The Desert

Tonight I was finally able to sit down and read Real Austin: The Homeless and the Image of God, by Annie Bullock (full disclosure: Dr. Bullock is classmate and friend from seminary days). It is a fantastic if thin volume of a reflective nature about how one woman’s encounter with the homeless population of Austin, Texas leads her to reflection on the nature of sin, the fall, the image of God and the  lifelong quest for redemption. I’l not review it here, but plan to do that later.

No, what I want to do is talk about the draw to the desert. Few of my colleagues and even fewer of my friends and family understand my obsession with the men and women who fled society to seek God. I aspire to seek God as they did, and yet I don’t have the heart for it that the mothers and fathers exhibited. Even this blog is named for my personal favorite monastic – Evagrius – but I doubt Evagrius would have much time for me. I live comfortably in a large suburban home. I have a wife and kids. I’ve been divorced. My faith can run hot and cold. I’d rather drink beer and fish than spend days weaving reed baskets and saying repetitious prayers. I don’t consider us wealthy, but I think Evagrius would see it differently. I am sure he would think my preaching was weak and my morals weaker. I am sure he would tell me I would never last a day when the demons come to call.

He would be right. That is the hard part of all of this; I look for guidance from a source that I can never match. That brings me back around to Real Austin. The Abbas and Ammas serve as mirrors to reflect our own brokenness back to us. At least that is what they did for Annie. They challenged her and her interactions with the homeless. They do the same for me in a different context. The remind me to keep my own pride in check. When I feel like a spiritual Superman, the desert dwellers remind me I am no such thing. They call me back – time and again – to my place as servant rather than lord; student rather than master.

This sounds defeatist and depressing, but that need not be the case. The mothers and fathers remind us  that in the person of Christ we see what we too can become. Salvation is more than a forensic act: it is a process of theosis. God became man so that man might be god. There is hope for us, but that hope lies in our lifelong struggle against our sinful nature.

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testing again

please disregard. this is a test.

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Keeping Young People out of Church

I posted this on my Facebook page, but felt this article deserved as much attention as it could muster.

I am coming to terms with the fact that I no longer a “young person.” At 38 with a greying beard, three kids and mortgage I am no longer the poster boy for youth. That is, unless you compare me to the average age in my congregation, or most ELCA congregations. And it certainly isn’t the case when I go to clergy gatherings, where I am often the youngest paster there by 20 years. But I digress.

My oldest son is 17. He, like many young people, finds church an incredible bore and even a waste of time. This does not mean he is not spiritual or even religious. Just yesterday he was asking for more icons to hang in his room. He’s interested in liturgy and music, and often re-scores pieces while sitting in church on Sunday. Our church says that it wants young people, but like the vast majority of other churches out there, want young people on their terms only. I am not saying this to pick on the church that I serve; I love the folks there and they are basically good and decent people. But when it comes to understanding the need to change to open the church up to those who are younger, they lack the ability and desire to do so.

In a tongue-in-cheek manner, Ben Boruff lifts up the more patronizing ways in which the church actively (and at times intentionally) marginalizes the younger contingent. The funny thing about this list is that most of the items on it are easily overcome by simply communicating with young people, asking them not so much what they want as asking them what they need. Does a twenty year old college student need the same thing out of a sermon that a 65 year old retired housewife? Need the liturgy always be accompanied by organ while half-heartedly singing what sounds like a funeral dirge? Do we respond by offering a half-hearted attempt at a “contemporary” worship?

Anyway, read the article. Whether or not you agree, it is good food for thought.

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Lenten Discipline, Attempt 1

This afternoon my wife and I took a little time to work on our Lenten discipline of simplifying and de-cluttering. We attacked the toughest area first: our master closet. I am glad to report that after just about an hour, we have three garbage bags filled with stuff to donate. There is a long way to go, but it is a good start. 

In other news, worship seemed to go pretty well last night. We had 50 folks gather, which is a good number for our small congregation. The sermon seemed to resonate and the liturgy was good. I think the most fun part was preparing the ashes with my kids prior to worship. The two little ones liked the how quickly the old palm leaves went up in flames. 

Sunday will be our first Sunday in a preaching series about stones. It should be a great series. 

