, you likely already have all these things...this is admittedly a post more geared towards my small church colleagues.  The first entry here is the longest and most important:

1. A computer with the following: Windows 7 or 8, Microsoft Office 2010 or later (including Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Paint), Constant Contact (or a similar program), and QuickBooks (or similar software).

As this list indicates, I am a PC person, but the same is true if your office has a Mac: technology is changing, and there are a great many things we need now that we might not have needed ten or fifteen years ago.  Our new computer has Windows 8--and so far is receiving mixed reviews from Charlotte--but Windows 7 is a more than capable OS and represents a major step up from the outdated XP and Vista systems--it is generally more secure from viruses and malware, and it more easily supports later (and better) versions of Office software.

Having a program to enable professional-level email communication with your congregation is also, in my book, a must-have.  At FCC Concord, the church I served for two years as a part-time student associate while in seminary, we used Constant Contact to email out weekly news updates as well as one-time announcements and devotionals, and it was more than worth the subscription fee we paid.

Granted, most churches in my experience do have QuickBooks or something similar, but I still hear the horror stories of churches that do their accounting in, say, an Excel Spreadsheet.  Charlotte is able to, with Quickbooks, break down every source of income and every expenditure so that it can be isolated and studied by me and our board, and that sort of transparency is priceless for a church.

Finally, a word about PowerPoint, Paint, Publisher, and similar programs: I can't say how important it is to have programs like these and to be competent in them.  They allow your church to put on a professional facade for members and visitors alike, and they help engage visual (as opposed to verbal) thinkers, thus allow for a more inclusive manner of communication to the church as a whole.

2. A color printer/copier/scanner all-in-one (fax, too, I guess, but who the heck still faxes anything anymore?)

Gone are the days where churches have to devote tons of space to file cabinets for every financial report, every minutes of every committee meeting ever, and for a bunch of other deceased trees we use to record the minutiae of church life.  Charlotte was able to transfer all our documents either digitally (or via CD for the bigger stuff), and we're already up and running on the new computer.  Everything these days can be saved, stored, and archived digitally via email, Cloud, etc.--or at least archived on CDs.  Even with hard copy documents, the inexpensiveness and ubiquity of scanners means there's no excuse for maintaining stacks of file cabinets anymore.  That office space could be put to better use for almost anything  (I personally recommend a beer fridge.  Just don't indulge while on the clock. ;-) ).

3. A shredder know, shreds.

Charlotte and I deal in a lot of confidential work, especially concerning the use of my discretionary fund (which is earmarked for direct financial assistance to needy families).  Maintaining the privacy of the people we aid is crucial to the dignity of our ministry, and simply ripping up paper in half is not good enough, even if you think the chances of someone finding it and read it are slim.  You'd be amazed at who goes dumpster diving at churches.  If you haven't yet, invest a hundred bucks in a shredder.  You'll be glad you did.

4. Wireless capability over the entire church building

One of the long term visions I had (have) for our beautiful grounds here at FCC Longview was to make this a place where folks can simply hang out and enjoy one another's company and fellowship.  We have experienced some real successes in that regard so far: our praise team turns our fellowship hall into a garage band venue once a month, and we had a Pilates class on Saturday mornings that sprawled into an open house-type of environment for all sorts of folks.  Both of these ministries have brought in new people to the church.  Having internet access will one day, I hope, go a long way towards facilitating this type of atmosphere, since people can camp out at the church like at a coffeehouse...except that at a church, you can offer programs and opportunities a coffeehouse never could.

It's simple to do, and much less expensive than you might think, especially if you already have a strong modem.  If you're worried about people using the network illicitly, just rotate the password on it every so often.  And you'll find plenty of other uses for it, too, trust me.  Sunday School, small groups, even worship: the possibilities are endless.

5. An online presence

This last one isn't so much an item as a paradigm or vision...but I'm still amazed at the legions of smaller churches that steadfastly refuse to either create an online presence, or update the meager online presence they have.  The church website is increasingly the first point of contact for first-time visitors, and everyone in your office should be familiar with how the website works and how to update it.  There is TONS of open-source software out there that makes this sort of thing fairly idiotproof--our own website uses Website Baker software that I was able to master fairly quickly, and the daughter of one of my congregants has been teaching me FTP code so that I can add podcasts and mp3s to the website.

But the website is for your members as well: your church's calendar should be online.  Sermon mp3s should be online.  Newsletters should be online (or at least emailed out to members).  And much like several of the other points here, all of these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg...compared to many bigger churches, our own website (and what it offers) is really quite bare bones!

Which returns me to my original asterisk that accompanied this list...if you belong to a bigger church, chances are you already have ALL these things I have listed.  But bigger churches often are not the ones that are in immediate danger of dying off because of a lack of access to the outside world.

A properly equipped office allows your church to properly equip its staff and members to engage in the mission of the body of Christ: to express the love of God, to strive for compassion, and to make disciples.  You owe it to yourself to make as many tools available as possible to achieve that mission.

Yours in Christ,

PS: As a disclaimer: while I describe a great many technology products in this post, I am not necessarily endorsing those specific versions, as there exist a great many products a church can use for similar purposes (trust me, there is plenty of  different email and small business accounting software out there).  I am simply endorsing having programs, software, and equipment, with comparable capacities.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Power of a Pastor

(I took some time off for Labor Day and wasn't preaching last Sunday, which is why there wasn't a sermon here for y'all this week.  We'll be starting a new sermon series on Sunday, though, which I am really looking forward to. -E.A.)

In the movie Keeping the Faith, one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time (sort of by default, because I like so few), Ben Stiller's character, a rabbi named Jake Schram, tells his synagogue in a sermon that a religious teacher cannot actually ever save anyone--that they can only offer themselves as guides to other fearful souls.

I was only 14 years old when that movie was released, but it is still a lesson that I have taken to heart as a fully-formed religious teacher, 13 years later.  I cannot save anyone.  I can only offer myself as a preacher and a teacher to fellow wayfarers and pilgrims.

It is humbling to admit, but it is also liberating as well.  The pressures of full-time ministry are the cause of a great many cases of burnout in my vocation, and if it sounds like I am trying to set the bar low for that reason, believe me when I say that it isn't the case.  Ask anyone directly involved in my work, and they will tell you how invested I am in it, and in doing it right.

But it is work in which I have little direct power.  I am not a prophet of old like Nathan or Isaiah who has the ear of the king.  I am not a high priest, clad in the twelve gemstones of the Israelite tribes, who alone in Israel is allowed to commune directly with God.  I am a man, and a weak man at that.  The direct power I have over this world--shaping it, influencing it, or otherwise molding it according to my vision is truly very limited.

Yet the indirect power I possess is practically limitless.  Even as the pastor of a small church, I have the ear of a flock whose numbers are increasing.  Each of them lives within their own lives, their own homes and spheres of influence and power, and God willing, what I say to them every Sunday has some impact on their life, to keep them doing what they do well in making the world and the kingdom a better place.  So many laypeople I know who do amazing, fantastic justice- and mission-oriented work tell me that they could not do what they do without the church and its teaching.

The most concrete example of this phenomenon that I have seen lately comes from a place mostly synonymous with tragedy and with death: the life of the principal at Columbine High School.  He recently announced his retirement, effective at the end of this school year, and buried in the article announcing it was this particular recollection:

DeAngelis described how two days after the Columbine shootings — in which 12 students and one teacher was shot to death before the two teen gunmen killed themselves in Littleton, Colo. — he went to his pastor seeking answers.  "He said, 'Frank, there's a reason you did not die that day. You got a cause. You need to rebuild that community.'"

And as a result, this brave principal and public servant stayed at his post until the children who were in diapers at the time of the Columbine shootings are now graduating from his school.

To my colleagues: this is the sort of power we do wield.  While sometimes our callings may feel like we are meant to simply run on treadmills, there are also moments when we may not move heaven and earth ourselves, but enable another to do so in our stead.  That is a vital part of ministry, so much so that these are the types of occurrences that keep us from burning and flaming out.

To my lay audience: I imagine that this post represents, in many ways, the deepest longings of your own pastor, whether it be me or another servant of God.  We got into this line of work because we felt called to make a difference in the lives of other fearful souls, and every time we are able to for the better, it validates that calling and makes us better at our jobs.  If your pastor or your church has empowered you to be better at what you do, and to be better at improving the world around us, then I humbly ask you to say a quick prayer of thanks to God for them.

Those prayers mean a lot to us, trust me.

Yours in Christ,