Monday, June 30, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

(...and this year's reading recommendations!)

“School’s Out: Here’s Some Summer Reading!”

Dear Church,

Each of the past two years, I have dedicated my June “Letters from the Soul” column to letting you know what your bookworm of a pastor has been reading, and with this June’s column being dedicated to my marriage ceremony (which went fantastically, look for photos on Facebook soon!), my annual column of reading recommendations got pushed temporarily to July.  And so, here are a few of the books that have gotten plenty of attention from me so far in 2014, and I commend them to you for some quality reading during the lazy days of summer (do those really exist, though?!).

Adam Hamilton is the senior pastor of the largest United Methodist congregation in the country: Church of the Resurrection in my hometown of Kansas City, Kansas, and I was introduced to his work by Glen Miles, one of my pastoral role models in our denomination.  In this book, Hamilton lays out his vision for the role, authority, and foundational importance of the Bible in a 21st century church that must continue to strive to be welcoming to all comers.

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz Weber.  Jericho Books, 2013.

Fair warning: there is a decent amount of PG 13 language in this memoir by the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber, but one would expect a certain edge from an irreverent comic who is also a recovering addict in addition to being one of the more thoughtful, articulate, and visionary mainline preachers of the present.  Her memoir of her spiritual journey is both heartfelt and stirring, as she recounts having to bury friends, achieve sobriety, and build a family all en route to planting a profoundly welcoming church.

Conversations With Myself, by Nelson Mandela.  Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010.

I was extraordinarily blessed with the opportunity to go on mission to South Africa eight years ago with Global Ministries, the overseas missions arm of the Disciples of Christ denomination, and Mandela’s legacy was apparent throughout all of my experiences there.  With his death at the end of 2013, I once again picked up his autobiography from 2010 in the hopes that he had not taken all of his wisdom and compassion with him to the grave.  Read his stories and be inspired by one of the great humanitarian visionaries of our time!

So that is what has been on my shelf thus far in 2014...what book recommendations would you care to share with me?

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Eric

Sunday, June 29, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Beautiful Gate"

Acts 3:1 to 10 

Peter and John were going up to the temple at three o’clock in the afternoon, the established prayer time. 2 Meanwhile, a man crippled since birth was being carried in. Every day, people would place him at the temple gate known as the Beautiful Gate so he could ask for money from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he began to ask them for a gift. 4 Peter and John stared at him. Peter said, “Look at us!” 5 So the man gazed at them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, rise up and walk!” 7 Then he grasped the man’s right hand and raised him up. At once his feet and ankles became strong. 8 Jumping up, he began to walk around. He entered the temple with them, walking, leaping, and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God. 10 They recognized him as the same one who used to sit at the temple’s Beautiful Gate asking for money. They were filled with amazement and surprise at what had happened to him. (Common English Bible)

“The Beautiful Gate,” Acts 3:1 to 10

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Two

Across the University of California at Berkeley campus, on the opposite end from my little seminary in the Graduate Theological Union, stands one of Berkeley’s most well known landmarks in a town full of such quirky little things (like a tree that wasn’t taken down for a particular street to be laid, so the street splits in two around the tree.  Only in the Peoples’ Republic, y’all).  The Sather Gate originally was meant to demarcate the edge of the Cal Berkeley campus with the start of Telegraph Avenue, but by this point, the campus spills over past the gate into Sproul Plaza, and as a partial consequence, you can see just about anything and everything happening in the area around this gate where the university meets the city: meetings, prayer groups, drum circles, protests, you name it.

And one of the regular sights beneath the Sather Gate, at least during my three years in Berkeley, was an older man with an unkempt white beard and a little prop up chalkboard easel declaring his countdown for when the world was going to end.  He would hand out (presumably homemade) pamphlets to anyone who would take them, and he always (and I do mean always) wore a navy t shirt with the name “Yeshua” printed across it in white block letters.  Yeshua, of course, is the original Hebrew version (albeit in Roman letters) of the English name Joshua, but it is also the Hebrew version of the Greek name Jesus.  Because the entire New Testament, including all four of the Gospels, was written in Greek, Jesus is known to us by His Greek name rather than by “Yeshua.”  As an aside, that means that if you know anyone named Josh or Joshua…well, they’re named after Jesus.