I am really hoping this Lent I can get back to regular posting. I can’t promise every day, though that would be my goal. Let’s aim for four days a week and see what happens. 

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Ash Wednesday Sermon

So, as a general rule I have not posted sermons in the past. I figured I would give it a try this Ash Wednesday.


Rev. Robb Harrell

Ash Wednesday 2012

The Lies We Believe

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We have been lied to, my friends. More than once, in fact. We are lied to on a daily basis, and the sad fact is that we willingly believe the lies, so much so that we build our existence around them. The lies are many and various. If we wear the right brand of clothes, people will think more highly of us. If we go to just the right college or university, or keep a high enough GPA, then the world will be our oyster. If we drink the right brand of beer or use the right body spray, then the hottest women in the world will throw themselves at us. If we simply inject a little botox around the face then we can stave off those cursed wrinkles and continue to look young. Why in the world would we allow our hair to turn grey with age when we can dump some ammonia based sludge-in-a-box on our tender scalps and have a whole new look? There is even dye designed especially for beards. I guess maybe I should do something about all this white showing up on my chin.

Lies, all lies. And at the root of the lies is the biggest lie of all: we can escape death. It is all rooted in the first lie told to humanity before all history. Let us go back to the Garden of Eden; that sacred, ethereal space created for the archetypal man and woman. God had given so great a gift to them. All of the food that grew in that great garden was fair game with the exception of one: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The story tells us that the serpent was more crafty than any of the other wild animals God had made. Because of his craftiness, he was able to plant a seed of doubt in the woman’s mind about the real consequences of eating from the tree. Eve explained that she and her husband were warned upon pain of death to avoid the tree. How does the serpent answer her? I like the way the old King James puts it: ye shall not surely die. So she eats, and brings fruit to her husband eat. At the root of the mythical fall is this notion that death does not apply to us. Just like in the garden, we continue to believe the lie of the serpent, that we shall not surely die.

I am sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you shall surely die. As I was riding in last night with Ezel and the little ones for our Fat Tuesday pancake supper we heard the Casting Crowns song on the radio, “Who Am I?” And while I am not a huge fan of contemporary music, I thought the lyrics to this one would fit the mood we are trying to invoke. The chorus says, “I am a flower quickly fading/Here today and gone tomorrow/a vapor in the wind.” It actually reminded me of one of my favorite lines from the book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk that states the same sentiment in a slightly more stark manner, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”

Believe it or not, I do not take it as my role to depress you tonight. I do not intend to diminish our humanity. In fact, I pray to reinforce that which is really human. When we deny the temporal nature of our lives we make ourselves something we were never intended to be. We attempt to become a god for ourselves, and there is no greater delusion in this life.

This is precisely what happens in our reading from the prophet Joel tonight. The people had forgotten God, they had forgotten the covenant, they were living for themselves and they thought they could live this way forever. In Joel God reminds them that this is not true, and calls everyone to repentance with “all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning.” This call to repentance holds true for us today as well. Jesus tells us in John 10 that he has come so that we can have life, and have it more abundantly or more fully. But how can we have that life if we are so saturated in the lies of a culture that is in many ways opposed to the promises we hear in our scriptures?

The point of Lent – the point of the whole Christian life, really – is repentance. Repentance is the key to living a thoughtful existence. Repentance is really little more than self-examination that leads us to question our own motives and actions. It is life in which we ask ourselves what is of eternal consequence and what is not; what is a small matter and what is significant one. For instance, I would never say that grades or school are of no consequence. However, if this becomes for us an idol, then it takes away something that belongs to God alone. There is nothing wrong with caring to present a neat appearance or to practice good grooming and hygiene, but when we begin to value that which is temporal (the body) over that which is eternal (the soul), then again we lose perspective. When we worship at the throne of money, or material goods, or political parties, or our job title, or our earning potential, then we are erecting false gods, and are called to turn from those lies.

The point of repentance, the point of fasting and weeping and mourning is so that we can see the lies that we have believed for what they are and rend our hearts so that they might be healed by the one that Joel says is, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love.”

I quoted part of that song to you earlier, and at this point feel it is pretty important to finish the quote:

I am a flower quickly fading/Here today and gone tomorrow/A wave tossed in the ocean/Vapor in the wind/Still You hear me when I’m calling/Lord, You catch me when I’m falling/And You’ve told me who I am/I am Yours.

