Friday, October 13, 2017

Learning to Listen—A Spiritual Practice

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to [God’s] Word, so the beginning of love for [our brothers and sisters] is learning to listen to them…Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As I have listened to young adults over the years, I have noticed an increasing desire among them to engage in authentic community and a longing for deep spirituality. And yet, far too few are finding either of these in the places where they look. Christian communities that desire to engage these young adults (who are largely absent from their worship and community life) have little experience and few resources to engage these young adults. Despite these desires, neither congregations nor young adults are looking to the deep resources of Christian spiritual practices, which have sustained community and spirituality for generations. And central to these practices are intergenerational relationships in which people can speak and listen, and have their deepest truths (and deepest pain) heard and taken seriously.

For the past 5 years, I have led the Vocation and Formation First Year Experience program at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, WA. In this course, which we designed as a year-long retreat, we connected our diverse community of first-year students with faculty and student mentors and introduced them to individual and communal spiritual practices from the Christian tradition. As we built and refined this curriculum, we found that existing resources in Christian spiritual practices were scattered, often laden with denominational and cultural assumptions, and either too simplified or too complex to be useful—particularly in a context with both Christian and non-Christian students. As we designed, tested, and adapted these materials, we found the underlying practices to actually be extremely accessible, both to the students and to the adult facilitators. Not only did the students learn spiritual practices to deepen their devotional life, but through engaging them they developed deep relationships with peers and mentors—practices and relationships that paid off in vocational discernment and in forming a larger community of practice.

In January 2016, Trinity Lutheran College announced that the spring semester would be its final semester and that it would close following graduation in May. With all of the great work in the Vocation and Formation curriculum, I couldn’t bear to see these resources not able to be shared as this particular program came to an end. So, with one of our partner congregations, we applied for an FTE Vocational Curriculum grant to allow me to refine these materials and our learnings into a concrete resource, and then to test those resources in a variety of contexts in order to better adapt them beyond the Christian college environment in which they developed. We now have engaged portions of this curriculum to connect young adults to elders one congregation, as part of a gifts discernment campaign in another, to train young adults to engage with teenagers, in a seminary with students interested both in their own discernment and in resources to engage youth and young adults, and most recently in a retreat setting with high school students and leaders from 5 different congregations of different denominations. Though I had a hunch that high school students would connect to these practices (which had originally been designed for college students) the impact they had at this retreat were powerful and quite surprising.

The core practice of the Vocation and Formation curriculum is a listening and story sharing practice we call “Holy Listening and Testimony.” This practice is adapted from FTE’s “Calling Congregations” resources, and centers around two-minute story rounds around a given prompt. Participants are given two minutes to think silently about “a time in which someone took you or your gifts seriously” and develop a two-minute story to share with their partner. The speakers are encouraged to “testify” to the truth of their lives as they share their stories—and that their stories matter. Each partner has two minutes to tell their story, as their partner silently “listens to the other person’s story as if it were scripture.” Then the partners switch roles.

In the college course, we introduced Holy Listening in the first session, then each of the weekly sessions opened with a round or two (with different question prompts) so that by the end of the year all of the students had engaged with each of their classmates and mentors (many several times). In this retreat with High School students from different congregations and different schools, many of whom did not know more than one or two other students, we used the practice early on as a way to help them get to know one another and to quickly build a sense of community on more than just a surface level. My young adult and elder adult facilitators were amazed at how open these students were to share with them and with one another. Students were telling deep stories of mentors and lack of mentors, of the people and communities that supported them and/or failed to support them, and sharing some significant challenges that they were facing in their lives—and finding connections with other students that neither of them expected. Several shared that they had never been listened to in this way before in their lives, and that it was a deeply moving experience. After four or five rounds in the course of an evening and morning, this group of strangers quickly formed into a community. But it was in the second practice we engaged that the power of this experience really came to light.

At an FTE Christian Leadership Forum in 2015, Dr. Patrick Reyes led the forum participants in an exercise he calls “Human Statue” that was influenced by his work in Latino youth organizing and the practices of the “Theatre of the Oppressed” movement. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Reyes became assistant dean for academic affairs at Trinity, and helped us adapt the “Human Statue” practice into our Vocation and Formation work. In this practice, participants identify several “issues and pressures” that they and/or their communities are experiencing, such as homelessness, drug abuse, violence, family expectations, etc. They then select one issue they feel called to work on and collectively create a “human statue” tableau to represent it in some way. When the facilitator says “freeze” the other participants who are not in the current statue view the representation their peers have created and offer reflections and commentary on what they see. The facilitator then may invite the participants to engage with the “statue” in a number of ways to deepen the reflection and experiential learning.

On this recent high school retreat, the students identified a long list of issues and pressures (many connected to the stories they had been sharing with one another in Holy Listening). Out of that list they identified two they wanted to address: “mental health” and “constant negativity.” They split into two groups to create their human statues, and came back together to share them. The mental health group created a powerful statue depicting depression, drug use, and isolation—including one brave teenager who stood outside in the snow by herself looking in the window. The debrief revealed that mental health issues were a common struggle among the teenagers and the people they are close too—there wasn’t anyone in the room who wasn’t connected to the challenges of mental health in one way or another.

When the second group built their statue to depict “constant negativity” they set up a classroom with a range of dynamics including gender and racial disparity, and lots of tense interactions. The real power of this practice came through in the debrief of this second statue, as the students unpacked what the sources of “constant negativity” were in their lives, and why they chose a school setting to represent it. As the students reflected together, they began to share stories related to the Marysville-Pilchuck High School shooting in 2015, and realized that they were all impacted in one way or another by this tragedy and that it still was causing challenges for them as individuals and for the community of which they were a part. Though they were attending a variety of middle and high schools in the area at the time, this community trauma impacted each and every one of them. They could see the deep effects it had had on the community of Marysville as well, including the sense of “constant negativity” and the challenges of mental health. For many, this was the first time they were able to discuss this publically and they found common ground in their shared pain. As they continued to reflect, the students were frustrated by the ways the school and community had poured attention and resources into the students early on, but that they felt like the message now is “move past it” and that there was little that they could do to change that. By that afternoon, however, the students had begun to claim agency over their challenges, and to start to organize themselves for community action. Out of this experience, they have decided to meet together twice a month to continue to build community, engage in practices together, and create positive change in their community around this and the other issues that affect them.

It was abundantly clear to me, and to the adult mentors, that the spiritual practices of Holy Listening and Testimony and the Human Statue exercise were foundational in these young people coming together, sharing their stories, recognizing their common struggles, building community, and seeking out powerful ways to respond. Similar outcomes had happened among the college students at Trinity, but I was quite surprised at the way in which these practices quickly opened up, and catalyzed, this group of high school students toward powerful action. As I continue to develop and refine this curriculum, I’m excited to see the ways in which it can be adopted and adapted into a wide variety of contexts—and I pray have similar impact on young people, and the Christian communities that engage with them. These resources, now called the “ALIVE Toolkit” (ALIVE stands for “Accompanying Leaders in Vocational Exploration”) will be released with no charge under a “Creative Commons License” and can be found on my website: I hope you will find them useful in your community, and please share stories with me as to how you are adapting them, and the impact they are having.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

New Resource Links

Hi Friends-

It's been a long time since I've posted. I've spent the last few years deep in communities of practice, spending time with college students, and developing some resources for vocational discernment--all of which hasn't allowed me the kind of theologizing and blogging time I used to have.  But I'm still around, still "publishing" and "pub-theologizing", and in the next few years hope to have more "public" resources to share.

At the request of some friends I met in Dallas through FTE, I've put together a page on this blog with some vocational discernment resources, including a "core practices" resource I'm developing and leading workshops on to encourage discernment communities that engage young adults.  I'm available to consult and/or lead this in your context. If you are interested, just drop me a line. eriksamuelson [at]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Two Poems on Vocation

In the Freshman seminar I teach at Trinity Lutheran College, we've been reading Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation" (a book I highly recommend).  At one point, Palmer quotes a 21 word poem, that "evokes the quest for vocation--at least, my quest for vocation--with candor and precision."  I invited the class to come up with a 21 word poem that evoked their quest for vocation.  I wrote two:

Opened doors
and closed--a path
clear and then obscured
and yet, throughout
seeing the hand of God,
if only backwards.

Down this trail
then that one
a destination that
always seems far off
but only on turning
around does
the path emerge.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Reflections on New Treasures As Well As Old at Trinity

An article I wrote for Trinity Lutheran College's magazine "The Advance".

New Treasures … As Well As Old

Reflections on this year’s chapel theme by the Rev. Erik Samuelson, Campus Pastor and Director of Spiritual & Vocational Formation

This year’s chapel theme is “New Treasures As Well As Old,” based on Matthew 13:52: “Every scholar who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of their storeroom new treasures as well as old.” It’s a particularly fitting verse for Trinity at this phase in our life—having been through an amazing amount of transition over the past few years as we’ve seen expanded academic programs, the addition of intercollegiate athletics, another move of our campus (this time to my hometown of Everett), and many new faces.

I’m one of the new faces, having joined the Trinity family this spring in the new role of “Campus Pastor,” a position created in part because of another new treasure of the past few years: non-Christian students who have been lead to faith in Jesus Christ through their participation in this community. And the “new treasures” continue as we seek to double our student body over the next four years and, thanks to a gift from a generous donor (see pg. 3), embark on an amazing project to turn the Campus Center’s fifth floor into a center for worship and art.

This is a new treasure I’m particularly excited about. By bringing together the arts and worship, with a cutting edge flexible worship space that integrates technology, our students will have a one-of-a-kind learning laboratory to engage in worship leadership, to bring together new and old, and to push forward toward what worship will look like in the generations to come. I think the work we will do in this new space will be transformative—to the students, to our college, and to the Church.

Yet with all this newness, some things haven’t changed. The “old treasures” of Trinity remain and, in fact, are continually being renewed. We continue our commitment to Bible-centered education, service learning, and mission work at home and abroad. We worship, pray, and study scripture together. And we continue to hold central to the Lutheran Christian emphasis of vocation as we fulfill our purpose of equipping leaders to serve Jesus Christ in the Church and the world.

As I’ve been privileged to hear the story of Trinity/LBI, and especially the stories of our alumni, it’s clear to me that while the look and feel of how we operate may be changing (Athletes! Technology! An urban setting! Non-Christian students!), in many ways our heritage is one that calls us to be just a few steps ahead of the Lutheran Church, looking forward to where God is leading us and helping to draw the whole Church more fully into that future. We’re doing as those who came before us have done—seeking to make the Gospel come alive to every person and every generation, and to challenge the Church to keep focus on its mission to make disciples.

At the turn of the century, the founders of the Lutheran Bible Institute gave young adults the opportunity to delve deep into the Bible before college or career at a time when few other Lutherans were doing that. Other generations were ahead of the curve of their day as they led the charge with Lutheran global mission, charismatic movements, training lay people for ministry, and even (ack!) guitars in worship. We’ve seen the value of deep familiarity with the Bible, of uniting head, heart, and hands, and of equipping young people (and not so young people) to live out vocations in the Church and in the world. These “old treasures” continue to be central in the life of Trinity Lutheran College today.

Our theme verse comes as a parable Jesus gives to his disciples following a day full of lectures in parable form where he took familiar images and familiar concepts about how God works and how the world works, and turned them on their head. “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed … like a treasure buried in a field … like yeast mixed in with flour.” Jesus intentionally put the new and the old, the clean and the unclean, the familiar and the shocking together to describe the Kingdom that God is bringing about in the world, and he instructed his disciples to do the same.

Our task as Christians—all of us—is to continually dig deep into the treasures of the faith and to engage these treasures in new and often surprising (if not shocking) ways. Trinity continues in this work that we’ve inherited, and I hope that you’ll become even more fully involved in it.

If you haven’t been to our Everett campus, or haven’t been in a while, come and check it out. You’ll be blown away by all the new treasures, and I bet (if you keep your eyes open) you’ll see old treasures emerging as well. Join us for lunch during the week or join us for chapel worship on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. If you’d like to hear more about Chapel, our fifth floor worship space, or anything else about the new or old treasures to be found at Trinity, please seek me out. I’d love to hear your story, too.

Samuelson can be reached at 425.249.4726 or His mailing address is Trinity Lutheran College, 2802 Wetmore Ave., Everett, WA 98201.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Thought for the day

"Only when we have come in touch with our own life experiences and have learned to listen to our inner cravings for liberation and new life can we realize that Jesus did not just speak, but that he reached out to us in our most personal needs. The Gospel doesn't just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition.  The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables.  Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation as light in our darkness."  Henri Nouwen.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Response to the Recent Violence in Norway

It was with heavy hearts that the community of Trinity Lutheran College heard about the recent violence in Norway.  Our prayers are with those who were injured, the families of the people who were killed, and all who have been affected by these events.

It is so difficult to know what to say in the face of such tragedy.  Often, well meaning people offer words of comfort that can feel like less than adequate responses to the violence that has occurred. As Christians, we need not shy away from facing the harsh reality or offer platitudes—but instead we can be bold to call out the injustice and cry out with those who suffer for an end to violence.  Our faith compels us to seek reconciliation rather than retaliation, and to work for peace in the world.

In a world where fear and violence seem so prevalent, it is easy to wonder why God allows such things to occur. When we learn that a Christian man was killing innocent people—children—we may ask “Where was God?”  We demand to know why did God not intervene.  So often it can seem as though God is distant and disconnected from the suffering we experience, yet God stands beside all who suffer, and God draws us and all creation into a future of compassion and peace.  Lutheran Christians admit that we just don’t know why these things happen, or why it can seem like God is so distant just when we need God the most.   At the same time we know that God is with all those who suffer, that suffering is not a sign of God’s absence, and that God’s presence and favor can not be judged by how well things go for us.

2000 years ago, St. Paul wrote a letter to the Christians who lived in Rome—a city where violence was very prevalent.  He encouraged them to trust in God despite the suffering they were enduring with these words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8:38-39)

We are called to continually remind one another of the love of God from which nothing can separate us, to reject hatred and violence, and to embody together the vision God has for all creation.  And so we join with God in solidarity with the people of Norway and all who suffer. We join in mourning the loss of life and in lamenting this great tragedy. And we lift up our voices in prayer and renew our commitment to work for peace and justice in the world.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your struggles as well.

In Christ,

+Rev. Erik Samuelson
Campus Pastor
Trinity Lutheran College
Everett, WA

Friday, June 24, 2011

Automatic Beer Brewing System

The basic idea is this: a simple, mostly automated all-grain brewing system that could be used in an apartment to turn a big bag of grain into a frothy keg of beer with the least amount of work possible. And, it turns out, we did it. But like all simple ideas, there is a much longer story. It all starts with my dad and his fetish for Crock Pots.

About three years ago my dad got a new Crock Pot, one of the large size ones they carry at Costco. As he tends to do with things like this, pretty soon he began ponder the extremes of Crock Pot cooking--and just how far one could push the limits of the Crock Pot. Many of the details of this years-long experiment are not fit to print, but let me just say the culmination was one Thanksgiving where every dish on the table, including the turkey (I'm not kidding!), had been prepared in a Crock Pot. Even he will admit it had gotten a little out of control.

And the great Crock Pot experiment was not limited to that actual device, but soon began to include other methods of automated cookery--including an electric pressure cooker and an amazingly successful experiment to turn an electric "Fry Daddy" into a Sous Vide water bath cooker (retail versions of which cost in the thousands). That particular invention was created via multiple late night Skype video chats between my father and my brother Josh in California--in actuality Josh is usually the brains behind the operation and my father is the bankroll and the guy crazy enough to actually build these crazy things.

This "automated apartment beer brewing system" developed similarly through late night Skype conversations between my dad and brother. It all started when my brother got a hold of a 100 cup percolator coffee pot from his church that was broken. He brought it home to fix, and started pondering how such a device could be used to make beer. As he and my dad discussed this over video chat, the idea started rolling--and they realized that an insulated pot would be even more effective, and the online research began.

I suppose I should pause just for a second to explain the basics of all grain brewing so that the details of this experiment actually make sense. To make beer, one takes a large bag of grain (somewhere in the vicinity of 10 lbs or more for home brewing). Generally this is barley that has been malted (meaning sprouted and dried) so that the starches turn into sugar that can be leached out into a liquid, called "wort" (pronounced "wert") from which you make beer. This grain is then put into an insulated vessel, called a "mash tun". Most home brewers use the large orange drink coolers that coaches get dumped over their heads after winning football games. A "false bottom" is constructed in the mash tun so that the grains sit off the bottom, above the spout for the liquid. Hot water is added at precise temperatures so that the "mash" (grains soaking in hot water) reaches a certain temperature for a certain amount of time--somewhere in the range of 160°-180° for 90 minutes. This temperature and time converts the remaining starch in the malted grain into sugar, which then dissolves in the water to make the sweet liquid you ferment into beer. Usually this requires a complicated calculation that takes into account the amount of grain and how many quarts of 212° water you need to add (carefully!) to reach that range. Often you get over or under this temperature and have to trial and error your way to the target temp with hot or cold water. You need an insulated container so that once you hit this temperature, it will stay there for the designated amount of time. After this, you "sparge" the grains, which means rinsing them with a certain amount hot water and draining the wort into your brew pan. From here the process is pretty simple: boil, add hops, cool, transfer to brewing vessel, add yeast, and wait. Voila! Beer. (

The conversion of the pot was relatively simple. The brew basket was dropped to the bottom of the pot, fitted with a couple of extra screens (from the Cash and Carry restaurant supply store) and a PVC tube to form a seal at the edges so the grains wouldn't end up where they shouldn't be. A few rubber stoppers raised all this up off the bottom, and the metal percolator tube passed right up through the middle of all this.

Because of the nature of a percolator coffee pot (and coincidental temperature settings) this ends up automating most of the steps in the mash process--to the point where a person could set the thing up in the morning on a timer and have the grains ready to sparge when you got home from work. In the coffee pot system, the grains and cold water are loaded in and the pot plugged in. The water heats in the bottom and gets shot up the tube where it hits the lid and washes down through the grains. After about an hour, our thermometer buried in the grains read 170°, at which point the coffee pot shut itself down. It held temperature for the entire 90 minute conversion. Meanwhile, we heated the sparge water on a little hot plate burner (like you might in an apartment) which was ready to go at the end of the mash (and we didn't even blow a breaker). We sparged and the wort drained right out through the spout at the bottom of the coffee pot into our thirsty brew pot below. Just about as simple as all grain brewing gets.

We decided to boil on our high power outdoor gas burner. I've made beer on a hot plate before (in my dorm room, but that's another post for another time). Let me tell you, it takes forever to get 6 gallons to boil on a little hot plate. So we boiled and hopped as we usually do, and then it was time to wait for the fermenting to see if we had just totally ruined a nice big bag of malted barley or if, in fact, we had just revolutionized lazy brewing forever. The specific gravity was right on track for what we were expecting, which was a good sign. But then again, you never know until you taste it.

Come tasting day, we were blown away. We had made a top notch IPA--as good as any we've made the usual way. I was frankly amazed. I was not expecting anything close to a good brew. I figured the coffee pot would burn the wort, or not allow for full sugar conversion, or somehow spoil the process. But, my pessimism was turned around by an beautiful pint of home brew. It doesn't get much better than this. Although, I've heard that there is a way to make whisky in a Crock Pot too.....