Thursday, February 27, 2014

Food for the Journey

Trigger word warning: Domestic violence and abuse.

(The names of both persons and locations in this story have been changed--as have some identifying details--in order to protect the safety and anonymity of "Abigail."  Domestic violence is a plague of evil upon this world, and there are countless other Abigails across the world seeking and/or working actively towards their own salvation from their abusers.  I'm sharing this story with you because it has been weighing heavily upon my heart as of late as a reminder that behind every statistic is a name with a face and a heart and a life that deserves to be reclaimed.  And as many steps as there were in Abigail's escape, for many victims/survivors, the route towards safety is even more daunting.  I cannot say this enough: it is seldom as simple as "well, why don't you just leave?"  Nobody should have to flee literally halfway across the country to escape an abuser, but Abigail has. This post is for her.  -E.A.)

Abigail sat across from me on the other side of the desk, and though her eyes were the ones who were downcast, it was me who almost couldn't bear to look her in the eye as she told me her story.

"Please, call me Abby," she practically whispered to me as she sat down, curling up almost into the fetal position in her seat as she began to tell me about the man she lived with who would beat her and abuse her until she fled to our local Emergency Support Shelter (which our congregation furnishes with food, toys, and clothes every year during Christmastime as one of our missions).

But like anyone living in a battered family shelter, her current circumstances were temporary.  She could not stay there forever.  To that end, she was trying to arrange some sort of one-way transportation to Chicago, be it by bus or by train, so that she could start her life over.  She did not volunteer to me who she knew in Chicago who would take her in, and I did not ask.

Tucking her shoulder-length hair behind her ears, Abby explained to me that since fleeing her abuser, she (like many other victims who escape) had little more than the clothes on her back and had no way of paying for any sort of transportation to get to Chicago.  Her advocate at the shelter, Rachel, had informed her that there really wasn't--and isn't--an agency in town dedicated to relocating abused wives/mothers/children, and that her best bet was in asking the local churches to fund her escape.

When she told me how much a bus or a train ticket would cost, my own face fell a little.  I would be unable to use congregational cash to pay for a ticket for her, due to rules that I myself had written when I took this job in 2011, and while I had a sum of cash sitting in my pocket that second, that cash belonged not to me but to my local ministerial association, for which I am the treasurer.

Haltingly, I explained to Abby that I simply could not afford to buy her a one-way ticket, but that if there were another church or two to share in the cost, I was sure we could help out somehow.  She nodded, said she understood, and thanked me.  I gave her my business card and promised to check in with her and her advocate.

I heard from her again first thing the following morning.  Not only had she been able to secure funding from other churches, but between all the ones she asked, she was able to fund the entire ticket!  She was talking to me for another need, though: a ride from Kelso to Chicago would take over a day to complete, and she had nothing to eat during that time.  Could we maybe give her some food to take with her?

Yes, we most certainly could.  I asked her what she liked to eat, and I cannot forget the surprise in her voice when I did--it was as though she was completely unaccustomed to anyone asking her what she would like or what she wanted.  She'd eat anything, she said.  Yes, I said, but what do you like to eat?  Crackers?  Granola?  Beef jerky?

And so it was that I found myself at the Safeway up the road from the church, shopping for nonperishable finger foods that were simultaneously nutritious, filling, and tasty.  Standing in the checkout line, I looked down at what I felt was my fairly lame ingredients for a spread--some apple bars, some oat-and-honey bars, some whole-grain crackers--and I realized that I was buying food for someone making their exodus out of a situation of pain and abuse.  God may have sent manna to the Israelites in the wilderness, but our victims today get Nutri-Grain bars from the pastor.

After delivering Abby's food to her at the shelter, I begin to pray and think along the drive back to my office, and the gravity of it all begins to sink in.  My jawline begins to ripple with emotion, and before long, I have to pull over into a parking lot because my vision blurs from the tears that are threatening to well up.  I know I don't come across looking very good in this story for not doing more, and I recall the Bible verse from the Gospel of Matthew:

I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.

My prayer is that next time, I will do more.  Because the sad, terrible, horrible truth is that when it comes to this type of evil...there almost certainly will be a next time.

How I wish that were not so.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Some Thoughts on Being "Cutting-Edge"

It turns out that hand-wringing and navel-gazing is hardly unique to us mainline Protestants.  An article appeared in Christianity Today a week ago, openly wondering how and why the heretical trio of Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Donald Miller managed to break so many evangelical hearts by straying from conservative orthodoxy on matters such as universalism (Bell), same-sex marriage (Bell and McLaren), and communion (Miller).  As the article's author Kevin Miller (presumably no relation to Donald Miller) puts it, the three shining beacons of evangelical Christianity's future had all, in the span of just over a decade, flown too close to the sun with their forward-thinkingness and need for beauty before truth.  All three have then in turn, to varying degrees, been accused of selling out their principles for the sake of mainstream acceptance (perhaps the most memorable condemnation coming from John Piper on Twitter, who simply tweeted out "Farewell, Rob Bell").

Honestly, when I finished reading the article, my immediate and uncensored thought was, "Well, what did y'all expect would one day happen?"

I've made no secret here on the blog about my personal disagreement with the retrograde beliefs that many of my Christian brethren still continue to hold to in the realm of gender and same-sex equality, and from the perspective of someone who does believe in the rightness of ordaining women and gay/lesbian pastors, I simply would say this:

Part of being on the cutting edge means arriving at conclusions that others around you have not.  And once everyone catches up to your conclusions, you are no longer cutting edge, you are mainstream.  Heck, the Bible even says as much towards the end of Ecclesiastes 4, where Solomon notes that there will always be someone younger and brighter to take over for the young and bright guiding stars of the present.  The visionaries of Bell, McLaren, et al. will one day be replaced by new visionaries, people who are able to interpret and teach Scripture in such profound ways that you would never have thought it possible...if they hadn't already been doing it.

In other words, there will always be people seeking to move forward, even if you yourself are satisfied with the present, or are even longing for the past.  It is precisely the trap that mainline Protestantism fell into sometime between the 1970's (when our numerical decline likely started) and the 1990's (when said decline was really laid bare for all to see).  We were the top dogs, so to speak, and in talking to my older colleagues, all of them note the same sense of one-time complacency: a church back then did not have to evangelize, you could simply throw open your doors and the people would show up.  Now, we have to work to bring in new disciples, and people who outgrew our previous way of doing things simply left the church, many of whom have yet to come back because we don't know how to work at bringing them back into the fold.

Now, in that respect, we had--and have--a LOT to learn from our evangelical cousins.

But the flip side of that coin is just as people outgrew us mainliners for varying reasons, so too are we now beginning to see, I believe, people outgrowing aspects of evangelicalism--namely, the tendency to place the need for orthodoxy and doctrinal purity before relationships and spiritual exploration.

If you want statistical proof of this, simply click here.  Nearly 1 in 3 Christian millennials who left their church cited their beliefs about GLBTQ equality as "somewhat important" or "very important" in their decision to leave the body of Christ.

This is what happens when churches place doctrine ahead of people.  This is what happened, in so many words, I believe, to Bell, McLaren, et al.  And full disclosure--I've seen both Rob Bell and Brian McLaren speak, and both of them impressed me and struck me as preachers of the Word who are genuinely led by God.  We ignore what wisdom they have to offer us at our own peril.

But at the same time, I cannot imagine that either of them wrote and said the things that got them black-listed by their former peers and colleagues out of some need to be accepted by a wider audience--both of them were already plenty popular when they began deviating from conservative orthodoxy, and besides, the myth that people "take the easy way out" for wider acceptance is often exactly that--a myth.

The entirety of human history is written on a timeline of progression.  We once lived in darkness...but then Prometheus (or, more accurately, prehistoric humans) discovered fire.  We once believed that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited around it...but then Copernicus and Galileo proved us wrong.  We once lived our lives completely land-locked, until the Wright brothers took to the air.

And we once believed that things like discrimination and slavery on the basis of race were Biblically justified, until abolitionists--many of whom were themselves devout Christians--taught us otherwise.

Imagine what God's creation will look like tomorrow.

And then, if you are able, try not to dismiss outright the people who are trying to make it better.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

PS: I would be remiss if I also did not link you to Brian McLaren's very thoughtful response to this very issue.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "In Vino Veritas"

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

23 I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. 24 After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” 25 He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” 26 Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes. (Common English Bible)


“Adventures in Churchland: A Visitor’s Experience of Mainline Worship,” Week Five

The 20-year-old firefighter who also served as an EMT had just completed a 24-hour shift, with a whole 30 minutes of it spent asleep.  He did exactly what you might expect someone in that state to do, something we may well have feared doing ourselves at one point late at night—he fell asleep behind the wheel.

And in doing so, he struck the car of a 30-year-old wife and mother of one girl, who was then pregnant with her second child.  The daughter survived the wreck, the mother and her unborn child did not.  The firefighter was charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, and being a county officer, was facing a stiff prison sentence.  He also “expected hate from” the husband whom he had suddenly made into a widower and a father of a dead child.

But then a remarkable thing happened.  This bereaved husband—who, as it turns out, was (is) a full-time pastor—saw this as “his opportunity to practice the forgiveness he had preached so many times before.”  As he himself put it, “It wasn’t an option.  If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”

Forgiveness, yes.  But friendship?  Well…for this kind of authentic, from-the-soul forgiveness, yes.  This lethal wreck took place in the fall of 2006, over seven years ago.  And to this day, every two weeks, the pastor and the firefighter go to church together and have breakfast together.  And I find that amazing, not really for the pronouncement of forgiveness (although it is) or even for the continued friendship (although it is as well).  I find it amazing because that relationship takes place over a meal, because like the Passion narrative itself, out of the crucible of someone’s death comes a holy meal and a chance to proclaim not only death, but resurrection.

This is a sermon series that will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent.  And this is a series about something that may or may not be new in the slightest to us: Sunday worship.  For those of us who were born and raised in the church and have lived in the church our entire lives, worship may be second nature to us by this point: some tunes, some prayers, some preachin’, some bread and juice, and it’s off to Sunday brunch.  But for those of us for whom church is an entirely new experience, this may all come across as one tin-foil hat away from something utterly bizarre to you.  I think I can safely say that after reading Dan Kimball’s 2013 book, “Adventures in Churchland,” in which at one point he conveys, in vivid detail, his initial worship experience at a church that I instantly recognized as a mainline Protestant church—a church like ours with a pastor in robes and an organ in the sanctuary and the serving of communion—none of which are typical trappings in many evangelical churches.  And Dan, having come in off the street, was both bemused and confused by everything this church did as a part of its worship…but we do some of the exact same things, and so it stands to reason that perhaps our worship is confusing for newcomers as well.  So, the point of this sermon series is to not only explain why we worship the way we do, but hopefully to equip you to do the same when other folks ask you why we worship the way we do!  We began by simply talking about where we worship—our sanctuary, the church building—before talking about how we worship, and though we lost a week of the sermon series to the Snowpocalypse of 2014, we continued on by moving from talking about worship music two weeks ago to talking about the whole listening-to-a-sermon bit, and now we arrive at a ritual intimately familiar to all Disciples of Christ churches: holy communion, or the partaking of the Eucharist.  Dan writes:

The man in the robe held up a big golden goblet and said some words.  At first I thought he was going to do some sort of magic trick and pull something out of the goblet.  But then I realized it was a formal prayer he’d memorized.  I wondered if he was praying to the goblet, since he was staring at it and speaking directly to it.

After the prayer, he (then) whispered to the person at the end of the row and handed him the golden cup.  This person dipped a tiny little cracker in the cup, pulled it out, and ate it.  Then he whispered something to the guy on his left and passed him the cup.  This guy also dipped a tiny little cracker in it and ate it, passing the cup to the person on his left and whispering something.  The process repeated itself down the row until it was my turn.  The woman next to me handed me the cup and said something about blood and “this is for you” and something about flesh.  I did what I had seen the others do, not understanding what it meant or why I was doing it.

And I imagine that is probably true for all of us at some point in church—we participate in some ritual or some exercise and don’t fully understand what it means or why we are doing it.  Maybe for you that was watching a baptism for the first time and wondering why we dunk people in a pool of (sometimes very cold water)…after all, church isn’t a college fraternity, it isn’t like baptism is supposed to be some sort of hazing ritual.  Or maybe for you it is wondering why we serve coffee at every single possible church function, but for that one, I’ve got nothing for you!

But Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that the practice of holy communion—of participating in the re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper the night before He died—should hold no such mystery for us: we should do it to proclaim Jesus’ death until He returns to us again in the Second Coming.

Now, that does not mean that holy communion should hold no mystery for us whatsoever, otherwise there would have been no debate over all of those different substantiation theories: transubstantiation, which dictates that the bread and the wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, or consubstantiation, which says that the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the bread and the wine, but that the bread and the wine do not literally turn into the body and blood, or transignification, which posits that the bread and the wine take on the significance of the body and blood, even if they do not take on the actual physical properties of flesh, and so on and so forth.  If your head is spinning right now, that is because I just condensed several centuries worth of theological bickering into a single sermon paragraph, for which I am sure I shall be roundly condemned by the saints in heaven for not doing their particular interpretation justice, because, quite frankly, the whole practice of arguing over holy communion defeats its very purpose: this is a meal that was meant to draw the disciples together, not apart.

Think about the Passover like you would a typical modern holiday, like the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving: throughout the week you are busting yourself for your job or whatever work you do, and you might feel tired and beaten down, but then, the world steps in and says, at least for this one day, “STOP.”  Stop, and grill some burgers with your buds while you watch the fireworks.  Stop, and enjoy some stuffed bird with your loved ones while you watch football.  Or…stop, and remember from whence your people came: from a context of slavery and bondage in Egypt until God, through Moses, liberated you and guided you to your home in Israel.

That’s how religion is, at its most basic level, countercultural.  It is where religion derives so much of its power.  When everything else in the world gets to be too much—the deadlines and the burdens and the stresses—religious holidays are what allow us to stand up and say “STOP” to that tweaked-out world.  They are what give us an opportunity to keep our heads above water.

And that is something that we may be apt to forget with holy communion—what we are really doing by participating in it is we are remembering a religious holiday, the Jewish Passover, during a time when, in the midst of a hated and unwelcome Roman occupation, most Israelites probably wanted to stand up and say “STOP” that terrible, oppressive world as well.

It is also why, I believe, why we should—and do—end our worship services with holy communion rather than with my message.  Ending the service on me puts at least a little of the focus back on me, not on God.  We spend the other six days of the week focusing on what other people say, and this is supposed to be the one day a week when we are really supposed to focus on what God is saying.  And what God is saying—through Christ—is what Paul relays to us here in 1 Corinthians: that every time you consume the bread and wine of the Eucharist, you are proclaiming that Jesus has died and risen and that He will return once more.

And why bother proclaiming that at all?  Because, quite simply, that desire for a returning Christ is what keeps us going.  It is what keeps the church going.  It is what keeps Christians going, the gnawing, fervent, wildly hopeful belief that one day, maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but that one day, God will become flesh again simply because He loves us that much.

There is a Latin saying, in vino veritas, that literally means, “in wine, (there exists) truth,” and it comes from the observations of the Greek historian Herodotus and the Roman historian Tacitus, who observed that the Persians and Germans respectively would engage in decision-making while drinking or inebriated, under the belief that one is not an effective liar while intoxicated.  In other  words, wine—or any alcohol—brings out the truth in all of us.

But I have to believe there is another dimension to this saying, because in this wine, in the wine (or juice, in our case) of the Eucharist, there indeed exists truth, the truth of God’s grace and mercy, poured out to the point of overflowing.  There exists the truth that over a meal, the unlikeliest of relationships can be formed—a friendship between widower and firefighter, an engagement between fiancĂ© and fiancĂ©e, or even the rescue of a sinner, called and redeemed, whose task when they get up from the table has become to call and redeem other sinners.

There are a great many reasons why we take holy communion every single week without fail here, but perhaps the greatest for me is that it is what sustains that unlikely relationship between myself and God.  Because in His wine, there is grace.  There is mercy.  And there is surely truth.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 23, 2014

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I Live for Moments Such as This

You wouldn't think it to look at my office from the outside, but it affords me a fantastic view--I can see the hills that border the Lower Columbia basin that Longview sits in, I get to watch parents pick up their children from school, and on a perfectly clear day, Mt. Saint Helens is visible to the northeast.

So the blinds to my office windows are pretty much always open, even during torrential downpours like the one we had yesterday and that carried over into this morning.  And normally, today (Wednesday) is my "coffeehouse" day: I do the bulk of my sermon writing on Wednesdays, and I'll sometimes simply hop from coffeehouse to coffeehouse to do said writing.  I do this for a few reasons--one is that I have found that I am more diligent and productive when working around other people, another is quite simply that I'm a four-cups-a-day addict (a hazard of the ministry profession: I possess loyalty cards to at least four local coffee establishments).

But today, with as heavily as it has been raining, I don't exactly feel like getting in and out of my car multiple times.  I decide to work from home for a bit, and then simply drive straight to my church office and work from there today.

When a break in the rain coincides with a particularly challenging moment of writer's block, I look out the windows, see nothing falling from the sky, and decide that now would be a good time to walk down to the Dutch Brothers coffee shop a couple blocks away from the church.  The walk and the caffeine alike should help jump-start me into the next vein of writing.

So I throw on my overcoat and cram one of my knit toboggans down onto my head to insulate my completely bald pate from the 40-degree weather.  I make the two-block walk in just several minutes, head on up to the walkup window, and order my usual, a sugar-free non-fat double carmelizer.

The barista brews my double espresso, pours it into a cup with steamed skim milk and sugar-free caramel, and hands it to me.  I turn to walk away, and I begin to realize something: it isn't just that the perpetual Pacific Northwest rain has stopped, it's that it's actually sunny outside right this moment.  Perfectly blue sky extends above me in a couple of different directions.  The welcome sunlight dances across the lens of my eyeglasses and causes me to scrunch up my face and squint.

I stop, look up at the blue sky, and then back down at the ground as I sip on the warm, caramel-y coffee in my hands, and I see that on the blue lid atop my coffee cup, there is printed a single word.

Smile.

And I do.  A smile creeps across my face, and for a glorious moment, as I stand outside underneath the sunshine, every stress in my life melts away, at least for this brief moment.

I stop worrying about the writer's block I have been experiencing this week.

I stop worrying about my congregation's financial circumstances.

I stop worrying if I am doing enough to lose weight.

I stop worrying if I am good enough at this job to see through the incredible transformation that we are still very much in the middle of.

I know that all those worries and stresses will come back to me--perhaps very soon--but at least right now, right this second, I feel completely at peace because my many burdens have been lifted, if only for an instant.

And so underneath the sunlight, amidst the trees with droplets of rain still falling from their branches, and in the crisp cold of February, I start praying right there on the sidewalk.

It is a prayer of thanksgiving, because I know that in my heart, I live for moments such as this...moments when I am reassured that God can, in fact, still provide.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, February 17, 2014

What Love Does Not Look Like

I've been sitting on this one for a while, mostly because what my native home state of Kansas is doing just makes me want to hurl out a stream of invective not fit for a Christian blog.  So I'm writing this on a holiday in as level a frame of mind as possible:

Kansas's attempt to legalize both public and private discrimination against gays and lesbians is profoundly sinful, and I have to believe that God is judging them.

If you have missed the news, the Kansas House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass HB 2453, a bill that would allow both private businesses and public employees the right to refuse service to gays and lesbians (contrary to what the bill proponents say, there is nothing in the legislative language that limits such refusal of service to gay couples).

We'll ignore for a minute the reality that Kansas already has a same-sex marriage ban written into the state constitution--which would indicate that this bill is simply a solution in search of a problem.  What I want to talk about is exactly to what extent we Christians need our religious liberties to be protected, even at the expense of a minority group like the GLBTQ community.

Let's look at the Establishment clause as it is written into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The text of the amendment reads, in its entirety: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So let's talk about prohibiting the free exercise of religion for a minute.  Because the logic seems to be that denying a gay person service or turning them away from an establishment on the basis of their sexual orientation is a "free exercise of one's religious beliefs."

My question is this: if that is so, then why do we prosecute anti-abortion zealots who shoot and kill abortion providers for murder?  Many--if not all--of the doctor-killers in the extreme fringes of pro-life Christianity claimed they acted on the basis of their religious beliefs: Shelley Shannon, Michael Griffin, Scott Roeder, James Charles Kopp, all of them cited their religious beliefs that led them to believe they were justified in taking the life of another human being.

None of them were able to successfully cite religious liberty as a reason they should be immune from prosecution.

Now, I can already hear the objection: "But they killed someone!  Religious liberty protection shouldn't extend THAT far!"  Right you are.  And when GLBTQ youth are 2-3 times more likely to kill themselves than heterosexual youth (and when academic research has proven there to be a negative psychological effect that anti-gay legislation has on people), I would argue that HB 2453 likewise represents an attempt to place the value of "religious liberty" over the value of a person's life, because what we are saying, in effect, is, "We value our ability to discriminate over your right to live a happy life."

And I'm not sure how that can be remotely considered Christian, not when the Christ we follow said such inane things as "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you" and "In everything  do to others as you would have them do to you."

(The other question I would pose is this: Suppose a business or a government employee did the exact same thing, but on grounds that you are a Christian.  Would that not constitute religious persecution, which is the same thing the Kansas legislature is trying to prevent?)

Put simply: your right to religious exercise is not unbounded and unlimited.  There must be statutory limits placed on it for the common good.

We are called to love each other, and love does not look like discrimination.  You may say that love is also not supposed to look like two men or two women, and I would say to you that love likewise is not supposed to look like you valuing your expression over someone else's well-being and life.  We Christians would do well to heed the Hippocratic oath that doctors must take: First, do no harm.

Now, to its credit, the Kansas Senate appears ready to declare this legislative and religious atrocity dead on arrival.  I can only hope that ends up being the case.

And in the meanwhile, American Christendom would do well to recall yet another teaching from that annoying, pestering, self-righteous carpenter we call our Messiah, Lord, and Savior:

I was a stranger and you did not welcome me...Truly, truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.

What we do to each other, we do to Christ Himself.  When we discriminate against one another, we discriminate against He who died for us, He who redeemed us, He who saved us.

What a terrible witness to the faith we hold dear.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, February 16, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "This is so Meta"

Acts 17:16-21

16 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17 He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18 Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.) (Common English Bible)


“Adventures in Churchland: A Visitor’s Experience of Mainline Worship,” Week Four

The skylights were such that the arched over the round in which I was preaching—my childhood church had a very new sanctuary that lacked any sort of pulpit, so I was standing there, on my own, that Sunday morning in May ten years ago, preaching my senior sermon for youth Sunday.

And my microphone had just stopped working (does this sound familiar to anyone here?!).  In and of itself, that is not a big deal, it would just mean I would have to talk a whole lot louder.

But I was not exactly capable in that moment of talking any louder than I already was, for the night previous I had been awoken by one of those 3:00-in-the-morning phone calls that all of us dread.  A childhood friend of mine, coincidentally named Eric, had been in a car crash while not wearing a seatbelt.  He was killed instantly.  And that very next morning, on half a night’s sleep and in emotional and spiritual disarray, I had to preach on, of all things, the chapter where Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd—John 10.

The Son of God did not feel like an especially good shepherd to me that morning.

But then, as the microphone was quitting on me and I was running on fumes in every possible way, the sunlight came out from above the skylights in the sanctuary ceiling…and came down upon me.  My temperature skyrocketed and enough energy returned that I continued on preaching…and I don’t remember entirely what I said, I know that I quoted Hugo and Emerson and that I said some other stuff, but it made it all feel an awful lot like that Pentecost story in Acts 2, when the flame of the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples, and even though they do not know what everyone else is saying (because each is speaking in their native tongue), they understand each other perfectly.

I had no clue what I was saying, but it felt like, in that moment, that maybe God understood me perfectly.  It was when I finally knew, had finally been made to understand, that I could do this for a living.  I could be a pastor.  And it was when I at last realized that preaching is not meant to only change the audience of a sermon.  Sometimes, it is meant to change the author of it as well.

This is a sermon series that will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent.  And this is a series about something that may or may not be new in the slightest to us: Sunday worship.  For those of us who were born and raised in the church and have lived in the church our entire lives, worship may be second nature to us by this point: some tunes, some prayers, some preachin’, some bread and juice, and it’s off to Sunday brunch.  But for those of us for whom church is an entirely new experience, this may all come across as one tin-foil hat away from something utterly bizarre to you.  I think I can safely say that after reading Dan Kimball’s 2013 book, “Adventures in Churchland,” in which at one point he conveys, in vivid detail, his initial worship experience at a church that I instantly recognized as a mainline Protestant church—a church like ours with a pastor in robes and an organ in the sanctuary and the serving of communion—none of which are typical trappings in many evangelical churches.  And Dan, having come in off the street, was both bemused and confused by everything this church did as a part of its worship…but we do some of the exact same things, and so it stands to reason that perhaps our worship is confusing for newcomers as well.  So, the point of this sermon series is to not only explain why we worship the way we do, but hopefully to equip you to do the same when other folks ask you why we worship the way we do!  We began by simply talking about where we worship—our sanctuary, the church building—before talking about how we worship, and though we lost a week of the sermon series to the Snowpocalypse of 2014, we can continue on by moving from talking about worship music two weeks ago to talking about, well, the whole listening-to-a-sermon thing  we do today.  Pastor Dan writes:

After welcoming us to the meeting, he (the pastor) had everyone read from a book kept on racks behind each pew.  We were supposed to read sections from the book, alternating with his reading in a deep monotone voice…Randy and I didn’t really feel comfortable chanting with the others, so we watched everyone else reading.  Then the organ played and some people sang a song or two, which I didn’t recognize, while we just stood there staring at the pages of a songbook.

The man in the robe gave a talk of some sort, which felt more like a dramatic reading to me.  He spoke with various inflections, and the words he used weren’t ones we use in everyday language.  He had a formal style of speaking.  Then, without explanation, people began standing up and going down the aisle to the front, where they kneeled on a low bench that went across the front of the stage.  You could tell they knew what they were doing: they went up row by row like they’d been doing this for years.

So we have moved from what is sung in worship—our praise music—to what is spoken in worship—our readings and our sermons.

And there really is an awful lot that I could say about the words we—and I—use in worship, but all of it would ultimately and fundamentally come down to one observation: at least in reading Pastor Dan’s words, I gleaned no sense of passion in this faith community that he describes.

And perhaps that is harsh of me to say.  After all, I do not know what particular church is being described here, and I do not know if maybe they were simply having an off-day and that usually, things were a little spicier.  But I will stand by my most basic tenet of preaching until the day I hang up my robe for good: being in possession of the truth does you little good if you cannot effectively communicate it to other people.

Which is why this story out of Acts 17 is so remarkable.  Paul is well out of his depth—he is educated and worldly, yes, but he is educated as a Jewish Pharisee, not as a Stoic or Epicurean Greek.  You might be familiar with Stoicism because of its famous teaching of not showing emotion during suffering, but Epicureanism had absolutely nothing to do with fine dining—these are emphatically not the “epicures dining in Crewe” who find a rather large mouse in the stew.  No, Epicurean Greeks were, in the words of New Testament scholar Paul Walaskay, “pragmatic atheists who taught that belief in the gods is not particularly useful, especially in light of life’s inevitable sufferings.  Even if gods do exist, they obviously do not care much about human beings.  The Stoics, on the other hand, had a well-developed theology that taught that the mind of Zeus (the greatest and highest of the gods) is reason/logos itself.”

Paul originally argues in the Athenian synagogue, which of course makes sense—it represents his home turf as an Israelite Jew—but then he moves on to arguing in the marketplace with whoever happens to be there.  And this is where it gets a little kookyboots—I mean, can you imagine having some Israelite crank haranguing you on your way into Safeway for milk?  Granted, public argument was much more of a part of ancient Greek culture than of contemporary American culture, but it still easily got Paul the attention of these atheist and Zeus-logic-loving Greek philosophers without getting himself arrested as a public nuisance. (“This just in on Eyewitness News at 6: A vehement and feisty old fellow found arguing with passersby…”)

And that attention is entirely sincere—while some are quite ready to dismiss Paul as a babbler of foreign gods, the philosophers want to know what this new thing is, the good news of Jesus and of His resurrection.  “It sounds rather strange to us, but we would like to know what it means.”

Now, first of all, how great would it be if every person outside the church approached the church this way: “Y’all are kinda strange to me, but I want to know what your beliefs mean to you?”  But second of all, there is a burden incumbent upon us to create an atmosphere where people can feel safe to be that intellectually and spiritually curious, and we have not been shouldering that burden.  Pastors have been misusing the privilege of our sermons to create an atmosphere in our churches where doubt is a sin, where questions are unwelcome, and where the person who is not there yet, who just can’t quite believe this bit of doctrine, is outed and forced to rise and confess.  In the face of these churches, we would be apt to stick to the first part—“Y’all are kinda strange to me,” but I cannot imagine people outside the church would want to know about us, either.

Similarly, though, people outside the church often do not care to know about us if we show no evident joy and passion for our beliefs—if they have become only a rote exercise like for the folks in Pastor Dan’s story who had “been doing this for years.”  Perhaps the best use of preaching is to act as an inoculation, as a vaccination, against that sort of torpor, because we preachers are not called simply to have the truth.  We have to offer it to others, which means it is my holy task to engage you in my sermons and in my teachings for however long I have asked for your time.  Preaching can very easily be dynamic and engaging, and when it isn’t—when it is stiff and unfamiliar—the rest of our worship life can, and often will, suffer by extension.

And that is what makes this a slightly odd, meta-tastic sermon for me to give.  I am preaching, in effect, on the art of preaching.  Which means that I am preaching to myself just as much as I am preaching to all of you, but one of the things I learned from that sermon I gave as a boy a decade ago, was that preaching is meant for the preacher in addition to being meant for the audience.

So I hope that my sermons do, in fact, on occasion change you.  Not because my ego needs the boost, but because it means that this church is equipping you to in turn change others.  It means that we are doing our job of creating Disciples of Christ, who, like the Twelve, like the Seventy, like Paul himself, are prepared to go out into the world with little more than the Word and still hope to make a difference.  That is the dream I have every time I stand before you here.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 16, 2014

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Physical Health of Pastors

It isn't exactly a well-kept secret anymore, not since a number of publications have starting writing about this, but ministry is hardly a healthy profession.

And not just in terms of spiritual health, either--although the spiritual harms that afflict pastors, such as loneliness and overworking, are well-documented.

In terms of physical health, we pastors are pretty darn unhealthy.  A lot of our workweek is spent behind a desk, in a book, in front of a computer, or across the table or bedside of another person.  And considering how just about every pastor I know is predisposed to inhale--or at least graze on--any free food made available to them, you get an instant recipe for unhealthiness.

And that includes me.  I'd like to say that I have managed to maintain my health since leaving college (and the accompanying freshman 15 that never really left), but I haven't.  While my overall cardiovascular fitness remains decent (my resting pulse rate is generally in the high 60's, and I will often go for 15-20K on the exercise bike at a time), I am rapidly learning that my blood pressure is not.

Now, part of that is family history--hypertension and high cholesterol are in my genes, and so I had already made several lifestyle and diet changes many moons ago, cutting out grains that weren't high-fiber or whole-grain as well as egg yolks, regular fat cheeses, and almost all beer (I'll have a beer once a week now at most).  And while I am a devoted carnivore, I now almost never cook with animal proteins at home anymore, choosing instead to get my protein from lowfat milk and cheese.

But when I started experiencing eye floaters this past week, I was advised to get my blood pressure checked  because some of the most sensitive blood vessels in the body are in the eyes (being engaged to a doctor is a really good thing).  I did get it checked, and low and behold, compared to when I got it checked last year (and it in at my usual 120/80), my blood pressure weighed in this week at a whopping 130/90, which potentially qualifies as prehypertension (in order to know for sure, I'm scheduling an appointment with my actual doctor--the one I'm not engaged to =) ).

And I'm only 28 years old.

I'm writing openly about all of this for a couple of reasons.  One is that it simply is cathartic for me to do so, for me to be able to get some of my worries out in the open so that I don't feel like I am hiding them or that I should be ashamed of them.  I have always had a voracious appetite, and controlling it has been one of the defining tasks of my twenties.  I think my being open about it may help me in doing so, and perhaps it might even help you, or help someone else, in doing so.

The other is to try to put another interpretation on the statistics I linked to at the top of this post.  I think for a lot of people, anecdotes--a personal face--on something can be as or more effective than a recitation of numbers.  So if you need a flesh-and-blood example of a minister working to reverse the unhealthiness in his diet, I am that flesh-and-blood example.

And to be honest, I didn't think I would be.  To me, things like hypertension belonged to people in way worse health than me, not to someone like me who is young and active.

But we do not live in a healthy world.  And I am learning that I am more vulnerable to that world than I originally thought I was.

It's important, in an unhealthy world, to be deliberate about taking care of yourself.  And since our bodies were knitted by God, it's theologically appropriate for us to be deliberate about it.

So if I ask your help in trying to keep myself accountable to my own health and to God, please be open to doing so.  Or if you want to, please say so.  I will not be offended.

And likewise, extend the same consideration to your own body...your God-given, God-made, God-knitted, wonderful, fragile, imago dei.

The body is made in God's image.  I am learning all over again to treat mine as such.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, February 10, 2014

What I Prayed For During the Snowpocalypse

As I noted in my announcement yesterday, we had to cancel worship and all our other Sunday activities at FCC due to the Longview area receiving a foot of God's fluffy, playful dandruff.

Our secretary, Charlotte, and I reopened the church office today, but the snow is still affect matters--the elementary school across the street from us is still closed, and I still decided to cancel tonight's weekly Bible study because our parking remains relatively inaccessible.

But the major disruptions are over, I think.  And even though I am a bona fide, card-carrying introvert who often loves nothing more than to curl up on the couch with a movie or a book on his day off, doing that for three days in a row made even me feel a touch like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

(Minus the trying to murder my family with an axe, obviously, since I still live alone.  And I don't have an axe.  And I'm really not at all violent.  Okay, maybe not that much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining...)

In addition to catching up on a ton of my reading, working out every day for the first time in God-knows-how-long, and rescheduling all my affected appointments and meetings, I was also able to spend a lot of time in thought and prayer with God.

And despite the cabin fever my circumstances induced, I definitely needed that time to be secluded and (mostly) silent, conversing only with myself and with God.  In a way, it was almost like a one-man prayer retreat.

These are a few of the people and things I spent time praying for/about during my weekend Snowpocalypse:

The obvious--me getting home safely as the snow began to fall on Thursday.  That was a pretty fervent prayer.

The church community I serve, that they might remain safe and that our building might be sturdy to withstand the blizzard (they did, and it was).

The (sadly numerous) homeless population in Longview, especially after I spent nearly an hour just before worship last Sunday (the 2nd) ministering to a homeless woman who showed up on our church doorstep that morning experiencing delirium tremens.

The family and friends of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  I've been such a fan of his work ever since I saw Leap of Faith in youth group one evening, and I minister to a lot of addicts and recovering addicts.  His death felt personal to me without having ever met him.

The Olympians in Sochi, as well as the gay and lesbian citizens of Russia, many of whom live in circumstances more complicated than we as foreigners realize.

Michael Sam.

Alisha and Andrew, the happy couple whose wedding I am performing this Saturday, and whose rehearsal this past weekend I was forced to postpone.

The children in my hometown of Kelso, whose (honestly underfunded) schools have a property levy on the ballot to raise funds.

The inmates in our county jail after a fourth inmate in a year was found dead (this time via suicide, it appears).

Teachers--and their students--across the state of Oregon who are either already on strike or about to strike.

And, of course, I prayed for the concerns and intentions of my congregants.

I feel like I have learned much about how I pray from my three days of weather-inflicted solitude.  It gave me the necessary time to expand the scope of my praying to more than just the usual suspects of health and well-being for my family, friends, church, and so on.  It helped me tap into the universal nature of prayer...and so I pray that it is a lesson that stays with me, and with my practice of praying, for many years to come.

What have you been praying for lately?  How might you dig deeper into your prayer life to see what else there is for you to tap into?

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday Worship Cancelled

If you follow FCC on Facebook (or have looked at our website this weekend), you know that we have cancelled all Sunday morning and afternoon activities for today on account of the foot o' snow sitting outside right now.  This of course includes worship, which means that I have spent a decent chunk of this morning considering how to rework an originally six-week sermon series into just five weeks.  So, at least for the moment, my sermon manuscript isn't going up here today, because I'm still trying to figure out what, if anything, from it I want to include in next week's sermon as I adjust the series.

Locals, please stay safe, all of you.  I'll see y'all here again later this week with my regular blog postings.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Voice Was Heard in Ramah

(As some of y'all know, I was at the 26th annual meeting of the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion this week in part to have the humbling honor of presenting a formal response to a presentation made by Noemi Ban, a Jewish Holocaust survivor (and to the introduction of her by the Rev. Gary Shoemaker, a friend and colleague of mine).  I composed this response largely drawing upon my identity as an Armenian-American, as I tackled issues of both life experience and Biblical theology in my paper about the 21st century consequences of 20th century genocides such as the Armenian Holocaust and the Jewish Holocaust alike.  That paper is reprinted here in its entirety.  Though it tackles a profoundly depressing subject, I consciously try to end--especially in the part about Scripture--on a note of extreme hope and faith in the enduring nature of God Almighty. -E.A.)


