Sunday, July 31, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Ruakh"

1 Kings 10:1-10, 13

When the queen of Sheba heard reports about Solomon, due to the Lord’s name, she came to test him with riddles. 2 Accompanying her to Jerusalem was a huge entourage with camels carrying spices, a large amount of gold, and precious stones. After she arrived, she told Solomon everything that was on her mind. 3 Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too difficult for him to answer. 4 When the queen of Sheba saw how wise Solomon was, the palace he had built, 5 the food on his table, the servants’ quarters, the function and dress of his attendants, his cupbearers, and the entirely burned offerings that he offered at the Lord’s temple, it took her breath away.

6 “The report I heard about your deeds and wisdom when I was still at home is true,” she said to the king. 7 “I didn’t believe it until I came and saw it with my own eyes. In fact, the half of it wasn’t even told to me! You have far more wisdom and wealth than I was told. 8 Your people and these servants who continually serve you and get to listen to your wisdom are truly happy! 9 Bless the Lord your God because he was pleased to place you on Israel’s throne. Because the Lord loved Israel with an eternal love, the Lord made you king to uphold justice and righteousness.”

10 The queen gave the king one hundred twenty kikkars of gold, a great quantity of spice, and precious stones. Never again has so much spice come to Israel as when the queen of Sheba gave this gift to King Solomon...13 King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba everything she wanted and all that she had asked for, in addition to what he had already given her from his own personal funds. Then she and her servants returned to her homeland. (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, Son of David & Bathsheba, King of Israel” Week Seven

I still remember the disturbingly vacant eyes looking up at me. Perhaps they should not have been so disturbing, since I knew it was a mannequin, but those blank stares that you sometimes see in mannequins, or dummies, or crash models…there is sometimes something haunting about them. Eyes are supposed to convey life, not the absence of it. Feeling, not a void of it. Soul, not a lack of it. 

Ironically, those same lifeless, soulless mannequins were meant to help us save lives. I was in the Portland chapter of the Red Cross taking my required annual CPR certification for my job of coaching speech and debate at a public high school, and in order to receive our certifications, each of us had to be able to perform CPR on one of those mannequins for several minutes at a time. Now, I don’t know if you know this or not, but performing CPR for more than a couple of minutes if you have never had to do it before…well, it’s exhausting.

And when you stop and consider, it really should be. Just like if you haven’t exercised a set of muscles for some weeks or months, there’s some atrophy in place that must be done away with if you are to do that work in peak condition. But at the time, I simply could not escape the irony that in trying to bring back breath for someone else, I was running out of breath myself.

And even more so than those eyes, breath to me connotes life on a fundamentally Biblical level. God gives life to Adam by breathing it into him. Jesus’s death is described as ‘breath(ing) His last.’ And John writes that Jesus’s disciples received the Holy Spirit by Jesus breathing it upon them.

There is a Hebrew word for ‘breath’ in that sort of way that conveys the vitality of the spirit: ‘ruakh.’ And it is the word that instantly sprung to mind for me as I read and re-read the story of the queen of Sheba here in 1 Kings 10, when the queen meets Solomon and sees his palace and temple, and it, in the words of the CEB translation, “takes her breath away.” It swept her spirit away, you might say, to really dig into the true meaning behind the text. And it is that sort of phenomenon that we will be talking about here today.

This is a summer sermon series in the mold of one that, stylistically, just like a couple of years ago in 2014, when, if you’ll remember, we spent most of the summer reading verse-by-verse through the beginning of Acts, we’ll once again take on one big narrative in Scripture. Only this time, that narrative will be the life and reign of King Solomon, a fascinating figure in Israelite history who has probably been somewhat mythologized and made into a King Arthur-esque national legend over the years, but who nonetheless represents an epoch centered around a singular truth that was not achieved again for hundreds of years, and then again for thousands: ruling over Israel as a unified and independent kingdom.

Believe it or not, a unified and independent Israel is a rarity in history. After Solomon, an independent and unified Israel would only really exist twice: during the short reign of the Maccabees (of whom you have probably heard via the Hanukkah story), and during present history since 1946. So Solomon’s reign—and his father David’s before him—is unique. How Solomon is remembered matters because of it. And we’ve gotten a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem after receiving divine wisdom from the Lord in the dream all the way up to today’s story of the visit from the queen of Sheba, a land that could have been in any number of locations, from modern day southern Arabia (the traditional view) to Egypt or Ethiopia or Sudan.

The truth is, we really do not know for sure. That also means that we really don’t know for sure who the queen is, or anything about her—her name, for how long she reigned, anything. What we do know is that she is in many ways the female equivalent to Solomon—that like Solomon, she is fabulously wealthy and wise enough to be able to put to him a series of profound questions that he is able to answer for her.

But—and herein lies the importance of that ruakh, of that breath that was taken away from her—she is still stunned at Solomon, at who he is, at the splendor of his lifestyle, and at the depth of his wisdom. She’s floored, her jaw has cartoonishly dropped like a Looney Toons character, that’s the size and scope of her sheer, utter shock at the existence of this Israelite king. This is a woman who, as a queen, has surely a great depth of life experience herself, and the fact that she herself arrives to represent her country speaks volumes about her own autonomy and security in her own authority in a profoundly anti-woman ancient Near East culture. Far from being some sort of traditionally stereotypical ingénue or naïve waif, this queen is a very strong woman with a great depth of material and emotional resources that she brings to bear in this diplomatic trip. So this is a great deal of life, of vitality, of ruakh, to be taken out of her breath by Solomon’s wonder and splendor.

And that is precisely what the author of 1 Kings is going for—this writer wants you to be wowed and awed by Solomon the way that the queen of Sheba was likewise wowed and awed by the son of David. The implicit message is that we, too, are supposed to be amazed by this Israelite king who, aside from his father, stands above the rest of his monarchical peers in Israel’s history.

And while in many ways Solomon did—in the building of the temple, in the dispensation of justice, in the incredibly eloquent and beautiful prayers he would make on behalf of his people—in many ways, he did not. He was an enthusiastic exploiter of slave labor. He sold entire towns of people to the king of Tyre in order to refashion his own Jerusalem as he wished. And towards the end, he abandoned God in favor of the idols his many wives brought to him from their own faiths. Is such a profoundly flawed, deeply complex ruler still worthy of our awe, of taking our breath, our ruakh, away? Maybe. I cannot say for sure that such a ruler is not. But I also cannot say with complete honesty that such a ruler is, either.

Your ruakh—your deeply-held sense of reverence, the source of God-given life within you, is a precious thing that does not rise to meet just any ruler, any wielder of power, but that rises to meet a true, genuine, authentic soul who abides by the love of God in every day of their lives. In that way, try to think of it as an extension of your soul, of that little piece of divine creation that God placed within you when you were born.

Because the truth is, we already have too many mannequins, too many crash models in our lives—too many people who are without that same sort of breath and life and vitality, who live their lives, well, lifelessly. You can see it, how the world has beaten them up, chewed them and spit them out, and they in turn do the same to others, creating this vicious and toxic cycle of destructiveness. We cannot be adding to that. But it is a contagious thing—someone who has given up on their own soul can tempt you mightily into giving up on the sources of life within your own world as well.

And that’s something that we quite simply cannot afford more of. We cannot afford to see more people giving up their breath, their soul, their ruakh to worldly riches, to gossip, to the most shallow of material and emotional pleasures that last about as long as a Saturday Night Live sketch.

The analogy I often use with people is to think of suddenly being able to buy your dream car--an older, refurbished muscle car, or a European sports car, or whatever it may be for you. You get your dream car...and then never drive it faster than 25 mph. That's the sort of shallowness we face, of being given a tremendous gift, and then never taking it into fourth or fifth gear to see what it actually can do, because we tell ourselves that we are satisfied with only a surface-level interaction with what we have so graciously been given.

Shallow pleasures, our soul was never made to seek. Depth is what are souls crave, because depth—the depth of God’s love—is from whence our souls were made. Out of the depths of my soul, I cry out to you O Lord, sings the Psalmist in a psalm longing for the depths of God’s understanding—of an understanding so deep, that it can only come from God.

Not from Solomon.

Not from the queen of Sheba.

But only from the God who made them both, called forth them both, and sent forth them both.

Praise and honor be to that God, forever and ever. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 31, 2016

Khzir Khan and the Testimony of American Muslim Parents

(I know it's assured, my sermon manuscript will be coming later just like usual.)

In two weeks of political conventions that were designed--manufactured, really--to evoke emotion, only one speech genuinely did, and it did so to the point of nearly moving me to tears. Khzir and Ghazala Khan, parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who was KIA in the Iraq war, spoke at the Democratic National Convention regarding Donald Trump's thoroughly misguided and terribly vindictive plan to ban all Muslims--or, depending on who you ask, all peoples from Muslim countries--from entering the United States, on top of additional law enforcement surveillance of American mosques.

The Khans spoke to me because their story is my great-grandparents' story--immigrating here for a better life after having seen war and violence, becoming American, seeing their son join the American armed forces, and then fight and die abroad. It felt personal. Because it was.

In response to the Khans, Donald Trump insinuated that Ghazala Khan did not speak at the DNC because as a Muslim woman, she had not been allowed to. She forcefully responded to that slander, saying she knew that if she did speak, she would not be able to keep her composure.

There is a family story that after my great-uncle Albert was KIA in World War II, his father, my great-granddad Krikor did not really smile again until his granddaughter, my mom, was born nine years later. If Ghazala Khan, or any Gold Star parent, says they would not be able to speak about their kid while keeping their composure, I believe it. It is also why I said on my Facebook page that allyship in the war on terror cannot be seen as the sum total of Islam's contributions to civilization (looking right at you, Rep. Steve King). Just in the war on terror alone, American Muslims have contributed their children, their lives, their families. Their allyship has been total. And this is *on top* of everything else they do, and have done, in their livelihoods, spare time, and religious work to make the world a better place.

I am including here the video of Khzir Khan's original speech, the couples' subsequent television interviews, and a link to Ghazala's op-ed in today's Washington Post, which you can find here, so that you can hear from these parents in their own words, not the words of the media, and take their words to heart.

My own words in today's sermon, tiny though they may be in comparison to these parents' testimonies, will come later today.

Longview, Washington
July 31, 2016

Friday, July 29, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

August 2016: "What the Heck is a Pokemon?!"

Dear Church,

You may have read about, or seen, in the news about a new smartphone app game called Pokemon Go that was released last month to widespread popularity around the world. Modeled off of a series of Nintendo Game Boy/DS games that began in the mid-1990s, Pokemon Go is a game that allows the player to catch Pokemon (a portmanteu of "pocket monsters"), wild animals who the player can then keep as pets and train for battles against other Pokemon trainers at designated "gym" sites (our good neighbors over at Emmanuel Lutheran are one such gym site).

We here at FCC are, instead, a "pokestop" site, which means that players can come here in the game and click on our picture to refill on their in-game supplies like berries to feed wild Pokemon and incense to attract them. A player can also put a lure on a pokestop site in order to further attract Pokemon to them.

What does all that mean for us? Why am I telling you all of this? Well, you may see folks come by our church, walking just as any other people often do down Lake Sacajawea, but with their phones out, playing Pokemon Go. It is genuinely difficult to understate the popularity of this game--it has gotten lots of people out of their homes and walking about, getting exercise, and giving them another chance to socialize precisely because so many other people are playing it! Which means you may well meet some Pokemon Go players yourself, whether on Sunday morning or during the week.

At this point I should make a confession: I've been pretty avidly playing it myself during my free time because the original Pokemon games from the mid-1990s were among the video games I grew up on, so they evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. During my time playing Pokemon Go, I've earned several of those lures that attract wild Pokemon, and each Sunday for the first three Sundays of August (the 7th, 14th, and 21st), I'll be putting out a lure on our church's pokestop during our fellowship time for Pokemon Go players to come to our church and experience the welcome of our amazing FCC hospitality.

And I really mean that--walking around the lake is a pretty sweaty undertaking this time of year, and being able to provide people with cold water, coffee, tea, or punch and a few minutes to rest and let their Pokemon come to them really can be a gift of Christian hospitality, and it may just allow you to meet someone in our community who you would otherwise have never met or gotten the opportunity to get to know!

And trust me--those gestures of hospitality towards Pokemon Go players are deeply appreciated by the players themselves. In the online forums for the game that I've seen, some of the most popular posts are *always* stories of people who share, essentially, "I haven't gone to church in a long time but I went this week because the church near my house is a pokestop, and the welcome I received there was so warm and loving that I had to share this story!"

Honestly, I think that is pretty durned cool that a simple game could do that--not only give someone a reason to go to church, but to experience being welcomed by a church community.

