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.....

Monday, June 20, 2011

Death and Resurrection in New Orleans--FTE Ministry Conference Day 6

It's been an extremely intense week in New Orleans exploring vocation with these future pastors. Temperatures around 100°, humidity like a health club steam room, and a packed conference schedule--combined with an intense dose of the reality of the struggles of the people of New Orleans--has made for an emotionally and physically exhausting experience. As I travel home I'm replaying the images of this past week in my head, and will likely continue to for quite a while.

One of the things that struck me in New Orleans was the very visible presence of cemeteries throughout the city. The shortest route between where we were staying and the conference events led through a cemetery, and so I walked through several times each day. In the places I have lived (Pacific Northwest and California) we choose remote places outside of the hustle and bustle of daily life to build our cemeteries. They are places to make a pilgrimage to on Memorial Day or other special days, but not part of the day to day life of most people. But in New Orleans, cemeteries seem to be everywhere. In part, they are simply more visible because (as was explained to me) if you try to burry someone "six feet under" you'll find water--so burials are done above ground. This leads to raised tombs and multi-story mausoleums. The grave sites are also very close together, making the cemeteries quite visible in neighborhoods--even when the cemetery is small (which many of them are). And yet, it seems like every neighborhood has a place to bury their dead--and there are some sections of town where there is an entire neighborhood of cemeteries. As I reflected on the graveyards and the struggles of the entire city, I was struck by the similarity in the appearance of the above ground tombs to the bare concrete pads of homes destroyed in Katrina. Like the tombs, these homesites are present and visible in every neighborhood, and bear constant witness to the reality of death and loss.


Hurricane Katrina: 5 Years Later

It seem as though--in contrast to most of American culture--there is something different about death in New Orleans. The tradition of the "second line" funeral procession--a joyous celebration with marching bands that follows the solemnities of funeral services--bears witness to this. Death and the dead are not sequestered away to romantic, wooded retreats, but are part of day to day life. In the aftermath of Katrina the reality of death is even more present--with the spray painted "X" marks of the search parties remaining on many of the homes noting how many dead were found in this particular house. The presence of destroyed homes and businesses reinforces this reality--as it's hard not to remember that many, many people lost their lives here.

And yet, the spirit of New Orleans is not one of hopelessness. You can hear in the stories of those who have been working for years on the efforts to rebuild that there continues to be a great deal of hope despite the hard realities that they have faced and continue to face. The people of New Orleans are finding strength to keep going and to re-create their lives and communities. And you can see and hear in the Christian communities that the resurrection of Jesus is not only a source of hope for the future, but the daily hope that they are working together to embody. The work of restoring neighborhoods, of cleaning up trash, of helping people and churches return to their homes, of supporting one another, and showing to the world that there is hope despite all appearances, that there is light even in the midst of deep darkness, and that there is profound worth in what seems so worthless--this is the work of resurrection. And thrust into the shared story of seeing their city brought to its knees by Katrina, the people of New Orleans have found connection to the resurrection story--as Christian communities are leading the way to not only restore hope, but to embody new life in visible, tangible, and transformative ways.

In my many walks through the cemetery, I noticed the abundance of flowers on the graves. Perhaps the constant presence of the dead is a reminder to those in the neighborhood to remember and celebrate life. Flowers in funerals and graveyards are meant to be symbols of resurrection--dead seeds that lie in the ground all winter that then burst forth with new life in spring bringing renewed beauty to an all-too-barren world. The image of New Orleans I carry back with me is one of these tombs/homesites full of blooming flowers--death and resurrection together, of crucified people drawing on their shared stories and shared pain to bring about real hope in the midst of hopelessness.

I struggle, as do many people in my generation who are involved in the Church, with moments of hopelessness about the possibility of transformation for this institution that seems so broken--that seems at times to be doing more harm than good, and often proclaiming anything but the Good News of Jesus. And yet, I continue to believe that God has chosen the Church to be a unique witness to resurrection in the world. But sometimes it's hard to see what God is doing, and hard to imagine how we Christians will be able to get over the petty bickering and side issues we spend so much time on and really focus on being God's people in the world for the sake of the world that God has created and loves so much.

