Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

November 2014: "Giving More Than Thanks"

Dear Church,

Turkey Day is around the corner, which means mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie out the wazoo, along with the aforementioned turkey (except for the one that gets pardoned every year by the White House for, I don't know, being a turkey. Does being a delicious piece of poultry somehow violate the US Code? But I digress).

And we call this day of smorgasbord eating, football watching and holiday season preparing Thanksgiving. Because we are supposed to have things in our lives, every year, that we ought to give thanks for. And that's a good thing. It never will not be a good thing.

But it also isn't enough.

I'll repeat that: giving thanks is not enough.

What if we had a holiday named Lovegiving, or Compassiongiving? I know those perhaps sound cheesy when you say them aloud, but love and compassion are just as basic components of goodness as thanks is. What if we dedicated a day solely to each of those virtues? Might the world look any different than it does today?

You might feel like those questions are a bit above your pay grade (mine as well!), but they're fundamental questions for any Christian. How does the giving of love and compassion change the world around us? How does it help usher in the kingdom of God here on earth? And how can we best equip ourselves and others to be as giving of love as Jesus Himself was?

So this Thanksgiving, I would gently exhort you to spare a thought between bites of turkey for what else you might have left to give as well: to your family, your neighbor down the block, your friend across town, your church, and, ultimately, your God--the God of the Bible and the sender of Jesus Christ.

But then, don't forget that thought. Keep that thought rolling around in your heart and your soul so that you might be prepared to act one day upon it, so that the giving might continue beyond just this singular day of Thanksgiving.

In this manner, I pray, your feelings of thanks on this holiday might turn into something a little less fleeting than a mere moment in time, and into something a little bit bigger for the body of Christ we are continually working to strengthen together here in the First Christian Church family of faith.

I wish you and yours a blessed and safe Thanksgiving, and I look forward to being able to share in and celebrate the coming holiday season with all of you!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Photo credit:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"This Week's Sermon: "Omnia Munda Mundis"

Luke 6:43-45

 43 “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit. 44 Each tree is known by its own fruit. People don’t gather figs from thorny plants, nor do they pick grapes from prickly bushes. 45 A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken. (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Five

The itinerant Quaker preacher wore many hats in his nascent colonial New England community: he was a traveler, a merchant, a scribe and notary, and perhaps one of the most consistently dedicated abolitionists the colonies had ever had.  Far more than merely content himself with the practice of preaching against slavery (which he did, often and at great length), he also lived out his principled opposition to enslavement: he refused to write and notarize last wills and testaments that bequeathed slaves as property.  When he would pay visits to slaveholders, he would insist on paying the slaveholder’s slaves for their care of him.  He even refused to use dishes made of precious metals or wear dyed fabrics as clothing under the (correct) belief that the procurement of these materials involved terrible treatment of the slaves performing the labor, including the exposure of the slaves to dangerous and potentially deadly poisons.

You might think that a man possessed of such fervent and zealous convictions would be a firebreather in expressing them: the type of raging, thundering blowhard preacher who thumps their Bible and pounds their pulpit.  And you would not be more wrong for thinking that.  Contemporaneous records from the late 1700s continually described him as a kind, soft-spoken gentleman of a soul who was able to use that gentle manner to convince Quaker slaveholders to liberate their captives.

Eventually, this devoted preacher would go to England to continue his cause of preaching against slavery.  There, though, he contracted smallpox almost immediately and died shortly thereafter, in 1772.  The Quaker minister John Woolman was two weeks shy of his 52nd birthday when he died.

But his pure-in-heart legacy lived on, because nearly four years later, on July 4, 1776, when a group of other fellows were gathered together to sign a document proclaiming that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers, of whom Woolman was one—successfully voted to abolish slavery within their entire denomination.

Because, after all, a pure tree will never fail to yield pure fruit.

This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November.  And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing).  Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain.  So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and so we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching.  Since then, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons didn’t get any easier to swallow with subsequent instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us, not judging other people, and refraining from hypocrisy.  And this week, we arrive at what all of these different instructions are meant to make us: the pure tree, the pure heart, which bears only pure fruit.

Purity is a funny word in Christianity these days—both funny ha-ha and funny weird.  It’s both Marx brothers funny and sad clown funny.  It’s funny because you have all sorts of movements in Christian purity culture to try to keep kids away from acting on their almighty raging hormones: there’s True Love Waits, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, purity balls, and many more—ask my younger sister who is here today, she’s an amateur expert on this phenomenon.

And I’m all for teaching kids seriously about the gravity and respect that sexual relationships demand of us, and of our need to partake in them in the context of monogamy.  I haven’t spoken about it at great length from the pulpit in part because there are other pressing issues I have felt called to address from a spiritual and moral perspective here, but also because of the words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, in which he writes at one point, “(T)hough I have had to speak at some length here about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here.”

But increasingly, and despite the portent present in Lewis’s words, it seems that in Christianity, purity is being defined solely as sexual purity, as opposed to overall moral purity, the type of moral purity that I think Jesus is really talking about here.  Rather than approach our purity with the sort of holistic, encompassing mentality that Jesus demands, we have in fact made the center of morality around whether Jimmy and Jenny were caught sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

So let’s instead posit that sexual purity is but one component of a great many that make up spiritual purity and go from there.  What is Jesus really demanding of us, then?  He’s saying that we can build up good within ourselves—the treasury of good—and from it, produce good fruit.  In other words, goodness begets more goodness.

Paul, in fact, echoes this very sentiment in his letter to Titus, where he says, in the Latin vulgate translation, “Omnia munda mundis,” which roughly translates as, “to the pure, all things are pure.”  In other words, if you have already built up this pure goodness in yourself, you are able to see as, and make, other things pure and purely good as well.

And in so many words, that is what it actually means to be Christian, to be religious, to believe in the God who sent us Christ: it is to strive to build up goodness within yourself so that you in turn can make more things good as well.  That’s the Christian life summed up in one sentence.  Or, in this case, in three Bible verses.

Which means that this lesson really does go in line with all the others we have covered so far in this series: and what I believe the overall theme of this series, and of this sermon by Jesus, really is: that the “how” of being a Christian, of being a Christ follower, is really quite simple for us to express, but incredibly difficult for us to actually do.  And I’m worried that in fear of that difficulty, we have tried to oversimplify what it actually means to be a Christian.

What do I mean by that?  Well…think of the tracts, the business cards—you’ve all probably been given one (or had one thrust into your hands) or seen one, that says, “three (or four, or five) steps to guarantee your entry into heaven,” and what follows is a belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God but then a series of rather arbitrary beliefs to have, even though, really, isn't Jesus supposed to be it?

And then—and I am not making this up—we take tally of the number of “salvations” we have achieved as, say, a small group or a household or even an entire church and brag about it, nevermind the fact salvation—the existence of being in a right relationship with God—is not something that can be achieved by a simple step plan.  This isn't a piece of Ikea furniture (okay, maybe assembly of that isn't so simple either, but the metaphor still holds water, right?).

Think about it: if we can get said almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen, to grant us salvation based on a series of statements we claim and sinner’s prayers we pray, we’re basically manipulating God into giving us what we want.  Which doesn’t make that God very powerful, and to be totally honest, not really a God that I think is worth worshipping.

No, the God worth worshipping is the God who calls us to a salvation that has a higher degree of difficulty than that: the salvation that demands of us a choice, yes, a choice to choose God, but a choice that must be made every day when we get out of bed to continue to be that good person, to continue to be that good Christian, and to continue to grow in that identity.

That is what we have to want for ourselves, and it is so, so easy to stop wanting it, because there are so many other things the world tempts us with for us to want.  Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish father of existentialism and patron saint of snarky Christians everywhere, titled one of his philosophical treatises, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”  And that’s about where we’re at.  We are trying to will one thing: the growth of goodness in the world today.

But here’s the thing: it isn’t like we don’t know how.  It isn’t like we are being taught for the first time how to use a fork, or how to tie our shoes.  We’ve seen this done before, we’ve done this before ourselves, even.  We have the moral examples of people who have gone before us, people who have so devoted themselves to building up and then giving out of their goodness: the Martin Luther Kings, the Mother Teresas, the John Woolmans of the world that we don’t really have an excuse beyond, hey, we still suck at being Christian.

And perhaps that’s okay, at least to a point, but we only so long as we own it.  We have to be humble enough to know when we are not measuring up to the giants of our faith and to the consciences of our own hearts.  We have to know when the spiritual fruit we are bearing is less than pure and when the treasury of goodness within our souls is all but used up.

And then—and this is the hard part—Jesus is going to demand that we do something about it.  That’s what the previous four weeks were all about: that’s all stuff that we’re supposed to actually do, not just daydream about someday maybe doing.

So get out there and actually try turning the other cheek.  Try giving to someone who asks of you.  Try to will the one thing in your life: a treasury of goodness for God.  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 26, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Few Words on the Inherent Worthlessness of Canada

One of my best friends here in Longview, and the best man at mine and Carrie's wedding, is a born-and-raised Canadian.  His wife is also a good friend and is a naturalized Canadian citizen.  Their criminally adorable two-year-old son is a dual US-Canadian national.  For reasons that I can't begin to fathom (probably reasons like friendship, fellowship, and collegiality), I hang out with them all the time.