"A Voice Was Heard in Ramah: Growing Up a Child in One of Rachel's Diasporas"

Foreword

I am a product of genocide.  During the First World War, a very young, recently married couple, Krikor and Satenig Mouradian, managed to flee their home in modern-day Turkey in order to escape from what became known now as the Armenian Genocide, the first “modern” genocide of the twentieth century, a century that would go on see several more such “modern genocides” in Cambodia, Rwanda, and, of course, the most widespread of them all: in Nazi Germany.

Krikor and Satenig fled the Ottoman Empire (as Turkey was known prior to 1918) for Russia, but Russia being what it was, with the fall of the Czarist monarchy and the rise of Bolshevism, it was readily apparent that America might be a safer, more stable final destination.  And thus, fleeing essentially as refugees, Krikor and Satenig made their way across the entire breadth of Russia, to Vladivostok and the Bering Strait, where they illegally crossed over the Pacific Oean to Seattle and the lower continental United States, where they eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan.  Krikor and Satenig went on to have three children, one of whom was my grandmother, Marianne.  Her daughter, Cheryl, met my father Gordon at the University of Michigan.  Had my great-grandparents not had to flee their ancestral homeland to survive, I would not be here.

I offer this by way of opening not to be macabre, but to state a reality: my existence—and the existence, I would imagine, of many “hyphenated” Americans (ie, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc.)—comes with a profoundly emotional duality: our cultural identities that we should be proud of were decimated, and our identities as Americans carry a particular dimension of tragedy because they came by way of being forcibly taken here as slaves, deported as unwanted untouchables, or fleeing here (mostly illegally) as desperate, displaced refugees.

My words here are a part of my life’s attempt to reconcile the two in experience and in Scripture.

Part I: Experience

I was struck most powerfully by Gary’s description of Noemi Ban as someone who “incarnates a surprising sense of hope, love, joy, and even laughter in the midst of the horrific memories that she’ll never be able to exorcise.”  I cannot say that I would be capable of such a state of grace myself; indeed, writing some time ago, I said that the very same circumstances that my great-grandparents lived in may well have caused me to topple and fall were I in their place.

What I can say, though, is that a survivor’s memories can be carried in hope, love, and joy from generation to generation.  My family still has the fake passports that Krikor and Satenig used to smuggle passage to the United States.  We have photos of them at the corner store they opened in Detroit as their means of livelihood.  And I was still told stories of them around the dinner table.  However, the meal around that dinner table was almost always American, not Armenian.  And the stories were always told to me in American English, not in Armenian or either of its dialects.

In other words, even though the future generations of my great-grandparents were able to be birthed, we were birthed not as native Armenians, but as something else entirely.  Even though my family had escaped the physical danger of genocide, our culture was still at risk of drifting away through assimilation.  And that, too, in a way, serves the ends of a genocide’s perpetrators.

I have come to believe that part of the heinousness of genocide is in how exponential its consequences are: we know not what the twelve million victims of the Nazi Holocaust would have done with their remaining years of life, we cannot tell what their children might have grown up to be, we have no way of divining how much more humanity would have benefited from their blessed presence upon God’s creation.  In this way, the world experiences the loss of untold future generations of thinkers, chemists, engineers, writers, visionaries, and so on.

But culturally, we experience the loss of those thinkers, chemists, etc., belonging to a particular culture and social location as well, even if their families do survive.  I am an American pastor, not an Armenian pastor, and considering one of the stated goals of the Armenian Genocide was the eradication of Armenian Christianity, this is something that I must wrestle with.

For this reason, I believe very strongly in the importance and mission of genocide survivors like Noemi who have taken to the speaking circuit to educate others.  Eradication of a culture neither begins nor ends with the attempt at physical extermination or the forced assimilation that follows.  Just as efforts such as pogroms and discrimination were made in both the Ottoman Empire and Nazi Germany to eliminate their “undesirable” populations of Armenians and Jews prior to their respective Holocausts[i], so too have efforts since been made to denigrate, minimize, or even outright deny the experiences that peoples have suffered at the hands of their oppressors.

These efforts continue to this day, with varying levels of subtlety.  Professors with tenure at universities such as Princeton, Georgetown, and Louisville have made their names in no small part by denying the veracity of the Armenian Genocide in the face of staggering academic evidence to the contrary[ii].  The “Armenian lobby” in Washington, D.C. is at times mentioned in the same breath as the “Jewish lobby,” [iii] as though, in the offensive stereotype of old, Armenians could, like Jews, pull the strings of power from behind the scenes like a malevolent puppeteer. 

So, much like Noemi (though on a far more modest and micro scale), I have had to engage in educational efforts with the people whom I meet to explain to them exactly who I am and why my family had to make its way to the United States.  But unlike Noemi, I cannot truthfully say that I have always done so as compellingly and effectively as she might ordinarily have.

And also unlike Noemi, I take on my educational efforts—such as they are—at least in part as a cultural stand-in, someone for whom the history of my people is precisely that: history.  It is not something that I myself lived, nor is it something that I can bring the full force of my being to today, because who I am by now has been far more influenced by America than by Armenia.

I am not simply the product of genocide.  I am one of its farther-flung consequences: a descendant of its victims who experiences a tremendous disconnect from the culture that should have been my heritage by birthright.  A genocide does not only end the culture of the people it murders—it is also quite capable of instilling a new culture into a survivor’s descendants.

Part II: Scripture

In attempting to describe the Biblical dimensions of the experiences of victims of genocide, I most frequently reach for two distinct passages: the Exodus story of the Israelites under the rule of Pharaoh, and its New Testament mirror: the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by Herod the Great in Matthew 2 after the birth of Jesus (just as the Pharaoh orders the massacre of the Hebrew boys at the time of Moses’ birth).

The Exodus story holds tremendous theological value for me not only because of its fundamental message of liberation for God’s children, but also because of the status of Moses, whose own name is Egyptian in origin[iv], despite he himself being Hebrew.  Just as Moses was approached by a God whom he did not fully know on the basis of this unknown heritage, so too can I empathize with being called by a God with whom I was at one time unfamiliar and told, in no uncertain terms, to preach the message of liberation for God’s people.  And part of that liberation has been the understanding and claiming of my own heritage as a child of genocide—as a child of Rachel.

The circumstances of Jesus’ birth harkens back to this Mosaic heritage in two ways—firstly, His descent into—and ascent from—Egypt mirrors the descent and ascent of the Israelite people that began with Jacob and concluded with Moses and the Exodus.  But secondly, when Matthew conveys his accounting of the Massacre of the Innocents, he terms it the fulfilling of the prophecy found in Jeremiah 31:15, in which the prophet writes:

The Lord proclaims: a voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing.  It is Rachel, weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because her children are no more.  (CEB)

Theologically and historically, the children of Rachel—as conveyed by Jeremiah—are the Israelites who have had to suffer the destructive conquest and brutal exile under Babylonian rule.  As conveyed by Matthew, though, Rachel’s children “stand for Israel, which is seen in its continuity through all generations and in the solidarity of its lot (exile and present event).”[v]  In other words, Rachel’s children are all Israelites, past, present, and future…including the diasporas that would be formed centuries after Jeremiah’s tenure as a prophet.

Politically and culturally, though, there have now been a great many other diasporas induced by oppression or outright genocide.  The world now has a patchwork array of ethnic diasporas, not only the Armenian and Jewish diasporas, but also the more modern diasporas of, say, Chileans and Cambodians fleeing the brutal regimes of Augusto Pinochet and Pol Pot, respectively.

Rachel’s children have become increasingly diverse.  And while diversity in most circumstances is a commendable thing, when it comes to victims of genocide, we ought to be able to mean it when we see it happen and say “Never again.”  Many people said this after the Jewish Holocaust. 

But then Cambodia happened.  And then Rwanda.  And then Darfur.

Indeed, there is not only two ways in which the circumstances of Christ’s birth parallel His Israelite ancestry—there is at least a third: the perpetrator of the atrocities that surrounded Him. Herod the Great was the alter ego of the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

And so, too, then, are the dictators and war criminals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the alter egos of Herod.  I can scarcely improve upon this comparison in how the Presbyterian pastor Thomas Long puts it in his commentary on Matthew:

If we have seen Herod’s hatred before in Pharaoh, we know that we will see it again and again.  Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler, Stalin—the chronicles of human history are full of dictators who believe they can secure their power through murder and genocide.  This text stands as a confident word that the despots of this world come and go, but that God’s will outlasts and overrules them all.

This theological conviction can be seen in terse form in Matthew 2:19: “When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared…” 

Herod is dead, but the Word of the Lord continues. 

Herod is dead, but the messenger of the Lord is still appearing, speaking, guiding, protecting. 

Herod is dead, but the mercy of God is everlasting.[vi]

A genocide may attempt to wipe out an entire culture, but those who perpetrate it, be they kings or strongmen or dictators, will also one day join their victims among the dead.  It is an almost perverse irony: those who tried to kill off my family’s culture, and in a minor way succeeded by causing their descendants—myself included—to be raised not as native Armenians but as something else, a hybrid, a hyphenated creature that is neither entirely one or the other…those who attempted this ended up meeting the same violent fate as their victims.  Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, the Ottoman Empire triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha: all of them died violently, and in some cases by self-inflicted violence.

Their fates are all true-to-form examples of the sobering truth that Christ reveals to us in Matthew 26:52: “those who use the sword will die by the sword.” (CEB)    Yet in spite of the gravity of this teaching, we continue to use the sword against one another to this day, often on the basis of culture or ethnicity or race or origin.  We still continue to scheme of ways to extinguish the ever-elusive boogeyman of the “other,” whoever that may be to us.

And so in the midst of this hurt that I carry as part of my birthright, my beacon (I dare not say incarnation) of hope is this: that God’s redemptive power transcended death once already in the form of the Resurrected Christ, and that maybe God can transcend the deaths of genocide’s many victims, Rachel’s untold children who are no more, in the form of another resurrection one day.

After all…Herod is dead, but God still remains.  God always remains.

Afterword

I would like to conclude my remarks by speaking briefly to Gary’s own experience that he conveys of being “born too late to have any firsthand knowledge of that dark period, and having received nothing more than a cursory education about the Holocaust through high school.”

Just as the education that many of our nation’s children receive in our schools about the Jewish Holocaust is profoundly lacking, the education our same children receive about any of the other modern genocides—not only of the Armenians, but of the Cambodians, Tutsi Rwandans, or even the Darfur Sudanese—border on nonexistent.  Like Gary, my own formal education on genocide (as opposed to around the family dinner table) had depth only in my post-secondary education.

This should not be so.

Part of the implicit bargain struck by being a member of society and civilization is an obligation to educate one another as a preventive measure against injustice.  In this singular capacity, we as a people are failing.  While the most compelling education on genocide may well come from the Noemi Bans of the world, they ought to not be the exclusive source of comprehensive teaching, if for no other reason than, as it is written in Ecclesiastes, time and chance happens to us all.  The very youngest survivors of the Nazi Holocaust will soon be turning seventy.  There will come a day, almost certainly in my lifetime, when we can no longer rely on their in-person conversations and dialogues to educate ourselves about the very worst things that humanity is capable of doing, and I wonder how we will go about educating each other then—or if we simply won’t anymore.

I have largely composed this response blind: while I have Gary’s paper, of course, I lack the foreknowledge of exactly what Noemi may share with us, and how it will impact each of us in—presumably— both unique and universally profound ways.  But I have no doubt that her words will educate us.  The verve and emotion that first-person accounts are fraught with tends to remain with us as individuals, of that I am certain.  But less certain is whether such testimonies will remain with us on a systemic level, on a societal level, on a soul-sized, worldwide level.

To paraphrase Georges Santayana, we who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.  If we choose not to educate ourselves about our collective past, we forever run the risk of allowing the world to create another Adolf Hitler, another Herod the Great, another Pharaoh of the Exodus.

And we will forever run the risk of creating untold more Rachels who cannot be consoled because we have destroyed their children.

Such a future, I adamantly believe, runs completely contrary to everything about God’s will for us and for this world, this fearful and wonderful creation, with which we have been bestowed.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Corbett, Oregon
February 4, 2014





[i] Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Metropolitan Books, 2006, 24.
[ii] Richard Hovannisian, Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide, Wayne State University Press, 1999, 224.
[iii] Guy Taylor, “Armenian Genocide: the Lobbying Behind the Congressional Resolution,” World Politics Review, October 30, 2007.
[iv] Concordance to the New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Corporation, 1970, 461.
[v] Rudolf Schnakenburg, The Gospel of Matthew, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2002, 26.
[vi] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 22.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

(I imagine this post takes on a slightly different tilt after the thorough drubbing the Donkeys experienced at the hands...claws? of the Seachickens.  Winning a Super Bowl will only expand the proverbial bandwagon, I am sure.  Such is life. =) -E.A.)

February 2014: "Joining the Bandwagon"

Dear Church,
 
As I posted on my Facebook page last week, I will indeed be cheering for your beloved Seahawks in the Super Bowl this month against the Denver Broncos.  But it is not because I have somehow grown to like your Seachickens, oh no.  It is because of how deeply my Kansas City-bred self is programmed to root against the Donkeys.
 
I mean, the Broncos.
 
And now, everywhere I go in town--even to this Starbucks from which I am writing my column to you--I see pro-Seahawk signs popping up that hadn't previously been there.  And hey, if you have been a fan for years and are now feeling bold enough to outwardly show the colors of your allegiance, more power to you.
 
But if you are hopping aboard the bandwagon just because you want to cheer for a winner...then might I gently say, on behalf of diehard sports fans everywhere, please try to avoid being a fair weather fan!
 
I realize that many of you do not follow sports, and so the entire premise of this column may appear odd, even frivolous.  But I firmly believe that this lesson from the relatively small world of sports actually is very applicable to variety of aspects of our life: including our lives as Christians.
 
We are not supposed to just casually jump on the God bandwagon, or to decide to be a fair-weather fan of God.  But altogether too often, I think we are.  We are quick to praise God when things are going well--we are happy to be His fans when things are going great for us--but when the inevitable losing streak kicks in, when things stop going our way, when the momentum of our lives shift, we are no longer so quick to sing His praises.
 
And yet, God tells us, through Solomon in Ecclesiastes, that time and chance happens to us all.
 
In other words, expect for bad things to sometimes happen.  That doesn't mean God wanted it or willed it or made it happen to hurt you, any more than your favorite sports team blew the big game simply to make you miserable.  No matter what happens, God is still--and always--worth your praise and your love.
 
And with that, I am off to go ask God for forgiveness for comparing Him to a favorite sports team...

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, February 2, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Worship: The Musical"

Colossians 3:12-17

12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. (Common English Bible)


“Adventures in Churchland: A Visitor’s Experience of Mainline Worship,” Week Two

The Swedish town of Lulea sits in Lapland, on the northern coast just below the Arctic circle.  Population-wise, it is about the size of Longview and Kelso combined, and like us, they boast a community orchestra.  Every year during concert season, you can travel to their auditorium, buy a ticket, sit down, and listen to them play, and if the online recordings of their soloists are any indication, there is a lot of talent in this group.

But it is also unlike any symphony or band you might ever have gone to see play…because all of their instruments, to a one, are made almost entirely out of ice.  It means that the auditorium is, essentially, an igloo, and instead of gowns and tuxedos, the musicians wear parkas and scarves.  And it means the instruments melt in springtime and are carved anew every autumn by an American ex-pat sculptor.  And he’ll tell you all about how people view ice instruments as straining the very bounds of their credulity—after all, how could you potentially coax any kind of decent sound from such a concoction?—only to attend a performance and see, and hear, and realize that the constant maintenance (the instruments must be tuned anew after every song, such is the effect that the performer’s and audience’s breath has on them) is entirely worth it.  This is a powerful form of art—even if the violins must be suspended by strings from the ceiling in order to avoid having their performers hold them to their warm-blooded shoulders and chins.

And above the etherealness of sound vibrating off of ice, you could probably hear the objections of a particularly cantankerous, Sam the Eagle-type of character, muttering to his seatmates, “This just isn’t the way music used to be played!”  Which, of course, misses the point entirely.

This is a sermon series that will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent.  And this is a series about something that may or may not be new in the slightest to us: Sunday worship.  For those of us who were born and raised in the church and have lived in the church our entire lives, worship may be second nature to us by this point: some tunes, some prayers, some preachin’, some bread and juice, and it’s off to Sunday brunch.  But for those of us for whom church is an entirely new experience, this may all come across as one tin-foil hat away from something utterly bizarre to you.  I think I can safely say that after reading Dan Kimball’s 2013 book, “Adventures in Churchland,” in which at one point he conveys, in vivid detail, his initial worship experience at a church that I instantly recognized as a mainline Protestant church—a church like ours with a pastor in robes and an organ in the sanctuary and the serving of communion—none of which are typical trappings in many evangelical churches.  And Dan, having come in off the street, was both bemused and confused by everything this church did as a part of its worship…but we do some of the exact same things, and so it stands to reason that perhaps our worship is confusing for newcomers as well.  So, the point of this sermon series is to not only explain why we worship the way we do, but hopefully to equip you to do the same when other folks ask you why we worship the way we do!  Last week, we began by simply talking about where we worship—our sanctuary, the church building.  This week, we begin to talk about the order of worship itself, specifically music, as Dan’s account continues:

The people at this gathering were solemn and serious.  Everyone kept their voices to a whisper.  I found myself staring at the carpet.  It was this orange-red color, and they must have recently had it cleaned, because it had a strong chemical odor.  After staring at the carpet for several minutes, the combination of the color, the odor, the whispers, and the depressing sound of the organ left me feeling a bit light-headed.  And then it began.

But I also want to offer up a passage from later in his book, where he talks about worship music:

I was once given a copy of a letter that was written by a church member to a music leader in the church who was trying to change the musical style of the worship service.  It read, “I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it.  Last Sunday’s new hymn—if you can call it that—sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon.  If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this—in God’s house!—don’t be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship.  The hymns we grew up with are all we need.”

You might assume that this letter was written recently, but the irony is that it was written in 1863, and the song this person was so concerned about was the hymn “Just As I Am.”  Today, that hymn is considered a classic and is sung in many different churches around the world.  Yet when it was introduced into the church, people were upset.  It was different, a change from what they normally sang.  Sadly, the person writing this letter…felt threatened by change.

So let’s talk about worship music for a little bit today.  Paul, in this passage of his letter to the Colossians, makes it abundantly clear that worship music—psalms—have an important place not just in the communal church life (ie, the entire assembly at Colossus who would be listening to someone read Paul’s letter aloud to them), but in the spiritual life of their homes and families as well, because right after this passage, Paul begins giving instructions to married couples and families (I exercised editorial control here by stopping at verse 17…my sermon on verse 18, “Wives, obey your husbands,” would take a very different tack to say the least…).  Keep in mind as well that right *before* this passage, Paul emphasizes the universality of the church by repeating a common refrain that we see elsewhere in his letters: that in Christ (or, in this case in Colossians, in the imago dei, the image of God), there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, for Christ is in all things and in all people.

So…what if Christ were in all styles of music, too?  I don’t mean *every* song—you will face an uphill battle trying to convince me that Christ is in, say, “The Thong Song” or “Hips Don’t Lie.”  But whatever genre of music, be it classical hymns or rock and roll or jazz or rap, all of it has the equal capacity to bear the message, image, and love of Christ.

Which makes it all the more painful when we complain about how any given church does music.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that contemporary Christian music went through the freaking Dark Ages of music composition during the 1990s, when every song was the same, about God’s love for them or their love for God (while important, there seriously is way more to sing about than God’s love.  God’s relationship with us cannot be reduced to a single dimension).  Nowadays, Christian music artists compose their music on a variety of topics, with a variety of influences.

And that is probably the way it should be, especially if we remember that refrain of Paul’s—in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek.  Well…music is in no small way a product of one’s culture, and so it stands to reason that if in Christ there are all cultures (that is to say, in Paul’s dichotomy, both Jewish and Gentile cultures alike), then so too in Christ there are all forms of music.

Which means, honestly, that we ought not to be, as this congregant from 1863 was, adamantly frightened of new forms of worship music.  The first part of that is because I really, truly do feel like fear is the antithesis of faith, far more so than doubt is.  Doubt can sharpen a person’s faith by causing them to wrestle with their beliefs, and beliefs that are hard-won are, I think, far more durable than beliefs that are simply spoon-fed to us.  But fear prevents us from acting or changing whereas faith is all about us acting and changing—and acting after we have been changed by God’s transformative, earth-quaking, life-shaking grace.

And the second part of that is that while God may be unchanging, we, His children, emphatically are always changing, which means that our means to express and communicate the Gospel must be ever-changing as well if the church is to remain effective as the bearer of that message.

This is why, really, I rather like the setup we have with our praise team—not simply because they’re incredibly generous with their time as an all-volunteer band and are extremely dedicated to their ministry for us—but because I can say from firsthand experience how highly they prioritize searching out and trying out new music on a regular basis.  To be honest, it is not something you usually see in churches that rely on hymnals—even if you bring in special music once in a while, the hymnal is conducive to an attitude of “all our songs are in this book.”  It arbitrarily limits the repertoire of a community’s musical praise of God to two bookends.

That does not mean that hymnals should not be used, or that they do not have a place in the church—there is a reason why we always use them when our praise team needs a Sunday off: I’m a big believer in experiencing a change of pace to our usual style now because the last thing any church wants to do, but often still does despite itself, is to get into a rut.

After all, Paul doesn’t exhort us to sing only psalms, or only hymns, or only spirituals—he calls us to sing all of them.  So as we sing hymns, we also sing psalms in the form of many of our praise songs whose lyrics are rooted in the verses of the Psalms—if you don’t believe me that our praise team is learning spirituals, all the more reason to come to their Saturday jam sessions!

“Psalms, hymns, and spirituals” is Paul’s musical equivalent of “neither Jew nor Greek.”  It is meant to be encompassing.  So, too, then, must our praise for God.  It cannot, and must not, be delivered only one way, or with only one instrument.  We are praising a Somebody who is universal, so our praise for Him should follow suit.  It means that if we are in Hawaii, we should be thrilled to sing “Amazing Grace” accompanied by a ukulele, and that if we are in sub-arctic Sweden, we should be exciting about singing “Just As I Am” backed by a string quartet carved out of ice!  Because, in the end, the same language is spoken: the language of the glory of God.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 2, 2014