Thursday, March 31, 2016

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

April 2016: "Everyone Welcome"

Dear Church,

The words "Everyone Welcome" are emblazoned in bold cursive on our marquee out on the front lawn of the church property.

Those words speak to a fundamental identity within our Disciples of Christ tradition that we are meant to foster unity and openness in the "essentials" of our faith: belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and the priesthood (that is, the ministry) of all believers. That is, on a theological level, what we and many, many other Disciples churches believe when we say, "Everyone welcome."

But on a practical level, what does that mean? It means, I think, being a church of hospitality, of welcome, of embracing visitors and strangers alike who grace our doors on Sunday mornings, whether they are attracting by our beautiful historic sanctuary or by the fair-to-middling preaching that takes place within said sanctuary! (If this were a sermon, this is where I would allow for laughter...)

How do we go about that sort of welcoming hospitality? Because if we really say "everyone welcome," we had better mean it. That means the person who sits in your favorite pew is welcome. That means the rambunctious child is welcome. That means the person whose cell phone goes off in the middle of the prayer is welcome. Everyone, quite simply, means everyone.

It is tempted to get frustrated by such disruptions--believe me, I know. I have to be locked in every Sunday at 11:00 am in order to give both God and all of you my very best, and I would hope that you feel the same way. But as Jesus puts it to the Pharisees in Matthew 22, our love of God must resemble our love of our neighbor. As He says, "the other (law) is like it...(and) on these hang the entirety of the Law and the Prophets."

In other words: everything else we do depends on whether we are loving God and loving our neighbors, and if we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, as both Jesus and the Hebrew Bible teach, then we must love our neighbors as ourselves. And if someone is sitting next to you in your pew, they literally are your neighbor for the next hour!

For many of us who have been attending this church for years, even decades, it is easy to forget that we too once worshiped here for the very first time. It is easy to forget that we too were once strangers in a strange land. Going to a new church for the first time is a scary proposition for people: what if the members are unfriendly to me? What if they don't have quality childcare or classes for my children? What if I don't fit in?

But there is scarcely a higher calling than welcoming that stranger in a strange land, because it involves a ministry to--and removal of--those sorts of fears and trepidations. It involves giving another fellow follower the courage to be in God's presence with us. And what a great gift that truly is!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

New sermon series: "Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief

With the empty tomb of Easter Sunday now in our rearview mirrors, you might expect us to be speeding away to some new part of Scripture...but Easter as a season in the church calendar is meant to be celebrated for *fifty* days, which is the length of time between Easter and Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the assembled followers of Jesus in Acts 2. 

Pentecost Sunday this year falls on May 15, which means that we have six Sundays of Easter at our disposal to talk together about what for me is a central component of the Easter narratives in Scripture: the necessity of believing that Jesus did indeed conquer death. As Jesus says to Thomas when the apostle puts his hands upon Jesus's wounds in the first Scripture passage we'll read, "Blessed are those who don't see yet still believe." 

Belief, in its simplest form, is the acceptance of something as true or factual. I believe that the sky is blue because my eyes tell me so. I believe that Jesus rose because the Gospels tell me so. But is another animal altogether. Faith involves a lifetime of belief, of taking those beliefs and actually living them out in my day-to-day existence.

So how do we reconcile the two? How do we bridge them, bring them together, so that our faith can match our beliefs and vice versa? That is what we'll be talking about during this year's Easter sermon series that will stretch through mid-May up to Pentecost Sunday. I hope you'll join us for a wonderful series that will look at stories of faith and belief from all four of the Gospels as a celebration of the good news of the resurrected Christ!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

Easter 2016: “Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief”

April 3: “These Things Are Written,” John 20:24-31
April 10: “Genesthai,” John 8:48-59
April 17: “Jantelagen,” Luke 7:36-50
April 24: “Red Sunday,” Matthew 16:1-4
May 1: “Simon, Son of Jonah,” Matthew 16:13-20
May 8: “All Things,” Mark 9:14-24

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The "God's Not Dead" Martyrdom Complex

As a little kid, I was raised on a steady diet of three children's shows: Sesame Street, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

On Sesame Street, I *loved* Big Bird and Oscar.  On Thomas, I thought Gordon the Big Engine was just the coolest.  And on Mr. Rogers, the Trolley was my favorite part about the entire show (except for feeding the fish, because even at a young age, I liked anything that involved food).

The Trolley, of course, was the mediator between the real world of the Neighborhood and the imaginary world of Make-Believe, as it would chug along the tracks from Mr. Rogers' house to the castle of King Friday the Thirteenth.  And if the Trolley were still choo-chooing today into the land of Make-Believe, I really hope that the folks behind the God's Not Dead and God's Not Dead 2 movies bought some advertising space on it, because the *only* way either of those movies are remotely credible is if you live in the land of Make-Believe as well.

Let's begin with this: compared to other religious minority groups, Christians are not a persecuted class in the United States of America.  As Christianity Today--obviously not a house organ of anti-Christian sentiment the way that, say, a Richard Dawkins fangroup would be--put it, if there is a persecuted religious class in the US right now, it's Muslims.

Ed Cyzewski's analysis in his CT piece is sound, but that doesn't even include non-Muslims who are violently attacked for resembling (in their attackers' deranged minds) Muslims.

It isn't just Muslims, or people who look like Muslims, either: when the racist, Trump-endorsing meathead musician Ted Nugent posted to his Facebook page to warn his followers of pro-gun control politicians, each of the politicians he named were Jewish and had an Israeli Star of David superimposed onto their photographs.  When those stars were used not just for the Israeli flag but to, you know, differentiate Jews from Aryans in Hitler's Germany, it wasn't hard to read between Nugent's anti-Semitic lines.

And that's even before we get to the Christians and Muslims alike killed in the horrific terrorist attacks over the past week in Belgium, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

That's what real religious persecution looks like, y'all.  Not being told you have to accommodate same-sex couples who are asking you to bake them a cake or being told you have to allow a trans person to use the restroom of the gender they identify with.

Which brings me to the ridiculous miasma of silliness that is the God's Not Dead film franchise.  The original, released two years ago, is bad enough: it documents a virulently atheist college professor who bullies his class into signing a statement declaring that God is dead in order to pass his class, one student objects, they debate, and the atheist professor (who, in what I guess passes for poetic justice in Christian cinema, eventually gets run over by a car and killed...but not before becoming born-again while in the throes of death).

