Monday, February 29, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

March 2016: "New Life from Old Bricks"

Dear Church,

Many--but not all--years, March is the month of Easter Sunday, marking the Resurrection of the Lord and the promise of new life now that the grave has been well and truly conquered by God's eternal love.  Today, it is a time of egg hunts and brunches, but I also want it to be a time for genuine renewal, rejoicing, and revivification for our church--both our humble parish and the entire, worldwide church.

The promise of Easter is absolutely central to the Christian faith.  Indeed, without it, we likely would have never heard of Jesus of Nazareth to begin with; He would likely have become a bullet point on a long list of Israelites crucified by the Roman Empire and never heard from again.

An increasing worry for many congregations--including, at times in its history, our own--is that they too might go the way of this hypothetical Jesus to the depths of obscurity and death as they face down a host of nationwide cultural factors: declining church attendance, declining giving and declining disposable income, and an overall declining trust or interest in organized religion.  Many of those cultural factors are multipled by us being in the Pacific Northwest, where even fewer people are inclined to show much involvement in a faith community.

However, as you said in your search and call papers that I first read almost five years ago, Jesus is not finished with us yet.  I believe that to be a part of the promise of the Easter Resurrection as well!  If Jesus had been finished with the world, He would never have returned to it.

We all know, however, that was not the case.  Jesus did return to us to further instruct us in how to living faithfully, lovingly, and compassionately with all as we seek to build the kingdom, make disciples, and spread the Good News of the Gospel to others.

Part of this work of living faithfully in accordance to Christ's will is us being responsible with the financial gifts we have been given, just as His original disciples were.  To that end, as you know, the Board of Directors and I have been actively exploring how to best do this in light of the liquid assets remaining in FCC's modest coffers.  We are blessed, however, with an abundance of other riches, and under the Board's supervision, I have initiated contact with multiple real estate brokers in town concerning our education building and how we might better leverage it as an asset, including its potential sale.

Easter Sunday does fall in March this year--on March 27--and leading up to it, on Sundays March 6 and March 20, we will continue after worship the conversations we have initiated during January's Annual General Meeting about the financial security of the congregation and the future in particular of our education building.  I want to stress, as I did at the Annual General Meeting in January, that the education building does not represent the *only* possible option for the church to decide upon, and that decision does indeed rest with all of you.  For any formal course of action to be taken, a congregational vote would be in order, and I will of course make myself available to answer any questions that I am able to during the March 6 and 20 meetings.

I remain faithfully yours as we continue to work together, strive together, and dream together for a greater and more wondrous kingdom of God here on our little, tiny Earth.  I wish you and yours a blessed Easter, and I hope to see you here to celebrate the Resurrection and its promise of new life with us at the end of the month!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, February 28, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Just Enough Fire"

Habakkuk 2:2-14

Then the Lord answered me and said, Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet so that a runner can read it. 3 There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. 4 Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly. 5 Moreover, wine betrays an arrogant man. He doesn’t rest. He opens his jaws like the grave; like death, he is never satisfied. He gathers all nations to himself and collects all peoples for himself. 

6 Won’t everyone tell parables about him or mocking poems concerning him? They will say: Doom to the one who multiplies what doesn’t belong to him and who increases his own burden. How long? 7 Won’t they suddenly rise up to bite you? Those who frighten you will awaken; you will become plunder for them. 8 Since you yourself have plundered many nations, all the rest of the peoples will plunder you because of the human bloodshed and the violence done to the earth, to every village, and to all its inhabitants. 9 Doom to the one making evil gain for his own house, for putting his own nest up high, for delivering himself from the grasp of calamity. 10 You plan shame for your own house, cutting off many peoples and sinning against your own life. 11 A stone will cry out from a village wall, and a tree branch will respond. 12 Pity the one building a city with bloodshed and founding a village with injustice. 13 Look, isn’t this from the Lord of heavenly forces? Peoples grow weary from making just enough fire; nations become tired for nothing. 14 But the land will be full of the knowledge of the Lord’s glory, just as water covers the sea.  (Common English Bible)

“Treading on the Heights: A Lent Alongside Habakkuk,” Week Three

Down in Phoenix, Arizona, something mighty interesting is a-brewin’, but that something has its roots right here in Washington state, just a couple of hours north of us on I-5.

The Trinity Church is a brand-new church plant in Phoenix that is led in part by Mark Driscoll—the same pastor who co-founded the Mars Hill Church in the Seattle area twenty years ago in 1996, grew it to fifteen satellite campuses as its main teaching pastor, and then saw it all come crashing down around him amid numerous accusations of abuses of power, misuses of church monies, shunning of former church members, and a preaching message that denigrated women and GLBTQ Christians.

Driscoll announced his resignation from Mars Hill in the fall of 2014, and less than two months later, Mars Hill announced that it was closing its doors for good.

Now, let it be said that I am all about providing (I hope) relevant and engaging preaching.  But when a church shuts down less than two months after its *only* permanent teaching pastor resigns, you can be reasonably sure that what was being worshiped there was neither God or Christ.

Back in Phoenix, the website of Driscoll’s new church plant states he has taken this past year-plus “to learn, repent, grow, heal, and meet with many people involved” from the pain he left behind at Mars Hill.  And Lord knows we love a good redemption story.  And despite my criticism, that is what would have been great to be able to share with you.  But when one journalist at The Daily Beast reached out to multiple former Mars Hill members and elders, each one who replied “said they hadn’t heard from him since his resignation, and they didn’t know of anyone else among them who had.”

It is incredibly painful to go through spiritual abuse—and I know this from those of you who have gone through life in an extremely strict or fundamentalist church before coming here—and if you can, imagine a God who sees an entire nation full of such abuse, and an unwillingness by those in power to actually repent, heal, and become better leaders of their people.

Only then, I think, can we begin to grasp the true depths of the searing indictment of the people that God hands down to Habakkuk in this second chapter of the prophet’s book.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Lent, which commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan, and the season takes us all the way up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and then Easter Sunday.

Traditionally, Lent is a penitential, even penal season: it is when we are supposed to give something up, but in more orthodox settings, those fasts are much more extensive—daylong entire fasts, or fasting from multiple different foods for the entirety of Lent, not just beer and chocolate.

In that wrestling with penitence and punishment, then, Habakkuk serves as a vivid and sympathetic guide.  We know very little about him personally except that he served as a prophet during the twilight of the kingdom of Judah, after the capable and righteous king Josiah dies in 609 BCE, it is less than twenty-five years to the catastrophic sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, and in between those two events is likely when Habakkuk is prophesying.

Habakkuk, though, is really more conversing with God—arguing with God, really—rather than prophesying to us, which is what makes him such a compelling character, at least, to me.  We began by going through the prophet’s first back-and-forth with God, about the injustice the prophet sees around him and God’s response that the Babylonians are being roused to attack Judah.  Last week, we heard the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he didn’t like it at all.

This week, God replies once more—and it is a reply long enough that we will have to cover it in two weeks, this week and next, and yet again, God shows Habakkuk incredible patience by taking the prophet even deeper into God’s thinking and way of being and seeing humanity.

The trouble is, how God sees humanity at that point in time is negative to say the least—extremely negative.  God basically says to Habakkuk, “Okay, I’m going to tell you this again, and make sure you get it right, every single word of it, so that someone else could read it, because this is important: You.  Are.  The.  Worst.”

It’s hard to know where to begin in this screed: multiplying what doesn’t belong to you (that is, stealing), plundering many nations (again with the stealing), cutting off peoples and founding villages on injustices…all of this makes the people weary, God says, from making just enough fire.

Just enough fire for what?  To keep warm at night or to send all of Jerusalem to the ground in a blaze of looting and sacking that is to come as Nebuchadnezzar II prepares for war against Judah?

Or just enough fire to keep yourself from completely shivering in the cold, but not enough to actually exude the warmth and light that God demands?

Or that the people themselves are the fire, seen as nothing more than kindling to be thrown into the bonfire of altar sacrifices to oneself rather than one's own God?

Making just enough fire is what the church has sentenced itself in many congregations, in many places, to, and we, like God, should have had enough of it a long time ago.

Church was never meant to be a cult, a place where your deep-seated hunger and thirst for faith could or should be taken advantage of.

Church was never meant to be a country club, a place where your want to remain in your comfort zone and hear feel-good messages about chewing with your mouth closed was catered to.

And church, like Jerusalem, was never meant to be a place where people were meant to be content with only making just enough fire to get by, or to be thrown into the fire, no, but to be on fire, to be passionate, to seek God not simply for one hour a week, but as a lifelong journey towards their redemption.

We lose sight of that sometimes, I think.  We forget just how bad the people of, say, Habakkuk’s day, or of a church like Mars Hill may really have had it spiritually, and economically as well.  We have this amnesia that doesn’t want us to remember just how bad we can make things when we really put our minds to it.

Israel, though, was not like us.  The heartbreaking memory of going into exile in Babylon stayed with them for centuries, to the point that Babylon is cited in the New Testament separately by three different authors: Matthew in his recitation of Jesus’s ancestry, by Stephen the martyr in his impassioned defense in Acts 7 by Luke, and most famously by John of Patmos in Revelation.

They did not forget the bad in favor of reaching only for the good.  They remembered it, vividly.

We may need a little of that ourselves, to remember just how bad some of our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones, strangers, and yes, maybe even people sitting here with us, have had a time of it in their lives—not to pity them, oh no, but to respect them rather than to dismiss them.

We need to end our practices that God enumerates to Habakkuk here—our building up our own assets through stealing and plundering, maybe not in the manner of a mugger in an alley, but certainly in the manner of taking advantage of the slave labor and exploitation of others.  We need to stop our all-too-strong willingness to build our cities and our villages on bloodshed and injustice.

That doesn’t sound like us, does it?  None of us killed another person for our lands or our houses.

But that’s not the point.  God knows that most of the Israelites themselves did not build their homes on bloodshed and injustice, because their homes are so threadbare and inadequate that they were more apt to be built in spite of bloodshed and injustice, not because of them.

But that does not mean God wants us to tolerate such pain inflicted on others by the people around us, and the leaders who govern us.  God does not look kindly on those of us who know, in their heart of hearts, just how deep the wounds of the world are and then shrug and say, “Not my job.”

Part of being Christian is giving up the right to draw up your own job description, and to allow God to poke you and prod you in the direction God wants you to go, rather than simply you want to go.

Make no mistake—you can still go the way you want to go.  The leaders of Judah did.

But we far too often make the mistake of assuming that what we want and what God wants is the same thing.  That is the mistake, I reckon, that Mark Driscoll made, again and again at Mars Hill, and that many of us pastors make in different ways, including even me at times.

Truthfully, we all do.  We are not in tune with God’s will 100% of the time; if we were, we would be living in heaven, not on earth.

But that does not mean that we should not try to improve our attention to God’s will in the meanwhile, for we will have made the world, God’s creation and kingdom, a better place for our having done so.

Habakkuk is slowly getting there, to that ultimate conclusion.  May we arrive there with him.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 28, 2016

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Inexhaustible Vulnerability

I turned 30 last month, and I can see the difference age has had on my body--and not just on my bald head, because, as my loved ones and old friends would tell you, that started over a decade ago.

My body takes longer to heal after I injure it on the soccer field.

My muscles stiffen up more quickly when I'm sitting down for long stretches.

And once every few months, I notice a silver hair in my beard that is promptly evicted.

I didn't like turning 30, even though I know that, assuming I live out a normal lifespan, I have far more tomorrows ahead of me than yesterdays.

I think I didn't like it because I, like most young adults, had to come to grips with my own mortality--that I am not invincible, that I cannot simply work and work and work and then sleep when I am dead, and that my mind must consider more things in my life than simply tomorrow's to-do list.

I'm an older, more experienced pastor than I arrived here four and a half years ago,  and my experience makes me a better pastor.  But it also makes me a more tired pastor.

Because ministry necessitates vulnerability.

And vulnerability is exhausting.  It really, truly is.  Because while many things about ministry *have* gotten easier for me as I have gotten older, being vulnerable hasn't.

"It must be so nice to be able to just take a day for yourself to write your sermons."

Yes, but what I am writing are words that I will share publicly, and those words must be words of authenticity, of genuine meaning,

"It must be so strengthening to be to have quiet time for reflection and prayer with God during your office hours."

Yes, but in between visitors, phone calls, emails, preparing lessons and newsletters, and the occasional printer jam, it isn't so much quiet time some days as it is controlled chaos.

"It must be so meaningful to be there for people in the hardest moments of their lives."

Yes, it absolutely is, and it's incredibly rewarding in its own way.  But behind those moments is the sleep I lose over my people, the emotional anguish I feel for them in their pangs of loss and sorrow, and the need I feel to help them in ways beyond *only* praying for them.

From the outside, before seminary, I saw so very little of any of that.  I confess there was a part of me who wanted to be the passionate preacher and engaging teacher--and indeed, those are among my gifts in this ministry--but I had no idea just how prone, how exposed, doing that week in and week out makes a person.  I really didn't.

While that may sound like regret, though, it is anything but.  Vulnerability is what makes this vocation rewarding.  It is what makes my line of work worth doing.  The minute I stop being vulnerable is the minute I need to start studying for the LSAT's instead of for next week's sermon.  I take so much more meaning in my vulnerability than I used to, and for that, I will remain forever in my profession's debt.

I just confess I did not know how much its perpetual state can take out of you.  And that I took for granted my own youth in sustaining it.

Fortunately, I have mentors, I have colleagues, who have been in ministry for decades and who truly do embody this inexhaustible vulnerability, this ability to be oneself before dozens, hundreds, of people a week for decades on end and still wake up the next morning wanting nothing more than to do it all over again.  I cannot say how important it has been for me to have these role models in my life.

But not all of us do.  Not all of us have a Paul to our Timothy, a Deborah to our Barak, or an Anna to our Mary and our Joseph.

For the church to have a future with its newest clergy, pastors like me who have been in professional ministry for under a decade, that has to change, and keep changing.

We have inherited a church that largely still doesn't know what to do with us.  And that's fine, we never said we were easy to deal with.  We are a fierce, opinionated, plugged-in people.

But we need to keep inheriting and balancing that tradition of vulnerability, lest we get swept away by it and burned out.

I'm a little bit older now, and a lot wiser, since I started this work.  And I hope and pray that I will continue to be able to be so vulnerable and so raw, so true to my people, for many more years in ministry to come, that even if the rest of me tires out, that this holy and sacred vulnerability upon which my ministry--and yours--is built will indeed remain inexhaustible.

Longview, Washington
February 25, 2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

My Dogs Write Again

The two dogs C and I share our home with have been known to write to me on occasion.  Below is their latest missive.  ~E.A.

Dear live-in butler,

We know you don't think we follow your human "news."

But we do.

When one has invested as heavily in commodities...and understand, by "commodities," we mean "chew toys" as we have, you'll understand why we prefer to read the newspaper instead of peeing on it.

And reading the newspaper...holy batdog, you guys are acting wackier than we do when the garbage man shows up (you're welcome, by the way, for our protection of you from his clearly nefarious purposes).

When did that human bully stick all of the sudden become the frontrunner for president? (Yes, "frontrunner" is a big word for us.  Be proud.)  And why?

We've learned a lot ever since you trained us to "sit," "stay," and "don't eat that!"  So, we want to know if you'd be open to learning a few commands yourselves.

If you successfully obey "Love other people," you get a biscuit.

If you can successfully pull of "Even if they're Muslim/Hispanic/African-American/Jewish/not WASP," you'll get another biscuit.

And if you can successfully come when called out of the voting booth before voting for the human bully stick with onion cotton candy for fur, you'll get yet another biscuit.

Understand, of course, that you'll have to give yourselves the biscuits.  We lack the height and the opposable thumbs.

But we want to share those treats with you for being good.

Really, it is the least we can do.  You let us into your house--and stay there--even though we (mostly Henry) puke on everything, we (mostly Henry) hump every blankie, and we (okay, mostly Frida) steal all of your socks.

And yet, I hear you people want to keep other people out of your home, your country, because you somehow think they'll do what we do--either ruin or steal your stuff.

The funny thing is, the vast majority of them don't do any of that.

We do.

And you love us.

So why don't you love them as well?

These are people we are talking about after all.  People and families and households.  Just like us.

Maybe it's because we don't see as many colors as you do, but we just don't get you and your obsession for people who don't look like you.  Really, you should be much more concerned with people whose butts smell differently than yours, but apparently, that's just not how your unevolved species does things.  Your loss.

But trust us when we say you just cannot let yourselves see each other negatively over how differently you look or dress or talk.  Heck, we talk differently from each other, yet the only words you seem to be able to come up with to represent our equally dignified dialects are "ruff," "woof," and "bow wow."  That last one doesn't even sound like either of us, and frankly, we find that offensive.

But that's a bone to pick for another time.  Preferably after you've given us a couple of bones for us to pick.

For now, we'll settle for you loving each other the way you love us before we get to postcolonial canine communication or somesuch.  After all, as you certainly learned when you tried to teach us to come when called (lol), training takes time.

So take the time this year to ask if it is really worth it to so clearly and unequivocally (another big word for us!) communicate with your presidential vote how unloving you can be.  Not to us--we're just dogs.  But to each other.

Because even though we clearly matter most, you matter too.  Or so we believe.

Now if you'll excuse us, we've got an urgent appointment to keep with a certain sunbeam while you gently scratch our tummies and tell us how cute we are.

Dame Frida Koala and Sir Henry Wiggly

Dame Frida Koala (the fluffy white one) and Sir Henry Wiggly (the perked-up brown-and-white one) are the bestest dogs in the whole world.  Their dad would like to emphasize that even before their strong words to him in this letter, he never had any intention, ever, of voting for one Donald J. Trump.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "My God, My Holy One"

Habakkuk 1:12-2:1

Lord, aren’t you ancient, my God, my holy one? Don’t let us die. Lord, you put the Chaldean here for judgment. Rock, you established him as a rebuke. 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you are unable to look at disaster. Why would you look at the treacherous or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? 14 You made humans like the fish of the sea, like creeping things with no one to rule over them. 15 The Chaldean brings all of them up with a fishhook. He drags them away with a net; he collects them in his fishing net, then he rejoices and celebrates. 16 Therefore, he sacrifices to his net; he burns incense to his fishing nets, because due to them his portion grows fat and his food becomes luxurious. 17 Should he continue to empty his net and continue to slay nations without sparing them? I will take my post; I will position myself on the fortress. I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me and how he will respond to my complaint. (Common English Bible)

“Treading on the Heights: A Lent Alongside Habakkuk,” Week Two

The words that spilled out of the protester’s mouth could not have been more strident—or prejudiced: “If you’re Muslim, we can’t be friends.  My Bible says that.”

And, of course, the Bible doesn’t say that.  In fact the Gospels are unanimous in attesting to Jesus’s tendency to fraternize with all manner of people regardless of who they were.  But that has fallen by the wayside, sadly, for many Christians and their pastors and leaders, who for the past several months have been filling their flocks’ ears with the poison that Muslims belong to a death cult, or that the Qur’an is evil and deserves to be burned.

This sort of a fever pitch has hit a new furor over the past several months ever since the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, resulting in the angry protests of a number of Islamic mosques and centers, including one in Columbus, Ohio, where this protester, only known by the name Annie, said those words about the Bible prohibiting friendship with Muslims.

But, as the Washington Post wrote, a funny thing happened: another person engaged her in a dialogue, and several members of the center told her that they, too, condemned Sharia law, and that they’d collaborate with her to protest state-sanctioned violence in the Middle East.

Handshakes, hugs, and invitations to breakfast ensued.  Annie even agreed to come inside the center to be welcomed by its other members.  All within the span of an hour.

Imagine what the Holy Spirit can do to reverse your perspective when you wait on it for far longer than a single hour—when you, say, wait upon it for an entire lifetime.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Lent, which commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan, and the season takes us all the way up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and then Easter Sunday.

Traditionally, Lent is a penitential, even penal season: it is when we are supposed to give something up, but in more orthodox settings, those fasts are much more extensive—daylong entire fasts, or fasting from multiple different foods for the entirety of Lent, not just beer and chocolate.

In that wrestling with penitence and punishment, then, Habakkuk serves as a vivid and sympathetic guide.  We know very little about him personally except that he served as a prophet during the twilight of the kingdom of Judah, after the capable and righteous king Josiah dies in 609 BCE, it is less than twenty-five years to the catastrophic sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, and in between those two events is likely when Habakkuk is prophesying.

Habakkuk, though, is really more conversing with God—arguing with God, really—rather than prophesying to us, which is what makes him such a compelling character, at least, to me.  We began last week by going through the prophet’s first back-and-forth with God, about the injustice the prophet sees around him and God’s response that the Babylonians are being roused to attack Judah.  Today, we hear the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he doesn’t like it at all.

And I mean, wouldn’t you not like it one bit either?  You outline your concerns—your fears, really—to God, and God replies with, “Yeah, I’m basically hitting the big red button, even though it is so out of character of me that you wouldn’t believe it if anyone else had told you.”

No wonder Habakkuk is striving to such lengths to outline to God just how truly horrific a people the Babylonians are.  The irony in this, of course, is that it isn’t like God needs to be told exactly how harmful the Babylonians will be to Jerusalem: that was the whole point of God’s first response to Habakkuk last week.

But what you see peeking out from amid Habakkuk’s horror at his home, his country’s impending doom is at least a modicum of faith, when he ends this particular passage by saying to God, but probably also to himself, “I will take my post, I will position myself on the fortress.  I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me and how he will respond to my complaint.”

Habakkuk leaves open the possibility that the Lord might change Habakkuk’s mind—not necessarily about the Babylonians, but about the ultimate fate of his neighbors, his people.

How we see the other in our lives says a lot about how we see ourselves.  The Babylonians were a brutal empire, but no more so than the Assyrians who came before them, or the Philistines before the Assyrians, or the Egyptians before the Philistines.  In terms of how brutally the Babylonians treated their conquered peoples, they were, sadly, pretty much in line with other ancient empires.

I would like to think that we have evolved since then—evolved enough to recognize exactly who is our enemy and who is not, and that we are called to radically love our enemies, because as Christ says, if we only love those who love us, what credit is that to us?

The issue at hand for Habakkuk, then, versus, say, this woman today named Annie faced with a group of caring, loving Muslims, is that the Babylonians were not a lovable people.  He sees a genuine existential threat from their presence, whereas we today see fake threats, fueled by our own prejudices and bigotries.

Even God agrees with Habakkuk that the Babylonians are a dreadful people.  So it is hard for me to begrudge Habakkuk altogether that much for his clearly devastating fear of them.

But I must.  If I am honest, I really must.

And truthfully, that isn’t the direction I thought the Spirit would take me in the planning and writing of this sermon.  It really isn’t.  Which, of course, stands to reason—the Spirit works in us in ways unseen and unknown to us, and I didn’t think I would come to this conclusion.

Yet even knowing what I know about what the Babylonians will do to Jerusalem—sack it, take the educated and learned ones into exile and leave everyone else to rot in the ruins that remain—I think Habakkuk’s fear should not be total.

Fortunately for us, and for him, I do not think that it is.

Look at how he ends: “I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me, and how he will respond.”

That’s not fear.  That’s faith.

More to the point, faith is not the absence of fear, faith is reaching for the higher, better, deeper plane of meaning in spite of the fear.

Habakkuk, at the beginning of his book, was all fear and trepidation, plaintively crying out to God in the midst of pain, injustice, and violence.

But now, we begin to see the seeds of the prophet’s faith sown and re-sown again.

In a world of leaders and people clamoring for power who would prey on our fears—and I don’t have to tell you their names, you know who they are, they are in the news almost every day—the way we can inoculate ourselves against their demagoguery and their hate, against their pandering to our lowest common denominators and basest instincts, is to reach for our faith and be able to say, loudly, and with one mighty voice, “I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me!”

Instead of reaching only for fear, reach for just enough faith to remain steadfast and wait on the Lord and on the Lord’s word.

Instead of reaching for prejudice, reach for just enough faith to await what the Lord’s reply to you will be.

And instead of reaching for that which is put in your heart by evil, reach for what has been put in your heart by God.

Jesus was put in front of evil, in front of temptation, by Satan in the wilderness, but instead of reaching out for it, He reaches out for what has been put in His heard by God.

Habakkuk does not remain enslaved to his fears over the Babylonians.  He is resolved to wait for the Lord to appear to him again.

And his resolve is indeed rewarded, for God has never truly left us completely bereft, alone, and abandoned…even when, on the surface, such might seem the case.

God will not simply let you be to fend for yourself against the Babylonians rising forth in the distance.

God, as Habakkuk says, is too ancient for that.  God is too holy for that. 

And what we might say today is, God is too great for that.   God’s love for you is too great for that.

What a wonderful truth that is to live your lives in.

Thanks be to my God, my holy one.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 21, 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016

Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham are Wrong--Again--on Donald Trump

Earlier this week--you may have seen this story on the telly, because it caused a wee bit of a stir--Pope Francis pretty strongly condemned Donald Trump's proposed wall-building plan, saying, "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel."

(It should be noted that Francis also said in that same salvo that he wasn't saying this as a means of telling American Catholics how to vote.)

The Donald hit back, calling Francis's comments "disgraceful" as a questioning of a person's faith, which on its face, is mighty rich, as Trump has made his political name off of questioning Barack Obama's identity, including Obama's own Christian faith.

Yet Trump is a proud hypocrite, we all know this.  Calling him to account doesn't really do much good in the way of public admission or truth-telling, it just causes him to double down on his ridiculousness.

But it is this phenomenon of the Christian right calling foul over having the faith of one of their own questioned that I believe *must* be talked about right now, because it isn't just Trump complaining about the Pope's comments now, it's Christians with inherited heavyweight names like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham, who has openly questioned Obama's Christianity just like Trump, but for Trump, he seems to prefer that bridges should be built rather than questions of faith raised.

Now first, as an aside, I have to note the chutzpah with which Falwell Jr. cited John F. Kennedy as a pioneer in becoming the first Roman Catholic to be elected president when Falwell Jr.'s own father, Jerry Falwell, notably used peoples' prejudices to bait them into bigoted ways of viewing other people, including women, gays and lesbians, and pagans.  And Jerry Falwell Jr. is the same guy who rhapsodized about being able to shoot up "those Muslims" as a point in favor of concealed-carry gun laws.

Second, if you watch the video of Falwell, Jr., his own Biblical exegesis is total bunk.  He once again completely misuses the "render unto Caesar" quote of Jesus, something I already thoroughly dissected here previously, but this time he is saying that quote means "choose the best president."

I don't even know where to begin with that.  There were no presidents in Roman-occupied Israel, because there were no elections, there was a monarchical emperor.  How does Falwell Jr., the chancellor of perhaps the most visible American Christian university at present, get off saying that?  (And because he is being questioned by a journalist, not a theologian, he gets away with his awful exegesis.)

That CNN video is actually painful to watch, because when you see Falwell get asked how he reconciles Trump's wallbuilding beliefs with the Gospel, Falwell is stumped--he just doesn't say anything for several long seconds, before going right back into his previous spiel about how wrong it was for the Pope to tell people to vote for a Christian.

Except that isn't what Francis did--he explicitly said, this isn't about telling anyone how to vote.

And Falwell Jr. ended by quoting a verse that is, again, particularly rich coming from him and his Islamophobic self: "Judge not, lest ye be judged." (Luke 6:37)

So what is this tantrum really about?  Honestly, I think it's about how the Christian right is reacting to having the faith of one of their own called out.

To which I simply say...welcome to the club.

I have lost track of how many times my own Christianity has been called into question by commenters, Twitter trolls, and even other ministers because of any number of issues: my wrestling with the morality of abortion rather than being wholesale pro-life, my endorsement of marriage equality and equal rights for GLBTQ citizens, my refusal to label the Bible as inerrant or infallible when it plainly is's remarkable.

So to the soldiers of Christ, the Falwells and the Franklin Grahams, who love to show bluster and bigotry one moment and then cry like they stubbed their toe the next, I simply say: welcome to my world.  Suck it up and stop acting like such a special snowflake.

You are public theologians, like me, but with a far, far bigger platform, and you have gotten away with abusing your platform for many, many years.  Now, finally, one of the few public theologians with an even bigger audience than you has called out one of your own for espousing un-Christian prejudices.

What will you do?  I know you're big on accountability, and that the Bible says that friends hold one another to account.

But I suspect that isn't what you have done with Trump, nor is it what you are interested in doing with Trump.

However, I hope and pray that it will be.  Because while you may act aggrieved over your buddy's hurt feelies, millions of people live in fear of what your friend might do to them as president--stripping away what has become their homes, their livelihoods, splitting them from their families, ripping apart their entire lives.

Take it from someone whose own family immigrated here illegally a century ago: those fears are well-founded.  Trump's attitudes are a century out of date and then some.

And if you don't start taking their fears seriously, and ministering to them in a genuinely Christ-like way rather than continuing to dissemble for your blowhard of a presidential pal, I in turn fear that you will only continue to do a disservice to the Gospel that Francis speaks of, the Gospel that you and I alike are sworn to teach, the Gospel which can save us all.

I'll be watching.

Vancouver, Washington
February 19, 2016

Image of Pope Francis courtesy of Wikipedia

Thursday, February 18, 2016

How Do You Spell God? A Devout Reflection in Memory of Monsignor Thomas Hartman

My aunt Florence died in 2004, just a few months before I graduated from high school.  I remember visiting her in the years preceding it and seeing her frailer than before.  I remember watching my cousin sing Amazing Grace at her funeral and weeping.  And I remember the most amazing material gift she ever gave me: a book entitled "How Do You Spell God" for my baptism when I was in elementary school.

The book, foreworded by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is an introduction to the different major religions of the world, from the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the Eastern faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and more.

Co-written by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, it represents an eminently fair-minded treatment of the world's religions without weighting its words too heavily in favor of either of the authors' own religions of Judaism and Roman Catholic Christianity, respectively.

And this week, the latter half of that writing team, Msgr. Hartman, died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

I have taken to heart greatly the posts and words and feedback of a number of my congregants who really embraced the challenge of my previous sermon series, "A Mount Rushmore of My Soul," to try and determine who has really impacted and influenced their faith the most for the better.  And even though I did not publicly include Hartman (or Gellman) in my own list, the notice of his death made me pick up my old copy of "How Do You Spell God" from my office shelf, worn and dog-eared, as I have carried it with me to each new place that I have lived since growing into adulthood.

The mere fact that I have done so when I have left so many other books and other material goods behind in each of my moves ought to speak for itself, but I cannot allow it to, because I feel compelled to share just how much it meant to have someone else write a spiritual book that felt like it was written entirely for me.

Does that sound selfish of me?  Possibly, and probably even more so as an adult.  But as a boy, a boy alienated from the more conservative Christianity that surrounded him in Kansas but who harbored deep existential questions about my relationship with God and with the church, it meant the world to me to be given a book that taught me what my religion says and has said compared to the other religions that have often tried to answer those exact same questions.

I needed to be taught by someone who was interested in teaching me more about faith itself, and religion itself, rather than only about my faith, or my religion.  In Hartman's words, I found some of my earliest reassurances that such teaching did in fact exist, and was both interesting and illuminating to behold.  I have no doubt that it made me a better follower of Jesus and, today, a better pastor.

I fear that as Christians, we often get too caught up in trying to protect our children from outside--and potentially unwelcome--influences by sheltering them, by binding them up in their own little spiritual bubbles.  And to be sure, some such treatment is clearly warranted when considering just how gratuitous the violence and how exploitative the sexiness that now exists in certain media, whether in the internet, video games, magazines, take your pick.

But no matter how well-intentioned, I fear that this bubble-wrap spirituality does more harm than good when it comes to exposing our children to the teachings of other religions.  In truth, even if we do not feel adventurous at all, or wonder whether there is a more complete or truer faith for us out there, we owe it to ourselves to know what our neighbors on this earth profess, so far as we are able to.

And for some of us, there does indeed come a time when we outgrow the faith of our childhoods and need, for the sake of the curiosity in our souls, to seek another religious identity.  Jessica, one of my good friends from college, was raised, like me, as a mainline Christian, but during college realized that her faith as it then existed no longer answered for her the questions she needed answered.  She converted to Judaism--twice, actually, because she converted again to Orthodox Judaism, which she currently happily practices while pursuing her graduate studies.

As a basket-to-casket Christian, I do not claim to be able to understand it.  But I honor it, and I cherish it, because I want to see my friend spiritually fulfilled and enriched.  I see the difference in how richly Jessica's faith shapes her life now compared to before.  And, indeed, how it has richly shaped mine by being able to have someone in my life with her faith story and experience.

If I am honest, my knowledge that I should harbor this belief was sown, and nurtured by, Hartman and Gellman's treatment of faiths not their own in this book they coauthored.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding of religion--and religions--in this world that often leads people to assume images of those who believe differently than they that are more like caricatures than like actual living, breathing people.  Were more of us to sit up and pay attention to the words of a teacher like Hartman, who was honest in this book not only about the qualities of other faiths but about some of the past sins of his own, I have to believe that we would all be living in a better world today.

Thank you, Msgr. Hartman, for helping make for those of us who came after you that better world.

Longview, Washington
February 18, 2016

Sunday, February 14, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Rousing the Chaldeans"

Habakkuk 1:1-11

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2 Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us. 3 Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 The Instruction is ineffective. Justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous. Justice becomes warped.

5 Look among the nations and watch! Be astonished and stare because something is happening in your days that you wouldn’t believe even if told. 6 I am about to rouse the Chaldeans, that bitter and impetuous nation, which travels throughout the earth to possess dwelling places it does not own. 7 The Chaldean is dreadful and fearful. He makes his own justice and dignity. 8 His horses are faster than leopards; they are quicker than wolves of the evening. His horsemen charge forward; his horsemen come from far away. They fly in to devour, swiftly, like an eagle. 9 They come for violence, the horde with all their faces set toward the desert. He takes captives like sand. 10 He makes fun of kings; rulers are ridiculous to him. He laughs at every fortress, then he piles up dirt and takes it. 11 He passes through like the wind and invades; but he will be held guilty, the one whose strength is his god.  (Common English Bible)

“Treading on the Heights: A Lent Alongside Habakkuk,” Week One

The year is 452—I know some of y’all think you were around back then, but I promise you that you weren’t—and the barbarian warlord Attila the Hun has just invaded Italy despite being defeated soundly by the Western Roman Empire under Flavius Aetius the previous year, 451, at the battle of the Catalaunian Fields.

A man named Leo is the Pope—he would become Leo I after a subsequent pope also named Leo—and when news came to Rome that Attila had sacked the northern Italian city of Aquileia, the Western Roman Emperor dispatched Leo along with two other emissaries to extract peace from the bloodthirsty Hunnic leader.

The Western Roman Empire was by this point a mere shell, a husk, of its former glory under the Caesars, and under the Republic before the Caesars.  This was a Rome that had been thoroughly rotted, but one that for Leo was still very much worth saving, and incredibly, save it he did, through his parlay with Attila.

To this day, nobody knows what Leo said to the Hunnic king that caused Attila to turn back to the Danube River from whence he came, but Leo’s great act of heroism through his diplomacy earned him the moniker Leo the Great.

Rome, though, was spared only three more short years, because in 455, it would finally be sacked by another tribe of barbarians, the Vandals, and imagine putting yourself in Leo’s proverbial shoes: you had gone to such great lengths to save the Eternal City, your city, only to see it fall just a few short years later in spite of you.

That is the sort of demoralization, sheer unadulterated demoralization, that we find the prophet Habakkuk in as we begin his book, and a new series, here today, and God seeks to address it.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Lent, which commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan, and the season takes us all the way up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and then Easter Sunday.

Traditionally, Lent is a penitential, even penal season: it is when we are supposed to give something up, but in more orthodox settings, those fasts are much more extensive—daylong entire fasts, or fasting from multiple different foods for the entirety of Lent, not just beer and chocolate.

In that wrestling with penitence and punishment, then, Habakkuk serves as a vivid and sympathetic guide.  We know very little about him personally except that he served as a prophet during the twilight of the kingdom of Judah, after the capable and righteous king Josiah dies in 609 BCE, it is less than twenty-five years to the catastrophic sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, and in between those two events is likely when Habakkuk is prophesying.

Habakkuk, though, is really more conversing with God—arguing with God, really—rather than prophesying to us, which is what makes him such a compelling character, at least, to me.

The book of Habakkuk opens with the prophet’s plaintive plea to God, “Lord, how long will I call for help and you will not listen?  I cry out to you “Violence!” but you do not deliver us.  Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me?”

Habakkuk launches from there into a descriptive take on all of the profound ills that surround him, but his point-blank questioning of God is really quite amazing, that a prophet would do that, and that the compilers of Scripture would actually want to include that in the final form of the Bible.

The prophet is being honest—brutally so—with God about his own absence of faith in God’s providence, because it feels as though God isn’t upholding God’s end of the bargain in the covenant that was made with the Israelite people stretching all the way back to Moses and still further to Abraham.  If the Israelites are God’s people, then why is God allowing so much ruin to be heaped upon them?  Why isn’t God doing anything to stop it?

What God says to Habakkuk is hardly reassuring—far from not doing anything to prevent it, God is in fact actively sparking it.  God is rousing the Chaldeans, Scripture says—the Chaldeans being another term for the Babylonians—to attack Israel, and God’s doing so is so dramatically out of character, God says, that we wouldn’t believe it even if we were told it was going to happen.

So really, it isn’t just that this book is out of character for the Bible in questioning God, it’s that God is out of character for God by doing what is about to take place—rousing the Babylonians to invade.

In that respect, Habakkuk probably feels an awful lot like Leo I—a religious leader, called by God to teach to and preserve the people, and who has already done so at great length, but who sees his beloved yet decayed, dessicated, and depraved kingdom rapidly falling into the hands of a people so brutal, so beyond the pale, that words could scarcely do justice to the sheer harm they would bring.

And what makes this even more unnerving is that God completely cops to that as well: “the Chaldeans, that bitter and impetuous nation, which travels throughout the earth to possess dwelling places it does not own.”

The Babylonians are an unjust people, and delivering the Israelites into their bloodstained hands is how God responds to Habakkuk’s initial complaint.  It’s Leo, Flavius Aetius, and the Western Roman Empire, except it’s all taking place about a thousand years beforehand: an empire has forgotten the people whose welfare it is meant to guard, and as a result, it rots, it corrupts, and eventually, it falls to a people even more brutal and ruthless than they.

It isn’t justice, no, not in the way that we would think of it.  But it is the end consequence of the root cause of the many sins that were eating away at Jerusalem from the inside: greed, selfishness, pride, and above all else, an abandonment of the way of walking humbly with God.

In the face of such decline, God does the unthinkable because Israel and Judah have done the unthinkable, and have spent most of the past 400 years or so under the kings continuing to do the unthinkable.  It is not a moment of pique from God, it is not as though God suddenly switched into punishment mode like a parent who has just caught their kid crayoning all over the walls.

No, God has shown Israel and Judah almost infinite patience for hundreds of years.

It is the sort of patience that you or I have scarcely the capacity to imagine.

And so God’s anger in this passage, when put into chronological context, feels a lot less like anger and a lot more like desperation, a lot less like that parent of the crayoning kid and a lot more like the parent of the kid who has just gotten arrested yet again and is quite simply at the end of their rope.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the trite axiom goes, but there is a modicum of truth to it despite the triteness, and this is why.  God knows just how morally bankrupt the Babylonians are—so does Habakkuk, in fact, because his rejoinder to God, which we will get to next week, is, basically, “why are you using an even more evil people to punish us?”

It’s like the fall of the Roman Empire, but writ a millennium earlier: why let Rome fall to an even more depraved and horrific people?  Because that is the only route left open for change after four hundred-plus years of ignoring the people in favor of caring only about the throne.

Yet a man like Leo I can move heaven and earth for his people, but he is, in the end, simply a man.

Habakkuk could long to protect his people as well, the way he wishes his king would, but he too is simply one person.

It is a terrible feeling, to feel so helpless as a person; it’s that same feeling of helplessness that you may have (or probably have) felt as a friend or loved one of someone who has descended down the same path of self-destructiveness that the kings of Israel and Judah have, of alienating themselves from their people and their God through their pride and greed and selfishness and short-sightedness.

It’s incredibly painful to see that happen to a person, as a person.

Now imagine feeling that helpless as God, as the God of a people you have watched over and protected and loved for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Only then can we possibly begin to grasp why the Chaldeans have finally been roused.

But even then, it is not Babylon who will have the final word, no.

In the face of our sins and our depravities, our selfishness and violence upon each other, we can never be the ones trusted with the final word.

That right, that tremendous power, will forever reside with God.

And long may it be where that word resides.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 14, 2016

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ash Wednesday 2016 Sermon: "Wilderness"

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.” 5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday 2016

I have used this story at the beginning of my Ash Wednesday sermons every year here at FCC (so far, at least—five Ash Wednesdays and counting…maybe we should be doing a punch card of some sort).  Because this story is such a good one for setting the right balance in mood and tenor for this type of a worship service, I simply cannot ever pass up a repeat telling of it each Ash Wednesday--even though, let's be honest, all of us have had to sit through a sermon where you were thinking, "this pastor is just recycling an old sermon from long ago," right?

Sorry about that.

The Reverend Lillian Daniel, a pastor in the United Church of Christ denomination, wrote, in a book about parish ministry that she co-authored, this particular vignette about her experience serving a parish near her divinity school as a pastoral intern during her seminary education.  She writes, in part:

I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon.  It was to be a mighty word from God that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others.  As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah, our new intern is preaching.  I see it’s time for our annual scolding.”  Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few “annual scoldings.”

Now, you lot have no seminary intern here to deliver unto us our annual scoldings—you are stuck with me!  (Oh dear.)  And it would be all too easy to dismiss Ash Wednesday as the day when the parish pastor administers said annual scolding, but it would be exactly that: easy.  Much too easy.

It’s easy because in preaching, much like in life, it is quite easier to define yourself, to set yourself up, by what you are against rather than what it is you are for.  How do you think we should solve the national debt?  I don’t know, but I know I don’t like any of the plans the 535 members of Congress have come up with!

That’s the sort of logic that I fear does take a hold of Christianity far too much—we define ourselves by what we are against, be it refugees, be it same-sex marriage, be it scientific consensus, and we just sort of lump it altogether as what we are against, then chomp on that bit far more vociferously (at least in public) than we do over what we are for, which is, quite simply, Jesus Christ.

It is tempting, mightily tempting, to define ourselves by what we are against, though, because it appears at first glance as though that is in fact what Jesus is likewise doing here in Luke 4, during His fasting sojourn in the wilderness: Satan, the adversary, has appeared, and is tempting Jesus with sustenance, political power, and the like, and Jesus of course opposes Satan.

But this is more than just a story of opposition, so much more.  Jesus isn’t opposing Satan from a position of strength; on the contrary, He is doing so from a position of profound weakness—not just physical weakness, but almost surely emotional and mental weakness as well.  The guy has just spent 40 days and nights in solitary, how strong do you think a person’s safeguards would be?

In other words, it is one thing to oppose temptation when you are safe and secure on your own home ground, it is entirely another thing to oppose such temptation when you are adrift deep in the heart of the wilderness.

The wilderness is not simply the place we go after spending a ton of money on tents and equipment so that we can live without the house that we also spent a ton of money on, no, the wilderness is that place where, like the Jesus that Bonhoeffer speaks of, we too are utterly alone and forsaken.

Put simply: the wilderness is a spiritual place, not just a physical place, and in that spiritual wilderness we too must wrestle, struggle, come to grips with our own temptations, our own proclivities to sin, our own attraction towards evil, that are present in each and every one of us.

The whole problem with this passage, though, at least for me, is that Jesus makes it all look and sound so…well, easy.  Satan quotes Scripture to Jesus, and Jesus quotes it right back.  Satan switches up temptations, moving from food to power, and Jesus demurs just as easily no matter which carrot is currently being dangled in front of Him.

I envy that.  I covet that.  It may be “holy envy” (whatever that is), but it is envy nonetheless.  I envy being able to resist my temptations as easily as Jesus seemingly resists His.

Because in truth, His temptations are some of mine.  I’m a big eater, always have been.  Resisting junk food, or food that was made unethically, is a serious practice for me.  And power?  I will forever strive towards being modest—I can out-humble anyone here, just try me—but we pastors are often always yearning to be able to reach and have influence over even more people, and I confess that I am no different than my colleagues in that regard.

The irony in all of this is that the wilderness can be a dangerous place to be, but getting out to safety can be one of the bravest things any person may do.  We so very rarely confess and own up to our own Satans, our own demons, when they are placed right in front of us.  We are far more apt to dissemble, hide, minimize, or sweep under the rug the true scope and scale of evil’s power over us.

Ash Wednesday is a time for us to admit the truth of our reality, that we ought not try to ignore or brush aside just how present evil is in our lives, but to confess and admit the hold that it has over us.  In a world in which each person simultaneously strives to choose between good and evil, it should not be so shameful for us to confess and admit that we too have to work to make that selfsame choice, because every single person is in that same boat that we are.

Every other person is in the wilderness, waiting to be called out of it.

And in order to be called away from the forsakenness of the wilderness, it is a small price to pay to be accurately termed a sinner if it gives you the direction to navigate your way back into God’s arms.

I know that term “sinner” has so much baggage from how it has been used to label people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, by, ironically, sinners for millennia.

But in its lowness, may we also find liberation.  In its foulness, may we also find freedom.  And in its baggage, may we reclaim a once-hateful word to have it apply to ourselves, to be able to say freely that we are not without sin, that we are still in need of grace, that we are still in need of redemption.

Jesus, and His brother James, say repeatedly that those who are brought low are the ones who will one day be exalted.

May we bring ourselves low so that we too may find our way out of the wilderness to which we have been consigned, the wilderness in which we all to some extent live, the wilderness to which we ultimately do not belong.

It will not be easy, no.  But the world will not end, the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for having done so.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 10, 2016

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

In Defense of a Professional, Full-Time Clergy

My wife and I have to shell out a lot of money to pay off student loans, because in breaking news that should surprise absolutely nobody: medical school is really, really expensive.  I won't give you the precise dollar figure of our monthly payments, but I will say that it is by far the biggest line item in our monthly budget, more than rent or car payments or groceries.  Even though we are a two-income household, we live rather modestly.

On a similar sort of scale, I have friends and colleagues who took on student loans for seminary that are, relative to their salary, quite massive.  Tuition at a name-brand divinity school like the University of Chicago currently costs $10,524 per quarter for M.Div. students--which computes to $31,572 per year and $94,716 total if you complete the degree in the expected three years for full-time students.

$94,716.  For a job whose median annual salary (as of May 2014) is a hair under $44,000.

Now, I realize: not every seminary is as expensive as Chiago (mine wasn't).  And many students do receive extensive financial aid from their seminaries (I did).  But especially as far as the latter is concerned, I *know* that I am one of the lucky ones.

Because really, for as long as seminaries and divinity schools continue to be a part of the higher education tuition bubble (which has to burst at sometime, because there is just no way something that grows 400% in cost over just a couple of decades can remain sustainable), one of two things will eventually happen: either a seminary education will become cost-prohibitive, or, churches are going to have to start paying their pastors more in order to justify the outlay of capital to afford a seminary education to begin with.

The implications of the first are almost too dire to contemplate.  I rag on seminary education a lot, but the truth is, without it, the church would be the crew of a ship up the creek without a paddle. Seminary doesn't just teach the academic heavy lifting of Biblical exegesis, esoteric theology, and history-that-nobody-cares-about-but-your-professor, it also teaches ethics, emergency pastoral care and counseling, and other such skills that can legitimately be the difference between uplifting someone emotionally or spiritually and destroying them.

The second possibility, though, is just as difficult as the first one is dire.  Congregations, regions, denominations--across the board, churches in America are not just spilling red ink, they are hemorrhaging it.  So the argument goes, why should Christians go to seminary to become pastors when the congregations that will employ them after they graduate cannot afford to pay them in such a way as to make the education they received in order to have the job be worthwhile?

In the face of these realities, lots of talking heads have said, "Well, the new future for clergy is to be bivocational," essentially, to do ministry part time and something else part time.  Or, to split one's time ministering between two churches.  While such a system might work in a more socialist country where access to the health care system isn't predicated on having insurance through one's employer, we are light years away from bivocational ministry being a viable alternative to honor the monetary sacrifice of the practitioners of a vocation that is already physically and mentally unhealthy enough as it is.

Moreover, and I quote a colleague of mine (who shall remain nameless) when they got moved to part time by their congregation: "There's no such thing as part time ministry, only part time wages."  Part of parish ministry is a bit like being on a retainer--you're retained to be able to respond 24/7 to crises and emergencies that require a pastoral presence.  That part of your job description becomes exponentially more difficult if you cannot respond because you're out of town on account of your other job that actually pays the bills.

Doing pastoral ministry in one's free time is likewise difficult to imagine doing.  If I tried to shoehorn my sermon preparation and writing, my administrative work, and my pastoral care into my evenings and days off, my wife and I would never see each other.  Coming back with these sorts of expectations is especially unhelpful to younger clergy who are wanting to start families or who have kids at home as much as it is unhelpful to older clergy who may have grandchildren they want to visit or are responsible for sometimes babysitting.

Meanwhile, consolidation or merging isn't always an option, especially for more rural parishes like mine, and even then, congregations are still facing the immediate consequence of likely having to lay off at least some employees (after all, one church usually doesn't need two receptionists).

Which is why congregations--and the seminaries that provide them with trained, educated pastors--need to be the best possible stewards of their resources...because a pastor who makes only $44,000 a year to provide you with quality spiritual care shouldn't be a luxury item for anyone.  The problem is, an untrained, unprepared pastor who makes far less has a greater possibility of doing more harm than good spiritually.

I imagine people who see my view here critically will respond with, "You knew what you were signing up for."  Yeah, that's a fair point, I did.  I know that if God wanted me to be wealthy, God would have called me to the LSATs and the bar exam, not the GREs and the ordination interviews (although even lawyers aren't making anywhere near the scratch they used to).  I'm not expecting to be paid more than a middle-class wage during my entire career.

But I'm also not wrong for expecting my colleagues in ministry who work long hours, donate their own time and money (seriously, in what other occupation do you automatically give 10% of your salary right back to your employer?), and never really have the option of punching out on the time clock to make enough to live on and to pay back their debts on.

Because while those of us in more traditional churches may still sing "Jesus Paid It All" as one of our Sunday worship tunes, the world, unlike many of our churches, has moved on and is charging its seminarians a proverbial arm and a leg in order to hone the skillset our churches need and require of us.

We need to be able to adjust to this new and, honestly, hardhearted world if we are to support the amazing things that the thousands of enthusiastic, Spirit-filled, God-driven pastors across the country are doing for their respective churches.

My hope and prayer is that we do.

Longview, Washington
February 9, 2016

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