Thursday, July 30, 2015

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

August 2015: "General Math Money"

Dear Church,

The rapper Snoop Dogg (yep, actually gonna quote him in a church newsletter article) is reported to have said once, "If you stop at general math, you're only going to make general math money." It was a comment on education--the shallower you go into educating yourself, the less you will be able to provide for yourself in the marketplace of jobs and employment. It's a pretty sound life lesson--from a guy who led an army of angry gummy bears in Katy Perry's "California Girls" music video, but still, the lesson still stands.

And I think it is a sentiment that goes beyond simply measuring personal income--it is a part of our own income as a church as well. If you stop at just the pew, and never want to get plugged in to any of the programs, small groups, missions, or other amazing work we do, it's a tough sell to want to invest yourself into our church or any church. People don't feel like giving their time, talents, and treasure to an unfamiliar cause, and understandably so. Jesus knew what he was talking about when He said in the Sermon on the Mount, "where your treasure is, there your heart is as well"--we tend to invest our treasure to whatever is dear to our heart.

In other words, how we spend and give our money is an expression of values. If we value the experience of speeding down the highway, we may own a sports car or a convertible. If we value eating out, the chef at the Rutherford may know us on a first-name basis. And when we value and become invested in a church, we give back to that church community.

The tough thing for us, though, is that as we've grown in faith, numbers, and impact in the community, our finances haven't followed suit. It used to be that it would--growth in numbers would inevitably lead to growth in income for a church. But that isn't the case for us--we live in a tough community with lots of economic pain and hardship, and that definitely includes us. We have been drawing on our savings substantially lately, and that is simply not sustainable in the long term.

To that end, I have explored a few different opportunities for renting out parts of our beautiful facilities to longterm tenants like schools or other churches, but none of those opportunities panned out. So if we want to continue to be a church that offers way, way more to the community than simply general math, but to instead be that church we have always been that offers depth and profoundness and purpose to one's Christian identity, we will need to find more resources in order to be able to do that. Such resources have not as yet materialized, but I know that God is good, and we must continue to have faith that God will provide for us. But that provision also starts with us.

As you are willing and able to give, your financial gifts to the church go an awful long ways to not just keeping the doors open and the worship services on, they also make possible the life-changing, soul-sized work that I and all of you that I am proud to call my church are engaged in. And for the chance to be able to continue that work and to grow upon it, I thank you.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

New Sermon Series

August of this year is a month I have been looking forward to in a while as far as my preaching and teaching is concerned--it is where I'll be delivering the bulk of the sermon series that we just started last Sunday, July 26th--"The Writing on the Wall: Daniel & King Belshazzar," which goes verse-by-verse through one of my favorite stories in the Bible for its palace intrigue, suspense, and parallels to other stories like Joseph before Pharaoh: Daniel interpreting the writing that appears on the wall during a lavish feast thrown by the Babylonian king Belshazzar. We'll pick back up with that series for three more weeks in August, and I'm looking forward to all of it!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

"The Writing on the Wall: Daniel & King Belshazzar" 

July 26: "You Have Been Weighed," Daniel 5:1-9
August 2: “You Have Been Measured,” Daniel 5:10-16
August 9: “You Have Been Found Wanting,” Daniel 5:17-23
August 16: “Your Kingdom Will Be Divided,” Daniel 5:24-30

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

When One Kerkuffle Reveals a Larger Force

So, there's a blog I like (one of many), and it's called The Friendly Atheist.

What?  Pastor Eric is defending something called The Friendly Atheist?

Yep.  I've followed Hemant Mehta's blog, The Friendly Atheist, on and off for months.  Why?  We'll get to that later, I promise.

Mehta's blog, as the title would indicate, is indeed friendly, and it certainly tends to take a kinder tone to my Christian brethren than the banshee-like fundamentalists of atheism like Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and especially Richard Dawkins.

Let it be said that I come from a place of already distrusting Dawkins--not just because he refers to my religious affiliation as a disease in need of a cure (check out the picture of him in The Friendly Atheist Post I link you to after this paragraph), and not just because he actually tried to trivialize and minimize date rape on Twitter, and not just because he implied that the heroic Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is still immature and childish for her lifelong practice of Islam.  No, I'm leery of Dawkins for all of those things, because they paint the overall picture of a person who is painfully and ironically a mirror image of the Christian fundies he so despises: a bitter, grumpy, pissed off old white man who calls a woman malicious for correcting him when he thinks he knows a thing or two about something and in fact doesn't.

Lauren Nelson, one of the contributors to the Friendly Atheist, wrote a post taking Dawkins to task for this tweet:
Full disclosure: Lauren and I are friends from our days on the collegiate parliamentary debate circuit when she competed for Western Kentucky University and I for Lewis & Clark College.  She also emphatically does not need me to defend her, which is why I'm about to pivot in a couple of paragraphs to the larger point and purpose of this post.

Now, on the surface, I actually agree with everything Dawkins is saying, more or less: Islam needs feminism in its life, and it will be hard for the two to coexist, just like it is still nigh-impossible to get lots of Christian denominations to see the value of female pastors and leaders (of course, Dawkins would prefer that they didn't coexist, that Islam would go the way of the dinosaurs, but unfortunately for him, wishing ain't gonna make it so).  And we absolutely should be asking what we can do to help rather than dictating the terms.

But Lauren does a fantastic job of pointing out where Dawkins missed the boat entirely: it's not what he said, but the assumptions implied in what he said, namely, that Islam doesn't already have a feminist presence revolutionizing it.  It does, and Lauren does a great job of summarizing some of the wide breadth of pro-women movements within Islam around the world.

Rather than responding to Lauren on any substantive level, Dawkins simply tweeted this instead, mounting an online call-to-arms to his legions of followers that they had a new public enemy number one:
Now, first of all, "sheer gratuitous malice" isn't really Lauren's thing.  She doesn't suffer fools, but that should hardly be confused with sheer gratuitous malice.  And Dawkins accusing someone of sheer gratuitous malice?  Pot, meet kettle.

But all of that is largely beside the point.  Criticizing Dawkins for his heartlessness is like criticizing Comcast for its legendarily awful customer service: you're just confirming what the rest of us in our bones all know to be true.

No, what this is would be the luxury that celebrity status affords you: why bother with the intellectual heavy lifting of engaging and rebutting your critics when you can just sic your 1.2 million Twitter followers like digital attack dogs onto said critics instead?

Because truthfully, Dawkins cannot authentically engage what Lauren has said.  What she has said--while limited in scope to Dawkins's perspective on Islam and feminism--is in fact applicable to Dawkins's entire critiques of religion: he critiques religiosity under the assumption that there is only one way to be Christian, or to be Muslim, or to be a devotee of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Does Dawkins actually care that there is a Christian pastor--many, Christian pastors, in point of fact--out there like me who believes in evolutionary science, the Big Bang theory (the scientific hypothesis, not the television show), and the carbon dating of geologic artifacts?  Of course he doesn't, because my existence doesn't help him prove his narrative that there isn't (originally a typo that said 'is' ~E.A.) a strong Christian tradition and presence that upholds science, just as Malala's existence doesn't help him prove his narrative that Islam needs a feminist revolution that hadn't previously existed, but is in fact already alive and kicking.