One of the things I value about all my work with FTE over the years is that through these events and especially through the people I have met, I get to see and be a part of the Church that God is bringing into the world. It's a Church where we have found unity in Christ and are working to overcome those denominational and other issues that have divided us. It's a Church where we truly value where one another are coming from, and the unique gifts that each of us brings from our traditions and our unique stories. It's a Church where the Scriptures and the ancient spiritual practices (and some new ones too) create a community that nurtures the callings of all of God's people. It's a Church that intentionally cultivates leadership in young people, helps them notice their giftedness and their callings, and walks with them as the develop into those callings. It's a Church that makes a difference in the world and works for justice, that isn't afraid to confront racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and all the other systemic violence that affects all human endeavors. It's a Church that in word and deed bears witness to the power of resurrection, to the Good News of God's love that we are privileged to get to embody with and for one another. For a few days this week I've gotten to be immersed in this Church once again, to participate in the good work we share together, and to be blessed by the amazing young people God is raising out of this generation to lead the Church into the future God has in mind for us. As we are now scattered to the ends of the earth (well, ends of the United States anyhow) I find myself filled with hope that like New Orleans, we are rebuilding what has been torn down--and that the power of resurrection will continue to blossom and spread.

New Orleans Immersion--FTE Ministry Conference Day 3

We spent the day today (a long one) more deeply connecting to the city of New Orleans--first with a bus tour to some of the parishes and neighborhoods most affected by hurricane Katrina. (This image shows where the flooding was the worst, and we saw most of these). We saw some of the flood damage, and the efforts to rebuild. We listened to leaders like Pastor Sean Anglim at First Grace United Methodist Church whose congregation was the result of a merger when two struggling churches whose buildings were damaged by the storm. Though they had been less than a mile apart for 100 years, they had never worked together. First UMC had been historically white, and Grace UMC had been historically black. In the conversations about working together someone asked a self awakening question: "Could we better bless our city together or separately?" When they took that question seriously, the began the process of becoming one congregation working together to make their community better. Inspiring.

After a trek around the city in which it was hard to take in all the hardship that people continue to endure so long after the storm, we enjoyed authentic New Orleans po-boys (mine was oyster, yum!) and then set out to the lower 9th ward to roll up our sleeves and do some hands on service.

It was close to 100° and at least 3000% humidity, but it felt good to actually do something constructive after seeing so much need. One topic of conversation among the folks working was "What good does a few hours of picking up trash or cutting grass actually do?". And it's true, our service sees pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of need--and perhaps might even be seen as patronizing by the folks who's neighborhood we invaded for a few hours before getting back on our air-conditioned busses. But the conversations we had around the value of this time were to frame it more in terms of participating in the Christian spiritual practice of service. It was one simple way to practice what is meant to be a lifelong spiritual activity--serving ones neighbor wherever one found one's self.

In fact, the entire week was set up to lead this community of future pastors through a time of practicing Christian disciplines that are connected to vocation and ministry. New Orleans became the context and the frame in which the students explored creating space to nurture and deepen their vocational discernment. We used as a tool the practices developed through FTE's Calling Congregations program--tools for opening up conversation, story telling and holy listening, reflecting theologically on our stories in light of God's story, and moving towards action, both individual and collective. Along with those came the spiritual disciplines of service, worship, prayer, fellowship, and shared meals (good ones at that!).

We ended the day with a spectacular crawfish feed and worship at All Souls Episcopal Church and Community Center.

All Souls has also come to be known as St. Wallgreen's because this church was founded post-Katrina in a former Wallgreen's drug store that the chain decided was not worth rebuilding.

 This seems to be the theme in much of the 9th ward and other of the hardest hit (and also the more impoverished) areas of the city--these areas which were impoverished before the storm are simply not worth rebuilding. But the residents of those communities, and the churches and other agencies working tirelessly to rebuild there, are telling a different story--a story where all of God's people are valued and where everyone's community is worthy of being cared for and rebuilt. Our tour guides shared with us some of the less well know issues that have gone along with the reconstruction--including demolition of homes that were not storm damaged to make room for the green space that is in the new city plan and what they called "disaster capitalism" a wave of folks who came (and continue to come) to New Orleans to make a buck off the disaster often at the expense of those with the least resources. It's clear that the work of rebuilding continues and will for a very long time, and that there are lingering issues of justice, racism, classism, and all that goes along with systemic oppression. There is much work that continues to be done.

Though today was exhausting and emotionally challenging, but as I debriefed with the students I was working with, I saw a great deal of hope in them. They were inspired by the people we met--people from churches and neighborhood groups who have overcome the differences that previously divided them in order to do the hard work that God has called them to do together for the benefit of one another and those in need. And as I listen to these young people and the hope they see in New Orleans, I am renewed in my hope for the Christian church. Through this time together with FTE these young people from a whole range of denominational and cultural backgrounds have also been practicing overcoming differences with one another, and are beginning the work of overcoming those differences so that they can work together for the benefit of the whole Church and the whole world.

(This blog post is second in a series. The next installment is here.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Reflecting on my vocation--FTE Ministry Conference Day 1

I'm in New Orleans for the Ministry Fellowships Conference with The Fund for Theological Education. I'm serving as a round table leader, guiding a group of first year seminarians at they engage this conference--and walking with them through the vocational discernment this conference is meant to stir up. Its an honor and a blessing to be part of this organization, and to get the chance to participate in this way.

I attended this same conference in 2001, when I received a fellowship as a new seminarian. Its great to be a part of this again, and to give back to an organization and an event that was powerful for me, and an important part of shaping my own vocational discernment.

The first day, one of the questions posed to the leadership group was "Why did you say 'yes' to be a part of this event?" The first part of my answer was that I've never participated in an FTE event that I didn't receive more than I gave. But as I pondered the deeper answer to that question, a big part of it has do do with gratitude for the way that FTE has helped me in my own vocational discernment--especially recently.

In addition to the FTE fellowship I received in 2001, I've gotten several opportunities to interface with FTE and the various projects that they have been working on. Most recently that has been working with their "Calling Congregations", "Notice, Name, and Nurture" and "VoCARE" events--events that are meant to foster congregations as centers of vocational and theological reflection. I've really enjoyed getting trained in their approach (even though my opportunities to enact it in the congregational setting fell apart). The training itself was transformative for me, because as we practiced how we might lead conversions about call and purpose in our congregations, we were all invited (and challenged) to dig a little deeper into our own stories of call--how and where and when we felt (and continue to feel) God's call for our lives. Going through that process really helped me clarify some things I had been wrestling with in my congregational call--and as that was drawing to an end, about what I felt called to next.

It was through the FTE vocation care process that I gained clarity about what God was calling me to do. At one of the events I crafted this call statement: "My call is to encourage and challenge the Church to live more fully into God's dream by innovating in and among communities who are engaging the resources of the Christian faith to include and empower young adults." As my congregational call was ending, and I was looking for the next ministry that God was calling me to, this statement and the accompanying reflection that happened through those FTE conferences guided me in making the hard decisions that were before me--and gave me the courage to take a leap of faith into the current work that I am doing as Campus Pastor and Director of Spiritual and Vocational Formation at Trinity Lutheran College.

The past three months that I have been in this call have been one verification after another that I am doing what God is calling me to do at this moment. The joy of working with the students at Trinity, the opportunity to foster vocational and spiritual formation among the entire college community, and the freedom to innovate with creative expressions of worship is like a dream come true for me. Its a kind of feeling that you can only experience when (to paraphrase Beuchner's words on vocation) "your deepest joy meets the world's deepest need." It's a joy I intend to pass along to the students (and others) that I will work with.

As I reflect on my call statement, it is no wonder to me that I would commit a week to be here in New Orleans with these future pastors--to be part of their journey of self discovery and discernment. FTE is a community that engages the resources of the Christian faith to include and empower young adults--in fact, I believe the work of FTE will emerge as some of the most significant work being done in the Church. I am overjoyed and most certainly blessed to be here with these folks--sharing cafe au lait, beignets, and deep conversation about what God is calling all of us to be about together.

(This post is the first in a series. The next installment is here.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Theology Pub 6-5-11--Power

Theology Pub
Theme: Power

So when they had come together, they asked Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:6-8)

This is an open time for conversation around this topic (and any others that seem important). Please allow everyone in your group to participate in the conversation (or not to if they so choose).  Conversation starters are on the back if you want to make use of them. There are no right answers. Just don’t be jerks. And tip your servers.

Some conversation starters:
What does the word power stir up in you?
What images of power do you see in the media/art/music/etc?
Where do you see power used well?
Where do you see power abused?
Do you consider yourself powerful?
 Do you want to be powerful?
How does a person gain power?
How does a person loose power?
(if there is a Lutheran theologian in the group) Explain the “theology of the cross”. How does that affect how we see power?
Is it possible to share power? To give power to others?  To take power from others?