Let's start with the obvious: I was taught by atheist professors in college, and non of them required me, as an openly devout Christian, to sign diddley in order to pass their classes.  In fact if any of them did do that, it would be grounds for immediate disciplinary action--even tenure (in theory) does not protect against being disciplined for obvious discrimination.

The atheist professor is a caricature, an apparition, second cousin to Harvey the Rabbit as Tim Robbins would say in The Shawshank Redemption.  The makers of God's Not Dead conjured him up out of thin air.

There are surely hateful, discriminatory atheists out there (Sam Harris, Bill Maher, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc).  But the chances of your precious helicoptered kid being taught by one of them in so obtuse a manner is virtually nil.  Even Kurt Wise, the patron saint of young earth creationist pseudo-scientists, was, per Hanna Rosin's research in her excellent book God's Harvard, treated eminently fairly by his atheist doctoral adviser Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, and Wise got his degree with no untoward resistance.

This fictitious professor, then, is simply that: fictitious.  Made-up.  A bogeyman that is as easily sighted as Sasquatch.

That is what our Christian persecution complex has come to, y'all.  We have to make up stories about made-up people in made-up situations in order to feed our outsized feelings of martyrdom.

And because the original, despite being generally considered a cinematic disaster, grossed $64 million against a $2 million budget, it was always inevitable that a sequel was going to be made.

Because, as we have learned, playing on American Christianity's persecution complex is quite a lucrative racket (which is kind of ironic--because if we were really persecuted, we either wouldn't have the discretionary income to spend on seeing such a film, or we'd be banned from seeing it altogether).

So here we are.  Said sequel, creatively named God's Not Dead 2 (although I'm making that snarky crack as a pastor of a congregation named "First Christian Church," so I'm hardly one to talk about creative branding), arrives in theaters tomorrow.

If its trailers are any indication, the storyline is is more or less the same, except instead of a faithful student challenging an atheist professor, it is a faithful teacher challenging an atheist school system after she gets sued for answering a question about the teachings of Jesus.

Which just goes to show how utterly inane this whole fake universe being created truly is.  We're supposed to believe that an atheist professor who demands that his students declare that God is dead or get an F for the course has *not* been sued, ever, yet a teacher gets the smackdown treatment for answering an innocuous question about the historical teachings of Jesus?


There is real persecution of Christians in this world, y'all.  Only that persecution doesn't take place here in the United States so much as it takes place in countries like North Korea, China, and Sudan.

Heck, 72 people just died as a result of a terrorist attack on Christians in Pakistan.  Can we please not equate their deaths with our made-up penchant for victimhood for at least the first week after that bombing?

Because even more than being tasteless (which it is), or untoward (which it also is), it's insulting.  It insults Christians who have fought real battles for religious freedom, not bigots who fight stupid battles for the right to discriminate against gay people.  It insults people of non-Christian faiths who have fought those same real battles for *their* religious freedom, often in the face of massive Christian opposition.

And it insults atheists who are hardly militant and simply remain unconvinced that the universe was created by a divine maker.

That's what gets me about these films.  They are so clearly not outreach tools.  How could they be?  If I was taken to see a movie that made a caricature of me to serve as an antagonist to some pious doofus of a Richard Dawkins devotee, I'd be pissed.  If I took any of my atheist friends to see either of the God's Not Dead films, I'm not sure how I'd be able to look at myself in the mirror afterwards.

The God's Not Dead franchise isn't about lovingly bringing people into the faith.  It's about making the people who are already in the faith feel more smug and self-righteous about a battle that they are losing and frankly should be losing.

That's not something worth admiring.  That's not something worth two hours of your free time, or you spending your hard-earned money to go see.

So please, I humbly ask you, if you are thinking about going to see God's Not Dead 2...don't.  And instead, take that time to read about the history of religious persecution in America, or about the religious persecutions Christians outside of America are facing.

Think about donating the cost of your movie ticket to a Christian nonprofit that does great work.  To practice what I preach, I just made a donation to my seminary alma mater worth two movie tickets as a thank-you to them for their scholarship support of Disciples of Christ students.  But it can be anything.  Give to World Vision, Living Water International, Ten Thousand many amazing Christian organizations who need and deserve your money way more.

And please consider adding to your prayers the people who are facing systemic and systematic oppression far greater than we will likely ever face.  Because their oppression is real.  Ours is manufactured--in news stories, in the hollow words of talking heads, and, apparently, on the silver screen.

Quite simply, God has no appetite for falsehoods.  And neither should we.

Thanks for reading.

Vancouver, Washington
March 30, 2016

Image courtesy of Youtube

Sunday, March 27, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Living Among the Dead"

Luke 24:1-12

Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. 5 The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words. 9 When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 11 Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. 12 But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.  (Common English Bible)

Easter 2016

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the two unknown men in gleaming clothing ask Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James when they arrive the morning after the Sabbath to see the stone rolled away from the tomb that once contained Jesus’s body, and the grave itself entirely empty, with only the linen cloth that had been Christ’s shroud remaining.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?  Why do I look for the living among the dead?

After the wreckage left behind by the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, the stories emerging from it were gut-wrenching to read, and heart-rendering to behold.  Except for a bare precious few, like this one:

As transit ground to a halt in Paris, a hashtag began making the rounds online: #portesouvertes.  In English, it means “open doors.”  It served as a beacon for people who were stranded as a result of the attacks and were either unable or too afraid to go home.  They could log on and find someone who had posted the #portesouvertes hashtag and know that they would be welcomed in and be kept safe there in the house of that complete stranger.  Such are the ways of life and love amid death.

And in truth, if an attack like that were to have taken place right here, in our town, I imagine the reaction of many of us would be to flee home, lock our doors, and not let anybody in, not for anything, until we felt safe again.  It would be an entirely understandable thing for us to do.

But it would not have been the Easter thing for us to do.

And now again in Belgium.  Over thirty souls killed, another hundred-plus injured, the images of the wounded, of the bombed-out shells of the Brussels airport, they are not numbers and images you simply wipe your mind of in an instant.

Yet in Brussels, even as the death toll was being revised upward and as every other country in Europe was put on higher and higher alert, the very same hashtag,#opendoors, began trending on Twitter from people in Brussels willing to take in other fearful pilgrims. 

The stone has been rolled away, and people can enter to see that death no longer reigns over life.

Why do I look for the living among the dead?  Because when death is all around, it is all I can see.

