Monday, December 29, 2014

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

(This also represents--most likely--the last post of 2014.  I very much look forward to spending my 2015 pastoring and writing for all of you, and I wish you all a safe and happy New Year's!  -E.A.)

"Second Sundays"

Dear Church, The tinsel is tucked away and the tree has been taken down (unless you're like me and just decide to leave the thing up for St. Patrick's Day a couple of months from now), which means it's firmly New Year's resolution season. Gyms and fitness companies love this time of year, it's their bread and butter, and for obvious reasons--we tend to target with our resolutions some sort of least, until we give up on those resolutions by the Super Bowl (especially if your resolution is food-related. Super Bowl parties are meant to be decadent.)

So why not, this year, make a resolution that was about not simply self-improvement, but community improvement, or church improvement? Resolve to be more focused on time together with your family. Resolve to be more faithful in your charitable giving. Resolve to involve yourself more in any number of missions here in the local area. There are many, many ways to resolve to improve not just your life, but the lives of those around you, in the name of Jesus Christ.

In doing our part as a family of faith to help you do this, and after getting some feedback from several of y'all on Facebook, I've designed a new, informal, and casual fellowship circle specifically for younger, working adults (with or without families) as a means of providing discipleship and dicussion beyond the 60-70 minutes we spend in worship. I'm tentatively calling it "Second Sundays" because its first meeting will be on Sunday, January 11, after worship, but the name really is negotiable--what isn't is our requirement to meet the need for spiritual enrichment in smaller, less formal settings than worship--not as a substitute for worship, but as a supplement to it.

Our vision statement as a church begins with the words "To go and make disciples...," and I hope and pray that this will be a new and exciting way for us to be able to do that! So, I suppose our New Year's Resolution as a church would be something along the lines of to better try to meet your spiritual needs where you are!

What about MY personal New Year's Resolution, you ask? Well, I'd take up whittling, but I lack the fine motor skills, so I think I'll just stick with, I don't know, building a better mousetrap. Which obviously takes no fine motor skills at all.

Happy New Year, First Christian Church!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

My next sermon series begins on Sunday, January 18.  You can find my introduction and outline to it below if you care to follow along!  -E.A.

Starting on January 18, a new five-week sermon series begins, which will take us up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the 40 days of Lent (which commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness). This sermon series will focus on, well, sermons themselves--some of the most famous sermons we know are sermons from the New Testament, and we will explore a few that were preached by Jesus, Peter, or Paul from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. Each contain immensely famous teachings that are well-known to this day, and we will be able to take the time and see these teachings in their original Scripture settings as we talk about how they still apply to us today! I look forward to kicking off this new series with you!

January 18: “South Africa Rising,” Luke 4:16-21
January 25: “The Mountaintop,” Matthew 6:7-15
February 1: “The Prophecy’s Fulfillment,” Acts 2:14-21
February 8: “The Prophet’s Lifespan,” Acts 7:48-53
February 15: “The Areopagus,” Acts 17:22-32

Friday, December 26, 2014

This Year's Christmas Sermon: "Into Heaven"

Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. 

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” 15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told. (Common English Bible)

“Into Heaven,” Luke 2:1-20

It’s something as Christians we are told not really to do if we want to be prudent and responsible, even though we are here tonight worshiping a homeless savior whose first earthly gifts were from wise men giving him gold: we are told not to give money to homeless people.

Except that recently, one fellow did.  A chunk of money, too: a cool $100.  And here’s what happened next, as reported by NBC News:

Josh Paler Lin…thought he’d try a social experiment: Give a homeless man money, then follow him in secret to see what he’d do with it.

And sure enough, the man’s first stop was at a liquor store.  He emerged with a bag and took it to a nearby park.  Well, what did you expect, right?

Wrong: Once at the park, the man pulled food from the bag and shared it with his fellow homeless.

“My heart was crushed,” Lin (said).

After witnessing what the homeless man, whose name is Thomas, did with the cash, Lin approached him on camera and explained that he’d been following him.  He apologized and gave Thomas more money.

Thomas said that he’d quit his job to take care of his sick parents, then lost his family home after they died.  He said he (has) been on the street for four months.

Lin decided to take action, setting up a crowdfunding page to raise money to help Thomas get off the streets.  Donations thus far have topped $50,000.

“People think I changed his life,” said Lin, who maintains the video was not staged.  “For me, it’s completely the opposite.  I feel that he changed my life.”

And as of tonight, Christmas Eve, the crowdfunding campaign for Thomas has raised nearly $80,000, from over 4,000 separate donors.

It has been a long, roundabout road towards a home for this brother in Christ, Thomas…but it is a road he will soon arrive at the end of.  And that is what we all have to look forward too, because as followers of a homeless savior born in a barn and placed in a manger because there was no crib for Him, we too, are, in a manner, homeless.  We await for our eternal homes in heaven.  But we have so much more left to do here, along that long, roundabout road towards home.  It was C.S. Lewis who wrote it, in Mere Christianity: “For the longest way round is the shortest way home.”

And it is this belief that keeps me from sheer, unadulterated envy of the angels, the heavenly hosts, who appear to the shepherds to proclaim the Good News of Christ’s birth.  I mean, these guys get to swoop in, sing their little song, and swoop right back into heaven before you can say, “We all want some figgy pudding,” leaving the shepherds—and the rest of us—to have to muddle our own separate ways to Bethlehem to gather ‘round the manger.  How very thoughtful of them.  You think they could’ve given those poor shepherds a lift, at least.  Angels have wings, after all.

But maybe giving those poor shepherds on the hoot owl shift a boost would defeat the whole purpose.  After all, you’d also think God could have dropped a divine Garmin or somesuch in the laps of the wise men to help them hoof it over to Bethlehem sooner as well, and He didn’t.

And maybe that is because the journey towards Christ is something that cannot be skipped over, or hurried, or rushed.  That journey, no matter how long or dangerous or arduous, is very much a necessary one for each of us to have to take.  It is a journey that we must take, no matter the cost, whether that cost is $100 to a homeless man, or $80,000 to help him piece his life back together.

I mean, can you imagine Thomas’s experience being a part of your own journey to Christ?  Having your own job and a family home and seeing all of it get swept away simply because you did the noble thing and cared for your parents as their journeys towards heaven were nearing completion?  And then see it return because you did the noble thing again and used this gift of money not for yourself, but for other people in as desperate need as you?

That is why we have to make that journey ourselves on Christmas.  That is why there cannot be any other way.  No shortcut, no disregard for speed limits, no cutting in line will get us to where we want to be faster.  Only trust in doing the right thing, for the right reasons, will ultimately ever do.

Which is what Christmas is, I think, really supposed to remind us of.  God sees the hurt and trouble His world is in, and not only does the right thing, but does the MOST right thing possible: giving us his child, His son, His own substance made flesh.  God could not possibly have done more right by us in this gift of a newborn Savior.

And so, in turn, we are meant to not just do right, but to do the most right by God and, by extension, by one another.  For that is what makes this journey into heaven most worthwhile, and it is what makes this trip towards Bethlehem go the easiest and the quickest.

So where are you on your life’s journey towards God?  Are you just starting out on this journey of faith, have you been going along the road for a while now but also know you probably have much further to go, or has this a journey of your whole life’s making?  No matter your answer, though, none of us have arrived all the way there yet.  We’re still muddling along, all of us, together.

So when you go home from here, from the Lord’s house to your house, and you gather around your tree with your families and friends and loved ones, please, I ask of you, lend an ear to what these angels are saying in the most fleeting of moments between their entry into earth and their return into heaven:  Glory to God in the highest, and upon earth, peace among those whom God favors.”

Because Luke continues: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.  So they went with haste…”

And so should we all.  Alongside the shepherds, and the wise men to come, alongside all people to gather ‘round the manger to ask, “Newborn Christ, here I am.  What is it you are calling me to do?”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
Christmas Eve 2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Blue Christmas Sermon: "A Blue Christmas"

Psalm 22:1-5

My God! My God, why have you left me all alone? Why are you so far from saving me— so far from my anguished groans? 2 My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer; even at nighttime I don’t stop. 3 You are the holy one, enthroned. You are Israel’s praise. 4 Our ancestors trusted you— they trusted you and you rescued them; 5 they cried out to you and they were saved; they trusted you and they weren’t ashamed. (Common English Bible)

“A Blue Christmas,” Psalm 22:1-5

My body is exhausted and spent.  My voice, raspy and frail.  And my soul had taken a beating like nothing before in my young life.  Yet, there I was, standing in front of a couple hundred people who were starting expectantly at me for a sermon, and the microphone had just quit working.

This first weekend of May was originally meant to be one of the happiest of my teenaged years that had experienced really very little inner happiness: after competing for a state championship in speech and debate, I was off to dance the night away with my classmates at my senior prom, followed by preaching in the church I had grown up in that following Sunday morning.

But at 3 am, we got one of those three-in-the-morning phone calls that you never want to have to either make or get.  A childhood friend of mine—a son (also coincidentally named Eric) of a longtime family friend—had been in a car accident that night while riding passenger in a car driven far too fast by another friend.  He was not wearing a seat belt, was catapulted through the windshield upon impact, and died at the scene almost instantly.

And so, on only couple hours of sleep, running on physical and emotional fumes, I found myself preaching on, of all things, the passage of Jesus proclaiming Himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10 so soon after having to surrender a friend’s life to a Good Shepherd who felt anything but good in that moment.

And then that microphone died out.

An odd thing happened at that moment, though: the sun had emerged in one of the skylights of the sanctuary roof, and the light came down right upon me where I was standing.  The temperature on my skin erupted, I could feel the gooseflesh on my arms practically crackle, and the second wind of energy that I needed just to get through that sermon actually arrived.  I have very little recollection of what I actually said that morning, but I am told that it was lovely. 

Short of the actual flame and dove coming down from heaven, it felt like I had come as close as I could to experiencing the Pentecost story of Acts 2 itself: light and energy supplied from the heavens, and though I spoke a tongue I no longer understood, I was told by others that they understood and took to heart my sermon perfectly.

It was—and by all means, should have been—the worst weekend in my life when it was supposed to be one of the best.  It sounds a bit silly, perhaps, telling you a high school story, but in my nearly thirty years of living, I’ve seen much and experienced much, and this still remains one of the most vivid memories of grief and loss transfigured into my own weakness being met and helped back up.

I say vivid, because it is one of those sorts of memories that you can still recall in high-definition detail.  Entire weeks or months can be left on the cutting room floor of your personal recollections, but individual days can raise a hand or a face up above the tide of memories to always be a buoy you see in the swirling, whirling chaos that is the sea of life.

And that is what the idea of Blue Christmas is really all about, to me, anyways.  It’s about arriving to a time in the calendar when we look back on the previous year in all its glory and madness.

Sometimes, such auld-lang-syne exercises make us feel good.  A lot of the time, though, they emphatically do not.  And if they do not, it makes all that much harder to give a rat’s backside about decking the halls and jingling the bells.  Everybody else may be enjoying the syrupy saccharine sweetness of the Christmas season, but for you, that may just be a load of painful BS.  Christmas is supposed to be nice and pleasant and cheerful, but that doesn’t mean it is, or even has to be.

And here is where my apology to you comes in—my apology to you as a pastor, as a Christian, on behalf of pastors and Christians: when we try to make the story of the Jesus who is about to be born a story all about victory and happy warm fuzzies, we are doing you a soul-sized disservice.  We like to preach to you about, say, Jeremiah 29:11, about how the Lord has plans to prosper you, (or about John 10:10, that we are to have life and live it abundantly), and we tend to forget that you don’t always feel like the Lord is prospering you.  If anything, it feels like the Lord is trying you and testing you, and all you want is for that demanding test-proctor of a God to declare a ten-minute rest break.

Or maybe God isn’t an overinvolved proctor for you.  Maybe it feels like God is under-involved.  Maybe you have seen things in your life fall down like the proverbial house of cards, as surely and easily as a Rube Goldberg machine, and you wonder where in the hell is that absentee landlord in the sky.  What kind of a psychotic jerk just creates you and then leaves you to fend for yourself against the systemic evils in the world that are always conspiring against you?  Poverty, financial insecurity, addiction, domestic violence, sexual assault, God, the list can go on and on.

So we look around, we see these sorts of evils, and here the church, we say, “kyrie eleison,” or, “come, Lord Jesus, come.”  But he hasn’t yet, at least not for the second time.  The first time, though, well, that was a real doozy.

Because the original Christmas story, there’s nothing sweet and saccharine about it.  Some son-of-a-gun innkeeper looks at nine-months-pregnant Mary (and presumably normal-sized Joseph) and says, “Nope, no room for you,” like he’s the room nazi, if Seinfeld had a room nazi.  The Savior of humankind is born in the freaking dirt, probably surrounded by an unpleasantly large amount of animal excrement because, well, it’s a barn after all.  The manger isn’t coo-worthy, it’s horrible because there is no crib for the Lord like any other child.

And this is the world He is meant to save.  Well…at least the circumstances of His birth pretty much proved He had His work cut out for Him.

I probably sound angry to you by this point, and to be completely honest, I think I am, just a little.  I felt it as I was writing these words.  It’s hard not to feel indignant on behalf of people you know are hurting, people who you just want to be made whole again, but because the world has taken something from them, it probably is going to take a long time, if ever, for that to happen.

I also can’t believe I have gotten this far without talking about the Scripture passage, but this is where it cuts in.  Psalm 22 is, like its much more famous sibling the next psalm over, a psalm of David, but unlike the 23rd, Psalm 22 is very much a psalm of lament.  And it is still famous in its own right…or, at least, the first verse is.  Eli, eli, lama sabacthani.  My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?

It is the cry of dereliction that Jesus cries out on the cross.

If Jesus can lament to God, if David can lament to God, then any of us absolutely can as well.  It is Biblical to lament to God, it is, dare I say it, right to lament to God.

We talk a lot about laying our burdens at God’s feet because, after all, God’s a big boy, God can handle our burdens.  But even with our worst stuff, we still have this sort of neurotic ownership over it, because we still hold onto it in some way.  We are the absolute worst at letting go…of anything.

But my hope and prayer for you is that this worship gives you a chance to do exactly that: to let go, even if only for a few minutes, and to let yourself be ministered to, by Scripture, by our music, by prayer, and that you too might experience the wonder and joy of being lifted back up amid your own weakness, as I did that weekend over a decade ago, as I saw my entire life begin to change anew.

Because it is one thing to pull yourself up—you feel proud for having done so.  But it is completely different to be pulled up by another—for you will feel loved for having been so.

May you feel loved this Christmas…by our church, by me, but most of all by a God who loves you so freaking much, He sent His son to be born in a barn of dirt and mud and animal crap for you.

None of us would want our children born in such circumstances.  But you matter enough to God that God allowed it for you.

It’s really pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.

God loves you.  God always has.  God always will.  It is the promise of the Gospels.  It is the promise of the church.

And it is the promise of the birth about to happen on Christmas Day.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 21, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

An Open Letter to the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association

(...and the police departments of Cleveland and St. Louis, I guess, too.)

Dear officers of the law,

I want to assure you, and reassure you, and reassure you, and reassure you that those of us who have been calling for justice for people like Eric Garner and Akai Gurley (as well as Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, et al) are not anti-police.  We're not against you.  I realize you may not believe me when I say it, but it is true.  Promise.

I'm not against you.  If you're investigating something and you think my input will help you do that, I will answer your questions.  And if I break the law, you should arrest me.

I want you to be able to do your jobs.  Lord knows that your gigs are already difficult and dangerous enough as it is.  You're often underpaid and overworked, and you understandably count on wall-to-wall public support for you to do your job.

I just want you to be able to do your job better than has been done by some of your peers in the deaths of the names I just listed.

I have all the sympathy in the world for you when you are actively putting yourselves in harm's way to make your communities safer.  I have prayed for the families of your two fallen comrades, Officer Wenjian Liu and Officer Rafael Ramos, and I *know* that their killer--whose name does not merit mention here--escaped man's justice but not God's justice.

But while my prayers will forever remain intact, my sympathy is another matter.  Honestly, it's hard for me to keep my sympathy when you're lashing out at your critics and, essentially, calling them murderers.

You're in law enforcement--you know what a singularly weighty accusation that is, right?  To say that someone has blood on their hands?  First, that's pretty rich considering Officer Daniel Pantaleo literally used his hands and arms to strangle Eric Garner to death.  But secondly, it's an idiom with which you're saying that someone is culpable of murder.

You may not like Bill De Blasio, and that's fine, but that doesn't make him a cop killer.

And full disclosure: I have no proverbial dog in the spat between New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and the NYPD.  I'm not a New Yorker, and I don't have strong feelings about De Blasio either way.  I'm not being partisan here because when it comes to your mayor, I'm not--I'm the exact opposite of partisan: completely apathetic.

So as someone without a previously vested interest in your relationship with your mayor, can I just say that your unions' leaders' reactions are costing you sympathy.  I'm not trying to be inflammatory by saying this, I'm trying to be truthful and thoughtful with you.

And because of this, I want to talk to you a little bit from the perspective of being a pastor, and before I do, I want to add the disclaimer that I know our jobs are not remotely the same in terms of the physical danger we put ourselves in.  But it is pretty similar in terms of the PR crises we have had to endure.  I belong to a profession that has had untold numbers of scandals, all of them as damning as the murders of Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice.  Were people in my profession...

Pedophiles?  Check.

...Protectors of said pedophiles?  Uh huh.

Crooks who were defrauding congregants?  Yep.

Deathmongers who killed people?  Unfortunately, horribly, painfully, yes.

And I want nothing to do with them.  They go over the side of the boat.   They get no defense from me.  I quote my colleague and dear friend Meghan on this:

As a pastor, I am able to admit that there are some really bad clergy out there and a lot who have done terrible, terrible things to children and other vulnerable people. I don't defend them or feel personally attacked when others criticize them... I would like to think that if I were a police officer (and I thank God that I am not and I thank God that others are willing to perform that duty) that I would be able to have some modicum of objectivity to recognize the bad apples and what to (do to) get them out...I'm really disturbed by false binary being promoted that one can *only* be upset by the deaths of unarmed black people OR by the deaths of police and if you are upset about one you must hate the other. I'm upset about them all. Unnecessary deaths are unnecessary deaths. They are terrible and we should all be upset about them all.

The thing is though, none of that matters for people who understandably don't want to trust me simply because I am a pastor.  And because I am called to be humble and not haughty, I don't get to just scream "You're wrong," I have to listen with a quiet presence to peoples' grievances against the clergy.

So now, I have to go through continual ethics and boundaries training--if I don't, my standing as an ordained minister gets automatically revoked by my denomination, which would basically make it impossible for me to get a job.  In other words, I go through these accountability checks on the threat of my employability and livelihood being taken away if I don't.

I'll repeat that: thanks to abusive clergy, now in order to lose my employability, I just have to not attend a particular seminar.

Just like you, I didn't do anything wrong, either.  I'm a model citizen who has never gotten anything more than parking tickets.  But because a few bad apples in my line of work royally hurt their fellow people, I now have to saddle up and take my bitter medicine like the adult I am, not like a temperamental two-year-old who is lashing out because daddy said to play nicely with the other humans.

And yet, despite all this, I still love what I do.  I'm sure you feel the same way about your own job and your dedication to its highest principles.

I guess what I'm asking you is...why can't you also uphold those highest principles of your profession by not protecting the cops who are abusive, just like I don't stand for pastors who are abusive?  Because those abusive bad apples are there, even if you're in denial about it.  Having a judge and a lawyer for parents has exposed me to way too much of the underbelly of our legal system for me to pretend otherwise, long before where we are today.

Believe me, I SO get that you still feel like you're under critique from all directions now.  I take it on the chin from both directions too: from atheists who are mindless devotees of mean-spirited scrooges like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris who think that what I preach is an irrational plague upon this earth, and from more conservative Christians who think that what I preach is a false Gospel and heresy because I support marriage equality and believe that evolution and Genesis are compatible.  Even with a thick skin, it can wear you down.

And I don't think I have to tell you any of this--you know full well what it is like to have insults hurled at you when you're arresting someone difficult or instigating, or to be called a pig out on the street when you're just doing your job.  It's an annoyance at best, but it still sucks to experience.

I have to accept all of this because, like you, the work I do is inherently public.  Every Sunday morning at 11:00 am, I put on the robe and the stole, and I preach words that are recorded and posted, that sometimes will upset someone, and that sometimes, honestly, will land me in a spot of bother every now and again.

So pretty please, let's get a grip here with the inflammatory accusations about blood and hands, yeah?  Wanting police officers to do your jobs better--and right now, I'll just settle for not summarily executing twelve-year-old boys as a starting point--doesn't make us anti-police anymore than wanting any profession to do their jobs better.

People want me and my ilk to our jobs better?  Good, they ought to expect us to.

God forbid we shouldn't expect the same from ourselves.

That's all. Thanks for reading, and merry Christmas.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 21, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Inspiring Others to Join You"

Jeremiah 40:1-6

Jeremiah received the Lord’s word after Nebuzaradan the captain of the special guard had released him from Ramah. He had been bound in chains there along with all the other detainees from Jerusalem and Judah who were being sent off to Babylon. 2 The captain of the special guard located Jeremiah and said to him, “The Lord your God declared that a great disaster would overtake this place. 3 Now the Lord has made it happen. He has done just as he warned because all of you have sinned against the Lord and haven’t obeyed him. That’s why this has happened to you. 4 But I’m setting you free from the chains on your hands. If you would like, come with me to Babylon, and I’ll take care of you. If you would rather not come with me, that’s fine too. Now, the whole land lies before you; go wherever you want. 5 If you decide to remain here, stay with Gedaliah, Ahikam’s son and Shaphan’s grandson—the Babylonian appointee in charge of the cities of Judah. Stay with him and the people he rules or go wherever you want.” Then the captain of the special guard gave him ample provisions and let him go. 6 Jeremiah went to Gedaliah, Ahikam’s son at Mizpah, and he stayed with him and the people who remained in the land. (Common English Bible)

“The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything,” Week Four

It’s a school I’m sure you have never heard of, and a young woman whose name is almost as standard-issue as John Smith.  If you passed her on the street, you might catch a glimpse of her blond braids, but you otherwise wouldn’t know her from Eve.  And yet Lauren Hill, at the age of 19, has already accomplished more in her life than most people, precisely because she is about to die.

Diagnosed with a terminal and extremely rare form of brain cancer shortly after she signed a letter of intent to play basketball for Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio, her new team petitioned the NCAA to move up the date of their season opener after learning of her diagnosis, hoping to get her into a game before her strength deteriorated too much to prevent her from playing.  The opposing school—Hiram College—is, by the by, a Disciples of Christ school, and they immediately agreed to move their season opener up by several weeks, and brought along busloads of fans to make it a packed house for Lauren to make her college basketball debut in.

Since that season opener about six weeks ago, Lauren has managed to raise $700,000 for brain cancer research (her goal is $1,000,000 by New Year’s), she has appeared on the cover of a special NBA Live 2015 edition, and she just made it onto the Wheaties cereal box.  All because others were inspired to join her and walk alongside her in her heroic, heartbreaking, amazing, doomed struggle.

How many of you will wake up a few days from now on the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  We’ve been working with Hannah’s own words for the past three weeks, and we wrap up this series today, on week four, the final Sunday of Advent before Christmas Day, with her words from her chapter entitled, “Inspiring Others to Join You:”

There are 6 billion people in this world, and you are one person.  It’s easy to think, “How much of a difference can I really make?”  The short answer is, a lot.  I love the quote from Marian Wright Edelman, the children’s rights advocate: “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee”…

I don’t ever feel like I’m doing enough to solve the world’s poverty problems.  Although I know there is always more that can be done, I’m proud of the work I’m doing as an individual.  Think about the work that you’re doing and compare it to your potential.  Are you doing the right amount of work?  As my dad always tells me, “All you can do is all you can do.”

It’s one of the biggest existential crises that most pastors—and churches, and Christians—face in our vocation, believe me: how can little old me, with my lovely little parish, tackle the soul-sized problems of poverty and sin and injustice in this world?  I mean, you look around at how much hurt is caused to people—how much hurt we cause ourselves—and you feel like all you have to build something new for folks is some scotch tape and bailing wire.

Well, my grandpa is fond of saying that you only need two things in life: a roll of duct tape and a can of WD-40.  If it moves and it shouldn’t, use the duct tape.  If it doesn’t move and it should, use the WD-40.  And man, could we use a case of WD-40 for the world to move it in new ways.

But we have to settle ourselves for achieving our missional vision and goals one person at a time.  And that’s why we have fast-forwarded so many chapters in Jeremiah to the beginning of chapter 40: Jeremiah has been prophesying on a global, massive, God-sized scale, but here, it is the heart and soul of one person who is affected by him: Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard who liberates Jeremiah from his present bondage.

As such, Jeremiah’s chains being lifted was a physical experience for him, but it is a spiritual experience for us.  We did not come here today chained together, marched in as captives, and made to sit to listen to some pointy-headed smartass of a pastor (who?) jabber on and on…although maybe it feels that way now, this far into the message!  No, we came here, whether by hook or by crook, ultimately of our own volition.  We are here today worshiping God because we want to be.

And that should be enough to empower us to inspire others to join us.  Nobody seeks out imprisonment, what we long for instead is freedom.  Jeremiah receives his from the captain of the guard, but the captain of the guard has, through Jeremiah’s revealing of the Lord, received his own spiritual freedom.  In this way, we are meant to empathize with Nebuzaradan.

Perhaps, though, we are meant to empathize with him in another way, though perhaps we may not wish to think it: this captain of the guard has tremendous power, likely the power of life or death, over Jeremiah whilst the prophet is in shackles.  Do we dare acknowledge that we might hold similarly tremendous and terrible power over others in our lives?  And that we might need to surrender part of our own power in order to inspire others to be a part of what it is we are doing here?

Think again about Lauren Hill, this young basketball player.  She has achieved everything that she has done in just a few short months because she has been forced by a disease to give up the power of life itself.  She has had to surrender tomorrow, but that surrender has caused massive ripples in the present.  It caused untold numbers of people to follow her, to join her, in her final days of life.

What in your life is keeping you from having the impact you know you could potentially be having on the world?  What ultimately chains you, binds you, and holds you down from inspiring others?

Now…how can you surrender it to God?

It’s Christmas, right?  The season of giving and all that.  Well…how can you give—give up—that which you no longer need, that which you could do without, that which may well in fact be hindering the tremendous difference you are capable of making over the many days of your life?

It’s not quite a Christmas gift as we have come to think of it.  Consider it a Christmas addition by subtraction instead.  Because that is what this whole “The Power of Half” story was all about, in the end.  Dividing a household’s entire net worth in half gained this family of four so very, very much.  It gained the world so very, very much.  And it changed, for me, anyways, how I have come to view the radicalness of generosity.

As this sermon was being put to bed, news came out over the weekend of the two New York Police Department officers murdered on the streets in a murder-suicide, with the violently unstable gunman dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a nearby subway station.  I—and America as a whole—have talked a lot this Advent about violence as it relates to the police, and it is no different when police officers are the victims rather than perpetrators: it still represents the worst of all selfish acts, the act of taking from one person what belongs to them—their life—and the act of taking from God that which should belong solely to God—the giving and the taking of life.  It was…and is…a horrible, bloody example of just how difficult radical generosity is for us to exhibit, even during a season of the year that is ostensibly all about generosity.

But I said “difficult.”  Not “impossible.”  Because, as Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel, all things are still possible for one who believes.  And for one who did believe in the Gospels, it was more than possible.  It was fully, completely, utterly, tangibly, and amazingly attainable.

The tax collector Zaccheus, upon encountering Jesus, says that he will repent of his fraudulent ways and, in addition to paying restitution four times over to his victims, he will also give away half his income to the poor.  And Jesus replies to this news, “Surely, salvation has come to this household!”

And so Jesus inspired another—and, over time, countless others to join Him in the way towards His kingdom.

The power of half is a profoundly Biblical concept.  And it is one that, in Jesus’ own words, offers an avenue towards salvation.

And that is what Christmas is, in the end: the birth of our way, of the way, towards salvation.  The birth of Jesus Christ.

Are you ready to surrender all in order to make the greatest difference possible in His name?

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 21, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

#TBT Re-Post: If Denominations Were Christmas Carols

This post from a couple of years ago definitely falls into the oldie-but-a-goodie camp.  One of my most popular posts when it was first created (which isn't saying much, admittedly), and popular again when re-posted for the first time, I think I used up a little too much of my limited allocation of wit on this one.  Nevertheless, here it is, once more, in all its glory, for this festive Christmas season.

In the meanwhile, though, I'm busy catching up on all sorts of work getting ready for Christmas Eve after coming down with a massive head cold.  My life for the past couple of days has been the Lewis Black monologue on NyQuil: "It comes in two colors, red and green.  It's the only thing on the planet that tastes red and green.  The nice thing about that is red and green are Christmas colors.  And let me tell you, it makes a dandy egg nog."  (Said cold and workload would also be the reasons why I haven't been posting anything here yet this week.  Me sorry.

So please, raise a glass of egg nog/Christmas NyQuil to these, your denominations recast as Christmas carols. ~E.A.

In the spirit of the season, I'm having a little fun with our favorite carols. Please do not be offended if your denomination was not included, as there are limits to my creativity, even when it comes to poking fun at the institution I lovingly serve. And in case it needs to be said...this entry definitely falls into the "tongue-in-cheek" category.

 Baptist: "The Friendly Beasts." I don't think I've ever been to a Baptist church of any stripe (American, Southern, etc) without getting mobbed by extraordinarily well-meaning churchgoers who want to know EVERYTHING about me. Over a casserole.

Churches of Christ: "Little Drummer Boy." Part of their split with the Disciples concerned instrumental music in worship--they weren't so keen on it. Hence, the drum! I suppose bell-type carols could have worked too, but drums are probably a bigger flash point with congregations these days.

Episcopalian/Anglican: "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Lets be honest, this song is more about one's love for figgy pudding than it is about Christmas. And the only thing more English than Anglicanism is figgy pudding (losing to Germany in soccer is pretty close, though).

Lutheran: "Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful." Why Martin Luther would like this carol: it's based on the theme of Heaven's triumph. Why he wouldn't like this carol: It's originally in Latin. Worth it?

Methodist: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It's probably the best-known carol written by Charles Wesley, younger brother of the Methodist forefather John Wesley, and it's got four verses, like the four sides to a certain quadrilateral...

Pentecostal: "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  That song goes on forever.  Just like every Pentecostal worship service I've ever attended.  I also remain firmly convinced that you have to be gifted in speaking in tongues to rattle off all twelve days worth of gifts in one go at the very end of the song.

Presbyterian: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Remember John Calvin and his notion of predestination? Well..."He's making a list, and checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty or nice." Except if Calvin were Santa Claus, we'd all end up on the "naughty" list.  And the "naughty" list would be labeled the "completely depraved" list.

Quaker: "Silent Night." If you've ever been to an unprogrammed Quaker service, silence is the ticket unless someone feels moved to speak. Which may not may not happen. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any carols about oatmeal.

Roman Catholic: "Sleigh Ride." This one is for the smells-and-bells crowd. You hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too? And the chestnuts going pop, pop, pop? Done and done.

United Church of Christ: "I Wonder as I Wander." Since the running gag is that "UCC" really stands for, "Unitarians Considering Christ," what better carol than one that begins with the question, "I wonder as I wander out under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come here to die?"

Disciples of Christ: "Jingle Bell Rock." Because we rock. Duh.

Any suggestions to add? Any changes you'd make to my selections?

Yours in Christ,

(image courtesy of

Sunday, December 14, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Tapping into Anger"

Jeremiah 12:1-4

If I took you to court, Lord, you would win. But I still have questions about your justice. Why do guilty persons enjoy success? Why are evildoers so happy? 2 You plant them, and they take root; they flourish and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts. 3 Yet you, Lord, you know me. You see me. You can tell that I love you. So drag them away and butcher them like sheep. Prepare them for the slaughterhouse. 4 How long will the land mourn and the grass in the fields dry up? The animals and birds are swept away due to the evil of those in the land. The people say, “God doesn’t see what we’re up to!” (Common English Bible)

Two years ago today, on December 14, 2012, a madman took an arsenal of high-powered guns and ammunition to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where, after having already shot and killed his own mother at their home, proceeded to then end the lives of twenty children and six of their teachers before committing suicide.  The massacre prompted much talk and navel-gazing from us as Americans, but very little substantive action was ever taken on a grand level as a result of Sandy Hook.

And so, this past week, one of the mothers who lost a child to the depravity of this mass murderer penned an open letter to the world on the Today show’s website.  Nicole Hockley wrote, in part:

To the mom I used to be:

Two years ago, on December 14, 2012, the world changed and you changed with it.  A disturbed young man with access to high-powered firearms went to your sons’ school and killed six educators and twenty first-graders.  Your eldest son Jake survived, but was changed by the day he discovered some monsters are real.  He describes it as the day “when hell came to my school.”  Your youngest son, Dylan, your beautiful baby boy…was killed.  Shot multiple times, dying instantly in the arms of his special education assistant who also died while trying to protect him.

The tragedy changed every single aspect of your life, not only because of the obvious absence of your child, but because of the constant hole inside you that can never be filled.  Your eldest son has been forced to grow up way too fast because of the unfathomable loss of his baby brother.  The pain has altered the lines on your husband’s face.  The way you look at the world has changed.  Your interactions with family and friends seem foreign.  You’ve become much harder.  No longer brimming with optimism, you are now someone far more realistic and still. 

Imagine tapping into that deep reservoir of hardness.  Imagine trying to reach for that kind of emptiness and use it for anything.  A lot of us would want to lash out, and so, too, I think, would the prophet Jeremiah, in this passage.  But that is only one small part of tapping into our anger.

How many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something
along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  We started out with Hannah’s chapter entitled “Realizing How  Much You Have,” last week, we heard from Hannah in her chapter entitled, “Experiencing the Lives of Others,” and this week, we’ll hear from her in her chapter entitled, “Tapping Into Anger:”

Some of us know right off the bat what we want to get involved in.  Whether it’s orphaned children, global warming, or abortion, some of us just know our thing.  But for those who haven’t latched onto something yet, one great tool to determine the answer is to think about what makes you really angry.  We care about issues because our gut says, “This is unfair—I should fix it.’

I cannot think of anything more unfair than a terrorist attack that snuffs out the lives of twenty children before they’ve learned to write in cursive—and I use the term “terrorist attack” very deliberately, because a terrorist can be white and American and still inflict mass terror on a people.

No, there is nothing fair about Newtown.  We’ll talk about it today, many of us across the United States, maybe even a few of us in churches, but then we will go right back tomorrow to the peppermint mochas and the light displays and that godawful “Christmas Shoes” song.

So what do we do with our fleeting moments of anger and despair at the injustice that is endemic to how we live today?  I mean, we’re just as prone to experiencing injustice now as in Jesus’ time, or even before, all the way back to Moses or Abraham.  In the span of over three millennia of recorded human history, we truly have evolved very little in the ways of fairness and justice, despite the presence of laws that are supposed to make us a civilized people and despite the presence of religion centered around a God who is supposed to make us a loving people.

And that’s where Jeremiah cuts in.  He is a prophet, a mouthpiece for that loving and just God, and what are almost the first words out of his mouth in this chapter?  “Why do guilty persons enjoy success?  Why are evildoers happy?  YOU plant them, and they take root; they flourish and bear fruit.”  Jeremiah is going through the exact same lament any of us would, bemoaning the state of the world and asking God, basically, why do such good things happen for such bad people?

On a micro-level, we might see this…a jerk in our neighborhood receiving a windfall, or a good-for-nothing so-and-so winning a jackpot lottery ticket, but those sorts of things tend to inspire envy rather than anger, and while anger goes unmentioned in the Ten Commandments, envy absolutely gets called out and prohibited.

So…back to the original question of just a few paragraphs previous: what are we to do with anger when we feel it?  A growing school of thought among Bible scholars and pastors is to include our anger in our prayers, to bring that anger to God.  After all, God’s a big boy, God can handle it.  At the very least, God could certainly handle it from Jeremiah, who demands that God take the evildoers around him and “butcher them like sheep, (and) prepare them for the slaughterhouse.”

We may well recoil at this sort of vividly violent wishing on Jeremiah’s part, but we ought not to, lest we come across as holier-than-thou to one of the greatest of Hebrew Bible prophets.  After all, how many of us—myself included—have not at one point wished ill upon another person purely out of anger or out of spite?  So let’s dispense with turning our noses up at what Jeremiah is saying, and instead turn our ears to what he is saying instead.

And what he is saying really is the angry lament of what should be all of us: why does God allow evil to prosper?  It’s the biggest existential question in a life of faith, and it’s the biggest because there is no good answer.  We can blame the devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, or Beelzebub, or whatever we’re calling him nowadays, but that’s incomplete because we usually just end up treating him like a biblical bogeyman or a conveniently created invisible friend to blame all of our wrongdoings on…because, again, if we are to be honest with ourselves, evil works within us and through us precisely through some of that very same anger and spite that we use to wish ill upon others.

We can blame God, but that’s just passing the buck in the worst possible sense.

Or, we can look inwards, towards ourselves.  We may not be the people who have most directly brought ruin to the world—we may not be the warlords in the global south, or petty despots running a countries as absolute dictators, or even the jerk who steals our internet and cable (I know, first world problems), but as long as we fail to care about soul-sized concerns that prevent people from having a certain minimum security about their livelihood, we are part of the problem, too.

But I also know we are aware of that—one of the best things that has happened to me this holiday season was the church lunch we had together on Thursday—several of us all gathered in the library, set out tables and chairs, and shared the comfort food of chicken and macaroni and cheese together, and the conversation around the table wasn’t centered around the more superficial aspects of Christmas—the visits to Santa or the recipes for egg nog—but about our own experiences of seeing and being part of true, back-breaking poverty around the world.  The stories came from peoples’ time in Africa, and Asia, and Mexico, and all points in between—there was a lot of life lived in the people in that room, and it showed that day over lunch.

And believe me, trust me, when I tell you that this is absolutely what Christmas is all about. When God came to earth, He did not do so in the form of a pampered, catered-to prince, ensconced in some palace far from the people, no God came to earth in the form of a baby boy as poor as the dirt He was born in.  God spoke to us with His birth, and that choice of how He was to be born was an emphatic choice for those of us who have been put down in the dirt as well, those of us who have been brought low by the iniquities and evils of this world and pray to be lifted up again once more.

There is an ending to Nicole Hockley’s letter to the mother she used to be, and to all of us.  It is an ending that demonstrates how she has tapped into that emptiness and powered on to work towards the real, substantive change we desperately needed on this day two years ago and never truly found, and I leave it here as the most appropriate ending to today’s message, without any further comment:

I am beginning to feel some of my old optimism returning, because more and more people are engaging around this issue.  Our conversation is gaining momentum.  I sense a sea change is coming.  I know everything we’re doing at Sandy Hook Promise will protect more children.  We’re fighting a good fight.

But after every sort of victory, there’s also a moment of incredible sadness for me, for whatever happens, I know I still can’t bring Dylan back.  That hole will never be filled.  No matter how many lives get saved in his name, or in the name of others, I can’t go back.  But you can go forward, and make a difference.  With love, Nicole Hockley


Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 14, 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

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

(I got caught up in all of my writing as November turned into December--so much so that I forgot that I had posted this month's newsletter and new sermon series outline!  Apologies. ~E.A.)

December 2014:   "Homes, not Mangers"

Dear Church,

Every year, at some point during December, I get out my nativity set that was a gift from my family and place it on my desk. Carved of wood in the West Bank by ethically-supported artists, it sits in my office as a reminder of the scene in which the Christ first came bodily into this world. And I am willing to bet many of you have nativity sets yourselves that you use to decorate your own homes and desks during this time of year!

I have been thinking a lot about the manger scene lately, though, and to be honest, not all of it has been good. We all know *why* Jesus is born in a manger--there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn. But inns back then didn't necessarily operate on the first-come, first-served basis that hotels do today with their roms. The more likely scenario is that the innkeeper simply didn't see Mary and Joseph as important enough to shelter in his establishment, which is saddening for any family, but especially a family with a nine-months-pregnant wife.

The rest of the story is well-known to us: Jesus is born, wrapped in cloth, and laid in a manger, and He is visited by the shepherds and, according to Matthew's Gospel, the magi. And as He grows, He becomes homeless once more, as Joseph and Mary escape into Egypt from Israel, and as an adult, He is homeless yet again: "Jesus replied, 'Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.'" (Luke 9:58)

Just because we follow a homeless Savior, though, does not mean that we ourselves have to make one another homeless. To the contrary, we are called to save one another from it, to create homes for each other. It is something that many of you have yourselves done this year for Habitat for Humanity as a house has been built for our own Dave and Donna, but it is also something we called to do spiritually, to create and provide spiritual homes for each other.

Christmas is a season where, both in spite of and because of the nature of the season, people are apt to feel spiritually homeless. How can you work to invite them in out of the emotional and religious cold and into the warmth of acceptance and grace? How can you act to make sure that the people in your life have places to rest their heads? And what are you prepared to give of yourself to ensure that in the many Christmases to come that all of God's children have a spiritual and physical home--and not a manger--to bring themselves to when it is time to celebrate the birth of our Lord?

I cannot pretend that I have the answers to those questions. But they are questions we must ask ourselves nonetheless. The circumstances of Christ's birth demand that of us.

I wish you and yours a very safe, blessed, and merry Christmas, and a similarly joyous New Year!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

This Month in Worship: December 2014 

About as soon as Thanksgiving ends, we usually enter the church season called Advent, which marks the beginning of a new year on the church calendar as well as the beginning of our awaiting of the baby Christ. Just as Lent is meant to be a time for repentance and preparation for Easter and the coming resurrection that we know is around the corner, so too is Advent meant to be a time of repentance and preparation for Christmas and the coming birth that we know is around the corner. 

In describing the arrival of Christ, I especially love Paul's words in Philippians 2, where he writes, "(Jesus), though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness." Christmas, as Paul puts it, is about Christ emptying Himself, and yet, we tend to make it about fortifying ourselves...if not on all of the presents, certainly on the egg nog! 

So my sermon series will be about one family's quest to empty their own material lives by half: halving the size of the house they live in, going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards. They then gave away all of the proceeds! Kevin and Hannah Salwen, the father and daughter of this family, wrote a book about it, entitled "The Power of Half," and it will serve as the basis for our Advent sermon series as I take you through passages of one of the Old Testament prophets whose life was emptied out when his home country was conquered and he himself was sent into exile: Jeremiah. 

We'll hear from Jeremiah as well as from Kevin and Hannah as we strive to empty ourselves in preparation to be fulfilled by the coming of the baby boy in Bethlehem, and I'm excited to share in that with you!

Advent 2014 sermon series: “The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything” 

November 30: “Realizing How Much You Have,” Jeremiah 22:11-17
December 7: “Experiencing the Lives of Others,” Jeremiah 8:8-11
December 14: “Tapping Into Anger,” Jeremiah 12:1-4
December 21: “Inspiring Others to Join You,” Jeremiah 40:1-6
December 24 (Christmas Eve, 7:00 pm): “Into Heaven,” Luke 2:1-20

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

10 Secrets Your Pastors Wish You Knew About Them

It's Christmastime, and us pastors are enjoying getting to spend that season with you and with lots of other folks who find this to be a time to reconnect with a church community after months or even years away.  It is a busy time for us, but often an enriching one as well.

To take a bit of advantage with that renewed focus, I want to share with y'all several secrets about pastors everywhere--not every pastor may have all 10 of these apply to them, but I'm willing to bet at least a few apply to almost all of us.  And as a disclaimer--not all of these apply to me, either.  These are based on both myself and on what has been confided to me by different colleagues at different times.  Nor are these necessarily a reflection of the church I serve, either.  But they are, I think, a reflection of the experiences of many pastors, and my hope is that you would take them to heart as you pray for your pastor(s) this Christmas season!  (You are praying for your pastor, right?  Even if it is for them to get a modicum of theological sense?)

1-We care about you, often more than you much that sometimes, it hurts.

The tears I shed with you are real.  The hugs I give you are genuine.  I've lost sleep at times praying over and worrying over the crises happening in your life and how best I can help you and be there for you.  I'm not your pastor simply because I am paid to do it--I'm your pastor because I love doing it and I love you.  And I always will.  For as long as God continues to work in me, my prayer is that my love for the people I serve will be unchangeable.
2-Just because you stopped attending does not mean that we have forgotten about you.

Intellectually, I understand if/when a family stops attending--they move away, or a major life change has happened--but that doesn't mean it doesn't cause pain.  I sometimes find myself terribly missing people who have drifted away.  I stay in contact with them if I am able to, and I reassure them that I and the church continue to be there for them, but it's like seeing a loved one go, because, well, I love them too (see #1).  I wish I didn't have to see them go, but I have had to do exactly that.  And so, like the prophets of old, we lament and we mourn those whom we have lost.

3-Much of our work is invisible to most of the church.

Honestly, close to a majority of my work time is spent alone--my preparation for the Bible studies I teach, the writing of my sermons, my own personal prayer and study time, the returning of emails/phone calls/etc., all of those are tasks that I fly solo on, and they probably constitute half of my full-time workweek.  And as an introvert, this suits me fine, because those are periods when I can recharge after, say, an emotional hospital visit or an intense pastoral counseling session or a particularly energetic outreach day.  But those are also demanding, draining tasks in other ways as well, even if you aren't there to see them being done, which leads me to...

4-We work for God.

Our call to ministry came from God, and it is God to whom our lives are pledged in sacred service.  Everyone else--regional ministers, denominational staffers, boards of directors, personnel committees, whoever--is middle management.  That isn't to say we aren't accountable to those who manage us, because we are, and we ought to be.  It is to say, though, that our ultimate boss is, well, everyone else's ultimate boss as well, and we take guidance from God first.  Or at least we try to.  It does not mean your input is always valued, it simply means that God may have, in our prayer practices and study of Scripture and our partnerships of accountability, revealed a different direction for us to take.

5-We’re terrified that our impact in your life is limited to Sundays.

Most of your life is lived away from the confines of the church and its community presences—in your homes and workplaces, your gyms and favorite haunts, and I don’t see any of that.  Not that I want to—I’m a pastor, not a government agent—but it means that I have no way of knowing if what I am saying to you and teaching to you on Sundays is making any difference, or if you’re just going through the motions the other six days a week.  We have radar for when something might be off in someone’s life, but we’re not psychics.  If we’re making a difference in your life, let us know.  And if we’re not, conversely, let us know, and tell us (gently, please) how we might be able to.

6-We wish our churches wouldn’t sweat the small stuff.

To borrow from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, pastors can cook up all sorts of cockamamie theories about God or Jesus or Scripture, and nobody bats an eye, but then the pastor suggests changing the color of the carpet, and everybody loses their minds!  Which is to say...we desperately want you to care about the soul-sized stuff we care about: bringing people into a right relationship with God, seeking God's will and justice and mercy in a hurting world, and about doing these things with more enthusiasm than engaging in yet another debate about which dishes do or do not qualify as 'casseroles.'

7-We have our own ministerial bete noires.

I get that we're all on the same team here, trying to offer the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people.  But that doesn't mean I am necessarily on board with how every other minister does it, because I have seen how the teaching and behavior of many pastors have wounded their followers.  So whenever I see anyone sharing a quote from, say, Joel Osteen or Paula White, I have to suppress my gag reflex, because what many famous pastors teach sadly is not always a healthy form of Christianity (like Osteen's and White's prosperity gospel theology).  I know that can sound like jealousy, and for some of us, it may well be, but for others of us, it's a form of protectiveness.  (And to be honest, I am sure there are pastors who would not want to see their parishioners reading the screeds of a miscreant like me.  Probably a lot of pastors.)

8-We're learning as we go along.

I cannot begin to emphasize how much of what we do as parish pastors was not taught to us in seminary, because how seminary education works (in my experience) is to get you to think like a minister, not how to actually do ministry.  And so instead of taking classes on people management, business administration, and abnormal psychology, we can elucidate the finer points of the eschatology of asparagus during the papacy of Adrian IV.  For much of our work as pastors, there is no real instruction manual (not that it doesn't stop the pastors of megachurches from trying by writing their many, many books about how much they rock), and we have to figure out what we're doing one day at a time, which means that we are bound to make mistakes (see below).  Please forgive us when we inevitably do.

9-We're not perfect.

We're not fragile little playthings who faint or get offended the moment some utters a swear word around us--in fact, many of us got into ministry precisely because we are aware of just how dark our dark sides really are, and we know just how much we have to rely on God's love and grace to prevent ourselves from indulging in those darker parts of our personalities.  In fact, we'd just as soon rather you not edit yourselves around us--we crave authenticity, it is what we do our best work with.  So let it be one of your gifts to us.

10-We're not invulnerable.

On the contrary, we are incredibly vulnerable.  We have to be in order to put our beliefs and hopes about God on display in worship week in and week out.  We don't always show you when we're hurting, but we hurt.  Sometimes, a lot.  For the world around us, for you, and for ourselves.  For all the amazing compliments we might get from an appreciative church, it is the one nasty comment or the one passive-aggressive text message that derails us emotionally.  We can't help it.  Maybe we should.  But we can't.  Having a thick skin helps, but even the thickest of skins can be pierced by the right words.

Pastors, what do you wish your churches knew about you?  Non-pastors, what do you wish your pastor could talk to you about?  What am I leaving out on this (admittedly non-exhaustive) list?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 7, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Experiencing the Lives of Others"

Jeremiah 8:8-11

8 How can you say, “We are wise; we possess the Lord’s Instruction,” when the lying pen of the scribes has surely distorted it? 9 The wise will be shamed and shocked when they are caught. Look, they have rejected the Lord’s word; what kind of wisdom is that? 10 Therefore, I will give their wives to others and their fields to their captors. From the least to the greatest, all are eager to profit. From prophet to priest, all trade in falsehood. 11 They treat the wound of my people as if it were nothing: “All is well, all is well,” they insist, when in fact nothing is well. (Common English Bible)

“The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything,” Week Two

The Abers were a heavily indebted suburban family with a mortgage on a three-bedroom home, student loans, and maxed out credit cards.  They drove used cars and could not afford health insurance after the…father…lost his long-time job as a computer engineer.  His unemployment had run out and he could not find work.  The…mother (Ann) worked for $9 an hour as a full-time hospital receptionist.  Their three children, ages 16, 10, and 8, lived at home.  Their daughter, 16-year-old Alice, was pregnant.

Ann made $1,324 a month after taxes, but the families (sic) total expenses were $1,545 per month, and even with a combined $540 in food stamps, the family couldn’t make ends meet.  Within a month of time compressed into one hour, the family didn’t even buy groceries for the first two weeks.  And when Alice was arrested for bringing a weapon to school, the family couldn’t immediately afford to bail her out…(and) they managed to pay their mortgage with cash, but then got an eviction notice because they had no record of the payment.

The Abers, fortunately, are not a real family—they are a figment, a fiction invented for the purposes of a simulation run by our own Community Action Program here in Longview, for folks here in town to try to simulate living within the means of an impoverished family.  Unfortunately, though, the challenges faced by the Abers are the exact same ones faced by families here in town—families who may be your neighbors, families who may in fact be yourselves.

And at least for an hour that day, people tried to live out the Biblical dictum of walking in another person’s shoes—albeit still presumably with their own warm shoes still on, in a heated room rather than out in the elements or in an inadequate home with boatloads of deferred maintenance.  But that sort of empathy is what is required of us, if we are to ultimately live out a truly Christian life.

How many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  Last week, we heard from Hannah in her chapter entitled, “Realizing How Much You Have,” and this week, we’ll hear from her in her chapter entitled, “Experiencing the Lives of Others:”

A major problem of motivation is that most people cannot even begin to feel what people with less means go through every day.  Many people feel pity for people less fortunate than themselves.  But the big leap is from pity to honest understanding.  For me, a very important step in our project was to look at my life compared to others.

Have you ever heard the old Indian folktale of the blind men and the elephant?  In the story, a group of blind men touch an elephant and then describe what they are feeling.  One rubs the tail and thinks the elephant is like a rope; others compare the parts to a wall or a snake.  The point of the fable is that people see only a small portion of reality.  We live in a narrow world, and it’s so important to see things from different perspectives.

So what on earth does this “experiencing the lives of others” sentiment have to do with what Jeremiah is saying here in his eighth chapter?  Because, if you recall what I said in last week’s message, Jeremiah’s world is one of complete and utter loss: of his home, of his homeland, of his country, of his dignity as an Israelite Jew.  And he cannot escape this life of his that he has been consigned to when Babylon conquers Judah, sacks the capital city, Jerusalem, and destroys the Jerusalem temple that King Solomon built.  As Hebrew Bible professor Louis Stulman writes:

Jeremiah himself…is a prisoner of such a world.  He cannot escape (and neither can we).  The prophet from Anathoth is never afforded the opportunity to speak as mere outsider or messenger.  He must participate in the anguish of God and in the death of Judah’s world.  Like the God of Israel, Jeremiah endures the pain of rejection and bears the sorrow of scorn and reproach.

Jeremiah is immersed in this travesty, there is no possible out for him.  That is why we need to try to understand and experience his life if we are to take full meaning from his prophecies.  And in point of fact, he lends a word to how we manage to isolate ourselves from the experiences of others in this passage from Jeremiah 8, when he says, “How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,’ when the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?”

The passage for today begins with that verse, but that verse actually comes from the middle of a prophecy—I had to do something I really don’t like to do for the sake of giving an effective sermon, and slice out all of the context of the preceding verses, but otherwise, there would be no way for me to effectively communicate this sentiment to you in one go.  Don’t blame Jeremiah, blame me.

So how does the ‘lying pen of the scribes’ factor in here?  The scribes were a part of the religious elite in Jerusalem, who, along with the priests and the monarchy itself, were responsible for the handing down of religious teachings and traditions from one generation to the next.  And as we established last week, the scribes completely fell down on the job in acquiescing to Shallum’s and Jehoiakim’s move away from the worship of God that their father King Josiah insisted upon right back towards the Ba’als that Israel had been enthralled with for far too long already.

The scribes’ false teachings lead, Jeremiah says, “the wise (to) be put to shame…dismayed, and trapped.”  Trapped in what?  Trapped in a world put forward by the scribes, by the priests, by the king himself, constructed only around one narrative, that the only acceptable form of worship is the worship of the Ba’als, and at the expense of experiencing the genuine worship of God.  The scribes, under the king, shut off an entire world, an entire reality, centered around the love of a God who called them to be His children and to treat His children justly and lovingly.  A God who is actually worthy of our worship.  A God who was experienced by others, possibly even these scribes’ parents.

But they shut off others from that experience.  And Jeremiah is rightfully taking them to task for it.

And today, voluntarily in our choices of what perspectives and viewpoints we consume, we tend to act just like the scribes of Jeremiah’s time: we shut ourselves off from the experiences of others.

Let me use an innocuous example--I can probably find a Kansas City Chiefs bar in the greater Portland area somewhere where I can pretend I am still in Kansas City and not living amongst you, my lovely Seahawks fans!

But that is a problem in the big world, though…for us as people, for us as the church, for us as Christians.  Because we can talk until we are blue in the face about how we are not of this world and are merely passing through and to remain uncorrupted by the world—and while that last bit is in fact Scriptural (James 1), that does not mean we should not have roots in this world that extend far beyond the bubbles we set up for ourselves around hearth and home.  Because without venturing outside of our bubbles, we are liable to do the same thing that Jeremiah laments at the end of this passage: to not recognize the wounds and hurts of God’s people, to insist that everything is well when everything is not at all well.

And that—more than anything else—is what is, I think, characterizing the national debate taking place right now over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Some of us, instead of seeing a concern, insist that all is well, all is well, when so, so many of our brothers and sisters of color will tell you things are anything but well.

It isn’t just Ferguson, or New York, or “race relations,” whatever that means, either.  It’s everything.

We sit down to a festive meal in a warm dining room with our family and we think to ourselves, “All is well,” when just down the road, when just across the river, when just a stone’s throw through town, a person in addiction is choosing that night between getting shelter or getting high.

We decorate our Christmas tree with ornaments and tinsel and lights, we admire the beauty of our handiwork, and we think to ourselves, “All is well,” when halfway around the world, another Christian, or another person, or another family, has no house to decorate to begin with.

And I can well imagine that two thousand years ago, at an inn in Bethlehem, an innkeeper looked at his books for the night, saw that he had a full house, and thought to himself, “All is well,” even as a nine-months-pregnant teenaged girl labored to give birth to the Messiah this innkeeper had awaited.

Far too often, our lives are imperfect and incomplete, and we use our religion as a security blanket to make that broken state of affairs okay, or at least excusable, so that we can continue to worship God in comfort, when in fact worshipping God has never, ever, been about our personal comfort.

God, even in the form of a tiny newborn son, was always far, far bigger than our personal comfort.

That’s what these attempts are to get us who are not impoverished to try to experience poverty.  Without experiencing others’ discomfort and danger, we are always going to be less liable to care about it…and to care about finding a solution to it.

May we, then, take as our example the Christ who had divinity itself and surrendered it in order to experience our human discomforts and dangers, so that, as a human He might one day save us all.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

December 7, 2014

(Note: If you'd like to take part in a short poverty simulation like the one I talked about today, please click on the "Spent Game" link on the side of my blog.  Spent is a program run by an agency in Durham, North Carolina, and their awareness work with this simulation is top-notch.)