Monday, August 31, 2015

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

September 2015: "Doing The Same Things Differently: A Report From General Assembly"


Dear Church, This past July, I had the joy of representing our congregation at the General Assembly of our Disciples of Christ denomination in Columbus, Ohio. I returned too late in the month to include a report for my August column, so here I am telling you all about it in September!

General Assembly serves several functions: a means for voting representatives (all ordained clergy plus selected non-clergy) to vote on business items for the denomination--much like how we do so at our congregation's annual general meeting every January, an opportunity to present reports from our missionaries in the field or from some of our new church plants, and sometimes simply a chance to catch up with old friends far-flung across the church!

One of the most crucial things that General Assembly provides, though, is the opportunity for pastors to engage in continuing education in order to keep our skills current and up-to-date. As the book of Proverbs states, just as iron sharpens iron, so too does one person sharpen another, and at GA, I had the opportunity to learn from lectures from Disciples seminary professors Frank and Joyce Thomas, United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton, and even a TED talk from my colleague here in the Northwest region, Liv Gibbons over at Northwest United Protestant Church in Richland.

This GA, though, may be one of the last on its current biannual schedule. For as long as I have been an ordained Disciples pastor (which really isn't very long at all!), the GA has convened every two years, and there was much discussion in Columbus about moving it to every three years in order to make it more cost-efficient for both the denomination and its pastors--and the congregations who send their pastors.

Personally, I think it is a perfectly fine idea, because it will still allow for all of the great aspects of GA I just described to continue, but to do so while adjusting to the reality that, thanks to things like social media and online classes, General Assembly doesn't need to offer some of the services it does as frequently as every two years.

What this means is that we, as a denomination, are learning how to do some of the same things differently. Rather than dump the proverbial baby with the bathwater, we have begun discussing how to make better and more effective this very helpful and meaningful institution of the General Assembly that we already have.

And that is a mentality that *must* filter down into our congregations--including our own here in Longview. We have to always be willing to see where the Holy Spirit is nudging us to make the ways we have of doing things work in better and sometimes newer ways. A church that is stuck in a rut is just like a wheel stuck in a rut--it can only go in one of two directions, and eventually, that direction will need to change.

I continue to hope and pray that we keep our strength as a church that has allowed us to be moved in different directions by the spirit, and as we forge onward to navigate what direction our lovely and storied church community takes together, it remains my privilege to be your pastor throughout your faith journey here at FCC!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

New sermon series: "From 40 Days to 84 Years: Waiting on God's Word"

September will be a rarity for us compared to recent months--a month devoted entirely to just one sermon series! On August 30, we began this new series with the story of Abraham waiting until he was 75 before figuring so directly into the story of God's word--the Bible--and now, we get to hear from four more people who likewise had to wait many years...in the cases of Moses and Anna, until they were in their eighties! In a time when instant gratification is increasingly the norm, it means that move at higher and higher speeds. Sometimes, that's actually a really, really good thing, like enabling a faster response to a friend or family member in crisis. But it also warps our sense of perspective when we do have to wait for things--and I include myself among such whippersnappers--and especially when we think about just how long people sometimes wait to hear God clearly in their lives. So come out on Sunday and hear the stories of several heroes and heroines in the Bible and of how God ended up working in their lives for the better, even when it took many years!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

August 30: "Abraham: 75 Years," Genesis 12:1-9
September 6: “Ezekiel: 30 Years," Ezekiel 1:1-4
September 13: “Moses: 80 Years," Exodus 3:1-6, 4:10-12
September 20: “Aeneas: 8 Years,” Acts 9:31-35
September 27: “Anna: 84 Years,” Luke 2:22-24, 36-38
October 4: "Jesus: 40 Days," Luke 4:1-13

Sunday, August 30, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Abraham: 75 Years"

Genesis 12:1-9

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.”

4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, 6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. The Canaanites lived in the land at that time.

7 The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him. 8 From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshipped in the Lord’s name. 9 Then Abram set out toward the arid southern plain, making and breaking camp as he went. (Common English Bible)

“From 40 Days to 84 Years: Waiting on God’s Word,” Week One

They are some of the most historically and scientifically important documents in all of human history, and in order to view and handle them to this day, you have to don special protective clothing and sign a waiver of absolving the paper’s holders—the Bibliotheque National, the National Library, in Paris, France—of any damaging effects to your health as a result of radiation.

Even though these documents themselves are over 100 years old.  Because as it turns out, the isotope radium-226 has a half-life of over 1,600 years.  They’ll be safe to handle around 3500 CE.  To put that in perspective, that's almost as long as Christianity has been the pre-eminent religion in Western European and American tradition after Emperor Constantine made it the state faith nearly 1,700 years ago.

Marie Curie, the famous female pioneer of science and radiology, did her work surrounded by this invisible, dangerous radiation.  She would carry radioactive materials with her, on her person, and store them in her desk drawers, unaware of the danger she was in and how long that danger would remain in place.  All of these practices would be unthinkable now, 1/16th into radium-226’s half-life.

Such is the power of time—that the tools of the trade of one of our great heroes of scientific advancement are still dangerous weapons and will remain that way for another 1,500 or so years.

It kind of puts into perspective our faster-moving, instant gratification mentality of today, yeah?  And that’s what we’ll be talking about today, and throughout this entire six-week sermon series: our need to put our time into perspective and context of God’s far greater and good time.

This is a new sermon series, just in time for the fall season of school years and football seasons alike starting, and that’s in fact very important for us to remember right now, because this series really is about the passage of time and the effect it can have on our faith.  It was grown, in fact, out of an idea from one of our elders, Alisha Hayes, whose seed of a suggestion that she made to me grew into a full-blown six-week series, and that seed simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait to understand God’s will for their lives?  What happens when God acts in our lives according to a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do God’s favorites, even people as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out to them and called them by name?  In fact, that is where we are kicking off this series, with one of those two chaps: father Abraham, the patriarch of patriarchs, forebear to the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also a very human man with some very human failings.

Sounds an awful lot like us, right?  Well, that’s Abraham.  And he still changed the world entirely.

Just not at first.

For the first 75 years of his life, Abraham wasn’t even known as Abraham—his given name was Abram, and only later on in Genesis will God rename him as Abraham, much in the same way that God renames Abraham’s grandson Jacob as Israel much, much later on in Genesis.  The author of Genesis does not say at the outset why Abraham had found favor with God initially, only that God spoke to Abraham to tell him that he would become a blessing—which, first, isn’t that amazing to hear from God?  But second, we are given an inkling of why Abraham might in fact have found favor with God by the fact that he obeys immediately, “just as the Lord told him,” Genesis writes.

And if someone asked you to distill Abraham’s life and faith in following God down to a single word, “obedience” would be a pretty solid answer.  While Abraham balks at some of God’s most wrathful actions—such as when he successfully haggled God down from not destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham could find fifty righteous people to not destroying the cities if Abraham could find ten righteous people—he is even eventually willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac simply because God instructed him to do so, no matter the agony it must have put him in.

Now, from our perspective, imagine having spent up the first seventy-five years of your life and not felt God’s presence in so profound a way as Abraham just has—that God has, in no small way, felt absent from your life.  Would you be as quick as Abraham is to obey this johnny-come-lately deity in your twilight years?  Might you hit the pause button for just a moment or so and ask “why bother?”

There is a common theme, if you noticed it, of Abraham’s initial travels with his family: he stops to worship and build altars.  Nowadays, the only things we stop our travel for are airline-mandated connections at whatever godforsaken hub airport they shunt us to and trying to combine getting both gas and lunch into one stop, which is why beef jerky is such a great road trip delicacy.  Unless it’s really special, there’s just no room for reverence when we travel through time or across space.