We are God’s. This call to repentance and self-examination isn’t a self-improvement project assigned by a Dr. Phil or a program with Oprah’s seal of approval. It is an eternal principle offered to us by one whose love is so great that –even when we believe the lies we are told- keeps calling us back. Lent, my friends, isn’t about starving ourselves to be holier, or giving up M&M’s or soda or beer or meat. God doesn’t really need us to do those things for his sake. And we surely don’t earn forgiveness for doing those things. That was taken care of on our behalf on the cross. Lent is about remembering who we are and who God is and what is really important in this life that is – in the face of all eternity – so short and precious. Amen.

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Doing Lent with Tyler Durden, Henry David Thoreau and Jesus

 Warning: Language may be offensive to sensitive readers.

Ok, I guess I am going to push the heresy meter a bit by mentioning those three guys in the same breath. Lent is upon us again, and the conversation has been ongoing about how we will observe the season of self-reflection. How will we make a change in our lives that better reflects the deeply held values that we share as a family? I have written before about fasting from food, so I won’t rehash that here. I would give up beer again, but considering how little beer or wine I drink it isn’t much of a sacrifice. I don’t really have many vices left. Or do I?

Tyler: We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.

Narrator: Martha Stewart.

Tyler: Fuck Martha Stewart. Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic. It’s all going down, man. So fuck off with your sofa units and Strinne green stripe patterns.

Truth time: I am a consumer. I like to buy crap. As a result, my home is overrun with it. There is clutter. There is stuff I haven’t so much as looked at or used I moved into the house four years ago. I’d like to blame the Harrell side of my family for this. My grandfather was a packrat extraordinaire, and my grandmother picked up the habit as well. My dad tends to hold on to stuff as well, and I have certainly picked up the habit. I wouldn’t say I was quite at Hoarding: Buried Alive level, but I could see it ending up there with under the right (or wrong?) circumstances. The honest truth is that I have so much stuff that I don’t even really know what I have.

I can hear it now: first world, white person problem, right. It is. I admit it. It is a symptom of the inequity of our world that one segment of society can have so much while there is such great suffering. And yet it is cause for concern in our own society that we can so deaden ourselves with our possessions that we lose sight of what is important. Again, Tyler Durden has it right:

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

We are lost in a sea of excess, drowning in our desire to have more and more. It is precisely why the great Transcendentalist father Henry David Thoreau challenged the assumptions of a society that seemed even then to have lost its soul. Thoreau knew there had to be something more, something deeper, something more elemental. So he fled to a self built cabin on the shores of Walden. He would write about his decision to move:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

Isn’t that what we all want, or shouldn’t it be what we want; to leave deeply, to fully experience life and love and the Divine and music and art and beauty. I am not merely talking about an aesthetic here. I am talking about the “marrow of life” that Thoreau sought, that very element of life. Yet Tyler reminds us that “the things we own ending up owning us.” Jesus knew this all too well.

Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Matthew 6:19-21

So this year for Lent it will be about simplicity. We are going to start working through our home and getting rid of stuff we simply don’t need or want anymore. All of those things that weigh us down or cause clutter to build up are gone. It is time to purge, to make room for things in our home and our souls for things of consequence.

Now let’s be clear: I have no intention of becoming a Luddite. I am not going to rid of my tv or satellite hook-up or cell phone. I have no issue with modern conveniences like the computer and the internet. Electricity, running water, and antibiotics are all really awesome things, and I am grateful for them. What I am talking about here is the stuff that has no real point, stuff that takes up room that causes that weird sense of residual background noise. That is the stuff I want gone. Lent provides a great opportunity for this. It is a chance to reflect critically on why certain things remain in my home. What is my emotional connection? What needs do certain objects seem to fulfill?

These are the things that we will tackle this Lent…

…right after I watch Fight Club one more time!

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Contemplation is Not (A working List)

Contemplation is not:

  1. Naval Gazing
  2. Escapism
  3. Compartmentalization
  4. Chasing after experience
  5. A way to be elevated above others
  6. Rooted solely in one’s own experience
  7. A way to bypass the church
  8. A replacement for corporate prayer
  9. A negation of Christian doctrine
  10. A new Gnosticism
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