I went to seminary with at least one classmate from Canada, who somehow managed to take the anti-Canada barbs I'd hurl at her with good humor, sharp wit, and remarkable grace.  Surprising, considering that I seriously doubt such virtues are taught in the land of ice hockey and mukluks.  She's now a pastor of a church up there, leading weekly worships to a god that I assume is depicted as a giant idol of a caribou.

And most shamefully of all, my grandpa George was born in Toronto, which technically makes me one-quarter Canuck.

I am utterly self-loathing.  Like a closeted gay or lesbian Christian who rails against their fellow queer people, I go to great pains to demonstrate my hate for and of Canada in order to compensate for the blood that runs in my very veins.

And I try not to use that word "hate" here very often.  This is a Christian blog, after all, and hate is not a trait Christians ought to have.

But man, I hate Canada.  What a worthless excuse for a country.  What sort of independent state puts another country's monarch on their currency?  We Yanks fought a war to make sure that WE got to choose who is put on our currency, and let me tell you, we did a bang-up job, especially with putting the chap responsible for signing the Indian Removal Act (which allowed for the Trail of Tears) on the $20 bill.

And what kind of pitiful Potemkin country takes a sport like curling seriously?  I mean, I get it: fake country, meet fake sport.  It makes perfect sense.  But you maple-leafers sure aren't helping your case for legitimacy with that one.

I may criticize my country's leaders an awful lot, but I still love that I'm an American: this country was the life-saving refuge of my mom's family as they fled a genocide, and nothing gets me more star-spangled righteous than comparing our red, white, and blue awesomeness to Canada's mere red-and-white mediocrity.

Maybe that's the problem with Canada.  They're short the blue.  Maybe they can get the Brits they still somehow tolerate a viceroy from to loan them the blue from the Union Jack.  Maybe the Brits will take Rob Ford in exchange, I'm sure one of the many tabloids across the pond would LOVE to have him closer by.  I mean, seriously, Rob effin' Ford.  In what country could he be elected mayor?  Well, as it turns out, the same Mountie-obeying country that gave us Justin Bieber.  Thanks for him too, you musically-challenged chuckleheads.

And if none of this convinces you of Canada's perpetual, raging ineptitude, go onto Google right now and type in the words "Why Canada" and see what the first autofill suggestion is.  Seriously, go ahead.  I'll wait.

So yeah, Canada basically sucks.  And as such, I and every other freedom-loving, moral courage-abiding, proud-to-be-an-American should have expected nothing but suckitude from that cold, barren, North Pole-wannabe wasteland after, tragically, a Canadian soldier, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, was shot and killed in a violent rampage that took place in Parliament in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

And lo, do the stories that have emerged after this crime confirm Canada's place as a bottom-feeder among the nations.

Parliament's Sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers, who was responsible for bringing down the assailant (and thus is the one to credit for this not turning into a large-scale shooting), turned out to be a thoughtful and sensitive soul who has, in the course of a long, distinguished, and honorable career, mediated with and gone to bat for the rights of many cultural minorities in Canada from the indigenous tribes to the Sikhs.  What an almighty loser.

The assailant, whose name deserves no more notoriety than is already being given (and thus I shall not be using his name), is another fundamentalist Muslim terrorist, which has already baited some of the more virulent and vile Islamophobes to begin spewing their poison anew.  But then the chief of the Ottawa police, Charles Bordeleau, sent this reassuring letter to the leaders of the Canadian-Muslim community in Ottawa that, said, presumably with lots of long-o sounds, "I want to take this opportunity to reiterate my commitment to ensure the safety of ALL our communities." (emphasis mine)

Where the hell did that Tim Hortons-swilling yahoo learn such thoughtfulness and tolerance?  While learning to drive his first ever Zamboni?  Ugh.

And what about all of the unnervingly touching messages of sympathy, condolences, and prayer being exchanged by all four and a half people who actually live way up there in the frigid nether-regions of hell?  I mean, art like this truly incredible cartoon kicks me right in the feels, and that is something the member of Team America within me simply cannot abide by:

Clearly, this third-rate so-called "country" has nothing to offer my great nation of the United States except its existence as our collective hat.  Our collective, funny-shaped, overly apologetic, slightly dopey hat.

And who gives a frozen moose turd about any one hat?  Even a hat that has shown that it can bear a national tragedy with as much grace, dignity, and poise as its geographical wearer, if not more?  Certainly not a hat whose only relevance to the rest of the world comes two weeks every four years when the Winter Olympics gets played.

What an obviously worthless excuse for an independent state.  If the United States isn't going to bother invading and turning this piece of tundra into a giant satellite parking lot for Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota, then I hope they get invaded by some renegades from Santa's elves and are forced to immediately surrender and live out the remainder of their insipid little lives in the service of their new jingle-belled overlords.

Even just thinking about a state that is made up of such kind-hearted and compassionate citizens remaining sovereign makes me want hurl back up the Kraft dinner I just consumed.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee,

(Author's Note: The publishing of this post was delayed by a tornado formed over our church building and continued through town.  Everyone who is here at the church is fine and there is no immediately visible damage, but a number of trees were brought down, and there appears to be a fair amount of damage throughout our town.  Your prayers would be much appreciated. ~E.A.)

Photo credits: and, respectively.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "On Planks and Specks"

Luke 6:37-42

 37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” 

39 Jesus also told them a riddle. “A blind person can’t lead another blind person, right? Won’t they both fall into a ditch? 40 Disciples aren’t greater than their teacher, but whoever is fully prepared will be like their teacher. 41 Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s or sister’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Brother, Sister, let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You deceive yourselves! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.  (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Four
The mother’s words soared out of the page as I read them—convicting me in a way I hadn’t experienced in some time, and certainly not after being inundated with so many pleas for help—many of which I was simply completely unequipped to meet—that I had simply become worn down, inadequate and impatient with the aid our church has to offer.  Helping actual, real people and families became a line to check off on my to-do list, like preparing for a Bible study or writing a blog post or downloading my sermon for that week off the internet… (yuk yuk yuk)  And that is never a sustainable mentality to do ministry in.
I confess this weariness to you to underscore the impact that a mother’s words had on me.  This is, in part, what she had to say:
When our son Ryan was living on the streets of Seattle, using drugs and doing all kinds of awful things to afford them, I prayed that the people he encountered would remember that he had a story.  I prayed that the police officers, the nurses, the pedestrians he bumped into and the people he stole from might have the insight to know that he never chose to become an addict.  He never wanted to be miserable.  When he was a little boy, he never dreamed of growing up to become imprisoned by addiction.  I begged to God to bring people in his life who would trust that Ryan had a story, who would see the image of God in Ryan and who would reflect that image right back to him.
Now I pray each day that God will allow me to see His image in every person I meet, be that person the homeless guy on the corner, the man in the truck who flipped me off for forgetting to signal before my lane change, or the angry, entitled woman screaming at the checkout guy in the Costco line.  I want to remember that I don’t know their stories and to extend to them the same mercy and grace I wanted people to give to my son.
This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November.  And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing).  Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain.  So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and so we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching.  Since then, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons didn’t get any easier to swallow with last week’s instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us.  So, naturally, the degree of difficulty once more gets doubled down, as Jesus admonishes us in no uncertain terms against one of our favorite pastimes: judging other people.

And don’t lie to me and say it isn’t a favorite pastime—we all do it.  You, me, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Whateverthehellelseisoncrappydaytimetelevision.  It’s part of our programming, because if we judge someone else to be wrong, it means that we are right for having pointed out their flaw or their sin.  It means that we have, if even only a little bit, managed to assert our moral superiority over the other person.
Christians these days, let me tell you, we are all about asserting that moral superiority.  We love playing that card, we love it oh so much.  From scolding unwed couples in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways to shaming addicts for a choice that has turned into an illness, we still retain the role we had way back during the Spanish Inquisition of policing everybody else’s own morality, only this time, we don’t use physical torture devices (unless you count awkward singles’ ministry groups).
And why wouldn’t we?  Part of our faith is believing, knowing, that we’ve come across some sort of truth, and truth is inherently right.  Which means that if we have this truth, we are right also.  And we are right in thinking this, at least at first: we have come to believe that God loves us and expressed that love through the message, life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But being right in this singular area of our lives can cause us to be wrong in so, so many other areas.
Because, see, this solid rock of Christ’s love that we stand upon is only a rock and only as solid in our lives as we apply it to be.  There are things in faith’s wheelhouse, things that it is exceptionally good at dealing with.  A loved one is sick?  Your faith can comfort you in the form of prayer, the community of a church, and the love expressed in the Bible.  Upset at how someone is being treated?  Your faith can make you strong enough to speak out for them and to uplift them before those who are hurting them, because, after all, blessed are the meek.