That's what we're about, y'all--that warm, loving, Christian welcome. When we say "Everyone Welcome" on our marquee, we mean it! This new game is simply another way for us to express that welcome--and maybe now, if your kids or grandkids mention how much they like the game to you, you can tell them you know what the words "Pokemon" and "pokestop" mean!

As always, it is a blessing to minister to you and alongside you as your pastor.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

This is Not a Political Endorsement

The blatant quid pro quo with which one Donald J. Trump has treated Christianity over the past several months is absolutely galling. For the greedy, plutocratic Trump, such transactional modes of communication may well be the default, but for those of us who follow and worship a Messiah who very explicitly and repeatedly not only disowned for Himself but condemned in general worldly wealth and power, it should have never come to this.

And by "this," I mean the insertion into Trump's acceptance speech last week--amid apocalyptic threats of illegal immigrants, zombies, and the ghost of Vladimir Lenin--in which he came out for eliminating what nominal constraints on political speech currently exist for pastors and for churches.

Those constraints can basically be boiled down into one: we cannot endorse political candidates as a part of any office or position we hold. I am free to donate my time or my treasure to a candidate or a cause, but it has to be off company time and on my own nickel.

Since I consider this blog a part of my ministry, this post, therefore, won't contain any endorsement from me--at least, not for any candidate who may or may not be running for political office. There are, indeed, many other things that I do wholeheartedly endorse. The Bible. My churchladies' casseroles. Single malt scotch. Kansas City sports teams.

But you won't see me endorsing a political candidate here.

That doesn't mean you haven't--and won't--see me avoid talking about those candidates either. I'm a policy junkie from my days as a debater on the high school and college circuits, and that isn't an itch that I can scratch only on rare occasion. I pore over the positions of candidates I consider voting for, I consider their public statements, and I ponder what they may do (versus what they promise--a key difference) if/when elected.

Which is why, instead of an endorsement, I'll simply say this:

Please, do not vote for Donald Trump.

If you're #WithHer, then vote for Hillary Clinton. If you're a suffering Republican--and I empathize with you, because America needs and deserves a center-right party based on humane ideals and conscientious policy, not a cult of personality--who is considering voting for Gary Johnson, then vote for Gary Johnson. If you aren't quite down with Sarah Silverman and her message, then vote for Jill Stein.

Just, please, do not vote for Donald Trump.

I have never been so explicit in my political advocacy as a pastor regarding any candidate; in fact, during the 2012 cycle, I don't believe the words "Barack Obama" or "Mitt Romney" left my mouth from the pulpit the entire time.

And there is a reason for that. While I obviously had an opinion on who between them should be president, I did not see either of them as an existential threat to democracy or to the fundamental value of life that we Christians--and all people--are meant to hold sacred. The candidate I preferred could have lost and while I would have been very disappointed, I could have gone to bed that night confident that the republic would stand and that I wouldn't have any problems singing the Star Spangled Banner in the morning.

With Donald Trump, that quite simply is not the case. Compared to the major party nominees of the past two cycles, we are being presented with someone who has openly endorsed torture, attacking civilian targets, punishing women for seeking abortions, banning an entire religion from the United States, mass-deporting millions of people who have committed no violent crime whatsoever, and who in turn has been openly endorsed by two of the most ruthless strongmen in the world--Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un (nope, not making that one up).

At a certain point you would think that we would have asked ourselves, why would we want the choice of two authoritarians who are loudly and unapologetically opposed to our interests to be our next president? And as I write these words, Trump just called on Putin's government to continue its cyberwar. No, I'm not making that one up either.

And really, you'd think that would be the last straw for people. You'd think we would be asking ourselves that simple but critical question of why Trump is nakedly against our interests--he literally just said he cares more about embarrassing the first female major party nominee for President than he does about state security. But you--and I--would be wrong. So, I'm talking about it to try to spur these sorts of questions onward.

I'm talking much more frequently about politics this election cycle because, quite simply, this election cycle is different. One of its candidates is different. Spiritually, existentially, morally different. Which means that, as a Christian pastor called and ordained by God's church to teach *truth* as concerns life and God's teaching, I am compelled to speak.

And I will continue to speak even in the face of the depressing news that roughly three-quarters of evangelical Christian voters have fallen in behind the Donald, even though he is a latter-day Caesar in every sense of the term: someone for whom morality is measured only by material wealth and who longs to rule as a selfish, self-serving emperor, not as a democratic servant.

Such rule is not Christian. Such rule never was, and never has been, Christian.

A dear couple at my congregation are mostly my opposite politically--as is the case with many of my beloved people in my politically diverse congregation: we run the gamut from the very conservative to very liberal. And I think that's actually pretty freaking cool when many churches simply act as echo chambers, either being an echo chamber of homogeneity or simply sticking their heads in the sand altogether.

I got a chance this spring to chat with this couple about their hopes for 2016, and they told me that they really liked John Kasich for president. And frankly, I get the appeal, even though I likely wouldn't vote for him myself. So I told them that I really hoped they got a chance to vote for him in the Republican primary. And I truly meant it.

But then the Indiana primary happened at the start of May, both Cruz and Kasich packed it in, and by the time the Washington primary rolled around later that month, Trump had become the de facto nominee.

And in addition to feeling terrible for the wide swaths of people who Trump has gleefully libeled and demonized this election cycle--Muslims, Mexicans, and so on--I felt terrible for my own congregants who did not get a chance to substantively register their disapproval of Trump from a different perspective than mine.

Their perspective deserved to be heard. And I hope the perspectives of all of us will get heard in November.

I'm not telling you who to vote for this November for president. I do not believe that I, or any pastor, should be allowed to do that, despite Trump's blatant pandering to me and to Christendom as a whole.

But I am asking you, begging you, pleading with you: do not let that person be Donald J. Trump. His agenda is one that is against Latinos, Muslims, women, and, indeed, the security of what remains the most prominent democracy in the world.

That is not godly. That is anything but godly. And such an agenda simply cannot be rewarded with legitimacy.

Thanks for listening.

Vancouver & Longview, Washington
July 27, 2016

Image of Cheeto Jesus courtesy of Youtube

Friday, July 15, 2016

So Your Church Is Now A PokeStop. Now What?

As I was putting the final touches on this post this morning, I began reading the horrifying reports out of Nice, France. I debated for a while whether to hold off on this post. But as I say at the end of this article, this is a game that has actually humanized a lot of people to a lot of other people. In other words, it is a very real tool to use against terror if we choose for it to be. Because of that, I hope you are able to take something very profound and authentic from what might otherwise simply be, on the surface level, a how-to article about responding to a simple game. ~E.A.