But I digress.  This little, elderly man at the Sather Gate was someone who, considering the urban environs of Berkeley, you could get very used to having in the background of your day to day movements and dismiss entirely because you have become acclimatized to his presence.  Such is the case for many people, including, I would imagine, the beggar who has set up shop at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem as Peter comes calling in this passage.

This is a new sermon series for us, and it is a sermon series that we begin today for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began last week with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Today, we get another first: Peter’s first healing in the post Jesus world, done at the Beautiful Gate.

The Beautiful Gate still stands today in old Jerusalem.  Of Jerusalem’s eight gates, it is the only one that is closed: in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman ordered the gate sealed off, and nobody has crossed its doors since.  But it is the site of great things in our faith.  Tradition says that it was the gate that Jesus entered Jerusalem through on Palm Sunday, and it is, Luke says, where Peter performed his first healing miracle.  And so even though the Beautiful Gate has not seen travelers pass through it for nearly five centuries, imagine it as a bustling, busy public place.  This is not, then, say, the private home in which Jesus heals Jairus’s daughter, whose story I preached through earlier this year, or Elijah resuscitating the widow’s son in the privacy of their own home.  This is a very public place, and while Jesus had no qualms whatsoever performing miracles in public, you might imagine a mere man like Peter potentially could.  This is an immensely courageous gesture, then, on Peter’s part.

It’s also, though, potentially a gesture that passersby could miss out on in real time if they aren’t paying attention.  Imagine how congested a busy walkway is in a metropolitan area: people rushing to and fro en masse, the sounds of the city drowning out any ability you might have had to hear this Galilean fisherman say to the crippled beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk!”  You could be too immersed in your newspaper or your iPhone (or whatever the first century Israelite equivalents were for those…the iChisel?) to even notice that God’s work is being done in your very midst.

Luke is quick to reassure us that this isn’t entirely the case: as he puts it, “all the people” then see this formerly crippled beggar walking and running and praising God.  And I do not mean to diminish that: seeing it would be a miracle in itself, but Luke curiously does not say that all the people saw the actual healing.  And perhaps that is unnecessary for the purposes of forming their faith in Jesus, but still, what a sight that would have been, to actually see, in real time, in the moment, a person’s life being tangibly and forever changed simply out of faith in Jesus.  It gives a whole new meaning to the name of the gate: not only is the gate itself called beautiful, but so too are the deeds done before it.

But if we are as blinded and deafened to the happenings around us, we miss out on what makes the gate…and, really, what makes the world, beautiful.  We miss out on bearing witness to miracles that can and do happen…everyday miracles and extraordinary miracles alike.  It isn’t just that the visual of the crowds of people might have blocked you off from directly witnessing Peter’s healing of this anonymous man, it’s that the sounds that so many people make probably would have also prevented you from actually hearing what Peter was saying: the source of the miracle, the most important part.

The name of Jesus of Nazareth.  Or Yeshua of Nazareth, if you’re that odd fellow at the Sather Gate in Berkeley.

And that’s why I said both blinded and deafened just now: we talk…and I know that I talk…about being able to see God in our lives, but that’s an incomplete objective.  Jesus Himself says, “Let those with ears hear,” but if we are too subsumed in our own lives, how on earth are we going to hear the name of Jesus invoked when a true miracle occurs?  How can we possibly appreciate its import?

Bible professor Paul Walaskay puts it well, writing: “To know the divine name is to be entrusted with the power of that name.  Only after Moses learned the name of God, “Yahweh,” was he able to use the awesome power of that name to perform mighty “signs and wonders.”  Power did not reside in the name itself.  Rather, the name represented the power behind it…On a more mundane level, the passage reminds the reader that words do have power.  A word uttered cannot be retrieved.”

Which also means that the name of Jesus, once uttered, cannot be rescinded.  It cannot be taken back.  Like the Christ Himself, His name is eternal once invoked.

