Isiah Thomas, Leonard Cohen, & Learning to Sing in the Dark: A Sermon on Acts 16

Today’s reading is from Acts 16:16-34.

16 One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. 17 She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” 18 She did this for many days.

This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment.

19 Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center.20 When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews 21 who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. 23 When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. 24 When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks.

25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”

29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” 32 They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. 33 Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.

Grace to you + peace from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ, Amen.

I was reading an interview recently with Hall-of-Fame basketball player Isiah Thomas. He grew up learning how to play basketball on the playgrounds of his Chicago neighborhood. He would go anywhere with a basketball hoop to practice his jump shot. He would stay out there all day and even into the night. There were no lights on the playground, but even after dark he would stay out and practice his shot. He knew he’d made it if he heard the chain link net *clink* as the ball went through.

Here’s what he knew… If you can make a jump shot in the dark, you can most likely make it in the light as well.

Paul and Silas on their way to pray when they meet a slave-girl who is possessed by a demon. The demon makes her owners a lot of money and so they continue to reinforce this spirit inside of her — as slave owners are want to do. Anything to make a few extra bucks, right?

So Paul and Silas meet her and she starts following them for days shouting that these are men of God. Finally, it says Paul gets so annoyed that he turns around and heals her on the spot. And the demon leaves her body.

But now the slaveowners economic opportunity is gone. Remember, the slave girl isn’t a person. She holds no value to her owner as a person. She is merely an economic opportunity. But now that is gone. So they do the only sensible thing.

The throw Paul and Silas in jail. But not just any jail.
They chain their feet to the floor of the innermost cell of this prison.
They’re in the pit.

Then later on that night, around midnight, they are still praying at singing hymns to God. They are praying and singing so loud that every prisoner could hear them.

All of a sudden, the earth starts to shake. But this wasn’t just a small tremor of an earthquake. It was so violent that the very foundations of the prison were shaken. The doors flung wide. The shackles around their feet broke open.

They were free.

Now this tells us a little something about God. Even in the darkest night, even in the innermost cell, even when your feet are chained to the floor the spirit of God will shake the very foundations of your captivity and move you into freedom.

God will take even the sturdiest of shackles made of the strongest iron and bolted to the firmest of concrete foundations and God will crack those very foundations until you are released.

So, my brothers and sisters, whatever is shackling you today — whether it’s addiction, perfectionism, anxiety, whether it’s racism, sexism, and or any other ism that divides and separates, whether it’s longing for the past or fretting about the future — when we pray and sing to God, God has a way of cracking the foundations of what holds us captive and leads us into freedom.

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen lyrics is from his song “Anthem.” He writes:

“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

Cohen LyricMy brothers and sisters, when we sing songs that compel us to “let this house proclaim from floor to rafter” that all are welcome, our hold on this community cracks open to let the light of God shine just a little bit brighter. In just a couple minutes we’ll sing praise to “the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light.”

When we sing these songs we can feel those shackles start to crack. We can feel the solid ground in which those chains are held start to give just a little more.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

So next time you are chained the floor in the innermost cell at midnight and you don’t know what to do, remember that we worship a God who brings life out of death and light out of darkness.

We’re not in the perfection business. We’re in the business of showing up — showing up in all of those times when we don’t have it figured out, when things are messy and we don’t know what to do so we throw up our hands and say, “Well, I have absolutely nothing figured out, but I’m here.”

And slowly the presence of God begins to chip away at our need to feel like we have it all together.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Brothers and sisters, may you be blessed this Easter season to see the light shining through the cracks of your captivity to lead you into freedom. And may we then remember to go — GO — therefore into this world to shine the light of the risen Christ to others when they are shackled to the floor, in the innermost cell at midnight.

May we do so with glad and joyous hearts, singing “Thanks and praise to God.”


Prince & the Death of Creatives

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

princeI had just walked into the guest room to get the vacuum out of the closet when I received an alert on my phone that a body was found at Prince’s Paisley Park house. Naturally, I clicked the link that confirmed it was the body of Prince. Then I clicked over to Twitter for further confirmation. It was true. Then, almost as if I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I opened YouTube and watched Prince’s incredible guitar playing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 2004 at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for George Harrison. It still blows me away.

If anyone in this world would live forever, Prince was the one who would do it. There’s something about the way he lived, the way he created, that seemed like he was a spring that would perpetually regenerate from here to eternity.

And yet this news hits hard. There has been an outpouring of tributes on social media (four hours after the news broke, tweets about Prince’s death already numbered in the millions.) As I was scrolling through the different thoughts, it hit me that there are some celebrity deaths that are universally mourned.

For me, it has been people like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Bowie, and now Prince who, in their death have stirred something up in our broader culture, and in me personally as well. When someone prolifically creative and talented as these artists die, there is a mourning for art that will never be made.

Art connects us to some of our deepest places of pain and sadness. In those pits of despair, art has the ability to help us believe in something beautiful and joyous again. A great album, a favorite film, a painting or book can transport us to another world — one of awe and astonishment.

When we lose that sense of awe, it can be jarring. There are stories of people who don’t leave bed for weeks after their favorite celebrity artist dies. The grief hits us in an intensely personal way.

Psychologist David Kaplan says that when someone who is well-known or admired passes, it creates a desire for connection among people who admired them. He says, “We want to know that we’re not alone. So when I feel sad over a celebrity, I want to know that there are other people also feeling this way. That [connection] is very helpful.”

Every time one of our favorite artists dies, we feel a need for connection. Some of us also feel a need for an outlet — some kind of release from the pent up grief inside. My friend, David Hansen, issued a charge on his social media yesterday that I think is a great exercise for this grief as well.

For Prince. For Bowie. For Michael. For Whitney. For whoever your creative muse is: Go do something creative today. Create something. Use your gifts to bring something new into the world today. Don’t worry about how good it is or if you did it right. Just create. Use your gifts. Then share it with the world.

This is your charge, people. Create something awesome. Then share it. Drop a comment below to share something you’ve created recently. I’ll do the same. Let’s stay connected. Let’s stay creative.


Faith, Writing, and Insane Amounts of Coffee


Listening to Tara Isabella Burton’s presentation at #FFWgr

I have to tell you all about the incredible time I had last week. Every two years, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan hosts the Festival of Faith + Writing — a conference where readers, writers, and language enthusiasts of all stripes gather to talk about all things faith and writing. There are keynote speakers, panel discussions, poetry readings, and an exhibit hall that will make any bibliophile beam with equal parts excitement and envy. There are just so. many. books.

I’d never been to Grand Rapids before so, naturally, I had to do some prior research on coffee shops to start my mornings. Madcap Coffee is the big name in town, but I loved Rowster and Lightfast Coffee + Art as well.

After being sufficiently caffeinated (and then some), I was so excited to learn and be amazed at the truth, grace, and creativity oozing from every corner of the Calvin College campus — a phrase that is admittedly odd for a Lutheran pastor to write, but I call it like I see it.

Highlights for me were getting to see, hear, and meet Zadie Smith and George Saunders. They are two of my favorite writers and to be able to hear them and learn from them was such a cool experience.

The other incredible highlights were the workshops — particularly my lineup on Friday. I started out with an early morning panel about writing/being prophetic with Drew Hart, Austin Channing, and Aiden Enns. I’ve been reading a lot about race, slavery, stand your ground culture, and have been wrestling with ways to use the space my privilege affords me to work for justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God and my sisters and brothers in Christ. This panel brought up so much for me around truth-telling, naming the lies our culture and privilege tell us, and practices for listening to and writing about these truths and lies in ways that are life-giving for people who are marginalized. I will be forever grateful.

On the drive home on Sunday, I realized that not only am I a better pastor for having been there, but I am a better reader, writer, and person for having shared that space for those days.

A huge blessing of these conferences is all of the conversations and stream of ideas that begin and extend into my everyday life back home. I’m excited to continue these conversations and deepen this learning for the sake of wholeness and life.

Any time you want to talk about this kind of stuff — faith, writing, race, privilege, gender, forgiveness, etc.  — let me know. I’m happy to listen and share in that conversation.

Oh man! I didn’t even get in to how Jeff Chu, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Shane McRae took me to SCHOOL about the nature of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’ll be up next. Until then… Be blessed. And let’s start the countdown until the Festival of Faith + Writing in 2018!


Soil, Spirit, and Permission to Leave the Hum

sabbath restShonda Rhimes has one of the most phenomenal TED talks I’ve heard in a long time. In it, she talks about “the hum.” This is that churning force that drives our constant attention to our work. It’s the energy that wakes me up at 2:00am because “THAT’S WHAT I SHOULD’VE PREACHED ON EASTER!” It’s the constant flow of always having to do, make, produce, write, plan, schedule, be better, do better, visit more, check, double check, triple check, be here, now be over there, now be both places simultaneously — anyone know what I’m talking about?

I got stressed out just writing that last sentence.

What if we stopped doing this? What if we refused to participate in the madness of the hustle — even just for a day? What if we put the iPhone down, closed the laptop, shut off the television, and talked with your spouse, your kids, a friend, your mom or dad, your brother(s) or sister(s), the mail carrier, whoever? What if for just a small period of time each week, we pretended like the work was done and we sat back to relax?

Rob Bell has a wonderful podcast about a command from the book of Leviticus, early on in the Hebrew scriptures where there was a command for farmers to work their land for six years and, on the seventh year, to “let the land lie fallow” — to let the land rest for a year. This year of not farming allows the soil to rebuild essential nutrients so that it can be fruitful and productive the next six years. The idea is that even the earth has a rhythm of work, then rest, work, then rest.

In the creation story in the book of Genesis it says that when God created human beings, we were formed out of the soil and dirt and clay. Then God breathed life into us.

We are a combination of soil and breath — soil and Spirit. So if the command from Leviticus is to let the land lie fallow every so often, then the same would hold true for us, as creatures made from soil and breath. It’s the reason that one of the 10 Commandments is about honoring the Sabbath, because by honoring the Sabbath, we’re honoring the gift of our life. We’re honoring the gift of our existence as creatures of soil and Spirit.

This can be a hard thing to initiate, to start from scratch. How do we do this? How do we let ourselves rest in a way that allows us to re-build essential nutrients in our body and soul?

It starts with giving yourself permission to do whatever you have to do to take yourself out of the hum, to let the soil and Spirit that make you who you are lie fallow for a time.

For those of you who would still like a little structure to this rest time, feel free to print out the follow permission slip, or copy/paste to a Word document and use whenever you can feel the hum start to overwhelm you.

Permission Slip

Name: _________________
Date: __________________

In defiant affirmation that my worth is not found in what I produce or accomplish, in
remembering that I am a human being, not a human doing, do hereby give myself
permission to __________________________________________.

Signed: ________________________

You can do this. It’s okay. Everything will be here when you get back.

Step out of the hum. Step out of the flow.

And rejoice that God created you to be a human being, not a human doing.


Seeing Easter in a New Way

risen-indeed11I’ve spent this last week doing some reading and found something that one of my favorite theologians wrote about Easter that is completely blowing my mind. N.T. Wright talks about Easter in a way that I have never heard before and I feel like it’s common courtesy that whenever we find cool things that shake our worldview, we share them.

N.T. Wright begins to talk about Easter by going aaaaaall the way back to the creation story in Genesis 1. Here we are told the story of a God who speaks the earth into being, then separates light from darkness, sky from land, creates the land, sea, and all creatures in them. Then on the end of the sixth day, he calls it good. And on the seventh day, he rests. 

From there, creation continues to unfold. Creation is unfolding when Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Creation is unfolding when David slayed Goliath and became king. Creation is unfolding through the Hebrew prophets. Creation is still unfolding when an angel comes to Mary and says she will bear a child. It continues to unfold as Jesus heals lepers, frees the oppressed, gives sight to the blind, and proclaims the year of God’s favor. 

It continues to unfold even when Jesus is nailed to a cross — cast out. abandoned. forsaken. Until one of the very last things Jesus says: “It is finished.”

The ‘it’ here is creation. This time of creation is finished. Then on Holy Saturday — the Sabbath — Jesus rested in the tomb.

Notice how Luke starts the Easter story. It’s the same for many Easter accounts. “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn…”

Did you catch that? Did you see what Luke did?

He named that Easter morning is the start of a new week of creation. Resurrection is the instigating act that ushers in a time of new creation. We are no longer playing by the old rules and power structures that govern the world up until that first Easter. In new creation, life can come from death, hope can come from despair, and love can come from fear. In new creation, the worst thing to happen to you will never be the last thing that happens to you.1

There is always a word after despair, loneliness, and death. And it is always a word of mercy and love. This is the story of Easter. This is new creation.

Have you ever felt like brokenness and pain are the defining story of your life?

This story sets a new course.

Have you ever felt like every step is a mistake or a failure?

The empty tomb of Easter morning says, “No!”

Today is the day to remember that you are a child of resurrection. You have been given life in new creation. This is the good gift for you today.

So as we go on our way this morning, out into a world yearning to experience new creation and resurrection, may we be blessed to remember this story. May we be blessed to live as the freed and forgiven children that we are. And may we bless others, as we have been blessed, to be children of resurrection –children of light, hope, and grace. Amen.

I hope you had a blessed Easter!


1 – From Frederick Buechner’s ‘The Final Beast’

%d bloggers like this: