Tuesday, October 29, 2013

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

November 2013: "Some Thoughts on Thanksgiving"

Dear Church,

Turkey Day arrives this month, and everything that goes with it: football, family, Black Friday, and so on. It's a jam-packed weekend for a lot of us, especially if we have particular family traditions we celebrate year in and year out.

But on this Thanksgiving, I want to focus not on the "thanks" part, but on the "giving" part that comes after "thanks." After all, it is one thing to be thankful--to say "thank you," to express gratitude, to feel grateful. It is another thing entirely to act on it. A lot of us will be able to celebrate Thanksgiving with a feast, but how are we to express our thanks next to someone who does not have enough to eat? We will be able to celebrate Thanksgiving in a home--whether ours or somebody else's--but how should we say thanks alongside someone who lives on the streets? Surely it can't be by doing all things I listed earlier: the football, the turkey, the Black Friday shop-a-thon.

No, we can do all those things on Thanksgiving, but we cannot do *only* those things on Thanksgiving. We cannot limit Thanksgiving to that. We do it a disservice, and we do ourselves a disservice. It is very much Christian to express one's thanks by doing something. A leper is healed by Jesus, and he falls at Jesus' feet and worships Him. Mary, sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus' feet with oil in part, I have to think, as a symbol of gratitude and appreciation. And there are innumerable stories throughout the church's history of Christians expressing gratitude for something done for them by in turn doing something else for others.

I can't point to something and say, "That is thanks" the same way I can point to a chair and say, "That is chair." But what I--and you--can do is point to something and say, "That is something that has been given from thanks." How can you give--in the most literal sense of the term--thanks to God and to one another on this Thanksgiving?

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

"The Screwtape Sermons: Exploring Scripture with C.S. Lewis" sermon series, continued 

November 3: “The Screwtape Letters,” Philippians 1:27-2:4 

November 10: “Mere Christianity,” Philippians 2:5-11 

November 17: “The Great Divorce,” John 12:44-50 

November 24: “Freud’s Last Session,” John 3:1-10

Sunday, October 27, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"

John 2:13-22

13 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. 15 When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. 16 And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” 17 Then His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house has eaten[a] Me up.”[b] 18 So the Jews answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?” 19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them;[c] and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said. (CEB)

“The Screwtape Sermons: Exploring Scripture With C.S. Lewis,” Week One

The mother of four—and a lay leader in a Disciples congregation—recounted in the interview how her family, like untold others in this economy, had recently come upon hard financial times:

“My husband recently took a position for a company making half of what he was making before.  I am a full-time college student.  We got married young.  We have four children under the age of eight.  For the last two weeks, the check engine light has been on in my car.  And this morning, my husband went out to get in his pick-up and it didn’t start.”

So, in the midst of this worry, she goes grocery shopping at the local supermarket…and she has her wallet stolen by a pickpocket.  Instead of screaming for the police, she walked up to the man who had picked her pocket and gave him an ultimatum…an extremely charitable one.  She said:

“I think you have something of mine.  I’m going to give you a choice.  You can give me my wallet and I’ll forgive you right now, and I’ll even take you to the front and pay for your groceries.  Or (I will) call the police.”

He gave up the wallet.  But that wasn’t the end of it:

“He started crying when we walked up to the front.  He said he was sorry about twenty times by the time we went from the pickle aisle to the front.  He told me he was desperate…he said, ‘I’ll never forget tonight.  I’m broke, I have kids, I’m embarrassed and I’m sorry.’”

“I never carry cash.  When I got to the checkout counter that day, his (the pickpocket’s) total was a little over $27 (for milk, bread, crackers, soup, and cheese).  And I had $28 in cash in my wallet.  And so I knew in that moment it wasn’t me.  It was Christ that played in that moment.”

And it probably was—for so many reasons.  Yes, this is a story about forgiveness, about loving your enemy, about seeing the soul in another, but ultimately, it was about something even more: two people, having been torn down—both of them broke or in hard straits—and one of them chooses to build the other back up—to raise them up, as Jesus says about Himself here in John 2.

This will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us…man, that sounds crazy to say.  But yep, this is it—the last sermon series before we spend four weeks on Advent and two more on Christmas.  This is a series that I have wanted to do for a long time, but never quite found the right spot in the calendar until now.  And it’s a bit different than my usual series, which are often about a book of Scripture or a book by a contemporary author, or some other theme…this series is centered around a person: Clive Staples Lewis, the 20th century Christian writer and apologist who wrote a great many books you may have heard of: the Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Mere Christianity.  He’s a popular fellow in a great many Christian circles, and so I decided to use him as the proverbial guinea pig in this new experiment of mine in taking a slightly different approach to a sermon series.  And we’ll begin this series by talking about perhaps Lewis’s most famous book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which acts as the second installment in the Chronicles of Narnia chronology, and which was a staple of my own childhood bookshelf too, long before I even knew the book was “Christian.”

The main plot point revolves around a lion, Aslan, who is the rightful king of Narnia, a fantastical world accessed via this world through a magical wardrobe, and whose reign has been usurped by the witch Jadis, who wrongfully rules Narnia (hence, the title of the book).  And that plot point is an allusion to Christ’s crucifixion—as the book’s climax nears, Aslan sacrifices himself for four children who had made their way into Narnia through the wardrobe by exchanging his life for theirs when the witch tries to execute one of the children for treason.

The overlap to Christ is pretty obvious—Christ sacrificed Himself to save us, His children, and the stone upon which Aslan is killed breaks—recalling the temple curtain being torn into two upon Christ’s death in Matthew’s Gospel, signifying the fall of any boundary between God and humanity, and the breaking of Pharisaic law and legalism with the mercy of Jesus Christ.

But rather than use Matthew’s story of the temple curtain being torn into two, I was led to John’s version of the temple cleansing, because it, in fact, acts as the very first allegory to Christ’s crucifixion (notice, I say allegory, not prophecy).  The scene is pretty straightforward: it’s Passover—the first of three in Jesus’ ministry by John’s Gospel—so Jesus travels to Jerusalem.  He arrives at the temple, sees the moneychangers, and forcibly expels them with a whip.

Why is this a big deal?  I mean, we live in a country that loves it a free market.  Capitalism is what defines the American economy.  Well…sort of.  This wasn’t so much capitalism so much as money-gouging.  Firstly, temple law dictated that shekels—the Israelite currency—be used for temple purchases.  But since Israel was under Roman occupation at the time, the primary currency used was Roman denarii—necessitating the use of moneychangers, whose presence was tolerated by the temple authorities such that the moneychangers basically had a monopoly over their services and could charge whatever commissions they wished.

Similarly, the animal wholesalers made a proverbial killing—temple law mandated animal sacrifice because, you know, God is from Kansas City and loves Him some good barbeque.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a big reason why capitalism—why any economic system that relies on monetary currency as its basic unit—thrives is because we seldom work for barter anymore.  After all, it simply will not do for me to take my goats into Safeway to exchange them for some milk and eggs—I’m liable to have Animal Control, the county health inspector, and the doofuses at PETA all called on me.

Well, it was the same for ancient Israelites—minus PETA, probably.  It simply was not practical for pilgrims to travel with their own animals, so they would wait until they got to Jerusalem and then buy an animal to sacrifice at the temple.  But in verse 16, Jesus specifically condemns the sellers of doves.  It wasn’t because Jesus had an affinity for doves…well, maybe He did, and Hollywood missed out on a major opportunity with next summer’s blockbuster hit, “The Dove Whisperer.”  No, doves—and pigeons and other birds—were available for the poorest pilgrims, people who could not afford to buy a proper animal sacrifice like a cow or a sheep.  This also reinforces the divine order of foodstuffs: meat beats poultry every time.  Just ask God.

In any case, Jesus is reserves His fury for the merchants who are purposely exploiting the working class and the truly destitute—the sellers of doves.  Think of them as you would of predatory lenders like payday loan shops and loan sharks today.  Why does any of this matter?

Rewind to the story I told you at the beginning.  If people will try to steal from one another out of desperation today, I am certain that they would have done so back then as well.  And so you have a temple, a place of sacredness and divinity, that has literally become a den of thieves—not only of price-gougers, but of desperate pilgrims ironically turning to thievery in order to worship.

And so Jesus comes in, and He cleans out the temple, but then He says something interesting: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  John is very clear here in his Greek: rather than the Greek term meaning “to construct,” Jesus here is, literally saying, “I will raise it up.”  This is not a physical reconstruction, but a spiritual restoration.  And this is so because, as John conveys to us (though the crowd doesn’t get it), the temple Jesus speaks of is Himself.

But in both senses—the physical, monetary, financial sense, and the spiritual, otherworldly, sacred sense, debts can be forgiven.  A woman can forgive the sin of having her wallet stolen from her, and go so far as to pay that thief’s debt for his food.  And a Savior can forgive us the sin of one day killing Him, and go so far as to come back to life, just to prove the point that far from having our debts paid (because honestly, that makes God sound an awful lot like one of those loan sharks at the temple), we have our debts to Him forgiven as well, just as it is prayed in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount.  God forgives us our debts.  It is the lesson of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  It is the lesson of John 2.  And it is the lesson by which we are meant to live: forgiving one another, as Christ has already forgiven us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 27, 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sacrificing One's Spiritual Language: A Response to Tom Ehrich

One of my mentors here in the region was a pastor for over four decades before retiring.  He is basically a walking encyclopedia of regional and denominational history, and being able to pick his brain is a privilege that I am humbly afforded on a regular basis.

He also sends emails my way that he think might interest me--and a pair of such emails did, recently two emails in succession from Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest and author at Church Wellness, entitled "The Puzzle of Reaching Young Adults" (divided into two parts).

I won't quote the entire message verbatim here--but these are two especially meaningful (for me) excerpts, one from each part, that I am *hopefully* not taking out of too much context:

From Part I:

Young adults want sincerity, authenticity and a missional orientation. When they run up against our typical concern for politeness and institutional maintenance, they walk away. And to be honest, why shouldn't they? We communicate the wrong message: that we want them to save our churches, when we should be saying we need their help in saving the world. We speak first, listen later. We want them to adapt to us. We want their money but not their unique and fresh ideas.

And from Part II:

Don't ask them to rescue your church. They didn't drive your church to its knees. You and your predecessors did that. Young adults aren't the answer to your sagging budget, empty pews, incessant bickering, fear of change, fear of commitment, or weak stewardship. They might represent the answer, but it won't be in the form of rescuing what you know and value. If they dare to get close to us -- remember, to them we are toxic -- it won't be to slide smoothly into traces we have fashioned. It will be to do what God wants done, namely, bring new creation into being.

Don't draw lines or make demands. We have forfeited the right to get our way. Everything must be open for renewal. No shoulds, no non-negotiables. The church we have inherited and tried to keep alive isn't at all what Jesus had in mind. Read the Gospels. Jesus was about transformation, not continuity; a cycle of change and more change that draws us inexorably toward God.

I share both of these excerpts because they were the parts where I wanted to jump up and down, pump my fists in the air, and scream, "F***ING-A RIGHT!"  But I was sitting in my office, so I didn't.  After all, having the pastor drop F-bombs (at least on company time?) simply shall not do.

So instead, I write (and put censored F-bombs into print, apparently) here.  Because this is something I have shared with y'all on many an occasion--my disillusionment with the established mainline church as a twentysomething pastor.  It is genuinely heartwarming and affirming to hear someone from an older generation saying what many of us young'uns have been thinking--and saying--for a while now, and I commend his thoughts on this question to all of you for a truly thoughtful and deeply meaningful perspective here.

But we still aren't there yet, even with such radical self-realization.  And a great example of that is, in fact, from Tom Ehrich himself--in his "Part I" email, he opens with Winston Churchill's quote about Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and then says that "for established churches, THAT (emphasis mine) puzzle is how to reach young adults."

For those of you keeping score at home, that would be a Cold War-generation pastor comparing my generation to communist Russia.

I was not amused.

There's a slight irony in writing about the need to talk and listen to a younger generation and then leading off with a metaphor likely to go over that younger generation's collective head (seriously, the Soviet Union went splat before I turned six).  But the bigger concern is that if, in this scenario, the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation are NATO and the western allies, us whippersnappers are their natural antagonists, a premise that I absolutely, 100% reject, both on principle and on praxis.

Now, first off, to those who would say I'm being nitpicky here: wouldn't it be just as easy to simply say, "It's a puzzle for the mainline church today to reach out to young adults?"  It would have been, so let's dispense with that right away.

But as I wrote to my mentor in response to Ehrich's columns, I pastor a church that has become increasingly inter- and multi-generational, and that this bridging of generations is in fact a draw for many of the young adults and families who have joined over the past two years--more than once in a new member's class, someone has said to me something to the effect of, "It's like I have grandparents all over again.  It's amazing."

Yes, we speak a different language than our older brethren (and in fairness, that's perhaps one way in which the Russia metaphor is applicable).  But that doesn't mean we aren't interested in the language our elders speak--what we really want is for that interest to be reciprocal.

That's why what Ehrich says later on is so important: when we young adults see a church's concern for politeness and institutional maintenance (I have for years been referring to this phenomenon as "belonging to the Church of Be Nice and Chew With Your Mouth Closed"), we shut down.  Because what is being asked of us is a unilateral sacrifice: we are being asked to silence our own language and our own spirituality for the sake of saving the spiritual language of our predecessors.

In other words, we are asked to do this herculean, potentially impossible task of saving the church, and we aren't even able to negotiate our own terms for doing so.

So we leave.  Wouldn't you, if you were asked to do something so big, so major and were given little to no say in how you are supposed to go about doing it?

Put a different way--would you apply for a job consisting of responsibilities that you aren't gifted in or interested in, and for the benefit of your bosses, rather than for mutual benefit of both?

It is inaccurate to say that my generation is godless.  It *is* accurate to say that we are unchurched.  But being unchurched does not translate into having no thirst for God, or for spiritual growth.  Being unchurched translates into not being interested in the church on the terms that have been presented to us.

(The sad thing is that I think the church does this--expecting unilateral sacrifice from certain people for nothing in return--in a great many other areas as well, but that is the topic for another post.)

Tom Ehrich does offer some action steps in his two messages, and while I appreciate the concreteness of his imperative, I would also humbly suggest another step that (I think) acts as a natural progression from the excerpt I quote in part II, where he says that everything should be on the table...

I think this should include language--our choice of words, metaphors, idioms, and descriptors of experience...the whole kibosh, basically.

To Ehrich's point about the Gospels: Jesus not only introduces new language ("Our Father, who art in Heaven...), He reinvents and reinterprets older language ("I am the Bread of Life").  So being open to allowing current language to be reinvented, reinterpreted, or (dare I say it) respectfully discarded is Scriptural in addition to necessary.  And it represents a shared yoke of sacrifice: it means both old and young alike are sacrificing things for the sake of this great, amazing, flawed, powerful thing we call the Christian Church.

So...in a sentence, fewer comparisons to communist Russia, please, and more openness to new expressions of spirituality.

Which isn't a new way of saying "fewer old, dirge-like hymns, more soulful, upbeat music, please" (although I do sometimes say that!), but my way of saying what Ehrich does eventually say: less of asking the younger generation to save your church, and more of asking us to build our own church.

That's all we want, really.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Being My Own Barber

For the past five years, I have shaved my head--mostly down to just a bare bit of stubble, Andre Agassi-style--as a result of baldness setting in at a very early age (really, my hair was probably starting to fall out by the time I could legally purchase lottery tickets).  I like it, for the most part--yes, I have to either wear sunscreen or a hat in the summer, but as far as a ratio of stylishness to time and money invested, shaving your head really cannot be beat.  I don't have to do anything to it in the morning, I have done it so many times that I am down to about five minutes to shave and rinse, and the only money I spend on it is buying a new electric razor every couple of years after the old one wears out.  I highly recommend it.

Last week, though, as I was going about making my head all bald, I remembered--and I honestly have no idea why--a devotional I wrote a few years ago while I was in seminary and at my field education posting about how shaving my head has become a spiritual practice.

And I realized that somewhere between then and now, I had lost touch with that spiritual practice.  Shaving my head had become purely mundane again.

Realizing this wasn't a good feeling--it was, essentially, having to admit that I had taken a step backward spiritually, even in a relatively very small part of my life.

So I'm trying to get back into seeing the spiritual in the mundane again, and that includes my hairstyle.  And I'm sharing the devotional with you here (below, in italics), in the hopes that maybe it can do for you what it did for me--remind you of just how ever-present God is in our lives.

Yours in Christ,

I have been shaving my head for two years. As a teenager, pattern baldness began setting in, and after a spectacularly ill-advised attempt to grow my hair out during college (there are pictures on Facebook if you forgot what I looked like with a ponytail between the years of 2005-2008!), I have been for the past year the second extremely bald guy on the pastoral staff of First Christian Church of Concord (along with the senior pastor, Russ Peterman). 

Lately, though, my weekly ritual of firing up the electric razor and running it across my head has taken on a more spiritual dimension. Part of me wants to blame this on the fact that earlier this year, I wrapped up a very spiritual Lent for 2010, but I think it more has to do with my desire to find a deeper meaning for why I adorn myself the way I do. The reason "it looks good on me" just doesn't cut it anymore. 

In the Old Testament, there was a man named Manoah, who was to be the father of the Israelite hero Samson. Manoah is told by an angel that Samson is to be set apart as a Nazirite-that is, he will be consecrated to God's service, and as a sign of this, no razor shall ever touch his head. 

Though I have come to believe that we are all, as divine children, consecrated by God, I am beginning to see newfound connections to other fellow children by right of my shaved head-children who share my lack of locks but who, unlike me, lost their hair involuntarily-children for whom the razor was not a choice. 

As I drag my razor across my scalp, I pray for all those who have faced down the struggle of cancer, and who have seen their hair tumble down as a result of chemotherapy. 

As I trace my razor around my temples, I think of the Jewish women whose hair was forcibly shorn in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, of those whose bodies were seen as no longer their own.

As I sweep my razor down my neck, I recall the hospital patients whose hair is removed in preparation for surgery, and who courageously cling to their dignity as their doctors work to save their lives.

And as I bow down to wash my head afterwards, I give thanks for all the people-including my sister-who have donated their own hair to organizations like Locks of Love. 

We shape and mold our hair, we wash and dry it. We dye it and dread it, style it and lose it. And sometimes, we cut it off and give it away. 

What a wonderful badge of our own humanity.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Big Lie About Having an Office

My parents will tell you, my sister will tell you, my fiancée will tell you: I don’t march well to the beat of another drummer (actually, my high school band director, Mr. Adams, could probably tell you that too.  But I digress).  I also don’t really march well to my own beat.  I’m big, clumsy, and occasionally oblivious.  If I have a drummer I march to, it is probably a demented, sleep-deprived infant who is banging things at random with its tiny little infant fists.

All of that is to say this: I sometimes struggle with the expectations other people put upon me.  Not because I can’t live up to them—although sometimes that’s true—but because I won’t, because those expectations are, to be honest, soul-deadening.

Expectations like the belief that I must marry and have kids before becoming anyone’s senior pastor (yes, I’ve had that told to me).  Expectations like the advice that I take voice lessons to help my self-taught singing voice because “churches expect their pastors to be able to sing’ (yes, I’ve had that told to me, too).  And it’s something that certainly isn’t limited to me, it’s something that affects a lot of pastors.

I’m talking about the expectation of us always being in our office (you know, in addition to being out in the community performing outreach, out in the hospitals and nursing homes doing visitations, and out in the homes of our congregants).  If we aren’t in our office, we must not be doing real, actual, bona fide work.  So when my advertised office hours add up to only 16 hours per week (all day Mondays and most Thursdays, in case you’re wondering), and people ask me, in true Office Space fashion, “what it is you do here,” part of me just wants to run from this conversation screaming.

Here’s the thing you may not know about your pastor…and I’m not saying this is true for all pastors, but if for no other reason than gut feeling, I’m willing to bet it’s the case for a lot of us: we don’t actually like sitting in our offices.  Yes, it is important for us to be accessible to you, our congregants.  Yes, it is important for us to be doing the business of the parish.  But in an age of smartphones and wifi everywhere, the traditional office is rapidly going the way of the dodo.

And if I’m honest, good riddance.  I have never been good at holding a 9-to-5 schedule.  The few times I have done so in ministry (like for my chaplaincy internship in San Francisco), I was miserable.  I was commuting 40 minutes a day on a train—and then in a van shuttle—surrounded by wan, sallow cubicle monkeys who went about their commutes in the most robotic possible way.  And I’d go to my internship, where I would have to log every single minute of my workday, and I would continue to be miserable, and I would commute back across the bay with the same wan, sallow, miserable cubicle monkeys/Office Space extras.

It sucked.

I have always been at my best at two different times of the day: early in the morning, right after I have had my coffee, and early in the evening, when I usually get a second wind around five o’clock after having a snack or a brisk walk around the block.  The middle of the afternoon?  I am worse than useless.  I’m the tired, motley jackass in those 5-hour-energy commercials who is shuffling back to the coffeepot every hour.  I’m the person for whom siestas exist in the Spanish-influenced parts of the world.

But, because the mirage of the office must be maintained, I, and many other pastors, set up shop even when we aren’t at our best.  We therefore aren’t especially productive, and our work then bleeds over into the evening hours…which for me is when I am, actually, more productive, but it is still an inefficient way to go about my ministry.  It certainly does neither me or my congregation any favors, and I can’t imagine it thrills God either, for one additional reason:

It doesn’t get me outside of the Disciples orbit all THAT often.

If we—and I’m including myself here—are called to be the light of the world, salt of the earth, city on a hill, and so on, then it doesn’t do me or anyone else a whole lot of good to only interact with the exact same people week after week.  If I’m to grow as a Christian—and if, God willing, I am to help others grow as well—getting outside of my usual circles every now and again is important (for a far more eloquent take on this exact issue, I highly recommend Dan Kimball’s book “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” which I did a sermon series on a year ago).

So, really, I’d like to see us in the Church (big ‘c,’ universal church) move away from another paradigm that perhaps is a tad outmoded, and certainly is not always geared for efficiency…the paradigm of office work.  It is a lie that a pastor must have an office.  Yes, it is NICE that I have one—it does make a significant portion of my work much, much easier.

But my calling is no more tied to my office than Christianity is tied to any one church’s sanctuary.  It’s all global by now.

And that’s the way it needs to be if Christianity is to flourish.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, October 13, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Losing Belief, Finding Faith"

Mark 9:14-24

14 And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. 15 Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. 16 And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?” 17 Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. 18 And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” 19 He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. 21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe,[a] all things are possible to him who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (CEB)

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

She became world-famous at only 14…and so you might not need me to repeat her story to here, but here it is anyhow: born and raised in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai became the target of a Taliban assassination when she began publicly criticizing their fundamentalism.  And so a Talib assassin shot her in the head on a bus with a pistol at point-blank range.

Miraculously, she survived.  And now, two years later, she is the author of a book and is sitting down to be interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and of course he asks her—very gently—about the assassination attempt.  And this is what she said, in part:

I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me.  But then I said, “If he comes, what would you do, Malala?”  Then I would reply to myself, “Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.”  But then I said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib.  You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harsh(ness), you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.”  Then I said I will tell him how important education is, and that I even want education for your children as well.  And I will tell him, “That is what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”

What is amazing about this response—to me, at least—is something that might get lost on American audiences, and that is that Malala would want to hit her assailant with a shoe.  And in many Near Eastern and South Asian nations, feet and shoes are seen as something that can be profoundly insulting—anyone remember when George W. Bush had a pair of shoes chucked at him at a presser in Iraq?  And so this isn’t just self-defense that Malala is talking about here, it is about wanting to insult the people who persecute you.  And instead she reaches for something higher, and tells us to do the same, and when she does, I feel just like the father in this story whom Jesus tells that all things are possible for one who believes.  I want to cry out, “Then help me in my unbelief!”  Because the sinful side of me would rather insult, not have faith.

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 “Losing Belief, Finding Faith.”  Jay writes in it (in part):

What should we do with all this uncertainty and doubt?  The risk of faith is exposure to the unknown.  No one wants the unknown.  We want to know.  We want to be certain.  We want a foundation, something to hang onto, because life is messy.  Life is tough…

I haven’t got it all figured out.  But I’ve decided to live as if life has meaning.  I’m going to live as though perhaps Jesus really was the Son of God.  I’m going to live in the idea of grace.  I’m going to love my neighbor as myself.  I’m going to work to free people from hell on earth.  I’m going to try to put food in the mouths of people who are hungry.  I’m going to try to help end suffering for the victims of the sex trade industry.  I’m going to work to end genocide in Darfur.  Even if life is meaningless, I’m going to work to end suffering.

Hold onto your truth, faith says, but your truth doesn’t have to hold onto you.  The freedom to have faith instead of belief is, to me, one of the most beautiful things about following Christ.

While nominally a healing or exorcism story—and the circumstances are pretty similar to most other such stories depicted the Gospels—this passage from Mark really isn’t about the son who is being healed at all.  It is about the boy’s father.

We are almost to Holy Week at this point in Mark—we are in Mark 9; Mark 10 depicts Jesus’ journey south to Jerusalem, and Mark 11 recounts His triumphal entry into the Holy City that we remember every year on Palm Sunday.  So there has been ample time for Jesus’ reputation as a healer and as an exorcist to spread throughout the land, and this father reaches the point that I have to think any parent of a child with a chronic, debilitating condition would: he’ll try anything, even if that “anything” is an itinerant rabbi with powers you know of only via hearsay.

So the father meets Jesus after first trying to see if one of the Disciples could heal his boy, and of course the Disciples—with their primary literary role of acting as Jesus’ bumbling, Keystone Kops-esque foils—fail.  And we cannot tell if Jesus’ harangue in reply, the “you faithless generation, how long must I be among you?” line, is in response to the father’s obsequiousness or in response to His own followers’ incompetence.  My guess is that it is in fact both, because of what Jesus says in verse 23: all things are possible for one who believes.  In other words, if the Disciples truly believed, they could have healed this boy.

But that task instead falls to Jesus, and in begging Jesus to do this, the boy’s father holds out a slender glimmer of faith: “but if YOU are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  And of course, we know that Jesus is capable of doing anything, or at least SOMETHING to heal this boy, but as the New Testament scholar Douglas Hare puts it, the father’s “dialogue with jesus stands for many later believers, who would like to believe in the power of God as revealed in Jesus…but find their will to believe inhibited by skepticism based on everyday experience.”

And that is why this story is really about the father…because the father describes us perfectly.  We may or may not empathize with his son—if we suffer from epilepsy, we are probably apt to—but the father, well, the father is us, he is us crying out to Jesus, “Help me in my unbelief!”

The father is me.  And sometimes I’m crying out not only to Jesus, but to anyone who believes in Him as well.  That is how much the everyday experiences of the world can weigh down on a person’s faith—even pastors experience it.

I experienced it most recently after our building was flooded.  Like I told many of you, I took that freak act of God personally, when there was no possible way it could have been.

And so instead of you coming to me, saying, “Pastor, help me in my unbelief,” it was me saying to you, “Help me in my unbelief!”  Any many of you did.  You really did.

That is, at its core, what this story from Mark 9 is about, and what makes it so unique among all the healing stories that Mark includes in his Gospel.  Yes, a boy is made well.  But in so doing, a father’s desperation is exorcised as well.  OUR desperation is exorcised as well.

How often do you feel like you have been having an amazing day, an amazing week, an amazing year, and all of the sudden something terrible happens, and you plead with God, “If you can do something God, DO IT.”

And of course God does not work like that.  He is not a message box we can simply deposit our requests into.  But because life is messy, because life is tough, that is what we want Him to be.

So we turn to God when we see a teenaged girl shot in the head by religious fundamentalists and we say to Him, “Help me in my unbelief!”  And so He speaks to us through that little girl.

We look at God when we see our church harmed, whether by flood or by vandalism or by attempted arson, and we wonder who the hell would do this, and we scream at God, “Help me in my unbelief!”  And so He speaks to us through one another.

We look at the rest of this broken little world, with its poverty and its starvation, with its addictions and its homelessness, with its violence and its slavery, and at the people for whom this is their everyday experience, and we shout at God, “Help me in my unbelief!”  And so He speaks to us through Jesus Christ.

And in speaking to us, God helps us in our unbelief by giving us more than beliefs—by giving us faith…by giving us something to have faith in.

There are so many things I do not know.  That I may never know.  But this I know and believe with my whole heart and my whole mind: that God stands ready to help us in our unbelief if we ask Him to.  God is not so distant, not so cold, not so uncaring, as to ignore us.

Jesus could have sent this desperate, faith-lacking father on his way.  He could have dismissed him without talking to him, without acknowledging him, and certainly without healing the stricken son.  Jesus could have done that to this man.  We may feel like Jesus could do that to us.

But He didn’t.

That is the miracle that takes place here…yes, an illness is defeated by God’s healing.  But more staggeringly, indifference is defeated by compassion.  It is how we are helped in our unbelief.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 13, 2013

Saturday, October 12, 2013

What Pastors do on Saturday Nights

I have joked with many a colleague that Saturday Night Live was a show created for pastors--because everyone knows where we will be on Saturday night!  At home, psyching up for tomorrow.  While Saturday night is the most relaxing night on the calendar for the typical 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday worker, it is a night that serves a great many purposes for us preachers...hence, why I write this to you on a Saturday night.  It's, in a way, really a work night.

I know some pastors who will spend their Saturday nights in their home offices fine-tuning their sermons...I prefer not to do that because my sermons have to be more deliberately thought-out; an extemporaneous preacher I am emphatically not.  But I *will* spend Saturday nights reviewing my Sunday School lesson plans, my notes for tomorrow's board meeting, thinking about a communion meditation, those sorts of things.

But I much prefer (if possible--and sometimes after a particularly hectic week, it just isn't possible) to spend Saturday nights preparing not my material, but preparing myself.  I don't need to lock myself in my study--I live alone, for Pete's sake--so instead I set down a stack of books next to my recliner, turn on the lamp, brew some tea or coffee, and immerse myself.  Or I'll go for a walk, which is often when a lot of my prayer time happens.  Or--especially if it's a cold, starry night outside--I'll head down to my apartment complex's hot tub and sauna and try to meditate.

All of that, on the surface, probably sounds colossally boring by Saturday night standards.  I honestly can't remember the last time, excepting vacations, I went out on a Saturday night; it may well have been during my years in seminary.  Jeez, now in addition to acting like an old man on Saturday nights, I've taken to writing like one as well.

In any case, one of the biggest purposes I have found for my blogging has been to try to shed some light on the life of a solo pastor, especially as it relates to the behind-the-scenes stuff.  And behind-the-scenes, Saturday nights are an unusual beast for us.  I have one colleague who told me once that he never sleeps well on Saturday nights.  Even after many years of preaching, he still feels the nerves.

To me, that's amazing--in a good way.  It's one of the ways we can be countercultural, we pastors.  It's one of the ways we can live against the grain.  I realized tonight--after said tea-fueled reading session--that so many of those habits were, yes, about preparing my mind, but even more so about quieting it.  Because I know that come Sunday morning, my mind will take its three cups of coffee and go straight into overdrive, running about like a lab rat on Red Bull (say that ten times fast...seriously), but at least tonight, I can appreciate serenity on a night not normally associated with serenity.

For in the end, if Sunday morning is about doing, going, and happening, Saturday night is simply about being.  We are to be quiet.  We are to be still.  And God will give us direction.

After all, as God says to Moses at the burning bush, "I will be with your tongue, and I will teach you what you are to say."

That might be the biggest and most important thing about Saturday nights for us pastors.  It is what we do...we let God prepare us for what we are to say.

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

20 Needs for Twentysomethings...and by TwentySomethings, I Mean Pastors

I have a blog post on preaching in the works, but I put that one on ice when I saw this article from Relevant magazine show up on a buddy's Facebook feed.

And yeah, it's true for me when I speak as a twentysomething.  I should know how to do all of those things, and they will make be a better young adult.

But I also think all of those things (okay, maybe not parallel parking) would also make any pastor--regardless of age--a better pastor.

And...of course, I can hear someone going, "Duh, Atcheson.  Relevant is a Christian rag.  Of course you'd relate to it as more than just a random millennial."

But when many of us twentysomethings are asking--nay, pleading--to be heard in the Christian environs of the church, things like conversing with anyone of any age, defending our media choices, and being in touch with our amount of internet consumption (I'm blogging on this, so yes, I am a proud hypocrite) are clutch for pastors, regardless of age.  And being able to serve up good coffee is just a given at church...I come to church for the grace and the community, but being able to fuel my four-cups-a-day addiction is a close third in a photo finish.

I think Pope Francis is a great example of this (the need for pastors to follow these tenets--not my impromptu ode to coffee...but who knows, maybe he loves java as much as yours truly).  Fundamentally, the majority of Relevant's list consists of instances of putting other people first.  More than anything, that principle has defined Francis's papacy, and he (and the church) is reaping popularity and positive responses because of it.

I will also say this: I struggle massively with exhibiting such humility myself.  For every person who tells me I am humble, believe me when I say there is another person who speaks up to hold me accountable if they see me as arrogant.

More than anything else, that is why I am commending this list to you (albeit with this increasingly extensive commentary from me here =) ).  Because I know that I sometimes struggle with all of those things on the list (or abstain from them altogether in the case of parallel parking...seriously), I know that there might be value for others out there just like me--young, determined, sarcastic, a tad idealistic, broken, messed-up, overjoyed pastors.

I love being a twentysomething.  And I love being a pastor.  But sometimes you just need someone else to tell you how to be better at both, you know?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, October 6, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Hoping in the Unseen"

1 Corinthians 13:1-4

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, it profits me nothing. 4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, it is not puffed up. (CEB)

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

The woman on the waitstaff of a four-star restaurant in New York City—a restaurant where dinner currently costs $300 per person, and that’s before any alcohol—recounted one of the most touching encounters she ever had with a patron in her job, writing:

We remove the chair from position three on table two to make room for the wheelchair.  A short man, who appears to be in his seventies, wheels a woman of similar age as close as he can get her to the table.  He adjusts her legs, props her up a little, and places her napkin so that it rests over her (chest) and lap.  After making her comfortable, he pulls his own chair closer to her, away from the window and the view of the park in the early evening light.  When I approach with menus, I look to him for direction, but she tells me exactly how she wants me to prop the menu so that she can read it.

“Rabbit!” she exclaims when she spots the chef’s tasting menu.  “I love rabbit!”…

She orders her rabbit and he selects from the five-course menu.  They do not order wine, but (the sommelier) remains in my station anyway.  Together we watch as the husband carefully feeds her the entire tasting menu.

“Now that is how you love someone,” (the sommelier) says quietly.

That is how you love someone, indeed.  For, as Paul says, love is patient.  Love is patient even when you have become the 24/7 caretaker of the love of your life.  But love—and life—are about far more than simply being patient.  After all, patience is one of those abstract, unseen things I cannot point to.  I can point to a towel rack and say, “that is a towel rack.”  But when it comes to patience, and to love, the best I can often do is to point to someone practicing it and hope others will as well.  But if enough of us do practice it, then, in the end, it will do.  It will surely do.

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 “Hoping in the Unseen.”  Jay writes in it (in part):

So many in the church are dealing with grief.  It shakes our faith, causing us to doubt, and yet we can’t talk to anyone who responds well to our doubt.  So we put it off or hide it.  As Christians, we fall back on clichés to help ourselves forget our real emotions, or we go to therapists or take time off to deal with things expecting everything to work out in time.

But we need to be there for one another.  We need to allow doubt to be spoken to each other on a regular basis so when we go through tragedy or grief, we aren’t caught unaware or uncomfortable with the mourning process.  We need to give people permission to embrace death, tragedy, the meaninglessness of life.

The grieving person needs grace, and not just the first time, but over and over again.  I’ve heard people say someone is “an emotional train wreck,” or “needy” or “clingy.”  These aren’t words that love uses.  Love doesn’t expect a solution.  Love doesn’t need someone to “get better” to validate their patience and empathy.  Love comes back again and again.

We need to embrace others’ brokenness because before too long, we’ll discover our own.

Now, I’ll be honest—midway through this excerpt, I was thinking that something from Ecclesiastes would be quite appropriate for today—after all, it’s hardly a hop, skip, and a jump away from “the meaninglessness of life” to “vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”  And for a crank like me, Ecclesiastes is a text to treasure, one that demonstrates you can embrace your inner Eeyore while still loving and serving God.

But then the pivot happens, as it so often does with writers who know how to make a point: grieving people don’t need clichés, they need grace.  And that word gets turned, sort of, over the course of what Jay is saying here, from grace into love.  Now, to be sure, there is great overlap between the two, but one really cannot offer.  Grace comes from God, and God alone.

But love?  That we can offer.  And Paul tells us how in one of his most famous passages.

Now, I know all of the baggage and preconceptions that a Bible passage can come with by dint of its own fame and renown: we normally associate this passage with weddings, where some pastor dresses up in a suit that he otherwise rarely ever wears (that’s me) reads this passage to two nervously smiling—but simply glowing—people gazing at each other with Bambi-esque big-eyed expressions of pure, unadulterated love.

I mean, that’s the one thing we all associate with this passage, right?  Love is patient, love is kind…well, someone must be getting married!

There are two things, though, about our preconceptions about this passage, and both of them we can chalk up to this, like all the books of the Bible, being a text in translation.

First, the Greek word Paul uses for “love” is, in fact, caritas, from which we get our English word—you guessed it—“charity.”  So really, Paul isn’t even talking about romantic love here—for one, he would have used the Greek eros (guess which English word we get from it…see, isn’t this fun?), and secondly, Paul is so down on marriage I doubt he would have commended it to anyone.  Heck, six chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians, when addressing married couples specifically, he says that it is preferable for people to remain unattached like he is.  So yeah.

But the second thing about this passage comes from the word “patient.”  Except that too probably isn’t the most accurate English translation of the word.  As the great Disciples preacher Granville Walker pointed out, the Greek Paul is using is a series of verbs, not adjectives, and so rather than saying “Love is patient,” Paul is really saying something along the lines of, “Love practices patience.”  Or, as the KJV and CEB versions both translate it, “Love suffers long.”

(I can already imagine some of you thinking, “See, pastor!  Paul WAS talking about marriage!”)

But no.  Love practices patience.  Love practices patience no matter how much suffering it experiences.  Love suffers long precisely because love is willing to practice patience despite it.

Love is willing to suffer alongside a disabled spouse, to care for them, to treat them reverently.

Love is willing to suffer alongside a fallen friend struggling in the throes of addiction or abuse.

Love is willing to suffer alongside a desperate family member who has nobody else to turn to.

Ultimately, love is willing to suffer, no matter the circumstances, no matter the cost.

Love, then, is the opposite of our favorite clichés—and believe me, Christianity is full of them.  “He’s in a better place.”  “It’s part of God’s plan.”  “God wanted them in heaven.”  Cliches are short, ineffective, and designed to shut down any attempt at a meaningful conversation.  They’re basically Hallmark cards minus the envelope.  They aren’t meant to convey any great meaning or depth of feeling, they’re meant as a token, so that someone knows you are at least nominally still invested in their wellbeing.

But they’re not what patience would do.  They’re not how patience would practice.

Paul—nor Jesus, for that matter—refused to teach in clichés.  He threw himself headlong into his work and his ministry, so emotionally attaching himself to his communities that you can see it so vividly in his letters today: he exhibits such depths of emotion, of joy and happiness and of sadness and disappointment that you would think he were saying those words in their presence, not writing those words from afar or even from prison.

And so Paul, for all of his human faults—and he’ll be the first to admit he has them—is willing to act with patience for the church.  He is willing to suffer long, even if no solution is imminent.

And Jesus, at every turn in His ministry, showed that he willing to—and did—suffer long for us, even when there was—and is—no possible way that we can completely validate ourselves, or the love that is shown to us by Him.  Jesus loves us precisely because through His love, He was willing to show patience.  He was willing to suffer long.  He was willing to hope in the unseen, abstract thing that we cannot always point to, cannot always register with our senses, but that we register with our hearts and our minds and our souls instead...this thing we call love, that it would be enough to save us.  And it is.  It really, truly is.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 6, 2013

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Myth About Why Young People Leave the Church

Despite my bald head, a love of Grape Nuts, and a penchant for calling it a night extremely early, I am apparently still perceived as "young" because, you know, I'm still just 27 and I am constantly plugged in to Facebook and Twitter.  So, I get asked a lot about why it is that the people in my generation (the millennials/Generation Y/twentysomethings) have been leaving the church (as in the entire church, not just a parish) en masse.

While being asked this question gives me the ego trip-inducing opportunity to be the voice of a generation (though frankly, if I am an accurate representation of my generation, then the entire world is screwed), it honestly is not a question I often relish getting asked, because to be wholly truthful is to likely cause offense.

I--and many millennials I know--have felt used by the church.  We are pursued for the optics of having young people, but we often aren't allowed any voice in decision-making.  Instead, we are used as puppets in public while the real decisions are made elsewhere, without us.

I--and many millennials I know--have felt let down by the church.  We volunteer for things expecting an atmosphere and spirit of cooperation and collaboration, but instead we encounter situations where more entrenched people--who are seeing their church as they know it crumble before their eyes--tenaciously cling to their piece of turf with the ferocity of a bear.

I--and many millennials I know--have felt talked down to by the church.  Granted, this is a culture-wide problem, but it is true in the church as well.  We are told that we couldn't possibly understand how things really work, that we are too selfish to fit in with church culture (which is particularly ironic---see above), or that we are just plain too naive.

I--and many millennials I know--have felt pushed aside by the church.  We share our testimonies and our experiences, we witness to our faith, we boldly proclaim what we hold to be true, only for none of the veteran church members to actually care or show interest in how we express our faith, especially through the mediums of social media, or in how we try to explain that their ways of worship are sometimes like fitting a square peg into a round hole for us.

And the sad thing is, whenever I point these things out to other (inevitably older) friends and pastoral colleagues, they almost always get this shocked--or even angry--expression on their faces, as though I had just viciously insulted their parents.  And all I can say to them is that I'm not trying to offend, but sometimes the truth hurts.

Here's the thing: just because you like something doesn't mean the generation that follows you will as well.  In fact, the inverse is probably closer to being true: the more likely it is that the following generation won't like it, or it won't speak to them.

And it wasn't like we just learned this about ourselves, we twentysomethings--we have known for a while now that we don't really belong in the church that the older generations have built for us.  Close to 3 in 5 Christians aged 18-25 had already dropped out of the church by the time of their Sweet Sixteenth.

So in a way, it both worries and bothers me that I get asked this question so frequently, because the roots of this exodus that everyone is now fretting over were planted literally a decade ago.  That represents a decade of not listening, of not reading the signs, of not bothering to understand our reasons for leaving, until the evidence was so stark you could no longer ignore it.

Want to know why young people are leaving the church?  Ask your teenaged children.  Ask your youth group.  Chances are they will have the answer today that you'll be searching for a decade later.

In other words: it is a myth that young adults my age just now decided they were through with church.  For many of us, that die was cast long ago.

Obviously, as a preacher of the Gospel, I did not choose to leave the church.  And I want--deeply so--for people to return to the church.  But I also honestly understand why someone my age would want to leave the church.  It isn't that they aren't taken seriously now (although they may well not be).  It's that, in all likelihood, they haven't been taken seriously for many years now.

And considering that so many of our churches (mine included) proudly post "Everyone Welcome" signs on their yards, we should expect better of ourselves.

Indeed, if the church is to thrive, we *must* expect better of ourselves.

Yours in Christ,