There's a larger force at play here, then, beyond Islam and feminism or Christianity and science: this is fundamentally about how we view people who are not like us.  By and large, we tend to view them uniformly, which is how we in turn often end up alienating one another: we see the other as a block of people rather than as a sea of individuals, each replete with a combination of characteristics and values as unique as their very own fingerprints.

We then see each other not as who we are and as God made us to be, but as caricatures, with particular features exaggerated and drawing extra attention with other features receding into the background.

Dawkins himself is a pretty good example of this phenomenon: the militant and fundamentalist nature of his atheism makes him a caricature of atheism, rather than necessarily a true representation of atheism as a whole, any more than a similarly perennially pissed off crank like Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham is a true representation of Christianity.

And this, dear reader, is why I take a moment every once in a while to scan The Friendly Atheist page: because it forces me to engage a worldview not my own on terms and that does not give me the lazy out of dismissing its proponents as a part of some hysterical fringe group, camping out on the extremes of our religious spectrum.  It demands that I actually wrestle with why I make certain assumptions, just as Jacob wrestled with God in Genesis 32.

Believe me, it is right that I should wrestle with my beliefs and assumptions.  It is absolutely necessary for us to do.  An untested principle is no more useful to any one of us than wood that has not yet been sanded down, removing the roughness to reveal a smoothness that makes the wood useful for any number of things beyond the fire.

Part of the unconditional regard God calls us to hold one another in is, well, the unconditional part.  We cannot condition our recognition for and of one another on them holding the same worldview or set of beliefs as we do.  But we do, and with as lengthy as the statements of belief some churches demand their members ascribe to (like this one that is six pages long, with 18 sections and weighs in at over 3,200 words), who we proffer mutual appreciation and respect to becomes an exceptionally small circle.

To put it in Jesus's terms from Luke 6:32-36: if you only take seriously the people whose opinions you already agree with, what good is that to you?  Do not sinners even do that?

Rather than constructively and respectfully engage a critic, Richard Dawkins took the easy way out of inciting his followers to attack her.  That's not moral from either a Christian perspective or, I have to think, an atheist or agnostic perspective either.  But it is also symptomatic of a much larger disease, a much larger inner force that leads us away from seeking truth and towards confirming our own biases and prejudices, regardless of truth.

And, after all, do not sinners even do that as well?

Longview & Vancouver, Washington
July 28, 2015

Lauren has also written a postmortem analysis of this episode on her own website, which I highly encourage you to read as well.

Image: Rembrandt's Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer Reading Book Review: A Joyful Pilgrimage

(With how much I read, I will on occasion do full book reviews as a part of my overall corpus of writing about religion and spirituality.  Here's my latest review. ~E.A.)

With a great many entries into the memoir genre these days, opening one's story in medias res, in the middle of a story or anecdote (literally, "into the middle of things") is increasingly seeming to be standard operating procedure.  After all, with the legendarily short attention spans of today's readership, you have got to hook us and reel us in quick, right?

Well, sort of.  I genuinely believe--and I say this as someone who has opened a great many posts here on my own blog in the in medias res manner--that we are capable of hearing a story through if we know going into it that it will in fact be engaging and worthy of our time and attention.  Such is the case of Emmy Arnold's powerful, elegant memoir, A Joyful Pilgrimage, which you can download in pdf form for free at Plough's website here if you give them your name and email address.

Emmy begins her story, as they say in The Sound of Music, at the very beginning.  She describes her early life up to her marriage to Eberhard Arnold, a 20th century Christian theologian, and by starting with her formative years rather than dropping us in the middle of things, she does herself and her audience a service by giving us grounds to see her as a separate persona, a figure with both similar and different characteristics form her husband, which should inoculate us from the patriarchal tendency to wrap a wife up entirely in her husband's work.

This matters especially in the case of Emmy, because the founding and running of the Bruderhof (German for "a place of brothers") commune was very much a joint effort between her and Eberhard, and if you are searching for a case study of both the great joys and great obstacles of trying to create an intentional community from scratch, Emmy's memoir is a fantastic place to start, because although these events take place in the 1920s and 1930s, in terms of the overall lifetime of intentional Christian community, the Bruderhof movement is really quite young when you compare it to, say, the Benedictines, who were planting monasteries throughout Europe during the continent's Dark Ages.

The Bruderhof story, though, takes a hard turn into tragedy when the Nazi party raids it in the fall of 1933, only months after wresting away absolute power from the other Weimar Republic parties.  Throughout her retelling of this story, Emmy's prose remains both poignant and accessible, almost as though she were recounting the entire story to you from across the porch in a rocking chair over some tea or coffee.

That feeling of casual reminiscing, however, should not be taken for a lack of import--the sheer will and depth of belief in the justice of working towards education and equality for the many people adversely affected by the depression that hit Weimar-era Germany shines through as lucidly as the story itself.

Which is, after all, the entire point of the exercise of reading.  From someone else's story we learn about what we as children of God value and why.  And from Emmy Arnold's story, we learn about the necessity of building up one another, even if the unjust and broken systems around us continue to conspire to have that holy work come crashing down around us.

No tangible goods or services were exchanged for this review, and as with all of my reviews, all opinions here are entirely my own.

Update, 7/29: After posting this review, a rep from the Bruderhof community reached out to me via email; as it so happens, the Bruderhof movement that Emmy and Eberhard Arnold founded is still very much among the living in spite of the persecution endured in its formative years, which was really encouraging for me to learn.  You can learn more about them here.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "You Have Been Weighed"

Daniel 5:1-9

King Belshazzar threw a huge party for a thousand of his princes, and he drank a lot of wine in front of them. 2 While he was under the wine’s influence, Belshazzar commanded that the gold and silver equipment that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem’s temple be brought to the party so that the king, his princes, his consorts, and his secondary wives could drink wine out of them. 3 So the gold equipment that had been carried out of the temple, God’s house in Jerusalem, was brought in; and the king, his princes, his consorts, and his secondary wives drank out of it. 4 They drank a lot of wine; and they praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

5 Right then the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the king’s palace wall in the light of the lamp. The king saw the hand that wrote. 6 The king’s mood changed immediately, and he was deeply disturbed. He felt weak, and his knees were shaking. 7 The king yelled, calling for the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners. The king told these sages of Babylon: “Anyone who can read this writing and tell me its meaning will wear royal robes, will have a gold chain around his neck, and will rule the kingdom as third in command.” 8 Then all the king’s sages arrived, but they couldn’t read the writing or interpret it for the king. 9 At that point King Belshazzar was really frightened. All the color drained from his face, and his princes were also very worried.  (Common English Bible)

“The Writing on the Wall: Daniel & King Belshazzar,” Week One

It was the very first thing that greeted me when I walked through the door into the fitness center of my hotel at our denomination’s biannual General Assembly this past week: a scale.  Not like a subtle, tasteful, bathroom scale, mind you, or a scale you weigh vegetables on in the grocery store—that would have been pretty funny (“Okay, Joe, now help me fit my other elbow onto this!”).

No, this was one of those floor-to-wall scales you see in doctors’ offices, that they always ask you to take your shoes off before you go onto, and yet you still swear never takes into account just how heavy your clothes really are!