But that isn’t so for Abraham, even as he advances in years, and even as he travels the span of, basically, most of the Mediterranean coast from modern-day Turkey—where the villeage of Haran is believed to have been—past the Mediterranean and all the way down to the Negev, the southernmost desert in modern-day Israel.  He stops for the real stuff, the soul-sized stuff, the worshipful stuff that following God actually entails, and by building altars, in a real, tangible way.

Is that a patience we ourselves can truthfully say that we would exhibit?  After 75 years of waiting, never mind, say, (hypothetically for me), 30?  Or would we just light out there into whatever our divinely-inspired mission was, neglecting altogether to give thanks to the One who called us to it?

Rather, it is because of how long you may have waited to hear the voice of God calling us forth that we should be so inclined to take time to stop and worship God along the way.  If you, like Abraham, waited 75 years for God to speak, what’s another hour to worship God like you are doing now?

Put another way: if, in a world where centuries can come and go and millennia can pass before a scientific pioneer’s defining work becomes once again safe for human touch, then what is another five minutes, or ten, or twenty, to you, o small but wondrous thread in God’s great tapestry of life?

Can we begin to see our world, our lives, and ultimately ourselves from the God’s view of eternity, rather than our own human view of selfishness and conceit.  Abraham took that first step towards understanding the depth and grandeur of God’s eternity when he took that first step from Haran.

Will we do the same with our first steps out of this church building today?  Or will we be forever destined to muddle along in our own fears and insecurities?

That choice, believe it or not, is entirely up to us.  It was up to Abraham to ignore God, and he chose not to, to instead heed the divine voice ringing in his ear, and it is up to us, as followers of the same God that called Abraham, to be those followers and follow suit.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 30, 2015

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why I Stand With AWPPW Local 153

Listen! Hear the cries of the wages of your field hands. These are the wages you stole from those who harvested your fields. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of heavenly forces.

James 5:4 (Common English Bible)

Earlier this month, I drove down to Portland's Pioneer Square to attend and speak at a rally organized by the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers for their local 153--the local that represents the 800 or so workers at the Kapstone mill here in Longview (edit: you can see the beginning of that speech here).  A couple of those workers are members of my flock at FCC, and I wanted to make a visible show of support for their multiyear plight in getting a fair contract with Kapstone ever since their previous contract expired early in 2014.

And now today, as of 3:00 this morning, the workers at the KapStone mill are on strike for the first time in nearly forty years, after first voting to authorize a strike all the way back in December of 2014.

A condensed version of this post is being sent to the local paper, The Daily News, in the form of a letter to the editor, because I want to be clear to my congregants and neighbors on strike that there is religious leadership in the town that has their back in their quest for better working conditions and benefits.

But in an era when clergy still seem more concerned with fighting for so-called religious freedom bills or against same-sex discrimination bans, why is it even important to have Christian leaders call out the corporations that employ their flock?

In part, actually, I think it is important because in pushing so hard for those things I just mentioned--religious freedom bills, the right to still discriminate against same-sex couples, and so on--we pastors have totally missed the plot and what the Bible actually says--repeatedly--about the justice of promptly paying workers fair wages.  But we'll get to that in a moment.

This is personal for me.  My dad, currently a judge on the Kansas state Court of Appeals, had, prior to becoming an appellate judge, represented the interests of labor unions as a lawyer at various Kansas City firms for many years, and as a child at his knee, I learned of the history of labor unions in America, of the great sacrifices--sometimes of life--in order to gain the things we today take for granted, like the 40-hour workweek and time-and-a-half pay for any work above and beyond that.

And those sorts of protections of work hours and wages are basic to not only American principles, but to Biblical principles.  Not only does James, the brother of Jesus, condemn the practice of taking away the wages of one's workers in 5:4 of his letter, he also condemns the practice of the aristocracy twisting and warping the legal system to their own greedy and selfish ends:

Don't the wealthy make life difficult for you?  Aren't they the ones who drag you into court? (2:6, CEB)

Furthermore, the commitment to paying a fair wage to ones workers is not limited to James--the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Malachi each wrote on the subject, saying, respectively:

How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption and his upper chambers with injustice, working his countrymen for nothing, refusing to give them their wages. (Jeremiah 22:13, CEB)

and,

I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against the sorcerers, the adulterers, those swearing falsely, against those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages as well as oppress the widow and the orphan, and against those who brush aside the foreigner and do not revere me, says the Lord of heavenly forces (Malachi 3:5, CEB)

To be clear--this strike isn't simply about wages.  It is an unfair labor practice strike, and those unfair labor practices include those things that Jeremiah and Malachi denounce, the corruption involved in a history of worker safety violations and the injustice inherent in unilaterally imposing a contract rejected by over two-thirds of the local's membership.  And this is to say nothing of the reality that after posting record profits in 2014, KapStone kicked off 2015 by announcing over thirty layoffs in Longview.

Like the Old Testament kings of yore, KapStone and its executive management need to repent and hear the voices of their workers, workers who are being worked for less and less and have been facing, for nearly two years now, a steadfast refusal to give them fair wages, benefits, and working conditions.

This is indeed a Biblical issue, much as we in church like to act as though only matters of personal piety and morality are worthy of preaching on nowadays.  But to do that ignores the larger realities that Scripture teaches us of, including the reality, as Malachi writes, that in addition to the personal immoralities of adultery and lying, those who cheat their workers out of their wages, those who oppress the needy such as the widows and orphans, those who do not welcome others--including foreigners--are not acting in a wa in a way that reveres God.

We ignore the full warning of Malachi--and of Jeremiah to King Jehoiakim, and of James to the early church, entirely at the peril of our own souls' health and wholeness.  We cannot act like our souls are as spiritually enriched as they can or should be simply because we say please and thank you and chew with our mouth closed.  No, God will always demand so much more of us, as well God ought, for a good parent always pushes their children to be the very best versions of themselves.

Thus far, however, the leaders of KapStone have failed that divine mandate.  And so I stand fully, completely, and unambiguously, in support and solidarity with my friends, congregants, and neighbors who make up AWPPW 153 as they begin their strike for a better livelihood for them and, once rippling outward, for us all.

Longview, Washington
August 27, 2015

AWPPW logo image courtesy of thestand.org

Monday, August 17, 2015

Six Years Ago: "Angelfire"

Six years ago, almost to the day, I exited out of my Clinical Pastoral Education placement at California Pacific Medical Center in the heart of San Francisco and into my field education placement as a student associate minister at First Christian Church in Concord.  I have happily and joyfully remained in parish ministry ever since, but I continue to believe to this day that my brief time in hospital chaplaincy produced some of my best-ever writing.  I shared one such piece of writing last month, and I would like to share with you another.  As with the previous piece, my writing from six years ago has remained untouched except to correct mechanical issues like punctuation and word choice.  This will also likely be my only post for the week, as I am about to take a few days off so that C and I can go see our godchildren get baptized!  I'll be back next week, though, with new entries for y'all.  ~E.A. 

My feet pound against the hospital floor as I keep pace alongside the medical staff.

I am whispering prayers softly under my breath.

And pounding in my head is a throbbing headache that keeps time with my feet.

One day, one of the patients on my service is rushed down to the emergency room. I had just walked onto the floor to see the medical staff preparing to move the patient to the ER. I ask the patient if they would like for me to accompany them to the ER; they weakly say yes. I am suddenly and starkly aware of the trust that is being invested in me--it is one thing to talk to the chaplain in a laid-back setting of a hospital routine, it is entirely another to have him at your side as you are being brought into the ER.

On television shows, the ER is a place full of drama, attractive doctors and nurses, and of patients who either accomplish incredible come-from-behind recoveries, or die in the most heartbreaking manner.

Television got it right in at least one respect--any death has the agonizing capacity to be heartbreaking. But sometimes, the similarities end there. And especially for family--in this case, the patient's father, who came down to the ER with us--it is a place for long waits, confusion, apprehension, and sometimes, outright fear.

Providing pastoral care, at this point, extends beyond both routine conversation as well as the typical existential or theological questions (ie, "Why me?") that chaplains often answer. We are there to explain what we can and to comfort where we cannot explain. I cannot tell a worried father why exactly his child is being taken in for x-rays, an echocardiogram, an MRI, or any other tests, but I can tell him that the x-ray setup is very close by, that they have not taken his child far at all, and that through it all, God's divine presence remains very much alive in the room. And through it all, I continue to give my own prayers, silently and spoken, as an offering to anyone, anything that was listening.

Days later, in the wake of this crisis, the patient referred to me as their angel. That meant a tremendous amount to me--indeed, I felt like it gave me far more credit than I deserved--and it was and is a powerful reminder of the impact clerics can have in a person's life, for both good and bad. While the word 'angel' often carries connotations of great personal virtue, I think that once you put aside that connotation, there is an interesting connection to be made. Just as angels are the ethereal go-betweens from heaven to earth, so too are chaplains--and, indeed, many of the hospital staff--go-betweens from a patient's fears to their hopes. We are go-betweens from a parent's worry to their child's physical presence. And, I am sometimes seen by patients as a go-between from divine presence to the tangible, physical, fragile creation, even though to me I am, quite simply, human.

But on this day, I don't think about any of that. I walk to and fro, trying to make sure nobody is alone for very long. I try to offer peace where there is dread. I try to bring presence where there is unknowingness. And I pray.

And I pray.

After the doctor arrives once again, the patient gently tells me they are ready for me to go. I say good-bye, depart from the ER, lean my back against a nearby wall, slide down onto the floor, and close my eyes as I allow everything that has just happened to wash over me and be taken in.

When I return home, I immediately take 800 milligrams of ibuprofen and collapse onto my bed, painfully, mercifully, imperfectly, wonderfully human.

After about thirty minutes, the pills begin to take effect. I start drifting off to sleep.

And I pray.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Your Kingdom Will Be Divided"

Daniel 5:24-30

“That’s why this hand was sent from God and why this message was written down. 25 This is what was written down: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. 26 “This is the meaning of the word mene: God has numbered the days of your rule. It’s over! 27 tekel means that you’ve been weighed on the scales, and you don’t measure up. 28 peres means your kingship is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.” 29 Then Belshazzar commanded that Daniel be dressed in a purple robe, have a gold chain around his neck, and be officially appointed as third in command in the kingdom.

30 That very same night, Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. 31 Darius the Mede received the kingdom at the age of 62.  (Common English Bible)

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

The 18-year-old woman’s voice cracked in places, broke in others, but steadily throughout the video, she proclaimed one of the most amazing, profound, and moving testimonies to a parent I have ever seen.  And she was not even allowed to give it where she had first been invited to.

Sydney Seau is the daughter of NFL linebacker legend Junior Seau, whom I spent seemingly almost my entire childhood in the 1990s watching with a mix of fear and awe as he wreaked havoc twice a season, every season, on my beloved Kansas City Chiefs.  He retired from football in January 2010, and less than two-and-a-half years later, in May 2012, he was dead, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.  Like Dave Duerson, another retired NFL player before him who likewise committed suicide, Seau did not take the shot to his head presumably so that his brain could be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the progressive traumatic brain disorder that comes from repeated head injuries.  He was diagnosed with CTE postmortem.

And so when Junior Seau was overwhelmingly admitted to the football Hall of Fame last weekend, Sydney was not allowed to accept on her father’s behalf, despite Junior’s expressed wish that she do so if he were dead, presumably because the NFL and the Hall of Fame were afraid that Sydney would talk about CTE in her acceptance speech, despite explicit assurances that she would not.

Instead, she was left to film, with the help of the New York Times, her acceptance speech from her hotel room in Canton.  The Times posted it, and it spread across the internet like wildfire, far more than the Hall of Fame ceremony did or could have.

In trying to keep the focus on what they wanted, the fa├žade they wanted to show, the NFL and the Hall of Fame found its influence over our attentions divided, and many of us chose not the narrative of the faceless, bodiless league, but the narrative of a young woman who simply loves her father.

And at least for a brief, fleeting moment, their kingdom was divided.  As well it should have been.

This is the final installment 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 two weeks ago with verses one through nine, which gave us the exposition of the story and King Belshazzar’s attempts to remedy his fright over the writing on the wall that has just appeared.  Then in verse ten through sixteen, the missus, Belshazzar’s queen, appears and suggests for the king and his entourage of stupefied magicians the proper prescription: call upon Daniel.  Belshazzar promptly does so, calls for Daniel, and then lays out the problem at hand, which brought us to last week—Daniel’s response to Belshazzar up to the exact translation of the writing on the wall, a response that took us through verses seventeen to twenty-three.

Now, at long last, we get to hear exactly what Daniel’s translation of the writing is, what the words mean, and how this mystery gets resolved: Belshazzar has been weighed, measured, found wanting, and after his murdered later that night, Babylon eventually falls to the Persians, originally under King Cyrus the Great, but eventually, a Mede-Persian named Darius rules Babylon as a part of Persia.

In other words, it was too late for Belshazzar.  He made his bed, and now he has to lie in it, as a dead man.  That isn’t how any of this is supposed to end up for any of us, though.  We haven’t reached that point of no return that Belshazzar found himself in, not by a long shot.  Even Belshazzar’s last ditch effort to be a man of his word and reward Daniel exactly how he promised he would—with rank, gold, and swank new duds—isn’t enough to turn his fortunes around, and that is saying something mighty big: that we cannot rely on too little, too late gestures to get us out of fate.

That fate, of course, isn’t simply coming from on high.  It would be a mistake to interpret this entire story as God sentencing Belshazzar to die.  God weighs and measures Belshazzar by Belshazzar’s own actions, including his action of bringing out the dishes from the Jerusalem temple to drink from and thus proclaim his perceived superiority to God.  God didn't cause that, even if God could see the end result.  A parent can warn a child because a parent knows from experience what will happen, but even the best parent cannot always prevent a child from acting out.  So it was with Belshazzar.

So really, this is fate by our own actions and decisions.  As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote, “Your character is your destiny.”  Belshazzar’s deadened character did indeed become his destiny.  It needn’t become ours.

Yet, we still oftentimes fail to make the right decisions and choices and actions that reflect our living faith.  We know that, the end, we too will be weighed, measured, and found wanting for those failures to make the best choices.  What we do not always take into account is that our own kingdoms, such as they are, end up getting divided as a result of those paths that we each go down.

These paths, our life journeys, they are full of twists and turns, of shadows and murky fog and places where we cannot even see the path ahead, but we are forced to take a step regardless.  Daniel was forced to when he was brought before Belshazzar—he had to decide whether to tell the king what the writing on the wall really meant (and all of the horror the message entails), or make something up to appease his self-absorbed monarch.  What set Daniel apart from the rest of Belshazzar’s court—save the queen, who, if you remember from week two, was the one who recommended Daniel to the king in the first place—is precisely Daniel’s willingness to give Belshazzar the unfiltered truth, the honesty and authenticity that we in fact need in our lives.

And we need that honesty and authenticity because without it, it is easy—way, way too easy—for us to lull ourselves into a false sense of security that there are not people and systems and persons with power who are out to make decisions that will hurt us, and that sometimes, they make decisions precisely because they will hurt us.  We just experienced it here at church when our storage unit was broken into and our relatively new riding lawnmower was stolen from us, but we see it around us locally in other ways as well, decisions and actions that simply aren’t made with our best interests at heart.

It’s a company in charge of one of the biggest, oldest paper mills here in town that posts a record profit in 2014 and then goes into 2015 announcing a new round of layoffs.

