Thursday, July 31, 2014

Learn Sermon Writing From the Pros

(...or, at least, from this pro. Cue mental sequence of that parking garage scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off:

"Relax...You guys have nothing to worry about, I'm a professional."

"A professional what?")

Also, this isn't so much a "tips and tricks" post so much as a "step by step process" post...a step by step process that has been finely honed and tested with the writing of three years' worth of sermons (and two years' worth of sermons before that as a part time student associate pastor).  I can confidently say that I have narrowed down my sermon writing process to 14 easy to follow steps, and that I am ready to share them with you:

Step 1: Pray. Every good sermon is rooted in two things: Scripture and prayer.  This I firmly believe.

Step 2: Study the passage you're preaching on that week.  This step obviously doesn't apply if your style is to pick a sermon topic and then shoehorn a miasma of different Bible verses out of context in to fit it.  Wait, that sounded judgey of me.  Hey, it's your world, I just live here.

Step 3: Bring into the mix the opinions of people smarter than you, like commentators, Bible professors, and totally wicked awesome bloggers. *ahem*

Step 4: Scour Internet news websites, various human interest story outlets, and your decrepit collection of Chicken Soup for the Soul books for a totally wicked awesome story to launch your sermon from (personally, I love using real life stories as springboards for my messages, rather than as illustrations of my message...after all, if worship of God isn't about real life, then why do we bother?).

Step 5: While doing step 4, get derailed by the breaking news that some ignoramus of a pastor said something colossally offensive and stupid.  Obsess about it and about any implications it has for your fellow Christians, and then write about it on your blog (you DO have a blog, right?).

Step 6: Realize that after you finished writing about it on your blog that you still have a sermon to write as well.  Properly shame yourself for allowing your devotion to homiletical greatness to be derailed by your devotion to your silly little blog.

Step 7: Once you have achieved said realization, sit yourself down (chain yourself, if necessary) and begin writing great words of holy wisdom on the blank canvas that is your copy of Microsoft Word.

Step 7a: A reminder that step 7 can be even more pressurized by scheduling yourself to officiate a wedding or a funeral that week, so that way you have TWO different messages to consider!

Step 8: Remind yourself that you are proclaiming not just anything, but the Word, the Logos, of the one and eternal God as revealed by His Son, Jesus Christ, and that therefore all the material you created in steps 1 through 7 is totally subpar and therefore useless.

Step 9: Begin shaking your head, kneading your temples, and crying softly to yourself.  If Step 9 is taking place after normal working hours, it is appropriate to fix yourself a drink or three at this time.

Step 10: Question your entire sense of vocation, calling, and very existence.  Pretty straightforward step, amirite?

Step 11: Pick your lush self up, spiritually dust yourself off, put on your homiletical hiking boots, and climb a mountain called "THIS WEEK'S SERMON."

Step 12: Pause mid hike to write this blog post that you are currently reading instead.

Step 13: Realize that you really need more prayer.  Repeat step 1 as necessary.

Step 14: If you're a senior or solo pastor: rinse, lather, and repeat for next week.  If you're an associate pastor, congratulations!  You're off the hook until the next time your senior pastor decides to let you out of your cage for the paying audience.

And in case it needed to be said...hopefully it doesn't, but you never know: everything I wrote after about step 4 or so was written thoroughly in jest.  Said steps also are totally NOT a reflection of the week of writing (or attempts at writing) I have had.  No sir, not at all.

Wait, I think my nose just grew...damn...hey, maybe that can go into the sermon...

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

According to Mark Driscoll, I am "half a man"

Subtitled: ...and I am damn proud of it.

So, I wrote last week about the sensitivity surrounding a pastor's salary.  In it, I disclosed that my gross (before taxes) annual salary is $42,000/year, a slight notch below the current median for clergy at $43,800/year.

What on earth does this have to do with controversial Mars Hill pastor/fellow Washingtonian/Christian shock jock/virulent sexist and homophobe Mark Driscoll?  (Yes, the same guy who called yoga demonic, asked for stories about effeminate male worship leaders, and blamed Pastor Ted Haggard's wife for her husband's infidelity.) Well...I married an unbelievably smart, capable woman who, as it so happens, is a medical doctor, and thus stands to make a multiple of my humble pastor's income when she becomes an attending physician.

Not only would she be contributing to the saving of lives and betterment of physical health and the prolonging of peoples' lifespans, because that in and of itself would be more than enough to call her vocation a noble work, but Carrie's profession would also contribute tremendously to our financial security as a family and all that it entails: paying off our debt, buying a house, saving for retirement, and so on.

But, according to Driscoll (and those who agree with him, of whom there are many), Carrie and I should throw all of that away because my masculinity cannot abide being threatened by a woman whose earning potential exceeds mine.

A series of internet posts from the year 2000 by Driscoll (under the screen name of William Wallace II, a screen name he confirms in one of his books) have recently surfaced, including one that is a list of definitions of his favorite terms, including the term "half a man," which he puts thusly:

half a man - any man who takes a wife and does not serve as the financial and spiritual head of his home but believes the relationship is 50/50 and she should make half the money and do half of his job at home pitch a tent club - men who allow their wives to nag them so incessantly that they want to sleep on the roof of their own home

Now, aside from the obvious syntax errors (hey, this is the Internet after all...what, you expect me to capitalize every proper noun in my Facebook messages?  Because I don't), I want to nip this in the bud: yes, these words are from 14 years ago, and 14 years ago, I was, well, 14 years old.  And God knows I said some stupid, offensive, idiotic things then.

But Driscoll wasn't 14 years old.  He was in his early thirties...older than I am right now.  So, yes, these are from a while ago, but this isn't some moronic pubescent boy saying these things, this is a grown man and Christian pastor saying stuff like this:

I speak harshly because I speak to men. A woman might not understand that. I also do not answer to women. So your questions will be ignored. I would however, recommend to you a few versed to memorize: I Timothy 2:11-15 I Corinthians 14:33-35.To learn them, ask your father or husband. If you have neither, ask your pastor. If she is a female, find another church. If you are the pastor, quit your job and repent.

And this:

Can I be a gay Christian?...every man knows you can't build anything with bolts and bolts. Damn freaks. And the pastel cashmere wearing sensible haircut clean shaven loafer wearing minivan driving suburban sympathizers contend "But they really really love each other." I love dogs, but I don't stick my tongue in their mouth and lobby congress for a tax deductible union. "But we need to be nice." What the hell for? A man is free to knock boots with any sad hairy lump of clay desperate enough to climb in the sheets and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that total depravity is an understatement, but what the hell you want from me? Should we form some form of homo Promise Keepers so we can all climb into a stadium and hug each other and cry like damn junior high girls watching Dawson's Creek. I'd tell you to kiss my ass, but I'm afraid you'd take me up on it.

(All Driscoll quotes/rants/bizarre, hurtful ramblings are courtesy of the Christian bloggers Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner.)