And all I could do was laugh and think to myself, “Okay, so that’s what they think this is about.”  Because unless you’re a competitive athlete or long distance runner, you don’t generally lose a statistically significant amount of weight in the course of a single workout.  But having the scale there, it creates the expectation that you should, and so you find yourself on it, thinking once again that it is adding way too much weight for your clothes, and you decide to exhale completely because it occurs to you: “Hey, air has weight, too!”

It’s funny—air is invisible, but of course we know it is there, when we feel the wind on our hair, or when a tornado blows the hat off your head, or pretty much 24/7 if you’re Wile E. Coyote being left in the dust by the Roadrunner.  And it has weight—if all of the air, essentially our atmosphere, were to vanish, Earth would weigh less.  Which is great for Earth if its training to beat that showoff Saturn in the next Solar System ultramarathon, but not so great for us.

But think about it: air is invisible, yet it has weight (Pastor, couldn’t you have gotten to that point without so many workout jokes?!).  Which is the case for God, too.  And that’s what matters about the first part of this story of Daniel 5: that God is very much present, even if not stated so explicitly.

This is a new sermon series based on a need and a desire that I know has been around here for a while now—last autumn, we read verse-by-verse through the first half of the book of Daniel in our Tuesday morning Bible study.  Why the first half?  It’s not because the sequel always sucks, it’s simply that Daniel really is two books masquerading as one—the first half of the book deals with Daniel’s story and biography, while the second half deal with his prophecies.  We had decided on trying to gain an in-depth understanding of Daniel the man’s circumstances and context, so we spent a couple of months on those first six chapters of the book which bears his name.  The study was so enjoyable and enriching that eventually, this sermon series was born out of it.

The fifth of these six chapters conveys a story from which we get one of our most common English idioms: “the writing on the wall.”  We’ve all used that saying at some point, right?  We all know what it means: that we can see the fate of something or someone before it comes about.  Well, this story is the source of that idiom, and we’ll be going through it verse-by-verse over the course of four weeks, beginning today with verses one through nine, which gives us the exposition of the story and King Belshazzar’s attempts to remedy his present dilemma, although that dilemma for him really comes down to something eminently familiar to all of us, something you can pick up in the Housewares section anytime at Target: his choice of dishes and flatware.

You see, the dishes that Belshazzar called for were the dishes taken from his ancestral predecessor as king Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah and the attendant sacking of the capital city of Jerusalem.  Some years previous (we don’t know exactly how many because the writer of Daniel’s biography doesn’t date this story), in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar led his armies against Judah a second time, having already done so once about a decade earlier, only this time, he took over everything, and fairly effortlessly at that.  Judah—the southern state of what was under David and Solomon the unified kingdom of Israel—was tiny compared to the much larger and stronger empire of Babylon, it would be today as though we decided to invade Lichtenstein or Luxembourg or some similarly small country—it just wasn’t a fair fight, and Judah capitulates almost immediately.

So Nebuchadnezzar sacks Jerusalem and, in what was pretty much standard operating policy for centuries and continued to be for centuries more, took all manner of loot back with him to Babylon: prisoners to be made into slaves or concubines, jewels, and the fine dishes in the temple to God in Jerusalem, the very same dishes that Belshazzar calls for to drink out of at his latest palace kegger.

Belshazzar does this for a reason—you don’t just ask for the glasses from this one particular temple your dynasty has sacked over the years without some deliberate attempt to make a statement of superiority and insult towards the people you conquered.  It is a statement that may well be invisible to us as modern readers—is that really a dimension of the story that occurred to you as you heard it read here just a little while ago?

So let’s talk for a little bit about what the dishes really represent: not just God—and, in Belshazzar’s mind, his superiority over God—but an invisible God, a God whose meaning is accounted for only by implication, a God who does not announce its divine presence here by means of a burning bush or a booming voice or a Messiah who can walk on water.

Now, you can say that God does indeed come about in a visible way here, because Belshazzar does see the writing on the wall, and he basically has a panic attack—wouldn’t you?  But while he can *see* the writing, he cannot *read* the writing.  The hand could be writing in pig Latin for all the good it does Belshazzar here.  The script may be visible, but its meaning remains invisible.

That invisibility of meaning matters, because it really does cut through the illusions we tend to build up for ourselves.  Forget “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” there’s a reason why “out of sight, out of mind” is an equally well-known saying.  We shove our stuff under the bed rather than actually cleaning.  We shove half-eaten food to the back of the fridge.  And we push God down below us, just as Belshazzar has done here with his sacrilegious use of the temple’s dishware, and then when God comes roaring back to land right in front of us, again like Belshazzar we cannot for the life of us understand what it is God is saying to us.

That tendency to put things and people into the realm of the invisible is not what God would have Belshazzar do, or us do, for that matter.  It may be disconcerting to us to hear that our proxy, at least for now, in the story is a pagan despotic king, but there you have it.  But we try to make God invisible whenever we too have a convenient reason to do so, be it our own personal revelry, or our unwillingness to consider the consequences of our actions and our decisions, or simply our own desire to simply put ourselves first, to take what we want and act like it’s also what God wants.

And for those habitual sins, we are being weighed, just as Belshazzar is, by that annoying gym scale.

That’s why it is so important for us, for each of you, to be able to take what you see that is invisible to others and actually make it visible to them.  For some folks, the genuine nature of God’s great love and grace isn’t fully visible to them yet, because they haven’t been truly loved by other people or haven’t been in a church community that has truly loved them, but you can help change that.

You can help make love visible, in a way that lifts burdens and lowers weights.  I see it happening in so many different ways.  One of the most amazing of them, in all truth, is how active many of our young moms here have been in trying to remove the stigma of breastfeeding in public spaces, that this is a profoundly important part of mothering that has for too long been made invisible, that we have made invisible because that is more convenient for us but decidedly less so for our mothers.

And what else in our lives and our community has been shunted off into the private sphere?  Think about Love Overwhelming, the low-barrier homeless shelter over in Kelso.  It isn’t as though they’ve attracted more shelterless people from elsewhere, no, these are all homeless people in our own Cowlitz county community, they’ve just been made more visible and now we don’t want to deal with them, we want them to go back to being invisible, because that is more convenient for us.

Do you notice a common denominator here?  We make people and things invisible when that invisibility suits us, not them.  And that isn’t how God ever meant for us to live with one another; God became visible whenever it was needed to do so, regardless of whether we wanted God to be invisible or not.  You think Moses wanted God to just show up like that in the burning bush, or that the Pharisees and Sadducees were happy that Jesus showed up on their doorstep on Palm Sunday?

God does not show up or disappear according to our convenience.  That has never been how this covenant works.  And yet, that is often how we treat God and God’s children.  They do not slink off into the shadows just because we would like them to because it would make our lives a little easier.

Nor does God slink off into the shadows, a defeated deity brought low by the military might of Belshazzar’s predecessor Nebuchadnezzar.  God shows up.  God makes Belshazzar sit up from his drunken stupor at take notice.  And take notice the Babylonian king does, going pale and weak at the knees; in fact, he probably had to be helped up, and his weight became visible and tangible to others.

We aren’t here to make people faint from fright at us.  But we absolutely are here to make sure that people sit up and take notice of what God is doing in their lives, of what God is calling them to do.