Monday, April 11, 2011

An (un)Orthodox perspective on Hell

The publication of Rob Bell's new book "Love Wins" has prompted a firestorm of blog posts, mostly relating to claims of people (most of whom have not read the book) that Bell is a universalist and does not believe in Hell.  I have not weighed in, mostly because I haven't been blogging lately, but also because I haven't read the book (yet) and hate when people make all sorts of comments about something they haven't read (and generally have no interest in reading).  So I'm not actually going to offer comment on the book or Bell's theology.   But I had an interesting conversation this past week about Hell, and figured it was worth sending into the blogosphere.

Last Saturday, I was hanging out with a group of Trinity College students at a Russian Orthodox monastery (like you do).  At lunch, the Abbott was explaining to the students the chief differences between Eastern and Western Christianity.  One of the chief theological differences he explained was that Eastern Christians don't believe that God created a place called Hell where some spend eternity.  The ears of the students were perked up by this claim, and he went on to explain that Eastern Christians do believe in the fire of God, and that eternity can either be joyful bliss in union with God or torment (in union with God).  He used the image of light: when you walk from a darkened room into daylight your eyes are unaccustomed to that overwhelming light and you experience it as blinding and painful.  Similarly, eternity with God can be overwhelming to those who aren't used to being in God's presence.  In the Eastern understanding, he explained, the purpose of life for a Christian is growing more and more accustomed to being in God's presence.  In this way when we die (and come fully into God's presence) we aren't blinded and don't experience union with God as torment.  It's the same reality, the same eternity, the same unity of God with all creation. The difference between Heaven and Hell is in how we experience it.  And how we experience it depends on how ready we are.

Now, I had never heard anything like this before. Hell, for me, has been one of those parts of Christianity that I haven't spent a lot of time worrying about. There's not all that much support for it that I can find in the Bible, (though plenty about fire and wrath) and it seems to me that popular media (starting perhaps with Dante's Inferno) have shaped the cultural understanding of Hell and it's ruler—a red-skinned horned dude with a pitchfork.  From time to time I imagine that if I were in charge I'd send some folks there (not many people, mind you, but folks like Hitler, Saddam Husein, and the guy who wrote “It's a Small World”.)  But my own theology of Grace and how I have come to know God in Jesus makes this somewhat arbitrary system of eternal room assignments based on human choice seem cruel.  What sort of God sends billions of people to the furnace simply because I didn't get off my duff and force them to pray some prayer?  And what about humanity before year 0?  All of those folks in Hell?  Really? Forever?  Hell is one of those things I've assigned to the mystery of God, and have sort of adopted what has been described to me as Luther's view of “single predestination”.  In the more common “double predestination” the claim is made that “some are predestined for eternal salvation, and some for eternal punishment”.  Single predestination makes the claim that “some are destined for eternal salvation, and ...” at which point the person making the claim walks out of the room to find a more interesting way to spend their afternoon. 

But something about the way this Russian Orthodox monk articulated his understanding of eternity is compelling to me. In some ways it is universalist in that everyone gets to spend eternity with God.  It seems to me that a good God who created all that is and is bringing all creation into wholeness would want that. And yet, it's not as if our lives and our choices don't matter.  To live as a Christian is to be preparing for eternity, to be little by little acclimating to standing in God's presence so that when that day finally arrives we aren't plowed under by the experience. And meanwhile, we are inviting and walking with others who are making this journey as well—helping one another see light in the darkness and encounter God in the midst of our own messy existence.  Coming into God's presence is only hellish if you've been so inwardly focused—so accustomed to darkness—that the pure light overwhelms you.  It also helps reconcile what I understand Jesus to be talking about when he goes on and on about the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is not just pie in the sky when you die (I'm paraphrasing) but is breaking in to the world here and now—and if we pay attention we can participate in it.  If the life of a Christian is a process of growing more and more accustomed to standing in God's presence, doesn't it make sense that along the way Earth begins to look more and more like Heaven?  

It seems to me that the way we experience life has a lot to do with our own perspective and what we bring to the whole thing. What if after-life is the same?  

Friday, February 18, 2011

On the life and death of the ELCA

An ELCA Lutheran (seminiarian I think) named Gary posted this as part of a comment on David Housholder's blog.  It's a fantastic summary of some things I've been wanting to find words to say. Thanks Gary, whoever you are! 
"I believe the Church is not called to be a prosperous organization, but to be the Body of Christ in the world. Thus, it is important for me to remember what the Body of Christ does: be born, grow, teach, heal, live with the least, speak truth about the human condition, speak truth about God, remain faithful to scripture, not engage in violence for self-protection, die, be buried, rise from the dead. As far as I can tell, being afraid that a denomination is “dying” makes little sense – but being afraid that the Church is dying makes less. If your concern is about the ELCA in particular, I must say that I believe the ELCA will find a way to live its call. But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t – and that is the way it should be. It might be important to remember that it is Christ that is to be pushed, not the ELCA (though I like to think the two can go hand-in-hand)."

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Trinity Lutheran College welcomes new Director of Vocational and Spiritual Formation

From: John Reed
Sent: Fri 2/4/2011 1:45 PM
Subject: Trinity welcomes new Director of Vocational and Spiritual Formation
Dear Trinity Community and college friends,

We continue to be a college on the move. As we grow, we are committed to nurturing the spiritual and vocational discernment of our students and to nurturing our chapel experiences.  Toward that end, we are pleased to welcome the Rev. Erik Samuelson as Director of Vocational and Spiritual Formation.  The part-time position will begin March 1.

Like other members of our Living-Learning Community, Pastor Samuelson will support a number of strategic initiatives, though his primary charges will be to shepherd the first-year Vocation & Formation program and to foster a high-quality chapel experience, providing a pastoral resource to students, faculty, and staff. 

The selection team included representation from faculty, staff, students, and the board.  I, too, was pleased to get to know him and his heart during this prayerful process.   I am particularly enthusiastic for his passion for ministry to young adults, his authentic commitment to a rich and compelling expression of Lutheran theology, a commitment to supporting our pan-Lutheran and ecumenical identity, his understanding of the doctrine of vocation, and his enthusiasm about the future and relevance of Trinity's educational mission.   

John W. Reed


The Rev. Erik Samuelson grew up in Everett, WA, where he graduated from Cascade High School.  He then worked his way down the West Coast, first at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, where he studied Classics and Religion (and bartending) and met his wife Tauni, a pediatric nurse.  Erik and Tauni then moved to Berkeley, CA, where Erik completed a Master of Divinity at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and a Master of Arts in Systematic and Philosophical Theology (with an emphasis on the theology of the Lutheran Confessions) from the Graduate Theological Union. In 2006, Erik was ordained a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Most recently, Erik has been serving as pastor/mission developer at a redevelopment congregation in Spokane, WA, where he and Tauni have lived for the past 5 years with their two children, Lily (3) and Emma (5).

Erik has had an interest in experiential worship and faith development since his days at PLU, where he was part of a campus ministry team that began what would now be called an emergent worship experiment called Common Ground.  He has served on the planning team for the ELCA Youth Gathering since 2001, working with the creative team that puts on the "big events" in the dome, including worship.  (Ask him sometime about how one organizes communion for 40,000 people.)  Erik is approved as an ELCA mission developer, was a voting member at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, is a member of the ELCA's Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission Program Committee, and is part of a network of young ELCA pastors using the methods of community organizing for new and renewed mission in the world.  He has a passion to help translate the Gospel of Jesus as understood in the Lutheran tradition to people who have not been encountered by it—particularly people aged 18-40—and to participate in authentic relational communities that are seeking to concretely embody the Way of Jesus in a life lived together in the world. He also loves to talk about Jesus in coffee shops and pubs.

Erik's prayer and worship life is shaped and nourished in major ways by the Acts of the Apostles, the TaizĂ© Community, the writings of Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the liturgy and theology of the Lutheran Church.   Erik sees the Lutheran Church (and Trinity Lutheran College) as poised to make a significant difference in the emerging reformation of the Christian Church—a reformation perhaps as significant as the one in the 16th Century.   He takes seriously the call of God in Baptism, believes that each and every person is called by God for significant work and service in the world, and loves to help people connect deeply to their vocations. Erik describes his call to ministry in this way: "I am called to encourage and challenge the Church to live more fully into God's dream by innovating in and among communities who are engaging the resources of the Christian faith to include and empower young adults."  He's excited to live out this calling in his hometown of Everett and within the community of Trinity Lutheran College.

You can find Erik on Twitter and Facebook (pubpastor) and can read his blog at