A couple of weeks ago, just across the border of Belgium in northwestern Germany, the famous, highly-regarded soccer club Borussia Dortmund hosted humble Mainz in a Bundesliga match, which Dortmund handily won 2-0.  But somewhere in between the first and second goals being scored, two different fans, in different parts of the stadiums, both suffered heart attacks and had to be rushed to a local hospital.

One of them survived.  The other did not.

As word spread throughout the Westfalenstadion from announcements about what had happened, the assembled capacity crowd of 80,000-plus loudly devoted fans became completely silent, and remained silent for the entirety of the game, out of respect for the fan who had essentially died in their midst.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that big of a crowd that was totally silent, but it’s eerily solemn.  Even when Dortmund scored to make the final tally 2-0, the stadium was muted.

Except for when the final whistle to end the game at long last sounded, and the Dortmund players gathered together, arm-in-arm, in front of their fans to hear the assembled crowd sing together the anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” written by the famous composing duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose lyrics go like this:

When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on
 With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone

With tears in their eyes, athletes who are paid millions of euros to play a game for a living listened to their tens of thousands of fans send off one of their own with a genuine display of love and respect.

Why do I look for the living among the dead?  Because sometimes where there has been death, I pray that life can come roaring back once more.

Maybe you saw the image of a pile of arms and hands reaching out from a drive-thru coffeeshop window towards a solitary car bearing a woman whose husband had just died the night before at only thirty-seven years old.  At the Dutch Brothers a stone’s throw from where Carrie and I live, the workers saw this woman in visible pain and grief, asked her what had happened, and then asked if they could pray with her.  They invited her back into the warmth of the shop for some support, some compassion, and some love along with her first morning coffee as a widow.

I find spiritual strength in being one of the first people to be called upon when someone has died, but it also taxes me emotionally, and profoundly so.  I am the one with two degrees in this, who has devoted a lifetime to the church and to ministry, and I can only hope and pray that I am able to present the same sort of gentle Christian witness as these few brave souls at a drive-thru coffeestand.

Why do I look for the living among the dead?  Because I respond to death in order to save the living

On the morning of Easter last year, one of our longtime stalwart members, Steve Harvey, died.  I heard people say that it was poetic, it was appropriate, that Steve died on Easter, because of all days, this is the one that promises not simply life, but eternal life in the name of the God who conquered death with nothing but love for us.

Truthfully, though, it changed that Easter for me, to know that someone I knew and had ministered to had died, just as it had completely changed the Sunday just several weeks prior to learn that Florence Latham had died at home right as I was preaching my sermon.  And I would return here, to this life-giving place, to preach at both of their funerals amid that great and painful mix of sadness and rejoicing that tends to be present at funerals.

But the love at those funerals, that is what I took home with me.  The living, breathing love.

Why do I look for the living among the dead?  Because when faced with death, I long to find life.

I think that is why the women have gone to the tomb so early in the morning on Easter.  They want to finish the hasty burial for Jesus from Good Friday and for them, that is something they should do.  It gives them a purpose, and that’s a common need right after losing someone dear to you.

But they are gently rebuked for it by these two angels for the simple reason that they have come to the tomb expecting to find a body.  They should never have expected to find a body because Jesus, by His own words earlier in the Gospels, is Lord not of the dead, but of the living.

As is so often the case, though, it is one thing to hear it and an entirely other thing to see it, to experience it, to come face-to-face with the stark, unmistakable evidence that the grave has in fact not claimed another victim, that God’s life and love has emerged victorious over death, and that such divine love remains very much within our frail mortal grasps if only we were to reach out and say yes to it.

It may well be a mistake to look for the living among the dead.  But it is perhaps the most human mistake there is.  Because we are all breathing, decaying, dying things awaiting our own eternal life.

And in that waiting, it is easy to see only the short-term, the death, and not that promise of eternal life that lays just beyond it.

But “easy” so very rarely means “right.”  There is a very real difference between the two.

The good news of Easter demands us to set aside that which is easy in favor of taking up that which his right: the looking for the divine life of God not in the ways we have found to kill one another, but in the ways that God has found to redeem us in spite of all the different painful and torturous ways we have found to kill one another.

Easter demands that we look for the living God in the life that God brings, not in the death we inflict upon each other in Paris or Brussels, or upon God’s Son two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.

The tomb was always going to be empty, the stone was always going to be rolled away, and the shroud was always going to be discarded.  Why do you still look for the living among the dead?

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 27, 2016

Image courtesy of

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Waterfall Gauntlet

On I-5, somewhere around mile marker 34, there is a cliff that runs along the highway upon which, when it begins to rain (which, this time of year, is most days in the Pacific Northwest), water trickles down the rocks and towards the road.  When it begins rain harder, those trickles turn into a series of distinct waterfalls, one after the other, cascading downward onto the ground.

During the rare sunny days like this past Saturday, it is easy to forget what this little stretch of road looks like when it is raining--all your eyes care to focus on is the road in front of you, the blue sky, and the verdant green that is everywhere.

And it would be easy to forget, but for this past December, when the winter rains were such that the floods began on a two-of-every-animal scale.  Along with the floods came the avalanches, the cascades of mud and earth and rock that ended up shutting down the interstate for a better part of a week, stranding hundreds of people in the little town of Woodland and cutting me off from my congregation and my people.

How much changes in just three months.

How much changes, then, in just a day, when the rains come again and the gauntlet of waterfalls starts pouring down again.

Far too often, we want things to remain the same--until we no longer do, and then once we do want them changed, we often want them changed immediately.

Sometimes, change is meant to take only a day.  Sometimes, it takes three months.  And sometimes, it takes a lifetime.

It is something I have had to adjust to as I went into full-time parish ministry.  The orthodox wisdom is to not enact any changes when you first arrive at a new congregation for your first year because you are the change, and a big, big change at that.

But at Longview, we didn't have a year.  We had to start making changes right away.  We began instituting new classes and programs, new outreach methods, a new childcare program...and all while jettisoning quite a bit of the incumbent infrastructure that was already there.

In fairness--Longview had, before I arrived, spent the past two full years in either active discernment or search and call for a new pastor.  They knew they needed change and called a pastor (me) who would help them usher it in.

Yet, Phase One, as I've taken to calling my first couple of years at Longview, was pretty easily achieved in retrospect.  Okay, not easily.  I was a twenty-five-year-old, fresh-out-of-seminary pastor who barely knew what he was doing but had to pretend like he did.  But I grew into the job, and the change came quickly.