But—and here, I am going to say something that might rub you a bit the wrong way—that faith is not inherently good.  Faith may be true, but truthiness (because Stephen Colbert made that a word) and goodness are not always 100% the same thing.  No, rather, faith is only as good as the person who has it.  It is like anything else we possess that can be used for good or for bad depending on the person who is holding onto it.
We know, we’ve seen, all sorts of people whose faith has turned them into truly terrible, despicable people, and I don’t have to name them off for you—fundamentalists-turned-hate-groups, religious terrorists of all stripes, the proponents of the caste system in India—and there is a common denominator at work here: namely, that these are all people who have let allegiance to such a narrow strip of their faith turn their lives into something utterly false.

It’s a paradox.  A painful, violent paradox that a bit of truth leads someone to living a false life.  But that is what we see happening: people who rush to apply laws and doctrines that have no place in a 21st century world simply because they have come to believe that the truth they once knew to be saving for them demands as such.  They become prejudiced because everything must be filtered through such a narrow, primitive lens.  After all, if you are judging the world by only one or two very specific, narrow criteria, it streamlines the whole process of judgment.  You don’t have to think, you don’t have to wrestle, you don’t have to struggle.  Thumbs up or thumbs down.  Good or bad, all on the basis of that prejudice.s (unless you count awkward singles'ch retain the role we had way back during the Spanish Inquisiti

I know that this is a loaded word, prejudice, so let’s break it down before we continue on: literally, the word is a compounding of the prefix ‘pre’ (meaning before or prior to something) and judice, from the Latin word juris, from which we get words like judicial, judicious, judgment…and judgmental.  We might say someone is ‘prejudiced’ in terms of being, say, racist or sexist, but literally what the word ‘prejudiced’ means is an adjective describing someone who has judged ‘pre,’ prior or before they should do so.  It describes someone who has, quite literally, rushed to judge.

And so far, I have been talking about pretty extreme examples of this: fundamentalism, terrorism, bigotry, and the like.  But lend an ear once more to the mother’s story about her son that I read to you at the very beginning.  Confronted with a shelterless drug addict on the street, how are you liable to react?  Not just externally, but internally.  Pity?  Anger?  Compassion?  Judgment?

Because realistically, that’s what this passage has to say to us.  The chances of any of us coming face-to-face with, say, a member of ISIS in order to rebuke them for their crimes and prejudices is probably nil.  But the chances of us coming face-to-face with someone in active drug addiction, or a teenaged mother, or any of the other groups of people we are liable to pass more subtle forms of judgment on today?  I’d mark those chances at a near certainty.

So are we willing to admit now that we might indeed harbor prejudice, and not in the terms of racial or sexist lines?  That we might harbor prejudice towards someone based on a particular characteristic of them?  That we might think this characteristic, be it a religious affiliation, or a sexual orientation, or a partisan identity, completely defines them when in fact they are far more multifaceted and multidimensional than we could ever possibly know in that moment?
Or are we still happier to point out that speck in their eyes while ignoring the logs in our own?
We talk an awful lot about surrender here in church—surrendering ourselves to Christ, surrendering our lives to God, but what I’m not sure we know what any of that means anymore.  Our lives represent a series of choices, points in the road where we can go one direction or another.  I can choose to do this, to say that, or to not to.  Which means that every day that I wake up, and that you wake up, and get out of bed, you can choose whether to be a Christian, a good person or not.
What if making that choice really meant surrendering all other choices?  What if choosing the will of Christ really meant surrendering our will to judge?  Do you think that we could do that?  Or is that a part of our selfishness that we still feel the need to clutch onto, that we simply cannot live without?
A lot of you here have also been the subject of another person’s prejudices.  I know because you have told me.  And those stories…those stories of how it felt to be seen only as an addict, only as an unwed parent, only as a person with their hand out needing help…those stories are living proof of the Gospel’s truth here.  Proof painfully gained, wrenchingly remembered, that what Jesus says here is indeed part of that greater truth that we have come to know: judgment that does not come from God or from Christ will rarely cause us to reconcile with God and with Christ.  Our judgment of one another—your judgment of another person—is not what will ultimately restore right relationship between God and a wayward sinner who is casting about for the way back home.
So judge not.  Condemn not.  And I tell ye, ye shall be forgiven.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
October 19, 2014

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Resignations, Golden Parachutes, and Erring Towards Transparency

On Tuesday, Mars Hill Church's co-founding and teaching pastor, Mark Driscoll, tendered his resignation after a six-week leave of absence in the wake of the allegations made against him by many former staffers and congregants.  My prayers this week are with Mars Hill as well as Driscoll himself, that they may both emerge from this period of turmoil and transition made better and more whole by God's presence.  I fervently hope that this tumultuous, churning experience will result in some sort of spiritual good for them.