Which means that for someone else for whom God has long since gone the way of the dodo bird, as invisible and near-weightless as the air we put in our lungs, we have to be the ones to show God to them.  We have to be the ones to say, “God is still alive in you, God is still at work on you, God has not given up on you, and most importantly of all, God still loves you and always will.”

Can we do that, church?  Can other people see God through us?  Or will we be forever relegated to the forgotten state of the temple dishes, thrown away into storage, until a petty king has need of us?

By God’s grace, may we make God known.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 26, 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Between Life and Identity: To the General Assembly on the Armenian Genocide

What follows is the text of the speech I gave at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in support of Resolution 1519, my denomination’s recognition of the Armenian Holocaust as a genocide and a lament of the steadfast and stubborn refusal of the governments of the United States of America and the republic of Turkey to likewise recognize the Armenian Holocaust as a genocide. 

I am very grateful to Dr. Peter Makari of the Division of Overseas Ministries, the sponsor of 1519, for graciously encouraging me to speak in favor of a cause I have devoted a significant amount of time and energy to championing. Although my great-grandfather Krikor Mouradian died well before I was born, I remember visiting my great-grandmother Satenig as a small child, and it is my hope that in heaven, she and Krikor are proud of their eldest great-grandchild. ~E.A.

My name is Rev. Eric Atcheson, and I am the pastor of First Christian Church in Longview, Washington.  But it is my name wherein lies the question that sits before us now. I am a fourth-generation Armenian Congregationalist, and yet both my given name and my surname are Anglo. Having a name that is not Armenian in origin is now not uncommon for many of us in what now numbers in the millions of souls who make up the worldwide Armenian diaspora.

And it is not uncommon because 100 years ago, our families were forced into the most wrenching of decisions, one that no person, no child of God, should ever have to make: to have to choose between life and identity.

There is a pain attendant with having your identity be less than whole because of the reality that my entire existence, from the moment I entered into this world until the moment I leave it for the greater kingdom of God, is an extended consequence of a genocide. Had my family not needed to flee their ancestral homeland a century ago, had they been able to remain where their family had been for years and years, and their children’s children would simply have been Armenian, not Armenian-American, or Armenian-French, or Armenian-anything. Their identity would have been secure, able live on without the need for a new homeland.

And so I am a product of a genocide, which means that when the genocide is denied, year after year, I am denied. Who I am, how I came to be here, why I even exist, all of it is denied in favor of the convenient lie.

I emphasize that word, “convenient."  Because what we are saying to the world is, give us that which is convenient rather than that which is right.  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.

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 for we who are calling out to you, mightily, with one voice, to say, "Not in my name."

And so I ask for a yea vote for 1519. Thank you.

Columbus, Ohio
July 21, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Post I Never Thought I'd Write

This is the post I never thought I'd write, y'all.

This is the post in which I defend Planned Parenthood against the push by Christians to completely defund it.

I don't write an awful lot about abortion because, in all honesty, I don't see the potential in dialogue and persuasion in it.  More than any other issue, at least in my experience, abortion tends to create hardened partisans.  Meanwhile, I wallow somewhere in the middle, drowning in the nuances of reality, tugged on the one hand by the thought of the fetus and its potential for life and pulled on the other hand by the mother and her fundamental need to have her health protected.

In my own congregation, I think, these opinions are likewise split.  I have parishioners who fall on one side or the other of this question, and I encourage those passions as far as I see them leading my people closer to God, because in truth, Jesus didn't come to a world of black-and-white.  He came to a world filled to the brim, overflowing, with various derivatives of gray, and He emphasized relationships first--how else do you think He got a tax collector and a Zealot to follow Him in the same small group of the Twelve?

I say all of that, though, as a pastor who does possess some serious moral qualms about abortion.  I was already sympathetic to a late-term abortion ban before I saw the same footage you did of Deborah Nucatola describing, in clinical style, the extremely graphic nature of a late-term abortion (the editing--to the point of doctoring--that footage out of context is another can of tuna, and one I'll leave to this excellent post from the independent fact-checkers and internet rumor-debunkers at Snopes, but basically, there's no proof from that footage that PP does anything illegal with the fetal tissue it collects with the woman's written consent after such an abortion).

I have already been taught heavily in the Scriptural basis for believing in the inherent dignity and sacredness of life--a basis that shines through so very much of Scripture, even as parts of it call for war crimes like genocide and enslavement of prisoners.  And I oppose capital punishment in all cases in part because of its inherent inhumanity--the same inhumanity involved in a dilation-and-extraction procedure that might well give more importance to preserving fetal organs than the health of the mother receiving the abortion.  Just as we cannot guarantee that we can execute a grown adult painlessly, so too can we not guarantee that we are aborting a viable fetus painlessly.  And the thought of aborting a fetus that is capable of living outside the womb just devastates me.

But what devastates me equally--and if I'm fully honest, even more so, and I'll tell you why soon--is the thought of a world without Planned Parenthood.  Yes, defunding it would strip it of much of its ability to perform abortions.

But it would also strip PP of its ability to perform nearly 750,000 breast exams per year, and even more pap smears per year--the former being a crucial tool in preventing breast cancer, and the latter equally crucial in preventing cervical cancer, both cancers that disproportionately strike down women rather than men.

It would strip PP of its ability to perform nearly 4.5 million STD, HIV/AIDS, and HPV tests it performs every year.

And it would strip PP of its ability to provide affordable access to contraception for over 3.7 million people per year--contraception that should, in fact, be our strongest ally in getting rid of abortion in the United States, because until we can fulfill our latent conservative Christian dreams of legislating away peoples' biologically and God-given libido, hormonal or latex barrier contraception will remain our most surefire way to preventing the unwanted pregnanices that result in abortions.

Yet, none of the (overwhelmingly white and mostly male) Christians who rushed to engage me on Twitter could offer a viable alternative after I posted this:
What I heard were completely microcosmic solutions, of one local clinic here or there that was doing amazing work--and I don't mean or want to denigrate that at all.  But county-run free clinics across the nation suffer from an acute lack of funding and, by extension, staffing.

So where will we get the medical infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of millions of people after we defund PP?  Because, call me cynical, but I'm reasonably certain that any attempt to expand the free clinic network to put more services in underserved areas, hire more staff, and the like will quite likely be met by certain political quarters as another example of the terrible plague of "socialized medicine" and dismissed on spec.

So...what do we do?  Do we just write off the fundamental preventive health care needs of millions of people, mostly women and many of them impoverished?  Because a certain Messiah who healed untold numbers of people in addition to welcoming women, having women followers, and even having a woman (possibly multiple women) as the first witness of the Resurrection might have something to say about that.

I mean, think about that for a second.  Really think about it.  In the Bible, women aren't just the mothers of *first* life, the earthly life that comes from Eve.  They are the mothers of the *second* life as well, the eternal life that comes through understanding the will and teachings of Jesus Christ.

It was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who midwived into being the thought that Jesus could have even resurrected in the first place, and even after she had said it, the male disciples still had to rush over to see the empty tomb for themselves.

And this identity is in concert with the reality of women serving as prophetesses (Luke 2), judges of Israel (Judges 4), and deacons of the church in Rome (Romans 16).

How are we to honor our women, then, these mothers of not only life but of resurrection?  Surely, I hope and pray, not by endeavoring to take from them the tools of life that sustain their health.

I often find myself wondering how many of the Christians who say they are perfectly fine ending this vast network of accessible and affordable preventive health care belong to churches or denominations who, in spite of this lengthy Biblical tradition, exclude women from being ordained as pastors or serving in substantive leadership positions.  Because when you wholly set aside a voice from the tables and seats of power, it becomes that much easier to act as though the concerns those voices might put forth do not really exist, or that those concerns have easy solutions.  I've literally had male colleagues say about domestic violence victims, "Well, they can just leave, can't they," as though the entire problem of DV victims being threatened with even more violence or even death if they leave just plain didn't exist.  When it is only men at the table, magical, not rational or logical, thinking tends to ensue.  Trust me, I speak from experience.

This is why I so value the *other* aspects of what PP does and why a world without it worries me more than anything else here, even as I am grieved by some of the abortions it performs.  It, while not being a Christian organization and while being demonized by a great many Christians, performs what is in point of fact a very Christian and often, a very invisible-to-us-as-men service: keeping whole and healthy the bodies of women.

It doubly worries me that we Christians seem to be striving to rid our women of such care on the basis of false pretenses and outright lies.  Whatever else you may think of abortion, at what point did it become okay for us to break one of the Ten Big Ones (you shall not lie) to try to uphold another (you shall not kill)?  Because that is what happened with this PP footage: it was gathered based on an entire network of deliberate lies, years in the making, in order to deceive fellow human beings.

At what point did we decide that this was okay for us to do?  Do we really think that breaking one commandment for another is acceptable?  Is it okay for us to have other deities before God, for instance, as long as we don't make any graven images to those deities?  (Sorry, Buddy Christ.)  Is it okay for us to start stealing as long as it is only from people who take God's name in vain?  At what point did we begin compromising basic tenets of our Scripture's sense of morality like this?

(A couple of years ago, I wrote a guest piece for a friend's site that delved at greater length into this specific concern that went viral by my own modest standards.  You are invited to read it here.)

Is this really what we want to be known for, Christians?  Attempting to take health care from millions of our neighbors with lies and false pretenses?

I don't pretend to know what to magically do to end abortion other than to make access to contraception free and universal, to educate our children responsibly about the sacredness and science of sex, to tell the truth about the biology of our bodies, and to stop shaming our women for bearing children even out of wedlock when that is in fact precisely what we claim we want them to do rather than seeking an abortion.  I don't have many answers beyond those.

But I do pray.  And I pray that a greater clarity might come to us here, even if--especially if--it is a question of pure black-and-white to us.  Because love it or hate it, the issue of family planning includes so much more nuance than we in our ham-fisted natures are wont to admit: if we get rid of PP, would any subsequent health care be affordable?  Would it be geographically accessible?  Would it be equipped to aid victims of domestic violence or substance addiction?  And would we end up demonizing them in the same way we have PP?

Those are serious, important, life-saving questions I did not see engaged by the Christians who sought to engage me on Twitter, even after I brought them up.  Which convinces me even more that we do indeed need to wrestle and struggle with them, to make those questions part of our dialogue and discussion here.

Which is where I find myself at now.  I simply can't reach for black or for white in a world and a public health concern that is fraught with nuance.  Love me for it, hate me for it, I can't change it.  And given the choice, I wouldn't.  Because I have come to understand that when faced with a nail, I cannot simply be a hammer.  A hammer knows only how to do one thing, and I must know so much more than that.

Because we can't just legislate peoples' sex lives, y'all, even if--especially if--we wanted to.  We cannot just will abstinence into existence for everyone else besides us.  And in the meanwhile, unwanted pregnancies pile up, sometimes precisely because of our own unwillingnness to embrace the contraception PP champions as a means of ridding the demand for abortions to begin with.

So let's be more than the hammer.  Let's meet the nail with the full array of tools given and gifted to us, let's really talk, not mansplain, let's actually engage, not slut-shame, and let's, for God's sake, stop patronizing and minimizing the narratives and stories and experiences women bring forward.  They have been shoved into the private sphere for altogether too long.

I suspect that this might be a better way forward.  For all of us.

Columbus, Ohio
July 20, 2015

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Epic Discouragement of a Pastor

I love my work.  I love the privilege of being able to preach and teach as much as I love the ability to breathe.  I could no sooner separate myself from my own breath as I could from my identity as a teacher of the truth of humanity and its historical relationship with God Almighty.

I love the blessing of being allowed into peoples' lives at the birth of a child, at the death of a loved one, at the point of greatest need to experience, each in their own ways, God's own power and splendor, made real and knowable to us all, through the innate presence of God's Son Jesus Christ.

I love the honor of being invited to perform weddings and baptisms, funerals and renewals of vows, of being invited to offer what miniscule scraps of wisdom I have to offer to lend whatever sense of profoundness and greatness I can muster to something that in point of truth needs no further profoundness, no polish of further greatness: the witness of love itself.

But it is so very, very hard for me to do it.

It is beyond hard for me to preach in the name of God's justice and God's demand for dignity for all when I hear people like Franklin Graham say that Muslims should be banned from the United States after the terrorist attacks in Chattanooga, using our treatment of the Japanese during World War II as a precedent (because that was so moral of us).  Never mind that by the same logic, a Christian being radicalized like the Charleston shooter ought to be similar grounds for barring a Christian like me (or Franklin Graham) from the United States as well.

It is beyond painful for me to bear witness to a God of fundamental love and regard for humanity while I see people defend the Confederate flag rather than try to build up the black churches that have been set on fire, never mind trying to build up Mother Emanuel AME after it lost its pastor and eight other souls.

It is beyond wrenching for me to realize that we lament how the talking about these things "divides us," never mind the fact that we were divided to begin with, with our family and most of our friends looking and sounding and dressing exactly like us instead of like the diverse array of images of God, the imago dei, that humanity is able to outwardly proffer to its adherents.

I write this as I read the news that a fifth soldier (I had originally and erroneously written "Marine," but in fact Randall Smith was a petty officer second class in the Navy -E.A.) has died of his wounds in Chattanooga, after the terrorist shooting that had already claimed the lives of four of his comrades.  And already, I see the anger at the notion that people somehow care more about Caitlyn Jenner's ESPY speech than about the five folded flags that are about to be given out to five bereft families at five military funerals very, very soon.

Except that isn't it at all.  I, and just about everyone else I see and know, are reeling from Chattanooga as well.  But there is so much vitriol being cast about as well...possibly because the terrorist who killed the five soldiers is dead as well, so the object of our communal fury must be someone other than a corpse.  After 9/11, Osama bin Laden still remained belligerently among the living for nearly a decade.  Not so with our latest assailant.

So we lash out at each other instead.  We lash out at Caitlyn Jenner for accepting an award she did not ask for, but still merited consideration for, because if her coming out as transgender meant that somewhere else in America, a trans kid who was planning to kill themselves did not, then her bravery in fact saved a life.  And in a nation of 320 million people, I'm willing to bet that it saved more than one.

We lash out at black Americans for demanding the removal of the Confederate flag and for calling us out for caring more about defending the flag than about the burning of their churches, the murder of their people by different law enforcement officers, and the denial of equal educational opportunities to their children.  And they have to repeat it over and over, because we covered our ears after Eric Garner, and then again after Eric Harris, and again after Tamir Rice, and again and again and again--and now this time for Sandra Bland--because if you deny something long enough, you eventually begin to believe your own denials.

And we lash out at these attempts to remember and honor people like Jenner and Garner and Rice because they aren't us.  I have never seen any resistance or objection to remembering utterly horrific events like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, but as soon as we talk about remembering the death and pain experienced by people who aren't our skin color or our gender identity or our sexual orientation, we instead talk about how they "should get over it" and "remember how lucky they are."

Do we really think these are things that Jesus would say?

Or are we willing to admit that the Jesus who lived and died and resurrected for us is the exact same Jesus who lived and died and resurrected for the five Marines in Chattanooga, for Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, for Clementa Pinckney, for Caitlyn Jenner, and for you and for me?  And that this Jesus demands us to honor the stories and histories of those who don't look like us just as much as He calls us to honor our own?

Otherwise, what on earth is an Israelite Jesus doing talking to the Syrophoenician woman in Mark and Matthew, or the Samaritan woman and the centurion in John?  For that matter, what on earth is Jesus doing telling a Judean audience about a good Samaritan?

And what on earth are we doing trying to be church in His name?

I do this thing called ministry where I go about the sacred and mighty tasks I thrive on, the tasks of of preaching and teaching and counseling and building up all in a context that beats me up as much as it does you.  Maybe more so.  It makes the devilish temptation of apathy all the more, well, tempting.

I know it cannot be any other way.  A people that loves others as much as it loves its own is a people who never needed Jesus to come in the first place.

But in all truth, it is so very hard not to be discouraged by that reality, even though that reality is precisely why I know that what I do remains so very, very necessary.  It both redoubles my resolve to keep on doing it and piles on my existential despair for even bothering to do it.

Such is the painful, epic, discouraging-and then-encouraging paradox of ministry.

Vancouver, Washington
July 18, 2015

Image: Raphael's "St. Paul Preaching in Athens," public domain.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Blinded to the Real

I'm being given lots of poetry during my first stint of intensive classes in my doctoral program, because, apparently, all of my professors here love it.  I make no claims at all to being a poet, but if you can't beat 'em, join ', this next post is written (mostly) in verse, and honestly, that is probably for the better because if I wrote in uncensored prose about our illusions of persecution, and the reality that this pales in comparison to the very real persecution (in both historical and present terms) of others, I'd be unspooling so much incoherence that I fear the larger point would be lost amidst my nonsensical verbiage.

A word about the title: it is inspired by a very famous verse in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad from the Hindu tradition, some 2,700 years ago.  I first read this verse in the children's book How Do You Spell God, a baptism gift from my late aunt Florence nearly 20 years ago, and the verse is translated roughly as:

From the unreal lead me to the real
From darkness lead me to light
From death lead me to immortality

It remains my fervent hope and prayer to God that we are led from the unreal illusions of our minds to understand the real that is experienced by our neighbors.  ~E.A.

Decades upon decades
From fortresses, on slave ships
Life gets extinguished

Living to dying
Earth into ocean, sunlight
Into fires of hell

In death, we conquer
The other, the savages
Bodies without souls

Blinded to the real
That within and from above
Humanness flickered

Flickered inside they
Not beasts of burden, not slaves
But God's own created

Like the ocean's waves
Their voice, God's voice, all are drowned
When will they emerge?

Feel persecuted
White people, because the flag
Is at long last down

Feel persecuted
White people, because the show
Is off the air now

Feel persecuted
White people, because others
Now match your volume

But please, do ignore
How we took other cultures
Down below the waves

And please, do ignore
How we have time and again
Mocked other cultures

Criticize music
Criticize fashion and art
Criticize it all

But don't you dare give
To us your criticisms
Of our white culture

Why can't you shut up
Why do you sow division
Why can't you just nod

When we tell you we
Honor our heritages
Jaded though they are

Why can't you let us
Stay standing on your shoulders
Heavy though we are

How dare you cry out
How dare you demand justice
How dare you reach us

When it is us...we
Who are blinded to the real
From above and within

O God of Jacob
Of Abraham and Isaac
Lead us to the real

Seattle, Washington
July 14, 2015

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Can We Talk About Our Biblical Literacy, Y'all?

This sounds cynical, probably because it is: I have come to believe that the more frequently and more loudly someone says to me that we (the church, the nation, or both) need to return to the Bible or the Constitution, the more apt I am to believe that this person does not know what is in either the Bible or the Constitution.

I'll be preoccupying myself (and you, dear reader) primarily with the former here by dint of my own work and background, but I would be remiss if I didn't note that in all truth, most of us could not name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment without going to look it up (they are freedom of speech, religious expression, the press, assembly, and to seek a redress of grievances).  Many of us aren't aware that originally, the Senate wasn't elected by popular vote and that amending the Constitution was required to put that system into place.  And we aren't aware that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (you know what they say, right?) were necessitated by the reality that the original text of the Constitution placed a valuation of a black slave as three-fifths of a free white person.

That last example is especially illustrative of our own approaches to Scripture: we neglect the context in which Scripture was revealed to, and written down by, humanity.  We think the Bible was written directly to us, and point blank, it wasn't.  The Bible endures not because it was (is) intended for us but because the scope and scale of its truth was and is so great so as to bridge great spans of time, geography, and culture.  Originally, the Old Testament was only meant for a tiny little nation-state called Israel surrounded by the giants of their time--the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Hittiites, and on and on--all of whom could swat them the proverbial fly if they wanted to...and in the case of the Assyrians, eventually did in fact do.

So we can talk all we want about a "return to Biblical values," but we had better be damn careful of what we wish for.  In truth, what we say when we talk about wanting to return to Biblical values is that we want a return to whatever our values happen to be as white American Christians, but we can't say THAT because it simply would not do for us to be that egotistical.

Not that I am simply saying that we are guilty of saying that the Bible agrees with us rather than the other way around--we are, but others who have come before me have made that point far better than I have ("You know you have made God in your image when God has all the same enemies you do." --Anne Lamott).

No, what I am saying we are guilty of is pointing to a book (or set of books, as the Bible really is) and claiming it as our be-all, end-all moral authority without actually knowing what it says.

If we really are enthusiastic about returning to Biblical values, then why haven't we enacted comprehensive immigration reform in the spirit of Leviticus 19:33-34 which says to treat the foreigner as a citizen?

If we really are enthusiastic about returning to Biblical values, then why aren't all our churches functioning as communes, in which no private property is held, but rather, everything is put into a common pool and distributed out according to need, per the practices of the earliest church in Acts 4:32-35? about this: if we really are enthusiastic about returning to Biblical values, then why don't we make same-sex relations a capital crime, punishable by the death penalty, per Leviticus 20:13?

See, most people who want that return to Biblical values only quote the first part of that verse, the ban, rather than the punishment.  I can only assume they have read that part of the verse and are picking and choosing like all of us are, or somehow skipped over that part, in which case, yes, we do need to talk about our Biblical literacy as Christians, because far more often than not, we seem to be upholding a book as the moral basis for our worldview without know all of what it says.

Which is, ultimately, a form of deception, even if only a deception of omission--we are deceiving ourselves by thinking we know exactly what this complex, beautiful, wonderful, shocking collection of texts really says, and we are deceiving others by proffering ourselves as genuinely knowing what in fact constitutes "Biblical values."

(And I haven't even gotten into the Mosaic laws governing marriage, highlights of which include capital punishment for adultery in more circumstances for women than for men, rules concerning polygamy, and a legal requirement for sexual assault victims to marry their assailants.  We've redefined marriage already, people.  Many times.  That ship has emphatically sailed.  But I digress.)

The Bible--beginning with the Ten Commandments and continuing throughout--exhorts us to tell the truth.  So let's be truthful, not just about what the Bible actually says in the parts we tend to not know or avoid (which, let's face it, is a lot of the Bible), but let's also be truthful about just how little we know about it.

Because we do know enough about it to know that it says that God does indeed give grace to the humble, just as God humbles the proud (James 4:6).

Let us be humble in our recognition of the Bible and what we know of it, and may God give us grace in that humbleness, grace enough to more fully understand the divine truth that those texts were first imbued with, thousands of years ago.

And then, perhaps, we might be just a little more worthy to weight in on a return to the values of the Good Book, and whose values we are in fact talking about--ours, or our Creator's.

Yours in Christ,

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Dark Moon Rising

As an initial part of my D.Min. coursework here at Seattle University, all students were asked to perform a critical analysis of formative points of our ministry from a variety of angles--the settings including social location and cultural context, the effects on our skills, and so on.

One of the formative points I selected for critical analysis was my first night on call as an intern chaplain for California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, where I did my Clinical Pastoral Education in 2009.  My written recollection of that night is rewritten here in its entirety six years later, edited only for mechanical issues such as word choice and syntax.

Seattle, Washington
July 9, 2015

A number of days ago, I served my first 24-hour shift as the on-call chaplain for the California Pacific Medical Center system. This meant that during the day, I would refer pages for a chaplain to the chaplain of that particular ward, and at night, I would be the only chaplain on duty and could respond to any page personally. The day was not particularly arduous, I simply passed referrals on to my fellow interns, residents, and staff chaplains. Some detective work and malfunctioning phone hijinks ensued, but nothing terribly dramatic.

That night, however, two patients died on my service. One of the two died in the evening, the other died in the middle of the night. Both times I was paged, and both times I spent a couple hours with the families. After all was said and done, I had gotten less than four hours of sleep that night. It took a toll on me, if in no other way but in terms of sheer physical exhaustion.

In the days that followed, though, I wrestled with myself on how much the deaths of these two people should affect me. On a fundamental level, I feel like it should affect me because I bore witness to the extreme pain of their families in the immediate wake of such a loss. John Donne once wrote, "Because I am involved in (hu)mankind, any man's death diminishes me," and on a gut level, I connect so much to that statement. This experience had to affect me, how could it not? But I also began to tell myself that on a certain level, I needed to be able to emotionally separate myself from what had happened.

I remembered an episode of the television sitcom Scrubs in which Dr. Cox, in explaining how another doctor was breaking bad news to a family, said of that doctor, "He's going to tell them the patient died, he's going to say that he is sorry, and then he is going to go back to work. Do you think anyone else in that room is going back to work today?" I still went to work the next day after my night on-call, and I still ministered to the patients I normally worked with on the dialysis ward as though nothing happened.  But something had happened.  Many somethings, really.

I've been told by friends who talk to me about their problems that part of the reason they come to me is because they think I (generally)  can offer objective advice when I need to. I would like to think that is so. But I also have realized that I have a bit of a ways to go in being able to sort out just how much I can, should, or am able to allow my instances of crisis ministry to affect me (and even this presumes that I have some degree of control over it).

And, in reflecting back on that night and how I can most constructively make meaning out of what happened, I remembered the passage from Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie" that I read to my intern cohort in seminar on the day of my on-call. In it, Albom writes about an Arctic First Nation Peoples tribe that believes that the moon is capable to receiving the souls of dying organisms before sending those souls back to earth in the bodies of new living things, and that sometimes, the moon is so filled with the souls of the world that it disappears from view on the nights of the new moon.

But, as Albom writes, the moon always returns.

June 22 marked the night of the new moon for the month of June, the first new moon after my night on call. I would like to think that at some point in time, whether on the night of the 22nd or on any other night, there was indeed something greater than us, greater than anything we ever knew, waiting to welcome these souls with open and loving arms. I would like to think that there will remain the connection I made to the families of the dead, likely sustained only by the fragile threads of memory. And I would like to think that when I expire, I will be welcomed into the moon, into the heavens, into whatever awaits me, as the world continues on, as the sun rises and sets, and as the flowers continue to bloom.

The following night, June 23, marked my next night on call. The merest sliver of the waxing crescent moon laid in wait beyond the city lights and the rolling fog.

I was never paged that night.

Image courtesy of

Sunday, July 5, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Disciples of Christ"

Matthew 16:13-17

13 Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” 

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 

15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you." (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Movement for Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week Five

A Harvard graduate writes her first novel.  I say that sentence, and to me, and probably to you as well, the images of the writing process that come forth are of laptop computers and various sheaves of paper containing different drafts, of coffeehouses where they know your order by heart, of endless phone calls between your agent and your editor to make sure everything is set just so…

None of this, not even a bit, was the case for Annette Lu’s novel, These Three Women.  Why?  Because Lu, a Taiwanese woman who, after giving a speech demanding Taiwanese independence from the People’s Republic of China, was found guilty of violent sedition by China and served nearly six years in prison.  And while in prison, she wrote These Three Women, which was picked up into a made-for-TV movie in 2008, on her ration of toilet paper from her jail cell while incarcerated, using her washbasin as a sink so as to not attract undue attention from her guards…and knowing that China has an awful human rights track record with their prisoners and especially with their prisoners of conscience like Lu, she probably faced even greater dangers than that.

Now, Annette Lu is a two-term Vice President of Taiwan, and has survived an assassination attempt, been acquitted of politically motivated corruption charges, and is still engaging in hunger strikes and action because, in large part, of sheer force of will.

Purity of heart, Soren Kierkegaard says, is to will the one thing.  It is from that sort of faith that the world is changed, hopefully for the better.  It is the sort of faith the world, then, demands of us, and it is the sort of faith that Jesus Christ Himself demands of us, because He first demanded it from Peter, here in Matthew 16.  And in so doing, He created the sole profession of faith ever required to be a disciple of Christ, a profession that we believe easily but live out far more difficultly.  And that is what we are going to be talking about today as we wrap up our current sermon series.

This is the first of two sermon series primarily for the summer; this one took us through June and today, we wrap it up with its final installment.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything).