The first generation of Pokemon games--Red and Blue (not Yellow--that game was too goofy for me)--were a formative influence in my childhood. There weren't many pets that I could have as a kid owing to allergies my sister and I have, so my choices were fish or Pokemon. I tried both and learned that Pokemon stick around longer and don't ever need to be flushed down the toilet.

Now, twenty years after that first generation of games, Pokemon Go has arrived and genuinely taken the country (and Australia, New Zealand, etc.) by storm. It puts the quest of catching Pokemon into the real world rather than the make-believe world (called Kanto) of the original games, meaning that people now must physically travel to different real-world locations to catch Pokemon as well as to find Pokemon-catching supplies and opponents to train their Pokemon with.

Niantic, the developers of Pokemon Go, and Nintendo, the developers of the original Pokemon games, installed many of these "PokeStops" and gyms at churches, as well as other prominent public spots (parks, monuments, landmarks, that sort of thing), so now, all of the sudden, churches across the country have reacted--or been forced to react--to this brand-new existential identity and change in purpose and vocation: how to approach the people who have arrived on their doorsteps not for Jesus, but for a chance at catching Charizard?

As a pastor and Pokemon fan, if I may, offer these few suggestions to colleagues and churches around the world wondering how best to do this brand-new form of outreach that has presented itself to us:

First and foremost: make clear that people are *welcome* at your place of worship. Put up a sign, a post on your church website or (in my case) church Facebook page that explicitly welcomes Pokemon Go players to your campus and makes it clear that they may play the game on your property (with the understanding, of course, that they respect your property--which the vast, vast majority of players seem to be doing).

Secondly, though, do more than simply extend a verbal welcome: extend a material welcome as well. You'll note in my Facebook page post that I let players know that we have coffee and ice water on Sundays, and that on days when our sanctuary is open (which isn't always possible since my office is in a separate building from our sanctuary), I'll be putting a Lure (which brings in Pokemon for players to catch) up on our church's PokeStop. All of these are material examples of communicating to players that, again, they are welcome at your place of worship.

There are more active forms of engagement on top of the more passive forms of simply setting out drinks or Lure Modules--consider hosting a contest for players if your church is a Gym, with the winner getting a prize from the church like a gift card. If this game is still kicking come Easter in April, I hope to be able to host a Pokemon hunt for children alongside our regular Easter egg hunt!

But perhaps most importantly, once players are present on your property, actually make the effort to initiate and maintain a relationship with them built on kindness and compassion. I created a thread on the Pokemon Go subreddit to thank the redditors there for their celebration of the various ways in which churches around them were making that effort to be caring and compassionate towards their newfound trainer-guests.

What that thread became, though, largely, was people in turn thanking *me* for offering up a grateful Christian witness to them in contrast to the negative experiences with religion some of them have had, and even had very recently as a result of this new game.

After Dallas, after Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, and now after Nice, we desperate need more of that which helps us to see the humanity in one another rather than the bogeyman in one another. We need tools that aid autistic children in socializing, that aid body-shamed, out-of-shape souls in getting outside without that fear or shame, that aid churches in seeing people outside their immediate orbit of week-in, week-out worshipers who may or may not actually be representative of the communities in which these churches are.

See the humanity in your new visitors, my colleagues and other churches. Embrace them, welcome them in, and show them the love and hospitality of Jesus Christ.

In the midst of the terrors of the world, our ways of compassion and grace may well depend upon it.

Seattle, Washington
July 15, 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Proverb and a Taunt"

1 Kings 9:1-9

Now once Solomon finished building the Lord’s temple, the royal palace, and everything else he wanted to accomplish, 2 the Lord appeared to him a second time in the same way he had appeared to him at Gibeon. 3 The Lord said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your cry to me. I have set apart this temple that you built, to put my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. 4 As for you, if you walk before me just as your father David did, with complete dedication and honesty, and if you do all that I have commanded, and keep my regulations and case laws, 5 then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, just as I promised your father David, ‘You will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’ 6 However, if you or your sons turn away from following me and don’t observe the commands and regulations that I gave you, and go to serve other gods, and worship them, 7 then I will remove Israel from the land I gave them and I will reject the temple that I dedicated for my name. Israel will become a joke, insulted by everyone. 8 Everyone who passes by this temple, so lofty now, will be shocked and will whistle, wondering, Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and this temple? 9 The answer will come: Because they deserted the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt’s land. They embraced other gods, worshipping and serving them. That is why the Lord brought all this disaster on them.” (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, Son of David & Bathsheba, King of Israel,” Week Six

I want to tell you a story about something that happened right here at the church, just a few months ago, sometime in February.

This was wintertime, which meant that I had my full beard as opposed to the goatee I usually wear the rest of the year. Worship and fellowship time had both long since passed, and I was out on the front lawn walking my dogs when I saw two walkers admiring our lovely Gothic building.

I walked up to them and introduced myself as the pastor and asked if I could help them or tell them anything about the building. They expressed their thanks for my offer and we made small talk for a few minutes before one of them sort of squints and asks, “So is this still a Christian church?”

I’m honestly dumbfounded at this question. Our big sign on our front lawn does say “First Christian Church” after all; it’d be mighty rich of us to advertise ourselves as a Christian church if we were instead devotees of, I don’t know, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Richard Simmons.

So I say, “Yes, of course, this has always been a Christian church.”

The man’s response absolutely floored me—and his walking companion. “Well, I ask because you really look like you’re one of those Muslims.”

His companion apologized profusely to me, but it didn’t do much for my immediate dumbfounded humiliation. The guy’s question implied that I had somehow managed some sort of stealthy campaign to turn one of the most historic churches in Longview into a secret mosque, and the suspicion with which that gets asked, and implied…no good can come from that, only pain.

And in truth, it wasn’t the first time I had been mistaken for a Muslim with suspicion. Or, for that matter, for a Jew, Latino, Italian, or even East Asian. I’m from everywhere, I know.

This happened here, literally on our front door, in 2016. Not, say,  in Selma circa 1960, but Longview in 2016. Racial ignorance is very, very real here, just like elsewhere.

After September 11, both my father and I—for he, too, wears a full beard—began being treated with suspicion in ways neither of us had previously experienced at airports. I had a ticket agent, upon seeing my ID, bug her eyes out and ask if that really was my name (as though my real name was, in true Team America fashion, Durka Durka Durka). Another time, a TSA agent reached for my cross that I wear around my neck and asked me why I bothered wearing it. And my dad once had a TSA agent straight-up admit to him that he was not “randomly selected” for invasive screening, but that he had been profiled based on his appearance.

That last one is important, because being profiled based on your appearance has become a deadly thing. Philando Castile, the 32-year-old African-American school cafeteria supervisor in Minneapolis who was shot dead this week—you probably saw his story on the news—for doing nothing more than attempting to comply with an officer’s orders, was similarly profiled.

How? Because the officer who pulled him over—ostensibly for a broken taillight, saidafterwards that the wideness of Castile’s nose resembled someone who was wanted for armed robbery.

The wideness of his nose led him to getting pulled over. The taillight was just a pretense. Over the past fourteen-odd years, Castile—who by all accounts was a model citizen—was pulled over 52 times. How many of those occurrences likewise were really only under pretense?

We saw another situation of when profiling led to lethal violence this week in Dallas, when a young military veteran decided it was time for him to start shooting white police officers. Never mind the fact that over the past seven years, the Dallas PD has been a role model in good policing and in minimizing excessive force from its officers. And never mind the fact that shooting at police officers, no matter which way you cut it, is simply evil and diabolical. It is sin, full stop.

And that sort of danger—I may have felt humiliated by those moments of racism in my life, but I never felt like my life was in danger. That is my own privilege in contrast to people of color and police officers.

I’m theoretically supposed to be using this sermon as the next installment of my summer sermon series on Solomon, so here it is. Today’s passage, which takes place after the temple in Jerusalem has finally at long last been completed, depicts another dreamlike conversation between God and Solomon—although really, God does most of the talking. God tells Solomon, in so many words, not to get complacent, not to rest on his spiritual laurels and lapse into idolatry, but to continue striving to uphold the covenant that his ancestors have made, and continued to make, with God.

God says to Solomon that otherwise, Israel will, in the words of the New Revised Standard Version translation, become “a proverb and a taunt” among the nations. This will happen, God, says, if and when Israel abandons the God who liberated “their ancestors out of Egypt’s land” to embrace, worship, and serve idols.

The invocation of the exodus out of Egypt here is important, because it recalls a reality that, in pointing out and interpreting thusly, I understand I may well upset some of you. But sometimes, that’s my job.

When Moses went before Pharaoh, he didn’t say, “Let all the people go,” he said, “Let *my* people go.” It was him saying, in essence, “Hebrew Lives Matter.”

Not “All Lives Matter.” It was blatantly clear in Egypt that Egyptian lives mattered, or at least mattered more than the lives of their Hebrew slaves.

“All Lives Matter” is one of those idols. Not because it isn’t true—taken by itself, absent of its context, of course it is self-evidently true—but because it has become not something to say to assert truth, but to silence another truth, which is that the lives of people of color need to matter more than they have historically mattered, just like the lives of the Hebrews needed to matter more than they did in Egypt’s land.

So God liberated them from the hand of Pharaoh.

God ensured that their lives would matter.

The danger, then, for Solomon, is in falling away from the ways of the God to whom His people profoundly matter. This, as I have said all along, is what Solomon will sadly eventually one day do.

It need not be, however, what we do. Solomon can act as a proverb to us, just like the ones he wrote and that are handed down to us in Scripture through his book of Proverbs.

Solomon’s own weakness can serve to keep us from our own, that weakness to stray from the teachings of the Prince of Peace who said, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, *but I say to you*…”

Evil done to repay evil will always and forever remain, evil.

What we do to others to silence them—through our own words to talk over them, through our lack of care or attention to their voice, narrative, and experience, or, in the case of another lone gunman in Dallas, Texas, through diabolical violence and murder—will always and forever remain evil.

What we do to others to profile them—through our prejudices and our bigotries, through our small-mindedness and incapacity for seeing a wider and larger world—will always and forever remain evil.

And until we learn those lessons and really, truly begin to apply them in our lives, then we are, I fear, destined to reap the wages of Solomon…and not the fantastic material wealth of his royal court, but the fraying of our relationship with—and covenant between—the God who so fearfully and wonderfully made us.

Out of nothing but some dirt and love.

May our own capacity for love, then, arise from the dirt and ash of the wreckage of this past week.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 10, 2016

Saturday, July 9, 2016

God is Not Neutral, There is a Balm in Gilead, and We Need it Now

But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first. -Matthew 19:30

But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort. How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry. How terrible for you who laugh now, because you will mourn and weep. How terrible for you when all speak well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets. -Luke 6:24-26

All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up. -Luke 18:14

I'm sickened by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castle. I'm sickened by the killings of the five Dallas police officers. I know all of you are as well. Sickened by it, sick of it, tired of it, worn out by it.

And I'm not even the one in the real danger of any of this. Yes, whenever I grow my full beard out I sometimes get mistaken by prejudiced or ignorant yokels for an ISIS operative, but every time people have treated me in a racist manner, it has made me feel humiliated, not endangered. I certainly never felt like my life was in immediate danger, at the very least.

Imagine seeing this happen, over, and over, to people who look like you. Who could be you. Who, on a communal, I-am-because-you-are level, are you.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sinsick soul

Amadou Diallo.

Oscar Grant.

Trayvon Martin.

Mike Brown.

Eric Garner.

Tamir Rice.

Sandra Bland.

Freddie Gray.

Eric Harris.

Walter Scott.

Rekia Boyd.

Akai Gurley.

Laquan McDonald.

Renisha McBride.

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

How long is the list going to get? How long before God reminds us once more that in the divine kingdom, not ours, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, that the exalted will be brought down and the humbled shall be exalted?

Patrick Zamarripa.

Brent Thompson.

Lorne Ahrens.

Michael Krol.

Michael Smith.

How long, O God, indeed.

There is a balm in Gilead

It will, I fear, take us much, much longer, because as I write these words, the news is coming out of Dallas of now five police officers shot and killed--and several more seriously wounded--by a sniper at what had up to that point been a peaceful protest.

I tweeted out in response: God is not neutral. God sees the violence against black lives. God sees the violence against police. God is with the victims.

God is with the victims--the dead and dying, those clinging to life in operating rooms, those terrorized and traumatized by what they have just experienced.

God is not neutral in these moments. God chose to send a message with Jesus Christ, a message of nonviolence in the face of violence, of love in the face of hatred, and of resistance in the face of diabolical evil.

God sees the wrong done by us to one another because of how we look--in Baton Rouge, in Minnesota, and in Dallas.

God sees it, and is set against it.

God has always been set against it.

There is a balm in Gilead

We cannot be neutral, either. We cannot be passive. Love is an active verb. Like the balm in Gilead, love is something we must not simply exhibit, but seek out. We must seek it others, demand it in others, especially when they refuse to show it.

My godchildren are black. They're early on in elementary school and haven't really learned what pure hate looks like yet, but they will, because they'll be taught how this country, for hundreds of years, treated people who looked like them.

Their parents do an amazing, awe-inspiring job of show them love and teaching them how to love, just like my parents did for me.

But my parents' love didn't inoculate me from the hate. I experienced my first racial slur when I was ten years old.

Again--I'm not black. I identify as white. I just don't look white enough sometimes.

That is why God is not neutral. Because we are not, and despite our #AllLivesMatter claims, we never have been.

There is a balm in Gilead.

In response to the protests over the killings of Sterling and Castile, I've seen people say "I would've mowed those protesters over," as though their armchair machismo somehow validated their resentment towards a people seeking justice.

How much need we still have for the message of Christ, that the last will indeed one day be first and the humbled will be exalted. Having to protest and demand and plead just to be treated like the human being you are, that's an experience I will never have because I never needed it to be treated like a man and not a beast.

How humbling it must be, then, to realize that your desire to inflict harm on other people comes from a subhuman place of yourself, that there is part of you, in seeing others as beast, that is in fact truly beast-like in nature.

I just don't know how to tell such people that, at least in any way that they would be listen, feel moved, and beg God for the grace and forgiveness that I know is out there, because I have felt it too.

There is a balm in Gilead.

I don't know how much sense this post makes anymore. I've revisited it so many times, and tried to cram so much into it, that I've violated one of my own cardinal rules of writing: try to say one thing at a time, and say it well.

But my heart is too broken for that sort of discipline and restraint. It needs healing, fixing, caring.

It needs that balm for the sinsick soul. For I am indeed sick with, and of, sin--my own, yours, this country's, this world's.

There has been a diagnosis. And there is indeed a cure.

It is time for the healing to begin.

There is a balm in Gilead.

Vancouver, Washington
July 9, 2016

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

It's Our People: A Response to Donald Trump's Son-In-Law Jared Kushner

Dear Mr. Kushner,

I don't know you, obviously. You're the shadow leader of a major campaign for president, and I'm a small-town pastor with a modest blog. By all accounts, you and Ivanka have a delightful family and the two of you come across--at least in almost all the media I see you in--as genuinely well-mannered, considerate, and authentic.

Despite the very existence of your father-in-law's campaign that you are, again by all accounts, having a big hand in running.

I read the column by your employee Dana Schwartz, who writes for the paper you own and that has (obviously) endorsed Trump. It meant a lot to me to have someone whose livelihood you have considerable power over--you could fire or demote her at a moment's notice--actually speak truth to power and ask for an accounting of yourself for your support of your father-in-law even in the face of what was, by all reasonable interpretations, an anti-Semitic tweet directed at his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

To your credit, you did so, penning a thoughtful response in the pages of the same paper Ms.Schwartz used to rightly call you out.

But if you'll kindly permit me, your words deserve a further calling out, and I may be in a position to do so. For you are the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and I am the great-grandson of survivors of a genocide that was, for all intents and purposes, the dress rehearsal to the Holocaust: the Armenian Genocide.

The Armenian Holocaust was executed at profound cost to my family. Among the 1.5 million dead was my great-great grandfather Sarkis, who was murdered in 1915, as was one of my great-grandfather's brothers, Madiros, who was only a couple of years older than I am now. My great-grandfather and his bride, my great-grandmother, fled across Russia all the way to Vladivostok as refugees and smuggled themselves into the United States illegally. We still have their fake passports.

So please trust me when I say that I understand the gravity of your narrative of your grandmother's experience in the Novrogroduk ghetto. Your retelling of that experience is both harrowing and tender at the same time, a reminder to all of us of what can happen when the very worst parts of our sinful human natures are stoked.

And whether you are able to see it or not, that is precisely what your father-in-law is doing--and has been doing--throughout his campaign. As many other observers have noted, the Nazi Holocaust did not begin with the death camps and the gas chambers--they were predated by the Nuremburg Laws, Kristallnacht, the imprisonment of political opponents in concentration camps, and the widespread dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda.

The exact same is true of the Armenian Holocaust. I would refer you to a sermon I preached on April 24 of this year, which is the remembrance day for the Armenian Holocaust, and specifically to this passage:

In December 1914, Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Minister of War, fought the Battle of Sarikamish against the Russian army, which was aided by a number of Armenian volunteers. It was a disaster for the Ottomans—Enver Pasha had failed to both keep an adequate operational reserve force and accurately predict how the Russians would react to being attacked.

But such reality often does not suit men of power and of egos. Enver Pasha blamed the defeat on the Armenian soliders who had fought alongside the Russians, because many of the Armenian soldiers were themselves Russian citizens, but also partly because the Ottoman Empire had initiated a series of pogroms and massacres of its Armenian populations in the 1890s (which had led to more Armenians immigrating elsewhere, including to Russia, to begin with).

This was only a part of the Armenian community, though, and in fact many were still enlisted in the Ottoman armed forces—until Directive 8682 was issued in February 1915, which ejected all ethnic Armenians from the Ottoman military, under the pretense of community-wide disloyalty.

These two actions, along with others, provided the pretext for the execution of 1.5 million Armenians throughout the remaining duration of the First World War.

Accusing the ethnic Armenians within Turkey of disloyalty, of having an impure agenda, was what gave the three Pashas--Enver, Talaat, and Mehmed--the pretext to commit the genocide, but that genocide was, just like the Nazi Holocaust, preceded by build-up efforts to isolate and alienate the Armenians just as German and Polish Jews were isolated and alienated twenty-some years later.

Your inclusion of your grandmother's narrative is incredibly poignant. But it doesn't tell the story of how she and millions like her came to be so demonized in a country that once was home.

And how they came to be demonized--and how my family came to be demonized--is through tactics disturbingly similar to what your father-in-law is employing.

No objective observer could really believe that the tweet about Clinton had a sheriff's star, because who is associated with the hateful, bigoted stereotype about money and corruption--sheriffs, or Jews?

No objective observer could really believe that Trump's tweet about black-on-white homicide was anything other than race-baiting, because who is associated with the hateful, bigoted stereotype about being superhuman, violent thugs--African-American men, or white men?

No objective observer could really believe that Trump's tweet tying together the Nazi swastika with blatantly anti-Hispanic imagery was anything other than a racist slap in the face to non-whites, and Latino/a's in particular, because who is the swastika associated with, white pride, or Latino/a pride?

These are not your father-in-law's racist, anti-Semitic supporters, either--though you do try to pass the buck onto them. None of them, so far as anyone can tell, hijacked or hacked Trump's twitter account. Your father-in-law, and he alone, is responsible for what he says. You compare it to Bernie Sanders's supporters desecrating the American flag, but Sanders never instructed his supporters to desecrate such a venerable, revered symbol of our country. Your father-in-law, on the other hand, told his supporters he'd pay their legal fees if they beat up protesters at his rallies.

So, why are you absolving him of it by foisting it off on his followers? And, more to the point, why does it not disturb you more that your father-in-law has so many bigoted followers?

You're once again ignoring a larger pattern at work here. This isn't just about a solitary tweet from your father-in-law, it's about multiple tweets, multiple statements, and multiple incitements to violence from your father-in-law in addition to the numerous hateful tweets, statements, and acts of violence from his followers.

It's our people who are being targeted here, and by "our," I don't mean strictly Jews or strictly Armenians. It's "our" people in the sense of any people who have been marginalized, cast out, demonized, and persecuted simply for who they are. People of color. Women. GLBTQ persons. Muslims. The differently abled. All of whom your father-in-law has maligned, but all of whom have something great and glorious to offer to us, if only we were to cede them the safe space with which to do so.

I know that we're of different faith traditions, Mr. Kushner, but I believe that we worship the same God, and I genuinely hope that you will find some time soon to do some very real soul searching. Your father-in-law is saying many of the same things--and using many of the same tactics--that the people who tried to kill both our ancestors used in their evil machinations.

Please ask yourself just how much more, and for how much longer, you wish to be a part of such an inhumane effort.

Thanks for reading.

Rev. Eric Atcheson

Sunday, July 3, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Kohanim"

1 Kings 8:54-62

As soon as Solomon finished praying and making these requests to the Lord, he got up from before the Lord’s altar, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out to heaven. 55 He stood up and blessed the whole Israelite assembly in a loud voice: 56 “May the Lord be blessed! He has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. He hasn’t neglected any part of the good promise he made through his servant Moses. 57 May the Lord our God be with us, just as he was with our ancestors. May he never leave us or abandon us. 58 May he draw our hearts to him to walk in all his ways and observe his commands, his laws, and his judgments that he gave our ancestors. 59 And may these words of mine that I have cried out before the Lord remain near to the Lord our God day and night so that he may do right by his servant and his people Israel for each day’s need, 60 and so that all the earth’s peoples may know that the Lord is God. There is no other God! 61 Now may you be committed to the Lord our God with all your heart by following his laws and observing his commands, just as you are doing right now.” 62 Then the king and all Israel with him sacrificed to the Lord. (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, Son of David & Bathsheba, King of Israel,” Week Five

It was a scene you would think had been ripped straight out of the pages of a Law & Order script (although the trial did make onto television screens anyways via Court TV)—a zealous prosecutor tearing into a wholly unrepentant murder defendant. And what made this particular murder defendant so unrepentant was because he thought what he had done was ordained by God.

Ray Hemphill served as the de facto exorcist of his brother David’s Faith Temple Church in Milwaukee, and in 2004, the brothers went on trial for the death of a young boy who had autism and whom Ray had killed in 2003 while attempting to exorcise the boy of his autism—which, of course, as a disease and not an actual demon, cannot be exorcised.

This led to this vivid exchange between David and prosecutor Mark Williams, as Dr. Paul Offit, M.D., recounted in his book Bad Faith:

Hemphill: My church is going to do exactly what the word of God tells us to do.
Williams: So, you’re saying God is giving you the power to take away…
Hemphill: I say he has the power! If I lay down on someone and he passes away—God took him. I didn’t!

That’s a horrifying passing of the buck there, a complete dereliction of authority, because far too often, we put ourselves in the hands of people who will try to claim authority over us in the name of God with no such actual claim or calling. Think of the televangelists—Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Peter Popoff, Robert Tilton—or the faith healers who tell you, as the Hemphill brothers did, to reject modern medical science, like Kenneth and Gloria Copeland or Benny Hinn.

And just as there is such a thing as medical malpractice or legal malpractice, there is such a thing as spiritual malpractice. Fortunately, we have a baseline for what a cleric, a priest, a minister, should proffer as a message, because it comes to us from a king who acted as a de facto priest: Solomon, who, unlike many absolute ancient monarchs, does not claim divinity himself. And that actually really does matter here.

This is a new sermon series for a new season in the church—spring has now officially moved into summer, and just like a couple of years ago in 2014, when, if you’ll remember, we spent most of the summer reading verse-by-verse through the beginning of Acts, we’ll once again take on one big narrative in Scripture.

Only this time, that narrative will be the life and reign of King Solomon, a fascinating figure in Israelite history who has probably been somewhat mythologized and made into a King Arthur-esque national legend over the years, but who nonetheless represents an epoch centered around a singular truth that was not achieved again for hundreds of years, and then again for thousands: ruling over Israel as a unified and independent kingdom.

Believe it or not, a unified and independent Israel is a rarity in history. After Solomon, an independent and unified Israel would only really exist twice: during the short reign of the Maccabees (of whom you have probably heard via the Hanukkah story), and during present history since 1946.

So Solomon’s reign—and his father David’s before him—is unique. How Solomon is remembered matters because of it. And we’ll get a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem to his eventual downfall. We began by spending two weeks with the story of how Solomon comes by his divinely-bestowed wisdom for which he is eternally famous and then with Solomon applying that wisdom in this well-known story of two mothers, and then we moved on to the building of the Jerusalem temple itself. Now, today, the temple has been completed and Solomon has been praying at its dedication ceremony.

In this role of prayer leader-in-chief, Solomon is taking on a very traditional role of an ancient king: a high priest, demigod, or whatever state of being that made the king (in the eyes of the state religion) the person closest to God of anybody else.

Solomon is a mediator between God and God’s people in this story in a way that is really very new to the Israelites under monarchical rule. Solomon’s father David, while a talented psalmist, didn’t lead his country in the same sort of reverential religious rituals as Solomon is now doing—David famously danced before the Ark of the Covenant, not prayed before it.

It is more than simply a reflection of the differences between the temperaments of these two kings, though. It is an indicator of what they each thought their job description as king was. As Biblical scholar Norman Gottwald puts it, “The combined work of David and Solomon moved Israel a long distance from “chieftainship” to “hierarchic kingship” along a trajectory that catapulted Israel into the forefront of ancient Near Eastern states.”

Okay, what does that mean, though? Remember: before the kings (the first being Saul, and then David, and now Solomon) Israel did not have a central ruler; rather, charismatic leaders called the judges would arise to unite the tribes, often against a common external enemy. Israel was less a unified country then and more a loose confederation of tribes.

The kingship changed all of that. It made Israel an “is,” not an “are.” But crucially, unlike most ancient absolute monarchies, the duties of religious leadership did not transfer right away to the king; rather, they remain with the prophets. In fact, Samuel—the last judge of Israel and Saul’s prophet during his kingship—scolds Saul so harshly for Saul deigning to offer a sacrifice to God in Samuel’s absence that Samuel pronounces that Saul’s dynasty will end with him.

Solomon, though, employs no such prophets, at least as documented in 1 Kings, even though Saul had Samuel and his father David had Nathan. In truth, that probably has something to do with Solomon’s eventual slide into idolatry, because one of the most valuable things religious teachers can do is to help keep their people accountable to God—out of love, of course—for their actions. And Solomon will sorely need someone in the future to be able to point him back towards this day, and these prayers that he is uttering, and say to him, “Whatever happened to that believer?”

For a great depth there is to the belief that Solomon is professing through this prayer. He is calling out to a God who is first and foremost to Solomon eternal and faithful, a God who keeps promises, who does not abandon people, of whom Solomon says, “There is no other.”

More than anything else, that is what separates God from us. God is capable of such patience in love, such endurance in grace, such durability in mercy, that those sorts of qualities are really a one-way deal in the covenant between God and us. Even the very best of us can stumble and forget God in a moment. Solomon certainly did.

Which is why the whole notion of a purely human high priest, or a human elevated to demigod status, does neither that person nor their followers any favors. Nor does it do any favors to the very real tradition of priesthood that stretches all the way back to Moses’s older brother Aaron.

The Hebrew word for this priesthood is kohanim (the singular, kohan, is where we get the common surname Cohen), and as a plural, it deliberately invokes an authority far greater than any one person.

The Disciples of Christ believes so deeply in the priesthood of all believers—the idea that you are all a part of the kohanim—that it is one of the only four or five points of settled doctrine that our tradition upholds, along with the Messiahship of Jesus Christ, the weekly partaking of holy communion, and the performance of believer’s baptism by immersion.

So it isn’t just me. It isn’t just you. It’s all of us.

It means that my authority is enmeshed with yours, and yours with mine, so that we might not have a circumstance like the church of Ray and David Hemphill, or of Peter Popoff, or Robert Tilton, or any number of others who elevated themselves to demigods among mortals and whose flocks paid the price for their chutzpah and ego.

Solomon may be a king of unmatched power and splendor, but his message to the people is fundamentally one of humility before God: “May you be committed to following the Lord your God with all your heart.” Not “May you be committed to following Solomon.” But “May you be committed to following God.”

He is in the role that so many others in other contexts have occupied as demigods: the Egyptian Pharaohs, who claimed to be the god Horus made flesh. The Roman Caesars, whose fathers were deified upon their deaths.

But not Solomon.

He is made of the same stuff we are, and, in truth, by his eventual temptation by idols, is the same sort of sinner that we are, as we too feel the pull and push of our own idols, whatever they may be--greed, lust, a certain Seattle-based football team...

Yet all of us have been delivered here, as sinners called and redeemed, and sent out to likewise call and deliver other sinners.

We are all, though so flawed, still a part of that priesthood of believers, that great cloud of witnesses.

What a gift from God that is.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 3, 2016

Friday, July 1, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

July 2016: "Setting Up the Sabbatical"

Dear Church,

As many of you know I am currently tentatively scheduled to spend the first three months of 2017 on sabbatical.

The letter of call I signed in August 2011--almost five years ago!--stipulates a three-month sabbatical after every five years of service, and I plan to take advantage of sacred and holy time away from day-in, day-out ministry by working on my Doctor of Ministry thesis at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry and teaching at Three Rivers Christian School. By taking on both of these tasks, I am not only furthering my professional education to benefit the church through SU-STM, but I also get an amazing opportunity to give back to the wider community through TRCS.

While I am on sabbatical from January 2 through April 2, my presence in your life will be different. I won't be available for the regular tasks of preaching, teaching, counseling, and leading that you rely on me to do. That does not mean that you will not hear from me--I'll still be around on social media and posting updates of my sabbatical to my online blog, but you won't see me at church on Sundays or in my office during the week like usual. 

Instead, an ad hoc search committe is, by the authority of our Board of Directors, being formed to recommend a candidate for the role of Interim Sabbatical Pastor, who would provide a part-time pastoral presence for the church during my sabbatical. and our Director of Children's Ministries, Jamie Lynn Devries, will provide input to the committee in a nonvoting, ex officio capacity.

I myself, though I have reached out to the candidates to gauge their interest in this position, will have no part in any of the committee's deliberations, nor will I have a vote on their recommendation to the congregation. This committee will be starting its work in earnest over the next couple of months to vet the candidates--who have been recommended to us by Sandy Messick, our Regional Minister and President--before them. They will surely appreciate your prayers for God's providence and guidance in making their recommendation, which hopefully can be brought to a congregational vote by October or November.

Even with the ministry of an interim sabbatical pastor, though, we will need our dedicated church volunteers to step up as well. I have already spoken to our Board and our Elders about the increased responsibilities they will face in the areas of decision-making (the Board) and pastoral care of our people (the Elders), and they too should be prayed for and cared for, as should Jamie, Charlotte, and our church staff.

I remain immensely grateful to the search committee that voted to recommend me to you five years ago--Judy Southard, Judy Ellenbolt, Alma Kudlacek, Don Powell, Lori Powell, and the late Darlyne Temanson--and for their foresight to include the sabbatical as a part of my letter of call. This time to work on my education--and to provide for the education of others in our town--is a precious gift, and it cannot be taken for granted. The purpose with which I am approaching it does, I hope, speak volumes to all of you about its value to me and to our congregation!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric