Thursday, May 29, 2014


I alluded to this in yesterday's post, but my facetious "God didn't write the Constitution, it was a bunch of other old white dudes" tweet was the second most widely shared of the week.  The most widely shared of possibly any of my 2,000 some (many admittedly silly) tweets was this one:

 In tweeting this, I was referencing this post in particular, but I want to be absolutely clear: that moment of buying groceries for Abigail to take with her was not the only time I have needed to intervene or assist in an instance of domestic violence or abuse.

As a man, I know that not all men abuse, hurt, harm, put down, or belittle women.  But as so, so many people have noted over the course of this past week, just about every woman has been abused, hurt, harmed, put down, or belittled by a man.  Your mother.  Your sister. Your daughter.  Your wife.

It's truly awful to say, but I would almost guarantee that they have.  I promise you that.

So what are we left with?  What are we to do?  In the wake of Elliot Rodger's misogynist (though that by no means fueled him exclusively) killing spree in Santa Barbara, we are more than ready to spring forward to offer our thoughts and prayers to the female victims' friends and families.  Which is great, albeit at this point with so many mass shootings having come before this, cliched to the point of bordering on trite.

And I quote from James 2:18 here, which says in part: "How can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I'll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful actions."

Prayer is a faithful action but is by no means the only faithful action.  We should pray, but we cannot only pray.  We cannot only pray for the slain women and their loved ones.

What faithful actions do I have in mind in the face of the #YesAllWomen stories that are both heartbreaking and far too common all at the same time?

Men, let us show our faith by recognizing that women (and feminism for that matter) do not hate us because we are men.  If we are hated, it is because such scorn is well earned from centuries of institutionalized, codified, and socially accepted acts of sexism.

Men, let us show our faith by recognizing that we do have a problem on our hands in how we treat women.

Men, let us show our faith by recognizing that we would indeed fear such treatment of ourselves in a reversal of roles.

Men, let us show our faith by not contesting or minimizing or arguing with the female experience.  If we have faith enough in God to listen to Him, we should have faith enough in God's other children to listen to them. This is a God who made prophets and judges and deacons and disciples out of Biblical women.  As Jesus says, "Let those of us with ears hear."  Let us show our faith by hearing voices that are not our own.

And having recognized these things, and having heard these things, men, let us show our faith by offering ourselves up willingly as clay, to be molded every single day into something different, something better, something kinder, something more compassionate, something more understanding.

Let us become something safer.

For all women.  Everywhere.

Because #YesAllWomen

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Right To Bear Arms Has Nothing To Do With Scripture

(alternatively subtitled: Why is Joe the Plumber Still Relevant?)

I scrolled through the NBC news article, upset but not really surprised.  (As an aside...I know, one sentence in, right?  And I'm already resorting to parentheticals.  Anyways...I really do worry about us no longer being surprised by either news of another tragic mass shooting, or by news about a particularly heartless response to it.)

Ever since Richard Martinez, the father of one of Elliot Rodger's victims in the Santa Barbara mass shooting, went in front of the television cameras and said, "Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA ... They talk about gun rights but what about Chris' right to live? When will this insanity stop?" I knew that it was only a matter of time before a response like this was made, that a person's right to own a gun trumps a person's right to live.

Enter Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber.  You remember him from, what, six years ago, right?  Anyways, he had this to say, verbatim: "As harsh as this sounds, your dead kids don't trump my Constitutional rights."

So reading those words upset me.  The words struck me as especially callous and selfish.  If I were providing a Christian presence and pastoral counseling to Richard Martinez, I couldn't ever imagine myself saying those words.  But I certainly wasn't about to channel my indignation on Martinez's behalf into a blog post until I read this line at the very end of the NBC article (linked to above):, where Wurzelbacher wrote his piece, describes itself as "Politics and Culture / News and Opinion From a Decidedly Biblical Worldview."

Okay, as an ordained pastor and as a lifelong Christian, I feel the profound need to clarify something.

Joe the Plumber's, or mine, or your right to bear arms has as much to do with the Bible as...I don't know, a lamp has to do with an eggplant.  They're not even remotely related.  Why?

I tweeted this out the other day:

While a bit facetious (because God always seems to get artistically depicted as an old white dude), I absolutely believe the sentiment, and it wound up being one of the two tweets (the other will be the subject of tomorrow's blog post) that have gotten the most powerful and favorable reception lately.

God didn't write the Second Amendment.

In fact, the literature that God DID write is full of sayings such as...

"All those who live by the sword will die by the sword."

"I (God) will do away with the bow, the sword, and war from the land; I will make you lie down in safety."

"I (Jesus) came that they may have life, and have life abundantly."

"The water I (Jesus) give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life."

And, perhaps particularly relevant to this discussion, is Paul in 2 Corinthians 10: "Although we live in the world, we do not fight our battles as the world does.  Our weapons that we fight with are not of the world...(our weapons) destroy arguments, and every defense that is raised up to oppose the knowledge of God."

This is a small sample size to be sure, but there are many more verses very similar to these that directly point to God as a God of peace and especially of life.  It is why so many of us Christians call ourselves, in fact, pro life: in God's eyes, life uber alles.  Life comes first.

But life shouldn't just come first in the matter of abortion (where I fear some more cynical motives tend to be not simply about life but about control and influence as well, but that's another topic entirely).  In a Christian, Biblically oriented worldview, life must come first across the board.  Which to me means that Christopher Martinez's right to live, according to Biblical and Christian priorities, must trump Joe the Plumber's right to buy guns unfettered.

What does the Bible, in contrast, say about Constitutional rights?  Not a lot.  To be clear: the Bible does talk about rights...human rights.  And Levitical law, like our Constitution, guarantees certain rights to its adherents.

But none of that means that the Bible was a bigger influence on the writers of the Second Amendment than, say, Paine and Locke.

So let's dispense with the illusion that defense of the Second Amendment has anything to do with Christianity or the Bible.  If you want to make the argument for the Second Amendment on the basis of other, nonreligious arguments, go right ahead.  I'm not about to stop you.

But let's not kid ourselves and pretend that this right enshrined in our Constitution is likewise ordained or endorsed by God, okay?