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and to start off with, we talked about the nature of the Lord’s table, before moving on to the theme of welcome and then wholeness and moving into wholeness.  Today, we’ll be going on to the chapter entitled “Disciples of Christ,” which isn’t about our denomination specifically, but the statement that title makes, to say “I am a disciple of Christ,” with from this excerpt from that chapter in Pastor Sharon’s book:

Jewish tradition had taught for generations about a “messiah” who would come to save the world.  In Hebrew, “messiah” literally means “anointed one.”  In most cases in the Hebrew Bible, it refers to the Davidic king who sat on the throne in Jerusalem, who was anointed with ceremonial oil upon his election as king…By the time of Jesus, many Jews thought that a messiah would rise up like David or Cyrus (the Great, the emperor of Persia who conquered Babylon) to free them from the Roman Empire.  Some thought this Savior would usher in a new age and rescue not only Israel but also the whole world…The Greek word for messiah (transliterated into its English form) was Christ.

People began to experience the resurrected Jesus as the living Christ, the one who fully represented God’s desire for a world made whole, starting with their own lives.  They experienced His promise and presence as a liberating reality, freeing them from hopelessness and from fear of death…in all this they found a saving, liberating new reality.  They began to call Him Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus Christ.  In the Syrian city of Antioch, the disciples of Jesus began to be called “Christians.”

A saving, liberating new reality that frees you from hopelessness and from your fear of death.  Can you imagine how terrific and radical such a reality would that have to be if you were in the circumstances of, say, Annette Lu, or of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island?  It doesn’t even have to be as dramatic as that—how much of a shift in your reality would that be if you had just been laid off from work, or just evicted from your home, or just been diagnosed with a terminal sickness?

Think of how much saving, how much liberating, how much freeing you would still need, and desire, and crave in the depths of your bones.

That is the sort of saving we talk about with Jesus the Anointed, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ: it is meant to change our lives, turn our worlds upside-down, make everything seem new, all of it.

But it is also something that often takes us a long, long time to arrive at, because it is that big.  Being a disciple of Christ doesn’t mean just being converted.  Paul’s story didn’t end with his change of heart on the road to Damascus; there are nearly 20 chapters more of Acts after that moment to detail his post-conversion life, belief, and deeds, because Paul didn’t arrive at who he was right away.  It took time, lots of time.

Similarly, Peter doesn’t actually get around to what he himself believes about Jesus right away here in Matthew 16—he sort of hems and haws, saying “Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, some say you’re Elijah, and still others say you’re Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  It’s like Peter just started playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and he’s blowing his ask-the-audience lifeline on the $100 question: Who do you say that Jesus is?

Which is why Jesus then repeats the question right back to Peter: “And what about you?  Who do you say that I am?”

This time, Peter has the cards: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

There’s that word again, Messiah.  In Greek, it’s “christos.”  For the first time ever in the Gospels, someone is explicitly calling Jesus not simply Jesus, or Jesus of Joseph, or Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus the Christ.  Jesus, the expected messianic heir who Jewish tradition says will save the world.  Jesus, the one who has been waited for and sought for so long we forgot what He would look like.

Because even now, I think, we forget who He really is, or was—what He really was about.  He was God made flesh, yes, but He was God made flesh for a very specific purpose: to stop us from hating and hurting one another and instead to love and trust in Him.  The wonderful, painful irony in that is that we achieved that by first hating and hurting Him and continuing to hate and hurt each other.

It’s more or less the same now, only we hate and hurt each other while claiming to still love Him.

How else do you explain a world in which we say, “I love you” to someone, but still say, “I am okay with you being treated as a second-class citizen?”

How else do you explain a world in which we say, “Blessed are the poor, but only if you’re virtuous enough to be worthy of our assistance?”

How else do you explain a world in which we allow our own faith to be so imperfect and frankly shallow—and this includes my own—as to not hold one another in the regard in which Jesus held Peter?  It is one of the things that drives me nuts about by own faith, I am always bargaining with God to let myself off the hook, when Peter is emphatically not let off the hook, not by a long shot.

We can say that we have professed a faith in Jesus Christ, but are we actually disciples of Him?  Do we actually follow His teachings, radical and unreasonable though they may be?  What on earth are we to do with this collection of His delusions, His unrealistic fantasies that the poor and meek will inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven, that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, that Jesus came not to save the righteous, but to save sinners?

What on earth are we to do with that embarrassment of a document, the New Testament?

Maybe, just maybe, we are meant to start living by it, not simply saying that we believe in it.  Belief is easy.  It’s the easiest part.  The hard part is what comes afterwards.  For Peter, after this profession of faith comes denying Jesus, enduring the crucifixion, and ultimately, being crucified to death himself some thirty years after his Lord and Savior.  Even as he stumbles to his own profession of faith initially in Matthew 16, it is everything that comes later that will really try and test that faith.

And so it is with each of us.  There is nothing about being a disciple of Christ that entails an easy life or a materially wealthy life or even a long life.  We don’t get to demand those sorts of strings to come attached with this covenant that we have made with God through Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, it will be we who must write our life’s story on toilet paper while imprisoned due to others’ hatred.

What being a disciple entails, then, is an understanding and relationship with God, for, as Jesus says to Peter in response to Peter’s belief, it is God “who is in heaven (who) has shown you” this truth.

In turn, God shows us that truth as well.  But we have to be willing to live according to that truth, not merely according to our profession of faith in the source of that truth.  Because God’s truth, that as John says we are meant to love because God first loved us, demands nothing less of us.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longivew, Washington
July 5, 2015

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

July 2015: "Real Doctor & Fake Doctor"

Dear Church,

As many of you know when I first shared this news with you at the beginning of the year, I was admitted to the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree program at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry, and my first round of classes start this month, from Monday, July 6, through Wednesday, July 15.

A D.Min. isn't structured like a traditional degree: I won't be attending classes full-time--indeed, I will remain here full-time as your pastor while commuting up to Seattle for a week at a time (in fact, this initial session of classes will be by far the longest in my first year of the program), three times per year, for intensive classes, and I will complete other coursework online. The degree itself will likely take 3-5 years for me to complete this way.

While I was applying to this program, I joked with Carrie that we would have to get new address labels that read "Real Dr. & Fake Dr. Atcheson," since only one of us is capable of actually providing medical care as the result of their degree, and it still won't be me!

But this degree also means an awful lot to me--it represents a genuine opportunity to hone my professional ministry skills (or lack thereof!) and to learn from a depth of Christian tradition in doing so. It is something that has been in the works for almost a year now, and I wouldn't and couldn't have pursued it without the blessing of our church's board of directors, because while this degree program *will* make me a better pastor, it will also, at least in the short term, take me geographically away from all of you for a week or so at a time three weeks per year.

This does at all mean that you won't be able to get a hold of me--I'll still have my cell phone and internet access, so you can always call, text, or email--just please be patient if I don't respond right away, and please be understanding if I am unable to come and visit you until after I drive back down to Longview. The D.Min. degree is actually designed for working pastors (you can't even be admitted to a D.Min. program without first spending a few years in ministry), and so the time we are kept away from our parishes is kept to a minimum, because divinity schools that offer this degree know that our congregations are such an important priority to us.

So as I begin my pursuit of this longtime vocational goal of mine, I will greatly appreciate--and be very thankful for--your support and prayers. My fervent hope is that embarking on this course of study is of benefit not simply to me but to all of you as well by way of having a pastor whose skills and education are as up-to-date as possible.

PS: Does anyone know if you're supposed to give an apple to your professors?!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric