Faith, Writing, and Insane Amounts of Coffee

FFWgr

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!

Cheers,
Eric

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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.

Cheers,
Eric

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!

Cheers,
Eric

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

The Dangers of Coming Home: A Sermon on the Prodigal Son

return-of-the-prodigal-son-forain

Jesus is gathered with his disciples and all around him are tax collectors and Pharisees, sinners and scribes and he uses the opportunity to tell them three stories of grace. He talks about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, but he notices that one is missing. So he leaves the 99 in the wilderness to search for the one. Anyone looking at this situation thinks the shepherd completely foolish!

Then Jesus tells of a woman who has ten coins and loses one. She sweeps the house, tears her house apart until she finds her lost coin. Then, when she finds her lost coin, she rejoices and throws a party that costs her far more than the one coin. Again, foolish to many onlookers. So when Jesus wants to hammer the point home, he tells the story of a father who has two sons.

We know this story as the Prodigal Son, the one where the younger son tells his father he wishes he was dead and wants his inheritance. The father grants his wish and the son sets off for a faraway land. Eventually he squanders everything he has and finds himself feeding pigs food that he, himself, would willingly eat. Not a good situation. Especially the good, law-abiding Jewish people hearing Jesus tell this story. So he decides he’s going to come home.

But this is an incredibly dangerous and risky idea. In the book of Deuteronomy, it talks about rebellious sons. In Deuteronomy 21, we hear this:

 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him,then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.

According to the law — which the Pharisees listening would know better than anyone — upon returning home, the son could be punished by death.

So the son rehearses his apology over and over again as he’s walking home. And we hear that “while the son was still far off” his father saw him and began running to him. Now, think about this. A dad who had been so scorned by his son years earlier, a dad who had every right to be upset and hold this act of rebellion against him — even so far as to be legally permitted to kill him — sees his son coming up the road and he takes. off. running.

He meets his son on the road and before the son can get his rehearsed apology out, the father embraces him and kisses him, tells the servants to kill the fatted calf and prepare a celebration because his son was dead and is alive again.

But I wonder…

I wonder if the father running out to meet the son was not only out of deep love and compassion, but also out of an instinct to protect him. The father would certainly know the punishment for the son as well. So when he runs to him and the first thing he does is to embrace him, to physically wrap his own body around his son’s, I wonder if this isn’t where we hear the story of grace most clearly.

It’s almost as if the father is saying, “If you’re going to kill my child, you’re going to have to kill me too. That’s how deep my love is.”

The father joins himself to the fate of the son in the same way God joins our fate to Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. In just a few weeks, on Good Friday, we’ll hear the story of just how far God’s love will reach to be with us and for us in our suffering and brokenness. 

Then God sends us out to share this good news with a hurting world. We are the body of Christ here in this world to run out of our houses, run out of our places of comfort safety to embrace those who are lost and forsaken.

I wonder what it would look like if everyone hearing this story in churches around the world this morning ran out of church to embrace and be with those who are lost and in need? How would that change our community? How would that change us? To join people in their worry and suffering, not so that we can fix them, but simply to be with them, embrace them, re-assure them that they too are loved children of a gracious God, this is our call as the body of Christ. 

So as we go on our way today, may we be blessed with eyes to see and ears to hear where God is calling us to embrace our hurting world. May we be blessed to realize that this whole thing is a gift from God to love and care for each other. And may we continue to give thanks for all of the ways that God’s love is transforming us and our world into a more loving and gracious shape.

Amen.

 

Stubbornness, Self-Sufficiency, & Running with the Devil

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

In college, I worked at a Bible camp up in Minnesota. We had a challenge course there — a high ropes course, where you would climb a wall and complete a course about fifty feet in the air. That wasn’t really my speed. My favorite was the low ropes course where, at most, we were 18 inches off the ground. For one of the team-building challenges, we were blind-folded and lead to a grove of trees that had ropes connecting the trees at about waist level in something of a maze. We had to follow the ropes until we found the way out. So we walked and walked. Marie, our facilitator stood near us and let us know that if we needed help, she would be there to help us. I didn’t need help. I was pretty good at solving these puzzles all by myself, thank you very much. (And also, you know, I can be a little stubborn.)

The difference between most exercises and this exercise, is that the only way to solve this puzzle was to ask for help. Once you asked for help, you were let out of the maze. Not my proudest moment, then, when I became bound and determined to figure this out on my own. Finally, after everyone else had asked for help and were let out, it finally dawned on me.

There’s something in our human DNA that compels us to go it alone, to be self-sufficient. I can even see it in Lily, our 18-month-old. There are just some things she wants to do herself. And yet that’s not how God created us. God didn’t create us to go it alone, but to be in relationship, to be in community. In the Garden of Eden at the dawn of creation, God said it’s not good for us to be alone. We need helpers. We need community.

When the devil is tempting Jesus in our story today, so many of the temptations are rooted in the devil trying to get Jesus to use his power to prove his worth — to use his power to isolate himself as the Son of God. And yet each time, Jesus moves to emphasize connection and relationship. Part of our call as disciples is to follow a path that leads to connection and relationship — to actively make the choice to not go it alone.

When I was in seminary in California, I went to see the redwoods in Muir Woods one weekend. These trees are absolutely incredible. They grow to be hundreds of feet tall. They were so sturdy in the ground that I began to wonder how deep their roots grow. As it turns out, redwood roots are some of the shallowest roots of any tree. Redwoods are able to grow so tall because the roots of each tree grow horizontally and overlap with one another. They connect and intertwine with one another as a way of supporting their growth as they get taller and taller. It’s why you never see an isolated redwood tree. They always exist in forests and groves.

They always exist in community because they cannot thrive any other way.

In this way, God created us similarly to the redwoods. We thrive when we are connected to God and to one another in community. A temptation we often hear whispered in our ear is that voice telling us to go it alone, to be self-sufficient, to find our own way out of the maze. But God’s desire for us is to stay connected, to foster life-giving relationships of mutual support and care so that we can grow, progress, and evolve toward a stronger future rooted in the love of Christ.

So as we continue our journey of Lent, may you be blessed to remember that you were made for connection. You were created for relationship. God, who created you and formed you, did not desire isolation or loneliness for you. So when the voice of temptation to go it alone comes knocking at your door, may you remember that you belong to this community gathered here today, and that the God of mercy knit you together into the family of God so that you may have life and have it abundantly. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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