Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ten Years of a Calling

(On May 1, 2004, I drove off across the state of Kansas to compete in the state high school speech championships and then drove back that evening to attend my senior prom.  Upon returning home from prom late that night, I had scarcely slept for more than a couple of hours when my family got the 3 am telephone call that no family wants to get.  What followed was the most spiritually trying day of my life.  It was also when I finally stopped running and accepted the possibility that I might in fact be called to ordained Christian ministry.  What follows is an excerpt from my journaling in 2009 about that weekend, modified to reflect and include what I have presently come to realize about my first-ever God experience.

In memory of Eric Vargas, friend and playground basketball rival.  I haven't forgotten you.  -E.A.)

I have never really considered myself a "born again" Christian--I was raised and baptized in the faith, and that faith is a pilgrimage, a journey that I am always walking at varying speeds. But on this weekend, my faith didn't just walk--it sprinted.

It was my final youth-led worship at church before I would leave for Lewis & Clark College in the fall. I was preaching alongside another member of our youth group. At this point, I'll let what I wrote ten years ago take over. This is an excerpt of what I wrote about that day:

Left prom early since I had to preach the next day. Sunday: Woke up at 4:30 in the morning to the phone ringing. Was the father of one of my friends, Eric Vargas (his dad and my parents go back many years...why Eric and I have the same first name is simply coincidence). Anyways, Eric and some of his friends were out late and they got in a massive car wreck. One of them walked away relatively unscathed. Two others were paralyzed below the waist.

Eric was killed almost instantly.

I still had to preach at church, which I tried to do to the best of my abilities under the circumstances. I know Eric wouldn't have wanted me to step down from preaching, even though given what had happened, I know everyone would've understood if I had. But my sermon was about keeping faith even throughout the most difficult of trials...something I've always struggled with. At the very least, I feel like I owed it to Eric to deliver that message to as many people as I could.

I genuinely cannot remember much about those two worship services that morning. I remember small, almost thrown-off things. I remember the story I used to introduce my sermon, about a little boy named Reese who I worked with as a camp counselor in 2002 who died in a swimming accident while traveling with his adopted family. I remember that I quoted Emerson in my sermon. I remember my fellow preacher that day, Kelly, coming up to me in between the worship services to give me a hug.

But I also remember at the start of my second sermon, for the later worship service, that my lapel mic wasn't working properly--or working at all. At this point, I was still running on fumes energy-wise, and my psyche was utterly shot. And I wasn't believing the words I was preaching--I was at a loss as to why an amazing God lets tragedies occur. So, my voice was already ringing hollow to me on several levels. I looked across the sanctuary as I was preaching to see a couple of folks checking the sound equipment and then looking back at me and shaking their heads--the mic, for whatever reason, just wasn't going to work this time.

And this is the last thing I remember about that sermon--I looked up, and I saw the sunlight streaming in from the skylights of the sanctuary. And whether it was because I needed something--anything--to cling to and the sunlight just offered itself up at the right moment, or because I needed to know that there was something waiting for me outside the walls of the church and the bounds of my sermon, I was, at least for a moment, not only put at ease, but revitalized.  The sunlight hit my body, my temperature erupted, and my voice returned.  And I was able once more to continue preaching God's word.

Over time, this episode has reminded me more and more of the Pentecost story as conveyed by Luke in Acts 2--in which the sunlight, like the fire of the Holy Spirit, descended, and though each disciple spoke in their own native tongue, everyone understood each other.  I have no idea what I spoke.  But it felt understood.

I have two distinct memories of conversations with father figures in my life in the immediate aftermath of that weekend.  One conversation was with Eric's father, on the eve of my high school graduation, telling me that I needed to graduate and keep going in life because his Eric never would.  Ever since then, I understood the reality that I am not--or have ever been--living solely for myself.

The other conversation was with my own father.  Now, at this point in time, I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life.  He sat me down and told me that having seen my faith and how I talked about God and how much I loved the church, that I needed to at least consider a religious career, otherwise something had gone horribly awry.

And so my God experience was interpreted and affirmed as a calling.  I went off to college, declared a religious studies major almost immediately, and haven't looked back since.  I wanted to go into ministry so badly that I forgot how to want many other things.

I am a different person now in a lot of ways than who I was then. I think that is to be expected of almost anyone, especially in people as young as me. But who I was in high school was someone so filled with so much bitterness and anger over religion--my religion in particular. I spent so much of my time and energy being angry...I despised the homophobia, prejudices, and hurtfulness that I saw from people I knew at school (in truth, a lot of it was probably immaturity, but it was painful to experience nonetheless), but I also despised myself because I did not know how speak like them on behalf of what my faith told me to be true. I refused to bear witness to the revelation of an affirming God.

I thought it was not my place.

I thought it never would be my place.

Until then.

I have to think that it was me directly experiencing the presence of God Almighty.  And it started a process that continued as I moved to Portland, and from Portland to Berkeley, and now from Berkeley back to the Pacific Northwest in Longview. My pent-up bitterness over a religion I loved was like a poison--it had to be extracted slowly and delicately, which I think Portland helped accomplish (and it is partly why I love that city as much as I do). But on that weekend ten years ago, God came down to sustain me. In doing so, God taught me how to live by means far healthier than bitterness and anger.

And that made me into the pastor I am today.  Forged in the crucible of death and loss, that calling catalyzed me into someone who I now love much more than who I was at pretty much any point during my teenage and younger adult years.

For that, God has my devotion.  God will always have my devotion.

And so I live for God.  As the Jesuits say, ad maiorem dei gloriam.  Always for the greater glory of God.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column + New Sermon Series

(No sermon from me on Sunday--but I'm excited to tell you all about the new sermon series I'll be kicking off this upcoming Sunday!  See below, after my newsletter column. -E.A.)

May 2014: "A Steppingstone to Tithing"

Dear Church,

I've heard it all from folks outside our parish...

"All the church does is ask for my money."

"The church shouldn't be so focused on money."

"It's my money, not God's."

Sometimes, I try to gently correct. Other times, it is all I can do to sigh, shake my head, and change the subject.

Truth be told, I really should be braver on the subject. My first-ever opportunity to teach in church was at my childhood congregation, when I was 11 and gave the call to stewardship, just like our elders here. I confidently (and rather brazenly, for a pipsqueak on an allowance of five bucks a week) proclaimed the need to give back to God as we have been provided for by Him, even though I had no clue what a foreclosure was, or how a credit card balance or payday loan interest could ravage a household budget.

Being an adult, though, means seeing all the different ways the world tries to separate us from our savings. Which can make it difficult for us when the church then asks us to give as well. Yet it is still important to give. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if our giving does not pinch us, we are not giving enough. There should be things we want to do and cannot do because our giving keeps us from affording it. Giving should be a sacrifice we make.

That is why 10% of my net income goes straight back to FCC. I do not tell you this to in any way pat myself on the back--Jesus would not approve of said back-patting, I think. But one of my rules that I keep for myself as your pastor is that I should never ask you to do something that I myself am not also willing to do. And this is something I am more than willing to do.

One of the easiest ways I've found to get into the habit of giving 10% to the church is to begin at wherever my giving level is at the moment and increase it by 1% every six months or every year until I reach 10%. That way, it isn't a complete shock to your budget, and you are still setting out on a spiritual practice that makes possible all the ministries we do here at FCC!

For, as Doc Davenport always reminds us in his own calls to stewardship as one of our elders, God loves a cheerful giver.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

This Month in Worship: May 2014

According to church tradition, Easter is not simply a single day but an entire 50-day season, marking the time spent between the Resurrection in the Gospels and the arrival of the Holy Spirit in Acts of the Apostles. I have in past years striven to maintain focus on the theme of resurrection for my Easter season sermons, and this new series is no different--just as we visited a resurrection of the dead story in 2012 with the raising of Lazarus, so too will we spend the Easter season of 2014 exploring another such story--the somewhat less known and familiar story of Jesus reviving the daughter of Jairus as chronicled in Mark's Gospel. This is a story that offers not only physical resurrection for the daughter but a resurrection of health for another anonymous woman, and we will be walking alongside each of them as we take the month of May (plus Sunday, June 1!) to hear their stories proclaimed. Interspersed within this series, on Sunday May 18, will be a guest sermon while I am in Boston attending my sister's graduation from Boston University. I look forward to celebrating the Easter season this year with you in worship!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

Easter 2014: “I Say to You, Arise: The Gospels’ Least-Known Resurrection Story”

May 4: “A Man Called Jairus,” Mark 5:21-24
May 11: “A Woman Called Daughter,” Mark 5:25-34
May 18: Off
May 25: “40,000 Quilts,” Mark 5:36-39
June 1: "Talitha Koum," Mark 5:40-43

Thursday, April 24, 2014

99 Years: My Body of Work on the Holocaust of My Ancestors

99 years ago on this day, Armenian leaders and intellectuals in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul were suddenly--and without provocation--rounded up by the Ottoman Empire.  It was--and is--considered the first overt act in what became the Armenian Holocaust, the first genocide of the 20th century.  When all was said and done, this genocide would claim the lives of roughly 1.5 million men, women, and children.  Today, April 24 is commemorated as Genocide Remembrance Day throughout the Armenian diaspora.

I am an American citizen expressly because of this genocide.  My family were among the lucky ones to flee.  And over the past several years, I have used the freedom of speech afforded to me by right of living here in the United States to speak on the necessity of the federal governments of both the United States and Turkey to formally recognize the Armenian Holocaust as a genocide--something that neither government has done as of this writing.

Next year will mark a full century's worth of denial.  It needs to stop.  It needed to stop decades ago.  It may not stop, but I'll still be here, on my own little corner of the internet blogosphere, trying to make it stop.  I owe at least that much to the bravery of my great-grandparents who escaped, and to the memory of countless others who could not.

Below are links to several blog posts I have written over the years about the genocide and/or about being someone whose identity has been forever shaped by it:

"Ring Out the Bells," April 24, 2009

"God of All," a sermon on Mark 7:24-30, April 24, 2010 (these first two posts are from my previous blog that I kept during seminary and my last year of undergrad)

"Armenia Remembered," April 24, 2012

"Being Ethnic," April 25, 2013

"A Voice Was Heard in Ramah," February 5, 2014

The Armenian diaspora continues to be affected by violence around the world...especially in Syria, where tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians have come to live.  Whilst once benefiting from some degree of protection from otherwise despicable leaders like Bashar al-Assad and Ayatollah Khamenei, this is a diaspora that has yet to fully experience peace.

Which is, in the end, what I think we seek.  It is, I believe, in some way what we all seek.  And that which sadly nowhere near enough of us ever truly find.

In memory of the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Holocaust, and in memory of the victims of genocide across the globe, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda.  Lord, forgive us.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Five Years Ago: Eastertide Water

Five years ago, in the midst of finishing up my first year at seminary, I went on a weekend retreat in Marin County with the classmates of one of my courses at UC-Berkeley--a course on how we culturally, medically, and religiously approach death.  The retreat took place on Easter weekend, and I presided at a communion service for my class while we were there.  Upon my return, I wrote this.  As Eastertide--the 50 days-long season of Easter--begins this year, I hope that I have begun to become the minister that I saw this month five years ago.  -E.A.

I have returned to Berkeley after spending the last 48 hours at a Zen retreat center in Marin County (for peoples unfamiliar with the Bay Area, that is the land directly north of San Francisco proper). I went there with a dozen other students in my class on death over at UC-Berkeley. It was a great experience for growth and fellowship. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I can't specifically remember the last time I went 48 hours without a phone or internet--it was probably during my trip to Africa in 2006.

The retreat center was very close to the ocean--after about a 20-minute walk, you were at the beach. I and several other students hiked over to the beach on Saturday afternoon...I mostly kept to myself for that time, in part because of the importance the Pacific Ocean has for me because of my Oregon connection. Recalling my grandpa's place by the Oregon coast brings back a flood of memories--his cooking, drinking gin with him on the porch, and listening to his plethora of stories. It also brings back the memory of the ocean off of the Manzanita beach, which remains one of the most spiritual places I have ever been to. If I had to pick one place to go on retreat to every year, it might well be that stretch of the northern Oregon coast.

And so I walked along the very end of the tide of the ocean, letting its crests wash over my legs and allowing its continual noise to serenade me. And after walking along the ocean for so long, I looked down to be surprised by seeing my feet as clean as they had ever been--which is no small feat, since I go everywhere in sandals or flip-flops.

The following morning, Easter morning, I took one final walk around the Zen center in the morning to bid farewell to the aesthetically beautiful settings that I had been surrounded by this weekend, and on the center's property is a small, sqaure garden bordered with lush, green hedges. There are four benches, each dedicated in memory of someone, that sit circularly around a wizened, twisted, beautiful tree which creates the central focal point of the garden. Even in an already extraordinarily beautiful setting, this garden might have exceeded everything else. This morning, as I walked around it for the last time, I took off my sandals to let the dew of the long grass wash over and cool my feet once more.

In the Gospel of John, there is no Last Supper with Jesus and the Apostles. Instead, we find only in John the story of Jesus washing the feet of each Apostle in turn, telling them to serve one another, just as He has served them. I often think that in the hustle and bustle of our increasingly stressed daily lives, it can do wonders to remember in how many ways the creation sustains us, in the food we eat, in the clothes we wear, and sometimes, in how the dew and ocean water of the California coast can soothe and clean someone's feet.

And then I remember that I, too, am called to serve...and in the dew of the grass and the waters of the ocean, I have caught a glimpse of the minister that I could become.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter 2014 Sermon: "He Goes Ahead of You"

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. 2 Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. 3 Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. 4 The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. 7 Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.” 8 With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9 But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.” (Common English Bible)

“He Goes Ahead of You,” Matthew 28:1-10

My feet are pounding against the hospital floor as I keep pace alongside the medical staff.

I am whispering prayers softly under my breath.

And pounding in my head is a throbbing headache that keeps time with my feet.

One day, one of the patients on my service is rushed down to the emergency room. I had just walked onto the floor to see the medical staff preparing to move the patient to the ER. I ask the patient if they would like for me to accompany them to the ER, they weakly say yes. I am suddenly and starkly aware of the trust that is being invested in me--it is one thing to talk to the chaplain in a laid-back setting of a hospital routine, it is entirely another to have him at your side as you are being brought into the ER.

On television shows, the ER is a place full of drama, attractive doctors and nurses, and of patients who either accomplish incredible come-from-behind recoveries, or die in the most heartbreaking manner. Television got it right in at least one respect--any death has the agonizing capacity to be heartbreaking. But sometimes, the similarities end there. And especially for family--in this case, the patient's father, who came down to the ER with us--it is a place for long waits, confusion, apprehension, and sometimes, outright fear.

As an intern chaplain, I could not tell a worried father why exactly his child is being taken in for x-rays, an echocardiogram, an MRI, or any other tests, but I could tell him that the x-ray is very close by, that they have not taken his child far at all, and that through it all, God's divine presence remains very much alive in the room and in his child and in her doctors. And through it all, I continue to give my own prayers, silently and spoken, as an offering to anyone, anything that was listening.

Days later, in the wake of this crisis, the patient referred to me as their angel. That meant a tremendous amount to me--I felt like it gave me far more credit than I deserved--but it was and is a powerful reminder of the impact we can have in a person's life, for both good and bad. While the word 'angel' often carries connotations of great personal virtue, I think that once you put aside that connotation, there is an interesting connection to be made. Just as angels are the ethereal go-betweens from heaven to earth, so too can Christians be earthly go-betweens from a person's fears to their hopes.  We are go-betweens from a parent's worry to their child's physical presence.

And so, I am sometimes seen by patients as a go-between from divine presence to the tangible, physical, fragile creation, even though to me I am, quite simply, human.  Even though I, like every other person ever born, will not resurrect the third day after my death and leave behind an empty tomb.  Even though I cannot begin to even come close to how divine Jesus was and is.  But choosing to follow Christ means being, literally, a “little Christ.”  That is what the word Christian literally breaks down into.  Little Christ.  We are images, go-betweens, reflections of the Christ who walked the earth and who, nearly 2,000 years ago, arose from the dead on this day.  But unlike the angel of Matthew 28, we do not—cannot—arrive on the scene by summoning a great earthquake.  We have to make do with our little, fragile, human selves to speak to the people who see the tomb.

And the source of that fright swings like a pendulum on Easter.  Previously, we might have been afraid for our safety with the execution of our Messiah, but now that He has risen from the dead, what are we to make of the world?  If death is no longer permanent, then is up no longer down?  Is cold no longer hot?  Death might represent an unyielding reality, but it is an unyielding reality that we could have been certain of, that we could have clung to, that we could have built an entire existence upon.  And now even death is no longer certain, because the stone has been rolled away.

And so while we know now, nearly 2,000 years after the fact, that this is good news—in fact, is the cause of THE Good News—the women followers of Jesus who are the first to discover the empty tomb understandably require a bit more convincing.  They require a bit more from this particular go-between of God’s.  And the angel delivers: “Be not afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here, for He has been raised, as He said.  Come, see the place where the Lord lay, and indeed, He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him.”

Now, the angel said, “Galilee,” but consider for just a moment the role that Galilee played in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  It was where He was raised.  It was His home base.  It was where he, in fact, spent much of his public ministry teaching and healing and praying.  Consider the role, then, and the subject, and look at what the angel is referring to by saying “Galilee.”  The angel is saying “home.”  He is going ahead of you to your home.  To His home.  He goes ahead of you not just to a geographical point that you can place on a map, He goes ahead of you to that which is emotionally closest to you, where you hang your hat, where you make your rest.  It would be like the angel saying to us, “Jesus is going ahead of you to Longview, or to Kelso, or to Castle Rock.”  Jesus goes ahead of you to that which is your own home as well as His.  He goes ahead of you wherever you may go.

For, once you draw the circle of homes even wider, the angel’s message becomes more profound.  Jesus goes ahead of us to our “forever home” as well.  He has died and risen again and will walk the earth and ascend for good 40 days from now.  He goes ahead of us to heaven as well.  He went ahead of us to heaven by being sealed away in the stone-blocked tomb, and He goes ahead of us again to Heaven when He ascends once more and leaves for us the Holy Spirit.

And in this going to-and-fro, from heaven initially then down to earth, as John says, to live among us, and then crucified and back to the afterlife, then resurrected and returned to earth, before finally arriving at heaven to stay, Jesus is that great, ultimate go-between for us as we search for heaven here upon the earth.  When we struggle in searching for answers to our questions, He is there maybe not to answer them with a simple yes or no, but to illustrate them with parables and stories and truths that are far more profound and dig far deeper than a one-word, magic 8-ball-type rejoinder.

Because there is a simple, earth-quaking, disturbingly unbelievable truth at work here on Easter Sunday: the tomb had a body in it yesterday, and now it is empty.  The man who was dead is now alive.  And nothing will ever be the same again.

Truth be told, that should probably frighten us.  There’s a reason the angel leads off with “Be not afraid,” and it isn’t just because of the earthquake that accompanies them.  It is because if you visit a grave, you expect for there to be a body.  And unless you already knew the resurrection had occurred, let’s be honest with ourselves: we would probably be scared stiff as well.  And, as an aside, the angel says “Be not afraid” so that the resurrection—the second life—of Jesus correspond to the birth—the beginning of the first life of Jesus.  In both scenes—here in Matthew and in Bethlehem in Luke 2—the heavenly host leads off with the immortal words “Be not afraid!”

And that is really what we take for granted here.  We know how this story ends.  It is like reading the entire Harry Potter series knowing that Voldemort would die at the end of the seventh book.  We have the advantage of two millennia worth of hindsight.  The female disciples of Jesus did not.

But they become the torchbearers of history that is made on this day.  The male disciples, having fled at Gethsemane 72 hours previous, are presumably still on the lam.  And it falls to the two Marys to assume the role of go-betweens from heavenly emissary to earthly disciple.  But Jesus goes ahead of them even to the male disciples: “But Jesus met them and greeted them,” Matthew writes.  Considering Jesus’ consistent welcoming of women into his inner circle, it is sublimely appropriate.

And now, today, Jesus invites you into his circle as well.  In point of fact, He already has.  It is a freestanding invitation to learn from Him, to follow Him, and to do so for eternity should you wish it, because by the empty tomb, that final barrier to eternal life has been shattered upon this day.  Earthly death has been conquered by divine love.  Love has won.

Which leaves perhaps only the most basic, most foundational, most profound of questions left for me to ask: are you willing to let that divine love guide you?  Are you willing to let it mold you, to reshape you, to go ahead of you?  Despite your fears?  Despite your worries?  Despite your trepidations and reservations and hesitations?  Are you willing to say yes?

If you are…then be not afraid.  You will see Him in your life.

For He is risen.  He is risen, indeed.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 20, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: The Myth that God Is Dead

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16: The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

When all the buzz about the new God's Not Dead film began to hit my radar, I posted this on Twitter:

Which might be an indication of my level of dorkiness (though I really probably only have the first half of The Holy Grail memorized.  Hey, confession is good for the soul), but in retrospect, that tweet was also an indication of just how seriously I take the argument over whether or not "God is dead."  Because if I am completely honest with you, I do not have a ton of patience with the "God is dead" kerkuffle.

The famous hypothesis that God is dead comes from the famous Thus Spake Zarathustra treatise by 19th-century philosopher (and moustache aficionado) Friedrich Nietzsche.  He writes, in part:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?

How shall we comfort ourselves, indeed.  Were Nietzsche simply talking about Jesus here, that might be one thing.  We did kill Jesus.  That is what this next 72 hours are all about--we, in our oppression and our darkness, killed God's Son.  But when Nietzsche asks "who will wipe this blood off us?" he *should* already know the answer to that question--it is the one whom we "killed," because the one whom we killed is incapable of dying entirely.

Of course, it is easy--probably too easy, really--to look around at the world and think that God is dead to it.  Thousands upon thousands of preventable deaths happen every day as a result of starvation, preventable illness, and violence, and here we are claiming to follow a God who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and demands peace.  Where is this absentee landlord of a deity who proclaims these things but does not ensure them?  (Subsequent edit: As a couple of my (admittedly smarter than me) friends have pointed out to me on Facebook, Nietzsche isn't necessarily arguing for "killing God," but against the religion of people who cling to the ideas of devotion, atonement, and redemption which he posits were invented not by God, but by man.  There lies a fundamental difference, though, I believe between invention and interpretation.  We may be--and in fact, are--guilty of the latter, but not the former.)

In this way, the "is God dead?" question is really symptomatic of another existential concern that has plagued us for millennia.  Why do these things happen if God is good?  Naturally, we can say that God causes them as punishment, or that Satan causes them because "the devil made me do it," or that we do it to ourselves, both systemically and individually.  But there is also the reality that Solomon states in Ecclesiastes 9, which we just covered in our evening Bible study at FCC--the race is not for the swift, or the battle for the strong, or bread for the wise...for time and chance happens to them all.

Solomon is not saying that God necessarily wants such things to happen, only that such things will because of the inevitability of our own existences.  I tend to believe that not only does God not want such things to occur, but because of God's omniscience, He can see the worlds in which our preventable evils did not have to occur, and far from being dead, God feels the emotion and grief at seeing bad things occur that did not have to happen, perhaps even more so than us because unlike us, God can see with complete clarity a possibility of the only source of hurt and pain being not us ourselves--of it being only inevitability itself.

Okay, but then why didn't God create a perfect world?

God did.  We call that world Heaven.  And there, God is still very much among the living.

Just as God is here on earth as well.  Despite its imperfections.

Despite OUR imperfections.

God is a god of the why do you seek the living among the dead?

God lives.  God is alive.  And God will remain alive.

Even if...even when...we try to kill Him.

After all, we tried that once already.  And an empty tomb was the result.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 14, 2014

Baruch Dayan Ha'emet

Yesterday afternoon, I returned to my office at the church after wrapping up a board of directors meeting.  I had about fifteen minutes before my next appointment, so I decided to be a dutiful son and call the rents.  And the news my mom had for me left me absolutely gobsmacked: the Jewish Community Center in my hometown of Overland Park had been one of two sites of a shooting that had left three people dead on the Pesach--on the eve of Passover.

As more and more details about the shootings trickled out, and as I benefited from some much-needed sleep, my thoughts began to find their voice again.  And this is what they say:

I have hugged Holocaust survivors and prayed at the Western Wall.

I have celebrated the bar and bat mitzvahs of friends and I have celebrated Passover seders with others.

I used to work out in the JCC's gym, and my sister used to work in their summer daycare.  We grew up in a home a ten-minute drive away.

I have built up, over the course of my 28 years, a relationship with Judaism that I have, at every turn, benefited intangibly and tremendously from.  Its Scriptures are a part of my Scriptures, its traditions, a part of my traditions.

So even without being Jewish myself, it is so very hard not to take this personally.  Because my own faith owes a debt of gratitude to the historical faith that birthed it.  Because my own life owes a debt of gratitude to friends whose Jewishness was, and is, an integral part of their identities.  And because if people still hate other people because of their faith (or ethnicity, for that matter), it means that religious teachers like me still have not undone the prejudices that have plagued humanity throughout history.

There is a terrible irony in that all three of the three victims were, in fact, not Jewish but Christian--two were a grandfather and grandson who worshiped at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and who have close familial connections to my own Disciples denomination, the third was a Roman Catholic woman and mother.  A raging anti-Semite who sought to kill Jewish persons in the name of Adolf Hitler wound up slaying a trio of Christians instead.

There's a reason we call it "blind" hatred.  It really, truly, utterly blinds you.  In every possible sense.

I experienced my own blinding of sorts that afternoon--I was angry and upset and I honestly felt like it would be good to take a few swings myself at the perpetrator, Glenn Frazier Miller/Cross...even though he is 73 years old and even though I am a pastor teaching the way of the Prince of Peace.

But then, as I so often do, I reached for Scripture.  I remembered Paul's words in Romans 12:19-- "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"

Paul, a Jesus follower, is calling upon his Jewish heritage in this verse.  He is quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 and interpreting it to teach that God is the one mete out any retributive justice.  Not humanity.  Paul, just like me, is benefiting from the Jewish Scriptures in his life...and he is interpreting them in such a way to tell me a truth that is both profoundly Jewish and profoundly Christian: God is the only perfect judge of us.

There is a Hebrew saying, sometimes recited in Jewish tradition upon the death of a person: baruch dayan ha'emet.  It translates, roughly, into "blessed be the one true judge."  Blessed be the God who created us and  who receives us into the afterlife upon our earthly death.

And, His Son says to us in the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are you who face persecution for His sake.

Blessed are you who face hardships because you love and follow God.

Blessed are you, because God loves you right back.  And no racist epithets, no anti-Semitic poison, no ancient and shameful prejudices, can change that immutable, monumental, earth-shaking reality.

God loves you right back.  He always has.  He always will.  No matter what the haters may claim to say or do on God's behalf.

Blessed be that God who loves you.

Baruch dayan ha'emet,

Sunday, April 13, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Colt Surfing"

Matthew 21:1-11

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.”[a] 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them. 8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![b] Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Common English Bible)

“Colt Surfing,” Matthew 21:1-11

The images are a gallery of injuries—amputations, lacerations, surgical scars…not to mention the invisible but still insidious injuries like perforated eardrums and post-traumatic stress.  But upon their injured bodies, survivors of the Boston marathon bombings had inked personal messages of sentiment and hope as they posed for portraits at the marathon’s finish line—for many of them, it was their first time back to the site since the bombings.

Two days from now, on April 15, we will arrive at the Tuesday of Holy Week, but we will also arrive at the first anniversary of the Boston marathon bombings.  And one portrait from the finish line comes from Elizabeth Bermingham, a special education teacher in nearby Watham, who inked the word “resilient” across her arms. She said, in the caption to her photograph, this (in part):

How do you find resiliency day to day?  How do you find it in the big picture?  How do you become healthier, more normal, more typical, how do (you) come back from something like this, a tragedy?

I’d say in terms of resiliency and coming back and training for the marathon, and even coming back from having something happen to you and trying to feel more normal, it’s less physically centered and it’s more in your brain almost.  That it’s like your brain has to learn how to communicate again.  It has to bring this experience, put it into memory.  They’ve explained to us a bunch of different times in our group that flashbacks, and pieces of that, is your brain not quite communicating and not translating this experience into your normal memory.  That takes a long time, and it’s really difficult, and so as you run…what I’ve found as I’m running and as I’m out on the course, I find myself both thinking about last year’s marathon and then next year’s marathon, and trying to replace in my head the images of horror with images of triumph.

The second photograph of her in the collage is of her opening up the palm of her left hand, upon which another message is inked: Love wins.  How appropriate an expression to encapsulate a story beginning with searching for resiliency and ending with the transformation of horror into triumph.  Scarcely little else on earth possesses the power to do such things beyond love.  It is why we are willing to move heaven and earth for one another.  It is why, ultimately, Jesus is willing to come to Jerusalem to teach and to heal and to pray and to die.  It is because love, His love, wins.  And that triumph of love and life eternal over death and destruction begins here, today, on Palm Sunday.

The exposition of Palm Sunday is pretty straightforward for most of us—Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the upcoming Passover, and He decides to make a statement with His entrance into the city by, basically, having a victory parade.  Only without the victory just yet.

Jesus’ victorious entry into Jerusalem is depicted by Mark, Luke, and Matthew—whose version we will be studying today.  And it’s pretty standard fare—Jesus sends His disciples to Jerusalem to boost a colt from its rightful owner (you think “grand theft donkey” was a thing back then?  Imagine if we used that excuse today… “Hey, where are you taking that Ford Mustang?!” (Since that's probably the closest thing we have today to a tied-up colt, right?) “The Lord needs it!” Yeah, that’ll end well).

The disciples come back with the hot-wired…I mean borrowed…donkey, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem as crowds of people gather to shout Hosannas to His name and to literally lay down their clothing on the ground before Him so that Jesus does not have to ride in the dust and dirt.  But how Jesus does the riding is…well, it depends on just how literally you take Matthew’s words here.

Matthew’s larger point in verses 4-6 is that Jesus is fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, specifically from Zechariah 9, of a coming king.  To Matthew—and to us—Jesus is that king.  But Zechariah writes his prophecy in verse.  As the Presbyterian pastor and professor Thomas Long put it:

Now, superficially, it may appear the Zechariah quotation describes two animals—a donkey and a colt.  Actually, though, only one animal is meant.  “On a donkey, on a colt” is a textbook example of parallelism, a common device in Hebrew poetry where something is said once and then repeated for emphasis in a slightly different fashion.

Matthew, though, is writing his Gospel account in prose, not verse.  So, in order to cover all his bases, Matthew decides to report that there was both a donkey and a colt, and that Jesus “sat” on them both.  What that looked like—or how Jesus managed it—is your guess as much as it is mine.  Let it be an object lesson to us in trying taking the poetry in Scripture too literally.  Matthew is, which honestly understandable--if you are making a theological argument like that Jesus fulfills Zechariah's prophecy in whole, you might as well go all out) and as a result, he is depicting the Son of Man coasting into town half on a donkey, half on a baby donkey.

Which might make the whole thing seem a bit more comical to us—and that may well have been the point, since, as you may remember from previous Palm Sunday sermons I have given here, Jesus is in no small part modeling his entry after the triumphal entrances into Jerusalem by conquering foreign warlords like the Babylonians and the Romans, and He is, in a way, satirizing those triumphal parades by entering not on a great warhorse, but, again, on a donkey and a baby donkey.  There’s majestic, and then there’s…well, humble.  And I’ve never heard a donkey be called majestic.

Rather, it is not the steed in this case which requires the aura of majesty, but its rider.  Which, therein, lies still further irony.  Jesus is not decked out in His finest armor with a broadsword, scabbard, and helmet.  He is still the dirt-poor itinerant carpenter that His human form has always been.  The outward majesty comes not from Him, but from the respect the Jerusalem citizenry proffer to Him by way of refusing to let even the hooves of his mounts touch the dusty ground.

And there really is a profound sort of majesty in that level of humility, of putting the cleanliness of an animal’s hooves before your clothing’s well-being.  Your cloak probably doesn’t look too good afterward, but it is the humility behind the gesture that gets captured today in immortal images and photographs.  Think of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in penitence before the memorial to the Holocaust-era ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.  Think of the survivors of the Boston marathon as they take their pictures, artificial limbs and scars and all, at the finish line that could have claimed their lives.  Think of the beleaguered crowds in Jerusalem and their beleaguered Savior, to whom they cry out, Hosanna!  It means, simply, “Save us now!”  The expectation of salvation comes not from majesty in this case, but from humility.  Not from power, but from heart.

And so as we enter this week of passion, may God in all His wonder and splendor save us through the humble majesty exhibited by a nobody whose extraordinary life and resurrection made Him the greatest somebody to ever grace this earth.  Because one week from today, that nobody will have been rescued from the clutches of death itself.  Should we choose it, the destruction will be over.  And the great work of saving one another can begin again.

Hosanna, Hosanna in Excelsis!  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 13, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: "The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back"

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16 The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

This is an apropos entry for me to work on because we have just spent the past two weeks in the Tuesday morning Bible study that I teach going through the "little apocalypse" of Mark 13 (the "big apocalypse," of course, being Revelation).  Jesus ends this apocalyptic prophesy that reads an awful lot like the world ending by, in part, saying this: "I assure you that this generation won't pass away until all these things happen...but nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in haven and not the Son.  Only the Father knows. " (Mark 13:30, 32)

In other words: all these things Jesus describes (what we take to be the end of the world) will happen before everyone alive at the time has died.  But then He says that nobody knows when exactly that it will happen, not even Jesus Himself.

What on earth are we to make of this apparent (on its face, anyways) contradiction by the Messiah?

Well...first, there's the reality that Jesus admits He knows not the exact time and place, which might be reason enough.  Additionally, the "nobody knows when the day or hour comes" sentiment is repeated later in the New Testament by Peter (2 Peter 3:10--"The day of the Lord will come like a thief," ie, without us seeing it).  But there is also the possibility of the term "generation" being used metaphorically rather than literally by Jesus here--if a generation of believers, rather than strictly of blood kin, can last for centuries or millennia, who is to say that not all among this generation have passed away quite yet?

(It is worth noting as well that I am largely adhering to theological tradition in postulating that Jesus' second coming is a part of the end of time itself--in other words, that "the day of the Lord" also would at one point include, as John puts it in Revelation, the first earth and the first heaven passing away.)

Yet in spite of this uncertainty that is really quite plain in Mark 13, many preachers throughout history have been all too eager to capitalize on the cottage industry of trying to predict the end of the world, often for their own personal greed and gain.  I lived just north of Oakland in Berkeley during my time at seminary and was actually finishing up my degree when Oakland preacher Harold Camping infamously issued out his followers across the country to proclaim that the end would be happening in the spring of 2011 (and yet, here we are...three years later...imagine that).  There are the televangelists such as Jack Van Impe who have built entire empires off of predicting the end times.  There (were) and are sects/cults such as the Millerites and Branch Davidians who turned these predictions into something horrifically destructive.

And don't get me started on the kookyboots indulging of people who bought at all into the end of the Mayan calendar in December 2012.  And I say this as a diehard fan of the X-Files television show, whose entire premise is based upon an alien invasion that was scheduled to take place at the end of the Mayan calendar.  Suffice it to say that ranks right up there with Y2K in the disasters-that-weren't category.

Nobody knows when the world we inhabit will end--at least, with any sort of precision.  Astronomy says that the earth will eventually be incinerated by the Sun as it turns into a red giant star, but we are a few billion years away from that eventual fate.  If anything, destruction is taking place not on God's timetable, but our own--we are plowing through the earth's resources at an incredible and irresponsible rate, despite God's command to Adam in Genesis 2 to keep the land (rather than, say, exploit it).

Put simply: are you worried about when or how God will end things?  You shouldn't be.  Are you worried about when or how we will?  We probably should, at least a little.  Worry about how you live your life here--and if it is life in love and faith in God and in Christ, and of concern for your childrens' and granchildrens' future, your own ultimate future will probably sort itself out.

That's as close as I'll probably ever get to predicting the future.  And, my childhood Magic 8 ball obsession aside, I'm rather okay with that.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 7, 2014

One Millennial's Rainbow Connection: A Response to Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

As a very young child in the early 1990s, I had a great many television shows that I LOVED.  Garfield & Friends, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Captain Planet were Saturday morning mainstays for me.  But before any of those masterpieces of animation pinged my pint-sized radar, there was the Muppet Family Christmas, featuring both the full repertoire of Muppets and the cast of characters on my first television love, Sesame Street.  I so loved watching the Muppet Family Christmas that I would demand to watch it every day, some years all the way until May or June after Christmas.  This is also to say nothing of just how frequently I have watched just about all of the Muppet Studios videos on Youtube (and sang along with many, often with friends), or of how vociferously I once asked my soon-to-be in-laws when I first met them "where they stood on the Muppets."  (Fortunately for all parties, they were--and are--resoundingly pro-Muppet.)

I tell you these potentially embarrassing factoids about my neuroses not as a means of public self-flagellation (though I am certainly not above that), but as a way of saying that I, as a card-carrying millennial (see above list of favorite childhood television shows for further proof if necessary), have been shaped as profoundly and dramatically as any member of Generation X by the Muppets, Sesame Street, and the kingdom that Jim Henson built.  Jim may have died when I was but a lad of four, but more than probably any public figure, his work shaped the ethos that I was instilled with as a child.

Knowing this (was she trying to bait me into doing something like this?!), my mom tagged me on Twitter with an exceptionally well thought-out article by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens that was posted to Salon this past weekend entitled, "Millennials Just Don't Get It!  How the Muppets Created Generation X."  I promised her I would write something here about it, because as a millennial, I'd like to think I get it.  Just a little bit.

Now, granted, I was born in 1986, and as Stevens notes in her work, Gen X sometimes is considered to extend all the way to 1984, so I am certainly on the elder end of the Millennial generation and may well be more apt to be influenced by the Muppets and Sesame Street than a Millennial born in, say, 1996.  But whereas Stevens suggests that, "A college freshman might feel just as emotional about Barney, Power Rangers and the Teletubbies. While I don’t have a high opinion of the lobotomized purple dinosaur, he was certainly a “touchstone” to 20-year-olds," I would gleefully note that not only do I share her massive disdain for the lobotomized purple dinosaur, I shared it even when said overly trite therapod really burst onto the scene in 1992, as my first-grade friends and I competed to make up the most vicious jingles possible to the unbearably cloying "I love you, you love me" song.  And don't even get me started on the Teletubbies (the Power Rangers, on the other hand, I will defend to the death.  They were awesome.  But the assignment of their power suit colors was pretty racist).

In other words: perhaps today's twentysomethings do feel just as attached to Barney and the Teletubbies.  But speaking as a twentysomething, I have yet to meet any.  I suspect the twentysomething who still loves Barney will someday rank right up there with Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster by conspiracy theorists who go a-huntin' for elusive, rare, mystical beasts.

More to the point, though, is the reality that Stevens notes immediately afterward: We ALL have our nostalgia.  All of us.  And to consign the object of a millennial's nostalgia to a dopey dinosaur is to paint the generation that succeeds you with far too broad a brush.  And considering just how wide-ranging Gen X is--again, to quote Stevens, from at least 1961 to 1981--you would think that there would be more understanding and sensitivity to overly generalizing a generation.

Because to slap upon us millennials the label of "not getting it" is to, in fact, not get it: we may be obsessed with our smartphones and absorbed by our own special snowflake-iness (I have read the same awful articles that you have--and it has done wonders for my self-esteem.  Now I know that because I'm a millennial, I suck, and I'm sorry), but we also get that this is a community that we belong to by being a part of the human race.  Ironically, technology may have (read: probably has) isolated us in our one-on-one interactions, but it has made us more connected to the wider world than ever, and I believe that we, as a generation, have taken to heart the exact same values that Stevens lists off that she received from the Muppets: inclusion (look at how many millennials support marriage equality), global citizenship (look at how many of us believe in the importance of bettering the world), and education (we're on track to be the most educated generation in history).

Correlation without causation?  Maybe a bit.  Certainly, we had other major influences in our lives who have helped shape our destinies--the values of our Baby Boomer parents, the persistent torpor of the global economy, and a profound disillusionment with established institutions.  But the Muppets--and Sesame Street--mark, I believe, an exception which proves the rule to that disillusionment with institutions.  The Muppets have been around far longer than we, but because the values they espouse speak to not just one generation but to many, we are able to claim them as our own as well, just like the Gen X-ers.  Generation X is not the only generation to owe Jim Henson an immeasurable debt of gratitude.  We millennials are very much co-signers of said debt.

You may call us naive and self-absorbed if you want (we probably are, at least a little).  Say we are attached too much to the lobotomized purple dinosaur or to the Tubbies of Television (even though we probably aren't...seriously, has Buzzfeed EVER made one of those now-ubiquitous "Things you miss about your '90s childhood" articles that included Barney?).  Posit that we cannot possibly fathom your attachment to something that we ourselves are attached to, like Statler and Waldorf's incessant mockery, or Sam the Eagle's patriotism, or the Swedish Chef's...well, anything that the Swedish Chef does, really.  Or anything that his ingredients do to him.

You can argue any of those things.  But we millennials know in our special-snowflake hearts that we are able to claim the cultural heritage of the Muppets for ourselves as well.  Jim Henson may have died when we were very young--or even before we ourselves were born--but his creations continue to speak to us today, instructing us, teaching us, and guiding us like the Muppet Show of old.  And in this way, we millennials are not so unique after all.  Our connection to the Muppets is but one stripe of color in the Rainbow Connection that binds together lovers and dreamers alike...but it is a stripe of color that remains vibrant and vivid to behold.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, April 6, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Friends Don't Let Friends Be Heartless"

Jonah 4:1-11

But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. 3 At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” 4 The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” 5 But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a shrub,[a] and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. 7 But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. 8 Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” 9 God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?” Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!” 10 But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Common English Bible)

“Friends Don’t Let Friends…A Lent Alongside Jonah,” Week Five

Jean Winsor’s story is one of those that you do a double-take upon hearing. Not the first part—that part is sadly increasingly common, the part where she got laid off from her job of 12 years and couldn’t find work for over a year. The next part, though, is:

Her jobless benefits expired at the end of December. She wore extra layers to keep warm in a bid not to run up her electricity bills and contemplated selling her living room furniture to make her monthly mortgage payment of $481.

That’s when…Lee Bissell…read about her plight and offered to pay Winsor’s mortgage for a month. Bissell is not a millionaire with thousands of dollars to spare. In fact, she is a federal worker living in Herndon, Virginia, supporting a sick husband, a 15-year-old daughter, and an 8-year-old son. 

What resonated with Bissell was that Winsor had worked as a home health care aide for 12 years before losing her job. Bissell’s 64-year-old husband is struggling with end-stage dementia, and aides like Winsor have been a godsend. Bissell wanted to express her gratitude by helping one health care aide in need. 

And I love what comes next, what Lee says when asked to quote for this article: “I don’t know that I can do it again. But in that moment, it felt right. I feel really blessed I can do something like that and not worry about paying my own bills.” And that’s what this is all supposed to be about. Feeling strong enough and blessed enough to actually love your neighbor even when your own battle that you’re fighting is all-consuming. In the midst of a sick husband and two children, a wife and mother found the deep empathy necessary.

We are wrapping up this five-week sermon series today, because believe it or not, next Sunday—Palm Sunday—is the last Sunday of Lent!  Traditionally, the forty days prior to Easter Sunday make up the season of Lent, and those forty days correspond to the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and being tempted in the wilderness.  Lent is a season whose primary themes, then, are largely about denial of selfishness and repentance from our own past selfishness.  And really, there is no better story about selfishness in Scripture than that of the prophet Jonah.  Sure, you have individual stories about selfishness in Biblical heroes like Samson and David, but none of their stories involved getting belched out of a giant future sushi roll.  And really, selfishness is what defines Jonah, even more so than any other Biblical character.  He is the original prodigal, the original heir who renounces his Father hundreds of years before Jesus tells us His parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  So for Lent this year, we will be reading through, verse-by-verse, the entirety of the Jonah narrative.  It’s only four chapters long, so going verse-by-verse has definitely been doable in a five-week series.

We kicked off the series with Jonah having declined God’s generous offer to go preach on His behalf to the Assyrians in Nineveh by fleeing in the exact opposite direction, to modern-day Spain.  In doing so, he boards a ship in the Mediterranean Sea bound for Tarshish, and when the ship gets caught in a storm, Jonah is chosen by lot to be the one responsible for the storm and he is unceremoniously chucked overboard, at which point God intervenes and brings forth a giant fish to keep Jonah from drowning.  In those three days and three nights he spends as sushi food, Jonah finally stops running and utters the prayer in Jonah 2, but that is far from the end of the story, as we discovered in Jonah 3, in which Jonah obeys God’s command, preaches at Nineveh, and the entire citizenry, upon decree from the king, repents and believes in the Lord.  Which brings us to Jonah 4, in which Jonah…well, to put it charitably, Jonah doesn’t put his best self on display for God.

In fact, Jonah does pretty much the opposite—after prophesying Nineveh’s destruction, he basically builds himself a front-row seat to watch the epic, divinely-wrought destruction of the city.  And, of course, he ends up disappointed, even though he knows full well—from personal, firsthand experience, at that—that God is “merciful and compassionate…slow to anger, full of faithful love, and unwilling to destroy,” as Jonah himself puts it!  Yet still he wants God to do what he—Jonah—wants God to do, as opposed to what God Himself wants to do, which is to give grace to Nineveh.

Jonah may be a prophet of God, but he utterly lacks empathy.  Last week, I quoted Old Testament scholar Johanna Bos, who said, essentially, that from an ethical perspective, Jonah should not want to see Nineveh destroyed.  He should want to see these 120,000 people (and their dressed-up pets) form a relationship and a covenant with God.  But on a spleen level, on Falstaff-esque gut level, Jonah is, and would be, perfectly delighted to watch Nineveh burn to the ground instead.

I know this is the Old rather than New Testament, but still…that’s not very Christ-like, you know?  But it is, I think, sadly, very, very  Christian-like.  Love thy enemy?  Well, unless wishing fire and brimstone upon them constitutes “love” (in which case I think that you and I have dramatically different understandings of the term), we do not, as a general rule, love our enemies.  Even though our Lord and Savior commands us in no uncertain terms to do so.

And I’m not talking about simply, say, our military enemies.  Jonah is not at war with Nineveh here.  He simply wants to see it razed for spite.  And there are couple of things worth remembering here about this sentiment—first, said sentiment does not disqualify Jonah from being called by God to be a prophet.  Jonah is a profoundly flawed person, yet still he is able to be a vessel of God’s, even when (or perhaps especially when) he disagrees with God.  But secondly, just because you are “on God’s side” does not mean that God always gives you what you want.  God is not a holier version of Santa Claus, and asking for Nineveh to be sacked ranks right up there with asking for a pony.

In other words, humility is a necessary component to being any sort of a minister on behalf of God, because only when we put ourselves second are we truly able to reach for empathy—to reach for the practice of putting ourselves in another’s shoes and, one would hope, then putting them first.  It is what happened to Jean Winsor—a woman with not much more to live on than her felt a connection of gratitude and empathy, and did something to change her life for the good.  And it is sadly what does not happen to Jonah at the end of his story—though not for a lack of trying on God’s part.

God tries to get Jonah to experience some empathy by once again doing something for the guy—in this case, causing a shrub to grow miraculously to a height that provided Jonah even more shade than his DIY hut could—which, in the desert (keep in mind that Nineveh was in modern-day Iraq), is no small gift.  But then God just as quickly takes the tree away, and Jonah pities its loss not because he created it or nurtured it or did anything to help it grow—he only benefited from its presence.  But God *did* create the Nineveh people, and God has nurtured them and has sought them to grow, and such a relationship is—as it should be—a source of pity and mercy for God.  God is invested in Nineveh’s well-being in ways that dwarf Jonah’s investment in the well-being of this divinely-made and divinely-taken shrub.  God is, quite simply, invested in all of His children.

Maybe that should not offend Jonah to his core, but it does.  And it probably offends us as well, if we are truly honest with ourselves.  Because Jonah is an Israelite—a person with whom God has a particularly special relationship in the Old Testament.  They are His people, and He, their god.  And we as Christians can get up and talk until we’re blue in the face about everything that I just said—that God is invested in and loves all of His children—but there is still that small part of Jonah in each of us that is pulling for a special, VIP-level relationship with God.  We want that plum parking spot in Heaven.  We want to be recognized for our Christian-ness, even though Jesus again clearly discourages it.  We want God to think we are the special little snowflake that we think we are.

And when Jonah learns that, no, he is special just like everybody else and as such is wonderfully and beautifully unspecial as well, he throws a conniption and tells God that he’d rather be dead, like the child who claims that they would rather starve than eat their vegetables.  And having to admit that you are held on the same level as anybody else in God’s eyes is, in a manner, eating your spiritual vegetables.  It forces us to admit to the worth of other people we’d just as soon see as worthless.

That is why friends don’t let friends be heartless.  It prevents us from reaching for empathy for others and humility for ourselves.  Both of these are necessary, even vital, ingredients to us being able to fulfill the mission of God in this world, and so often we find ourselves, like Jonah, lacking severely in one, the other, or both.  We may be called by God, but it is our own inner brokenness that prevents us from fully understanding and realizing God’s mission for each of us.

Regardless, though, Jonah doesn’t come out of this ending looking very good, and it makes you wonder why exactly the compilers of the Old Testament felt led by God to include such a negative portrayal of a prophet in the Biblical canon.  A great many theories have attempted to answer this question, and Old Testament scholar Barry Bandstra concisely summarizes my favorite one:

It is a criticism of Israelite prophets, exposing their insincerity at preaching repentance, not really wanting to see it, and being disappointed (and taking it as a personal failure) when destructive judgment is not meted out by God.

If we demand repentance from somebody we don’t like, but don’t really want to see said repentance for whatever reason (it deprives us of that emotional club to beat them with, or it would make us question our prior assumptions about them, etc.), then we must seriously question the nature and character of our own professed faith.  We do not get to expect repentance, see it, and then call shenanigans.  We do not get to preach hellfire and brimstone and take any sort of joy in doing so (even if we claim outwardly that we are not).  We do not get to impose our selfish ethics upon God’s unbounded grace.  We get to do precisely zero of those things.

But, like Jonah, we still dare to do all of them at times.  Even after our own journeys of running away from God, running to the ends of the earth to avoid what God wants us to do, we have the audacity to demand from God destruction when God has shown to us only forgiveness.  And of course God would show us forgiveness.  Precisely because, like Jonah, like the king of Nineveh, like the people and animals and shrubs of Nineveh, we all need it.  Whether we can admit that or not.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 6, 2014

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: "The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves"

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16 The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

In the late 90s/early 00s, the Barna Research Group conducted a series of polls about the religious beliefs of Americans and discovered that, among other things, 82% (nearly 5 in 6) of us believe that the aphorism "God helps those who help themselves" is in Scripture.

No such quote actually exists in Scripture.  Some attribute this saying to Benjamin Franklin, others to the 17th-century British politician Algernon Sidney, and still others believe the sentiment goes as far back as the Greek fable-teller Aesop, but none of those fellows were among the authors of the Bible.

In point of fact, there are a great many verses in Scripture that speak to God advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and encouraging us to do the same.  James 1:27 is representative: "True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us." (CEB)  In a world without a social safety net, "orphans and widows" represented those most on the margins, those most at-risk, those with the least forgiving of cushions.

And God speaks out for them.  For those who cannot help themselves.  God calls upon us to help them.

This is also to say nothing of the fundamental reality that God's justice is a justice of reversal: while the poor are blessed, the rich are cursed (Luke 6).  God doesn't just call for help to those who cannot help themselves, He also actively judges negatively those who help themselves to too much.

A God who helps those who helps themselves is a convenient God for us as western capitalists.  And while much might be said for capitalism as an economic system, the notion that it is somehow endorsed by God is fiction.  No earthly economic system could be endorsed by God, because we have yet to come up with an economics that does not marginalize at least some people.

But God should not be convenient for us.  God, I have to think, never meant for Himself to be convenient for us.  While Jesus does say that His burden is easy and His yoke is light, it is a burden and a yoke regardless (and this is to say nothing of the demands He makes upon His followers and those seeking to follow Him, like the rich man told to sell all he owns and give the proceeds to the poor).

We may view God as a God helps those who help themselves, but we are projecting our wants upon God rather than allowing God to project His wants to us.  We use a myth to turn a radical, loving, amazing Creator into simply a patron deity of entrepreneurship.

And so, it is not the God, but the myth--like many myths--that is convenient and comforting to us.  And we would do well to shy away from such myths--the myth that God helps those who help themselves, or the myth that God wants us to be rich.  Because those myths ultimately fall into the same category as the burnt sacrifices of old--we may think that God wants them, but what God really wants from us is quite simple: to love Him wholly, and to love others like ourselves (Matthew 22).

As the great rabbinic teacher Hillel is said to have put it, everything else is commentary.

Yours in Christ,