But then we plateaued for a little while.  Families who had come started drifting away.  I struggled for creativity after a couple of years of being able to pour out all sorts of ideas and give them the old college try.  The flow of ideas slowed to a trickle, and change started coming much slower.  I became frustrated with, and disappointed in, myself.

Somewhere in between overwhelming one's new congregation with fresh ideas and not having any is the middle ground I actually think incoming pastors have to occupy.  The "nothing new in your first year" rule needs to go, because churches need to embrace the fact that their pastor does in fact call them to change, not just as a group, but also individually and spiritually, to more fully embody the imago dei.

And likewise, pastors need to be unafraid of the reality that they will experience periods of drought and famine in their work, difficult though that might be for we who take such pride in said work.

This stretch of highway is, for me, at its most beautiful and profound not when the water is cascading so much that it threatens to flood, or so bone-dry that it is nothing but rock, but instead when I can see, one after another, a gauntlet of waterfalls running on down from the heights above.

And so today, on Maundy Thursday, the day when Christ was arrested and the world thrown so horribly and painfully out of balance, I imagine that balance is as it should be.

It is an equilibrium I am still striving for and seeking for in my own life and ministry.  I pray that I may one day find it.

Longview, Washington
March 24, 2016

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Hosannas for Belgium

On Sunday, we--and churches across the world--celebrated Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus came processing humbly, yet triumphantly, into Jerusalem amid a host of people crying out to Him, "Hosanna!"

As I noted in our Sunday School class for the day, and as our teaching elder for that Sunday echoed in her stewardship reflection during worship, "Hosanna" literally translates to "save us" or even more urgently, "save us now."  It is a plaintive, emotive cry for salvation.

It is a cry millions of us are uttering today as we wake up to the news of another terrorist attack by the Islamic State in Europe, this time in Brussels, Belgium, on its airport and subway system that has left over thirty souls dead and over another hundred injured.

Hosanna, my triumphant King.  Save us from the evil of those who would kill to terrorize, who would maim and murder in the name of a heresy, of a false interpretation of a God who condones no such brutality in His kingdom.

Hosanna, my righteous King.  Save us from the evil of a world addicted to death in all its gory and injurious forms, from a world that oppresses and brutalizes, puts down and keeps down, and sometimes with no end in sight.

Hosanna, my humble King.  Save us from the evil of our own hearts, the evil of wanting to torture, wanting to take gratuitous and wanton revenge, of wanting to entertain in our souls our own devils of prejudice that lead us to commit acts of violence against still more innocents, and of wanting to take your justice into our hands.

Hosanna, my divine King.  Save us from our mortal limitations, our human short-sightedness, our lack of regard for neighbor, brother, and sister, and our desire to see others suffer and die so that we might "live."

Hosanna, my immortal King.  Save us from the wages of our sins against each other, from the death we sentence each other to, from the spiritual death inflicted by radicalization and the physical deaths that are the fruits of that spiritual death.

Hosanna, my eternal King.  Save us from the worst of our moments, the most shameful of our actions, our tendencies to reach for our worst selves in response to the very worst selves of others who want only to see us burn.

Hosanna, my peaceful King.  Save us from the terrorism and violence of evil hearts, evil minds, and evil souls, and from the violence whose only child is yet more violence.

Hosanna, my great King.  Save us from the lowest versions of ourselves, from our debased worship of war, and from our meager, inadequate capacities to know what you know, see what you see, and do as you would do.

Hosanna, my one true King.  Save me from my disbelief and my worry, from my anger and my fear, and deliver me to the peace, justice, and mercy that comes from your unique grace.

Save me from this world that corrupts and harms its children without thought to the potential of their lives, only for the potential impact of their deaths.

Save me from that way of living.  Save us from that way of living.  Save us from the falseness of such life.

Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest.

Save us, my King.

Longview, Washington
March 22, 2016

Image courtesy of Le Monde

Sunday, March 20, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Cloud Piercer"

Habakkuk 3:13-19

You go out to save your people. For the salvation of your anointed you smashed the head of the house of wickedness, laying bare the foundation up to the neck. Selah 14 You pierce the head of his warrior with his own spear. His warriors are driven off, those who take delight in oppressing us, those who take pleasure in secretly devouring the poor. 15 You make your horses tread on the sea; turbulent waters foam. 16 I hear and my insides tremble. My lips quiver at the sound. Rottenness enters my bones. I tremble while I stand, while I wait for the day of distress to come against the people who attack us. 

17 Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep are cut off from the pen, and there are no cattle in the stalls; 18 I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance. 19 The Lord God is my strength. He will set my feet like the deer. He will let me walk upon the heights.  To the director, with stringed instruments.  (Common English Bible)

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

The slopes of Aoraki/Mount Cook jut upward among the New Zealand alps on the south island of the faraway country.  It served as a home base for Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first two people to summit Mount Everest, to train for that historic 1953 climb, and it continues to serve as a public and popular park for hikers and mountain climbers alike.

At the very start of the climb, though, there is, at the end of a short but steep offshoot of the main trail, a monument in the shape of the mountain itself—a broad stone base sharpening up to a pointed peak—that bears a mess of plaques on nearly every side of it.  These plaques bear the names of each person who has died on Aoraki/Mount Cook, and there are dozens of them, with an array of diverse names reflecting the diversity of the people themselves: people from all over the world, but who were brought together by one common finality: where they died.

This monument stands as a tribute to a mountain whose Anglo name of course comes from the explorer Captain Cook, but whose indigenous Maori name, Aoraki, was traditionally rendered into English as “the Cloud Piercer,” for its unparalleled height on the island: it could, and does, pierce the clouds that surround it, and those who stand on its summit are treading on great heights indeed.

And they do so—and Carrie and I were able to do so, not on the summit, but on Aoraki’s slopes—even though there is such a strong symbol of lamentation at the beginning of their path, a symbol that serves as a reminder of our most urgent limitation, our deepest inhibition, and our most inescapable reality: that we are all mortal.

Yet still, we tread upon Aoraki’s heights.  Just as Habakkuk did, as he finishes his book, by recognizing the genuinely lethal harm that lays before him and his people, and that not even that will ever prevent him from exulting in the God of his salvation.

This is the last installment of a sermon series for the now rapidly-ending 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 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.  Then we heard the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he didn’t like it at all, and he still had difficulty grasping God’s greater intent in everything that was happening.