And as Peter demonstrates (and as Luke is keen to emphasize to us), that eternal name has real power.  Maybe I cannot use it to cure your maladies as Peter did, but I…or any one of us…can use it to provide real psychological power to someone.  Christ’s name remains very much a source of strength for literally millions of people, and that strength is not entirely unlike the strength imparted upon a crippled man to cause Him to not merely walk, but to LEAP.  God can offer the strength for you to leap when you think that walking might do, or even when you cannot summon the strength even to walk.

Which in turn, of course, is why this now mobile man praises God, and because he is such a regular at the Beautiful Gate, it dawns on everybody else that something truly amazing has happened, and they were “filled with amazement and surprise,” Luke tells us.  Not necessarily faith…that will come later, after Peter’s second sermon (stay tuned for that next week!), but at least the proverbial ground has been softened.  They’re ready to hear what the Galilean fisherman has to say.

In other words, they are no longer deafened by the mundane in their own lives.  They are ready to listen.  They are ready to hear.  Peter has their attention.

And sometimes, that is all you can ask of a mere miracle, that it gets somebody’s attention.

The trick, then, is what to do with that newfound (and evermore fleeting) attention.  As we will see next week, Peter is masterful in connecting with his newfound audience.  But for now, we can simply end today with the leaping, praising, once lame beggar.

Because, in the end, he is us.  Life cripples us, each in our own way, until a voice on God’s own behalf gives us the strength to walk again.

And wherever, however, and whenever that voice whispers or shouts or rings out in your ears, you would be well within your rights to praise God and call it a miracle.  For you would not be wrong in doing so.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 29, 2014

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Five Things I Learned From Getting Married This Month

1. Even if you take vacation time to have your wedding, it will not feel like a vacation.

The sheer amount of nuts and bolts sort of work that takes place behind the scenes for a wedding is astronomical.  I realized that in my role as a pastor officiating a wedding, I only saw a small part of it: my collaboration with the couple in the writing of the ceremony, my pre marital counseling with them, the rehearsal, and so on.  But there is oh so much more.  I was married on a Saturday and ended up arriving very early on the Wednesday previous: and that still felt like nowhere near enough time to get ready.  And the weekend itself was such a whirlwind that I didn't feel like I was in any sort of a vacation mode until the Monday following the wedding.  I have been repeating this to people over and over: I feel like I am a much better pastor now to my couples whom I am marrying because I have finally been in their shoes and I know just how crazy their lives are.

2. All that work (see above) does end up having a purpose.

All of the above being said in #1, once the big day *does* arrive, you hopefully have enough people surrounding you and helping you out that things pretty much end up going on autopilot.  You've wound everything up, now it's time to release the string and let it go.  I spent the twenty or so minutes prior to my wedding ceremony in hiding: not just because Carrie and I agreed not to see each other until she walked down the aisle, but because there was nothing left for me to do, and the only impact I would end up having would be getting in somebody else's way.  So I hid myself, emerged at 11:30 when the ceremony began, and the entire day went magically.

3. No matter how stoic you are, you cannot fully control passion and emotion.

The net effect of me not seeing Carrie until she walked down the aisle was me bursting into tears at the sight of her and openly weeping during the entirety of her processional down the aisle.  I have never, EVER, cried tears of joy that forcefully before.  That's love right there, I'd like to think.  (I'd say that it could be onions as well, but I had an onion free morning.)

4. There are an awful lot of people who love you.

So there's the stress about who to invite, who not to, who's going to make it, who can't make it, and what happens if you end up going too far over or under your target number of people.  I know I definitely worried about some of that stuff in the build up to my wedding.  But on the day of, none of that matters.  All you can do is look out across the sanctuary and see the people who have cared about you enough to board planes and drive cars and spend hours or days of their lives simply to get there to celebrate you.  It's pretty darn amazing.