It’s a public utilities department looking around at why it isn’t getting more revenue and dropping a hint in its last meeting that it’s time for a third major rate increase for families and households in four years, after rates have gone up by 43% over the past decade, fully double the rate of inflation.

And wider still, it’s a state government that is willing to get fined $100,000 per day in contempt of court for not passing abudget that will fully fund the state public schools, including ours.

It’s so many things, put in motion by so many people, that are trying to divide our kingdom, and God’s kingdom, the kingdom in which food security, financial security, housing security is all the default, not just the norm, and certainly not the exception, but the universal default existence for us.

It’s a world corrupted by an unwillingness to actually see the person behind the food stamps, or the person wearing the baggy sweatpants, or the person who is still trying to kick a horrific addiction, all in the name of making ourselves in our kingdoms feel better, completely uncaring of the reality that in God’s kingdom, it is our kingdoms that must make way, our kingdoms that must fall, our kingdoms that must topple and shatter at the sight of God’s hand writing before our very eyes.

We don’t see the other person within the mourning daughter, we don’t see the person within the football helmet that did not prevent enough head injuries, we don’t see the athlete who took his own life in so precise a manner that his broken and beaten brain could be studied.  The Hall of Fame refused to see that, and its kingdom, the one of our precious attention, was rightly divided.

And if we too refuse to see the soul in other people, our kingdoms too will one day rightly be divided.

Which is why we have to shift from being the equivalent of Belshazzar to being Daniel in this story.  We have to have the strength to be able to speak truth to the kings and men of power who would manipulate our lives for their benefit, and to be able to stand up and say to them, “Enough with the Belshazzars!  Enough with the Nebuchadnezzars!  Enough the people who time after time after time care only for themselves, look after only themselves, and see only themselves!  Enough with with that way of living!  Enough with all of it!  Long live the one true king, and long may He reign!”

An 18-year-old woman said, “Enough!” to a system of organizations that did not want to hear her simply share about her beloved father—so she spoke anyways.

Believe it or not, we can as well.

Daniel did.  Abraham did.  Moses, even though he *begged* God not to send him, for, as he put it, "I am slow of speech and slow of tongue," to which God replied, "I will go with you and teach you what you are to say," well, Moses spoke!  

Elijah spoke, and Elisha spoke.  Isaiah, after seeing God in the year that King Uzziah died, heard God say, "Who will go for us," and Isaiah replied, "Here I am, send me."  Isaiah spoke, and a whole host of prophets and voices for the Lord spoke, including Jesus Christ.  

Let us serve, then, in that tradition of the voices for the Lord who spoke.  Let us stand up and speak.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 16, 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Demythologizing Young Clergy

A good friend, colleague, and a retired US Army chaplain Steve George, posted an article, entitled "3 Myths About Young Clergy" to my Facebook wall last week with but one word of commentary from him: "Interesting."

(It's a relatively short and sweet read, so go ahead and take a look now.  Seriously, it's good.  I'll wait.)

The piece's author notes right from the outset that even though he'll only be focusing on debunking three of the myths surrounding the enigmatic and elusive "young pastor," there are an awful lot of other myths floating around out there in the ether that makes up the church grapevines of Christendom.

And indeed there are.  I have been told that we are "the church's future," all the while being fed a steady diet of outside voices to tell us what we should think about the church's future rather than envisioning one for ourselves.

I have been told that we are "exactly who the church needs to hear from," all the while seeing people all around my denomination and the wider church coming up with ever more creative ways to ensure our voices are safely compartmentalized and tucked away.

I have been told that we "have a freshness to bring to the table," all the while most of us, while still maybe bearing our factory-fresh tags from seminary, are weighted down by student debt and jaded by a seminary education that felt more like being sold a bill of goods than actually be taught how to do ministry.

So yes, there are a lot of myths about us that people appear to believe in, or at least put some stock into.  But in the spirit of the piece Steve commended to me, I would like to focus on another three, three that I think get to the roots of a lot of the other myths I just named.

Myth One: Young clergy are representative of their generation

I mean, we kind of are.  Like other millennials and younger Gen X-ers, we're at least somewhat savvy with social media and crowdsourcing, we tend to look at the long game rather than the short term, and we're more likely to value experiences over stuff.

But we're also religious clergy, and that by itself makes us extremely countercultural in a shifting generation landscape where young adults are increasingly "spiritual but not religious, "unchurched," or any number of other stale terms I know you have heard bandied about, and where only a reported 1 in 5 of millennials place a high value on church attendance.

We're the dentist who doesn't recommend Trident.  We're the cheese that stands alone.  When it comes to belonging to a community of faith, we are firmly outside the mainstream of our peers.  And yet we get treated as though we are representative of them.  Like any other demographic, young adults are not in lockstep with their preferences, wishes, needs, or desires.  But I cannot tell you how often I see us perceived that way, as though we are that uniform bloc being incarnated at the moment in the form of a 29-year-old smartass of a pastor with a small town pulpit and a humble little blog.

But frankly, I don't ever expect myself to be truly representative of my generation.  And I think if you talked to a lot of other clergy in their twenties and thirties, they'd tell you something similar.

Myth Two: Young clergy aren't relational enough for ministry

Usually, this myth takes the form of a sentiment like, "Why do they spend so much time on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Tinder?"  (Oops, sorry, just kidding about that last one.)  To be clear, I do love social media in part because it makes parts of my job easier--people will often share life events, I find out on my feed, and I can respond appropriately in my capacity as their pastor and their friend.  It is also useful to me as a serious introvert--on the Myers-Briggs, my F and T may be interchangeable, but I am always a *hard* I, and being able to use social media as a way to set up a time and place to meet up with someone to administer some good old pastoral care does wonders for my neurotically introverted self.

But here's the thing--if you noticed just there, social media was used as a means to an end: it was used to facilitate a meetup where the real pastoral care, the real ministry, could then take place, face-to-face, over coffee or a beer.  Far from relying on Facebook and text messages and email as a substitute for face-to-face ministry, all of that electronic technology actually enables us to do our relational ministry better.  It allows us to prepare for meetings rather than going by the more outdated model of keeping office hours, and it gives our days more structure.  At least, it has that effect for me.

One other note about this particular myth: I--and other colleagues I also know--institute blackouts on their tech pieces at certain points in their work.  I leave all of my electronics in my office on Sunday mornings, and if I'm heading to a death or similarly profoundly weighty pastoral moment, I leave my phone in the car.  We value our connection to the wider world, but know that we value our personal connection to you even more.

Myth Three: Young clergy throw the baby out with the bathwater

Do we care about making the church "relevant" (whatever that may mean), "accessible" (again, whatever that may mean), and "revitalized" (whatever that may mean also)?  Yes, we generally do.  But we also don't want to do it in a way that dishonors the traditions that raised us.  We're well aware that our theological views and our methods of Biblical exegesis come from centuries of rich and storied tradition.  We're fully cognizant of the emotional meaning of old hymns like "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" or even "Amazing Grace," in fact, we may feel just as powerfully about them as you do.

At the same time, though we crave to make church into something that does in fact speak to today's reality, not the 20th century's reality.  That is a very difficult thing to do in the face of what sometimes feels like an institution-wide distrust of anything genuinely innovative, which means that ministry is largely a labor of love for us.  We aren't in it because it's easy, because it isn't easy.  We aren't in it for the money, because none of us are well-paid.  We are in it, though, to breathe life into the church we love as surely as God first breathed life into Adam's nostrils.

So when you get upset over how we are trying to change things, or encouraging our members to change things, please take a moment and realize what that reaction is saying to us: it communicates that we are apparently supposed to take over this thing that you love, to run it on your terms instead of ours, and to allow you to tell us you are giving us a gift.

If that sounds harsh, that's because it is.  It is harsh for us to hear it when people resist our attempts to help the church out of (mostly) a reluctance to change.

But all of us young clergy get how hard change can be.  And if we're any good at what we do, we'll try to ease you through it as much as we humanly can.  I promise.

So those are my three myths thrown into the proverbial mixer of what folks tend to think about us whippersnappers that may or may not be mythical.  And as I said at the beginning, there are plenty more myths out there, and I would encourage you to name them, whether here in the comments or in conversation with other clergy.

Because the only way we are going to remove the mystery of misinformation about our pastors is if we actually talk with them, rather than at them or about them.

Which, really, is a good rule for life in general as well.

Vancouver, Washington
August 12, 2015

Image courtesy of iStockphoto

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Oath Keepers in Ferguson

In the wave of protests surrounding the one-year anniversary of the watershed shooting of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, a new actor has arrived on the scene.

The Oath Keepers, perhaps better known to all of us as the rancher Cliven Bundy's armed militia when he stood off against the federal Bureau of Land Management after pretty clearly violating federal law for decades by not paying grazing fees for his cattle (the irony of seeing hardcore libertarians defend a guy's "right" to mooch off of government resources--the land--for decades was not lost on me).

Wait, Cliven Bundy, you say?  The same Cliven Bundy who openly mused that African-Americans would have been better off if they had remained enslaved?  Yep, that's him.  And meanwhile, CBS News does a solid, if perfunctory job of outlining how the Oath Keepers group was born amid the dearth of the Northwest's usual array of white supremacy groups after the predominant Idaho-based Aryan Nation went the way of the dinosaurs in 2000.

So...a right-wing militia group with both present ties to both white supremacists (Bundy) and historical ties to white supremacist groups (Aryan Nation) happens to show up in Ferguson amidst largely peaceful protests of a young black man being killed by a white police officer.

What possible room for ill intent or bad faith could there be on the part of the Oath Keepers?

For the record, they claim they are there to protect the interests of Alex Jones, a nutjob conspiracy theorist who believes the federal government was behind both the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, and who thinks the Apollo moon landings were staged.  Hey, I report, you decide.

In doing so, the Oath Keepers, by arriving in camo gear and openly carrying their assault rifles, were, according to St. Louis County police chief, being " both unnecessary and inflammatory."  (Same CBS link above.)

But they may have also--thoroughly unintentionally, I am sure--become a means for making the case for the racial justice being sought by the Black Lives Matter movement.  Just as C.S. Lewis says a person with ill intent can still serve God as an unwitting tool, so too do I genuinely believe that the Oath Keepers may have just unknowingly served the purpose of actual, authentic racial reconciliation.

Because you had better bet your bottom dollar that if a majority black militia group like, I don't know, the New Black Panthers, had arrived in Ferguson at such a sensitive point in time as this, they would have been confronted by police faster than a cowboy in a saloon.  The Oath Keepers were not fired upon in the Bundy standoff, nor were they directly confronted in Ferguson the same way the protesters have been.

For, as Patricia Bynes, a Ferguson committeewoman, reported to NBC News, the police saw the Oath Keepers descend on the scene, assault weapons in full view, and did not a damn thing, even though the county police chief described their presence as "inflammatory."

In other words, a majority white--and arguably white supremacist--militia was allowed by police to openly intimidate peaceful protesters with their assault weapons, whereas protesters for a cause called "Black Lives Matter," and who were not at least visibly armed, got treated like this by police:

Really watch that clip.  The protester is retreating from police with hands up in a gesture of surrender, before being body slammed onto the concrete from behind.  That's not how a non-threatening person ought to ever be taken into custody.

This might be the clearest instance we might ever get of disparate treatment by law enforcement as an example of white privilege.  About as many independent variables as can be accounted for are: the location is exactly the same, the law enforcement agencies coordinating together are the same (meaning this isn't a case of comparing St. Louis law enforcement with, say, the LAPD), and this is all happening almost simultaneously over the last few days.  The one independent variable that truly remains, the one that genuinely stands out, that jumps up and down, that screams out like God in the burning bush to Moses, demanding to be recognized, is the skin color of the people.

Which means that--and I know I say this as a white man largely on the outside; I am well aware of my own privilege in saying what I am about to say, which is: maybe the presence of the Oath Keepers, and the photographs of them making it onto news wires around the nation, might actually put on full display, with no other independent variables for excuse-makers to hide behind, that we do indeed suffer from a real and damaging double standard when it comes to race in our country.

I don't expect everyone to be able to see that reality, of course, least of all the Oath Keepers themselves, even as by being there and cowing the protesters, they are ironically violating one of their own core principles: that they do not stand in the way of the citizenry's right to peaceably assemble, or to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (NBC News link above.)

No, some will surely be in too deep to see their self-imposed blinders and prejudices for what they are.  But for the rest of us--those people who, say, genuinely cherish their local police force but are troubled about what they're hearing in stories from across the country, or who want to give their officers the benefit of the doubt but don't know what to make of the genuinely disturbing video footage coming out from dashcams and body cameras--those folks who are genuinely, in good faith, truly on the fence, they are who I have faith in and hope for.

I am hoping, longing, praying, that maybe they can see some of these images, side-by-side, of the free rein abdicated by a militarized police force to the militarized Oath Keepers and of the harshness meted out by that same militarized police force to the very much unarmed, non-militarized Black Lives Matter protesters, and at least empathize with what the protests are trying to achieve, if not outright sympathize.

The spirit of the protests in Ferguson, and of the outcry against the deaths of far too many people of color since Michael Brown, is not to threaten you or me.  It is to ensure, as we have claimed hollowly throughout our nation's history with varying degrees of inauthenticity and falsehood, equal justice under the law.  Nothing more, nothing less.

My deep desire right now is for you, dear reader, to see what is at present the profoundly different treatment meted out to two different entities, with as few other variables as possible aside from the majority color of their skin, and to recognize why our brothers and sisters of color are pleading, demanding, and calling out for racial justice with increasingly loud and vehement cries.

For after Cain killed Abel in Genesis, God spoke to Cain and said that Abel's blood still cried out to God from the very ground upon which Abel had died.

The cries of a brother's blood reached God's ears.  May they, at long last, reach our own.

Vancouver, Washington
August 11, 2015

Image courtesy of sojo.net

Sunday, August 9, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "You Have Been Found Wanting"

Daniel 5:17-23

Daniel answered the king: “Keep your gifts. Give the rewards to someone else. But I will still read the writing to the king and interpret it for him. 18 Listen, Your Majesty: The Most High God gave kingship, power, glory, and majesty to your father Nebuchadnezzar. 19 Because of the power God gave Nebuchadnezzar, all peoples, nations, and languages were terrified of him. He did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted: killing or sparing, exalting or humbling. 20 But when he became arrogant, acting in stubborn pride, he was pulled off his royal throne and the glory was taken from him. 21 He was driven away from other humans, and his mind became like an animal’s. He lived with wild donkeys, he ate grass like cattle, and dew from heaven washed his body until he realized that the Most High God dominates human kingship and sets over it anyone he wants. 

22 “But you who are his son, Belshazzar, you haven’t submitted, even though you’ve known all this. 23 Instead, you’ve set yourself up against the Lord of heaven! The equipment of God’s house was brought to you; and you, your princes, your consorts, and your secondary wives drank wine out of it, all the while praising the gods of silver, gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone—gods who can’t see, hear, or know anything. But you didn’t glorify the true God who holds your very breath in his hand and who owns every road you take. (Common English Bible)

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

The Nobel Prizes.

If you were to ask people, like on Family Feud, what the most highly regarded honor in the world is, the Nobel Prizes in peace, literature, medicine, physics, and chemistry (plus the related prize in economics) would pretty much have to make the shortlist.  Some truly great, larger-than-life souls are Nobel laureates, from Nelson Mandela to Malala Yousafzai, from Desmond Tutu to Elie Wiesel.

But it almost didn’t end up being that way—the Nobel Prize almost didn’t exist.  It was created by its namesake, Alfred Nobel, only after several newspapers mistakenly ran an obituary for him—while he was still very much among the living—instead of his recently deceased brother, Ludvig.
And one of the French headlines for Alfred’s mistaken obituary read, le marchand de la mort est mort.  In English, that translates to, the merchant of death is dead.

Why would the papers say this about him?  Because Alfred Nobel was also the inventor of an effective, yet highly loathed, weapon in his time: dynamite.

This 19th-century warmonger then, being presented with the stark evidence that he had been weighed, measured, and found wanting, dedicated himself anew to a pursuit that would celebrate humanity, not kill it en masse.  And from that desire came his action to dedicate nearly his entire fortune after he died to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes.

All because one man, like Belshazzar, saw the writing on the wall—or the front page—but crucially, unlike Belshazzar, realized that he had been found wanting and strove to tip the scales once more.

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 two weeks ago with verses one through nine, which gave us the exposition of the story and King Belshazzar’s attempts to remedy his fright over the writing on the wall that has just appeared.  Last week, in verse ten through sixteen, the missus, Belshazzar’s queen, appears and suggests for the king and his entourage of stupefied magicians the proper prescription: call upon Daniel.  Belshazzar promptly does so, calls for Daniel, and then lays out the problem at hand, which brings us to today—Daniel’s response to Belshazzar up to the exact translation of the writing on the wall, a response that takes us through verses seventeen to twenty-three.

And Daniel’s response to Belshazzar’s seemingly generous offer of power and gold and fine robes takes some serious courage because, just like last week with Belshazzar’s queen when she told the king what to do in front of God and everybody, Belshazzar could simply have decided to have Daniel killed on the spot for his defiance in the face of such royal munificence.

That is the sort of bravery that speaking truth to power sometimes—maybe oftentimes—requires, though.  Daniel certainly is not lacking in that quality, but he has managed to balance it out with surviving, as he details here, an even madder and more insane monarch in Belshazzar’s forebear Nebuchadnezzar, so we cannot treat this or dismiss this as a story of a fool with a death wish.

No, this is a passage that is about a man—Belshazzar—who, after God only knows how many years of living in a palatial cocoon of his own making, is finally forced to confront the truth about himself, and to confront it from one of the most humble sources available to him: an exiled Israelite, a citizen of the nation his ancestor Nebuchadnezzar trampled over like a boot.  Daniel is literally a nobody to Belshazzar—the king didn’t even think to call on him until the queen flat-out told him to.

But oftentimes, that is what we need for ourselves to be humbled—we need to humbled not always by a king or a wielder of power, but by a nobody, someone who is out of sight and out of mind to us until they are called upon, until they become visible, until they make their presence known to us.

Yet hear them Belshazzar will, and hear them Belshazzar must.  As too, must we.  I keep reminding you of this, but it remains true, up until the story ends with his murder, but Belshazzar represents us in this story.  He is the closest we get to an audience proxy, someone with whom the audience is defined by and defined with.  And what Daniel has to say to him, he has to say to us as well.

Can we say, with all honesty and authenticity, that we always, in Daniel’s words, glorify the true God who holds our very breath in God’s hand and who owns every road that we take?  Can we say that we have never been as Belshazzar, denying glory to God because we think ourselves in our mere mortal shells superior to the divine?  We may have disapproved, back in the first week of this sermon series, of Belshazzar drunkenly calling for the dishes plundered from the Jerusalem temple in order to express his perceived superiority over God, but have we not all at some point, intoxicated on our own vanity and self-glory, acted as though we knew better than God?

We do it all the time, in a wide variety of ways.  We make Jesus into our image, with all of our same political views and thoughts on people who aren’t like us, we make the church into our image by wanting it to do things exactly same way we have always done them for decades while ignoring what the church could be doing that is new for today as opposed to new for yesterday, and we take a set of tweezers to the Bible, lifting delicately and carefully the verses we like out of context, ignoring the stories and passages from whence they came.

In short, we make our faith in God fit us, rather than trying to drive ourselves to fit our faith.  And do we really do that elsewhere in our lives?  We wait for red lights to turn green, but we cannot abide actually having to wait on God to speak a word into our ears.  We try to lose weight in order to fit into our clothes, but with faith, we don’t bother—our faith becomes exactly as elastic as we want it to be.  We adjust ourselves more to our traffic lights and our wardrobes than to our faith.

Which begs the question: what on earth is a faith like that even good for?

I would even go one step further and suggest that—and I know this will be a controversial notion—that a faith that is so centered on our own selves does more harm than good.  To us, to God, to the world, all of it.  It is a madness of a faith, a madness that can drive us, just like Belshazzar’s ancestor Nebuchadnezzar, far, far away from God.  It is a madness because it is a delusion, just as Nebuchadnezzar deluded himself into thinking he was a wild animal and living like a wild animal, we delude ourselves into thinking

And for this delusion of ours, we have been weighed.  We have been measured.  And we have indeed been found wanting.  Jesus says in John 12 that the Word that He has spoken acts on the last day as our judge, and by the standard of His words, we have indeed been found wanting, for we do not in fact love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, we do not love our neighbors as ourselves, and we do not do for others what we want them to do for us.  Jesus says the first two of those three are upon which the entirety of the Law and the Prophets—that is, much of the Old Testament, including Daniel, as one of the prophets—are hung.

It was true for the Pharisees whom Jesus was responding to, it was true for the Babylonian king whom Daniel is responding to, and it is true for each of us as the Bible responds to our own sins and iniquities, our own inabilities and flaws, our own unwillingness to be Christian as opposed to saying that we are Christian, our own reticence to live our faith as opposed to saying we have faith.

Do we really think that someone as brave as Daniel, as selfless as Jesus Christ, or as loving as God Almighty, would do so much of what we say we do in their names?  Do we really think that they actually approve of our superimposing their names upon our agendas of selfishness, exclusion, and prejudice?  Have we actually deluded ourselves into thinking that slamming the door of the kingdom of God shut in a person’s face is in fact a part of what being a Christian today entails?

If we do, then we are no better than Belshazzar in the heaviest of his drunken stupors, and no more sane than Nebuchadnezzar in the deepest throes of his madness.

But we can undo that me-first mentality that has led to so many of our sins; at least, going forward, we can.  And in doing so, the balance of our lives, of how we are remembered as people and as a church, and of the message we send, the legacy we create, the kingdom we help build, all of it can create an entirely different fate.  One man who was known only for being an established ironmonger who invented newer and more efficient ways to kill enemies of the state, he realized how he had been found wanting, and going forward, he successfully sought to change the balance of his life, and in so doing, genuinely changed the world.

And that—precisely that outcome—is why we ought not to be afraid of being found wanting.  Indeed, we must embrace it, because by being made aware of it, we actually know what needs fixing.  It’s the first step of the twelve—in order to fix a problem, you have to admit that there is one.

We can at long last admit that we have been found wanting.  We have been given that permission. And now, may God choose to work in us, then, something wonderfully and amazingly new.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 9, 2015

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

How to Read the Bible Like the Pros: In Five (Not So) Easy Steps

(or, at least, this pro, who may or may not have any plus tools after all, according to local scouts...)

It's August, which means I'm ramping up for the the annual fall launch of our Bible study classes.  I teach three at my church--a Sunday School class before worship, a morning Bible study for our retirees and folks with nontraditional work schedules, and an evening Bible study for our folks who work during the day.  All three use a different curriculum, and most of the time, that curriculum is either augmented by my own notes from God School, or thrown out altogether because I'm an opinionated SOB and I don't much care for what the commentators had to say that week.

Which makes my approach much more labor-intensive than the open-up-the-box-and-mail-it-in way of doing things, but so be it.  I relish this part of my job, sometimes too much at the expense of other tasks that need doing that day.

A note about the steps: I sometimes mention products or programs like Zondervan's BibleGateway website.  All of these recommendations are entirely my own, and I received no compensation of any sort for them.

Pray

Prayer is always a good place to start.  Pray that God will open your mind and so that you won't make a complete hash of the eternal and divine Word that has been handed down from generation to generation for 2,700+ years, all the way back to when Isaiah wrote down his original prophecies in the 8th century BCE (Edit: What I mean by this is that I believe Isaiah 1-39 was the first part of the Bible to be written and compiled in its final form.  Parts of the Old Testament likely predated Isaiah, but not in the final form we read them in within the OT.  ~E.A.).  No pressure, grasshopper.

Read--in multiple translations

One of the things that drives me nuts about the "King James Version Only" crowd--which says, true to its name, that the KJV/NKJV should be the only translations read in churches today--is the "only" part, as though all of the other dozens of translations we have made since 1611 are somehow corrupted.  But such an approach shuts a believer off from a richness of translation that has really been a labor of love for dozens--hundreds, really--of Bible translators over the decades, that is largely done for OUR benefit.

Personally, I have nine different translations sitting on my bookshelf right now: the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the Common English Bible (CEB), the New International Version, post-2011 that was formerly the Today's New International Version (TNIV), the New International Version original (NIV), the Jewish Publication Society's Study Bible (JPS), The Voice (VOICE), the Living Bible (TLB), and, yes, a New King James Version (NKJV).  At one point, I also had a New American Standard Bible (NASB), and I have a New American Bible (NAB) translation of a few different books of the Bible.  I don't even begin a sermon without first consulting my two go-to translations, the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible, and often without reading the passage I'm preaching on in a third translation as well.

Now, you don't need all of that as long as you have access to an internet connection--simply go to Biblegateway.com, pick a translation from the pulldown menu, pick a book to start at, and go to town.

But don't stop there!  You can click on the button that looks (amusingly, to me) like a pair of small combs to begin reading translations in parallel, so that you can see what one translation says compared to another.

Why does any of this matter?  Because the Bible didn't arrive from heaven in 21st-century American English.  It was written in ancient Hebrew and Koine (common) ancient Greek.  Any translation requires a certain amount of interpretation, because language isn't as precise as, say, basic arithmetic, in which 1 plus 1 will always equal 2.  Translation includes interpretation.  So, use some wisdom of the crowds to try to understand exactly what a given passage, story, or chapter, is saying to you.

Look at a map or three

Do you know the geography of ancient Israel and its nearby kingdoms--Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, and so on--as well as you know your own neighborhood or church building?  No?  It's okay, neither do I.  I visited Israel while in God School, but I only got to see tiny pieces of the Holy Land, certainly not enough to claim any intimate familiarity with Jesus's home turf.

So it helps to know where the events the Bible documents are happening.  It reveals important clues about the nature of these stories that we revere and cherish.  It underscores things like just how extensive the military campaigns of the Maccabees (yep, the ones from the Hanukkah story) were, or just how dominant the Roman Empire was compared to Israel during Jesus's time.  And for folks who are more visual rather than verbal learners, a Bible atlas can be a godsend of a resource.  Me, I'm actually quite the opposite--I'm a verbal rather than spatial learner, which really just doubles down on my need to to study a Bible atlas, because I couldn't tell you how to get from Capernaum to Nazareth if you paid me, but since that's the route Jesus often took, it behooves me to know it as well.

Personally, I recommend the HarperCollins Atlas of Bible History--I got my copy at Half Price Books for ten bucks, and you can pick one up used on Amazon for six.  For me, and my teaching and preaching, it has been worth every penny several times over.

Study a trusted commentator--or several

Many of the aforementioned Bible translations on my shelf are study Bibles--Bibles with commentaries by Bible professors to go alongside the texts.  These commentaries are designed to provide context to the stories and individual verses, offering you notes on details that would be obvious to, say, a citizen of ancient Israel and a native speaker of Aramaic or Greek, but that would otherwise be lost on us as 21st century Americans.

There's a difference between commentaries and study Bibles--the latter is usually a Bible with notes in the margins or sides of the pages, a commentary is only the notes from the scholar, with the assumption that you have the text in front of you and are reading along--which allows commentaries to offer much more depth than a study Bible might otherwise be able to.

For study Bibles, my bread and butter again comes from HarperCollins--their study Bible (with the NRSV translation) is the best in terms of balancing conciseness with detail, but I am also a frequent user of the New Interpreter's Study Bible (also with the NRSV translation), which is a few bucks more expensive, if cost is a factor--the HarperCollins Bible costs maybe $15 used, the NISB more like $20.

For individual commentators, I'm someone for whom it takes a long time to earn my trust.  There are a lot of hucksters and half-baked theorists out there who think they know something about the Bible but are in fact mostly just spreading misinformation.  It's important to treat Bible study the same as, say, medicine--if you go onto WebMD and tell it you have a headache, it will tell you that you are most likely a hair away from knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door.  So your doctor will likely know way more about your headache than WebMD or Google will.

Well, the exact same is true of pastors and Bible professors.  We know a lot more about the Bible than most of the internet does.  Fortunately, there are a lot of great names out there producing sound and exciting Biblical scholarship, and I couldn't even begin to name all of them,  But in my book, you won't go wrong by starting with anything by James Kugel, John Collins, Adela Yarbro Collins, Amy-Jill Levine, Raymond Brown, Sharon Ringe, Gail O'Day, or Walter Brueggeman.  (I'm also trying to expand my repertoire of Bible scholars of color, and have been following with great interest the work of scholars like Love Sechrest at Fuller and Christena Cleveland at Duke.)

Meditate

Finally, step number five: let all of this digest.  Steps one through four represent an awfully big helping at the Bible buffet, and for now, letting everything you absorbed, like a slightly defective sponge, is, I have found, the best course of action.  Take a walk, sleep on it, whatever you do to let matters roll around in your ticker and your noggin, do those things.  Let yourself steep in the Word, really let yourself be immersed by it, and I promise you will emerge enriched for having done so.

So there you have it.  Those are the five (not so) easy steps to read the Bible like a real pro.  Not me, of course, because I just fake it most of the time.  But in truth?  I don't move forward with a sermon series I have been working on until I have done all five of these steps, sometimes several times over, which often requires me to begin work on a sermon series several months before I will actually preach it.

But it's worth it, because the spiritual depth I have gotten out of my work has been invaluable.  I wouldn't study the Bible, or prepare for my own preaching and teaching, any other way.

Longview, Washington
August 4, 2015

Image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

Sunday, August 2, 2015

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

Daniel 5:10-16

10 Upon hearing the commotion coming from the king and his princes, the queen entered the banqueting hall and declared, “Long live the king! Don’t be so disturbed. Don’t be so frightened. 11 There is a man in your kingdom who has the breath of holy gods in him! When your father was alive, this man was shown to possess illumination, insight, and wisdom like the very wisdom of the gods. Your father King Nebuchadnezzar appointed this man as chief over the dream interpreters, enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners. Yes, your father did this 12 because this man—Daniel, the one the king named Belteshazzar—possesses an extraordinary spirit, knowledge, and insight into the meaning of dreams. He can explain ambiguities and resolve mysteries. Now in light of all that, summon Daniel! He will explain the meaning of this thing.” 


13 So Daniel was brought before the king. The king said to him, “So you are Daniel, the Daniel from the exiles that my father the king brought from Judah? 14 I have heard that the breath of the gods is in you and that you possess illumination, insight, and extraordinary wisdom. 15 Now, the sages and the dream interpreters were brought before me to read this writing and interpret it for me, but they couldn’t explain its meaning. 16 But I’ve heard that you can explain meanings and solve mysteries. So if you can read this writing and interpret it for me, you will wear royal robes, have a gold chain around your neck, and will rule the kingdom as third in command.” (Common English Bible)

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

The Craigslist ad was an extraordinarily uncommon one—and I say that as someone who has seen a for-sale ad on Craigslist advertising a “slightly used Star Destroyer,” with an image from the trailer for the upcoming The Force Awakens installment of the Star Wars franchise.  (And no, George Lucas did not pay me to make that plug.  He wouldn’t have to.  I’m shameless.)

No, this was an ad looking to rent rather than sell.  And in this case, it was to rent a family.

You heard that right.  A family.  18-year-old Natalie Carson wrote in her ad, in part:

I am currently a young female college student looking to rent a family that I can spend time with on my birthday in a few weeks.  I aged out of foster care, and since I was never adopted, I don’t have a family to spend holidays or birthdays with.  I was placed in foster care after being severely abused by my parents, so spending time with my biological parents is not an option…I just want one day that I can feel important and special, and like I matter even if I really don’t.  I have never had a good birthday so I figure why not this birthday.  I am NOT looking for any monetary support as I also work.  I can pay $8 an hour.

That’s not what we usually think of when we’re asked to think of how a family is formed, or of how our family got formed.  I ask you who your family is, and you’re apt to mention a parent or two, a sibling or three, probably some aunts and uncles and cousins as well.  But that is the normal, within-the-lines, inside-the-box version of family.  It’s the version of family that isn’t going to come even close to a standard deviation.

So what about our folks who are at the edges of that bell curve, though?  What about our folks on the outliers and outskirts, who are beyond the standard deviation?  How do we ask them to define their lives and families, and then expect those answers to measure up to ours?

We can’t, and in all honesty, we shouldn’t.  Which is the whole point of this second act of Daniel 5, when someone on the far side of the bell curve gets suggested, after all of the magicians and soothsayers who made up Plan A failed to measure up.

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 last week with verses one through nine, which gave us the exposition of the story and King Belshazzar’s attempts to remedy his fright over the writing on the wall that has just appeared, and now, in verse ten through sixteen, the missus, Belshazzar’s queen, appears and suggests for the king and his entourage of stupefied magicians the proper prescription: call upon Daniel.  Belshazzar promptly does so, calls for Daniel, and then lays out the problem at hand.

It matters a great deal that the queen—who conspicuously is unnamed by Daniel’s biographer—is the one who recommends him to King Belshazzar in the first place.  Being a queen in an ancient Near East empire is not like being the Queen of England today, where you are accorded near-universal respect and deference.  Only a century or so later in Persia (the soon-to-be conquerors of Babylon), King Xerxes will dismiss his queen, Vashti, because of her any-reasonable-person-would-say-no-to-it refusal to parade around naked for him and his drunken partygoers, wearing nothing but her royal crown.

So what Belshazzar’s queen does here in Daniel 5 is not simply a case of helpful spousal input, it is not as though Belshazzar simply can’t get the grill going quite right and his wife is saying, “Here, honey, why don’t you use newspaper to light the charcoal.”  There are very real, very serious implications for the queen.  If Belshazzar—who, like Xerxes in Esther 1, is almost certainly sauced seven ways to Sunday right now—decides that her attempts to help him are unwelcome, he could dismiss her as easily as Xerxes did Vashti.

And she does it all for going to bat for an Israelite—not a Babylonian.  Yes, Daniel has been given a Babylonian name, Belteshazzar, just like the millions of slaves kidnapped from west Africa were given Spanish and English names over the course of the transatlantic slave trade, but he is still Daniel, in every sense of the term, for his name, in Hebrew, in fact means “My judge is God”—“Dan” is a shortening of “dayan,” which means “judge,” and “el” is a shortening of “Elohim,” which is one of the names for God throughout various parts of the Old Testament.  But we’ll get to Daniel himself next week, for even though he has been summoned today, he has yet to speak.

Instead, the rest of this passage represents King Belshazzar’s first and only real attempt forward at trying to see what has just happened in a different light than would first have been his instinct.  He has first called for all of his pagan magicians and sages, the step that fits entirely within the box for him, the step that constitutes no deviation at all, that represents a coloring entirely within the lines.

Also, remember what I said last week—that at least initially in the story, Belshazzar is the closest thing we have to an audience proxy.  He is the person for whom the words of Daniel will be intended, for whom the as-yet uninterpreted words of God are intended.  And this is the closest he gets to any manner of redemption at all in this story; he is a thoroughly despicable ruler and human being, but at least this once, when pushed to measure up his situation and perspective from someone who he otherwise might not take counsel from—his queen—Belshazzar actually does what she says.  For once—one time, the only time in this story—he does the right thing.

But the right thing to do was not the predictable thing to do.  Belshazzar’s initial impulse, to call on the sycophants and yes-men he usually would call on, did him no good, it put him no closer to understanding the truth behind the writing that has suddenly and miraculously appeared on the wall.

How often is that the case for us?  Doing what we have always done, it doesn’t get us any closer to where we need to be, but we still do it because that’s what we know and what we’re used to doing.

We aren’t willing to measure our reality by the extremes of that reality—we’d only rather measure it up by what is comfortable to us, by what is known to us, by what we’ve always done.

Think about what that means for someone like Natalie Carson, in a world full of people with families, what about the person who has none?  She is on the fringes and goes to the fringes to try to find a family, because she doesn’t have the luxury we do of starting from within the mainstream.  She has had to redefine a mainstream institution like the family to fit her differing circumstances.

Except they are not so differing after all.  Natalie has used her fifteen minutes of fame generated by the news stories about her to remind her interviewers that she is by far not the only person to lack a family because they never got adopted and aged out of the foster care system.  There are plenty, too many, other Natalie Carsons out there.

And we, as the church, are in the business of—and I know this will sound scary to you—of redefining something as familiar and foundational and fundamental as the idea of ‘family.’  The yes-men and head-nodders who follow Belshazzar around in his court may fancy themselves part of his inner circle, but it is the willingness to speak truth in love that I think defines family—it is certainly why I think of this church as a family even though I’m not related by blood to any of you.

But we also have to keep re-thinking what our family is and how to keep making it grow.  Part of the church’s problem—a big part of it, in reality—is that we became like Belshazzar, altogether too willing to simply do the same thing each and every time: call upon the same yes-men, offer the same reward, do everything exactly the same, even as a more marginalized voice pushed off to the side is saying, with every justification, “Hey, why haven’t you tried doing this instead?”

And so we began measuring our church families not by the depth of spiritual energy, or the openness of the welcome extended to strangers, or the effectiveness of our missions not by the impact we are having upon others, or the relationships we are helping people form with God, but rather, by whether we’re doing those things the same way everyone before us has been doing them.

We expect people to do religion the way we have always done it, as though that was how the original church in Acts of the Apostles did it, when in reality, it is only how the church of the 20th century has done it.  The magicians and tea leaf-readers Belshazzar originally calls for, that’s how it used to be done.  That’s how Belshazzar measured it up.  But it’s not how the translation will ever get done.

Daniel, then, represents the way it could be done, the way the words’ meaning could be measured, if Belshazzar were to open his eyes to a new possibility, and to begin measuring himself, and his entire notion of truth, by what God reveals to him instead of what he selfishly thinks of himself.

So Belshazzar calls for Daniel.  He calls for a new way of tackling this dilemma that he has gotten himself into, and while it will not, in the end, be enough to save him (I know, I know “spoiler alert” or somesuch), may it be, in fact, just enough to see God’s church through to God’s return to earth.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 2, 2015