So God replied once more, and in that reply—a harangue, really— and God does not let up, tearing into Jerusalem for its excesses—drinking its fill of dishonor while also making one’s people drunk—and for its idolatry, but in truth, excess and idolatry go hand in hand.

Last week, we finally arrived at Habakkuk’s ending reply to this condemnation from God, and it fills the entire third and final chapter of the prophet’s book.  It also contains the pivot point in which the prophet finally moves from lamentation to reassurance and rejoicing in God, and that rejoicing culminates in this final song of praise that the prophet sings, and that we read, here today.

It is a song that I have preached on a few different times now, most memorably for me on the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, which fell on a Sunday—the Sunday, in fact, before I officially began my ministry here in 2011.  I try not to preach so frequently on any given text out of fear of consigning myself to my “canon with the canon,” those collection of texts and stories that tend to speak to each person the most, that they know the best, and that they may spend the most time with at the expense of the entirety of Scripture.

But I must confess, it is awfully hard to resist.  Here we have spent the past five weeks reading in fine detail a genuinely anguished and profound back-and-forth between God and one of God’s servants, and that sort of pushback to God really is unique among the Hebrew Bible prophets.  Habakkuk helps humanize them for me.  He helps me see something of their own relationship with God even as they push me—sometimes extremely hard—to be a better believer and pastor.

In other words, Habakkuk helps me to see a bit of the person behind the name, in the same manner that I wished were the case when I ran my hands along the plaques of the monument upon Aoraki.  Because what Habakkuk is describing is really a very similar thing: even if the trees and fields produce no harvest, even if there are no more animals left in the flocks, even if I am so weak that I feel rotten on the inside and I tremble as I stand, even when that manner of calamity strikes, yet still, Habakkuk says, I shall rejoice in the Lord.

Even when I am faced with the very evidence of the death that has been wrought upon the people who have come before me on this paths, yet still I am meant to rejoice in the Lord, and to exult in the God of my deliverance.  It is a simple message, a simple truth, but a difficult one to always remember, and an especially difficult one to always live out.

Because really, fair-weather faith, like fair-weather friendship, is easy.  It takes little to be grateful to God when things are going well—although sometimes, sadly, we manage to mess up even that—but to be grateful to God when things are looking the worst they have ever been?  That takes real faith.  That takes a real connection, a real relationship, with the divine.

In the face of your own limitations, or the limitations of your own circumstances, to which are you most liable to reach for first?  The madness and hatred of Satan, the adversary, or the exultation and rejoicing in our God?  Are we able to still see where God is in our lives when our lives have been brought low, or do we even bother trying to do see?  And do we succumb to the temptations of giving up on ourselves, on our world, or on our God rather than resist those destructive allures?

Put another way, are we able to focus on celebration rather than limitation, on celebrating God rather than giving up to our own mortal limitations?

These choices take place amid a backdrop of faith—faith in the life God gives to us, and in the renewal of that life that was incarnated in the resurrected Christ whose empty tomb we celebrate exactly one week from today.

So rather than the death that our limitations lead us to, Habakkuk instead recalls the renewal God leads us to, and he celebrates it, as well he should, as well he ought.

Which means that the metamorphosis of the prophet is complete.  He recognizes the evil in the world, but he does not forget the good.  He recognizes that the evil is not what God would have wanted, or wished for, but that in spite of our own evils, God still created us to be good.

That’s an incredible thing to remember, and really, an incredible thing to ever forget.  But I know I have on occasion.  You may have too at some point your life.  I know that looking at the memorials of people who have been taken, from Aoraki to the World War I memorial in my hometown of Kansas City, to Yad Vashem in Israel, or any number of memorials to those we lose violently and unjustly, I can very, very easily forget that God made me, and us, for good.

I would imagine that Habakkuk had probably forgotten that singular truth as well.  But he has since recovered it.  And with that one great truth in hand, he is once again able to celebrate the God who is so good in the first place.  No matter the scarcity, no matter the extremity, no matter the manner and form of death that may be put in his place, Habakkuk rejoices in God and exults in the deliverance that God has promised him, and, by extension, has promised to each and every one of us.

I do not know if I will ever always be so profound, so poignant, so deep, in my praises to God as Habakkuk is here.  I hope I am.  But in truth, I myself have not faced down the sorts of evil that Habakkuk is presently facing down.  Maybe you have.  But I have not had the quaking, demoralizing experience of looking into my own crystal ball and foreseeing only exile and death for me and for mine.

I hope I never have to.  I hope you never have to, and that if you have, you never have to again.  But I also hope that your faith is such that it could deliver you even through an experience such as that.

It was so for Habakkuk, one of the great wrestlers with God of all the Bible.  Because he, like us, is a child of God, and that is no empty title.

And so may it be so for you as well.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 20, 2016

Sunday, March 13, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "God Comes From Teman"

Habakkuk 3:1-4

The prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth:

2 Lord, I have heard your reputation. I have seen your work. Over time, revive it. Over time, make it known. Though angry, remember compassion.

3 God comes from Teman and the holy one from the mountain of Paran. Selah His majesty covers the heavens and his praise fills the earth.

4 His radiance is like the sunlight, with rays flashing from his hand. That is the hiding place of his power.  (Common English Bible)

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

The Cloud Gate bends up towards the sky from the ground from two separate directions, forming an abstract arch that dwarfs the people who walk beneath it in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

The Arcelor Mittal Orbit ascends towards the sky above Stratford in London as a permanent reminder of the glory of the city hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics.

And Sky Mirror is a ten-ton, nearly twenty-foot-wide concave steel disc that is so brilliant that it reflects the sky, hence its name.

The artist behind these statues, artworks, and precipes, Sir Anish Kapoor, is a Jewish-Hindu Indian-British man, his Jewish mother having fled to India with her family as an infant to escape the 1920 Iraqi revolt that killed thousands of people and subsequently marrying his father, a Punjabi Hindu.

When the images that we tend to conjure to our minds of refugees are of meager camps and inhumane poverty, we would do well to adjust our expectations.  Each such refugee, each such involuntary traveler, has a story and an experience of such great depth that it is a pity we do not hear them.  But through Kapoor’s artwork, I think we may have.  For he said about his art:

I'm thinking about the mythical wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel.  It's as if the collective will comes up with something that has resonance on an individual level and so becomes mythic.

Something that has resonance on an individual level and so becomes mythic.  Think about that for a minute.  That is what God can be for us—God resonates to us on an individual level, and so God takes on mythic proportions in our lives.

But where does God show up on the individual level for the refugee, for the invisible person?  What if the majestic wonder and splendor of God appears out of the refugee and the invisible person, the invisible land, even?  Because that is exactly what Habakkuk has realized here in his third chapter.

This is a 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.  Then we heard the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he didn’t like it at all.

So God replied once more, and in that reply—a harangue, really— and God does not let up, tearing into Jerusalem for its excesses—drinking its fill of dishonor while also making one’s people drunk—and for its idolatry, but in truth, excess and idolatry go hand in hand, as we discussed last week.

Today, we arrive, then, at Habakkuk’s ending reply to this condemnation from God, and it fills the entire third and final chapter of the prophet’s book.  It also contains the pivot point in which the prophet finally moves from lamentation to reassurance and rejoicing in God, beginning here.

And it really is a remarkable turnaround by the prophet—remember, his first words in this book were, “O Lord, how long do I cry out for help and you do not listen, I cry out “Violence!” and you do not save?”  For Habakkuk to go from that great a spiritual crisis to “His majesty covers the heavens, and his praise covers the earth” is nothing short of a complete and total change in outlook.

But you can still see hints of Habakkuk’s need to still entreaty God, even as he is now praising his creator: “though angry, remember compassion,” he begs to God, recognizing that he is not going to change God’s mind or God’s wrath, but that he now humbly, rather than plaintively or naively before, pleads for God to remember compassion.

Habakkuk’s praise of God is noteworthy for still another reason: how he describes God’s origins, that God “comes from Teman, and the holy one from the mountain of Paran.”  Teman was part of the lands southeast of Jerusalem, inhabited by the Edomites, a historical enemy of Judah and Israel who are defeated successively by kings Saul and David back in 1 and 2 Samuel, who then fall away from the story but arise again and actually take part in the plundering of Jerusalem when it is sacked by Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar II, for which the Edomites are furiously condemned by another Hebrew Bible prophet, Obadiah.

Similarly, Mount Paran is generally considered to have been somewhere east of Jerusalem, with some saying in the Arabian deserts, some say closer to the Transjordan.  I cannot say I know for sure except for its general location of eastward, or southeastward.

So why put God’s appearing to him in this way?  The prophet may simply be describing God as arising from the east like the sun—especially since he describes God’s radiance in terms of sunlight just one verse later—but I’m not entirely sure that’s what is happening here, because it would be a far simpler matter, even in the verse in which Habakkuk writes, to simply say that God rises from the east.  And geographically, Edom was as much to the south of Jerusalem as it was to the east.

No, to me, what this sounds like is God rising from the unexpected, from a place and a people ranging in status in the Hebrew Bible from the invisible to the forgotten to the hated.  God is rising from the valley, from the colonial remnants, from the people we pay no heed to or despise because they are not us.

Yet other times it is us who are the invisible people, the people who are made homeless because of the uncaring nature of the world, just like Habakkuk.  Other times it is us from whom, as unknowns, God's majesty and radiance arises into the world like sunlight.

It is God’s divine majesty, rising from invisible places and out of invisible people, that Habakkuk is singing praises to here.

And it is a majesty that takes on mythic dimensions, the dimensions of the sort that, say, Anish Kapoor speaks of.

A forgotten family, a family likely hated by others in a 20th century filled with sectarian violence, flees for the east.  But it is from there that a genuine and authentic understanding of majesty then comes.

Because God comes from Teman.  God comes from the other land.  God comes from the outside, from the margins, from the valleys, from the depths.  And out of those wildernesses, God’s majesty and light shines anew as a beacon for our paths, as a source of sight for our eyes, and as our greatest and best hope against the darkness that might otherwise cover our lives and our souls.

Habakkuk, even in the midst of the wreckage and pain and violence that has resulted from an end to any hope of a righteous king finally, at long last, understands that reality.

And he doesn’t end at understanding.  He celebrates it.  He rejoices in it.

May we do as the prophet does.  May we celebrate and rejoice in God’s greatness, because that greatness comes to us from unexpected places, in unexpected ways, and at unexpected times.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 13, 2016

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Church Conflict Does Not Have to be the Norm

Sunday was a big day for my congregation.

We discussed selling part or all of our church property as a part of our call to revitalize ourselves.

And there were no raised voices, no angry calls for separation, only reasoned consideration, passionate points of view, and a willingness to listen and understand.

When I arrived here almost five years ago, we were averaging only a fistful or two of people on a Sunday, with equally meager tithes and offerings flowing into the church coffers--so meager, in fact, that the search committee that voted to recommend calling me told me that they could potentially only afford me at full-time wages for two years.

And, like I said, it has been almost five years since that conversation.

Which means that, financially, we've actually improved in terms of our solvency and viability.

The problem for us is that it hasn't been enough--through no fault of any of us, really.  First Christian was one of the first churches planted in Longview back during the Roaring Twenties, and true to that decade, it was built with the intention of being a church with a bit more moneyed membership.

But then the crash of 1929 happened.  And while Longview recovered just fine, and had its economic golden years during the mid-to-late 20th century, the combined hits of NAFTA, CAFTA, the Great Recession, and the exodus of the executives who actually ran the pulp and paper mills that our town was built around all left Longview with much less money than it once had.

This loss of wealth has extended to many of its churches, with some churches merging with other congregations, cutting back on staff, or closing altogether.

I say none of this to air any sort of dirty laundry--quite the contrary, being able to talk about finances is something we Christians simply need to be better at and more comfortable with doing.  And churches should be able to talk about how to best utilize their resources, including putting some of those resources on the market, simply as a matter of course in the pursuit of good stewardship and care of what they have been blessed with.

Rather, I say all of that to preface, in point of fact, my very real and genuine pride with the congregation that I serve over how they have taken to the many adjustments that calling a pastor like me has entailed.

For me, what has been toughest is that even though these adjustments have led to very real and very heartening growth--both spiritual and quantitative--in our congregation, the financial growth has not followed; indeed, financially, we are not much different than before.

I understand how that singular reality could be taken as a damning indictment of my ministry here.  But I was not called to be, or taught to be, a fundraiser.  The implicit promise we have taught our pastors is that if you grow the church, the money will follow.

The problem with that promise, though, is that it is completely invalid if the money has been sucked dry out of your beloved town.

And so we are considering liquidating part of our static real estate assets--namely, our secondary building that houses a preschool (unaffiliated with us) in one half of the building and classrooms and our office space, including my office, in the other half.  The office space is the only part of the building we use regularly--I teach two Bible studies in one of the classrooms on Tuesdays, and otherwise, we use our side of the building for storage.  We are also deliberating what selling the entire property--in order to re-plant with a new building elsewhere in town--might entail.