Yours in Christ,

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Last Full Measure of Devotion

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
The Gettysburg Address
Emphasis mine

In memory of the millions of soldiers whose blood we shed in the name of warmaking and warmongering

In memory of those who gave their lives in the name of protecting the ideals held sacred to this day

In memory of all who have died in battle because we are a violent people, prone to death and to destruction

In memory of the warriors who gave not only their physical lives, but their mental and spiritual lives as well

In memory of the veterans who have fallen to a merciless and cutthroat economic system after coming home

In memory of the families whose plights without their loved ones are ignored and overlooked

In memory of my uncle Albert Mouradian, who paid the price of my family's American citizenship with his blood at Okinawa

In memory of the honored dead who gave that last full measure of devotion

We honor you today.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, May 25, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "40,000 Quilts"

Mark 5:35 to 39

While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?” 36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” (Common English Bible)

“I Say to You, Arise: The Gospels’ Least Known Resurrection Story,” Week Three

The National Mall in Washington D.C. is not a mall you go shopping at.  Its vast expanse covers the land between the Capitol Steps and the Washington and Lincoln Memorials (1.2 and 1.9 miles in distance, respectively), and it remains a space to gather, assemble, and inspire surrounded by some of the most majestic symbols of the United States.  And on one October day 18 years ago, one such opportunity took place: over 40,000 handmade quilts, each of them 90 by 180 centimeters in size, were spread out over the entire length and breadth of the National Mall.


Each quilt represented the soul of one person who had died of HIV/AIDS.  40,000 is a mere fraction, though, compared to the over 340,000 AIDS victims to that point in time.  The true gravity of the circumstance was captured thusly by Peter Stepan:

Paul Margolies (the photographer) had to climb into a helicopter to get a full view of the scale of the demonstration…Over a million visitors reportedly streamed into the city on that October weekend to view the world’s largest communal textile project.

Life partners and parents, siblings and friends worked together to create the quilts.  In memory of the deceased, each included small symbols: mementos such as baseball caps, jackets, teddy bears and other animals; flowers and phrases were sewn onto pieces of fabric that matched the dimension and style of inscription commonly found on tombstones, only more imaginative and far more personal…eight quilts were stitched together to form larger pieces laid out in strict symmetry with space in between for visitors to walk among the quilts and look closely at each one.  The American tradition of the patchwork quilt provided to be the inspiration for the AIDS quilts; groups of people meeting to sew blankets in memory and honor of deserving individuals.

And thus, in this way, I have to think that the families and friends of 40,000 souls achieved that which all of us long for in memorializing our deceased loved ones, but that which not enough of us ever find: a way to ensure that their deaths are not total, and their departures are not permanent.  But that rather, like the daughter of Jairus, their physical forms are but sleeping, taken down suddenly by an illness, waiting to be awakened by a Messiah who is Lord and Savior of us all.

Easter is not just a day on the calendar for the church—it is a season on the calendar.  After all, according to Luke in Acts of the Apostles, Jesus walked the earth for forty days after His resurrection.  All forty of those days were about the victory of God over death, not just the first day.  And so the church traditionally has kept those 40 (to 50) days after Easter as a season called, appropriately enough, Eastertide.  And so as part of our ongoing celebration of Easter and of the empty tomb, I typically elect to create a sermon series for those Sundays specific to the themes of resurrection and new life.  Two years ago, if you’ll recall, we went through probably the second most-famous resurrection (after that of Jesus Himself) in the Gospels—the raising of Lazarus as depicted in John 11.  One year ago, we spent a Sunday apiece on the reactions to the news of the empty tomb by the different disciples—Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, and so on.  This year, we’re returning more to the mold of two years ago in that we are going through another resurrection story, except this one is probably the least renowned of them all: the raising of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5.  Why that is probably has to do with a variety of reasons, but we’ll be trying to increase our knowledge, appreciation, and love of this story as we go through it verse-by-verse through the month of May (and Sunday, June 1).  We began this series by digging into the details Mark offers in his exposition of this scene—details that might escape us in a 21st-century American context as opposed to a 1st-century Israelite context—and then Mark took what appears to be a digression from the plot at hand to tell us the story of a woman being miraculously healed—and subsequently blessed—by Jesus.  We return now to the original plot point of Jairus and his deceased daughter.

How this story originally began was not with a request for a resurrection, but a request for a healing.  At least as of verse 23, when Jairus uses the term “that she may be made well,” his daughter seems to still be very much among the living.  But now, twelve verses later, by the time we arrive at Jairus’ abode, his daughter has died.

On the surface it might seem easy to blame the intrusion of the anonymous woman who touched Jesus’s clothing unbeknownst to Him as delaying Jesus in His primary mission of mercy.  And it would be easy to do that because mistakes are very easy to make.  In the other resurrection miracle Jesus performs (not including His own resurrection on Easter Sunday), He actually waits some time before traveling down to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, because that way Lazarus will have been dead for so long it will silence the voices of any potential naysayers claiming a misdiagnosis.  In other words, such healing and resurrection tends to occur on God’s timetables, not our own.

There is another reason, though: much like with Jesus’ own resurrection, the resurrection is quite simply more profound than the alternative.  Yes, Jesus almost certainly could have healed this girl.  But raising her from the dead, as we will see next week, adds a whole other dimension of depth to the whole affair.  Similarly, if Jesus had simply come down from the cross, as His mockers demanded, it might have been chalked up as a miracle, but surely nowhere near to the degree that His resurrection was and is.

Whatever the reason, though, the fact remains: the girl is dead, and hope is abandoned.  Why trouble the teacher any further, they ask Jairus, and they may well be us asking Jairus this.  Why bother Jesus?  There is no hope to be had, so what’s the point in trying?

Well…much like when a family loses a loved one for any reason but especially to an AIDS epidemic that was for years shamed by society at large and especially the church, you come to realize that there is a point in trying to achieve your own minor miracles of resurrection.  You try to keep your loved one alive in any way possible, and when all physical remedies have been exhausted, you turn to the emotional, mental, and spiritual realms to keep them alive and well in this world.

It is why 40,000 quilts blanketed one of the most iconic parks in the country.  It is why we see images shared on social media this weekend of veterans playing cards and pouring drinks at the tombstones of their fallen comrades.  It is why we tell stories and write poems and sing songs in memory of another.

It is because we, too, try to ensure that our dead are not dead, but are only sleeping.

Were we to take Jesus’ words too literally here, we would agonize over this part of the story.  Is Jesus diminishing the miracle He is about to perform?  Why would He scold a mourning family who legitimately thought their daughter was dead for weeping and making a commotion?

These dilemmas are easily put out to pasture by this succinct line from New Testament scholar Ralph Martin: “Jesus calls death by the tender word, “sleep”; not to deny that she was dead but to promise that He had come to awaken her.”

Therein lies the difference between Jesus’ efforts and our own: we can only maintain the emotional and spiritual weight of a loved one who is but sleeping.  But Jesus restores it in its entirety.  That is why Jesus says what He says: it is not a misdiagnosis of the girl; in fact, in the absence of Jesus it would be the correct diagnosis.  But in the hands of Jesus, death is little more than silly putty.  It is no longer death, or even hibernation.  It is merely sleep, the kind you take on a Saturday afternoon.

We can maintain the spiritual presence of our dead in our mourning, but we cannot awaken them.  Jairus, in his Ancient Near East custom, tries to maintain that spiritual presence through his mourning as well: the people weeping and wailing loudly in verse 38 were likely professional mourners, people who would be paid by a family to make a public commotion over the death of a person to show just how important they were and how much they will be missed (the irony of having to pay people to do this was lost on the ancient aristocracy, I guess).  Jairus cannot have his daughter in physical form, so the best that he can do is to maintain her importance in another way, in the socially prescribed way of making a really big scene out of it.

And in this way, I suppose, we do the same when we stretch 40,000 quilts across the span of the National Mall.  Only I have to believe that the quilts were a far more dignified way of going about it.  Jesus questions the mourners for making a commotion, but there is no such commotion made in the laying out of a quilt.  And the quilt, in speaking directly to the uniqueness of the person remembered, offers a path of memorial that a show of wailing and gnashing of teeth likely cannot.

How we choose to remember our loved ones matters a great deal.  And if thus far this message has sounded far more like a sermon that you might hear at a funeral than on a Sunday morning, well, that might be entirely true.  But we also do ourselves a disservice when the only times we talk about death are at the moment of death, or, in the case of Jairus and his daughter, at the moment of what we think of as death.

Because what Jesus saves us from is not ourselves, or the world, or even sin.  What He can also save us from is death’s permanence.  He can resuscitate us, revive us, renew us, resurrect us, whatever the term is you want to use, He is who can give us life anew…not a shadow of our life as it once was, or a memory suspended by the fragile, fraying threads of time, but the genuine article, the real deal.  A new life, and all that it entails.

And that is the message of hope that this portion of the passage ends with.  We haven’t reached the actual act of resurrection yet (that will come next week, so stay tuned), but we know what is about to happen.  Not just to the little girl whose life was snuffed out in a big damn hurry at so young an age, but to us all once we hear the voice of Jesus Christ whispering in our ears to each of us, “You are not dead, but merely sleeping.”  Let Him awaken you today.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 24, 2014

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

If I Had A Million Dollars...

(No sermon from this past Sunday, as I was on a plane back from Boston celebrating my younger sister's graduation from Boston University.  The "I Say To You: Arise" series continues anew this upcoming Sunday!)

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher gave our class a writing assignment: a multipage essay on how we would best use one million dollars if we suddenly were, you know, millionaires.  As I recall, my classmates wrote perfectly lovely essays largely about the homes they would buy or build, the investments they would make, and the personally enriching travel they would undergo.

Me?  I wrote mine about how I would found a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

Even at age 10, I was a bloody treehugger.  And a thorough one, at that: I called airlines for airfare quotes to Brazil, I researched the travel costs of hotel, transportation, food, and a translator (since I know about as much about speaking and understanding Portuguese as I do about performing brain surgery, which is to say none), and I researched the costs of hiring a Washington lobbyist and buying ad time on network television to push what Fox News would probably term my "radical environmentalist agenda."

Given the chance to write the same essay again today, almost twenty years later, I honestly probably wouldn't change a whole lot.  I might choose something slightly different than the rainforest, but I would hope that I would still have the idealism and integrity to decide to save SOMETHING with my newfound (and, knowing me, surely ill gotten) lucre.

Why?  Because "creation care" as many of us Christians have taken to calling environmentalism, isn't just about fulfilling the Biblical mandate to keep and till the earth (which, after all, was created by God).  It's also about fulfilling the many Biblical mandates to feed the hungry.

TIME just posted an article today quoting experts from Oxfam saying that climate change (aka global warming, aka ManBearPig) and its effects on the weather (floods, draughts, and rising temperatures) will cause the prices of commodities such as corn and rice to double over the next fifteen years.  Now, I would also add to this list of reasons the increasing popularity of biofuels...after all, if corn is being refined into ethanol, it isn't going to someone's dinner plate, and the refining process is so expensive and energy intensive that it would also contribute to an increase in price for corn.

How does this all play out?  TIME explains: Well, for us Americans, Frosted Flakes, Corn Flakes, Kixx (and similar cereals) all will likely experience price increases of 20 to 30 percent.  Me, that hits my wallet in a big way, because (and I realize I am risking massive judgment from some of you!) breakfast cereal is one of my major food groups, alongside with sushi, pizza, and single malt scotch.

But for the global poor, for whom, like us, corn and rice are staple foods but in different forms, even a 20 percent price hike could be ruinous.  It could be the difference between dinner and entering food insecurity.

A lot of this was already on my mind thanks to a climate change segment from John Oliver's new show, "Last Week Tonight."  But news reports such as this should seal the deal for any Christian still on the fence about climate change (even though the scientific consensus behind it is pretty overwhelming).  Don't care about the spotted owl?  Okay, fair enough.  But surely a Christian must care about feeding the hungry because Christ and His Gospel commands us to do so.

Which means that we continue to stick our heads in the (rapidly warming) sand at the risk of not only our neighbors and potentially our own livelihood, but also at the risk of our own spiritual lives as well.  Micro level works like giving to food banks and volunteering for soup kitchens is all fantastic, but more is required of us, and of our faith.

If we are to entirely fulfill the Biblical commands to care for the hungry and the starving, we have to do so on a massive, civilization and societal level.  No more making excuses for ignoring the science behind climate change or for not bothering to act on it.

Solomon writes in Proverbs (a verse we studied last night in our evening Bible study at FCC, in fact, which is another reason this issue is presently weighing on my heart), "The lazy person says, 'There is a lion outside!  I shall be killed in the streets!'"  What I (and many commentators) interpret this to mean is that we are capable of coming up with even the most outlandish of excuses to keep ourselves from acting.

The lies we have told ourselves about climate change are the lion outside.  We are not going to be killed in the streets by it.

Live for God's creation, y'all.

Yours in Christ,

Update: According to Pat Sajak, I'm an unpatriotic racist for acknowledging climate change.  To which I simply say this.  Also, I'd like to buy Pat a "Shut up" square for the price of a vowel.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Three Years

(Three years ago to the week, I was emailed by (my now) regional minister Rev. Sandy Messick, asking me if I would consent to having my search and call paperwork sent to a Disciples congregation in Longview as a part of their search for a settled senior pastor.  As I thought about how much has changed in these three years...the people I have married and buried and baptized, the new ministries that have sprung up...I recalled this post from a couple of years ago that I wrote on my first anniversary here.  And what both amazed and heartened me was that in the two years in between, my love for this job has not changed.  I get to be there for people in the biggest moments of their lives, and I get to teach them Bible stories for a living.  I STILL cannot believe how good I have it.  E.A.)

Today is my "official" anniversary of my ministry here in Longview--although I was busy with the odds-and-ends of moving, setting up my office, getting to know people, etc. throughout the month of September, today is the day I officially began as the pastor of FCC.

...and after four weddings, four funerals, 44 Sunday sermons, and a whole boatload of church potlucks and coffee-drinking sessions, it has been one hell of a ride so far.

After living so nomadically that I switched dormitories (as a college student) or apartments once a year (save for 2010), renewing a lease as opposed to signing a new one was almost a foreign experience.

After having got such fly-by-night relocations down to pretty much a science, I would be loath to pick up and move somewhere else--across town or anywhere--just for the hell of it now.

After two full years of volunteer (in the case of my hospital chaplaincy internship) or part-time ministry (in the case of my ministry at FCC Concord), I am devoting myself--without care or concern--to the full-time work of trying (and sometimes failing) to build up God's kingdom.

After four years of religious studies in college and three more years of seminary, I am an agent of what I have learned; no longer only a passive recipient of knowledge, but someone who can give as well as receive.

As such an agent, I have...

Come up with both good ideas and bad ideas. Sometimes really, really bad ideas.

Both brought the house down and embarrassingly botched a sermon at a graveside service.

Been there for both peoples' births as Christians and deaths as earthly vessels.

Both pissed people off and brought people together.

Both proclaimed grace and demanded righteousness.

Made friends and found support networks.

Prayed. A lot.

Lived through both great pain and great contentment.

Worshiped in ways I never knew existed.

Loved God in ways I never imagined were possible.

This is a great job.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, May 12, 2014

Michael Sam, Jason Collins, and Christians Getting Over Ourselves

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post here entitled "Some Thoughts on Jason Collins and What it Means to be a Man."  The main thesis of the post was this: I wonder if some folks are having problems with openly gay athletes not just because of opposition to gay rights or general homophobia, but also because a gay athlete in the macho, masculine world of professional sports throws out the derogatory fairy/pansy stereotype of gay men that still exists in our culture and vernacular.  However, I also digressed into this particular tangent:

What I still sometimes hear, in reference to gay men, is a sentiment something along the lines of: "I don't care what you do in private, just don't rub it in my face." 

But we Christian men are perfectly fine rubbing our heterosexism in the world's face on Twitter, Facebook...wherever social media allows us to basically act like a drunken King Xerxes in the first chapter of Esther, demanding that his smoking hot wife and queen, Vashti, be brought out in her crown so that his similarly drunken entourage (who probably wouldn't stand a chance today with Dotcom and Grizz) could ogle her. 

So let's be honest: we're perfectly fine rubbing what we do in private in one another's faces...just as long as it doesn't gross us out.

This past weekend, in the twilight of the NFL draft, the openly gay SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam (and let it be known that he is the first product of Mizzou athletics that this Jayhawker unabashedly will support) was drafted by the neighboring St. Louis Rams.  ESPN captured the moment when Sam was told over the phone that he had  been picked, and Sam celebrates with a brief but emotional kiss with his boyfriend.

And, to bastardize Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight: We depict massive amounts of sexual interaction between heterosexual couples in film and television fiction all the time, and we are perfectly happy to tolerate the celebratory kiss of a husband and wife upon any auspicious occasion with little fuss.  But the first openly gay pro football player kisses his boyfriend on national television, and everybody loses their minds.

To my fellow Christians who are having a conniption over this kiss: Please, get over yourselves.  Paul encourages "holy kissing" as a greeting.  David kissed Jonathan.  Judas kissed Jesus.  And if you want to talk about graphic sexual content, the Bible is a strong R, if not an X, rated story.  I'm all for eliminating gratuitous obscenity in our culture, but a celebratory kiss between two men who love each other hardly comes close to rising to that level.

And to others who are having a conniption over this kiss: Please, get over yourselves and stop thinking that this is somehow icky or gross.  Don't do what former pro Derrick Ward did in pulling one of the lamest "Think of the children!" excuses ever.  If you follow football and want to think of your children, then have your children play a sport that isn't as apt to cause chronic injuries and concussions.

I am a lifelong Christian.  I am an ordained pastor.  I believe in the inspiration and sufficiency of the Bible, I believe in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and I believe in life after death.

I also believe in rightness of Michael Sam breaking down this barrier.  I believe in the courage that he has shown throughout this saga.  And I pray that his courage will continue to be met with kindness and compassion from us all in the name of a God who calls us to (you guessed it) kindness and compassion.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, May 11, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "A Woman Called Daughter"

Mark 5:25 to 34 

 25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse. 27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes. 28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed. 29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed. 30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it. 33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. 34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.” (Common English Bible)

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

The buildings that slope down Mount Herzl in Jerusalem that make up Yad Vashem are many.  There is a history museum, an art museum, a hall of remembrance, a children’s memorial, a research institute, a synagogue, a library, a publishing house, an educational center, and more, all nestled in right next to the Jerusalem forest of pine trees.  Together, these buildings are Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Jewish Holocaust during World War II, known as Yad Vashem.

In around those buildings lies the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations—the primary memorial for commemorating the “Righteous Gentiles” who, courageously and at great personal risk, aided the survival of European Jews during the Holocaust.  In the Garden stands a Wall of Honor with all of the known Righteous listed—all except for one group…the Danish resistance to Adolf Hitler.  The Danes were able to successfully evacuate nearly 93% of Denmark’s Jewish population after Hitler ordered the Danish Jews to be arrested and deported in 1943.

But rather than be listed each by name, the Danish resistance insisted that they be honored anonymously and collectively as Righteous Among the Nations.  And so to date, only a bare handful of the hundreds or (likely) thousands of names are known to us.

They remain anonymous, but the miracle with which they are associated has reverberated throughout the decades, because out of their anonymity came the renewal of life for, quite literally, thousands of souls who were marginalized simply for who they were.  And so too, then, does this woman who is called Daughter by Jesus—and healed by Him—experience her own unexpected miracle of renewal, forged in the twin crucibles of anonymity and marginalization for who she was: a stricken woman with no cure in sight.

Easter is not just a day on the calendar for the church—it is a season on the calendar.  After all, according to Luke in Acts of the Apostles, Jesus walked the earth for forty days after His resurrection.  All forty of those days were about the victory of God over death, not just the first day.  And so the church traditionally has kept those 40 (to 50) days after Easter as a season called, appropriately enough, Eastertide.  And so as part of our ongoing celebration of Easter and of the empty tomb, I typically elect to create a sermon series for those Sundays specific to the themes of resurrection and new life.  Two years ago, if you’ll recall, we went through probably the second most-famous resurrection (after that of Jesus Himself) in the Gospels—the raising of Lazarus as depicted in John 11.  One year ago, we spent a Sunday apiece on the reactions to the news of the empty tomb by the different disciples—Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, and so on.  This year, we’re returning more to the mold of two years ago in that we are going through another resurrection story, except this one is probably the least renowned of them all: the raising of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5.  Why that is probably has to do with a variety of reasons, but we’ll be trying to increase our knowledge, appreciation, and love of this story as we go through it verse-by-verse through the month of May (and Sunday, June 1).  We began this series last week by digging into the details Mark offers in his exposition of this scene—details that might escape us in a 21st-century American context as opposed to a 1st-century Israelite context—and now this week, Mark takes what appears to be a digression from the plot at hand to tell us the story of a woman being miraculously healed—and subsequently blessed—by Jesus.

The anonymous woman—whom Jesus styles “Daughter” at the conclusion of this story—stands in stark contrast to the wealthy and prominent Jairus, father and synagogue leader, who throws himself at Jesus’ feet in a show of humility far beyond the bounds of his rigid and stratospheric social class.  What Jairus did was, in all honesty, probably wholly unexpected.  What our anonymous woman does, though—essentially trying to sneak in and out unnoticed and undetected—is very much expected when you consider that, (a) women were essentially considered economic property in most ancient societies, with marriage being an economic transaction, not a sacrament, and that ancient Israel was no exception, and (b) she is visibly afflicted by way of her hemorrhaging.  According to custom, she is verboten, she is completely untouchable, she is utterly and wholly distasteful.

Except to Jesus.  Yes, Jesus is taken by surprise because, oddly enough, this is an involuntary healing—Jesus does not will it or command it, yet still it takes place.  And we learn why—the healing happened because of this woman’s faith.  And while Jesus has not yet actually spoken to Jairus to this point in the passage—He merely consents to go with Jairus—He is moved to bless her.

And the gravity of that juxtaposition between wealthy synagogue leader and social outcast is difficult to understate.  To borrow from New Testament scholar Douglas Hare:

A major feature of the double story, whether conscious to the Gospel writer or not, is the contrast between Jairus on the one hand and the woman and the girl on the other.  Whereas the male is named, the females are not.  The man’s social status as a synagogue ruler (“president”) is stressed, but the fact that the woman has had significant wealth is merely implicit; it must be inferred from the fact that only well-to-do persons could afford physicians, and she has paid extensively, perhaps for ten years or more.  Whereas the man comes to see Jesus directly and boldly requests help, the woman timidly approaches Him from behind, wanting only to touch His clothing.

As shocking as Jairus’s gesture of humility likely was to the sensibilities of many an Israelite, this woman’s own actions would have been beyond the pale.  She is unaccompanied by a male figure, and deigns to lay her hands on another man, even if only out of desperation to be healed.  It is not an exaggeration to say that she was risking her life by doing this.  Jairus, quite simply, was not.

The flip side of this coin, though, is that this woman likely did not have much of a life left to lose.  As Hare’s notes indicate, she has likely plowed through all of her savings paying for physicians for years to no avail, and since she is not only a woman but an unclean woman, any sort of independent moneymaking venture (even prostitution) was likely unavailable to her.  Her medical condition had probably driven her close to bankruptcy, not unlike (sadly) the plurality of Americans who file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection every year.  Medical bills could be as onerous then as they are now.

So, in a way, what this woman is seeking is what we would think of as the bare minimum.  She’s not asking Jesus for her old life back, with her wealth and the means available to her.  At this point, she is only seeking her health back.  She simply wants to be made clean again.

But part of why we take Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, is because He has this tendency to utterly confound our expectations.  Despite His prophecies saying as such, He wasn’t expected to resurrect on the third day.  He fed five thousand men and untold numbers of women and children despite His disciples saying that it couldn’t be done.  And when confronted with this woman who basically tries to pickpocket a healing out of Him, He not only lets her be healed, but He blesses her as well.  Jairus, for all his devotion to his daughter, receives no such blessing, and He never does in this story.

Perhaps the eventual resuscitation of his daughter would prove to be blessing enough.  But even if Jairus’s daughter had remained dead, his high status in society would have remained.  In contrast, you could imagine Jesus seeing that the woman needed some sign of approval or endorsement in order to be accepted back into society.  As New Testament scholar Ralph Martin puts her probable expectations, “she expected to be cured and to slip back into the anonymity of the faceless crowd she had left.  Instead, she is singled out and given a personalized miracle all to herself.”

It humanizes her.  Jesus humanizes this anonymous, faceless, nameless woman by giving her a name, perhaps the most intimate and apropos name possible in the confines of this story: Daughter.  Jesus is off to resurrect another man’s daughter from the dead.  But before He does, He takes the time to make clear that this woman, who has experienced a resurrection not only of health but now almost certainly of soul as well, is HIS daughter.  It is not patronizing, it is not paternalistic.  It is an expression of profound love that confounded this woman’s expectations of this itinerant Savior.

And that’s the magic bullet with so much that has gone awry in the world.  Never has humanity had a time in our history when we have viewed one another completely and entirely as people, not as objects of ridicule or hate, of scorn or of prejudice.  Even as I am preaching about this daughter of Jesus Christ, other daughters of Him still experience abuse and domestic violence at an endemic rate.  Even as I am speaking of a daughter of God who has been made whole, other daughters of God are torn apart every day in the diabolical realms of human trafficking and sexual slavery.  And even as I am telling you about a daughter told by the Son of God to go in peace, other daughters of Christ are spending their days as terrorized captives of Boko Haram in the forests of central Africa, waiting for the day when we are able to do that which we have pleaded with our leaders on social media to do: to #bringbackourgirls.

Out of the depths of marginalization, violence, prejudice, and even genocide, a miracle still occurs for over 7,000 Danish Jews, a miracle planned and executed by men and women who are largely anonymous to us today.  And out of the depths of marginalization and prejudice, a miracle still occurs for one Israelite woman who is largely still anonymous to us today.

And today, out of the depths of marginalization, violence, and hate, we can still pray for and plan miracles.  We can still call out the daughters and sons of God by name and tell them, as Jesus did, to go in peace…not as a formality, or in place of any other standard Hallmark type greeting, but as a statement of intent, as a declaration of belief, that when this person goes from me, that they do so in a greater sense of peace and in a greater security of peace then when they first came to me.

That is what Jesus did for the woman He calls as His daughter.  That is what, if we are to be Christians, to be little Christs, to be Jesus followers, to do as well in His image and in His stead.

And in that way, may we too confound the expectations of a world that has perhaps come to expect less and less of us and from us as Christians.  Let us be the ones next to rise above the sea of hurt and pain that wracks humanity, and to be the ones who lift others up out of that raging tumult of ill.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 11, 2014

Thursday, May 8, 2014

On Baking and Breaking Bread With My Church Family

In my family, men know how to cook.  My grandfather is a retired professional chef, my father did all (and I do mean *all*) of the cooking and grocery shopping at home, and somewhere between late college and early seminary years, I finally bit the proverbial-rather-than-epicureal bullet and taught myself how to cook.

And it changed my spiritual life as I knew it.

Of course, there are non-spiritual benefits to it as well--I spend less on groceries when I prepare the meals myself rather than relying solely on Amy's or Newman's Best to do it for me.  It's more nutritious for me than eating out.  And to all you straight dudes/gay women who hang out here: ladies dig someone who knows their way around the kitchen.

But my spiritual life--and my professional life (as it is so often impossible to separate the two)--is largely tied up in the infinite and the intangible.  I read Scriptures.  I pray prayers.  I preach and I teach towards a goal that is only ever fully realized when someone departs this world.  And it doesn't ever end.  There is always another sermon to be written next week, always another pastoral counseling session to schedule, always another mission to vision-cast.

But cooking?  It lets me do something with my hands besides clasp them together, type, or turn pages.  It has a beginning and an end.  It forces me to use parts of my brain that don't always get as heavy a workout.  The work of chopping up vegetables or sauteeing a protein is soothing on my psyche.

And, at least with practice, the end result is not only tangible and finite, but also delicious.

Now, there are limits to this craft for me--for one, I can't bake worth a tinker's damn.  If I'm making you a pie, you can bet your bottom dollar that the crust is store-bought.  I'm also pretty useless if you care too much about presentation.  While it's definitely nice to see a beautifully plated dish at a restaurant, at home I remain firmly planted in the "slop it on" camp of dishing up.  And my palate is still very much a work in progress.

But the biggest limitation for me is one that runs far deeper: my latent insecurities about myself.  I am writing this post about cooking today because this is a second Thursday--the day of every month when my congregants meet at church for a potluck lunch together.

And I only just now started cooking for that meal, as opposed to just picking something up from the grocery store.

I used to tell myself "you're too busy to spend all that time cooking, Eric.  Your time is too valuable," or "You're still bringing something, even if all you did was carry it up front and pay for it."  But really, those were justifications I was using for the simple fear that many a cook--whether professional or amateur--has entertained.

What if they don't like my cooking?

On face, it's a ridiculous question for me to ask.  These are people who have consumed my preaching and my teaching--areas in which I have made myself far more spiritually and emotionally vulnerable--for close to three years now.  But I'm far less insecure about that part of me.  That part of me is mostly strong.

Letting someone into my spiritual exercise of cooking a meal?  That was a lot harder for me to do.

But today, about an hour from now, I will get up from my desk, go over to the church kitchen, and, as I greet and chat up the people arriving, begin chopping up garlic, shallots, onions, and broccolini for a basic risotto for the potluck lunch.  And I can't wait.

Because I am getting to share another part of my spiritual life with my spiritual family.

It is Biblically appropriate that we break bread together.  After all, for many years, until a year or so before she passed away, our congregant Darlyne baked all of our communion bread herself.  For her funeral, her granddaughter baked a loaf according to her recipe for everyone to share in communion together.

And so it is spiritually appropriate when that meal comes from your own labor of love.  This I have learned, and learned gratefully.

Where in your life have you taken unexpected joy in being able to share your spiritual life with others?  Where in your life might you find that sort of joy next?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

There is a Balm in Gilead

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul

It is the chorus to one of my all-time favorite spirituals: a song I was raised singing in the church, a Gospel tune that I had memorized at a very young age.

There is a balm in Gilead.

The prophet Jeremiah is prophesying against Egypt, and he interrupts the prophecy to instruct Egypt to "go up to Gilead and seek its balm," for it presently has no cure for the spiritual sickness that ails it. (Jer. 46:11)

Far more often than I--or probably many other pastors--would like to admit, we fear that there are no cures for the spiritual sicknesses that ail us.  Yes, we have faith in God.  Yes, we have faith in Christ.  But even we can topple and fall when we try so hard to fix ourselves that we neglect to leave room for God to do that job.

Until God worms His way back in, and lifts us up once again.

There is a balm in Gilead.

One month ago, I was grieving Darlyne's sudden death, the first death of an active church member I had experienced in my nearly three years here at FCC.

I still grieve her passing, but when I think of her, increasingly those thoughts are of how she lived, how she helped me in my ministry, how she served the Lord, and not of how she died.

There is a balm in Gilead.

Just after the New Year, I had to perform another funeral--this one for Don, a onetime FCC member who had since moved long before I arrived.

While I was writing my sermon for his service, our office secretary, Charlotte, discovered a sheaf of letters Don had written in the church and gave them to me.  I read a few, realized that this was a man I really wished I had known while he was still alive, and I had to stop writing so that I could devour every word of his prose and poetry, some of which I (and others) read at his memorial.

After his funeral, those letters went to his surviving family as a gift.  Although I know and appreciate their necessity, I honestly have never liked doing funerals...but that moment of giving back Don's letters made me happy again.

There is a balm in Gilead.

I would struggle with the criticism and the complaints--even though those are often a part of the job when you are a pastor.  I would shut myself in my office, collapse into my chair, and close my eyes, too emotionally paralyzed to get any work of any sort of importance done.

But then I would open my eyes and click open my email, or my phone would vibrate and I would reach for it, and sitting there would be a surprise sentence or three of appreciation and encouragement from someone.  And I would smile, stop feeling sorry for myself, and start to write them back.

There is a balm in Gilead.

The horrible stories would rattle my entire being like an earthquake.  The shootings at Aurora, at Sandy Hook, even close to home at Clackamas, Oregon.  The kidnapping of the girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram.  The disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner.  The deaths by addiction of talented figures I admired, like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But then I would see my congregants with their families, and remember that life does indeed go on, even after death.

There is a balm in Gilead.

I would entertain my own innermost demons on a regular basis.

You're not experienced enough for this job.

You're not growing this congregation fast enough.

You're a terrible administrator and fundraiser.  You're never going to help this congregation be financially secure again.

You aren't in tune enough with God to be an ordained pastor.

But then I would force myself back into the trenches of sermon writing and Bible study because I had to, and God would proceed to use the Scriptures to remind me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now.

There is a balm in Gilead.

And centuries ago, when millions of African-Americans were enslaved--in many cases by white slavers who justified said enslavement with Christian tradition and Christian Scripture--this spiritual was written, reminding them (and me, so many years later) that God may not promise us an end to all pain, but what God does promise us is a way to at least soothe that pain.  My own existential pain holds not a candle to enslavement.

But spiritually and emotionally, I can enslave myself to those things which are destructive to my ministry: fear, self-loathing, and insecurity.  Things that, try as I might, I cannot fix just on my own.  Things that I cannot fix entirely until God arrives again, and tells me once more that which Jeremiah told Egypt:

There is a balm in Gilead.

And it makes the wounded whole.

May God make you whole once more as well.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, May 4, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "A Man Called Jairus"

Mark 5:21-24

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him. A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. (Common English Bible)

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

The voice on the other end of the phone was a mixture of pure disbelief and sorrow.  It was the 3 am phone call that nobody ever wants to get, and that night, my family was receiving one from a family friend whose son—a year younger than me and coincidentally also named Eric—died in a car wreck.  He wasn’t wearing a seat belt, the crash was head-on, and he died almost instantly.

We got that phone call just over ten years ago to the day.  It was the pivotal moment of the most emotionally and spiritually trying weekend of my life, one that began with me looking forward to competing at the Kansas state speech championships and then awkwardly dancing the night away at my senior prom, and ended with me preaching at my childhood congregation on Sunday morning on grief and loss, only to have my microphone die (does that ever happen here?  No…); but then my very first God experience took place when the sunlight struck my tired body through the sanctuary skylights.  My body temperature erupted, my energy returned, and in spite of an uncooperative microphone, I made myself loud enough for all to hear...and hopefully understand.

It reminded me of the Pentecost story in Acts 2, when the flame of the Holy Spirit comes down upon the disciples.  But what has also stuck with me through the years was the sound of my buddy’s father on the telephone at 3 am that night.  The grief, the shock, the sheer unbelief of a parent who lost their child long before they thought they ever would…the memory of that will likely stay with me for eternity.  Seeing and hearing how much it hurts a parent who would move heaven and earth for their child to instead see their child die and to feel absolutely helpless to it happening, that has to be one of life’s worst moments.  And in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, it is a moment that is about to come for a man and a father called Jairus.

Easter is not just a day on the calendar for the church—it is a season on the calendar.  After all, according to Luke in Acts of the Apostles, Jesus walked the earth for forty days after His resurrection.  All forty of those days were about the victory of God over death, not just the first day.  And so the church traditionally has kept those 40 (to 50) days after Easter as a season called, appropriately enough, Eastertide.  And so as part of our ongoing celebration of Easter and of the empty tomb, I typically elect to create a sermon series for those Sundays specific to the themes of resurrection and new life.  Two years ago, if you’ll recall, we went through probably the second most-famous resurrection (after that of Jesus Himself) in the Gospels—the raising of Lazarus as depicted in John 11.  One year ago, we spent a Sunday apiece on the reactions to the news of the empty tomb by the different disciples—Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, and so on.  This year, we’re returning more to the mold of two years ago in that we are going through another resurrection story, except this one is probably the least renowned of them all: the raising of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5.  Why that is probably has to do with a variety of reasons, but we’ll be trying to increase our knowledge, appreciation, and love of this story as we go through it verse-by-verse through the month of May (and Sunday, June 1). 

Today, we simply begin with what appears on the surface to be only exposition—only scene-setting.  But Mark includes for us a few important details that paint the picture of Jairus’s relationship with his daughter, as well as of the nature of Jesus’ ministry and of how He was viewed by others at that particular point in time of His ministry.

The first detail is this: that Jairus is a leader of the local synagogue, which would identify him as a man of exceptional means.  Remember that there was almost no middle class in Biblical Israel—you were either part of the very small and powerful wealthy minority, or part of the vast impoverished peasant minority.  Jesus was a member of the latter, but most religious leaders—likely including Jairus—were a part of the former (so, clearly, I got into this line of work in the wrong millennium.  Wait, that came out wrong…).

Why does this matter?  Well, for two reasons.  One is that Jairus quite literally gets down on bended knees to beg Jesus to heal his daughter.  It is a scene of profound humility.  Simply getting down on your knees to beg to anyone is potentially humiliating unless you have a diamond ring in your hand and a particular question about marriage in your head, and even then, those situations can still end up humiliating if you’ve completely misread your audience.  But this is likely a rich man (or at least a man better off than the vast majority of the citizenry) falling down on his knees before a poor man.  In the rigid hierarchy of ancient Near Eastern society, well, that was practically unheard of.

Of course, we know now that Jesus was and is far more than simply a man, but at this point in Mark’s Gospel, there’s no indication that Jairus would have known that.  Up until this point, the only people to recognize Jesus’ true nature as the Son of God are, ironically enough, demons whom He exorcises.  Seriously.  Flip through the first four-and-a-half chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and it’s true.  Nobody except the personifications of evil seems to have picked up on this yet.

So what Jairus is most likely doing is flinging himself at Jesus’ feet is signaling his abject desperation in his quest to save his daughter.  Because of his means, he has most likely already tried all of the conventional channels for treating a sick family member—taking them to a Greco-Roman phyisician, taking them to the synagogue or temple healers in Israel, and probably lots and lots of prayers and sacrifices to God.

But none of the traditional methods of treatment have worked.  So, when Jairus hears (presumably simply by word of mouth) of this itinerant Galilean peasant who travels the country performing miracles, he probably thought to himself, “What do I have to lose?”  And aside from any social sensibilities he may have had about class, the answer to that question is, “Not a lot.”

And that part of his decision-making calculus is perfectly fine, completely understandable, even.  But for him to have gotten this desperate still likely would have required him to exhaust more orthodox remedies for whatever was ailing his daughter—after all, desperation often doesn’t tend to set in until after you have tried that which you have been taught to do in a situation.

In other words, Jairus’ one misstep in his parental devotion to his daughter doesn’t come in presenting himself to Jesus, or even in casting himself down at Jesus’ feet.  No, it’s that Jairus likely came to Jesus as a last resort, not a first resort.  Jesus wasn’t the first-down play for Jairus, He was the fourth-down Hail Mary pass (“Jeez, Pastor Eric, talk about mixing religious idioms here…”).  Jairus is more than willing to completely cast aside his social standing and his dignity for the sake of his daughter, and for that, we can and should hear in his voice here the anguish and pain of a parent losing their child to death’s clutches.  As New Testament scholar Ralph Martin concisely put it about this passage: “Death is still the number one issue in many people’s minds and secret fears.”  And one of the things I learned from that terrible night in my youth when my friend Eric died was that this fear is doubly, triply, infinitely true for parents when they think about their children.

On that night, my buddy’s father’s worst fears came to pass.  And here, in this passage, Jairus is terrified of his own worst fear coming to pass.  This is a child he has raised against a lot of odds—infant mortality was obscenely high in ancient times, and the mortality rate for girls was even higher than it was for boys.  Jairus is not about to give up on this girl, nor should he ever.

This impulse means that Jairus eventually does do the right thing for his daughter in coming before Jesus and asking Him to heal her.  But are we, too, like Jairus?  Not only in our commitment to our family—I would hope that all of us could be like Jairus in that regard—but in our reluctance to not always go straight to Jesus first when we are most in need.  Put differently: do we go to Jesus first with our greatest needs, or do we look elsewhere for solace and strength and then only later turn to God when those other avenues don’t pan out?

Because there really are a great many avenues out there for us to channel our desperation into if we are searching for comfort and consolation.  Money can corrupt us, addictions can warp us, and exploiting and abusing others to make ourselves feel better by comparison is only destructive.  We turn to other people not to fall at their feet and be humble towards them, but to expect them to be subservient and secondary to ourselves, and all for what?  That sort of status doesn’t help Jairus one lick when the chips are down, and he casts it aside if he thinks that it will help his child.

We cannot hear the anguish in his voice as he beseeches Jesus.  All we have are the words on a page.  But we can probably imagine that anguish.  We might have even been there ourselves once upon a time.  And if you have, you know that all the desire, all the desperate longing in the world cannot erase the feeling of helplessness when death comes to do its thing.

But in God, and in Christ, we need not feel that desperation.  We need not hurt the way that Jairus is hurting now.  He would move heaven and earth to save his daughter, and Jesus, despite probably not being the first asked to help, shows His own humbleness in return and decides to help anyways.

So it is with God.  Even if you did not ask God for help first once upon a time, God will still hear you when you pray to Him now.  And I love how Mark’s exposition of the scene ends in verse 24: So Jesus went with Him.

Simply because Jairus asked Him to.

God is ready to go with you anywhere.  God is ready to walk with you, alongside you, around you.

Today, three of our beloved church members asked God to do precisely that by choosing baptism.
Will you follow their lead and example?  Are you humble enough, brave enough, and dare I say it desperate enough to ask Jesus if He will walk with you as well?

Because if you are, I can tell you this: if your heart is sincere, the answer to that question will always be a resounding YES. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 4, 2014

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why Christians Should Not Support the Death Penalty: A Response to Rev. Albert Mohler

"Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord." -Romans 12:19 (Common English Bible)

This verse is not an invention solely of Paul's as he writes to the Christian Church in Rome.  He is quoting--verbatim--part of Deuteronomy 32:35, which then continues into verse 36 by stating in part, "But the Lord will acquit His people, (He) will have compassion on those who serve Him."

And upon these verses, a Judeo-Christian case against the death penalty can be very strongly and soundly made.

In the wake of a brutal botching of the execution of Clayton Lockett this week in the state of Oklahoma (his vein burst, affecting the delivery of the life-killing drugs into his cardiovascular system, and even though the execution was eventually halted, he still ended up dying of a heart attack), the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's president, Rev. Albert Mohler, penned a lengthy column explaining how Christians can--indeed, for him, should--support capital punishment.

I disagree.  And I think that Paul would, too.  Dare I say it, I think Jesus Christ would as well.

Mohler profoundly misinterprets Paul's statement in Romans 13 that the government does not wield the sword in vain: we know from simple human experience that this is not true.  Governments throughout history have unnecessarily killed people, if in no other way than in the realm of warfare with the summary executions of civilians and prisoners of war.  Moreover, interpretation of Paul in this way is remarkably cognitively dissonant coming from a theological and political conservative like Mohler, as conservatism is built in no small part upon profound skepticism of governmental power.

These are largely digressions from a larger point here, though: that Paul isn't talking about the death penalty at all in Romans 13.  Sister Helen Prejean did a fantastic exegesis of this passage in her 2006 book The Death of Innocents, and while I cannot replicate the prescience and lucidity of her argument , I can at least summarize it: Paul uses the Greek word makaira, which we translate as "sword," but which more accurately is a short sword, large knife, or even a dagger, which stands in contrast to the rhomphaia.  Why, then, does Paul not use the term that refers to a known means of execution if that is what (Mohler infers) Paul is referring to here?

I would concur with Mohler that any society which uses capital punishment needs a high bar for its use upon an individual.  That being said, the Bible is hardly full of just examples of this, even though Mohler cites the Bible's endorsement of the death penalty as why he himself supports the practice.  Bear in mind that under Levitical law, King Ahab was able to have Naboth unjustly executed (1 Kings 21), and Jephthah is able to unjustly execute (through child sacrifice) his daughter (Judges 11).  Even in a country ostensibly governed under Biblical law, innocent persons suffer and are executed.

And most significantly, Jesus Christ Himself was bound over for execution by the temple authorities under the auspices of that same Old Testament scripture.

We follow a Messiah who was Himself unjustly executed, how is that not reason enough to reject the use of capital punishment in our world today?

*This* is why how Paul interprets Deuteronomy 35 in Romans 12 matters so much.  The temple authorities did not leave room for the wrath of God when they bound Jesus over to Pilate--and, of course, there would have been no such divine wrath, for as God said after Jesus' baptism, "This is my Son, with whom I am well-pleased."  But the temple authorities either did not know that or (more likely) just did not care.

This is not to say that God is as well-pleased with the murderers currently on death rows throughout the country as He was with Jesus.  I'm willing to wager God is nowhere near as well-pleased with them.  But by killing them ourselves, rather than leaving room for God's own punishments, we play God.  We take His sovereignty from Him.  We, in essence, re-create the original sin of Adam and Eve by purporting to take from God that which does not belong to us.  With Adam and Eve, they took the knowledge of good and evil.  With the death penalty, we take the ability to extinguish God-given life itself.

To oppose the death penalty can be a secular belief, but it does not have to be, as evinced by a multitude of Christians (myself included).  Contrary to Mohler's concern, growing opposition to the death penalty is not coming from *only* the unchurched.  It is coming from Christians as well.

I *do* welcome Mohler's strongly-worded condemnation of the racial injustice that exists in how America applies the death penalty, which he puts thusly:

Furthermore, Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is. There is very little chance that a wealthy white murderer will ever be executed. There is a far greater likelihood that a poor African-American murderer will face execution. Why? Because the rich can afford massively expensive legal defense teams that can exhaust the ability of the prosecution to get a death penalty sentence. This is an outrage, and no Christian can support such a disparity. As the Bible warns, the rich must not be able to buy justice on their own terms.

The easiest and most straightforward way to remedy this "outrage" would, of course, be to simply ban capital punishment.  It doesn't solve the problem if the larger systemic works of injustice which Mohler highlights, but it at least ensures with absolute certainty that said systemic injustice doesn't end in being murdered via capital punishment.

This is also to say nothing of the concern about wrongful conviction, something Mohler fails to tackle with the same vociferousness, even though a new study out estimates that just over 4% of capital punishment victims were, in fact, innocent of the crimes for which they were killed.  1,378 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.  You do the math.

Execution of an innocent person--like Naboth, like Jephthah's daughter, like Jesus--is a profound sin and violation of the "thou shalt not murder" commandment.

But even more than that, the execution of any person is an affront to God because we violently take from Him that which should not have been ours to begin with: acting as an ultimate judge of one made in God's image--one whose life, no matter how wretched and ruled by evil, is not ours to take.  That is God's province, and His alone.

We should return that to Him.

Yours in Christ,