5. God's design for us really does include marriage.

Not that I didn't believe this before, but I doubly do so now.  God, true to His words in Genesis, doesn't want us to be lonely.  If/when we choose a spouse for ourselves, may it be done out of love for the other person...a love that constructs us and builds us up rather than destroying us and tearing us down.  I have to think God that blesses the love that strengthens one another, and that blessing is what makes a marriage a marriage.  It's not just us being together.  It's a blessing that Carrie and I sought, and, I pray, we have indeed found it in each other and before God.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, June 23, 2014

New Sermon Series Outline: "The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church"

Summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  And that is one of two reasons why I think this new sermon series is especially appropriate for a summer.  The Gospels, believe it or not, have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts. Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!

The other reason I wanted this to be a sermon series for the summer is that we basically picked up yesterday where the Pentecost story leaves off: after Peter has delivered his sermon in Acts 2 after the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, we preachers (myself included) will preach on the Pentecost story on whichever Sunday it falls, but then move onto something else entirely, and I felt led this year to linger in Acts for a bit longer and go verse by verse through what follows.

And what follows in these chapters is an accounting of the church after Jesus has ascended, but before Paul (as Saul) enters the narrative, hence the sermon series title: "The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church."  (And "The Way" is how the early church actually referred to itself, according to Acts 9.)

So, like I said, we kicked off this series yesterday after I returned from my wedding, and we will be continuing this series through the months of July and August as well, so for those of you who are following along, be it near or far, here is how the rest of this series is shaping up:

June 22 (yesterday): “The Three Thousand,” Acts 2:37-47
June 29: “The Beautiful Gate,” Acts 3:1-10
July 6: “The Message,” Acts 3:11-26
July 13: “The Cornerstone,” Acts 4:1-12
July 20: “The Challenge,” Acts 4:13-22
July 27: “The Prayer,” Acts 4:23-31
August 3: “The Ekklesia,” Acts 4:32-37
August 10: “The Writing on the Wall,” Acts 5:1-11
August 17: “The Hope,” Acts 5:12-16
August 24: “The Angel,” Acts 5:17-21

I hope you'll enjoy this series as much as I already am!

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, June 22, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Three Thousand"

Acts 2:37 to 47

When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.” 40 With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” 41 Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day. 

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week One

Being the devoted alumnus that I am to my undergraduate alma mater, Lewis & Clark College in nearby Portland, I reliably read the alumni magazine that shows up on my doorstep once a season.  Not only is it a good way to keep abreast of what is happening there (did one of my favorite professors just retire?), but it is also a good source of stories to be inspired by, as the magazine often uses its feature space to highlight the humanitarian or adventurous work that its students and professors are currently doing.

One such story appeared in its pages of last year’s spring issue, and I have sat on this story for over a year, waiting for the right message to include it in, because what the story is about is, in effect, how the Bible was written, and how the very earliest church was created: through oral tradition, and oral history.  The stories that you tell your family around the dinner table.  The memories you recollect over a cup of coffee or tea.  Because the vast majority of people in Biblical Israel were not literate, they could not write down themselves God’s revelations…they relied on scribes to do that for them.

And so, deep in the rural wilderness of the Qinghai province in western China, a Lewis & Clark professor and student set out to collect what they called “oral histories.”  Basically, the memories and recollections and stories of people.  Your own personal story.  Your own personal testimony.

Believe it or not, that is how the Bible in its final form most likely was written down: those who received God’s revelation directly eventually transmitting it to a trained scribe for immortalization.  And so it is with the Pentecost story as well: while Peter, as a fisherman by trade, was almost certainly not literate, Luke, the writer of Acts of the Apostles, obviously was (or he wouldn’t have written it, amirite?).  And so while Luke himself was not present at the birth of the church as depicted in Acts 2, you can almost imagine him and Peter talking together over a glass of wine or some water and Peter (or perhaps one of Peter’s followers) sharing with Luke this story that begins, “Did I tell you about the day when 3,000 people were converted to the Way of Jesus Christ?”

This is another brand new sermon series for us, and it is a sermon series that we begin today for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we do precisely that here today, when Peter follows up with the crowd who has just heard his first ever sermon by telling them what it is that they should do…his sermon’s “action steps,” if you will.

And the instructions themselves that Peter gives are honestly pretty straightforward and require little further glossing: repent and be baptized.  What he emphasizes here is that the repentance must be genuine.  It must be authentic, it must come with a true change in one’s nature and actions, and it should be accompanied by the sacrament of baptism, of being dipped down into water and then lifted out just as Christ Himself had been by John the Baptist.

Traditionally, many of us in the church refer to what Peter outlines in these verses as “the plan of salvation,” which means, in a nutshell, what a person must do to be in right relationship with God.  “Plan” though, is a very 20th century way of putting the whole thing, and the term I have come to prefer to use is the term that Jesus’s early followers actually refer to themselves as: The Way.

The way of salvation.  That’s a little more accurate for what we are trying to do here, as a church, right?  Because it is one thing to simply hand someone a checklist of items, a to do list, and say, “if you do these things, you’re good to go,” but it is entirely another to say to someone, “what we do here is an entire way of being, of acting, of coming closer to God.”

In other words: a plan has a finish line.  When you execute that plan, you are done.  A way has no such finish line.  It is ongoing, it is perpetual, it is for forever (as opposed to, you know, diamonds).

And that’s what we have had here, in many ways, with our congregation, our community of believers.  We have a way, something that was built and designed to be ongoing and for forever.  Clearly a church building of this size and grandeur is not meant to be a temporary home.  It is meant to last through the ages.  And yet the community within it hasn’t.  When I arrived here, many of you told me about the golden years of the fifties, sixties, and seventies when this church was packed, when there was always something going on, when it felt alive here inside these walls.  These were your stories, your testimonies, your oral histories, that you gave to me over many weeks of coffee and sermons and lessons and outreach.

From the beginning of my time here, I have taken as my mandate helping you to rebuild this community to that previous level of excitement: not necessarily with the same activities and missions of the past, but restoring that level of energy with new activities, new missions, new callings from God.

And that mandate, I have learned, is not a plan forward for the church.  It is a way forward for the church.  It is a way that is perpetual and ongoing.  When we are fully sustainable, we do not get to breathe a deep sigh of relief and sit on our laurels, no, we get to look eagerly around at our community and ask, “What’s God’s calling us to do here next?”

And that’s whether we have a packed sanctuary or not.  We might look with envy upon the 3,000 converts that Peter, with God’s help, brought into the church on that day, but if you look at it within the context of the crowds that Jesus Himself engaged, well, you notice something.  Jesus fed the 5,000.  He also, separately, fed another crowd of 4,000.  And here is Peter with a measly crowd of 3,000.  That’s a 40 percent decline from the crowd Jesus was able to attract!  (And, as the Gospels hasten to note, that’s only the men.  Who knows how many women and children were also present for Jesus’ message that day.)

But neither Peter nor Luke, the writer of Acts, turns their noses up at the 3,000 who join them.

That *only* 3,000 join, as opposed to 4,000 or more, is not seen as cause for lament, it is seen as cause for celebration.  Nobody…at least, Luke doesn’t convey anybody…is sitting there griping, “Remember when Jesus would get 5,000 people to these things?!  Harrumph!”  That isn’t part of The Way.

And that’s part of our challenge here today: in building this grand church up to the proverbial 5,000, well, you are mathematically required to pass 3,000 and 4,000 along the way (there’s that word again…the way!).  Which means that when our 3,000 arrives, in the form of so many of you who have heard about us, been told about us, discovered us, were led to us, and felt called and comfortable enough to say, “This is my spiritual home,” that means that each of you, too, are cause for our celebration.  You are worthy of our celebration.  You are more than enough for our celebration.

Because each of you comes with a story as well.  A testimony.  An oral history.  Whether you know exactly what yours is yet or not…or even whether it is fully written yet or not…your story has become a part of our story, a part of the church’s story, a part of the world’s story, a part of God’s story.

And that is a story that continues to be written with the ink of love, with the quill of community, upon a completely blank sheet of paper placed before us that can bear any message that you choose for it.

What shall that message be?

May it be, for each of us, a message proffering, as Peter does, the way of salvation, of achieving and restoring a right relationship with God, for ourselves and for all of those who also become, by chance or by design, a part of your way, and thus a part of our way, towards full communion with the divine.

So was birthed, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Christian Church.

And so it continues, amazingly enough, even here, halfway across the world and across two millennia of years.

Like I said, The Way is ongoing.  It always is.  And God willing, it always will be.

Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview Washington
June 22, 2014

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Beautiful Game

(I'm back and married!  Mine and Carrie's wedding in her hometown of Swannanoa, North Carolina, was amazing...the weather cooperated, the flowers and foliage were all beautiful, and all of the food was fantastic.  And I ended up married to a truly amazing woman!  I appreciate your patience as I indulged in a two week vacation from writing during that time, and I am happy to be back! E.A.)

So you may have seen me blogging about soccer previously on what is ostensibly a Christian blog, and with the World Cup in full swing, I am about to do so again.  But just like last time, I think there are a lot of Christian tie ins to what I am about to say.

In the winter of 1914, during the Christmas Truce that bracketed the beginning of the First World War, an international soccer match was played...between the trenches by soldiers of England and Germany, whose nations were at war with each other (the Germans won 3 to 2, thus beginning the time honored tradition of England losing in agonizing manner to Germany in soccer).

In the fall of 2005, when the national team of the Ivory Coast qualified for its first ever World Cup in the midst of being racked by three years of civil war.  Taking advantage of the universal celebrations taking place on both sides of the conflict, the Ivory Coast team begged both the government and the rebel factions to adhere to a ceasefire for the sake of national unity for the World Cup.  Within a week of doing so, their request was fulfilled.

And I grew up as a tween with grisly stories coming out of Bosnia headlining the nightly news: stories of the ethnic cleansing that was taking place, stories of the human rights atrocities, and stories of the horrendous siege of Sarajevo that would eventually claim the lives of over 11,000 citizens.

But today?  The soccer players of my generation are now the ones pleading for national unity once more out of Bosnia, not only for the sake of peace, but for the sake of recovery from some of the most disastrous flooding the country has ever seen.  Miralem Pjanic, a midfielder for Bosnia and for AS Roma in Italy's Serie A, bought himself a drugstore...and then donated the store's entire stock of goods to the victims and relief efforts of the floods.

I'll be damned if this isn't exactly how we would want all our athletic heroes to act.  Imagine if, say, LeBron James or Peyton Manning bought out an entire Walgreen's and donated all of its supplies to the victims of the next natural disaster to strike the United States.

All of this is to say: things like this are why I have always rejected the "bread and circuses" argument that sports are meaningless...that they are only a game meant to distract us from things that really matter.

National unity in the face of a civil war matters.

Laying down your weapons because you are literally begged on bended knee to matters.

Using your own personal fortune from playing a game to help others in an emergency matters.

All of those things matter because they make someone's life out there better.  Safer.  More secure.  More plentiful.

All of those things matter because they are things that we as Christians should be doing as well: encouraging unity, the cessation of violence and hostilities, and material aid to one another.

This is kingdom sized work that a mere game is capable of...a mere game that is, of course, able to hold the world entire rapt for a month at a time every four years.

There is a reason why we refer to soccer as the beautiful game: because at its aesthetic best, it produces sport that is more akin to art and performance than to simply grit and stamina.

But I think we can also call it the beautiful game because of the other things it can do.  Because of the other things its practitioners have done.

Because of the things we can do.

I'll be following this World Cup, like all World Cups since the USA World Cup in 1994, as closely as I can, waiting to see that beautiful game emerge.  Not just on the field...but hopefully off the field as well.

And when it does again emerge off the field, I will cheer it on, just as I would in the stadium, with a beer and a hot dog in hand, ready for the next moment when a small collection of talented individuals amazes me.

What a beautiful game.

Yours in Christ,


Monday, June 2, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

(So, here's how this month's newsletter column begins...yep, the time has come, the walrus said!  Perhaps to talk of many things, but those things include getting married...I will be flying out to Charlotte, North Carolina midweek, and my fiancee Carrie and I will be married at Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church in Swannanoa on the morning of Saturday the 7th.

After the wedding, I will be taking a week of vacation, and that will include a sabbath from blogging, so this will be my last post here for two weeks; I plan on being back and writing for y'all by Tuesday the 17th.

As always, it is a privilege to be able to spend my days ministering and writing, and I look forward to continuing to do precisely that for many years to come as a married man! E.A.)

June 2014: "Just Married!"

Dear Church,

June will be one of the few months that will eclipse the August when you called me as your pastor in terms of personal significance for me: as many of you know, on Saturday, June 7, Carrie and I will be married before God and the church in her hometown in North Carolina!

We are both excited to be living here in Washington together, and I am elated to have Carrie here with me on one of the most important parts of my week: Sunday mornings with all of you.

I also want to express my gratitude and appreciation for all of the prayers, kind words, and well wishes from all of you as we have gone about the long process of moving and relocating—those words have meant a lot to me over the months as Carrie and I strove to organize a move, a wedding, and a job search together all while living on opposite coasts.

We are thrilled to be able to begin living life, and being here in church with you, as a married couple!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, June 1, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Talitha Koum"

Mark 5:40 to 43

They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was 12 years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat. (Common English Bible)

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

I have a confession for y’all (because confession is good for the soul, right?): I do my best to read our daily local newspaper, The Daily News (props on the super creative name, whoever came up with it 90 years ago).  I’m not always successful in keeping up with it, as you might know by sometimes telling me about story in it that I had not seen.  But the one section in the paper that I never miss, day in and day out, are the letters to the editor.

Now, it is a practice I began when I got here because I believed (and I still do) that letters to the editor can be a way for a pastor help keep their finger on the pulse of the wider community they minister in.  But here’s the real confession part: now, I kind of just read them because some of them are so, well, bizarre, like you just know that whoever wrote that letter is wearing a tinfoil hat and is eagerly anticipating the return of the mothership.  It’s fantastically amusing reading, in an odd way.

But one letter caught my eye several days ago, and not at all for the tinfoil hat reason.  Victoria Campbell is a senior at Mark Morris High School and a longtime pianist.  For her senior recital, she elected to invite the entire community and to solicit donations at the door for Community House, which all of you probably know as our biggest homeless shelter in town and an organization that this congregation aids as part of their mission.

I have to tell you, I was amazed.  Coming to read the letters with the more cynical attitude I had towards them, I did a double take when reading her’s, because, well, it’s so extraordinary.  And maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is.  In a section of the paper where grown adults quarrel with each other over this, that, and the other, here is a young woman saying to this community, and to an organization in need that serves those in need, what Jesus Himself said to a young woman two thousand years ago when raising her soul from the dead: “Talitha koum.”  I say to you, arise!

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 have worked to increase our knowledge, appreciation, and love of this story as we went through it verse-by-verse through the month of May (and today).  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 returned last week to the original plot point of Jairus and his deceased daughter, and now we have arrived at the climax of the story: the actual miracle itself, and the gift of new life.

I have been referencing the Lazarus narrative as a vantage point for our familiarity with resurrection stories in the Gospels, especially if you were here for my sermon series on John 11 from two years ago (and if not, don’t worry…I had been here for less than a year, it certainly isn’t like I knew what I was doing!).  And in one of my sermons in that series, I briefly referenced this story, the Jairus story, as an aside.  This is, verbatim, what I said two years ago:

She (Martha) objects to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone at Lazarus’s tomb, saying, “Lord, there will be a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Which only serves to drive the point home—this is not, John is saying to us, the raising of Jairus’s daughter, of a person thought dead but who was actually sleeping, this is a person who is, without a doubt, deader than Lindsay Lohan’s Hollywood career.

I probably shouldn’t have included that sentence if I knew that two years later, I’d be preaching for four weeks on the story of Jairus’s daughter.  Or at least not put it that way.

I should have left it at the traditional rendering of that verse, which makes it one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture: “Lord, he stinketh.”  That John meant to convey to us with the “He stinketh” commentary was that Lazarus was without any if’s, and’s, or but’s, dead.  What I simply should have said was that this daughter has not been dead for as long, and in the absence of medical science to confirm death the way we do today, it may have allowed Jesus’ detractors to dismiss this resurrection as simply being a shaking back to consciousness of someone still very much among the living.

But we should still take the words of Jairus’s kinsfolk at face value that his daughter is dead, because it serves a crucial purpose to this entire affair: who in this story we are meant to relate to.  It may not be our instinct to relate to that state of being dead, but we’re meant to. The person who represents us, the audience, in this last part of the story is the daughter herself. Jesus, is calling to the deadness in our own souls—the absence of life in our own journeys that has been caused by hurt and pain and sin and strife. Amid the death that those things create, Jesus invites us to experience life by simply saying, “Talitha Koum.” 

“I say to you, arise!”

Eugene Lowry, an emeritus professor at Saint Paul School of Theology in my hometown of Kansas City, he calls it the “homiletical plot.” We would think of it in terms of the proverbial curveball—we see an obstacle coming, it looks like a fastball, but then it dips down, and it is up to us to adjust, and then we either swing and miss, or hit a home run. Professor Lowry calls these stages “upsetting the equilibrium,” which would be when Jairus’s daughter dies, the status quo has been altered. Then comes “analyzing the discrepancy,” which is a way of saying, “What are we going to do?” That took place during week two of the story, when Jesus and the disciples debate returning to Judea. Then there is learning “the clue to resolution,” discovering what it is that will solve the problem—which is us learning from Jesus that in His hands (as opposed to the world’s hands), this girl is not dead, but merely sleeping.  And now is best and greatest step—experiencing the Gospel—experiencing the Resurrection and the Life of Jesus Christ in this girl, and, by extension, in each of us as well.

Because when the equilibrium of our own lives is upset—when the delicate balance of health and work and finances and security that we are always carefully adjusting is thrown asunder, we are left asking, just like the disciples, “What are we going to do?” The answer from God is the same—experience the Gospel. Experience the Good News. Jairus and in particular his daughter experiences the Gospel and is shown the way out of death and into life—to simply arise and awaken!

It’s an exhortation that I imagine can be heard in any language.  You have to think every tongue has an expression that means “Wake up!”  It is one of the very few expressions of Jesus that was preserved by the Gospel writers in His native Aramaic language (as opposed to the Greek that the New Testament was written in), and that too I cannot imagine is an accident.  Its preservation in the original Aramaic speaks to the universality of this circumstance, of one person calling upon another person to arise and awaken.

It is not merely the language which is universal, either, but the circumstance: we all sleep, and we all must awaken.  But when we fall sleep to the ills of the world, to the sins and hurts that we inflict upon each other, to the evils and harms we stand by and allow to happen, we are oftentimes particularly difficult to rouse, to the point that we may not be able to rouse each other as easily as we could for another person taking a nap.

At that point, we need, desperately so, the voice of God ringing in our ears, “I say to you, arise!”  From whatever doldrums, from whichever slumber, from any sort of dormant state you find yourself in when confronted with the decision, “Do I use today to help build the Kingdom of God or not,” Jesus offers us a simple, elegant, firm, yet gentle rejoinder: I say to you, my beloved: arise.

Because the things that upset our own equilibrium that I talked about earlier, those are the things that can make us numb, that can make us want to sleep, that can deaden us to all the other things that upset another person’s life, things that we might be in a position to help with and actually be that voice and vessel and agent of new life for that person!

And ironically, perhaps, in spite of Jesus’ earnest instructions that nobody speak of this miracle, ever, clearly someone did because here we are, reading it and hearing about it today.  A miracle that is all about the giving of new life was given itself immortality in being enshrined in the Scriptures.

And so, in a way, resurrection begets even more resurrection.  Maybe, God willing, a young woman’s desire to strengthen her community’s homeless outreach will beget another resurrection in someone else’s life.  Maybe, just maybe, it will set off a chain reaction, with the word of “Awaken” being passed from one weary and wayward soul to another.

Just maybe, we can be the vessel for that voice of Christ calling out in our ears, “Talitha koum!”

I say unto you, arise, my child.  Arise, and live anew.

By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 1, 2014