Those discussions, while consisting of passion and strong emotions and yes, some disapproval, have never become overly contentious, or out-of-hand, or emotionally wrenching to endure.  Our board of directors deliberated over months in their meetings and did so in a genuine sense of Christian discernment and unity.  Our larger congregation has shown nothing but the same sense of purpose and kindness in spite of the difficulty of the decision that is before us.

And it wasn't through rocket science or brain surgery that this atmosphere of patient deliberation was fostered: it was borne out of an ironclad commitment by church leaders (myself included) to transparency, a willingness to actively seek questions and inquiries, and a commitment to making everyone feel heard.

Again--nothing in there that doesn't seem like a no-brainer.  But I'm always amazed when I hear about a church not practicing those disciplines.  I realize maybe I shouldn't be, that the systems in many congregations are unhealthy and have been so for a long time.  But I pastor a congregation that has, like almost every other congregation, had conflict at times in their past.  It can be dealt with healthily.  It can be overcome.

So let this be a word of reassurance to my colleagues in ministry, to other Christians, to other churches: hard decisions, tough decisions, big decisions really can be done in an atmosphere of understanding and dialogue.  I know it doesn't always feel that way in a world when comments sections are always filled with vitriol and when the presidential race is being led by a demagogue who openly brags about the size of his junk in presidential debates.

Think of it as a way in which we need not necessarily be of this world, even as we are in it.  We need not be of that sort of anger and fury, that manner of madness and indignation.  The Way of Jesus represents a Way different than that of the injuries and pains we inflict upon each other.  It represents a Way of hope for the future of God's kingdom, of belief in the people trying to build that kingdom now, and above all else, a love that is not subject to surface-level conditions.

My congregation is showing me a way forward right now.  I cannot begin to say how proud I am of that great truth.

Longview, Washington
March 9, 2016

Image courtesy of my church's Wikipedia page

Sunday, March 6, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "What Value of Idols"

Habakkuk 2:15-20

Doom to the one who makes his companions drunk, pouring out your wrath in order to see them naked. 16 You have drunk your fill of dishonor rather than glory. So drink and stagger. The cup of the Lord’s strong hand will come around to you; disgrace will engulf you. 17 Because of the violence done to Lebanon, he will overwhelm you; the destruction of animals will terrify you, as will human bloodshed and violence throughout the land, the villages, and all their inhabitants. 18 Of what value is an idol, when its potter carves it, or a cast image that has been shaped? It is a teacher of lies, for the potter trusts the pottery, though it is incapable of speaking. 19 Doom to the one saying to the tree, “Wake up!” or “Get up” to the silent stone. Does it teach? Look, it is overlaid with gold and silver, but there is no breath within it. 20 But the Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him.  (Common English Bible)

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

I remember very vividly the first time as an adult that I was denied Holy Communion: the entire congregation came up, row by row, to the altar, and made a circle around the altar to partake of communion.  I was the only one in the entire sanctuary sitting outside of the circle, and they proceed to participate in the Lord’s Supper literally with their backs turned to me.  I hadn’t realized, walking into the church that Sunday, that this was the way they performed Holy Communion; I had taken for granted that, as a lifelong Christian, I would be able to.

It was a mortifying experience for someone who was born and raised in the Disciples of Christ tradition of open communion.  But as I continued in my faith journey, I realized just how uncommon it actually is for many, many congregations to deny communion to all but what they determine (through their own criteria) as the select few.  I read about one such church, Our Savior Lutheran Church in Texas, in Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s definitive 2010 tome, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us:

Two large black gates and a white stone gatehouse mark the entrance to the church grounds…Set atop a hill overlooking the northwest suburbs of Houston…with its meandering walkways, shaded lawns, and duck-filled pond; OSL’s grounds have the feel of a retreat center—quiet, protected, and set apart…

One way in which the parish’s conservatism manifests itself is in its strict interpretation of the LCMS doctrine of Closed Communion.  An explanation of this practice appears in the parish’s printed program, the weekly bulletin, and on the pew cards, and is carefully and tactfully explained to any self-identified visitors, who are given a green welcome ribbon to pin on as they enter the sanctuary.

“Those who commune together at this altar…declare their personal allegiance to the doctrinal position of this Lutheran congregation,” the explanation reads.  “Therefore, participation in Communion is normally limited to members of this congregation or of sister congregations within the confessional fellowship of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.”

This reading of Closed Communion is indicative of how seriously the parish takes its beliefs.  “If you take Communion in the wrong way,” explains Assistant Pastor Thomas Glammeyer, “you are asking God’s punishment.”

What fascinates me is that the act of partaking in Holy Communion is a gesture of faith in God, but here, you have to “declare (your) personal allegiance to the doctrinal position” of an individual congregation.  So one’s faith in God is substituted out for this personal allegiance in order to participate in God’s sacrament.

Yet their pastor says, “If you take Communion in the wrong way you are asking God’s punishment.”

I mean, yeah, you probably do, because in all honesty, substituting adherence to a doctrine in place of genuine faith in God that may exist outside of that doctrine, there’s a word for that: idolatry.  Because we have placed our doctrine about God above God.  And that’s really a timeless problem, but it's one we're still going to try to tackle today, because that is what God is proclaiming to Habakkuk here.

This is a new (well, newish now) 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.  Then we heard the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he didn’t like it at all.

Last week, God replied once more, and it is a reply long enough that we could only cover most of it last week, and we continue God’s replay—God’s harangue, really—today, and God does not let up, tearing into Jerusalem for its excesses—drinking its fill of dishonor while also making one’s companions drunk—and for its idolatry, but in truth, excess and idolatry often go hand in hand, even when we think they might not.

Because honestly, Christianity is full of idolatry, and no, I don’t mean the “was Jesus born on December 25?” skepticism that you hear around Christmas (and truthfully, He probably wasn’t).  I am talking about idolatry in the purest sense of the term: the elevation of human-made things into divine things meant to take the place of God in our lives and in our faith.

And our doctrine—and the sheer extent of it—tends to be *the* human-made thing we do this to.  I get that you might say “But doesn’t doctrine—that is, sound teaching—come from God?”  And sure, 1 Timothy does indeed say that about Scripture, that it is a source of sound teaching, but it isn’t really doctrine.  Doctrine is systematic, structured, it has an orderliness and concreteness to it.

But God is hardly concrete.  Indeed, I think, God is probably hardly structured, at least not in any sense that we can comprehend.  Think about what those terms mean: it means that God is rigid, incapable of movement.  It means that like the Holy of Holies of old, we have managed to keep God in a square box without any room for movement of the Spirit that might escape its confines.

And that is simply no way for us as custodians of the Word to treat the Word.  But we do.  We take the ways in which we were meant to view God and treat them as God.  It’s painfully ironic: our reverence for these sacred and holy things may actually be doing more harm than good, but it is.

Think about the simple statement that the Bible is inerrant, or infallible.  Most of us have heard that said about Scripture.  But nowhere in Scripture does it say that it—Scripture—is in fact either inerrant or infallible.  The closest we get is that same passage out of 1 Timothy that says many things about Scripture, that it is useful, that it is inspired, but not that it is inerrant or infallible.

Yet we have elevated Scripture up in order to separate ourselves from other believers.

Why?  Because it allows us to say that our doctrine is better, more pure, whatever, and as a result, ultimately, what it means, if only implicitly, is that we are going to heaven and you are not, and we have a word for the ones who are not, we call them heretics.

Which, really, is the whole point of idolatry: to use something, anything, other than the grace of the one true God as a means by which we can be saved.  In this case, the grace isn’t enough, you have to sign up for all sorts of other beliefs and creeds.  “By grace alone” we have emphatically not been; rather, we have been more like the pigs in Animal House: "all Christians are equal, but some are more equal than others."

This is by no means the only idolatry we are tempted with—just look at just how over-the-top commercialism has gotten surrounding Christmas—but it is one of the most constant, because creating distinctions of “us” and “them” is endemic to religion; it was true in the Hebrew Bible, when Moses commanded the deaths of entire tribes of people in Deuteronomy, and it is true today.

The First Commandment, though, of the Ten handed down to Moses atop Mount Sinai, is “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”

But what about our doctrine?  No gods before God.

But what about the denomination?  No gods before God.

But what about the Bible?  No gods before God.

You live for, breathe for, love, and serve God.  Everything and everyone else—me, other pastors, other theologians—is middle management trying to help you do that first thing.  God comes first.

That is what God is trying to impress upon Habakkuk (you knew I would get around to mentioning him at some point, right?!).  “Of what value is an idol?  It is a teacher of lies, for the potter trusts the pottery though it is incapable of speaking.”

Of what value are our idols of doctrine and divisiveness?  They are teachers of lies, because it means we trust not our maker—God—but what we make—the doctrine, even though, like literal pottery, it is incapable of speaking to us, much less of speaking to us in the profound way that only God can!

Of what value are our idols, our potteries that we have crafted for ourselves, when Jesus says to us that the entirety of the Law and the Prophets hangs only on whether we have loved God entirely and whether we have loved our neighbors as ourselves?

Because if we are unable or unwilling to do that, then our idols will not be able to save us.

We may think they will, and it may comfort us to do so.  But that is not what God wants from us.  It has never been what God wants from us.  What God has always wanted from us is, quite simply, love, the sort of love that can only come from faith.

May we find that love in our faith in God, rather than in our idols, so that God may again come first, and let that be enough.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 6, 2016

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Comfort Zones

Church is a comfort zone for us, even though it probably shouldn't be.

We walk in, saunter over to our usual pew (unless there is someone sitting in it, in which case, we are sadly not above confronting them with the refrain all of us have heard at least once: "You're in my pew"), and say hello to all of our usual people.

We sing the same songs we have sung for years, maybe for decades.  We hear a sermon that we truthfully have probably heard dozens of times, just said a little bit differently than before.

Everything is the same.  Church culture is a culture of sameness, not of difference-making.

We like it that way.  And by "we," I don't just mean Christians.

You thought I did, didn't you?  What I described may have been your exact church experience.

No, I mean us pastors as well.

We are taught and programmed a particular way.  At seminary, I was taught to be a teacher, a preacher, and a counselor.  I was not taught to be an administrator, or a building superintendent, or an exorcist of cranky old office equipment.

But those latter things are what, especially as a solo pastor, occupy a significant amount of my time.

And I struggle to be grateful for that.  I really do.  I want my vocation to hit all of my strengths, all of my comfort zones: teaching Bible studies, leading worship, proclaiming the Word, hospital visitations, and the like.

Let it be said, at this point, that we ought to be ministering in places that match our strengths.  My pastoral care skills are not developed enough to be a hospital chaplain (thanks, Clinical Pastoral Education...) and my organizing skills are nonexistent even on a good day, so nonprofit community work is mostly out.  I am a parish pastor through and through.

But my comfort zone as a parish pastor is as a particular sort of parish pastor: one whose primary tool of the trade is words--the Word, in fact (forget Donald Trump, I have the best words!).  You want a pastor who loves interpretive dance?  I ain't your Huckleberry.  A pastor who can lead hymn singing?  LOL, I can barely lead my own shower singing.

Pastors--or some part of us--may want to be all things to all people; such is our latent desire for the world to hang on the valuable and profound truths we think we have stumbled haphazardly upon.  But we're pastors for a particular people, and hopefully that people is our people.

In other words, hopefully we are ministering to whom we need to be ministering to.

But that does not keep us from inhabiting our own comfort zones.  Because sometimes, that comfort zone is who we minister to: our current church membership rather than our future church membership.  Our well-to-do citizens rather than the single parent with three kids whose power is being shut off at 5:00 pm.  The person we know well and feel safe with rather than the homeless stranger who may be actively high when they come to our door.

Or, in my case, my devoted board of directors, to whom I must report how I have been administrating their--our--congregation.  Spare a thought for these saints with the patience of Job for dealing with a pastor whose own workplace habits are seldom orderly or even sensical (I told you, I put that paper you were looking for somehere!  It'll turn up, I'm sure!).

By God's grace, I have had to grow out of my comfort zone that had been easily established in seminary.  I have had to be more than simply the pastor whose gifts God created and subsequently put to work in ministry, I have had to be the pastor whose gifts God did emphatically not create but still, in spite of those lacks and wants, put to work in ministry.

There is a great deal of goodness in learning my own limitations as a pastor in their first call.  A great deal of growing pain as well.  But goodness.

Because my church is pushing me outside of my comfort zones.

And that is exactly what my church, and any church, is supposed to do.

Longview, Washington
March 3, 2016