Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

October 2015: "(Church) School's in Session" 

Dear Church,

Over the span of the past four years that I have been humbled to be your pastor, I have learned one incredibly important truth: the ministry I do is not always the ministry that is most important.

Sometimes it is. Those calls that come saying that someone is dying, or (far happier) that someone is about to be born? That's important ministry. The week-in, week-out preaching and Bible study teaching? Also important ministry.

But some of the most important ministry done here has been done not by myself, but another member of our growing congregation--Jamie Lynn Devries, whose newborn daughter, Kali Mae, we just dedicated this past month!

I generally strive not to single out individual folks for praise in the newsletter, because so many of you do so much here that I am so thankful for, but in this case, it is very much necessary because of an additional component to our vision for First Christian Church in 2016--the creation of a "Director of Children and Family Ministries" position, which I have recommended to the Board of Directors that Jamie Lynn fill, ideally beginning in January of 2016.

First, a bit of explanation--we have an anonymous donor outside of the congregation who wishes to put together a matching donation challenge for the church: if we can raise $2,000 towards this new position's stipend, this donor will gift another $2,000 for $4,000 total, which would fund this 8 hours/week position for the first years of its existence. The position has been designed to build upon the excellent work Jamie Lynn and her stable of volunteers have done over the past few years of helping to grow our church school and nursery ministries from just a few children at most to, on many Sundays, 10 or more!

I believe that there is a need for more time to be devoted to our children ministries, not just on Sunday mornings, but also during the week as welll as for special events like Christmas pageants, Easter egg hunts, and the like. This modest sum would be able to compensate Jamie Lynn for the additional time needed to take our current children ministries, robust that they are, to the next level of involvement and enrichment for both our children and our entire congregation as we strive to have our children ministries act as an integrated, important part of our wider church life.

While we recognize that adding this position and this funding campaign represents our asking a significant financial sacrifice from all of you, the potential benefits are so great that the Board of Directors of the church has voted their full support for this new position as a part of our church's vision for the future of our family of faith, as have I by recommending it to them for approval. Our hope and prayer is that you fill find it in your heart to pledge to likewise support this new position--and Jamie as she fills it--with your own sacrificial offerings in whatever amount they may be. This represents the fruit of significant spiritual growth in our congregation, and I am very excited and proud of our church for it!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

10,000 Is Too Few

Do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:10 (CEB)

When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:33-34 (CEB)

The images of the Syrian refugees being reported in the media are absolutely heart-wrenching.

In response to this humanitarian crisis du jour--which I say not to be flippant, but to in fact highlight that there is indeed a humanitarian crisis seemingly every day now because of how good we are at hating and how terrible we are at loving--the Obama White House has directed the federal government to accept 10,000 refugees by granting them asylum status.  Pope Francis has directed every country in Europe to house refugees, and during his recent trip to America repeated those concerns for the immigrant and the marginalized.  And on Sunday night, John Oliver did an excellent segment on the refugee and immigrant crisis facing Europe as hundreds of thousands of people flee the Syrian civil war between two different devils--the government under Bashar al-Assad, and the rebel groups, one of which is the Islamic State (ISIS).

Meanwhile, it seems as though those vying for the chance to be the next leader of the free world care more about only talking about immigration in terms of what walls they can erect, and how high and impregnable they will be (and, if you're Donald Trump, how you'll somehow snooker Mexico into paying for the wall with I don't know, unicorn sprinkles or somesuch).

All of which raises a question: what on earth are we to do when others actually agree with us when we say (almost reflexively, as though on cue) that we live in the greatest country in the world?  What happens when they agree with us and say, "Yes, we want to join you?"

If we brag about how good and great our country is, we cannot then hold coming here (or wanting to come here) against people who are from somewhere less free.

That is the great dictum of America--and while I generally try to keep my patriotism separate from my Christian faith, I must confess it is especially difficult to do so this once.  I love America in no small part because my own family came here as refugees from a slaughter--the Armenian Genocide--and it is Scripture who tells us to care for the poor and the immigrant who are often one and same person.

My family came from halfway across the world as refugees of dubious legal status to settle in the United States to avoid their own deaths--and it was not without sacrifice of both blood and treasure.  One of the brothers of my great-grandfather Krikor perished in the Armenian Genocide.  The family's assets from their merchant holdings were wiped out.  And the world still lies to their descendants about what actually happened then, one hundred years ago.

In order to decide to leave their ancestral homeland in the face of such obstacles, *know* they had to do it.  They needed to leave, they had no alternative or option but to.  It was migration...or death.

And so, too, then, do our Syrian brothers and sisters flock to Europe and, to a lesser degree, America.  Because for them, too, it is a matter of migration or death.

This--this is why the Bible is so lucidly clear about how we are meant to treat immigrants: the Hebrews were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

And liberating the Hebrews was a matter not just of enslavement versus liberation, but after the Pharaoh ordered the deaths of the Hebrew boys, a matter of life and death as well.

So, in turn, Moses led them all out of Egypt, not just 10,000.  And when they had at long last made their own set of laws from what God had handed down to Moses, God saw fit to include multiple reminders--not just in Leviticus, but in the parts of the Law found in Exodus as well--that they too were once foreigners, and as such must treat foreigners as their own, for in the end, they are God's own, and thus, if we claim to be of God ourselves, they are our own as well.  Paul understood this well when he wrote that in Christ, there is neither Jew or Greek, but it is a lesson that seems to be long forgotten despite being inscribed for eternity in our sacred scriptures.

Pastorally, politically, personally, it pains me at great length that we seem to have forgotten not jut this lesson of the Bible but this lesson of our own history that people from places far less free than us will seek to come here, our natural inclination is, and will always, be, towards liberation.

But humanity will never be truly liberated until all of us are liberated.

For 10,000, in the face of so many needed so very much from us, is just too few.

Longview, Washington
September 29, 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Anna: 84 Years"

Luke 2:22-24, 36-38 

 When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23 It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24 They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. 

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37 She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Common English Bible)

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

Down in Columbia, Missouri, only about a two-hour or so drive from where I grew up, there stands a colossal, majestic burr oak tree that is some 350 years old.  To put that into perspective, it began growing maybe a half-century or so after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.

Today, it looks…well, the folks at National Public Radio said it better than I ever could have:

Growing on a lonely stretch of curvy country road, the 90-foot-tall tree appears like a stately sentry, guarding the flat farmland that lies around it.  People have partied here, proposed marriage here, launched political campaigns here.  It has been photographed more times than a beauty queen and the Web is littered with her pictures—many of them found on the tree’s Facebook page.

But a few years ago, in the summer of 2012, when Columbia was undergoing a massive, record-breaking drought, the Big Tree, as it is known to the townspeople, began to wilt—something that it would not do just any old time there was a little bit less water to drink.

So the fellow whose land the Big Tree lived on—land that had been in his family for six generations now—got his pickup truck and began hauling hundreds of gallons of water to the tree, 850 gallons in the first go alone, and ultimately somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000.  Imagine the water bill and you can understand a dimension of this chap’s sacrifice for a tree far bigger and older than he.

A lot for one tree?  Maybe.  But when this tree has seen the America around it longer than this land was, in fact, America, there is so much to be said for empowering a living creature that has seen so much to continue witnessing to so much more.  They are vessels of something larger than ourselves.  And today, in Luke 2, as the newborn Jesus—the same Jesus who said that before Abraham was, He (Jesus) had existed—is dedicated in the Jerusalem temple, we meet perhaps the one human with the same venerability as the Big Tree: an 84-year-old prophetess named Anna.

This is a no-longer-new sermon series, now that the fall season of school years and football seasons alike starting is official on, and that’s in fact very important for us to remember right now.  This series is really about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon 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 for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Four weeks ago, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and we then moved on to Ezekiel in week two before rewinding back to Exodus to discuss Moses in week three.  Last week, week four, we fast forwarded instead of rewinding further, this time all the way into the New Testament with this story about a hitherto unknown paralyzed man residing in Lydda (modern-day Lod in central Israel, near the West Bank) named Aeneas, and now, in week five, we rewind just a bit in the New Testament, still within Luke’s body of work, in moving from Acts back to his Gospel to hear about the prophetess Anna at the dedication of Jesus at the Jerusalem temple.

The reason Mary and Joseph go to the temple to have Jesus dedicated to begin with is a simple one, Luke says: it was “customary under the law,” by which Luke means the law of Moses, the Torah, rather than the law of the Romans who occupied Israel.  The law that Luke refers to is from Leviticus 12, which says that thirty-three days after giving birth to a son, the mother is in a state of purification and that once the purification is complete, she and her husband are to bring an animal sacrifice—a one-year-old lamb plus a turtledove or a squab—to the Lord.  A lamb would have been very expensive for a poor, just-beginning family like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but presumably they would have obtained a dove or pigeon from the temple merchants—the exact same type of merchants, by the by, that Jesus would eject from the temple as “robbers” during the Passion, because these merchants would charge exorbitant mark-ups on their wares with permission of the temple authorities, thus ripping off faithful and devout pilgrims, including, as it turns out, Jesus’s own earthly parents.

But that’s another story, one that takes place 30 years later.  For now, the newborn Christ and His earthly parents are met first by Simeon, whose story we skip over here for the sake of keeping the focus on Anna, but it must be noted that Simeon, Luke says, “wouldn’t die before he had seen the Christ,” as told to Simeon by the Holy Spirit itself.  We don’t know how old Simeon is (was), only that he was, per Luke, “righteous and devout.  He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”

Simeon praises God for keeping God’s word and revealing to Simeon this newborn Christ, and he in turn blesses Mary and Joseph as well before Luke turns to Anna, an 84-year-old widow who now lived in the temple, fasting and praying, and as such, was likewise as devout a believer as Simeon.

And Anna is important not just because of what she does after seeing Jesus—praising God and teaching people about Jesus—but because she is someone who I think a lot of us can and should relate to.  We cannot match her piety and the strength of her spiritual discipline, but we may well be ourselves steadfast believers who have lived out our lives hoping for an expecting for the restoration of us, God’s people.  And we may well have lost our loved ones along the way, just as Anna has lost her own husband.

We tend to make a big deal out of the wayward figures who come home to God—the prodigal son, the prophet Jonah, John Newton, and so on—because their stories are so dramatic, so vivid, so compelling, but what about the person whose story is largely lived out behind closed doors, in anonymity, or with very little fanfare?

What about the person who is like Anna, who is like the Big Tree, a hardened and wizened oak that is beautiful in its age and gathered wisdom, but whose world may not know it yet?

That is why Anna matters.  A woman who has lost her husband is one of the most vulnerable of people in biblical Israel—it is why there are specific provisions protecting and providing for widows in the Torah, and why Jesus’s younger brother James, in his letter in the New Testament, exhorts his flock to care for widows.  But out of her vulnerability, there comes longevity.  Out of her anonymity, there comes authenticity, and out of her obscurity there ultimately comes glory.

Because a widowed woman, the most marginal of the marginalized, becomes a teacher of God.

What a hope to have in a world such as ancient Israel, a world in which a widow could scarcely hope to live as long as Anna has, much less to end up coming face-to-face with God in flesh and being able to proclaim his presence to a world sore in need of it.

What a hope to have, in truth, in a world such as ours, when we fight our teachers and their needs at every turn, when we discount the capacity of women to serve as religious preachers and teachers, and when we fancy ourselves experts because we read a Wikipedia article or did a Google search, instead of realizing that it isn’t just enough to hear something or read something, but that we have to experience something.

What a hope to have for a world that still needs, desperately so, the substance and nature of what Anna taught: that Christ is here, Christ is alive and living among us, and that it is right that we rejoice at such news, because we are not meant to hear or read about the living Christ, but to experience the living Christ.

And in so doing, it is because of such news means that we, like the burr oak in Columbia, Missouri, are allowed a new lease on life.  Only ours does not come from the (still lifegiving) water poured out into the tree’s roots, but from the water poured out from heaven into our spiritual roots.

And like the water, all 3,000 gallons of it, that were lovingly and purposefully spilled to keep one tree alive, may the living water, as Jesus refers to it with the Samaritan woman in John 4, never run dry for us, even in the most record-breaking of whatever and whichever spiritual famines we may endure.

Because for 84 years, endure Anna has.  And she finally, at long last, is able to reap what she has sown.

May that same destiny be so for each of us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 27, 2015

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Breaking From Thunder

You, my God, a babe of wonder
All through the night
The dreams you dream can't break from thunder
All through the night

~Ar Hyd Y Nos (All Through the Night), one of many alternate third verses

He said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.” Jacob said, “Tell me your name.” But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel, because "I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.”

Genesis 32:28-30 (Common English Bible)

The crest of the hill rises in my field of vision as the road begins to twist gently, then sharper and sharper, to my left.

The car hums beneath the gentle movement of being steered into a new direction after a few miles of straight ahead movement.

And the gates of the Mount Solo cemetery stand gaping, open, waiting to see if I am here to enter, or simply passing by, like so many other drivers do every single day.

I know my people who are buried there.  I could tell you all about them as I walk you to their resting places.  I can share with you of the beauty of their funerals, the lavish affairs of love and memory that took place in my church's Gothic sanctuary, and I can recount the stark, intimate grace and pride of their interment ceremonies, as what remained of them descended far from the sight of eyes but never far from the sight of souls.

For a half-second, my left hand flits from the wheel to my turn signal, as though perhaps I am going to stop and visit, to say hello to those whom I have buried.  I could set out my lunch, pour out some coffee, make a real visit out of it (note to self--see if I can do this before the autumn Northwest weather arrives for good).

I used to avoid driving this particular stretch of road.  Not out of fear or any sort of badness, but simply because this monolith represented a reality that I would just as soon not have to grapple with like Jacob with God at Peniel in Genesis 32.  At least, not grapple with on a daily basis.

Never mind that I had served at funerals before, or that my first night as the on-call chaplain for a network of four hospitals in downtown San Francisco came with the deaths of two patients on my service.

Never mind that I am fully capable of recognizing mortality when it rises to greet me, whether in a hospital room or along a winding roadside.

No, it just isn't something I care to meet face-to-face on a daily basis.

Perhaps that should not be so, as a minister and pastor on behalf of a Messiah who has conquered death and left it bereft and empty-handed in His wake.

In truth, though, I think it is precisely because I deal in soul-sized work that I have come to acquire my own existential unease with death, which I liken on the blog to the thunderbolt.  It is because I have become all to aware of its expanse and implications, not because I have tried at all costs to avoid even acknowledging its existence.

Which means I still have that dread of when the phone call comes, that something has happened, that the thunderbolt has broken once more and the realm between life and death has been bridged again.

That call came again this week, regarding a woman who had worshiped here some few years back, who, along with her loving husband had, like many people who stop and stay with us for a little while, eventually drop away as well, not through any fault of the church, or of me (though try telling me that sometimes), but because that is the nomadic nature of humanity's collective quest for spiritual depth.

Maybe it shouldn't be affecting me like this, but it is.  I can't help that it is.  Given the choice, I'm not sure I would help that it is either.  There's a part of me that thrives on this internal struggle.  It makes me stronger.  It makes me better at my work.

It makes me a pastor who cannot break from the thunder, much as I would some days long to.

It gives me a sort of strength that is easy enough to make a caricature of, as the sort of strength you see in a feel-good movie when the protagonist overcomes the loss of someone dear and close to them.  Maybe that sounds cynical, and if it does, it there may indeed be some cynicism in it, because pressing onward in the face of bereavement isn't so much about filling the void the person left behind with whatever your quest may be, but in recognizing the zen-like truth that the void someone leaves behind never can be filled and that you are stronger for having made that recognition.

And I think that I am indeed stronger for that acknowledgement of my own reality, that I struggle and wrestle and strive against the thunderbolt, because it forces me to confront the prospect of my own emptiness, of my life potentially filled with the voids and gaps and aching absences left behind by those whom I have cared for and cast out, like a fisher's line, into the next and greater kingdom.

I'm on the bridge over the Columbia River into Portland now.  I'm here more often now, now that we've moved from Longview to Vancouver to be closer to the hospital my wife works at, and it's usually for something fun--my hometown soccer team is playing the Timbers over at Providence Park, or I'm on my way to play in a game myself for one of my amateur teams, or I'm there simply because I can be.

But every once in a while, I must cross the river on business, to see a congregant or a congregant's family who are engaged in this thunderbolt of life and death collapsing in upon the other in a Portland hospital.

And now, when I do make that drive, I remember that hesitant flick of the left hand to signal a turn that never came, and I know that there can, and likely will, be yet another day when I must grapple, like Jacob with God at Peniel, with my own fear of the thunderbolt, face to face, breath to breath, soul to soul, deep in the heart of the City of Roses.

Vancouver, Washington
September 21, 2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Aeneas: 8 Years"

(Before the Scripture passage and sermon from today, I would like to apologize for the lack of posting over the past week--I had a busy week compounded by the sudden onset of a cold that laid me out for a couple of days.  I'm playing catch-up and I would ask your understanding and forgiveness for not yet returning to writing.   ~E.A.)

Acts 9:31-35

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. God strengthened the church, and its life was marked by reverence for the Lord. Encouraged by the Holy Spirit, the church continued to grow in numbers. 32 As Peter toured the whole region, he went to visit God’s holy people in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas who was paralyzed and had been confined to his bed for eight years. 34 Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you! Get up and make your bed.” At once he got up. 35 Everyone who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord. (Common English Bible)

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

It was a story that you have to think—just have to think—would have been taken by Hollywood and made into a movie at some point, but it does not seem as though it has.  A young girl gets stricken by a very serious, very contagious disease but survives it and upon adulthood decides to go into medical science to try to find a cure.  At the age of only 32, she begins her work on different samples of the disease, and exactly eight years later, a vaccine that she helped develop enters into mass production, a vaccine whose later incarnations would be credited with preventing 85% of typical cases in children.

That is, in a nutshell, how Grace Eldering and her colleagues Pearl Kendrick and Loney Clinton Gordon created the vaccine against pertussis—what we know as the whooping cough—in the 1930s.  During the Great Depression, three female scientists—and one of them, Gordon, African-American—managed to concoct a preventive cure for a disease that beforehand was infecting hundreds of thousands of Americans a year and killed thousands of them—so the fact that Grace Eldering had simply survived her own bout of whooping cough at the age of five was a true gift.

It took eight years to deliver on a grand scale the cure that these remarkable scientists knew was eventually going to come, and as it so happened, it took eight years for a man called Aeneas to experience healing from a source that so many other people knew could and would come, and eventually someday would—to Aeneas, to many other sick and stricken people in the New Testament, and ultimately, one would hope and pray, to us all.

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.  This series is really about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon 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 for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Three weeks ago, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and we then moved on to Ezekiel in week two before rewinding back to Exodus to discuss Moses in week three.  This week, week four, we fast forward instead of rewinding further, this time all the way into the New Testament with this story about a hitherto unknown paralyzed man residing in Lydda (modern-day Lod in central Israel, near the West Bank) named Aeneas.

The origins of Aeneas’s name are fascinating.  The name is that of a hero of the mythological poetry of first Homer and then Virgil, a hero who is said to have led the Trojans out of Troy as it was sacked by the Greeks in the Trojan War and whose bloodline eventually included Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who ancient Rome’s mythology said founded the city.  But most important of all, the name Aeneas itself means “blessed.”

And while blessed may not be how Aeneas originally sees himself—we really don’t know, as we know nothing about him beyond what Luke conveys to us in these brief few verses—blessed he is, for he receives the same manner of healing that the same paralyzed persons in the Gospels received from Jesus.  Indeed, Peter even tells Aeneas that it is Jesus Christ Himself who heals him, not Peter (also, how many of us would want to hear, as the first words of our transformed reality, "make your bed!"? :) ).

It is a simple enough question in truth, but one with far from simple implications: where does our healing come from?  When we are broken somehow, by whom and what are we made whole?  And, does that wholeness have to come instantaneously in order to be of God?

Aeneas has gone eight years as either a paraplegic or a quadriplegic, and that is a long time to do so with the health concerns that entails, even in our age with modern medicine, to say nothing of ancient Israel its complete lack thereof, as well as its inability to care for people who are differently abled.  Considering Aeneas was likely unable to get much work in his condition, it is a miracle in itself that he even lived eight years as a paraplegic or quadriplegic, and even today, it is sometimes tough to live that long, just as it was miracle that Grace Eldering even survived pertussis at age five.

My own childhood idol Christopher Reeve, *the* Superman, became a quadriplegic in 1995 after his horsebacking riding accident that shattered his C1/C2 vertebrae, died only nine years later of cardiac arrest from one of the antibiotics he took for a case of sepsis that was in fact a relatively frequent occurrence for him at that point in his life precisely because he had become quadriplegic.

Would Aeneas have still been around in another year?  In truth, we have no way of knowing.  But what if the healing came from God not because it was instantaneous after Aeneas became paralyzed, but because it came just before Aeneas could have died as a result of his condition?

And that’s really the x-factor, so to speak, in divine intervention, and why I think this entire series matters so much.  We think that because God can be present anywhere, and see anything that happens as a result, that God should react immediately.  But we *know* that God does not do that.

But we don’t like it.  We want God to react immediately.  In the direst of circumstances, instances of life and death, we need God to react immediately, and we are crushed, heartbroken, bereft when or if God does not do so.  We react immediately to what we perceive as God’s lack of a reaction.

We aren’t told of Aeneas’s immediate reaction to being healed, but we are told of the reaction of his townsfolk, the people of Lydda: they all “turned to the Lord.”  They were all spiritually healed.

After eight years of waiting entire towns, entire cities got healed and made whole, inoculated against one a highly contagious, lethal illness in pertussis.  And after eight years of waiting entire towns, not just Lydda but neighboring Sharon too, were healed and made whole by being reconciled to God.

Eight years from now would be the year 2023.  Think of what will change in that time—think of how much will change.  Think about what might stay the same, and what the world will look like.  How will you yourself change?  And if you were to be injured or made ill tomorrow and were not healed until 2023, how might you be changed even further?  With how long you have waited to be made whole, who will you be?

How long will you wait, then, to reconcile yourself to God?  For the truth is, God has already reconciled you to heaven.  God has already longed for, strove for, desired for you to be whole, and God has given you the means with which to do so.

It is found here, in church, in a community of believers that loves one another and that, through this love, can heal and make whole one another in the same name of Jesus Christ that made Aeneas whole as well nearly two thousand years ago.

In so doing, we too are as Aeneas, even as we may not be paralyzed literally ourselves; in truth, we may identify more as his neighbors who turned to the Lord.  But we are Aeneas when we claim the identity of his name, and recognize that we too, at long last, are and have always been “blessed.” 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 20, 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Moses: 80 Years"

Exodus 3:1-12, 4:10-13

Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up. 4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” 5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”

10 But Moses said to the Lord, “My Lord, I’ve never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before, and certainly not now since you’ve been talking to your servant. I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.” 11 Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord? 12 Now go! I’ll help you speak, and I’ll teach you what you should say.” 13 But Moses said, “Please, my Lord, just send someone else.” (Common English Bible)

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

It really was a fairly tale conversion story: a notorious slaver, a captain of three different slave ships, who was, at the age of only 18, once enslaved himself after being captured by the Royal Navy, tried to desert, was caught, flogged, and contemplated suicide, had one of those profound God moments that can genuinely turn someone—and their life, wretched however it may be—completely around.

He was 23 at the moment of his conversion to Christianity, and he would go on in his 82 years of life to write well-known hymns such as “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” and most famously by far, “Amazing Grace,” the very same hymn we sing from page 107 of our chuch’s hymnals.  And along the way, he would even campaign against his former industry, slave trading, as an abolitionist.

John Newton was a remarkable man, and a remarkable Christian.  And his life’s story as we tend to tell it in our Protestant hagiography of sorts is exactly what I called it from the very beginning: a fairy tale that, like most tall tales and stuff of lore, has truth mixed in with bits of legend.  And one of the great, terrible pieces of truth we forget about John Newton was that he did not become an abolitionist as a result of his conversion to Christianity—it was, in fact, after his conversion that he worked as the captain of three different slave-trading vessels, and it was not until he was in his sixties that he came out publicly for abolition and worked towards its enactment.

But, his public pronouncement began with these words: “(This is) a confession which…comes too late…It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument  in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Newtown had recognized his past for what it was, and as he also said, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word until a considerable time after (slave trading).”

It took John Newton nearly forty years to fully repent of his slave trading, despite his original conversion.  And, as it turns out, it takes Moses even longer in the Bible to likewise fully recognize his own past for what it was—as the prince of an empire that enslaved the Hebrews—and to disown it and in so doing, become the first abolitionist, as it were, whom God called.

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.  This series is really about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon 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 for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Two weeks ago, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and last week, we met the Hebrew Bible exilic prophet Ezekiel.  Today, we’ll continue this series today by talking about one of the bare handful of other Hebrew Bible characters who can match Abraham for stature and persona—Moses.

Moses did not start out as the Israelite savior, though.  Far from it.  His own name lends a hint to the ambiguity of his origins, for Moses is not a Hebrew name but an Egyptian name, which means “son.”  It makes sense considering the verse in which Moses is plucked from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, for it says he became her son—he became, as it were, her Moses.

But Moses is not only the son of a princess, he is a son of God, but that identity takes a long time to surface.  First, per Deuteronomy 34:7, Moses spends the first forty years of his life in the palaces of the Pharaoh (believed to have been Seti I, but we cannot say for sure).  Then, according to Exodus, he kills an Egyptian whom he sees brutalizing an Israelite slave—a foreshadowing to the switch in his allegiance and identity to come—buries the Egyptian’s body in the sand, and goes into exile.

Now, we like to remember Moses as the ennobled servant of God, returning to Pharaoh to triumphantly declare to the Egyptian king to let God’s people go, but in doing that, we would be forgetting that like John Newton, Moses spent the better part of forty years between his old life of exploiting slavery (as a prince in Moses’s case, as a slave trader in Newton’s) and his new life of trying to free a people from slavery.

Moses spends another forty years in exile—it is only when he is 80 that we pick up with today’s passage out of Exodus 3 and 4, and even now, rich in years and life experience, he is ever the reluctant servant.  Whereas Abraham and Ezekiel responded immediately to the revealing of God’s word in their lives, Moses takes some serious convincing to get on board.

In 3:6, Moses hides his face because he is afraid to look at God—an action that foreshadows his own glimpsing of God but only from behind because, as God will explain to Moses later, nobody could look upon the full glory and wonder of God and hope to live.

And there’s that word—afraid.  Moses doesn’t hide his face out of humbleness or humility, he hides it out of fear.  Moses is afraid.  And we might well be too, were we in Moses’s position—why do you think Gabriel said to Mary, “Be not afraid?”  Why do you think the angels said to the shepherds on Christmas, “Be not afraid?”  It is because while our inclination may be to come to God out of fear, that is not in fact what we are supposed to do, or were ever meant to do.

We are not, were not, will not ever be meant to come to God out of fear.  That’s not how faith works.  Faith does not deal in fear, in fact, faith is the opposite of fear, much, much more so than it is, or could ever be, the opposite of doubt.

Rather, we are meant to come to God out of reverence, out of awe, out of faith, and out of humility.

Fortunately, Moses finally gets around to actually expressing that last one by verse 11 when he asks God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

This is why faith cannot be the opposite of doubt—Moses doubts himself, but he does, in the end, eventually accede to God’s will and puts his faith and his life in God’s hands.

Even though his piteous reply to God’s exclamation that it is God who made man’s mouth, who made humanity deaf and mute, seeing and blind, was to say, “Oh God, please send somebody else.”

Full disclosure: Exodus 4:1-12 was the Scripture passage read for my ordination service four years ago, so this passage—and sermon—mean a lot to me.  I had the passage stop at verse 12 because, for pretty obvious reasons, verse 13 should probably never, ever be read at any ordination service.

But that is the level of intransigence from Moses is in truth what God has come to expect from us.  God has come to expect us to try to pass the buck on being called, to weasel our way out of what is asked—no, demanded—of us, even if we may in fact be completely sincere and genuine in doing so, and our own reluctance has led us into a world where there is far more pain and hurt than needs to exist.

Imagine if Moses had never led the Israelites to freedom.  Their entire culture, civilization, way of life, would likely have died in the cradle.

Imagine a world where we would always say no to God instead of yes—how much more death and hate do you think there would be?  We would see even more September 11’s, not fewer, even more Iraq invasions, not fewer.  We would see more of the wrong and less of the good.

And so on a day when we choose to dedicate a new life to God, we are not afforded such luxuries.  Because we are dedicating a life that is born into a family of love, but also into a world of hurt.  And if God is calling out to you from the burning bush, it will not do for you, or for me, or for any of us to whimper out, “Oh God, please send someone else.”

Because it is indeed God who made us who we are, who made us speaking, deaf, mute, seeing, blind.

And God made you who you are to be ready to say yes when you are called—whether it is as a slave trader or an eighty-year-old prince in exile, God will not wait for forever to call you by name.

God will burst forth, eventually.  Maybe not as a burning bush, maybe not even as something that you can see or hear.

But God will indeed make God’s divine presence known in a mighty and wondrous way.

Are you ready?  Are you read to say yes to that?

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 13, 2015

Thursday, September 10, 2015

We are Legion, Reprise the Second: World Suicide Prevention Day

(Today, September 10, is World Suicide Awareness and Prevention Day.  What follows is an unedited re-post of an intensely personal installment from the weeklong "We Are Legion" series of blog posts from 2013.  This is not the first time my personal testimony of my mental illness has served as a re-post, and if you are new to this blog, this account of mine will give you much insight into where I come from in my personal journey of faith, theology, and understanding of the self.

This post was written in the wake of the suicide of Pastor Rick Warren's son Matthew, who was the same age as me, and at the time, that realization brought back intense memories of my own original diagnosis of major clinical depression when, over months of my own protestations, my parents finally made me see a psychiatrist.

That wasn't the end of things, though--I still struggled mightily while in the care of my psychiatrist.  I still formulated suicide plans, abused the sleeping aids I was prescribed, and in many ways acted as though I was unloved, when in fact I wasn't--I was in truth very much loved, just not by myself.

Even when you feel completely, utterly unloved, God still loves you.  Please, always, always remember that. Don't be afraid to seek help if you need it.  I continue to strive to be an open book about my history of mental illness in a deliberate effort to reduce the stigma which surrounds it, and to ultimately help lead others to the healing and wholeness that comes with  care, love, and treatment--an end that I believe to be entirely godly in every sense of the term.  -E.A.)

Trigger word warning: suicide (obviously).

Beginning at the age of 14, I began having increasingly frequent thoughts of suicide.  I became socially withdrawn, flunked out of advanced algebra, and by the time I graduated, I had been suspended from school twice for fighting.

After months of refusing, I eventually caved to my parents' wish to take me to see a psychiatrist.  He was able to immediately diagnose me with major clinical depression, and he put me on a regimen of antidepressants that I have continued in some form or fashion to this day.  Today, I am medicated and I am well, but I still remember how much I underachieved during my teenage years.

I remember it because even on medication, those episodes still return in minor forms.  Depression is like any chronic disease--I cannot be cured of it, I can only manage it.  I will likely be medicated for the rest of my life.

And I'm okay with that.  That's the way it has to be in order for me to function.

But it also isn't something that, for obvious reasons, I ordinarily share with people.

I'm writing about it right now, though, because Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Rick Warren (yes, that Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback and Purpose-Driven Life fame, and whom (full disclosure) I have occasionally criticized on the blog) killed himself this weekend after a lifelong battle with mental illness.

Matthew was twenty-seven years old.

It is how old I am.

Believe me, it hit home.  Please pray for Matthew's family, biological and church alike.

I worry that people sometimes rush to judge a suicide because of our own Christian orthodoxy that it constitutes a grave sin.  And I understand the logic behind that--I forget who said it, but suicide is our way of telling God, "Screw you, you can't fire me.  I quit."

We aren't supposed to quit on God.

But if we take a step back, and remember that depression is a mental illness, suicide becomes apparent as the result of terminal depression.  Roughly 3.5% of people in the United States who have depression eventually will commit suicide.  If we were to see depression as the disease that it is, it would be like saying that 3.5% of all cases of this disease become terminal.

Depression is not a moral failing.

It sounds simple, but I'm going to repeat it: Depression. Is. Not. A. Moral. Failing.

It is a disease.

I have always understood why folks might call depression a "demon," as though another's personal demon might be addiction or substance abuse, but I have recently begun to shy away from the urge to do that.  My depression isn't a demon, and the minute I say that it is, I am saying that having it is somehow wrong or somehow a moral weakness of mine.

And it isn't.

Because of how we normally associate demons with evil, saying someone's mental illness is a demon of their's implies an evil within that person which the person may or may not have control over.

And that's harmful.  It puts an unfair burden on the person suffering from mental illness, and it lends an inauthentic identity to the disease itself.

My depression is not a demon I have to be exorcised of, it is a disease I have to live with.

But for however long well-meaning people still put the words "depression" or "mental illness" in the same breath as words like "demon," we're going to have people engaging in extremely private battles with their illnesses and, in some cases, ultimately losing.

Read through the statement Rick Warren made again (in the CNN link above).  He wrote, in part, "But only those closest knew that he (Matthew) struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts."

I'm not suggesting that making personal struggles with mental illness more public is the way to go--as a PK (pastor's kid), Matthew likely already had more burdens growing up than your average boy.  And it is saddening that, based on Rick's statement, Matthew had been receiving treatment and it had ultimately failed.

What I am suggesting, though, is that maybe people might one day feel more free to explain their depression to people if they wish, rather than suffering mostly in private.

After all, a big part of what helps heal a person is the other people around them--medical staff, family, friends, and fellow patients.

In Mark 5, the Gerasene Demoniac confronts Jesus and the demon says, through the possessed man, "We are Legion, for we are many."

Far too often, the inverse is true of the people who suffer from these so-called "demons:" We are depressed, and so we are lonely.  And it is so for this man, the demoniac--he has gone into self-imposed exile in a graveyard, surrounded only by the dead.

We become lonely through a variety of ways, which has been in part the thrust of this weeklong blog series: we divide up one another.  I wrote about how we divide up the church, and then about how we divide up God's word.

We need not, should not, and cannot divide up ourselves.

For depression is, for better and for worse, not a demon.  It is a disease.

And like many other diseases, it can kill.  Even, sometimes, with treatment.

But also like many other diseases, it can be whipped.  It is possible.

If you are depressed, please, please, please do not be afraid to seek help.  Your family practice doctor can almost certainly refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist, and many churches and pastors should also be able to refer you to mental health specialists.

If you are actively considering suicide, there are hotlines you can call.  The National Suicide Prevent Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.  It is toll-free and staffed 24/7.

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene Demoniac, for we are many.

But we--the people who see and understand and live with mental illness every day--we are legion too, for we are many.

And with help, we can be the many who control our illnesses, instead of letting them control us.

So do not be afraid to seek help.  It is there for you if you ask for it.

My hope and prayer is that if I, and others like me, can be more open and courageous about mental illness, you--whoever you are--might feel courageous enough to make that life-saving request.

Yours in Christ, from someone who cares for you,

Dedicated to the men and women I met during my brief time as the intern chaplain of the inpatient psychiatric ward of California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.  I still remember seeing the scars on your wrists and your necks.  I still remember listening to your stories.  I still remember hearing your fear.  And I hope and pray that that fear has, like our time together, receded into the sea of years-ago memories.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

In Which I Get Fan Mail From Racist Trolls

Yesterday, as a part of the #ImAChristianBut hashtag on Twitter, I wrote the following tweet:

 It has been retweeted 40-some times as of this afternoon, and it was humbling and heartening to see people responding to a sentiment that I deeply felt: that we as a church have really tried to whitewash our pasts in a lot of ways, ways that ignore how we profited from both the slave trade and segregation, and how we tried to demonize, terrorize, and even kill those who worked to end those institutions.

That exposure hasn't come without garnering some flotsam from the trolls under the bridge:

Now...did you notice how "your race" got inserted into the conversation in that second tweet?  This will be a recurring phenomenon:

Then another interloper just comes out and says it:
The assumption, based on my tweet, apparently, is that I'm African-American.

Which, of course, I am not, a fact that can be ascertained by a simple search of this blog, a link to which exists on my Twitter page.  Simply searching the term "race" returns, on hits 2, 3, and 4, posts in which I refer to myself explicitly as white or Caucasian.  Go ahead, feel free to try it--the search function is on the toolbar to the right.

Personally, if someone mistakes my race or ethnicity, my first instinct is to gently correct them--it happens all the time because I'm part of a relatively small ethnic group (Armenians), and my complexion is outwardly ambiguous enough that I have gotten mistaken (sometimes in a hostile way) for Jewish, Latino, Italian, Arab, and even East Asian.

But then I went back and looked at some of the names they were calling me: Viper.  Snake.

Also, fraud:


Complete idiot:

And loser:

We'll set aside for a moment that name-calling isn't terribly Christian, but even as these insults came after I corrected them to tell them I in fact identify as white, there are people out there who thought it was okay to call (who they thought was) a black man they have never met and knew nothing about except for a lone, single, and frankly not very radical tweet, names like "viper" and "snake."

I cannot begin to imagine the racist abuse the leaders of African-American churches, #BlackLivesMatter, and other black-led organizations working for reconciliation must endure on a regular basis.  I was on the receiving end of it this once and it was appalling to me, even as I strove as best I could to parry it with facts, wit, and humor (I could have blocked them, but honestly, that's a measure of last resort for me, and I have had to do that once already today, so I wasn't feeling it again).

Again, just to reiterate for emphasis--I'm white.  And this is what I was on the receiving end of from people who thought I was black.  What on earth could possibly lead someone to think these insults were okay to say to someone we do not know at all, much less someone who does not look like us, except for prejudice?

So...if you thought that racism only comes to earth in the form of a terrorist gunman who takes the lives of nine African-American souls in their church, think again.  We still act horribly to each other in any number of ways, and this is but one.

So, can we begin to admit that there really is a problem with prejudice among believers to this day?

Can we begin to stand up to the racist, racially-charged, and prejudiced things we hear and see people say?

And can we, for God's sake, stop trying to shout down people of color and their allies for wanting what we have had for centuries: the privilege to live and breathe free in the United States of America?

Because I still have hope that we as believers and Jesus followers are still capable of building some small semblance of the kingdom of heaven in this little world of ours.

I still have hope that we can in fact do what my original tweet asked us to do, to be more honest about our past, as painful and sordid with the sins of slavery and segregation as that past may be.

And I still have hope that the closer to God each of us will forever be for having done so.

It is a hope I have, y'all.  I'd just as soon not jettison it now.


Longview, Washington
September 8, 2015

Sunday, September 6, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Ezekiel: 30 Years"

Ezekiel 1:1-4

In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.

2 (It happened on the fifth day of the month, in the fifth year after King Jehoiachin’s deportation. 

3 The Lord’s word burst in on the priest Ezekiel, Buzi’s son, in the land of Babylon at the Chebar River. There the Lord’s power overcame him.) 

 4 As I watched, suddenly a driving storm came out of the north, a great cloud flashing fire, with brightness all around. At its center, in the middle of the fire, there was something like gleaming amber.

(Common English Bible)

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

I remember reading the news of it on my computer and subsequently spending the next week sitting at a table in front of the student cafeteria at my college, soliciting donations for the Red Cross. 

I remember it actually entering my dreams, of one in particular where I was flying through the storm until I finally reached its center, the eye of the hurricane.

And I remember the stories of how brokenhearted the people themselves who were most affected felt, of how they felt like a nation of 49 other states had left them to rot in stadiums and trailers.

It was August 29, 2005, ten years ago plus one week, and Hurricane Katrina had just decimated New Orleans, Louisiana.  And in reading the “where are things now” stories this past week, ten years later, I felt that great sense of brokenheartedness and disappointment seep into my soul once more like a sponge.

And it was then that I was reminded that the axiom “time heals all wounds” is oftentimes a load of hooey.  Time heals minor wounds, it’s a peroxide for scrapes and skinned arms and legs.  It doesn’t measure up to the lacerations that need stitches to tie them back together.

But it is precisely that sort of gaping wound that I felt still existed in the ten-year-old wake of Katrina.  And it is precisely that sort of aching wound the propels the prophet Ezekiel into ministry.

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.  This series is really about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon 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 for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Last week, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and we’ll continue this series next week by talking about the other—Moses.  But for today, we’re going to be talking about a lesser-known figure in the Hebrew Bible, but still one of great consequence who wrote one of the three long books of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible: the prophet Ezekiel.

The prophet’s own name gives some glimpse into how he survives the existential agony—some would say madness, but we’ll get to that in a bit—the prophet is plainly in.  El, as many of you know, is a shortened form of the Hebrew word Elohim, which means “God,” or “Lord.”  Ezek comes from the Hebrew hazaq, which means “strong,” or “strengthen,” or “fasten.”  Ezekiel’s name translates, then, into “God strengthens/will strengthen.”  When Ezekiel begins the entire accounting of his prophecies with the words, “while I was among the exiles,” you know that strength is needed.

The exiles Ezekiel is referring to in his introduction are the Judeans who were exiled from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, though Ezekiel refers to the exile as that of King Jehoiachin, the last legitimate king of Judah—after Nebuchadnezzar first invaded Jerusalem, he deposed Jehoicahin and replaced him with a puppet king, Zedekiah, before invading once more in 586 BCE and turning Judah fully into a Babylonian slave state.

The Babylonian exile is one of three events that the Hebrew Bible really centers itself around, with the other two being the exodus out of Egypt under Moses and the unification of Israel as a single kingdom under David and his son Solomon.  Almost everything else that takes place in the Hebrew Bible, except for the events in the book of Genesis, is documented under the immense shadow of these three watershed events, each roughly 400 years apart, from the Exodus circa 1400 BCE to the reigns of David and Solomon circa 1000 to 920 BCE to the previously mentioned Babylonian exile.

Ezekiel, though, is cut from a very different cloth than any of those Biblical heroes: Moses is an entirely reluctant savior whereas David is an overlooked one.  And Solomon’s defining characteristic is his wisdom, whereas Ezekiel’s is most likely his sheer outlandishness—this is a fellow who, shortly into his prophetic ministry, actually eats a holy scroll and says it tastes sweet to him, like honey.  He goes for shock value, not necessarily calm erudition.  He’s more the random person you see in the street corner holding up a sign saying that the world is going to end rather than an ordinary church pastor, seminary professor, or any other member of any institutionalized religion.

Ezekiel, in other words, is a prophet on the margins.  That’s who he is.  And when the earliest of the Hebrew Bible prophets, Isaiah, happened to be a prophet in the royal court of multiple kings, this is no small distinction to make.  Isaiah is in the palaces—though it will end up costing him his life, when the reign of King Manasseh rolls around—but Ezekiel is in the streets.

Put a different way, Ezekiel was in the heart of New Orleans when the hurricane warnings of Katrina began coming in.  He went into exile just like thousands of New Orleans citizens as Katrina, like Nebuchadnezzar of old, utterly demolished his beloved home city.

Or, Ezekiel could right now be in the masses of refugees, literally washing up on our shores like that little boy's body that made all of the news stories, after their homes were likewise heart-wrenchingly taken from them.

But as Ezekiel writes, that is also how the word of the Lord arrived to him as well, after thirty years of living, five of them in exile: God’s word “burst in” upon him and “overcame” him.  The Word didn’t walk up and politely tap Ezekiel on the shoulder and hold out a hand, no, it swept over him the way the Psalmist says that God cascades over him in the 42nd Psalm.

Being called by God is very much an immersion.  It is, in a way, why it is appropriate that we then baptize by immersion: somebody is signaling that God has spoken out to them by choosing to be quite literally immersed in water…sometimes of uncomfortably cold temperatures!

Does that mean that God’s word shone out to somebody as, say, New Orleans itself was immersed by Hurricane Katrina, or Japan was by its tsunami in 2011?  I think so.  Not because God uses natural disasters, or “driving storms,” as Ezekiel says, as tools of wrath—that’s a beastly, ghastly theology—but because those disasters are what necessitate soul-sized heroes in the first place.

Think about it: Moses would have had no need to be a savior if the Israelites were not already enslaved in Egypt.

Ezekiel would have no need to be a prophet if the Judeans were not already in exile in Babylon.

And Jesus Christ Himself would likewise have had no need to be a savior—THE Savior—had Israel not been enslaved to the Romans, the Jewish religious leadership enslaved to Pontius Pilate, and humanity itself enslaved to sin.

When everything is copacetic, we do not think of ourselves as needing a Nietzschian ubermensch, an ultimate person capable of saving us when we are unable to save ourselves, because what on earth could we possibly need saving from?

It is only when our backs are against the proverbial wall that we realize who, and what, we truly need.  And until we really begin to understand that, it's difficult to put ourselves in another person's shoes...and that's what the saying is, right?  Walk a mile in someone else's shoes?

But...what if that person doesn't have any shoes to begin with?

It was five years—longer than I have been here as your pastor—into the exile before God came to Ezekiel, and it was thirty years that Ezekiel was alive before receiving that divine word.  A lot has changed in just five years, never mind thirty--we still had troops in Iraq, the World Cup had just been played in South Africa rather than Brazil, and Law & Order was still on the air!

Yet even then, it would be another forty-some years before Israel would finally be delivered, not by Ezekiel, but by a non-Israelite: the Persian king Cyrus the Great.  So stretch your mind back to the year 1970, and that is how long the Israelites have waited their saving.  Think of how much has changed since then.

That's the kind of waiting on God we are talking about with this sermon series.

So the waiting on God will in fact continue for Ezekiel and his flock, even as he fills chapter after chapter of Biblical verse with his vivid and enervating prophecies.

As it shall continue for each of us, even as we live out our lives in the comforts and securities of our own homes and vocations.

Because, in truth, however comfortable and secure we may be, there will remain in each of us, for as long as we continue to be alive, at least part of us that will forever long to be closer to God, to not be so far in exile from our creator.

And so to the closing of that exile I will soon send you forth, and pray that you, like the saints who have come before you, will one day ultimately and truly find.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 6, 2015

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Few Words on Kim Davis, Same-Sex Marriage Licenses, and Being Born "Anothen"

I almost relocated to Kentucky for my first call out of seminary.  During my search-and-call process, three different churches took a significant interest in calling me: one, of course, is the one I serve now, FCC Longview here in Washington state.  The other two were located in Kentucky, the epicenter of our historic roots in the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801.

While I wouldn't trade my opportunity to return to my beloved Pacific Northwest for anything, it would be fascinating for me to be living in Kentucky now, as it is making a different sort of history at present over in Rowan County, the home of county clerk Kim Davis.  She is not the only county clerk to refuse to issue marriage licenses in the wake of the universal legalization of same-sex marriage by the US Supreme Court this past June, but she, along with fellow marriage license-denying county clerk Casey Davis (no relation) has received probably the most ink.

I have little interest in rehashing the back-and-forth argument of allowing for religious conscience versus a publicly elected official having to do their job, because the law is pretty much settled on that one in favor of the latter: the Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear Davis's appeal, and she and her entire staff have been summoned for a court date tomorrow to potentially be charged with contempt.

Nor do I really have that much interest in waving the reality that Davis has been married four times and divorced three times as evidence of her hypocrisy, because (a) I don't get to judge the contexts or reasons for those marriages and divorces, nor should I be able to, (b) I have happily officiated--and thus explicitly approved of--the weddings of people who have been previously divorced myself, and (c) that fact alone actually ignores the larger issue in her hypocrisy: that it is tinged with a very specific sort of religious duplicity that ignores one's past in order to discriminate in the present.

By her own account, about four years ago, Davis attended church about four years ago at the behest of her dying mother-in-law and subsequently seemed to have had a genuine God experience, saying, "There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God. I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage."

Her Liberty Counsel attorney Matthew Staver, in the same WaPo article linked in the previous paragraph, is quoted as saying, "It’s something that happened in her past…She was 180 degrees changed."

Here's the thing about our pasts, though: we are indeed forgiven.  But the world, and God, does not forget.  Paul did not forget his own murderous past even after he experienced the presence of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, writing to the Galatians in 1:13, "You have heard of my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God's church and tried to destroy it."  Jesus did not forget Simon Peter's thrice-spoken denial of Him during the Passion, asking Peter three times (one for each denial) "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" in John 21.  And while God, through the prophet Elijah, forgave the wicked king Ahab for his framing and murdering of the innocent vineyard keeper Naboth in 2 Kings 9, God still executed punishment for Ahab's sin, only it was upon Ahab's son rather than Ahab himself.

To say that anyone--God, Christ, our neighbors, or even as much as we wish, ourselves--truly forgets our pasts is a fantasy.  Which is why using the "She was 180 degrees changed" line, like Staver does in defense of Davis, is a total cop-out, a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It isn't that I--or anyone else, for that matter--has any right to doubt the authenticity of her conversion, it's that her conversion does not erase the consequences of whatever her previous actions have brought about.

Put another way, to return to the Biblical examples I cited earlier: Paul's conversion was genuine, but it did not bring Stephen, the disciple stoned to death as Paul approved in Acts 7-8, back to life.  Ahab's repentance was likewise seen as authentic, but it did not bring Naboth back from the dead, nor did it preclude God's own prerogative to enact punishment.

Our greatest sins, no matter how far in our pasts they may be, rarely get entirely erased.  Our historical treatment of African-American or American Indians will never be really erased, nor can they be or should they be.  And sometimes, our own personal or individual sins do not fade away into the ether, much as we might long and wish for them to.  To say that they do does, I believe, in fact cheapen the entire idea of forgiveness, because if something can indeed be entirely blotted out, then there is no need for forgiveness, no great import placed on seeking it, and no necessity for reconciliation.  To say our sins can in fact be wiped entirely out is to say that, in the end, reconciliation doesn't matter as much as confession, which has never, ever, been the case in Christianity.

I see it all the time--I've seen former single mothers harshly judge other single moms as morally corrupted, I've seen recovering addicts refer to active addicts in utterly cruel and dehumanizing terms, and for f***'s sake, the child-molesting, adultery-committing Josh Duggar and his family spoke of gay, lesbian, and trans people as sexual predators, never mind that he eventually found himself in more need of forgiveness for his religious hypocrisy than they did.

And so in the case of Kim Davis, she may well be a new person and born again (or "anothen," in the Greek from John 3, where Jesus first uses that term when talking to Nicodemus), but that does not negate the consequences of her previous marriages and divorces, and one of those present consequences is the real and genuine hurt that same-sex couples who are her constituents are feeling at being denied something they have never had but once but that she has partaken of repeatedly.

This is the danger of our faith becoming too individualistic--we are apt to see our own sinfulness and darkness only as it relates to our personal relationships: with God, with our family, and with our immediate friends.  What we tend to be blinded to is our sinfulness and darkness as it connects to our wider relations, to humanity itself.

I speak from personal experience.  I sometimes have a hard time forgiving people, even people close to me, because of how hard it really is sometimes.  But that does not diminish the necessity that I must eventually do it, because my faith, and Kim Davis's faith, demands nothing less of us.

Kim Davis needs to see how her past darkness connects to the neighbors, citizens, and constituents she is refusing to serve.  Her eyes need to be opened, like one of the many blinded people whom Jesus healed, to how the effects of what she has been previously forgiven for are still very much present, and how her unwillingness to forgive and reconcile with people whose relationships she disagrees with is in fact hurting her.

And she needs to do it now, and not just because she is on the brink of being fined or arrested.  She needs to because as Jesus preaches in Luke 6:37, as we forgive others, we are ourselves forgiven, and in Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus goes even further: our own forgiveness from God hinges on our forgiveness of others.  If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us.  Davis seems to think that her personal God experience led to her being forgiven by God, but if she does not forgive her constituents for what she sees as a sin (same-sex relations) and treat them the same as any of her other constituents, then how exactly has she been forgiven?

In other words, her own forgiveness that she so, so treasures may well be at stake.  And I have no doubt that she does indeed see this issue before her as one of monumental spiritual proportions.

But I do not think she does not see it that way for the correct reasons.

Forgive, and you shall be forgiven.  That is the reason all of this matters.  We need forgiveness.  Whether we admit it or not, we crave it and desire it because it is what brings peace to our very souls.  Confession alone is not enough, we must have reconciliation as well, and for that, forgiveness is an absolute necessity.

My hope and prayer for Kim Davis is that she can begin to see how her own forgiveness, and mine, and every Christian's, is inextricably tied up into our forgiveness of others.

And if she is indeed forgiven and chooses to live that forgiveness out, she will do the right and principled thing, which is to either begin issuing marriage licenses to all legally eligible couples, or resign her position as Rowan County Clerk.

Vancouver, Washington
Septcember 2, 2015.

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