(Also, sorry for the double parenthetical pause in my post here.  Carrie called me away to ask me to help her with folding the laundry.  Because I want to pull my considerable weight in this marriage, I agreed.)

Anyways, why on earth does it matter what some jackass of a pastor said on the Internets 14 years ago?  Surely we have proverbially bigger fish to fry right now, what with Israelis and Palestinians killing each other in Gaza and pro Russian terrorists shooting down civilian commercial jetliners?

Why, indeed?  Well...I quote my wife/not a help meet/equally yoked partner (yes, the very same person who has led me down that slippery slope towards Satan as a theologian) on this one, verbatim: "I think what allows people to get away with that kind of BS is the absence of other voices."

So, I want to add my voice (and, as I have noticed, a great many other folks do as well, to their immense credit) to that void: my egalitarian marriage does not make me half a man.  I am secure enough in my masculinity that I don't need some other blowhard telling me how to live out that masculinity.

That doesn't make me "pussified."  That makes me a man.

And my being a man goes hand in hand with looking out for the best interests of my household: and those best interests align, spiritually and materially, with my wife pursuing her own career and advancement.  Considering that the Bible features female judges, prophets, deaconesses, and followers of Jesus, I cannot imagine that to be a bad thing for anyone who chooses that path.  Anyone.

I'll put that sentiment another way: one of the best men I know is my Grandpa George.  He's approaching 90, but still has his faculties intact, and he has used those faculties to, among other things: be a lifelong hunter, fisherman, and woodsman; a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific theater; and the father of three pretty amazing offspring, one of whom is my dad.  But he also delights in the traditionally female role of cooking because he went to culinary school and is a damn good chef.  His wife, my step grandmother Mary Lou, owns her own business, an arts and crafts gallery in the next town over from them.  And he actually volunteers his time a couple of days a week to work for her.  He is an amazing listener, a judicious dispenser of advice, and a gentle patriarch.

By Driscoll's standards, the latter material would disqualify my Grampy from manly manliness.  But in mine eyes, he is the gold standard of what it means to be a man.  Because of ALL of it.

All of this, I have to confess to you, is coming out in a jumbled blur by this point, and part of that reason is that this stuff is intensely personal to me (if you hadn't already noticed, with how openly I am talking about my marriage and my family).

The funny thing is, from one angle it shouldn't be personal for me.  At all.  Mark Driscoll and I have never met, he never did anything directly to me, and here I am, railing against him as though he pissed in my cornflakes this morning.

The other angle, though, is that maybe it shouldn't be personal for me, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it is personal for somebody else who might be reading this blog.  And I want to be able to speak to them and their experience.  Part of privilege is shutting the hell up about something that doesn't necessarily impact you directly, but I don't get to wrap myself in a (masculine) privilege blankie this time.  Even if Driscoll's inane, clearly insecure rants don't impact me directly, there are many other souls who probably are more impacted than I am, and impacted in ways that are hurtful, destructive, or just plain painful.

And if that is the case for you, then it is to you that this post is dedicated.

Because ultimately, that which makes someone a man comes not from societal expectations, or from peer pressure, or even from popular opinion.  It comes solely and exclusively from the identity that God Almighty has implanted in you as you were knitted together and fearfully and wonderfully made by divine hands.

And if that divinely planted identity calls you a man, then congratulations, you are a man.  Nothing a fellow man says or harangues or bloviates can change that immutable, incredible, inescapable reality.

Love in God from "half a man" who cares about you and believes in you...

Yours in Christ,

Monday, July 28, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

August 2014: “Ask What You Can Do for the Church” 

Dear Church,

Though we most often associate the month of November with the presidency of John F. Kennedy (because that is when his presidency, and his life, ended in his assassination), it was actually during this month, August, when his name was made. On August 2, 1943, Kennedy’s PT 109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and Kennedy became a war hero.

When asked much later how he became such a hero, he answered: “It was involuntary. They sunk my boat.” JFK had a talent for memorable lines like that, and one of my favorites remains his famous line from his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

I love it because not only does it appeal to the virtue of serving in the national interests, but because it is so easily applicable in a church setting as well. Ask not what your church can do for you, but ask what you can do for your church. Now that’s something worth striving for!

Unfortunately, a lot of churches don’t in the model of church membership we have today, which ministry expert Thom Rainier encapsulates quite well: “We have turned church membership into country club membership. You pay your dues and you are entitled to certain benefits.”

Thom goes on to say that the country club model of church membership is not Scriptural…indeed, the New Testament church, as we have seen in our current sermon series on Acts, functioned almost as a commune where everyone donated everything they had, 100 percent.

But what a lot of ministry experts also note is that churches that are more prone to decline tend to be churches with that “country club membership” mentality that Thom notes, because that can overtake the outward focused mentality that all churches need to have in order to spread the Gospel. After all, Jesus Christ came to this earth not to be served as its king, but to serve as its king.

Let us spend our time here not expecting to be served as church members, but to serve as church members. And so I invite you to ask yourself, what you can do for the church, for the entire body of Christ that is striving to build His kingdom?

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, July 27, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Prayer"

Acts 4:23 to 31

23 After their release, Peter and John returned to the brothers and sisters and reported everything the chief priests and elders had said. 24 They listened, then lifted their voices in unison to God, “Master, you are the one who created the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. 25 You are the one who spoke by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth took their stand and the rulers gathered together as one against the Lord and against his Christ. 27 Indeed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with Gentiles and Israelites, did gather in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and plan had already determined would happen. 29 Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence. 30 Stretch out your hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus, your holy servant.” 31 After they prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God’s word with confidence. (Common English Bible)

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

The manifesto topped out at over fifteen hundred pages, and spilling out of every one of those pages was the deranged voice of a virulent racist who considered himself a white knight, charged with the quest of ridding Europe of Muslims, blacks, ‘cultural’ Marxists, and leftists.  Yet ironically, the manifesto would go on to quote Indian peace activist Mahatma Gandhi and socialist writer George Orwell.  Out of these blazing, blaring, blatantly offensive series of contradictions you could sense no reason, no logic, only a virulent primal scream from the throat of Anders Behring Breivik that led him to, three years ago nearly to the day, slaughter 77 of his countrypeople in Norway, the majority of them children at a summer camp on Utoya island.

In a country with literally less than 2 percent of the population of the United States, 1 in every 4 Norwegians polled said they knew somebody who had been affected by Breivik’s massacre.  And when it came time to try Breivik in court, the Norwegian prosecutors came up with a way to lend voice to those affected and even those who were murdered, by reading into the record, alongside each autopsy report, a biographical tribute of the victim written by their friends and family.

Every single victim was accorded this respect.  All 77 of them.  And in doing so, another manifesto was written, one that continues to be added to by the attack’s survivors, one of whom took to the Internet site Reddit this week to answer questions about his experience of the attack.  One thing he shared was this:

After what happened I’ve felt a stronger sense of responsibility towards helping others.  I care much more about other people in need than what I did before, and I learned that anything is possible as long as you’re determined to make it happen.  Perhaps a bit cliché, but after I surpassed the emotional damage, I felt like a much more capable person…whenever I see someone in need, I always rush to help as soon as I can.

And to me, honestly, that is just about everything that a prayer to God could include…strength bestowed upon you far beyond whatever you thought possible in your frailty and mortality, and the desire to use that newfound strength for everybody but yourself.  It’s that manifesto of selflessness that was built up by others in response to the evil of Breivik, and it is the sort of prayer that the apostles reach for in similarly dramatic fashion upon the release of Peter and John from captivity.

This is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while!  We began it several weeks ago 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 with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Since then, we have also seen Peter’s first healing miracle followed by Peter’s second sermon, and today, we see the first explicit pushback to those deeds by the religious authorities in Jerusalem: Peter and John are arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated, leading up to Peter’s inspired reply as well as the religious leaders’ response to Peter’s reply.  Today, we begin to move forward from that pivotal episode with this prayer that is prayed by the apostles after Peter and John are released.

And the first thing to remember about this prayer is that this prayer is, too, a response to what has happened with the imprisonment and interrogation of the church’s earliest leaders: the text says, “When they heard it,” and “it” is in reference to what the religious leaders had said to Peter and John and what they tried to get the Apostles to do: to stop ministering in the name of Jesus.  They have heard the words, the testament, of those who were ultimately working against God’s will, and saw the need to create new words, a new testament, a new manifesto.  And what better way to begin that process than through a prayer?  Those who hate them have said their piece, and now the time has come to rewrite the experience with something new to say.

What is said, though, is really quite remarkable, especially in verse 29: “Now Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak with complete confidence.  Stretch out your hand to bring healing.”  Those words perhaps best encapsulate one of the biggest differences between The Way (that is to say, the earliest “church”) and the Judaism taught (or mistaught) by the temple leaders.

Last fall, our Monday evening Bible study class went through a sampling of the Psalms, and one of the recurring themes that emerged from several, especially those attributed to King David, was one of, “I am surrounded by my enemies, please, Lord, smite them for me.”  And that’s a perfectly human response…and it’s one that overlaps into Christianity as well with Paul’s refrain from Romans 12: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.”  Leaving room for God to smite those who are the most evil is something that carries over from Testament to Testament quite easily.

But in this prayer, the followers of The Way do not even pray for that.  They are not about to avenge themselves, per Paul’s instructions, but nor are they petitioning God to avenge Peter and John’s arrest and humiliation either.  Instead, they pray for confidence and for, I love this, healing.

When your enemies persecute you and harass you and arrest you on trumped up charges, you don’t get mad.  You don’t get even, either.  You get to praying for healing.  That’s THE Way.

And that’s no small thing, praying for healing and for more signs to be performed, because it goes hand in hand with the prayer for confidence.  When we find ourselves in danger, we tend to find confidence elsewhere, in having locks on our doors and guns in our cases, but the apostles are finding confidence entirely and exclusively in God.

That is, in a nutshell, what prayer can and should do.  It is also honestly, probably what prayer has not been able to do enough of for me or you or us.  It is one thing to pray, and it is entirely another to be moved and changed by that act of praying.  But as the 19th century Danish theologian, philosopher, and all around crank (and thus, for obvious reasons, my hero) Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather, to change the nature of the one who prays.”

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but to change the nature of the one who prays.

(You may have heard a similar refrain from the 20th century pastor and writer Oswald Chambers, who wrote, “To say that prayer changes things is not as close to the truth as saying, prayer changes ME and then I change things.”  I’m convinced that he cribbed that from Kierkegaard. J )

But whichever wording you use, the sentiment, the hypothesis behind it, remain the same: God is not somehow moved by our prayers, but rather, God uses our own prayers upon us and commissions us as newly changed vessels and agents for His ministry, His will, and His kingdom.

And a lot of that has to do with rewriting the script that the world has imposed upon you.  It is what the survivors of not only the Utoya attacks in Norway have done, but those who have survived terror, persecution, and degradation at every turn have done: African American Gospel music came out of such horror during enslavement, and so has the Taize worship tradition out of Nazi occupied France during the Second World War.

How we can rewrite history in accordance with our prayers, our spirituality, and our faith in God remains to be seen…how can we rewrite the ill and terrible and evil things that happen to us and that are happening in our world through our prayers?

How can we rewrite the violence in Gaza through our prayers?

How can we rewrite the reign of terror in eastern Ukraine through our prayers?

How can we rewrite the destruction of drugs and addiction and domestic abuse here in Longview?

How can we rewrite our own hearts, sinful and broken though they may be, with the love of God and the love for God that we know dwells within there?

And perhaps above all else, how can we rewrite all these things, that much evil, that much hurt, that much sin, while still wrestling with the reality that we, too, are prone to lacking confidence in ourselves, and, like the apostles in Acts 4, in need to add that to an already length list of prayers?

Well…for that, we turn to Jesus, who He is and what He taught us: that the greatest commandment is, after all, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

May the totality of our love for God be enough, just enough, to begin to budge us and shake us towards a better world, a better creation, a better kingdom for our Lord.

May the scope and scale and force of our love for God be enough, just enough, for the evil to end, and for the healing to begin.

And may that be enough for us to feel confident enough in our faith to stand before God in our next prayer and say, “Here I am.  What is it you are calling me to do next?”  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 27, 2014

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Sensitivity of Your Pastor's Wages

Believe me, I've heard them all about my workload as a solo pastor:

"So...what is it that you do all week?"

"It must be nice having a one day workweek."

"How could you not have any time this week for (fill in the blank)?!"

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pastor too because I didn't want to work a lot!"

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now, my workweek is usually a 40 hour one to start as a baseline, and ironically, Sunday is sometimes the day I work the fewest number of hours (though, as any preaching pastor will attest to, Sundays are the most demanding day in terms of energy).  But I work Mondays through Thursdays in addition to Sunday, and usually, that includes at least one evening per week for teaching Bible study and sometimes a second evening a week for other church events (music jams, wedding rehearsals, and the like), so 40 hours tends to be the minimum.  Most pastors, in fact, probably work more hours than I do: 90 percent of us work a fifty hour workweek or more.

Increasingly, though, not all of those hours are actually coming in the service of parish ministry.  More and more of us are serving churches that cannot afford a full time pastor's wages, and thus must work another job in addition to pastoring in order to adequately provide for their household.  The Atlantic characterized this arrangement in a no nonsense way: "churches and seminaries have a euphemistic term for it: bi-vocational ministry."

That Atlantic article got shared around on my Facebook feed yesterday by several of my friends and colleagues, and for good reason, too: this is their livelihood (and mine) we are talking about here.

And that's no small thing when you consider that many (though certainly not all) of us had to earn master's degrees in order to serve in the ministries we currently are at...and some larger parishes will even require that their senior pastor have a doctorate!

There's a double edged sword to all of this as well, because while a pastor may well be correct in believing that s/he is underpaid, that belief can quickly transform into a martyr complex of, "Well, they just don't appreciate me or all the things I do for them."

However...I do think that this can be avoided (or potentially prevented altogether, really) by, well, paying your pastor fairly.  The Atlantic article I link to above notes that the median pastor's annual wages are $43,800, and that is only slightly higher than my own gross annual wages of $42,000.  Considering that I have less experience than most pastors, that's reasonable.

The rub, though, comes in through another factor that the Atlantic cites and offers a link to: giving to churches as a percentage of income by congregants is down from 3.1 percent in 1968 to 2.3 percent today (though the traditional standard for giving to church is a tithe, 10 percent, but that's another post for another time).  Combined with the well documented decrease in church attendance across the board, it's not a matter of rocket science to understand that with church incomes stagnating, clergy wages (and the ability of churches to afford clergy to begin with) are likewise stagnating or decreasing.

Thanks to the Great Recession, wages across the board have stagnated, and most of the jobs created during the recovery from it are part time.  In that respect, we clergy are in some ways living with the exact same consequences as our fellow Christians from the Great Recession.

But unlike other jobs, ours is emphatically not a punch the clock sort of gig.  We work evenings (see above).  We work weekends (again, see above).  And we're on call for pastoral emergencies 24/7, even on our days off.  As one of my colleagues (who shall remain anonymous) said to me when their church moved them to part time status, "There's no such thing as part time ministry, only part time wages."

We are, then, caught in a conundrum of working a job that requires uncommon and sometimes extensive hours, but at lower wages than the already modest pay being offered to clergy.  And that is, I think, probably one of the newest and biggest reasons why wages are such a sensitive topic between churches and their pastors today.

I promise this: we, my fellow pastors and I, are not in this line of work to get rich (the cartoon at the top I just added because I thought it looked goofy).  We understood that we were likely leaving some earning potential on the table in order to say yes to God's call to each of us.  We knew what we were signing up for.

But that doesn't mean that clergy compensation needs to be a topic that is danced around or only tackled in furtive whispers amid the rumor mill.  It is part and parcel of being the church and of building up the kingdom.

And if we are simultaneously honest and sensitive with ourselves and with each other about that reality, there need not be resentment on either side of the open table that we sit at by right of being the church.

Yours in Christ,

(photo credit:

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Being Silly Putty in Evil Hands: The Ungodly Tragedy of MH17

I have written extensively here on the blog in the past on my Armenian American identity (especially as it relates to the Armenian Genocide of World War I), but one of the things I haven't really written about much, both because it hasn't overlapped with my blogging interests and because of my general lack of expertise in the area, was (is) Armenia's sovereignty, and the sovereignty (and lack thereof) of other former Eastern Bloc nations, during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sounds kind of dry, I know, right?

But there's a lot of palace intrigue to it.  Armenia was a part of the Ottoman Empire (the precursor to Turkey) until the empire's defeat in the First World War and subsequent dissolution, at which point Armenia became a nominally independent nation.  Only two years later, though, in 1920, Turkish forces invaded Armenia, forced it to surrender territory it had received through its independence, and taking advantage of that power shift, Soviet Russia annexed Armenia as a Soviet Socialist Republic two years after that, in 1922.  The first independent Armenia of the modern era lived for only four years.

Now, if you were to think that this story shared some noticeable overlaps with the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine by Vladimir Putin's Russia, you'd be right.  Crimea has a majority Russian (as opposed to Ukrainian) population, and Russia, taking advantage of a power gap in the Ukraine, earlier this year supported a referendum in Crimea to annex it to Russia, with nearly 97 percent reportedly voting "yes," although when roughly a quarter of Crimea's population is Ukrainian and probably not bullish on the prospect of Russian governance, well, you read between the lines on that one.

Anyways, the unrest and resulting power vacuums in Ukraine has been something that Putin and the Kremlin have exploited to great effect by aiding pro Russian terrorists (and yes, I think that is an appropriate use of the term) throughout the country, much as Soviet Russia did throughout its history of satellite and proxy territories, and throughout the process of annexing its own Soviet Socialist Republics to make up the eventual USSR.

What does all this history have to do with church and ministry and, well, God?

At worship yesterday, I talked with my congregation a little bit about MH17, the Malaysian Airlines jet that was shot down over Ukraine, by all indications from a weapons system in the possession of pro Russian terrorists.  298 fatalities are the immediate life cost of this bit of evil, and in and of itself, that presents religious concerns.  No person's God should endorse the killing of innocent people, and if someone's God does, then that God is the devil.

But similarly, neither should any person, and certainly any Christian, believe that God calls for the manipulative control over populations of people as though they were playthings in a megalomaniacal quest for evil, and a lot of that has to do with Scripture: from basically the 8th century BCE onward, Israel was treated as one of those playthings to annex by empires bigger than it: the Assyrians, followed by the Babylonians, followed by the Persians, followed by the Greeks, followed by the Romans, followed by the Byzantines, followed by the Arabic and Seljuk Muslims (with only a short intermission for independent rule under the Maccabees in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE).

And this is to say nothing of how torn about early Christians were until the religion was state instituted by Constantine the Great three centuries after Jesus, or of how the Israelites were used by the Egyptians as slave labor in exile in the Exodus story.

To give a more microcosmic example, the shooting down of MH17 is scarcely different from how, in the Old Testament, King Ahab frames the vineyard owner Naboth and eventually has him stoned so that Ahab can take Naboth's land: an innocent man is killed at the whim of a power hungry ruler who wants to annex more land for himself.

All of this is to say: the Judeo Christian heritage is one borne out of literally a millennium or more of being the rope in a terrible game of tug of war between emperors, kings, and violent men of power.  At some point, you would think we would learn that abusing that power for the sake of ego or selfish, nationalistic gain is a sin.

What the shooting down of MH17 has shown is that we either haven't learned that lesson, or we have and very clearly couldn't give a tinker's damn.  We are still treating the lives of others like silly putty in our hands, where the deaths of literally hundreds of people are treated as necessary collateral damage to attaining one's political power aims.

I write this as someone whose people were once that silly putty in the hands of someone evil and more powerful than they: at some point, this has to stop.

I don't know when.

I don't know how.

But what we are doing to each other is not sustainable.

That I know.

I know because God has taught me this.

And God's teachings are what solely remains as perfect in a world that has been battered and beaten and bruised by its own inhabitants.

Let us follow, then, what is perfect.

In memory of the 298 souls killed on MH17, an in the hopes that one day, we will live in the world that Isaiah prophesies, where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears are beaten into pruning hooks, in the hope that one day we will study war no more.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, July 20, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Challenge"

Acts 4:13 to 22

13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. 14 When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. 16 They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. 17 But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20 for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 21 After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old. (New Revised Standard Version)

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

What does an impoverished person look like to you?  Or, rather, what do you expect someone who is impoverished to look like?  A beggar on the street corner with a cardboard sign saying, “Anything helps, God Bless?”  A Dickensian street urchin straight out of the pages of Oliver Twist or Bob Crachit’s home?  Or…someone like you, whether because you yourself feel poor or because, much as we might choose to not realize it, poor people really look just like us.

I see these posts get shared on Facebook all the time, where it’s something angry along the lines of, “IF YOU CAN AFFORD TATTOOS AND NICE CLOTHES AND A CELL PHONE, YOU DON’T NEED FOOD STAMPS, SHARE IF YOU AGREE!!!!!!”  And I feel like every time that status update gets shared, or when someone just says something to that effect to another person, a baby kitten bursts into tears.  Because it means we are willfully ignoring what poverty looks like today, as opposed to sixty or a hundred years ago.  According to National Geographic, sixty percent of all Americans who didn’t have enough food either were or lived with someone who worked full time.  In other words, we might associate going hungry with being unemployed, but a supermajority of hungry Americans disproves that belief by their very existence.

And I imagine we in the church are partly to blame for this.  I mean, we’re some of the same ones who send out fundraising appeals with images of the starving child with the distended belly, someone who looks exactly like who we’d expect to be malnourished.  And that isn’t to deny that little one’s reality at all, it’s to say that we pretend that their reality is the only reality for a hungry person.  We deny the reality of what hunger looks like in other people, and not just physical hunger, but spiritual hunger as well!  And us ignoring that hunger (in all its forms) is but one example in our lives (and in the fundamental mission of the church) where we end up acting just like the religious leaders in this story from Acts 4…whom, of course, we are not supposed to act just like!

This is no longer really a new sermon series for us, it is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while!  We began it several weeks ago 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 with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Since then, we have also seen Peter’s first healing miracle followed by Peter’s second sermon, and today, we see the first explicit pushback to those deeds by the religious authorities in Jerusalem: Peter and John are arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated, leading up to Peter’s inspired reply in last week’s passage, and to the religious leaders’ response to Peter’s reply, which is what we are looking at today.

Now, the religious leaders begin by harping at something that I highlighted last week: that Peter and John are, in their eyes, “uneducated and ordinary men.”  Peter and John are illiterate fishermen from the boondocks of Galilee, not from the metropolitan surroundings of Jerusalem like the religious teachers are, and it is clear that there is a certain amount of regional prejudice at work here, just like here in the States when we make assumptions about people from anywhere else…Portland, Seattle, New York…Kansas!  Anywhere.  It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it is easy because it is so tempting.

And it is telling that this argument, the “they’re uneducated and ordinary” argument, is the only argument they have to hang their hat on.  Standing beside them is the formerly crippled man whom Peter had healed in the previous chapter of Acts, proof positive of God’s presence and blessings as revealed by Jesus’ apostle.  They furtively admit as much to themselves: “a notable sign has been done through them (Peter and John), we cannot deny it.”

In short, the religious leaders are suffering from a bias that really, many of us suffer from today: a bias against reality.  They have been presented ironclad evidence to the contrary, yet still they desperately, tenaciously, and frankly dangerously cling to their original position because it suits them and their selfish interests, in the face of their stated mission to be spiritually enriching teachers.

The religious leaders have become honorary members of the Flat Earth society, if you will.  They’re the forefathers to what, honestly, the Christian Church itself would one day become: when the scientist Galileo Galilei stood before a panel of canon judges on accusations of heresy because he dared to conclude that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around, he had a simple, elegant retort of only three words: Eppur si muove.  Yet it moves.

In other words: no matter what you believe, reality is still, well, real.  You can believe the earth is flat and that the sun revolves it all you want, but that does not change the unbending reality of matters, that the earth still moves around the sun.

That’s the conundrum, the challenge, which the religious leaders find themselves in, and so they decide to level the playing field by issuing a challenge to the church in return: Okay, you can say a miracle has taken place here, but you cannot speak of it in the name of Jesus.  You can believe that the miracle happened because of sheer dumb luck, or magic, or anything whose name doesn’t begin with a J and rhymes with Croesus.  You can believe that, but it does not change the unbending reality that it was indeed the divinity, power, and love of Jesus Christ that made this man whole.

And holy cow, think of the ways we choose to deny reality today, in a wide variety of ways, and sometimes claiming to do so in the name of God.  When 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real, and we still refuse to accept it, even though God charged Adam with the responsible care of the earth in Genesis 2, well, eppur si muove.  Yet it moves.  Or, rather, yet it warms.

When the consensus of psychologists and psychiatrists everywhere is that being gay is something we are born with, like being left or right handed, rather than something we can change, and we still have Christians and churches who try to “pray the gay away” through destructive counseling sessions and even exorcisms, we are ignoring reality at the staggering price of gay and lesbian youths being three or four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.

And when statistical evidence, hard math, tells us that most people who go hungry don’t belong to that boogeyman demographic that we label as “moochers” and “freeloaders,” we still hold onto our preconceptions about who is deserving of our charity and who is not based on outward appearances.  We are literally judging a book by its cover.  And we can act like the religious leaders of the New Testament temple all we want, ignoring certain truths because it makes our world more comfortable and less challenging, but we would be wrong for doing so.  We would always be wrong for doing so.

The challenge, our challenge, for ourselves is to not deny our reality.  It is what Peter and John say in rejoinder to the religious leaders challenging them to not mention Jesus anymore: “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  They cannot keep from speaking about their reality, the reality, that the love of Jesus Christ has caused this lame man to up and walk.

And so they will continue to speak, and preach, and teach that reality, always ready to invade the bubbles that each of us prop up around ourselves to keep that annoying, unfortunate thing called the truth from intruding upon what we may want to be true, but is in fact not.

Where we may most need their counsel and experience…their reality, really…is in those places where we have made bubbles in the name of our faith, or in the name of protecting our faith, as though believing in something at odds with reality somehow helps us in getting to the ultimate reality of heaven.

And this was really one of those weeks where it would have been easier and less painful to believe in some things that weren’t true…that Israel and Palestine are anywhere close to making peace, for example, or that the immigrant children showing up on our southern borders weren’t fleeing some of the most violent, murder prone cities in the entire world.  It is tempting to do that because that makes our world simpler and easier and more comfortable to live in.  It would feel like a bubble.

But God does not, has not, and never promised us a comfortable world to live in.  And to paraphrase the great C.S. Lewis, if all you are looking for from a religion is to feel comfortable, I certainly do not recommend Christianity.

If you are not being challenged at all by your faith, then you may have a little more in common with the temple religious leaders than you might have first thought (again, it’s annoying how that whole truth thing points out stuff we’d rather not recognize!).

But that also means that Peter and John, for all the apostles, for all the church, are speaking directly into your ears today, asking you, pleading with you, beseeching you to no longer deny that which they have come to know.  That which we, by right of our following Jesus, have come to know.

We have seen what we seen.  We know what we know.  And our challenge, the challenge, is to always acknowledge that reality’s ultimate source: God Almighty as revealed by Jesus Christ.

For it is, as the apostles say here, right in God’s sight for us to do so.  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 20, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

When the Backstory Is Way Less Cool Than the Headline

(Subtitled: Clergy burnout really sucks.)

I saw this article that popped up on Reddit today: AWOL Priest Arrested At Cocaine Party.

Now, because my sense of humor vacillates anywhere between PG and R (depending on the circumstances), my inner comic had a field day with this.  There are potential cracks (pun not entirely intended) to make about the "a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar" premise, magic sacraments, vicars and tarts parties, and so, so much more.  All purely because it is so patently and ridiculously bonkers.  A celebrity or musician gets nicked with that stuff?  We're used to that by now.  But a man of the cloth gets caught in the act of flushing his supply down the john?  That's a steed of a different pigmentation right there.

But then I read the article.  And a far more depressing portrait was painted.  First and foremost, there is a person behind the punchline: Father Stefano Cavalletti.  He has, I would imagine, a father and a mother and friends and colleagues and people who care for him and love him.  And he has a congregation of parishioners who depend on him at the Church of Saint Joseph and Blaise.

None of those networks of support, though, prevented this: "Later, the priest told detectives he had been using cocaine as a self-prescribed remedy against depression since he was found guilty of fraud last year."

The article conveys a brief summary of the fraud conviction (he was given a five month suspended sentence for deceiving an elderly woman into giving him nearly $30,000), but what I want to focus on for a minute is the self prescription part of this.

Now, depression is nothing new as a plague that affects us clergy (nearly half are reported to have suffered from it or burnout so badly that it forced them to take a leave of absence).  And I have striven to write extremely openly about my own past (and present) with major clinical depression here on the blog.  But I also am prescribed a remedy of several different things by several different people: my psychiatrist has prescribed me Prozac, which treats my depression medically, but my remedy also includes regular check ins with both myself and trusted colleagues and mentors who are able to provide some degree of accountability in making sure I don't, you know, go AWOL and start using cocaine to self medicate.

Or bamboozle some poor innocent into giving me the equivalent of nearly eight months of my salary and housing stipend, for that matter.

So, pretty clearly, Father Stefano was (is) suffering from a severe case of clergy burnout even before he got nabbed for coke possession: it takes a particularly burnt out cleric to produce the absence of morals that leads one person to defraud another.

But I can also see how his actions here could represent a cry for help.

Y'all (clergy and non clergy alike, really), if you're suffering from a case of burnout, make your cry for help far before you ever get to such a stage.  Cry out when your friends and family and loved ones can still help when they hear your cry.

This is a screwed up world (a commercial jetliner was taken down, Gaza was invaded, and that's just today) that does its diabolical best at times to screw with us and take us down with it.  That doesn't have to happen to you.  Keep a finger on your own spiritual and moral pulse.  And if you sense yourself beginning to flatline, tell someone.

It's kind of why community exists in the first place.

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How My Robotic Vacuum Reminds Me of Church

Yes, you read that title correctly.

My wedding present to Carrie (following in the time honored tradition of my own parents, who buy each other things the other person really wants) was a Neato Signature robotic vacuum whom we promptly named Sven (that's him, over there, the vacuum that looks, as one of my friends pointed out on Facebook, a little like Darth Vader).

The impetus for getting Sven was pretty obvious: neither of us relishes vacuuming, and after watching a couple of video reviews of the Neato line in particular, I thought it would do a much more thorough job than at least I would (Neato vacuums use laser technology to map out the dimensions of a room and then vacuum row by row rather than moving around all over the place like Roombas).

And, as I posted on Facebook, so far, Carrie and I like Sven very much.  Indeed, Carrie thinks I am treating Sven too much like a pet...a "very industrious hamster" in her words.  Mea culpa.

But like I said, we got Sven because we wanted him to do something for us: namely, clean the floors.  And he does that very well.  But he also requires a certain amount of babysitting to avoid getting stuck on cords or getting his brushes caught up in debris.  He does what he is supposed to do extremely well, but we cannot just push a button and let him go on autopilot.

Sound a little like your church to you?

I thought it might.

Each of us who joins a church community does so, I think (whether knowingly or not), with a set of implicit expectations for that church community: to teach them about God as revealed through Jesus, to educate them on Scripture, to be there in times of illness and trouble, to offer fellowship and mission, and so on.

Now, sometimes those expectations are more explicit and cannot be met: one time, I had a husband and wife worshiping with us for the first time with their newborn, and they wanted me to baptize their infant.  After gently explaining that the doctrine of my denomination does not endorse infant baptism (except in emergencies) and that we prefer to have a 'dedication' ceremony (which I offered to do instead) for babies and allow them to make the decision about baptism for themselves when they are older, the couple promptly turned on their heels and left without a word.  I never saw either of them again.

I felt bad that their need wasn't one that I in good conscience could meet, but it was an instructive example for me for how sometimes church is viewed by folks: a place to receive sacraments, yes, but a place to receive them on demand: the idea that you could just press a button and order up a baptism, like pressing a button to start a floor cleaning.

And honestly, that isn't what I think church should be about.  Yes, we are here to offer the sacraments, but I adamantly believe we are here to offer them to individuals, not faceless, generic, persons.  The couple I mention here came to us simply because we were a church: to them, any church would do.

But church isn't like that.  Each parish has its own unique context and characteristics, and one of the things that I absolutely LOVE about the people streaming in as new members has been their thoughtfulness in concluding that this is the church for them.  They let themselves be led by God instead of going on autopilot.

And that's instructive for those of us who have spent our entire lives in church.  It is altogether too easy for us to push a button on Sunday mornings, whirr the church to life, have it do its thing, and then shut it down again for another six days.  Then, after many weeks, months, or years of doing this, we look around and wonder why there is no longer much life to speak of in our churches.'s because going on autopilot, by definition, takes away the variables and twists and turns.  It goes for the straight line, row by row approach of Sven.  And that isn't necessarily a bad thing at all in short bursts.

But as a long term behavior for churches, it is lethal.

Being led by God and by His spirit ought to be a suitable antidote for the autopilot tendency of churches: after all, an autopilot is something that is inwardly generated (albeit perhaps externally programmed into something).  Being led by God is, by definition, being led by something far beyond yourself.

Which ultimately begs the question: how can your church, or mine for that matter, always ensure it is being led by God and not heading for robot vacuum mode?

I can't tell you the complete answer to that question simply because I don't know it.  But I have come to know parts of the answer.  Prayer is perhaps the biggest, but so too is the ability to, well, shut up and listen.  Just like the roar of a vacuum cleaner drowns out so much other noise, so too do I think we are great in the church at hearing ourselves talk rather than hearing the noise that other people are making.

Or the noise that God is making, for that matter.

There are other parts of that answer, too, but those might be the two parts that I am most sure of by now.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think Sven just got himself caught behind my recliner...

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, July 13, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Cornerstone"

Acts 4:1 to 12

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees confronted them. 2 They were incensed that the apostles were teaching the people and announcing that the resurrection of the dead was happening because of Jesus. 3 They seized Peter and John and put them in prison until the next day. (It was already evening.) 4 Many who heard the word became believers, and their number grew to about five thousand. 

 5 The next day the leaders, elders, and legal experts gathered in Jerusalem, 6 along with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others from the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and asked, “By what power or in what name did you do this?” 

8 Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders, 9 are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? 10 If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! 12 Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.” (Common English Bible)

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

The nine year old boy, dressed simply in a plain t shirt and camo shorts, was so small that he required a milk crate to stand on in order to be seen over the podium in the city council chambers.  But seen he was, and in an extraordinarily powerful way, as the council voted unanimously to temporarily stay a citywide ordinance banning freestanding structures in the front yards of houses.

And why would a nine year old kid care about such an obscure city law?  Well, because he had become enamored with the Little Free Library movement, which strives to place small, mailbox type “libraries,” basically, book depositories, on street corners of residential areas across the country as a means of fostering literacy in children and community in adults.  The entire scheme is dependent on the “take a book, return a book in its place” honor code, and this boy, Spencer, decided, with his parents’ blessing, to build a Little Free Library for himself and his friends and neighbors to enjoy.

Until he and his parents received a cease and desist order from the city of Leawood, Kansas (which, by the by, is right next door to my hometown of Overland Park), saying the Little Free Library violated this obscure ordinance, and must be taken down.  Which led to the boy’s testimony upon a milk crate at a city council meeting last Monday.  Which in turn led to the council remedying what was, originally, a rather heartless rejection of a young boy’s attempts to simply better his community.  And in reading about Spencer’s initial rejection by his hometown, I reached immediately for the verse that Peter recites here, which was cited by Jesus before him, and was in turn written into the Psalms before Jesus ever arrived: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

The library that was once rejected has become a little boy’s cornerstone.  How amazing that truly is.

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 with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Since then, we have also seen Peter’s first healing miracle followed by Peter’s second sermon, and today, we see the first explicit pushback to those deeds by the religious authorities in Jerusalem: Peter and John are arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated, leading up to Peter’s inspired reply in verses 8 to 12.

Now, the basic plot of Acts 4 should be pretty familiar to us: a religious teacher is in Jerusalem, the religious teacher does and says amazing things, and the religious teacher soon gets arrested for it.

That’s exactly what happens to Jesus in the Passion.  It is what happens to Peter and John as well, albeit with different short term ending (but ultimately, a similar long term ending for Peter, as he is eventually martyred via crucifixion some 30 years after the timeline that Acts of the Apostles covers).  But how Peter responds to his arrest, imprisonment, and interrogation is profoundly different from how Jesus responded to His.

If you recall, Jesus was almost completely silent throughout the interrogations of both Caiaphas, the high priest, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, breaking that silence only to confirm His status as the Son of God.  Peter, on the other hand, is inspired by the Holy Spirit to make a rather profound declaration about this Jesus who had remained silent.  What makes this contrast even more striking is that when Jesus did in fact engage the temple authorities who persecuted Him, He often did so in riddles, parables, and Socratic dialogue in order to trap His opponents (like when He asks for a denarius coin when asked whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not in order to discredit the temple authorities who are asking Him this). 

And that contrast is an appropriate one: Jesus uses wit, cleverness, and a divine amount of foresight to discredit his questioners.  Peter, on the other hand, is not divine…he is a humble fisherman whose name means “Rock,” or even “Rockhead” (like “blockhead” in Peanuts!), and so his defense, rather than relying on wit, simply barrels right over his questioners with its directness, laying blame directly on them for abusing their authority to have Jesus crucified.  Jesus was the type to slip away from crowds completely unnoticed.  Peter, had the technology been available to him, would probably have preferred to drive a Mack truck through the gates to escape the crowds.

In other words, Peter is a very different man compared to his teacher.  Which perhaps ought not to surprise us: Plato differed from Socrates, Alexander differed from Aristotle, and so too does Peter differ from Jesus.  But being his own person does not exclude Peter from keeping Jesus as the, as he puts it, cornerstone of his faith in God.

That term, cornerstone, in verse 11 did not, as I said at the beginning, originate with Peter, or even with Jesus.  It originated with Psalm 118, which tradition says that David, the second king of Israel and progenitor of the Davidic familial line which Jesus Himself belongs to, wrote.  And even if, realistically, Psalm 118 might have been anonymously written, you can understand how tradition would ascribe the psalm to David precisely because of verse 27, which is the verse that Jesus cites in Luke 20 and the verse that Peter cites here.

David was once the cornerstone that a builder had at one point rejected.  The prophet Samuel had come to the estate of David’s father, Jesse, on God’s command that there, he would discover the next king of Israel.  One by one Jesse’s older sons came before Samuel, and each time, Samuel was convinced that this was the man God had chosen to lead Israel.  And each time, God said no.

Until he got to the youngest, littlest son.  Until he got to the proverbial runt of the litter.  Until he got to David.  And then God said a resounding, YES!  And Samuel swallowed whatever disbelief he may have harbored and anointed David the future king of Israel, and in so doing, turning that young boy into the cornerstone upon which an entire dynasty, kingdom, and unified nation would be built.

And then, a full millennium after David, comes Jesus Himself.  Born to dirt poor parents in a freaking barn after they were turned away from an inn, the baby who was rejected would grow into the man who was once more rejected, who would resurrect into the Christ who was, is, and will forever be the cornerstone of our faith and the faith of literally millions upon millions of people.  Bible professor Paul Walaskay could not put it better: “Peter identified Jesus as a stone that might have been rejected as ordinary and useless, but instead was chosen as the cornerstone of God’s work toward a redeemed universe.”

And one of those millions upon millions, Peter, would in turn be the cornerstone himself, for, in Jesus’ own words in Matthew 16 after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God: you are the rock upon which I shall build my church.

The cornerstone, in effect, on which the church was built.  A stone that once more builders are rejecting by arresting him and imprisoning him and questioning him with what was surely the utmost hostility is in the process of becoming the cornerstone of Christ’s brainchild: the Christian Church.

Despite how different he was from Jesus.  Despite how he had once denied Jesus.  Despite the fact that really, his name of Peter, of Rock, was probably kinda given as a commentary on his intelligence, or lack thereof.  Despite all of these things, the stone, the rock, has become the cornerstone.

You may feel like Peter or Jesus in this way…perhaps possessed of no one outstanding, savant like gift, feeling ordinary and useless, rejected by others and by the world because they did not hold you in any esteem.  It’s sadly far too easy to end up feeling worthless in a world where we spend way too much crucifying each other and not enough time resurrecting each other, where we spend too much energy burying one another and not enough energy lifting each other up out of the muck and the mud and the mess that our lives can, and do, become.  And when that happens, it becomes far too easy to see ourselves as worthless at just about anything!  For whenever that has happened to you by someone else, especially by someone in the church or claiming to act on behalf of Jesus Christ, I am so, so sorry.  That is not what we are meant to be about.  That is not what we are called to.

Because every once in a while, we reverse course.  We stop, realize what we have done, and we turn ourselves around.  The Leawood city council realized it, and decided to elevate a nine year old boy whose inarguably noble intention was simply to better his neighborhood.  Where in your life will you realize it?  Where have you been presented with a cornerstone upon which to help build your life and rejected it out of hand?  More the point, where have you actually offered yourself as a cornerstone for someone else, as opposed to offering yourself as a demolition ball or a stick of TNT?

Because Peter doesn’t refer to Jesus in terms of destruction…the holy dynamite our Lord and Savior is emphatically not.  The cornerstone, though, he emphatically is, and will forever be.  My cornerstone.  Your cornerstone.  Our cornerstone.

And as Peter bravely proclaims here to the temple authorities, in that divine cornerstone’s name you will find salvation.

By God’s grace, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 13, 2014

Thursday, July 10, 2014

This cartoon says it all...

I'll be talking more about this in my sermon on Sunday, but this is sometimes how I feel we do church: being interested more in ourselves, and in so doing we keep Jesus out.  When we start doing this, we are fast becoming the builders who end up rejecting the cornerstone that Peter speaks of during his interrogation in Acts 4...which, like I said, is what I'll be preaching on this Sunday.

I'm looking forward to it, but this is definitely also a challenging sermon.  I almost never talk about my sermons to anyone before they're given (part of that has to do with my latent insecurities that, after five years of regular preaching, are still very much present, but part of that also has do with the fact that sometimes, the Spirit calls me to make some changes to the message after I have already written it), but this is one that is finding itself bubbling up well before Sunday!

Fellow clergy: where do the personal challenges tend to pop up for you in your preaching?  And everyone (clergy and nonclergy alike), what sorts of preaching tends to challenge you the most and in your spiritual lives and why?

Yours in Christ,

And oh yeah, here's the cartoon (from

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Overland Park, Longview, and Theophilus: Why Am I So Obsessed With Obscurity?

(A few days ago, I (in good fun) posted on the Facebook wall of Russ, my senior pastor whom I served for two years as a part time student associate in seminary before coming here to Longview.  Russ had put a note in his weekly newsletter that I get by email soliciting any input for his sermon writing process for the following year, and in the name of sweet wounded Jesus, how could you not have fun with that?  I did, and these are among the suggestions I proffered to him:

Bear Claws: How Elisha Teaches You Not to Mock Your Bald Pastor
Coffee Is a Sacrament: What I'd Really Serve As Communion If I Could
Masochism's Colors are Black and Orange: The Holy Pain of Being a Giants Fan
An Ode to Charles Wesley: Why Any Worship Music Written After 1800 Sucks
God's Noble Steeds: The Theology of Unicorns in the Bay Area's Spiritual Life

Scott, who does keyboards and vocals for their worship band, subsequently commented, "After that *excellent* list, I think we should all pitch in and offer blog suggestions for Eric!"  One said suggestion was "Overland Park, Longview, and Theophilus: Why Am I So Obsessed With Obscurity?"  Not only was I thrilled to see someone else coming up with blog material for me for free, but I also really do think there is something here for me to write about.  Challenge accepted, Scott.  This post is for you! E.A.)

The beauty of obscurity is entirely in the ability to set your own expectations.

After nearly three years of full time ministry in a town (well, the towns of Longview and Kelso) of roughly 48,000 people, there is much about smaller town life that I have come to appreciate after three years in the San Francisco Bay Area for seminary, and one of those things is, for the most part, not triggering anyone else's latent stereotypes about your environs.  Because my politics were (are) generally left of center and I lived in Berkeley, I had people who assumed I was some sort of hippie even though, by Berkeley standards, I was probably well right of center.  I think Carrie experienced similar expectations having lived in New York City for three years during her medical residency, nevermind the fact that she is all North Carolina, born and raised, and that her Southern sentiments (regarding things like manners and actually having them) chaffed a more brusque New Yorker every now and again.

I don't get any of that ministering here in Longview...nobody from the outside rolls their eyes at a particular stereotype of us because our town is too small to be stereotyped.

In other words, I minister in a place where expectations of what we are or are not, or should be and should not be, is entirely inward generated.  And that gift means everything.

I'm a proud Kansan, born and raised (emphasis on proud: whenever Carrie reminds me that UNC reclaimed the men's basketball coach who was rightfully theirs to start with, I have a four word reply: "2008 NCAA Tournament Champions").  Overland Park might be known to some folks as the world headquarters of Sprint, or as the setting for the TV series "The United States of Tara," but mostly, I stick to saying that I was raised in the Kansas City area because that is a lot easier for people not from Kansas or Missouri to easily grasp.

And I can offer no defense of my choice of Overland Park because, well, I didn't choose it.  My parents moved there when I was two, and I lived there until I graduated from high school and subsequently lit out for the West Coast, where I have remained ever since.

But Longview?  Like I's a place (and a church) that is utterly free to generate its own identity.  On a church level, that is a godsend because it has allowed me and my parishioners to work side by side in implementing a vision of a neighborhood church that is welcoming, active, Bible driven, and mission oriented.  While many of those values and identities have filtered down to us from our denominational affiliation with the Disciples of Christ, they are also very much our own, as we have tailored them to our local community in our mission, our teachings, and our fellowship.

And so when someone, say, relocates to Longview and is looking for a church and finds us, they are often left being pleasantly surprised, because there were no stereotypes for us to buck or fight against, and people were left to freely form their own impressions of us.  Those impressions, I am proud and grateful to report, have largely been positive, leading us to a doubling in our average worship attendance of three years ago, and the creation and growth of many other ministries.

And to be honest, I simply don't think implementing this exact vision would necessarily have been as effective in another setting.  It's like real estate: location, location, location.

As for Theophilus?  Well...part of that is my innate and otherwise completely unexplainable affinity for supporting cast characters in books and movies.  Theophilus, the original recipient of Luke's Gospel and its sequel, Acts of the Apostles, is the most marginal of such support characters, being mentioned nowhere else beyond the introduction to both books of Scripture.

On a more profound level, though, Theophilus should not be so obscure to us.  His name literally means God (theo) Lover (philo), or "lover of God."  Anyone who loves God is, by definition, also Theophilus.  The name of Luke's recipient allows us to place ourselves into the Biblical text.  It gives us a proxy, a stand in, to hear the story being told.

It is why I named my blog the Theophilus Project.  Just as Luke endeavored to write, in his words, "an orderly account" of Jesus Christ to one lover of God, so too am I endeavoring (with varying degrees of success) to write, as I call it, a semi orderly account of my ministry on behalf of and in the name of Jesus Christ to anyone else who would call themselves Theophilus...a lover of God.

This blog, this project, is therefore also your project.  It is named after you.

And I do not say that to pander or vomit sunshine.  My love of God and faith in God only get me so far in my life if I am unable to share it with all of you.  To be able to do so is a privilege and a blessing, no matter how obscure I am in the world of Christian bloggers (very), or how obscure my church is in the world of well known churches (also very).

And there remains a beauty in having that obscurity.  Even if obscurity is, like fame, ultimately fleeting.

Yours in Christ,