Thursday, April 30, 2015

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

May 2015: "Eleven Families"

Dear Church,

Beginning this year, and with the strong support of our congregation's Board of Directors, I began directing 50% of my monthly discretionary fund allocation--a line item intended for families and households in acute and immediate need on our community--to a coordinated entry fund that is jointly administered by two local Christian agencies: Love Overwhelming and Love INC (Love In the Name of Christ). 

This fund is made up of regular contributions from congregations just like us across the Kelso-Longview area in an attempt to create a much larger pool of resources with which to stem the terrible tide of homelessness that our wider community faces. For instance, we as a sole congregation could often only afford to cobble together a small amount of money to telp a family with a utilities shutoff or an eviction notice.

By contrast, though, I got to hear from Caleb Luther at Love Overwhelming at this month's Kelso-Longview Ministerial Asosciation meeting, and he notified us that just in this year so far, eight families whom were previously homeless now have permanent housing through the fund, and another three families whom would ahve been evicted have been able to keep their housing. That is eleven families still in their homes who otherwise would almost certainly be out on the streets, and that is more than what we would have been able to do by ourselves with our modest resources.

Ever since I arrived here in the summer of 2011, I have been gratified and humbled by this congregation's devotion to--and emphasis upon--mission in our local commnity, be it in partnership with Kessler Elementary School, or Community House, or Phoenix House, or the Caring Pregnancy Center. Indeed, it is one of the qualities that attracted me here and that I felt was a sign from God pushing me to accept this call. It is my fervent hope and prayer that our striving for mission on behalf of the God we know, love, and serve, will only grow stronger during our time together. The Bible is exceedingly clear on the topic of serving those of us who are poor, and of seeking permanent solutions to their plights rather than simply band-aids.

That is what my discretionanary fund sometimes was--a band-aid for much deeper wounds that required much more systematic care. Through this new coordinated entry fund, I believe we--and fellow congregations just like us--are beginning to provide a bit of that systematic care. And if you or someone you know is imminently facing homelessness, please feel free to point them in my direction, and I would be more than happy to give them the appropriate contact information to see if they are able to use coordinated entry to help stabilize their lives.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Problem with Peddling Fear

In our Tuesday morning Bible study class, generally attended by our retirees and our folks who work evenings, we just started a short unit on a few of the "minor" prophets of the Hebrew Bible: Zephaniah, Zechariah, and Malachi.  In Zephaniah, the entire first two chapters (essentially, the first 2/3's of the book, since it is only three chapters long) are a discursive screed on the terrible coming of the day of the Lord: the stuff we call today "fire and brimstone" preaching.  It strikes fear into us, as well it probably ought to.

But as we discussed in our class, for someone like Zephaniah, whose ancestor was the righteous King Hezekiah, to see his country fall and burn around him was what brought about the fear and anger, and for him, the Lord coming would well be a source of comfort and reassurance, because he is already losing opposed to us who still have so much left to lose.

And that is where American Christians are today: we still have so much left to lose, even if we pretend that we do not by claiming persecution at every turn.

Just south of me in Oregon, Judge Alan McCullough handed down a $130,000 fine upon the Kleins, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, for refusing to serve a lesbian couple who wanted a wedding cake for their marriage ceremony.  Melissa and Aaron Klein cited their religious beliefs as the basis for their refusal of service, but "a 2007 Oregon law protects the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people in employment, housing and public accommodations. It provides an exemption for religious organizations but does not allow private businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation." (source: The Seattle Times)

Sweet Cakes By Melissa, though run by Christians, was (is) a for profit private enterprise, and thus did not qualify for the religious organization exemption.

In the wake of the judgment, reactions (as is wont to be the case in our social media saturated environment fueled by a 24/7 news cycle) were swift, including two I want to highlight.

One is a Gofundme campaign for the Kleins, which was eventually shut down after donations reached $109,000.

Why is this important?  Well, for a few reasons.  One is that $109,000 could, a the risk of sounding manipulatively guilty, feed a lot of malnourished kids or put a lot of homeless people into shelters.

But another is the claim that this fine would in fact make the Kleins homeless themselves, that it would bankrupt them.  Fox News commentator Todd Starnes repeated this particular canard on the radio, and it is easily disproven.

On a micro level, dealing only with the Kleins, the $109,000 raised so far was, per Gofundme in the article I link to above, still made available to them, which would cover over 80 percent of the original fine.  Now, I don't meant to make light of the remaining amount of the fine still left outstanding: that's a serious chunk of change as well.  But considering the rapid success of establishments like Sweet Cakes and Memories Pizza at raising money after going public with their homophobia, I have little doubt that Sweet Cakes could secure the remaining funding, and then some, through private donations.

On a macro level, though, what Starnes is saying: that GLBTQ follks and their straight allies want to drive Christians out of their homes and businesses is point blank untrue.  Because first of all, it isn't all Christians: lots and lots of Christians support marriage equality; depending on who you ask, majorities of Catholics, young evangelicals, and mainline Christians all support marriage equality.

To illustrate the character of our support, I would simply tell you this story, that was conveyed to me last weekend at a meeting of my region's board of directors (of which I am one), if you've been reading my blog, you'll recall that in March, I devoted quite a bit of digital ink to exhorting my denomination, the Disciples of Christ, to denounce the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Indiana, where the Disciples are headquartered and where, in 2017, we had planned to hold our General Assembly.

Upon Governor Pence's signature of the RFRA bill into law, our General Board voted unanimously to authorize the office of our General Minister and President, Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, to reopen the bid process for hosting our 2017 General Assembly.

In the interim,though, the RFRA was amended, and one of those amendments was to allow municipal nondiscrimination statutes to supersede the RFRA.  And Indianapolis, the city of our headquarters and which would have hosted our General Assembly, does in fact have a strong nondiscrimination statute on its books.

My regional board's moderator conveyed this all to me and the other board members to explain why, then, our General Board voted to keep the 2017 General Assembly in Indianapolis upon passage of the amended RFRA.  And when I told my wife this story, her immediate reaction was, "That's so need to be able to say 'yes' to the parts of the state that are doing right by your gay and lesbian colleagues instead of being forced to leave the state entirely."

More than that, though, our recommitment to Indiana acts, I believe, as a direct rebuttal to the line trotted out by folks like Todd Starnes that gay and lesbian people and their allies are out only to destroy.  They, and we, are clearly not.  We, the Disciples of Christ, asked for nondiscrimination protection for our gay and lesbian General Assembly attendees.  We got what we asked for, and we continued with our commitment to hold our 2017 General Assembly as planned.

There was no vindictiveness.  There was no "f*** you."  There was no revenge.

Because none of that is Christ like.  And we are the Disciples of Christ.

Which means that, the next time you hear someone saying that Christians are under attack in America, please, I ask you, lend an ear to what I have said here.  We aren't interested in putting people under attack.  We never have been.  And when you're gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender and have faced hate crimes and violence and discrimination for decades and centuries in this country, you know what being under attack looks like.

What we seek is protection and reconciliation.  This is not an "us versus them" thing.  It never has been.  It never ought to be.

And yet, for as long as we peddle in fear, and play on peoples' fears, rather than peddling faith and playing on peoples' faith, it will continue to mournfully and lamentably be so.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Wrath

The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird.

The Iliad of Homer, Book I, lines 1 to 4

Every school year, thousands of high school and college students open up their copies of the Iliad, read those sweeping opening lines of Homer, "Sing, O Goddess, of the wrath of Peleus's son Achilles..."

...and decide to just read the SparkNotes.

Me?  I had to read parts of the Iliad's sequel, the Odyssey (for my money the first sequel ever to buck the rule that sequels suck compared to the originals) in the Greek for my Greek 201 class in college and translate them as a part of my coursework.

And it was there, reimmersing myself in a story I had long ignored since sophomore year English in high school, that I finally understood something.

Everything that Homer said, that he wrote, that he sang (for his poetry, like Shakespeare's, was put to to verse) all began with this one great and terrible word: mhnin.

In English, we say wrath.

Everything that comes forth in this story of gods and kings, of heroes and warriors, of life and truly terrible death, comes forth because of the mhnin.

Because of the wrath.

Because of the wrath, woes were brought upon the Greeks.

Because of the wrath, heroes were condemned to hell.

Because of the wrath, men and women, children and babies, were made the spoils for scavenging dogs and carrion birds.

And because of the wrath, our mhnin, today,

If I could translate mhnin now, I would simply say: look at Baltimore, Maryland.

Look and behold a wrath so great and terrible, so furious and unholy, that it spares not the man who finds himself in police custody, spine severed almost entirely in two, to die slowly and painfully over the course of a full week.

Look and behold a wrath so awful and sickening, so livid and pervasive, that it calls peaceful protests a "lynch mob" and sees its citizens as enemies, not as neighbors.

And if you cannot see that wrath for your having instead seen and condemned only the wrath expressed in the burning of drugstores and the setting of cars afire...

...that's part of the problem.

The mhnin in Baltimore existed long before the first rock was thrown and the first Molotov cocktail was ignited.

And while I am certain that the destructiveness of arson and looting grieves God (I mean, for f***'s sake, some jerks tried to set my church on fire over Thanksgiving weekend in 2012), I am as certain of this:

God even more powerfully grieves the destructiveness that comes from a legacy and history of lynching and beating and spine severing.

God grieves far more powerfully the destructiveness done against His own children than the God does the destructiveness done against their property.

And it can be no other way: God is, as Christ says, God of the living and not of the dead.

But did not Freddie Gray have a pulse?  Did he not belong as a son to a mother?  And can we ever say the same of a storefront, or a car, or a window?

Is God not more the God of Freddie Gray and the police officers who murdered him and denied him immediate medical care more than God is the God of our things and our stuffs?

And if God is more greatly grieved at the loss of life, and the injury to people (including fifteen police officers), then what business have we expressing our wrath and condemnation upon the riots after our radio silence after the news of Freddie Gray's murder first broke?

Sing to me, then O goddess, of the wrath, the wrath of God.

The wrath that I know, surely as I live and breathe, that I too will one day face when I die and await judgment in the last days.

What I rest firm in, though, is this: that when I do experience the thunder and fury of God's own wrath, it will be because I know that I did not fully and truly love my neighbor as myself as Christ commanded, and commanded so explicitly, when asked what the most important commandments are.

It will be because I know that I could have done more to stop suffering, to kneel and pray with the hurting and the downtrodden, and to strive with ever fiber of my being to lift them to new heights scarcely imagined by humanity before or since.

It will be because I know that I have, in every sense of the term, fallen short of that which I believe Christianity boils down to: "How can I love God and people the way that Jesus loved me?" and not "How can I love my things the way that Jesus loved me?"

Imagine, then, the wrath of God for us valuing our property before our people, and especially our people of color.

Imagine the wrath of God for us not believing, and not for a second wanting to believe, the stories of discrimination and pain...physical, mental, emotional, spiritual pain, of people of color that came at our hands.

That is the mhnin of Baltimore: a wrath of such proportions that it comes only when a people have been so systematically and heartlessly put down for centuries that only liberation from that reality will do.

Such was the case for the Israelites in Egypt, when God decided, at long last, to free them from their enslavement to Pharaoh.

Such was the case for the Israelites in the time of Rome, when God decided, at long last, to become flesh to free them from sin itself.

And such, then, may it be the case for us today, if God decides, in wisdom and in mercy, to free us from the pain we inflict so shamefully upon one another.

Because we do indeed know better.

In truth, we have always known better.

And we can no longer plead ignorance before God to the truth that our brothers and sisters of color deserve far better than what they have experienced.

Sing to me, then, O goddess, of the wrath.

And pray for me, and for all those who still await it.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 27, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "To Forgive the Thirst"

John 8:1-11

And Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he returned to the temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Placing her in the center of the group, 4 they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. 5 In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” 8 Bending down again, he wrote on the ground. 9 Those who heard him went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Finally, only Jesus and the woman were left in the middle of the crowd. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” (Common English Bible)

“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week Two

In her right hand is the power and accuracy to hurl a baseball faster than I could as a grown man, and with much more precision to boot.  In her voice is a story that captured the hearts and attention of an entire nation.  And in her heart is, well, an awful, awful lot of forgiveness.

Back during the Little League World Series, Mo’ne Davis became a household name for her heroic pitching performances in a mostly male-dominated sport.  But she also seriously bucked the meathead-jock stereotype in interviews with her incisive and insightful quotes—to the point that she already has a memoir out.  By contrast, at her age, I was content with beating Ganondorf over and over again in the final level of The Legend of Zelda.

Sadly and perhaps inevitably, Mo’ne Davis also attracted trolls and jerks who wanted nothing more than to make themselves feel taller than by putting this adolescent girl of color back down, calling her “trash” and saying things like, “the real question is, can she cook?”  The worst, though, came from a college baseball player, Joey Casselberry, who, incredulous at the attention Mo’ne was attracting, tweeted, “Disney is making a movie about Mo’ne Davis?  WHAT A JOKE.  That slut got rocked by Nevada.”

This wasn’t a peer of Mo’ne calling her a slut—this was a college man, quite a few years older than her and legally an adult.  The reaction from Casselberry’s college was simple and swift: they kicked him off their baseball team.  But Mo’ne, once again taking the media pedestal with both hands and standing upon it aloft, said this:

Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone deserves a second chance.  I know he didn’t mean it in that type of way.  I know a lot of people get tired of seeing me on TV, but sometimes you’ve got to think about what you’re doing before you actually do it.  I know right now he’s really hurt, and I know how hard he worked just to get ot hwere he is right now.  I was pretty hurt on my part, but I know he’s hurt.  He’s hurt even more.

Holy fastballs.  Somebody, nominate this kid for a Nobel in something, anything.

And I tell this story not because it is merely one about forgiveness, or advocating for second chances.  I tell it because it is a story of someone who, when publicly shamed with the label “slut,” recognized that it was in fact her harasser who was far more wounded and broken than she would ever be.  As is the case here, in John 8, with the woman caught in adultery and her fervent accusers.

This is a new sermon series for us, to begin a not too terribly new is a few weeks old, at least: Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many Christian mystics throughout history, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s often soaring word choice, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the individual disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, two weeks ago with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray.  After skipping a week, we’re back on course, this time with Gibran’s version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which Gibran assigns to the voice of the apostle Andrew:

And again (Jesus) looked into her eyes, and He said, “You have loved overmuch.  They who brought you here loved but little.  But they brought you here as a snare for my ensnaring.  Now go in peace.  None of them is here to judge you.  And if it is in your desire to be wise even as you are loving, then seek me; for the Son of Man will not judge you.”

And I wondered then whether He said this to her because He Himself was not without sin.

Imagine that thought crossing through your mind…you believe in Jesus, you have even felt called to follow Him, but you’re still trying to figure out exactly who He really is.  And honestly, you can’t blame Andrew if he did in fact wonder that.  None of the other eleven apostles had quite figured out who Jesus was and what He really meant, never mind that the crowds that followed Jesus got it just as wrong as well, trying to carry Him off to crown Him as their conquering king to violently overthrow the Romans.

And really, this situation would have been so beyond the norm for anyone who witnessed it, they all would probably be left wondering, “Who the heck is this guy who stands in the way of executions and forgives the condemned of their sins?”  Honestly, it was kind of what I asked myself about Mo’ne Davis…who is this girl stands in front of the people who slut-shame her and forgives them for doing so?

We ask that about people who so greatly challenge our assumptions of what we believe to be true that we often cannot help but do a double-take.  And the assumption in New Testament Israel, ever since the Torah was handed down to Moses up atop Sinai some 1,400 years ago, was that adultery was a capital crime, punishable by death by stoning.

Except that it wasn’t really punishable by death, at least, not for both culprits.  You’ll notice that this anonymous woman’s dance partner, whoever he is, is conspicuously absent.  You’ll also notice that she is treated as a means to an end, and that end is to entrap Jesus, not to actually strive for justice.

Now, let’s be honest with ourselves here: how often have we used a woman as a means to an end?

How many of us have used a woman for our own selfishness or gain, to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to her, or to make ourselves look better by going out with her, or to make ourselves act bigger by talking down to her?

Because that is what is happening here.  The woman isn’t being asked what happened, or what should happen to her.  Jesus is.  The woman isn’t just talked down to or compared against, she is treated as a complete, utter non-entity, worthy only of the role of prop in this ongoing drama that John’s Gospel depicts of the Pharisees and Sadducees scheming against Jesus, a drama that, at least in John, stretches all the way back to the very beginning of Jesus's ministry, which is where, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John places the cleansing of the temple and its subsequent backlash.

This treatment of the anonymous, adulterous woman then gets played out, again and again, in our own lives, in our own media, and sometimes, by our own voices, simply because that is what we do when we are so thirsty for validation in our lives that the only way we think that we can obtain it is by treating someone else as so unworthy of us that we must cast them away like a used plaything.

But when someone treats you like that?  That’s the key thing—it’s directed at you.  It’s inherently personal.  Maybe we should all be able to be like Taylor Swift and shake it off (I also feel like I might be going to hell for making a Taylor Swift reference, especially if God is, say, a Katy Perry or Lady Gaga fan instead..."That pastor should have known what my musical tastes were, and he made a T-Swift reference!  Smite!"), but we—and I don’t really mean we here, I mean women—shouldn’t have to shake it off: such insulting names shouldn’t be used to begin with.

Yet Mo’ne Davis does, and she forgives Joey Casselberry to boot.  She gets called the slut, but still steps out in front of the stones being thrown at him.  She didn’t have to, and shouldn’t have to, but then again, Jesus didn’t have to stand in front of the woman caught in adultery and keep the temple authorities from stoning her—and He certainly shouldn’t have to, and I’ll let C.S. Lewis explain why:

Though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here.  If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.  The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power and of hatred…That is why a cold, self-righteous prick who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than the prostitute.

Writ onto this story from John 8, the men who have brought this adulterous woman to Jesus may well be closer to hell than she is.  And Jesus knows it.  But now, so does the woman.  Her sins are forgiven, and she goes in peace to not sin more.  And here, once more, I pick up where I left off with Khalil Gibran’s words, as spoken by Andrew, about this amazing teacher who even forgives sin and who He might really, truly be:

But since that day I have pondered long, and I know now that only the pure of heart forgive the thirst that leads to dead waters. 

And only the sure of foot can give a hand to him who stumbles. 

And again and yet again I say, the bitterness of death is less bitter than life without Him.

May our own thirsts for sin be forgiven by He who has conquered sin.  And may we too come to embrace the reality that such forgiveness makes even death less bitter than life without Him.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 26, 2015

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


"Then you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."  John 8:32

100 years ago




My great grandfather and great grandmother

My great great grandfathers and great great grandmothers

Brothers and sisters

Aunts and uncles

Friends and beloveds

Reforged Dante's path

Reignited the flaming passions of evil

Recreated the harrowing of hell

Not by choice

Not out of necessity

Because of who they were

A people of a homeland

A tribe of believers

Thrown into violence

Thrown into madness

Thrown into death itself

When an archduke dies

And the world goes to war

Empires remember only how to kill

Kill the enemy

Kill the other

Kill the souls within yourself

Round them up like the Israelites of Jerusalem

When mighty Babylon rears its terrible head

Round them up like the Jews of Nazi Germany

When a fanatic calls himself the Fuhrer

Round them up, like the dissidents

Of Soviet Russia and Cambodia

Of Rwanda and Sudan

Of a world incapable of compassion

Unmoved by mercy and protection

Unable to see that within, without, in, out,

Around and over

Throughout and between

There will be only death

Only the wages of sin

Our great sin

That we dare not name for what it is


One and a half million women, men, children

Mothers and fathers

Brothers and daughters

Sisters and sons

Doctors and teachers

Pastors and lawyers

Lovers and leaders

Wiped away, blotted out

Ground up and gone

Like the dusts of yesteryear

Like the rush of the wind

Like the wind we move on

Forget giving them honor

Forget giving them truth

Forget them all

Give us the military bases

Give us the airspace

Give us the strategic convenience

Of forgetting what we have done

And what we have left undone

We bring shame upon ourselves

We bring shame upon our world

We bring shame upon our state

But who cares?

It is only a memory

Of 100 years ago

And yet...

It is so much more

It will always be so much more

In memory of the one and a half million women, men, and children murdered in the Armenian Genocide that began one full century ago on April 24, 1915, with the pogrom against the leaders of the Armenian community in Istanbul.

The Armenian Genocide's status as a genocide, while largely agreed to by historians and scholars, is denied by the governments of both the United States of America and the Republic of Turkey to this day.

Despite referring to the Armenian Genocide as a genocide as a U.S. Senator, President Barack Obama has repeatedly and inexplicably refused to label it as such as President.  That refusal was renewed today.

But, one day, may we know the truth, and the truth shall set us free.

(Image courtesy of

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Thunderbolt: Redux

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overpower it.

John 1:5

The voicemail icon on my iPhone was my first indication that something was seriously awry.

I am my father's son, and I inherited a great many things from him, like a proclivity for sporting facial hair and an insatiable appetite for reading.  I also inherited from him a general avoidance of using voicemail: usually, if I call and I don't get picked up, I'll just hang up and send a text message.

So, that there was a voicemail waiting for me after I emerged from the shower was cause for concern by itself.  Dad doesn't leave voicemails for just anything.

True to form, he didn't this time, either.  He had called to tell me that his younger sister, my aunt, had died overnight in her sleep.

She was fifty-eight.  I had last seen her about six weeks ago, at my grandfather's 90th birthday dinner.

And while she had been in bad health for a long time, this was not what I was expecting to start my Monday morning.  So I did what a somewhat sane person might do after receiving this news: I took my dogs for a walk.

Spring in the Pacific Northwest is worth waiting for.  The sun was already shining down early in the morning, and the pooches, despite not normally being morning pooches, took to it great, in part because I think they're beginning to develop that sixth sense that dogs often do of when I need them.

As we walked, the memories came flooding back.  Each corner turned and each patch of pavement trod upon seemed to bring back more and more: the big family reunion my parents hosted 20 years ago for my grandpa's 70th birthday.  Flying down to New Orleans and driving across the deep South to visit her and her son, my cousin, in Pensacola, Florida.

And getting another fateful phone call about her health, when I was still very young, that she had had a stroke.  There are circumstances about that phone call that I still won't write about.  But even that long ago, I began to see in my dad's family an initially unspoken but somber understanding that this would never quite be right again.

When she moved to Oregon to be closer to my grandfather, it wasn't because he needed care--despite having a heart attack about ten years ago, my grampy is still in very robust health and aside from his hearing, still has all of his faculties intact.  It was because she needed the care, so ravaged her body had become by the lingering effects of that stroke.

It was then, when I too also lived close to my grandfather, that I began to see the slow death in person.  It is a terrible thing to see a person you love grow tired of living, especially at so relatively a young age.  And it is a terrible thing to realize that when that person does finally expire, there is a part of you that does rejoice that they have been set free from their living prison.

Such are the ways of death, inspiring both dread and gratitude even in its ceremonial practitioners who are tasked and equipped with sending off those whom it claims.

The thunderbolt had struck me again--coming off of a three-day weekend I desperately needed in order to get back to neutral after a busy Easter and the back-to-back deaths of two beloved congregants, the thunderbolt came like a sucker punch, blindsiding me after I had spent the weekend recuperating from an already trying Lenten season of loss.

But, I had to keep moving onward.  I think that is why, really, I went walking with my dogs.  I just couldn't bear to stand still at that moment.

Our walk over, the dogs climbed up the stairs ahead of me and waited for me to let them back into the apartment and into their den in the kitchen.  After I had removed their leashes and refilled their water, I reached for the pullstring on the Venetian blinds of our kitchen windows to pull the blinds open again.

Immediately, the morning light flooded into our previously darkened apartment, and I was reminded of the chorus of an old hymn we still sing at my church a couple times a year:

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, O Lord have mercy on me.

And I thought as well of my own God experience, that moment when I first felt the Holy Spirit's presence so directly and so powerfully that I plunged forward with my life to commit it to ordained ministry: when, after having lost my childhood friend to an auto accident on the night of my senior prom, I preached the following morning at my childhood congregation and felt the sunlight from the sanctuary's skylights fall down upon me and raise my temperature, my energy level, even my ability to speak.

Illuminated by the light, I had committed myself then, over a decade ago, to this particular path that I remain on to this day.

And bathed in the light now, I continue walking that path forward, towards its ultimate destination, which is the One who is light itself.

For, in the end, it is the light that matters most.  And another day of life for me to serve my guiding light has begun.

Yours in Christ,

In loving memory of Leanne Atcheson.  Ad vitam aeternam.

The photo is from C's and my honeymoon in New Zealand, of the mountains that surround the mirror lakes near Milford Sound on the South Island, silhouetted by the rising sun with a family of ducklings and their mother swimming in the foreground.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I Drink My Coffee at Room Temperature

These are the words of the one who holds God's seven spirits and the seven stars: I know your works.  You have the reputation of being alive and you are in fact dead.  Wake up and strengthen whatever you have left, for I've found that your works are far from complete in the eyes of God.

John of Patmos, to the church in Sardis, Revelation 3:1-2

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation: I know your works.  You are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I'm about to spit you out of my mouth.  After all, you say, 'I'm rich, and I've grown wealthy, and I don't need a thing.'  You don't realize that you are miserable, pathetic, poor, blind, and naked.

John of Patmos, to the church in Laodicea, Revelation 3:14-17

The mug sits next to me on the table, its once piping hot contents now sitting at room temperature.  I can finally drink it at a rate faster than a tentative, scalding sip--even if I should be able to mow down hot coffee at a much faster clip because, after all, I am a pastor, and pastors are nothing without their trusty church coffee.

Far from me wanting to spit the coffee out from being hot or cold, I greedily gulp it down at this point, desperate for its caffeine to take effect, not merely because I am a hopelessly addicted fiend, but because room-temperature coffee is, some days, all that keeps me from being dead.  Even though I may have the reputation of being alive.

I came to the congregation I serve at only 25 years of age, fresh out of seminary. without really a clue as to how to do my job well.  I mean, I had some semblance of what a strong and vibrant church looked like.  I was raised in one, and I had a truly excellent field education supervisor at the church I worked at before coming here.  But I can also watch World Cup-caliber soccer on television and that doesn't mean I can head out into the yard and replicate the wizardry I just saw being performed.

Now, nearly four years later, at 29 years young (and forever 29 years young, no matter how many birthdays come after this one), I am on the surface a pastor whose ministry looks great.  I've presided over baptisms and weddings of new and old members alike, I've seen new children come and find joy in our congregation by the carload, I've seen new missions and new ways of outreach be born out of nothing but tears and inspiration.  I get told all the time how proud people are of the job I'm doing.

But I am scared--terrified, really--that I am in fact dead, like the church in Sardis.  I am so very, very fearful of my beloved congregation's future.  We grow and grow and still have to pull out of savings to pay our bills.  I'm petrified not just of letting down the church I was given when I arrived, I'm petrified of letting down the church that has formed since then.  And I am worried about how so many other congregations--especially in my denomination--seem to be in identical straits.

It isn't paralysis; I haven't frozen (after all, that wouldn't quite fit the cold/lukewarm/hot, coffee ice cream is the s**t).  It's more like treading water.  In the open ocean.  Where the sharks swim.

And that's no place to pastor for the future from.

Even if I, on the surface, represent the future.

Honestly, it is such a heavy burden to bear.  It really is.  If I had a dollar for every time I was told something along the lines of, "You represent the future for the church!" my parish wouldn't have the financial deficits we have.  But when people in my denomination say those exhortations, this is what I hear:

It is up to you to do a better job with this church thing than we have, now please accept this gift of aging facilities, deferred maintenance, and an institution-wide distrust of innovation.

If the church were hot or cold, maybe we could do something with that.  We could embrace our place on the margins of the spectrum and go from there.  But being lukewarm feels better going down, and we're interested in maintaining what status and power we still have, so room temperature we shall remain.

What scares me is that after nearly four years out of seminary and in the trenches, I continue to trend more and more towards the lukewarm and the room temperature.  I make myself more palatable than the Hebrew Bible prophets of old who went to all lengths to speak truth to those who needed to hear it.

Because treading water feels the safer option than swimming, especially if you're uncertain which direction to swim in.

So, may I offer you a deal...please stop saying that I and my millennial-aged colleagues represent the future of the church, and I'll keep swimming.

Yes, like Dory in Finding Nemo, I'll just keep swimming.

Because I think that will honestly keep me finding my way forward.  It might even make me a little less scared, and, in so doing, push me a little further away from being room temperature.

And to all the pastors out there who struggle with feeling lukewarm, I hope I have given at least a bit of a voice to your own struggles, and that my voice has validated them.  And please, come have coffee with me sometime.  After all, I hope to start drinking mine at a temperature a touch hotter or colder than room temperature very soon again.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

F*** Your Breath, F*** Your Mockery, F*** Your Reserve Deputies Having Guns

Those who were walking by insulted Jesus, shaking their heads and saying, “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.” In the same way, the chief priests, along with the legal experts and the elders, were making fun of him, saying,“He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son.’” The outlaws who were crucified with him insulted him in the same way.

Matthew 27:39-44 (Common English Bible)

On the heels of Walter Scott, whose death came on the heels of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, whose deaths came on the heels of Michael Brown, whose death came on the heels of Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and so many others...

Comes Eric Harris.

Harris was approached for arrest after selling guns and ammunition under the table to an undercover cop.  And then a 73-year-old insurance executive shot him to death.

You read that right.

The news came out yesterday afternoon that Robert Charles Bates will be charged with second-degree manslaughter (basically, unlawful death by gross negligence), and honestly, I feel bad for the guy.  He clearly wanted to play cop after having been a cop for a solitary year fifty years ago, but the city of Tulsa really should have known better and not ever put a service weapon in his (or another civilian's) hands.  And so he got put into a truly awful situation by a Tulsa police force that really should have known better than to issue a Taser and a lethal-force service weapon to, basically, a part-time volunteer.

You read that right as well.  Bates, though an insurance executive by day, was a major and longtime donor to the police department, and like many other large donors, he became a "reserve deputy," and after 800 hours of instruction through two different programs, achieved "advanced" status, which allowed him to basically function with the authority of a regular, full-time, professional deputy whenever he was on duty.

800 hours may sound like a lot, but really, it isn't.  My master's degree for the job I currently hold required 1,200 classroom hours, to say nothing of all the homework, papers, and field education time I put into the degree.  So even in terms of just classroom teaching, that's a 50% increase in instruction right there.

And my gig doesn't come with a gun.

Why does this matter?  Why am I harping on this?  Because in the video of Eric Harris's death, Bates very clearly thinks he is going to use his Taser on Harris, and instead ends up shooting him--essentially, the same defense Johannnes Mehserle made in his trial for shooting and killing Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale BART platform in the East Bay.

If a fully trained, full time professional police officer makes the same mistake with similarly fatal results, what on earth is a police department of quite a large city (a population of nearly 400,000 people according to Wikipedia...which, I know, is Wikipedia, but still, for basic stuff like this, it's pretty reliable) handing out guns to armchair cops who only have to put in 40 hours over six months to keep their reserve deputy status?

That'd be like giving some guy who really, really enjoys Microsoft Flight Simulator the proverbial keys to a Boeing 737 on the condition that he take it out for a spin at least a couple times a year.

As a red-blooded, patriotic, tax-paying American (TEAM MURICA), I'd much rather see my police departments funded at the levels they need to be so that they don't have to use these sorts of reserve deputy programs to fully fund their departments (and, similarly, so that they don't have to use awful mechanisms like civil forfeiture either).

I haven't talked about race yet (gulp), but I would be remiss if I did not also say that Eric Harris was both unarmed and African-American, and Bates is Caucasian.  And just like Eric Garner, Eric Harris complained as he died that he couldn't breathe.

A (as yet unnamed) law enforcement officer's response?  Fuck your breath.

That's right.  Fuck your ability to continue living.  Fuck the literal act of God to put life into man's nostrils (Genesis 2:7).

That parallel between the homicides of two black men, Eric Garner and Eric Harris, should be chilling.

But unlike Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Eric Garner's homicide, Bates still ended up charged.  And even though I may feel bad for him, it is so very, very important that he was charged.

Because unlike Officer Slager after he shot Walter Scott to death, Bates's law enforcement colleagues rushed to defend him, with one officer even saying that Bates was the victim in all of this kerkuffle, because he was stressed, and he made a mistake under stress and did one thing whilst intending to do another, and excusing the mocking behavior of the officers (since they claimed to not know Harris had been shot, even though Bates can clearly be heard on the tape saying, "I'm sorry, I shot him").

All of which kind of just proves my point.  That kind of stress isn't what you put a weekend warrior copper into with a gun in one hand and a taser in another, only for him to mix them up at the moment of truth, and to end up with a man bleeding out to death as those who should have been administering first aid mocked his pain, suffering, and dying instead.

The Gospels are unanimous that Christ, as He died on the cross, was mocked by those who put him there--the passersby and the centurions, the temple authorities and even at least one of the terrorists crucified alongside Him.

As Eric Harris began to die on the Tulsa sidewalk, he was mocked mercilessly by those in similar positions of authority as the centurions and the temple leaders.

In 2,000 years, our exercise of power over each other's lives has scarcely changed one bit.

Even though the God who gave us life came to us, in the flesh, to tell us to be different, live different, love different.

We can do better.  In the name of that life-giving God, we must do better.

And for fuck's sake, stop giving guns to donors for them to be cops for funsies.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, April 13, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Words Wrought as Iron"

Matthew 6:5-15

“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6 But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. 7 “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 

9 Pray like this: Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name. 10 Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. 11 Give us the bread we need for today. 12 Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. 13 And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.  (Common English Bible)

“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week One

Back in December of last year, just a few days before Christmas, I told a most remarkable story, a story many of you may remember.  It was a story about a young woman of only 19 years of age who, though being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, had managed to still play basketball for at least a few games for the college she had committed to, Mount Saint Mary’s in Ohio.  Mount Saint Mary’s even received a special dispensation from the NCAA to move up their season opener in order to give her more opportunities to get into a game before the tumor became too debilitating (the opener, by the by, was against the Disciples affiliated school Hiram College, who enthusiastically agreed in order to give her a chance to play).  She even relearned how to shoot the basketball with her left hand because of the tumor’s effect on her control of her previously dominant right hand.

And in so doing, young Lauren Hill became a powerful inspiration for many, many people.  LeBron James raved about her on Twitter.  Athletes and journalists across the country wrote to her.  And she managed to raise literally hundreds of thousands of dollars for brain cancer research.

And then, just two days ago, early on the morning of Friday, the 10th of April, five months and a week after that monumental season opener against Hiram College, Lauren Hill died.

But I, at least, cannot forget her.  Nor, I reckon, could or will a great many other people.  And that is a testament to the profound power that comes from the unadulterated force of personality and will, something that we have found so utterly compelling in others for, really, as long as we have existed.  And that sheer force of personality, even in one long gone, is so compelling to us that their words and deeds remain in the most potent data storage unit ever made: our memories.

And out of that memory comes, in one man from Lebanon’s life, a vast store of poetry testifying to the teaching, healing, dying, and rising Christ.

This is a new sermon series for us, to begin a not too terribly new is a week old, at least: Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many Christian mystics throughout history, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s often soaring word choice, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the individual disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray:

Thus spake Jesus, and it was in my desire to kneel down and worship Him, yet in my shyness, I could not move nor speak a word.

But at last I spoke, and I said, “I would pray this moment, yet my tongue is heavy.  Teach me to pray.”

And Jesus said, “When you would pray, let your longing pronounce the words.  It is in my longing now to pray thus:

Our Father, in earth and heaven, sacred is Thy name.  Thy will be done with us, even as in space. Give us of Thy bread sufficient for the day.  In Thy compassion forgive us and enlarge us to forgive one another.  Guide us towards Thee and stretch down Thy hand to us in darkness.  For Thine is the kingdom, and in Thee is our power and our fulfillment.

It is the Lord’s Prayer, as rewritten and remembered by a poet.  One of the greatest contributions by one of the most powerful and compelling personalities ever to grace this globe, put into words that are not merely the ones we can recite, rote, from memory, about guiding us from temptation, as though we were filling out the prayer on a triplicate form for God’s heavenly bureaucracy; no, there is an added dimension to this.

And that is maybe a bit weird for me to say…after all, this isn’t the first time I have preached on the Lord’s Prayer with you, so it makes it feel like I have maybe left something out the first time around.

But the truth is, that is really just a part of preaching and teaching.  I can’t cram everything I feel and believe and know about God into one 20-minute sermon, I have to, as Russ, my senior pastor in California always strove to emphasize to me, break this Bible thing up into bite-sized pieces.

Which is what the Lord’s Prayer does.  It breaks all our many needs up into bite-sized pieces that we can understand, so that we can pray for them properly.  We recognize God’s wonder and power, we recognize our own need for even the most fundamental of necessities, and we recognize our own inherent limitations and weaknesses in the twin faces of temptation and evil.

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer, but it also interprets the practice of prayer itself.  Jesus says not to be showy about our prayer, to come up with all manner of empty, fluffer-nutter sayings the way He says the hypocrites do.

And of course He is right to admonish us to not do that.  But it similarly is as easy and tempting for us to bolt for the other end of the spectrum, where our prayers contain no passion or profoundness at all, but instead carry a rote style akin to reading out of the telephone books that none of us even use anymore.  Kevin Roose, a writer who, during his time in college at Brown University spent a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and wrote a book about it, recalls in it his memory of his grandfather saying grace around the dinner table, which “he rattled off so quickly that it sounded like one long word:  BlessolordthisfoodtoouruseandustothyserviceinJesusnameamen.”

God doesn’t ask for long and flowery phrases, but God does ask for meaning in our prayers.

Because a prayer that is short and said without emotion is as empty as a long and flowery prayer.

Emptiness isn’t what our faith is supposed to be about, and I know you all know this.  But if our faith is meant to endure, and our practices of prayer are meant to be remembered, well, our memories are pretty self-selecting in that way.  We don’t waste our limited hard drive space between our ears on any ordinary thing.

So let’s approach our praying to God with similar care and selection—which isn’t to say we should be selective about praying in general, but selective in ourselves about how we pray.  We should hold our praying to higher standards than we used to, because in truth we know better.  We—and that includes me—have all uttered up the silly sort of prayers on occasion for Russell Wilson to not throw a goal-line interception, or for whichever mediocre Mariner to get a base hit and score a run, because, God, if they win that game, we won’t ask you for anything ever again!  We’ve all done that.

The kicker in all of this is that this is really for our benefit—yours and mine—and not for God’s or for Jesus’s.  Jesus says as much in this passage: God knows what you need before you even ask for it.  But I also quote Soren Kierkegaard on this: “Prayer does not change God, it changes the person praying.”  I mean, if we could change God via prayer…well, God would be quite schizophrenic, especially during every Super Bowl, World Series, and NCAA tournament!

No, prayer is meant to change us, and change us it shall.  Not because we want it to, but because we desperately need it to.  And this, ultimately, is how it can change us: it changes us in the way that Gibran writes as he closes out this poem from Matthew’s vantage point, as the famed Sermon on the Mount is now over, and he is stuck trying to put Jesus’s command to pray into practice.  And Gibran’s Matthew does so, and in the process realizes this:

…and all of us followed Him.  And as I followed I was repeating His prayer, and remembering all that He had said; for I knew that the words that had fallen like flakes that day must set and grow firm like crystals, and that the wings that had fluttered above our heads were to beat the earth like iron hoofs.

Jesus’s words can flutter over our heads and beat the earth like iron, because like wings they make us soar, and like iron, they can endure forever so long as we allow them to.

Which, in the end, is likely precisely as it should be.  We end up remembering those words, and how they changed everything.

Do we remember a young woman and how she died of brain cancer?  Sure.  But do we also remember how she set the world on fire for her cause?  Absolutely.

And do we remember how the homeless carpenter from Galilee was crucified and died?  Yes.

But do we also remember how His words and deeds changed the world forever?  Without a doubt.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 12, 2015

Thursday, April 9, 2015

An Open Letter to My Dogs

Dear Sir Henry and Dame Frida,

I know C and I gave you names of nobility and knighthood, even if you do plop down onto our laps and proceed to vigorously clean your genitals as we're trying to share a drink.  You are nothing if not noble-looking, though, as you stand perched on our furniture or at the door, muscles tensed and barking instincts ready should an unwelcome intruder (like, say, the UPS deliveryperson or the garbagepeople) dare to grace our stoop with their clearly unwanted presence.

And I haven't even gotten to how you'll eat anything, even if it makes you violently ill, and then happily try to go back for seconds as though you have completely forgotten the experience of emptying your stomach contents onto our kitchen floor.

You're kind of dumb, pooches.  I love you dearly, and you have stolen my heart completely, but you're a few kibbles short of a full dinner bowl, if you catch my drift.

Yet you manage to be pretty smart, too.  You've gotten me to give you treats for only partly doing when I'm trying to train you to do, be it to sit or to come when called.  You've outsmarted one another in the quest for bones, chews, and tummy rubs.  And you clearly have the mental and emotional strength to return to happiness and joy in life after what was clearly a traumatizing sojourn for the both of you as strays before being rescued by your shelter.

And that is what I admire the most about you--not how affectionate you are (although I love that about you), or how devoted you are to keeping your butts clean (although I am amused by that too).  It's that you clearly have an appetite for life and for loving people even after being left out in the world to die by people who should have done better by you.

Here's a confession to you, though, on behalf of humanity: we didn't just do it to you, or to other dogs...lots of other dogs, in fact.  In truth, we do it to one another as well.  We do it to ourselves.  We hang each other out to dry, we leave them to live off the crumbs of our table, we leave them homeless and exposed to the elements without any of the sort of empathy that both of you doofus-y dogs are clearly capable of showing.

The image of the two of you being forced into living as strays makes my insides churn out of grief, but the knowledge that we force other people to live and die that way too makes my insides churn out of anger.

Maybe it is because you're literally colorblind, but you don't see color in other people.  You don't care that I'm Armenian, or that C is a ginger (ew), or that we have neighbors who are African-American, Asian-American, Latino/a, or gay or lesbian.  All you care about is if they will give you treats and head scratches.

And, admittedly, that is something we have to work on with you furballs, that idea that everyone in your world exists to give you gifts.  But it's still probably better mentality than the one we have constructed for ourselves in which we judge others and deny them services and treat them with higher degrees of suspicion because of their race or sexual orientation.

When you guys display aggression, there's a reason for it.  But when we display it towards others--sometimes in ways that kill them in cold blood--honestly, it is so effing senseless.  There's just no reason why so many of our black men have to die at the hands of our cops or our gay and lesbian brethren have to be discriminated against at the hands of our Christians.  But we do it anyways.

I don't know when all of that will change for us.  We've been changing it over time, but in terms of dog years, we're talking about an awful lot of calendars you'd have to flip through.  You may not be around to see a changed humanity.

Really, I may well not, either.  I want to be, really, really badly.  But it might be too long coming.

I hope it isn't, though.  Because us humans could stand to be a little bit more like you.  Not the chewing through the wires of my massage-cushion-that-was-a-gift-part, but the other part, the part where what you deem to be a threat to you is based on your own physical safety and not on what the person looks like or who the person loves.

I mean, aside from people who try to bathe you.  We all know they represent the greatest threat to you and all that you hold dear.

Your human, Eric

(Sir Henry Wiggly is a Jack Russell terrier/chihuahua mix who enjoys begging for table scraps, eviscerating the stuffing out of his toys, and hiding bones.  Dame Frida Koala is a poodle/Shih Tzu mix who enjoys stealing Henry's bones, receiving long and extravagant tummy rubs, and chewing on her humans' socks.  They are the best dogs in the world.  Except for Rowlf from the Muppets, because of his kickass piano playing.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Abel's Blood

The LORD said, "What did you do?  The voice of your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground."

Genesis 4:10 (CEB)

Cain has just murdered his brother Abel, and when confronted for it by God, gives the world's first ever Nuremburg defense: "I don't know.  What am I, my brother's keeper?"

Yes, yes, Cain is.  And a police officer is his/her citizen's keeper.  Because without keeping your citizenry in your heart, there really is not much point to serving and protecting.

Yesterday, the graphic and terrible footage of an African American man, Walter Scott, being gunned down over the course of eight shots by Michael Slager, a white police officer, hit the news, along with the headline that the officer who shot him (and then, to compound his sin of murder, planted a Taser next to Scott's lifeless body in an attempt to demonstrate that Scott represented a threat to his immediate safety) would be charged with murder.

I feel like I wrote these words already, for Michael Brown and for Eric Garner and for Tamir Rice.

But here I am, writing them again for Walter Scott.

Because his blood, and the blood of his brothers...of OUR brothers...cries out from the ground for justice.

At least for now, justice is being pursued on behalf of Scott, which is a damn sight more than I can say for Brown, Garner, or Rice, since the two officers who killed Brown and Garner emerged without any indictment filed against them, and the investigation against the officer who shot and killed Rice is still ongoing, despite similar video being made available of his murder.

Which begs a question: how many more black men need to die at police hands before we can say that there is a pattern here, not just cases of isolated police brutality?

Because literally the same day as this footage was made available, another white South Carolina police officer was arrested on an entirely separate felony charge for shooting and killing another African American man, Ernest Satterwhite.

And if this is indeed a pattern, then we cannot simply wash our hands of it as easily as Pilate did of Jesus Christ.  Isolated instances are easy for us to write off, at least in our minds.  Surely Pilate thought the same of Jesus Christ...after all, most Israelites claiming to be the messiah advocated the violent overthrow of Rome (which is why at certain parts of the Gospels, the crowds expect the same of Jesus, and He demurs; He really is the Prince of Peace is the end).  A nonviolent messiah?  That's a one off.

But Pilate, and us, would be ignoring the larger pattern here: that we are the ones putting our citizenry to summary deaths at our hands, sparkling clean though they may be from the washbasin's water.

And so it is not merely the ground from which the blood of Walter Scott cries out for is from our hands.  My hands and yours, because with enough outcry, our leaders might actually have to change the way they do police work.

And if nothing changes, then our hands shall remain stained with Abel's blood, no matter how much soap we shall ever try to use.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, April 5, 2015

This Year's Easter Sermon: "Dawn of the First Day"

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. 2 Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. 3 Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. 4 The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. 7 Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.” 8 With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9 But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.” (Common English Bible)

Easter 2015

Nickajack Cave in Tennessee exists now as part cave, part pond, a result of our construction of the Nickajack Dam in the sixties.  The lower half of the cave is completely submerged in water, leaving only the upper half open for the colony of literally hundreds of thousands of bats that has made the cave an official wildlife refuge in the state of Tennessee.

But it is, as it so happens, amazingly enough a refuge for human life as well.  In 19, a year after the cave had been flooded, the legendary musician Johnny Cash traveled there intending to end his life within the cave.  Instead, he had a profound spiritual experience that ultimately led to his sobriety from drugs and another thirty five years of life before he would die of natural causes in 2003.

I grew up with Johnny Cash’s music; rare was the morning when I wouldn’t hear Folsom Prison Blues or Burning Ring of Fire being piped into the kitchen as I rolled my sleepy self out of bed for another day of school.  And those songs could have come from another music icon from earlier days who had died well before their time, like Marley or Hendrix, Moon or Lennon.  But instead, I was listening to the lyrics of someone who, at the time, was still very much among the living.

Johnny Cash emerged from Nickajack Cave with a new life.  Something had happened in the darkness of the rock, and I would call it a resurrection.  After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a resurrection had occurred behind the opacity of stone and hillside.

You might think me comparing Johnny Cash to Jesus a trifle blasphemous, no matter how much you may have liked Johnny and June.  But I’m not comparing Johnny Cash to Jesus so much as simply saying this:

How Jesus was resurrected is likely how you too can expect to one day be resurrected: in the darkness, in the cold, with nobody around to see it.  And then you will emerge from that dark and that cold and that isolation into a new dawn, into a new day, and into a new light that will forever shape your eternal life going forward.  In other words, all of us, great musician or not, are as Jesus.

The moment of resurrection is the first day of eternal life.  In Matthew’s Gospel, he says that Christ’s resurrection happens on the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath.  But it is also the first day of new life for Christ’s human form, a life that would last beyond that week; it would see another Sabbath, and then another, until after 40 days, enough eyewitnesses had seen (and, in the case of Thomas the apostle, touched) the risen Christ that there could be no doubt: He had indeed emerged victorious over the grave.

And so too, then, can we.  It is terribly ironic, Matthew’s wording about the guards of Jesus’s tomb in verse 4: an angel appears, and they “were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men.”  Of course they did, because that is what fear can do to you.  Fear can maybe not kill you outright, but it can make you as though you were dead.  Fear can deaden you to the vividness and vitality that is inherent in living, and in living for God.  Fear can make life not livable.

Fear can do to you, in the end, what the cross did to Jesus and to countless other crucified victims.

It can kill you, slowly and painfully, collapsing you upon yourself until you cannot breathe, lest you cry out in protest at what is being done to you.

And it is important to remember that, because it isn’t as though Jesus is arising from a death brought about by bubonic plague, or cowpox, or the latest Justin Bieber single.

He is arising from a death at our hands.  He is stronger than our violence, stronger than our hatred, and stronger than our fear of Him.  He is stronger than all of these things that led us to crucify Him.

But even after He has arisen, that fear can remain; again, just look at the guards of His tomb.  Even the female disciples of Jesus who, though excited by the angel’s message of the resurrection, are also fearful of what has really taken place here overnight, and what that means for their faith.

The difference between the guards and the women is, the women absolutely would not let their fear control them.  Their excitement would.  They hurried back to tell the male disciples of this, and Jesus appears to them en route, and what are the first words out of His mouth to them?

 Be not afraid.

The same words the angels say to the shepherds on Christmas when told of Christ’s birth.  The beginning of both of Jesus’s lives are accompanied by these words, by an exhortation to drive out one’s fear and listen, really listen, to what God is saying to us, both at Christmas and at Easter.

And both times, that message is: I, Jesus, am coming.  They, and you, will see me there.

The famous Great Commission—the go forth and make disciples of all nations command that Matthew’s Gospel ends with—is already put in motion.  The women are asked to go forth and tell the disciples of Christ’s presence, just as we are asked to go forth and tell of Christ’s presence.

Even though—and this is important—they hadn’t yet seen the resurrected Jesus in bodily form yet.

That is the sort of faith Easter asks of us, and the sort of faith we ought to be able to respond with.

After all, the women had faith in spite of their fear, even if the guards did not.

Which means that whatever your fears in your own life are, and your own trepidations about your own future, you can still have faith as well.  They are not mutually exclusive of each other.

If you fear what a world without your teachers or tethers to hold you back from self-destructiveness, well, you can still have faith that God can push on towards wholeness.

If you fear what will happen to you if you slide back into addiction, well, you can still have faith that God can lead you away from it or out of it.

And if you fear what may come in a world where you have no idea what it means that Jesus is once again among the living—because, unlike us, the women haven’t had 1,970-some years to ruminate and argue over it—then have faith that it is right for God’s divine love to conquer earthly death.

For, as the Presbyterian preacher Thomas G. Long writes in his commentary on Matthew:

The wonderful news of Easter is that Jesus is alive, and the terrible news of Easter is also that Jesus is alive, because nothing is nailed down anymore…The way the world used to be, if something troubling got in the way, like a call for racial justice or a worker for peace or an advocate for mercy, the world could just kill it and it would be done with.  But Jesus is alive, and righteousness, mercy, and peace cannot be dismissed with a cross or a sword.  We have to decide where we stand and what we will do in this new and frightening resurrection world.

A new world.  A resurrection world.  And Easter represents our first day in that new world.  Like Jesus Christ, like Johnny Cash, like so many others who have died to themselves and gone on to live once more, we have emerged from the darkness and loneliness of the cave and out into the morning light.  The mustiness and dankness of the tomb has been replaced with the freshness of air that God Himself breathes into us, just as He did to breathe life into Adam all the way back in Genesis 2.

And like Adam, we might well have no idea at first what at all to do with this new world that we have been given and re-given again.  Like Adam, we might well end up using this new life we have been given to hear out the voices of temptation, even if that was never our initial intent, because that is often how temptation works.

But unlike Adam, we have the testimony of the two Mary’s who have come to the tomb, found it empty, found the guards like dead men, and hurried off, spurred on by the words of an angel, to find a risen Savior who tells them that He will appear where they are going to next.

Wherever you are going to next, Christ can yet appear.

That is what the resurrection promises.  Because sealed off in a tomb outside Jerusalem, Christ appears only to the stones.

But now, wherever you are and wherever you will go, the risen Christ might meet you there.

Such are the ways of the resurrection world.  Such are the ways of the first dawn of the first day in this resurrection world.

And such are the ways of a God who makes it all possible.

He is risen!  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

April 5, 2015

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