Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Turkey Day

For your Thanksgiving enjoyment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-OFXUaMIv8

Be safe and joyful this holiday weekend, my brethren!

Bork Bork Bork,
Eric

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

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

December 2013: "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Dear Church,

I think the holiday season officially begun when the Starbucks near my apartment put peppermint mochas back on their menu, or maybe it was when I stopped in at Safeway and saw cupcakes for sale that had red and green frosting. And yes, both of those things looked nice. But the Starbucks menu swap I noticed on November 4, and the cupcakes I saw on November 18…a full ten days before Thanksgiving!

So it looks like it is official after all—at least, by the only two yardsticks that really matter: cupcakes and sugary coffee drinks. The holiday season is officially starting earlier than ever.

And you know what? If all it was were the cupcakes and coffee drinks, you probably wouldn’t hear a peep out of me—if only because of my sweet tooth! But with each passing year, I worry that by pushing the holiday season up earlier and earlier, we risk holiday overload and burnout by the time the actual holiday of Christmas Day rolls around.

After all, Christmas is not supposed to merely last one day out of the year—it is supposed to last for twelve, and that isn’t just because your true love gave you twelve drummers drumming. The church’s liturgical calendar calls for twelve days of celebration of Christ’s birth, which traditionally denotes the time between his birth and the arrival of the Magi, or wise men.

Truthfully, have you ever reached Christmas Day and thought to yourself, “Phew, it’s over! We made it to the finish line! No more holiday season for another 11 months?” I would imagine a lot of us have at one point or another…or maybe even every year! And if so, let us strive to remember this time around the eleven days of Christmas that follow the first, when our true love gave us a partridge in a pear tree!

I wish a very safe and merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you and yours this holiday season!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Advent 2013 sermon series: “A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity with the Poor”

December 1: “From Consuming to Sharing,” Isaiah 58:6-12
December 8: “Miracle Bread,” Isaiah 25:6-10
December 15: “Tools,” Isaiah 2:1-5
December 22: “Fasting and Feasting,” Isaiah 26:16-19
December 24 (Christmas Eve, 7:00 pm): “In the Highest Heaven,” Luke 2:1-20

Sunday, November 24, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Freud's Last Session"

John 3:1-10 

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” 4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” 5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit[b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?” 10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? (Common English Bible)


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

I was raised an hour’s drive east of the den of horrors that is Westboro Baptist Church.  For those of you who do not know—that’s the church that pickets the funerals of dead soldiers and gay men with signs saying “God Hates F*gs.”  Kansas was—and is—known for them, just like we are known for other forms of Christian extremism, like anti-abortion vigilantism.  We suffer by association, when really none of us want anything to do with Fred Phelps and his devilish ilk.

But several weeks ago, NPR did an interview with two of Phelps’s granddaughters who had been disavowed by the WBC after they left for, you know, not being hateful enough.  And one of the daughters, Megan Phelps-Roper, who is my age, said:

I’m at a complete loss…I was afraid we were going to hell.  Many times when we were driving, I thought God was going to kill us…but I do know that I want to do good, to have empathy.

So now the sisters travel the country, speaking to groups and conferences about religious respect.  And what struck me was that, essentially, they were doing this homeless—Megan even said as much, saying, “We don’t have a set home.”

And I thought to myself—that is exactly how Jesus did it.  And even then, we didn’t understand.

Okay, with Thanksgiving coming up this week, it no longer sounds so crazy to say: this will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us.  And this is it—the last sermon series before we spend four weeks on Advent and two more on Christmas, but also for this particular series, we end it here today.  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.  We began the series by touching on perhaps Lewis’s most famous work, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which contained allegory about the most basic of Christian belief: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  We then turned to not just belief, but practice, in Lewis’s 1942 book “The Screwtape Letters,” and last week we arrived at Lewis’s most famous nonfiction book, “Mere Christianity.”  Last week we pivoted from practice once more to otherworldly matters in Lewis’s 1946 book on the nature of heaven and hell, “The Great Divorce,” and finally, we end this week not with a book that Lewis wrote, but with a play based on his writings, a play that supposes that Lewis and the great atheist psychologist Sigmund Freud had met and had tea one day.  It is a play that Carrie and I saw in New York, and I enjoyed it immensely…here’s what the (fictional) Freud and Lewis say (in part) to each other in a debate concerning the nature of Christ in Mark St. Germain’s play entitled “Freud’s Last Session:”

FREUD.  …Christ was a lunatic.
LEWIS.  That(‘s an) option.
FREUD.  It’s more than an option, it’s a likelihood.  Why should I take Christ’s claim to be God more seriously than the dozen patients I’ve treated who claim to be Christ?
LEWIS.  Did you find a single person whose concept of reality was otherwise sound?
FREUD.  No.
LEWIS.  So let’s put aside the possibility that Christ was delusional for the moment.  The second alternative is that he was consciously deceiving His followers for some other purpose.
FREUD.  Power.  His followers deified Him.  He performed magic trick miracles.  His strategy was a complete success.
LEWIS.  I wouldn’t call any strategy ending with crucifixion a complete success.
FREUD.  If he truly died.  His reappearance to His disciples after the crucifixion could have been designed to mislead them.
LEWIS.  After which he changed His name, hung up His shingle as a carpenter, and was never recognized again?  Not even by his enemies desperate to discredit Him?
FREUD.  I concede it is unlikely.
LEWIS.  So if the man was neither a lunatic nor a sham, it forced me to consider the only choice I was left with…I accepted that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

What the playwright Mark St. Germain is drawing on is, in fact, a famous passage from Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” which we tackled two weeks ago, but which contains more than enough material for a sermon series all its own.  And in “Mere Christainity,” Lewis presents the following argument, aptly referred to as ‘the Lewis trilemma:’

A man who was merely a man and said the sorts of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would be either a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.

Now, this passage has attracted much attention and with it, much praise and subsequent criticism, and there is one critique of it I do agree with: that Lewis forgoes the possibility of Jesus also being made into a legend of sorts by some of His earlier followers like the Gnostics, who believed that Jesus was entirely divine and not at all human.  And so the trilemma becomes, in fact, a tetralemma: is Jesus a lunatic, a liar, a legend or Lord?

This is where the passage from John 3 comes into play.  Jesus is talking with a Pharisee, Nicodemus, about the nature of the Spirit, and Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Unless you are born anew, you cannot see God’s kingdom,” to which Nicodemus says wha has to be the ancient equivalent of “WTF?”  “It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb a second time, isn’t it?”

Well, sort of.  The Greek word Jesus uses here is anothen, which has two meanings.  One is “anew,” or “again,” which is where we get the phrase “born again.”  But the other meaning is “above.”  And what if both of those meanings apply here?  We have already been born “below,” of the earth, by emerging from our mothers’ wombs, but we also must be born “above” by emerging from God’s creative hands, set into the world with the charge of Adam, to care for it.

Jesus is trying to get this through Nicodemus’s head, and Nicodemus is so slow on the uptake that eventually, Jesus just throws up His hands in frustration and basically insults the poor chap: “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you don’t know these things?”  In other words, from the immortal Lucy Van Pelt to Charlie Brown: “You blockhead!”  (Yes, in this case, Jesus is Lucy, so apparently, Jesus offers deranged psychiatric advice for a nickel.  I admit, it is not a perfect metaphor.)

Nicodemus is struggling with the exact same tetralemma I described earlier—that began as the trilemma from Lewis and expanded by his critics: he is more than willing to accept Jesus as a teacher, because he is clearly willing to be taught by Him, or he wouldn’t have welcomed Him in.  But accepting what Jesus has to say about the nature of Himself and the Spirit?  That’s another kettle of fish for poor Nicodemus, and he just isn’t ready to take that leap of faith yet.

And maybe you feel like Nicodemus too, sometimes—more than willing to say, yeah, I’m open to Jesus’ teachings.  Love thy neighbor?  I’m fine with that.  Do unto others?  Check.  Turn the other cheek?  Sure, I’ll give it the old college try.  What?  You’re the Son of God?  Whoa, there, kookyboots, I only signed up to be taught, not saved.  Let’s keep this relationship at first base, mmmmmkay?

(I’m probably going to hell for just comparing my relationship to Christ with the milestones teenagers use when making out...no, wait, 90s era contemporary Christian music did that first…)

But Jesus asks more of us.  And it is right that He should do so.  Jesus asks us to take, as Soren Kierkegaard called it, a leap of faith—a leap of faith in Him as the One who saves us from evil, who saves us from death, who saves us from ourselves.

I do not pretend it is easy to understand—that is simply a part of my privilege in having been born and raised in the church, having been brought up under God from a very early age, just as we hope to do for little Lucian as we dedicate him here this morning.  And so I can’t say for sure that I would understand your own reservations or hesitations, whatever they may be.  I’d like to think that I could, being your pastor and all, but the truth is, sometimes, it’s difficult for me to.

Which is why, even for those of us who have been in the church our entire lives, recognizing Jesus for who He is—not who we want Him to be—is often a trying assignment.  Just because I can see Jesus in the quests of these two young women who extracted themselves from the most hateful of Christian cults does not mean that others would—although I hope they do.  And just because someone sees Jesus elsewhere does not mean that I always will myself...it's like artwork--someone can look at a Jackson Pollock piece and see a masterpiece and be moved to tears, and I am left trying to understand it.

In other words, there will always be moments where we are like Nicodemus in this story, no matter how strong our faith or how great our spiritual journey.  Sometimes we will fail to recognize Jesus when He is trying to teach us something.  And that makes us human.  Just like everyone else—everyone else whom Christ loves and calls us to love as well, despite ourselves.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 24, 2013

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's Spite for the Small-Church Pastor

(like me.)

...and I know that "spite" is a strong word.  But when my livelihood is at stake, I take it personally, and I think in this case, if the shoe fits...

Now, to be clear, my issue isn't with atheism itself.  Someone wants to say that God doesn't exist, hey, it's a free country.  I'm not here to pick a fight with y'all, I'm really not.

So I'm curious as to why the Freedom From Religion Foundation is picking a fight with me, and with every other ordained pastor who receives a housing stipend from his/her parish.  And, from the looks of things, they have won this round.

For those of you who are unaware, thanks to a law Congress passed in 1954, parish clergy are allowed to ask their congregations to designate a certain percentage of their income as a housing stipend, and that portion of income is exempt from federal income taxes.

There are several factors that support the necessity for this particular tax break, but two big factors, mainly.  The first is that many denominations, like the Roman Catholics and United Methodists, practice an "itinerant" model of clergy assignment, meaning that their pastors have to go to where they are sent, making it more difficult for them to accumulate equity in a home.  And even in denominations like mine that do not use the itinerancy model, if I were searching for a new call (which I am not), I could not simply go out and apply for any pastorate I might want.

The second is that we clergy have our own undue tax burden: our employers (churches) are legally prohibited in the tax code from paying the usual 50% of payroll taxes that just about every other employer matches for their employees.  We have to pay that entire 15.3% ourselves, and aside from some soldiers (I do not think this is a coincidence, but that's the topic for another post), we are the ONLY profession with that burden.

So Congress decided to come up with the housing stipend exemption, figuring that hey, one kinda sorta cancels out the other.

Key phrase: "kinda sorta."

Full disclosure: My gross (pre-tax) income is $45,000 per year, which breaks down as $33,000 classified as salary (which is subject to federal income tax), and $12,000 classified as a housing stipend (which is not subject to federal income tax).  I receive taxable income from no other sources except my professional honorariums for performing weddings, which are actually paid to my church and added to my paychecks to ensure taxes are paid on them too.  My payroll tax burden on my income amounts to over $6,000 per year, whereas if I were in any other line of work, it would be more like $3,000.

Compare that to my housing stipend: after deductions and exemptions, I'm in the (for the sake of simplicity) 15% tax bracket.  And 15% of $12,000 is $1,800, which means that the amount of taxes I am saving with my housing exemption is less than my additional payroll tax burden--in fact, it only covers about 60% of it.

In other words, even with the housing exemption, I--and thousands of my colleagues--am still subject to an unfair tax burden simply because I am a pastor.

And for this reason alone, the quotes from the FFRF's Annie Laurie Gaylor really gall me--especially this quote:

"It's a really big deal.  A church currently could pay a minister $50,000 but designate $20,000 of it a housing allowance so that only $30,000 would be taxed as salary.

Yes, Annie, curse those scofflaws who have infiltrated our country through our churches in order to do caring, loving ministry for less than what a public schoolteacher gets paid!

Honestly, you want to know what that quote sounds like?  It sounds like the hateful stuff that the Tea Party spews about recipients of SNAP or WIC--look at those freeloaders, gaming the system the like that!

And, as with Tea Partiers going after the working poor, that focus is entirely misguided--there are freeloaders in the tax system, but the biggest freeloaders are the ones who have numbered accounts in Zurich and Grand Cayman, not the ones who are on food stamps.  Similarly, with the clergy housing exemption, there are way bigger freeloaders out there--which, to Gaylor's credit, she does recognize, saying in the above-quoted article, "When you're dealing with some of the megachurch pastors with huge mansions, they can be paid an enormous amount in housing allowances."

Now, on that, we can agree.  There have been numerous documented instances of wealthy ministers playing the tax code like a harp, and I wish just as much as the FFRF that they would stop gaming the system, both because it is unfair to the 99%, but also because they make well-intentioned pastors like me look bad, and hey, I do a good enough job making myself look bad on my own!

So, how do we preserve the livelihood of a middle-class fellow like myself who isn't (or demanding to) rake in the big bucks, while ensuring that the wealthy pay their fair share?  I'm not here just to argue--I'd offer two different solutions.  One is to have Congress say that only X amount of dollars--as opposed to the "fair rental value" of a home can be declared tax-exempt, that way rich pastors still have to pay tax on their mansions, but getting-by pastors like me can not be forced to dip into our meager savings to pay our tax bills.

The other is one that other bloggers have come up with before me: eliminate both the housing exemption and the undue payroll tax burden for clergy, which is really the preferable solution here.  In fact, as the blogger I linked to here suggests, the FFRF can lead the charge on that one because it is another law that arbitrarily designates out pastors.

And until the FFRF actually does, their actions (and quotes to the press) concerning clergy tax law suggest that their driving interest is not one of equality, but one of spite, to hurt pastors where it matters--our pocketbooks--simply because they can, and not because they are actually interested in seeing us treated like the rest of America's workforce.

And here's the thing: I--and, I imagine, a great many other pastors--would be thrilled to be treated like every other worker as far as taxes are concerned, if for no other reason than clergy taxes are unnecessarily complicated.  If the FFRF *did* lead the charge for this, I am sure that they could count me, and many other pastors, as allies in that objective.

But nothing that they have said or done seems to suggest that they will.  And honestly, I am not surprised.  After all, visit their homepage (linked at the top of my post), and you'll see that they are classified as a not-for-profit, educational organization, and that any donations you make to them are fully tax-deductible like with any other charity.

Because, you know, educational organizations (like, say, colleges and universities, or maybe the Smithsonian) eagerly engage in spiteful litigation to screw over their ideological opposites.

Talk about freeloaders who are gaming the tax system, indeed.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Open Letter to the United Methodist Church

(...specifically, the UMC of southeastern Pennsylvania)

Dear Anglican Renegades,

First, please take no offense at my moniker for you in my salutation.  After all, as a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination, I myself am a Presbyterian renegade.  Y'all have Henry VIII as a spiritual ancestor, I have Calvin.  We'll call it square.

See, I am trying to insert a touch of mirth and jocularity into what what otherwise sounds (from the outside) like a bit of a religious farce, or at the very least a misuse of spiritual resources.  And if I am criticizing you from the outside, the least I can do in return is be a little self-deprecating myself.

But seriously, mates, I love your denomination and its forefathers.  John and Charles have given me so much: the hymns in our congregation's hymnbook (I can't imagine Easter Sunday without "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" running through my head), a theory of atonement that actually makes sense to me, endless quadrilateral jokes, and most importantly, my roommate and best friend from seminary.  There's a lot to recommend you to someone who is looking for a church and for whatever reason is allergic to the Disciples.

But everything that has been happening surrounding the trial of one of your own, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, for officiating the wedding of his gay son Tim six years ago, well, let's just say that it isn't doing you a lot of favors in the PR department.

I know, I know--we aren't supposed to be concerned with what people think of us.  Followers of Jesus are going to be persecuted because sometimes we must say the things that other people don't want to hear.  So, for a moment, if you would please indulge me in saying something you might not want to hear:

You screwed the pooch on this one.  Big time.

Look at this fella--by all accounts, he's a nice guy and devoted Christian and family man, but (and here's what's clutch about all this) not someone who was out to try to change your Book of Discipline to make it all queer-friendly when he did what he did.  He just wanted to officiate his son's wedding simply because he loves his son that freaking much.

You can talk until you're blue in the face about our need to "hate the sin, love the sinner," but you know what?  Expressing your love by doing something that could cost you your livelihood by getting defrocked, that's walking the walk.  That's a heck of a lot more than, to be honest, what I see a lot of other Christians doing when they talk about loving gays and lesbians.  Putting a pastor on trial like this really doesn't come across a whole lot better than, you know, blaming gay men for HIV/AIDS.  It's still persecution, just with our particular role as Christians reversed from victim in the pre-Constantine era to persecutor today.

And you took this dude who was simply a nice guy wanting to do something for his beloved son and your putting him on trial changed him.  He's one of us now, one of those pastors who will openly advocate for full equality of gays and lesbians.

Which, you know, is great for us, but not so much for you guys.  I mean, what if y'all hadn't made a tempest in this teapot, what if you didn't make a mountain out of this molehill by putting him on trial?  Do you think Pastor Frank would have gotten the (largely sympathetic) publicity that he has?  More to the point, do you think he would be as outspoken as he is now if you had simply let sleeping dogs lie?

So keep putting your own pastors on church trials, I guess, for living out their calling of ministering the Word and Sacraments to all persons.  It probably won't help you--in fact, I'm sure it won't--but if it makes y'all feel better, who am I to stand in your way?

You'll just be making it harder for yourselves in the end.  And potentially harder for me as well, because people then ask me (like I know anything about Methodism) why churches do stuff like put their pastors on trial for performing gay weddings, and I have to tell them that really, not all Christians are homophobes, and then hope and pray that they'll take my word for it.

But that's the topic for another letter.  For now, I'd simply ask you just how interested you are in continuing to rack up Pyrrhic victories.  Because, yes, King Pyrrhus won his battle, but Rome and Carthage won the war.

Thanks for reading.

Your brother in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Because You Are Young": My Presentation Notes From Today

(Earlier today, I delivered a presentation and discussion about the role, experience, and outlook that young clergypeople have in today's church.  It seemed to be well-received despite moments of bleakness in my notes--see below under "Next, the Facts" section--so I offer you an edited version of my presentation notes as a means of furthering of the conversation that has been happening here at the Project for some time now on the role of young clergy like me who are--and often seen as--an endangered species of sorts.  -E.A.)


“Because You Are Young”: When a Young Pastor Isn’t the Youth Pastor

We'll start with a few literary excerpts...

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.  Instead, set an example for the believers through your speech, behavior, love, faith, and by being sexually pure.” -1 Timothy 4:12 (Common English Bible)

“The clergy’s representative burden can also be a great blessing, a source of pastoral wisdom and power.  A parishioner emerged from a little church on a Sunday, muttering to her pastor, ‘you are not even thirty, what could you know?’  Her pastor drew himself up to his full height, clutched the stole around his neck, and said, “Madam, when I wear this and I climb into that pulpit, I am over two thousand years old, and speak from two millennia of experience.” –William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

“Please don’t use that phrase that all young ministers bust out.  Please don’t say, oh no, you just did.  You just said, “When I was growing up.”  You said it like it was over, like you’ve crossed from young man into wizened old gentleman.  But you’re only twenty-four.  The toughest decision you’ve faced in life so far was whether to get the full meal plan or the five-day-a-week meal plan at seminary.” –Jon Acuff, Stuff Christians Like, “Tuning Out if the Minister is Younger than You.”

Now, the Facts:

70% of young pastors are no longer pastors within five years of receiving their first call, usually for either emotional or financial reasons. (Carol Howard Merritt, 2011; some sources say as many as 80%)

The younger the pastor, generally the lower their job satisfaction. (Church & Faith Trends, 2010)

The following are the percentages of clergy under the age of 35 in these denominations: American Baptist: 5.10%; Assemblies of God: 7.16%; Church of the Nazarene: 10.68%; Disciples of Christ: 5.53%; Episcopal Church: 3.43%; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 5.92%; Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod: 8.34%; Presbyterian Church (USA): 6.20%; Roman Catholic Church: 3.10%; Seventh-Day Adventist: 1.19%; United Methodist Church: 5.21% (Lewis Center for Church Leadership, 2008)

…And for some denominations, that percentage was as high as 15% in the mid-1980s. (Ibid)

But it’s not all bad news…churches are doing some pretty amazing things, such as:

The Lilly Endowment has invested over $38 million into local parish pastoral “residency” programs for young pastors just out of seminary to accept otherwise unattainable calls.

Many churches on their regional/conference/synod level now have formal or informal mentoring networks and arrangements for new pastors who receive a call in that region/synod/etc. 

Denominations are founding cross-country support networks specifically for young pastors, such as the Bethany Fellows in my own denomination, the Disciples of Christ.

Email, Twitter, and Facebook make it especially easy to find sources of pastoral support.

What has been your experience either as a young pastor (especially a senior or solo pastor) or in working with a young pastor?  What have been the benefits and drawbacks to that particular arrangement?  What, in hindsight, might you do differently now?

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, November 17, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Great Divorce"

John 12:44-50 

44 Jesus shouted, “Whoever believes in me doesn’t believe in me but in the one who sent me. 45 Whoever sees me sees the one who sent me. 46 I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness. 47 If people hear my words and don’t keep them, I don’t judge them. I didn’t come to judge the world but to save it. 48 Whoever rejects me and doesn’t receive my words will be judged at the last day by the word I have spoken. 49 I don’t speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me regarding what I should speak and say. 50 I know that his commandment is eternal life. Therefore, whatever I say is just as the Father has said to me.” (Common English Bible)


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

The man sitting before the camera looked pretty much exactly like how you would expect a homeless, alcoholic army veteran to look: his hair was long and scraggly on the sides, a thick beard covered every nook and cranny of his chin, jawline, and neck, and his clothing looked well-worn and tired.  He looked like he had been rustled up straight out of central casting.

And then, over the course of the next several hours, everything changed: the camera filmed him getting a haircut and dye job, a beard trim, some makeup to put some color in his cheeks, and finally, a brand-spanking-new suit and tie, complete with a tie clip and a pocket square.  The big reveal then happened: they took a mirror and allowed this man to see what a gem had been lying underneath all that scruff, and he saw himself…and immediately leaped up, bounded over to the fellow who had just dressed him in that fine suit, and wrapped him up in a bear hug.

The video clip simply ended with a title card explaining what happened next: that was the catalyst.  This otherwise anonymous man, Jim, went and managed to find his own place, and he got sober by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.  And after watching that video so many times, what has stuck with me is the cross that hung around Jim’s neck, made of two twisted nails and held together by a black cord, and I wonder what his pastor, if he had one, would say about this.  Because the choice he made was nothing short of saving.

It still sounds crazy to say, even though we are now firmly in mid-November: this will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us.  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.  We began the series by touching on perhaps Lewis’s most famous work, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which contained allegory about the most basic of Christian belief: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  We then turned to not just belief, but practice, in Lewis’s 1942 book “The Screwtape Letters,” and last week we arrived at Lewis’s most famous nonfiction book, “Mere Christianity.”  This week we pivot from practice once more to otherworldly matters in Lewis’s 1946 book on the nature of heaven and hell, “The Great Divorce,” in which he writes:

There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself…as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist!  There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.  Man!  Ye see it in smaller matters.  Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copies had lost the power to read them?  Or an organizer of charities that had lost all love for the poor?  It is the subtlest of all the snares…

But what of the poor Ghosts who never get into the omnibus at all?

Everyone who wishes it does.  Never fear.  There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  All that are in Hell choose it.  Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.  No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.  Those who seek find.  To those who knock, it is opened.

The Great Divorce is—full disclosure—probably my favorite of all Lewis’s books.  Part of that is because I think it follows the format of my favorite Dickensian story as a child, “A Christmas Carol,” in that a man is taken by a kindly spirit guide to watch and observe things that it all results in a revelation…except instead of Scrooge and Jacob Marley (who my mom, when she was reading the story to me as a child, always mixed up with Bob Marley…yah, mon), it’s an unknown narrator—possibly even Lewis himself—and he actually begins his life in hell.

Except he doesn’t call it that, and it isn’t anything we would recognize, because there is no fire.  There is no brimstone.  There is no devil with horns, hooves, and a pitchfork.  Instead, hell is nothing but gray dreariness.  Like the weather we experience six months out of the year, on steroids.  Until suddenly, a bus appears in the middle of this gray town, and Lewis boards it, and this bus, amazingly, drops him off at the outskirts of heaven, where everything is vibrant again.

And while touring heaven, presumably while wearing a fanny pack, pith helmet, and knee-high socks like he’s out on safari (“Observe the exotic angels in their native habitat.  Truly it is a treat to get to see them this up close in their natural state…”), Lewis wants to know why anyone could possibly prefer hell, and Lewis’s guide—not the Ghost of Christmas Present, but a Scottish minister named George MacDonald—explains that for many people, when hell is all they know, it is incredibly difficult to let go of…like someone who knows only how to argue for the existence of God, so much so that they forget to experience that wonderful existence.  But then he follows up with that great and reassuring quote: everyone who wishes to go to heaven does.

Now, yes, I know in my head that is reassuring.  But as many of y’all know in talking to me—heck, it was a big subject of discussion in this past Monday evening’s Bible study—in all actuality I struggle a lot sometimes with the notion that heaven exists for whoever wants it, because I look at people who are so evil in their actions that I cannot possibly fathom heaven existing for them as well.  And many of you have rightly said to me, “No, pastor, that is not supposed to be frustrating, that is supposed to be hopeful.”  And, of course, it really is.

Because I still get asked—more than I probably care to, if I’m honest—that question about if non-Christians or non-Disciples or “spiritual-but-not-religious” folks go to hell even if they are otherwise good, charitable, kind, loving people.  And when I get asked that question…well, I usually point the person who asks it in the direction of this passage from John 12.

Now, in some translations, this is billed as a “summary” of Jesus’ teaching, a final epilogue to Act One of John, because this is the end of chapter 12, and chapter 13 immediately begins with Maundy Thursday and the washing of the Apostles’ feet and so on.  But calling this passage a “summary” does not do it justice, because it contains within it a teaching I hold to be nothing short of revolutionary: Jesus came not to judge the world but to save the world, because there exists another judge—the Word, the Logos, is the judge, and that judgment is on the last day.

Despite the reassurance of the New Covenant—that in Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness for sin—we still are really good at judging people, to the point that we think we know better than God and can say who is in and who is out when the score is up.  I am just the same when I teach that there is no possible way a devil like Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden could possibly be in heaven.

But what Jesus teaches instead in this passage is, first of all, that I am not the judge, the Word is.  And second, that judgment does not occur on November 17, 2013, but at the end of time, so who knows what possibly has happened in the afterlife to folks.  Who knows how many of them have awoken in the gray town of hell and decided that this is not for them, who wished it and wanted it and desired it so much, they boarded a bus to take them elsewhere, to take them heavenward?

And perhaps this removes the urgency for hearing the Gospel in this lifetime, but I have to admit, it is immensely reassuring to hear Jesus say that those who die as unbelievers have a get-out-of-hell free card of sorts.  It’s reassuring because so often I hear other Christians say, “Hey, I don’t make the rules.  I’d like for my unbelieving parents or siblings or BFFs or pet goldfishes to go to heaven, but God says they won’t.”  And here I am, and I’m like, “Whut?  Yeah, um, God—through Jesus—said that people get judged at the end of time, so how would you know?  Has time stopped?  No?  Okay.  That settles that.  Now, who wants to go get a calzone?”

And really, if anything, instead of removing the urgency for hearing the Gospel in this lifetime, I feel like this passage should bolster our enthusiasm for hearing the Gospel in this lifetime.  To hear a Savior who existed on such a higher plane than us, who emptied Himself to become one of us, who allowed Himself to be killed by us, to reassure us that judgment happens in His time and not in ours, that is the very definition of Good News.

It is the Good News because it tells us that it is still not too late.  God’s grace does not operate on human timetables.  God’s grace is simply too big for that.  God’s grace is too sweeping and powerful to be placed in a box and tied up neatly with a bow.  It sure is tempting for us to try to present it that way, but as with all temptations, it is something we must resist.

And resist it we will.  Because, as C.S. Lewis writes, there will still be people whose hearts are so hardened that at some point God has to say to them, “Fine. Your will be done, not mine.”  And if our will is to resist the temptation to play God, I have to think that God will reward us.

Think of the homeless, alcoholic veteran who made a choice for himself to resist other forms of temptation: the illness of addiction.  Watch the video for yourself, and see his transformation from a grayed, fraying being into this vibrant, luminous man, and you will see someone who has boarded the bus from hell into heaven.  It is very much possible.  And in Christ, it always will be.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 17, 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jesus: Not Like Us

"It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It's a famous quote, both for its source and its truth.  And that truth applies to this day.  I may belong to a denomination that has fully integrated its gender roles, with women comprising an increasing percentage of our ordained clergy year-by-year, but honestly, when I show up to regional and national events, we look about as white as the NHL.

And this is before we even get to identities like sexual orientation, gender, age, nationality, and so on.

Cut over to the reaction that evangelical author (and unofficial patron saint of The Theophilus Project) Rachel Held Evans received from Todd Rhoades, the organizer of The Nines conference when she pointed out how few of their speakers this year were women (to say nothing of how many also appear to fit the standard WASP mold).

Now, to be honest, I don't comment a lot on the question of gender and authority in the church because as a fella, I speak from a place of privilege here (as opposed to questions of youth or even ethnicity).  But to be honest, I couldn't possibly care less which set of bits you got underneath your hipster jeans.  I have received Biblical, godly, wise, and loving instruction from male and female pastors and lay leaders alike.  I have received teaching from pastors who are not all like me, and in the end, that is probably as it should be.

Why?  Because I also have dedicated my life to receiving instruction from Jesus Christ as my teacher and my Savior, and He is nothing like me, either.

He is made of divinity itself, and I am but a mere image of that divinity.

He was born into--and lived in--dire poverty, and I have known nothing but a middle-class lifestyle my entire life.

He traveled constantly from town to town in the span of three years, and I have always lived in the same town for at least three years before moving.

He appeared as an ancient Israelite, and I am a contemporary American.

He could heal people simply through His word or His presence, but for healing, I would need to refer people to my medical doctor fiancee.

Yes, Jesus became human so that we could understand and experience God in new and important and amazing ways.

But that does not mean He is like me, or like any of us, really.  He was not like us.  He was something different.  Far, far different.

And if we are willing to surrender and submit to the teachings of someone so unlike us in so many ways, why do we insist on--or feel so comfortable with--being taught by human teachers who *are* as much like us as possible?

Why do we want our churches and conferences and the people who speak at them to look just like us?  Why do these institutions need to sometimes resemble cocoons more than churches or conferences?

And believe me, I'm pointing the finger at myself here: like I said at the beginning, I belong to a denomination that sometimes feels about as homogenized as a gallon of milk.

It's all of us Christians, though.  The minute we say we will follow Christ's teachings, perhaps we should be willing to also say that we will be open to following the teachings of others who may not look like us.  Men being open to the teachings of women, heterosexual Christians being open to the teachings of gays and lesbians, and young and old Christians being open to the teachings of one another.

Instead of maintaining hierarchies of authority over one another, why not maintain listening ears to the voice of the God who transcends our authority?

What a pursuit of the imago dei in one another that could be.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

In the Wake of Haiyan: How You Can Help

In lieu of my usual Tuesday(ish) post, below are several links to a variety of resources that you can contact if you feel so moved to offer concrete aid to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  Regardless of whatever else you can offer right now, please offer your earnest and most sincere prayers on behalf of both victims (and their families) and relief workers alike.

But...I do hope you can offer something in the way of material assistance, though--as Scripture writes: "Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.  What if one of you said, "Go in peace!  Stay warm!  Have a nice meal!"?  What good is it if you don't actually give them what their body needs?" (James 2:15-16, Common English Bible)

Please consider giving, even a little bit, towards the needs that most urgent right now.  Millions of givers, even if you only can offer a few clams like me, can make a big difference.

Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayers.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/1441205  (Week of Compassion is the disaster relief arm of my denomination, the Disciples of Christ)

http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/impact.your.world/?hpt=hp_t1

http://world.time.com/2013/11/10/how-to-help-typhoon-victims/

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/11/09/haiyan-how-you-can-help/3484467/

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57611684/typhoon-haiyan-typhoon-yolanda-recovery-how-you-can-help/

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2013/11/typhoon-haiyan-how-to-help/

http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/11/09/21386694-how-to-help-organizations-offering-relief-to-typhoon-haiyan-survivors?lite

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2013/11/how_to_help_typhoon_haiyan_survivors_in_the_philippines_the_only_donation.html

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thank You, Veterans

In honor of Veterans Day, this is a pretty amazing video that has been making the rounds on my Facebook newsfeed, and I'll be using it as a part of this Sunday's sermon.  I spent a summer in college working with the Stand Down charity on behalf of impoverished veterans, and the work of such organizations continues to amaze me.  There's lots more we could be doing for them.  Please remember them today.


Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, November 10, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Mere Christianity"

Philippians 2:5-11 

5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 

6 Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 

7 But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

9 Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, 10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (CEB)


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

We’ve all seen the ads, right?  A cute baby—or a little boy or a little girl, or if you’re a pet owner, a cuddly little puppy—and the subtitle below it that says something to the effect of, “Have you considering adopting?  Adopt me!”  And it’s cute, and it’s heartwarming, because it’s this little miniature being that oozes adorableness and we’re supposed to go weak at the knees and instantly dial the adoption number and sign up for our very own child/pet starter kit.

Okay, now take that same ad and take out whatever cute person or animal your mind’s eye put in there, and then put in a fully grown adult.  Put me in there if you need to!  It’s a little less appealing now, right?  Adopt a fully-grown man with terrible allergies and an affinity for single-malt scotches?  C’mon.  But that’s what is happening: young adults—folks around my age—whose biological parents are gone will form emotional bonds with another adult of their parents’ generation, and those bonds will be so strong that they will legally become that person’s child.

And I can already hear the question you may want to ask me: why on earth would someone do that?  Here, I’ll let one woman, Cassie, says this, about being adopted—at my age—by her 67-year-old roommate, Mary Alice, after leaving her biological mother at age 14:

I come from a very broken background.  While living here, I saw the dynamic that Mary Alice had with her son, Chris.  It was like, “Wow, ok, this is a family.  This is a mother.”  I had seen families on television.  But a family unit, until then, was something of a mystery to me…When I thought of a mother, I thought of a person to bring you Kleenex during a heartbreak, to bring me chicken soup when I was sick.  She was that.  She is that.  When you don’t have a sense of identity and you find it, you’re comfortable in staying there.  People who have had that their whole lives, who know where they belong, who feel warm, comfortable, and loved, they don’t question what it would be like not to have that.

And it really is a profound experience when you get down to it: someone choosing to make official a fundamental change in identity because of a loving relationship that has suddenly and amazingly formed.  It’s like getting married, or, dare I say it, like becoming a Christian!

This will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us…that still 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.  We began the series by touching on perhaps Lewis’s most famous work, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which contained allegory about the most basic of Christian belief: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  Last week, we turned to not just belief, but practice, in Lewis’s 1942 book “The Screwtape Letters,” and now we arrive at potentially Lewis’s most famous nonfiction book, “Mere Christianity.”

“Mere Christianity” is actually a series of books—or talks, really—in one.  Lewis gave a number of talks on BBC radio from 1942 to 1944 at the invitation of the BBC’s director of religious programming, and those talks make up the content of “Mere Christianity,” which is designed to be a primer on basic Christian beliefs and practices; rather than take on major controversies, Lewis aimed to offer a crash course of sorts on the foundations of Christianity, and to offer that course in language as accessible as possible while also being precise with his word choice.  An consequence of Lewis’s comprehensiveness was his reporting on aspects of Christianity that he himself struggled with or disagreed with and would have preferred to leave out altogether from his interpretation—yet he does not, and he writes why in his section on social morality, charity, alms, and his vision for a truly Christian world, saying this:

…I am going to venture a guess as to how this section has affected any who have read it.  My guess is that there are some leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further in that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far.  If so, that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up of blueprints for a Christian society.  Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.  We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or a Judge.  I am just the same.  There are bits in this section that I wanted to leave out.  And that is why nothing whatever is going to come of such talks unless we go a much longer way around.  A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to really want it until we become fully Christian.

Until we become fully Christian.  That state alone honestly is probably an impossibility—let’s begin with that right now.  Even pastors—those of us Christians who have turned pro—aren’t that, because we are more than just pastors.  I’m also a son, a brother, a fiancĂ©, a coach, a friend, an American, and, sometimes, an inveterate wiseass with an R-rated vocabulary.  I am all those things, just as you are all the things you are, and not always do they fit nicely one on top of another.  Instead, they create a Venn diagram where hopefully they overlap as much as possible, but sometimes, they just don’t.  And those moments that they don’t is what I’ll talk about today.

Last week, I talked about how Paul defines Christianity as a lifestyle—not a doctrine or a set of beliefs, but something that we choose every day when we get out of bed to practice or to not practice.  Paul tells us all these things that we are to do as Christians, and as for the “how,” Paul does what any preacher worth a flat dollar does—he just says, “Hey, Jesus did it.  Be like Him.”

Except Paul does it with poetry, and in doing so, as New Testament scholar Ernest Saunders writes, he “really invents the Christian meaning of the secular Greek word ‘tapeinophrosyne,’ commonly translated ‘humility.’  The dictionary meaning is…lowness of rank.  In Christian use, however, it characteristically refers to the “littleness” of the child, in a favorite image of Jesus.”

Okay, Jesus as a child we get, right?  He’s the Son of God.  But Jesus as “little” is something I want to balk at.  I *want* Jesus to be big, bigger than anything else I could ever imagine!

And therein lies the paradox that this poem speaks of.  Jesus was—is—in fact made of stuff far bigger than we could ever imagine: He is made of God’s own divine substance.  But in order to do what He did, He had to sacrifice all of it, empty Himself of all divinity, in order to take human form.  Saunders calls it “the scandal of the Gospel.”  He says: “God declares himself not in stupendous power, nor celestial majesty, but in an insignificant poor man who gives up everything including his life for the sake of others…He made himself of no account, worthless, insignificant…a Somebody who was willing to become a Nobody.  That’s the paradox of Jesus.  Only a few have been able to take him seriously…we can deal with majesty, but we are nonplussed by humility.  We understand pomp and circumstance; we are puzzled by voluntary poverty.  Power we can comprehend; love is a mystery.  Yet it is that strange kind of world over which God is truly king, modeled before our very eyes in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.”

All of those things that Saunders lists, though—majesty versus humility, power versus love—they all have a common denominator, and you could boil it down to the same format that he uses: we understand control, but we remain mystified by surrender.  Our approach to God is, let’s be honest here, often a conditional one.  We say something along the lines of, “Hey, big guy, I sure could use your blessings for X, Y, or Z right about now.  I mean, I’m not sure what you want me to offer to you—I don’t feel like I have the time or money to give to you and your church, and I’m not ready to change anything about how I give of myself to others, or treat others decently…I mean, I am what I am, right?  You created me, so really, it’s your problem!”

We don’t need a show of hands here, but how many of you have had a prayer—at some point, any point in your lives—go a little bit like that?  I’m willing to bet that is all of us, myself included, and if you say no, you’ve never done that, then I’m pretty sure you might be fibbing.

And perhaps nowhere is our need for control so destructive as when we approach Christianity and Scripture and Jesus Himself to validate what we already think is true, rather than what is actually true, and  if it turns out that the Gospel repudiates what we want to be true, well, we find a way to wriggle out of it.  I’ve had “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” type of people tell me about how Jesus’ command to the rich man to sell everything he owned and give the proceeds to the poor doesn’t apply to them because Jesus was saying it to a specific audience, therefore, they don’t need to follow it.  And I just want to be like, “Did you just try to find a loophole for something your Lord and Savior says to do?  Okay.  Okay.”

In other words, we approach God with an agenda, and that agenda is ours, not His.  But what happens then is nothing short of a miracle: God says, "You know what?  I still love you!"

Because I am not fully Christian myself—I am all these other things I listed earlier, plus I am at least something of am materialistic capitalist—I have not sold everything I own and given it to the poor.  I have not done what Jesus says to do, even though I call myself a Christian and a pastor.  But, as they say in twelve-step groups, you first have to admit you have a problem, and that you are powerless over it.  Then the real transformation can begin.  And so it is with Christianity, too.  Only when we surrender our little power to the grace and mercy and love of God do we really, trul change.

But when we do...that is when the amazing stuff can really begin.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 10, 2013

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Can a Bible passage be underrated?

With Christmas now *only* 48 days away, I--and pastors everywhere--have begun planning for Christmas Eve services in earnest.  And I came to realize something:

I need to come up with more Christmas sermons, and fast.

It isn't that I don't appreciate the Christmas story--I do.  Nor is it that I haven't spent enough time with the Bible's accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew's and Luke's Gospels--I have.

No, it's the conundrum that many a preacher faces--what can you possibly say that is new about a story that everybody knows, everybody cherishes, and that everybody has heard a thousand times?

(Oddly, I don't face the same conundrum about Easter, but I think that is because Holy Week is so jam-packed with action, there is so much that gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor every year.  But that's the topic for another post.)

Mind you, I'm not trying to complain, either.  I *want* people to know the Christmas story, I *want* people to know that God made Himself incarnate by being born impoverished, to impoverished parents in an impoverished setting.  I *want* people to know just how big a deal that really is.  The freaking Son of God came to earth for no other reason than because God wanted Him to.

But there are so, so many other passages that can--and should--evoke such emotion from us as the Christmas story that we hold dear.  And by and large, we forget that such passages even exist.

Sure, Scripture has its share of "begats," of lists of descendants and catalogs of legal minutiae, and wacky-sounding ramblings from Ezekiel and friends.  And we tend to skip over those parts.  But in those parts also lie some real gems, some passages that we miss out on if all we focus on is what we know: the Christmas and Easter tales.

These are the underrated parts of Scripture--the passages that offer great love, but don't get much love or attention from us in return.

What sorts of passages am I talking about?

My yardstick for this has long been Habakkuk 3:17-19, which ends Habakkuk's book--a three-chapter dialogue between him and God that begins with the prophet being pretty upset at what he feels is an absentee landlord of a deity.  And yet he ends his book thusly:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
Though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;
Though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls;
Yet still I will rejoice in the Lord.
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength.
He makes my feet like the feet of the deer,
And makes me to tread upon great heights.

Habakkuk is, in fact, singing a song--as evinced by the directive "to the leader, with stringed instruments."  And I imagine whatever stringed instrument he was singing it with--the ancient version of a guitar, or a violin, or a ukelele--it was probably pretty awesome.

Dig deep, and I'm sure you have some passages like those of your own--passages that get obscured by the more famous stuff, but that truly and deeply move you, passages that might be underrated to the wider Christian audience, but that to you represent hidden gems.

So, in a word, yes, a Bible passage can be underrated by the church at large.  Which really should not be that suprising--after all, we all have a "canon within a canon" (that is, parts of the Bible we cling to especially closely due to our own perspectives, interpretations, and church upbringing).

But that does not mean the underrated parts of Scripture should remain underrated.  These are a few other such verses and passages (in my book):

Psalms 42:7-11
Isaiah 26:19
Zephaniah 3:17-19
Romans 8:24-26
James 2:1-5
1 John 4:7-12

What about you?  What lesser-known Bible verses and passages do you especially cherish, and why?  What do they say to you about the nature of God?

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Comfort Zones in Preaching...And Stepping Outside of Them

Subtitle: "I'm Gonna Saddle Up and Give Expository Preaching a Try in 2014"

Being a creature of habit in the church is often tempting...to return to my sermon from Sunday, I think it is another form of temptation: we seek the cause of familiarity and ease, and we forget why we really ought to come to church: to grow and be challenged, not to be a part of a social club (as the rapidly-gaining-popularity Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber put it, church "isn't supposed to be the Elks Club with Eucharist").

It is easier, though, to let yourself atrophy in church, and to be honest, I think that trend starts at the proverbial top: with our pastors, and solo pastors especially.  Myself included.

Yes, I answer to multiple levels of evaluation: my congregation's board of directors (and the congregation at large) maintains supervisory and firing prerogatives over me.  My regional minister can move to have my ordained standing revoked by the denomination.  But on a day-to-day level, my inner thoughts and reflections may be the only pastoral voice I come into contact with.

And I don't say that to make a point about loneliness--that's the topic for another post (trust me: a lot of pastors out there *do* feel lonely.  My introverted side thrives on alone time, but I am not always the rule on this one).

No, I say this to make a point about accountability: and that is that pastors are often given an incredible amount of latitude and trust to ensure that they continue to grow and are challenged within their vocations.

If I'm honest, I don't think we have always lived up to that, and our churches are paying the price for those habits now.  We do what we know and we stick to what we are familiar with, and we become less like ourselves and more like a stereotype or a caricature of ourselves, and neither of those things are appealing to outsiders.  But because we pastors are as far on the inside as an insider can be, we are sometimes the people most susceptible to missing the forest for the trees.

One of the ways I try to keep myself accountable for my teaching (and I share this not to pat myself on the back, but to offer a piece of experience I have found to be helpful in my work) is in keeping detailed records of my sermons.  Of course, I post all my sermons on my blog, but I also keep a running Word document filled with information about my sermons: how many sermons have I preached from the Old Testament this year?  The New Testament?  The Gospels?  The Epistles?  How many series have been centered on books by contemporary authors, and how many series have been centered around themes purely of my own design?

I can run through this sermon-journal of sorts and take note of any trends that may have been unconscious at the time of the sermons themselves.  For instance, I noticed in 2012 that I only preached on Paul's letters twice--once on Romans 16, and once on 2 Timothy 3.  So when I prayed and discerned and planned out my 2013 sermon series calendar, I deliberately included more of Paul: three weeks on Philemon as a part of one sermon series; passages from Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 13, and Galatians 1 as part of another series; and now two weeks back-to-back on Philippians 1 and 2 in my current sermon series on C.S. Lewis.

This sort of thing is important for a preacher like me, who preaches largely on themes, but who also is really only good for interpreting one text per sermon (any more than that, and my sermons rapidly approach trainwreck proportions).  It is how I can ensure that I am offering a balanced Scriptural diet to my congregation, who has put so, so much faith in me by asking me to be their primary preacher and teacher.

There is, however, one other area in which I realized I needed to stretch myself in my preaching: and it's something that honestly I dread doing for any longer than a few weeks at a time: expository preaching (aka preaching "verse-by-verse").  The only time I have done it was in early 2012, when I did four weeks going verse-by-verse through the Moses-at-the-burning-bush story in Exodus 3-4 (I'm not counting the previously mentioned three weeks on Philemon because I was approaching it with a particular thematic bent: namely, social media).

Anyways, I dread expository preaching.  I dread it because I could be going merrily about my way through a particular story or passage, then come across one verse that I don't like or that shocks me, and I go, "WTF is this?!"  And if I preach verse-by-verse...well, I have to preach on *those* verses that make me do a "WTF" double-take.

But I have been preaching long enough now that maybe I need to get over that.  So, in 2014, I'll be preaching two expository sermon series: one will be for Lent, where I'll be preaching verse-by-verse through the book of Jonah (I figure if I *must* insist on pushing myself, I can at least do it while preaching on one of the coolest stories in the Bible), and the other will be for the summer, where I'll spend eight weeks on what I call the "post-Jesus, pre-Paul" church in Acts (ie, Acts 2-5, before Paul arrives on the scene at Stephen's martyrdom).

Man, that was an awful lot of words to say that shoving yourself outside your comfort zones is a damn good thing, even if you aren't sure about it.  But hey, I'm a preacher.  We never say in a sentence what we could instead say in a paragraph.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, November 4, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Screwtape Letters"

Philippians 1:27-2:4 

27 Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel. 28 That way, you won’t be afraid of anything your enemies do. Your faithfulness and courage are a sign of their coming destruction and your salvation, which is from God. 29 God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. 30 You are having the same struggle that you saw me face and now hear that I’m still facing.

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. (CEB)

“The Screwtape Sermons: Exploring Scripture with C.S. Lewis,” Week Two

The teenage singer’s voice was melodic—soothing, even, despite the silliness of the lyrics she was covering.  It turned out she had spent her all breaks at school singing for her friends, so of course she had tons of experience, and you could hear it in her voice…her’s was a singing voice that already had a bit of polish to it, a singing voice you could listen to on repeat.

And believe me when I say that I wanted this singer—Olivia is her name—to choose a different song to cover—it was Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which, if you haven’t heard it, is basically a strung-out list of clichĂ©s.  If I’m going to listen to Katy Perry, then for the love of all that is good and right in this world, at least let me listen to “Teenage Dream,” which is at least a little bit original.

But what sticks with you after seeing this performance by Olivia isn’t the lyrics, it’s the performer: see, she had to be wheeled into the recording studio because she was—and is—dying of brain cancer.  At the age of 17.  As I speak these words, she is at home, slipping in and out of consciousness, surrounded by her friends and family.  But on this day, just under two months ago, she immortalized her voice in an incredibly profound way—by not just recording it, but by videotaping it, so that the world could see her physical state, and I promise you, if all you listened to was the audio, you would not have been able to match it up to the video.

But herein lies a dilemma I think many of us face, as Christians and as human beings.  We could ignore the forest for the trees, and focus on Olivia’s choice of songs to cover as her statement to the world.  Or, we could decide to dwell upon the wonderfulness of a young girl, dying far before her time, offering the farewell gift of her voice to the world before it is gone forever.  The problem is…I think, as Christians especially, but also as people, it is easier for us to reach for the former and to find something to criticize.  And it is easy because, well, it is a form of temptation.

This will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us…that still 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.  We began the series last week by touching on perhaps Lewis’s most famous work, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which contained allegory about the most basic of Christian belief: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  Now, we turn to not just belief, but practice, in Lewis’s 1942 book “The Screwtape Letters.”

The premise of “The Screwtape Letters” is that there is an uncle-and-nephew pairing of demons operating from hell: the nephew, Wormwood, is a neophyte demon still learning his trade, and he receives a series of letters (which make up the book) with advice, reproach, and encouragement from his uncle, Screwtape (which really calls into question the entire sermon series…I mean, I named the series after a fictional demon for the sake of alliteration and a catchy-sounding title.  So sue me).  One of the letters from the elder demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood contains this passage on how to tempt a person into following not God, but evil and temptation:

Let him under the influence of partisan spirit come to regard (partisanism) as the most important part.  Then quietly and gradually nurse him onto the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor (or opposition).  The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience.  Once you have made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.  Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms), the more securely ours.

In other words, what temptation can so often look like to someone is that which on the surface looks like a righteous cause, but that in the end, produces only division, because what is being valued isn’t Christianity, but something else entirely.  Instead, Christianity is used as a means to the end of whatever else that other thing is—a politics, an ideology, a worldview that God may in fact not ultimately support.

So, cut to Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Paul holds the congregation at Philippi very dear to his heart—a “You foolish Galatians!” type of letter this is emphatically not.  But the church at Philippi is going through some very real growing pains, as evinced by Paul’s need to repeatedly reassure them, even going so far as to tell them, in effect, “it gets better.”  For just as Paul struggled with the same things early in his faith and eventually moved beyond them, so too shall the Philippians.  How are they supposed to move beyond their growing pains, though, you ask?

Well…by embracing their faith as a totality of their lifestyle.  Paul makes it abundantly clear in this passage that his interpretation of Christianity is not, as New Testament scholar Ernest Saunders puts it, “a set of doctrines, but to (a) whole way of life.  The gospel for Paul was not a creed, or a set of propositions, but a total lifestyle.  Indeed, in this passage he uses a striking expression, found nowhere else in his letters.  It is translated “manner of life” in most versions.”  He is referring to verse 27, where alone in his letters, Paul exhorts another people to live in a particular manner.  To continue from Saunders, “we still continue to reduce the gospel to a set of theological statements in the face of the repeated insistence of the New Testament that the response to God’s act on our behalf is a new kind of being and doing—not just thinking.  We are called into a new life-world that requires human transformation, not a rearranged belief system.  That is what we are hearing from Paul in this account of the gospel as a ‘manner of life.’”

So to *be* a Christian is to, in fact, *do* Christianity.  The faith of a Christian is not centered simply around right belief, but around right action and right living, which are, at their core, informed, oriented, and fueled by that right belief.  For us to resist the *doing* part of Christianity in favor of other actions that we may think are Christian but aren’t, that is a form of temptation.  We may feel good for dwelling on a crusade that criticizes our political or cultural enemies, but that good feeling does not come from Christ.  It comes from our own sinful nature that has learned long, long, ago that it is far, far easier to make yourself feel better by tearing someone else down than by building yourself up.  Destruction is easier and quicker than construction not just in the physical realm, but in the emotional and spiritual realms as well.

C.S. Lewis wrote “The Screwtape Letters” in 1942, when his native Great Britain was still taking it on the chin from Germany in World War II—keep in mind that at this point, we are still two years away from D-Day in France—and so it would have been easy to see someone who had a different opinion on war strategy as an idiot or worse, as a traitor.  As Lewis conveys, pacifists and patriots alike viewed each other with suspicion, and to Lewis, that was one of the kinds of temptation that evil regularly uses to achieve its destructive ends.  After all, not only is it far easier to tear someone down than to build them up, it is also far easier to do if that person you are tearing down is seen by you as an enemy rather than a friend.

Which just goes to show how ridiculously inane and radical it was for Jesus to tell us to bless our enemies.  But there are genuine enemies—enemies who are truly opposed to our being alive, people like terrorists—and then there are enemies who are more bogeymen than actual enemies: people we prop up in the recesses of our imagination as caricatures, far worse than they really are.   This is what Lewis was talking about here, and it is the trap that the Philippians fall into.  Twice in the eight verses of this passage, Paul exhorts the Philippians to achieve unity, and the way to do that, Paul writes, is to not be terrified of your adversaries.  Do not build them up into something they are not!  Instead, leave them up to God, and God will attend to them.

We have been presented with a potentially divisive question as a church, as we discern what we should say to same-sex couples who want to be married.  But they are not our enemy.  They never have been.  And look around this sanctuary: I guarantee you that your enemy does not sit in this room, even if they disagree with you on this.  Using this to divide a growing, loving congregation is, in the end, another temptation, one that we are emphatically told to resist.

Think about that young girl, singing her heart out in the final weeks of her life.  If you did not know the person behind the voice—that is, if all you heard was the audio, knowing nothing else about her—she would be easy to criticize.  A little girl, choosing to cover a frankly pretty lame pop song?  That’s low-hanging fruit.  But once you realize who this girl is—not who you tell yourself she might be—criticizing her becomes a luxury, a temptation we can do without.  And so instead, we focus on her courage and her energy for recording music all the way to the end.  As Paul says, we esteem her better than ourselves, for it is right and holy that we should do so.

That is the difference, in a nutshell, between succumbing to temptation and standing up to it.  We esteem others better than ourselves, even when we think they might be wrong.  Because it is better, in the end, to look towards their interests than ours, in the hope and faith that they will return the favor.  They well may not.  But that does not mean that we should.  It means we go right back to being the type of church Paul calls us to be: a unified, loving, humble church, calling the world to Christ bit by bit, piece by piece, soul by soul.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 3, 2013