I tweeted this when the news first broke:

Driscoll permanently vacating the pulpit of Mars Hill, whether by hook or by crook, was probably what needed to happen.  Giving has plummeted, more and more documents and stories of the toxicity within the church are coming to light, and the writing on the wall was becoming increasingly obvious that Mars Hill would face an uphill battle if Driscoll remained at the helm.  I had hoped at the time that it looked like Driscoll had seen this and wisely stepped aside.  If it is, then he absolutely did the right thing.

But there's the dollars-and-cents dimension to it as well.

For a bit of context: in late August, 9 current MH pastors/elders signed a letter asking Driscoll to step down for the good of both Mark himself and the church.  As of October 6, all nine have either left or experienced change in their positions at Mars Hill.  Only three did so voluntarily through resignation.  The rest were either laid off or had their eldership revoked, even as other MH campus pastors who had not signed the letter were offered other opportunities within Mars Hill even as their own campuses closed.

I'm emphatically NOT an expert on Washington state labor law (or on any law written after the first century, really), and it may well be nigh impossible to prove retaliation in a court of law, but if it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a get my point.

Anyways, some of these pastors were let go with as little as one month's severance.  Meanwhile, reports are that Driscoll himself is entitled to an entire year of full pay and benefits if he voluntarily resigns, per his own contract with Mars Hill...which might explain why he voluntarily stepped aside even though his investigators did not find enough cause to disqualify him from ministry.

According to internal Mars Hill memos, that annual pay was, as of 2012, between $500-565,000, or 7 to 8 times more than the median household income of $65,677 in Seattle that year.  And a $100,000 pay raise for 2013 was apparently on the table.

Now, I'm not disputing that the pastor of a church of Mars Hill's size should be paid more than your average parish pastor (ie, me); they should, just like Bill Gates is entitled to higher pay than the guy who runs the corner computer store in Davenport.

No, what concerns me is the multiplier at play here--not only was Driscoll making more than the people whose tithes paid his salary, he was being paid way more than most of them.  Similarly, he wasn't just paid more than his associate pastors and lead pastors of individual campuses, he was paid way more.

Assume, for argument's sake, that a laid off staffer at Mars Hill was being paid that median household income of $65,677 (it's impossible to tell how much Mars Hill workers are paid, but at least some jobs there seem to be in that $65K neighborhood)--their month of severance pay would amount to $5,743 and change.  Even if we figure on the low end that Driscoll's yearlong severance pay ends up being $500,000, he would be receiving about 87 times more in severance pay than the people his church just laid off.

87.  Eighty-seven.  Eight Seven.

What we are seeing here is the church equivalent of a golden parachute.  Because financially, Driscoll is going to be fine.  He'll be back in the saddle eventually, and can probably still command substantial speaking fees in order to support his wife and kids.  A half-mil (at minimum) severance package doesn't just cushion the financial blow of a pastor stepping down: it covers it in pillows and marshmallows and down feathers.

And that's just fine for Driscoll personally--after all, he's the guy who spends over $200,000 of his church's money gaming his own book to New York Times bestseller status, so I'm pretty sure the person Mark Driscoll cares most about is Mark Driscoll.  But I'm not as sure the same can be said of his worker bees who have found themselves without work in this year of pain and turmoil at MH, many of whom also surely have families to support in addition to bills to pay.  Per the "one month severance" link above--some of those pastors are resorting to gofundme crowdsourcing in order to make ends meet.

It's a saddening Christian witness to see happen.  Think about how much good funds like that $200,000 could have done, and could do now, in similarly cushioning the financial blow of pastors suddenly finding themselves out of work.

And really, the church administration has brought this upon itself.  Financial opacity combined with admissions of significant funds not being used for what they were earmarked for is a surefire recipe for financial collapse (and the job losses that inevitably follow)--just ask the folks who were left standing in the wreckage of First Family Church near my hometown in Kansas.

My parish publishes monthly financial reports that document every single expenditure for our monthly board of directors meetings, and those meetings have, without exception, been open to the entire membership of the church to sit in on for at least as long as I've been here.  If anyone in the church wanted to know how the money was being spent, it was (and is) put out there in black and white for them.  It's a win-win for everyone involved: our membership has open access to information that they are entitled to have, and our volunteer servants who are tasked with making sometimes big decisions on behalf of the church are protected from any whiff of malfeasance.  It may make some actions tougher in the short term because I or anyone else can't simply do whatever they want, but in the long term, it is almost certainly more beneficial.  Exceedingly so.

I get that this isn't really feasible for a church of MH's size, but in the question of convenience over transparency, churches have to err these days on the side of transparency.  Especially when it comes to how we are spending our members' tithes.

Sadly, though, it appears as though far more in tithes will be going towards one person leaving Mars Hill than the dozens others who had been laid off before him.  And such disparate distribution of funds is neither Biblical or spiritual in nature.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I'm a Christian Pastor, and I Suck at Following Christ

I say this on Sunday mornings, but one of the biggest reasons I felt compelled to do the sermon series I am currently preaching--a six-week series on the Sermon on the Plain that Jesus preaches in Luke 6--is because that sermon contains within it so many of the commands of Jesus that I think we find the toughest to follow...all wrapped up nicely in one fell swoop with a nice little bow on top of it.

"Turn the other cheek?"  That one's in there.

"If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt as well?"  Check.

"Judge not, lest you be judged?"  Yeppers.  (Stay tuned for this Sunday's sermon, because that particular one is what's on tap.)

And this sermon series really is for my benefit as well as for my congregation's, because I sometimes suck at this stuff too.  Even though I am paid to do ministry--even though I'm, in a manner, a Christian who has gone pro.  If you rated me like an athlete, I might get plus marks in, say, teaching Bible study or in baking pies for potlucks, but I'd definitely get dinged for fundamentals by Mel Kiper or Keith Law or ESPN's talking head of the sport of your choice.

This isn't quite the same as my "I've Sold Out the Gospel" post that I put up here last week.  In that go-around, I mostly talked about my professional role as a minister and how I've fallen short there.

No, I'm pretty bad at this as a regular person in my private, everyday life as well.

And honestly, I think we all probably are in some form or fashion.  One of the things about Scripture is that it is so encompassing of so many areas of our lives (fashion, diet, and conflict management all get pretty thoroughly covered, in addition to, you know, our relationship with God and whatnot) that we tend to gravitate towards it in the areas of our lives where it is easy for us to adhere to it.

To be honest, I think that is part of the reason why so many Christians so strongly proclaim verses like Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 that condemn same-sex relations, but less strongly proclaim, say, Luke 14:33: "So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (NRSV)

Personally, I think this is at least in part because for someone who, say, identifies completely as heterosexual, they have no problem following Leviticus's commands against same-sex relations.  It is natural for them.  So it is easy for them to follow.

But a command like Luke 14:33 runs counter to just about everything we have been taught in the American zeitgeist of building our own wealth and counter to our own biologically programmed tendency to hoard things up to save for times of want.  It's unnatural for us to follow.  So we push it aside for the stuff that is easier for us to follow and to point to.

But that means that we suck at following Christ as well.

(As an aside: I have heard it said (and even seen it said in Bible commentaries) that the reason we don't have to give up all of our possessions in order to follow Christ is because it was a specific commandment to the rich man who came to Jesus in Luke 18, asking how to inherit eternal life, and because it was given specifically to this man, we are not bound by it.  But Luke 14:33 is a command given to a "large crowd" per Luke 14:25.)

And in my private life, my private spiritual life especially, I can sometimes shy away from the tough stuff as well.  Which is profoundly ironic, not just because of what I do for a living, but because the Bible is all about working through the tough stuff.  God found Moses while the latter was in self-imposed exile after committing murder.  God gave King Ahab a reprieve for rigging the justice system to murder a man whose land he wanted after Ahab showed genuine repentance.

And yet, I struggle with the tough stuff that the Bible generates for me.  Like Leviticus 18 and 20.  Like Deuteronomy 20 and its command for the Israelites to kill of entire tribes of people wholesale--to basically commit genocide.

I wonder how in the hell I wound up following a God who somehow saw fit to include THAT in His recommended reading to us, and I begin to shy away once more from Scripture despite what it might have yet to still tell me.  I begin to shy away from the source that might offer me, if not answers, the right direction forward towards answers.

I know that might sound like a paradox: going to Scripture for my questions about Scripture.  I know that doesn't always sound like it would make sense.

But messily, painfully, wonderfully, it often does.  At least to me.

So when we read the Bible selectively...when we read the Gospels and what Christ has to say to us hope and prayer is that we might be just brave enough to critically ask ourselves why we are doing this to our spiritual practice.  Because that selectivity keeps us from following Jesus as we ought.

And I should know.  I've been keeping myself from following Jesus as I ought to as well.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, October 13, 2014

Anonymity is My Name

The phone call is always the same.  Sameness is not mutually exclusive with urgency.

"Pastor, this happened and so-and-so is here and the doctors said they don't think it is going to be much longer, can you please come?"

Of course I will.  Far more than meeting with city hall employees about parking lot erosion or trying to understand what our plumber is telling me about one of the church's water heaters, going to the bedside of the dying is something I am very much trained to do and called to do as a part of my vocation as a parish pastor.  Ministering to the dying is by no means easy, but it it is definitely closer to my wheelhouse than paper-pushing, and is, for me anyways, far more spiritually enriching and rewarding.

So I go, and like the phone call, the scene in the room is always the same as well.  The bed of the person who is passing away is always in the center of the room, and family are gathered around in a circle, maybe with a few folks sitting down or orbiting around the room.

Here's the thing: it's really tough to try to break into a circle, even if you have been expressly invited.  I have only known this person for a few years at most, and here they are surrounded by people who have known them for decades, perhaps their whole lives.

I am here as a pastor, but it is tough to not feel like an impostor, a gate-crasher, Vince Vaughn's and Owen Wilson's sidekick in Funeral Crashers, their ill-advised (and fortunately entirely nonexistent) sequel to Wedding Crashers.  A colleague of mine once openly wondered if putting a cardboard cut-out of him in the room might not be better because he felt so helpless sometimes in those moments.

"Will you pray with us?"

Of course I will.  At long last, something I can actively do to help, to not be that helpless cardboard cutout.  Prayer is sometimes more difficult for me than I let on, but that never stops me from trying.  The prayer usually worms its way out of my lips regardless of how much of a spiritual writer's block I'm having in that moment.  And really, in those sorts of moments, the family does not need or demand soaring prose.  They need comfort.  They need reassurance that the presence of God is truly at work in the room.

And since God conveniently hasn't come to earth in human form since we killed Him when that happened last around 2,000 years ago, big old imperfect me is who they are left with to help channel the divine spirit of the Almighty into their little circle of love and sorrow.

 Once you've taken several of these calls, you begin to notice the signs of death growing nearer.  You can anticipate when the moment is about to happen.  And when it does, it is all that you can do to thank God for the life this person led, for the people whom they loved and who loved them in return, and for the unbelievably profound privilege that you have been gifted in being present at their transition from broken earth into glorious paradise.

"Can we call you later?"

Of course you can.  I know that "later" may well be days or even weeks after the fact: some families want to bury their dead right away, others need some time and space to get back to something approaching neutral in order to begin planning their loved one's memorial service.  So I don't always know when I'll get that call, but it doesn't really bother me.  I know how to get in touch with them as well.  And I will if I'm worried about them.  I'm like God's overly-benevolent spy network.  You can run from my pastoral care, but you can't hide from it forever.

The family begins discussing what happens next, and at that point, I know that what they need now is the help of a funeral director, not their pastor.  Of course I am happy to be there for those meetings as a source of moral support, or to help point them in the right direction in making arrangements, but at this point, I know the most immediate soul-sized need has been met.  A life has been extinguished and God's presence has been made known.  Everything else that I can help them with can wait.

And so I go around the room, offering hugs and handshakes and prayers as I go.  A family member might walk me out, offer me my coat as I cram my hat back on and walk back out into the rapidly chilling Pacific Northwest weather.

I climb into my car and place the key into the ignition.  As I pull out of the driveway and make my way back onto the busy thoroughfare that brought me here, I begin to realize something: nobody else who is driving by knows what I know.  Nobody else around me has just witnessed what I have just witnessed.  To them, I am simply another driver to honk at if I change lanes too suddenly or to flip off if I don't drive fast enough for them in single-lane traffic.

I've become anonymous again.  I've become just another person again.

And what's odd about it is...I absolutely need that.  After what has just happened, I need to be just another person to someone.  I have been so moved, so drained, so emptied, of my spiritual abilities that I need to not be "Pastor Eric" for a few moments.

Even if it means getting honked at.  Even if it means getting cussed at.

I need those moments when, after something utterly profound has happened, I rejoin a world that has not seen what I have seen.  A world that is unaware of my calling and of my experiences.  A world that has no need to place a mantle upon me, a pedestal beneath me, or a pulpit around me.

A world in which I am given my own space to reflect on that loss.

A world in which, for at least moment, I simply am, and nothing more.

A world in which, for at least a moment, anonymity is my name.

What a gift from God such moments have become for me.

Yours in Christ,

(Author's note: This vignette reflects not any one particular story, but is rather built upon the many times I have been called to a death in my still-brief pastoral career.  Each of these deaths I can recall by memory.  Each taught me something about love.  And each ultimately pointed me, in their own way, towards God's glory.  Ad maiorem Dei gloriam. ~E.A.)