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Ed Rowell

Ed Rowell is a pastor, author, speaker and former magazine editor whose writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including New Man, Focus on the Family, Today's Christian Woman, Western Horseman, and American Cowboy. In this interview Ed talks about his latest novel EMMA'S JOURNAL, his rejection of the Church at an early age and the pastor who drew him back to Christ, and the works of secular fiction that have inspired him the most.

Ed Rowell Answers The Faithful Fifteen

November 2003

FR: What kind of testimony to your faith are you demonstrating in this book? If you are writing fiction, do you write fiction that is based upon your faith or that has a message for the reader? Is your goal to demonstrate your faith in your writing?

ER: EMMA'S JOURNAL is the story of a remarkable woman who made the most of the ordinary life she had. Her journey is the message of my last two books --- life is too important to live haphazardly. Living intentionally is the ultimate act of stewardship we can offer God. This is a cornerstone of what I teach my congregation about following Christ week after week.

There is also a subplot in EMMA'S JOURNAL about a church that is living intentionally. This book encompasses much of what I believe about how the church can regain its God-given intent to be a powerful change agent in the world.

FR: When did you come to a saving knowledge of Jesus? Where are you today in your walk? Is your faith an important part of what you do?

ER: I came to faith in Christ as a child, in spite of a consistently dysfunctional church experience (see below). I walked away from church at 13 and didn't return for a decade. As a young adult I couldn't shake the certainty that I belonged to Christ and he deserved better than the indulgent, self-focused life I was living.

To this day, one of the funniest experiences of life is running into someone who knew me back then and telling them I am now a pastor. The contrast between then and now will give you whiplash, but it is a demonstration of the power of Christ to transform us.

I am, in the words of Henri Nouwen, just a wounded healer. Since I know firsthand the destructive powers of selfish living, and still limp from my own prodigal decade, I am convicted daily of the need to urge people to get outside themselves and discover the joyful life to be found in giving away one's life.

FR: Tell us about your church experiences, how you grew up (or maybe didn't grow up) in the church, where you attend now, your involvement in your local assembly, etc.

ER: As a child we moved frequently. My mom took us to church, my dad attended occasionally. But we always seemed to find the most mean-spirited, legalistic church in town. I guess if we weren't bruised and bleeding when we left church, we hadn't been preached to.

These experiences marked me deeply, first by being the catalyst to reject the church in my adolescence. Fortunately, I read of the church's potential in the Bible and then finally found a church that hinted of the life-giving potential. I am determined that church be characterized by grace-relationships that God uses to change us for His glory.

FR: Tell us about your current church family/fellowship. How does it influence your work?

ER: I've been serving Tri-Lakes Chapel as senior pastor for just over six months now, after five years at The People's Church in Franklin, TN as Teaching Pastor. In that time, we've really focused on the biblical purpose for a church and have defined our core values in these formative months. Our family is going through the grief and loss of deep friendships and hard, slow work of building new relationships. Life-blessing relationships cannot be rushed, and finding the right people, especially when you are the pastor, is just really hard. Right now we have a thousand acquaintances and no deep friendships. We know it's just a stage, but it is an uncomfortable stage.

I began writing while serving as a pastor in Arizona and then moved into magazine writing/editing for five years. While those years in publishing were valuable to my professional development, I realized that I belonged back on the front lines of pastoral ministry.

A lot of writers fantasize that they'd produce their best work if only they didn't have to do whatever else it is they do to earn a living. My fantasy involves a mountain cabin overlooking a stream full of huge trout waiting to be caught as soon as I hit my word count for the day. It also is noticeably absent of people, since they are the chief source of distractions for those who write. But what I've found to be true is that I write better, with a greater scent of real life in my work, when I am up to my ears in local church ministry. Writing apart from the hardships of the writer's real life will never ring true.

FR: Who are your spiritual mentors? Your professional mentors?

ER: Often they are one and the same. Richard Foster, Phil Yancey and Frederick Buechner have had a profound influence on me, both by what they write and by how they write.

My growing up years were marked by such bad role models of pastors that when I finally met one with integrity, he literally changed my life. Tom Bray, who passed away this past summer, was the pastor in the small town where I was stationed while in the Air Force. The year before I got out, I met Tom and he led me back to faith. He wasn't exceptionally gifted as a preacher, but his love for me was so winsome it drew me back to Christ. That is incarnational ministry. Then, Vernon Armitage, pastor of Pleasant Valley Church in Liberty, MO became a mentor while I was in college and seminary. He invested heavily in me, and to this day is my primary mentor for pastoring.

FR: Discuss your calling/mission --- as a writer and as a Christian.

ER: My calling is like that of every other believer --- to utilize my gifts in such a way that God's true nature is demonstrated to a watching world. My gifts are few, I can lead, teach and encourage/exhort. I use those gifts every day as a senior pastor, and those are the same gifts I use to influence people through my writing.

FR: What are your Scripture reading habits?

ER: For the past several years I've read the Psalms every day. Currently, I'm reading through the New Testament in one shot --- should take me about 5 weeks total. I also spend the requisite time preparing to teach, where I get deep into specific passages. I love the spade work of preaching as much as the delivery.

FR: What books have most influenced your work?

ER: Interestingly, the book that motivated me to complete EMMA'S JOURNAL was Stephen King's memoir, ON WRITING. Like him or hate him, King tells a riveting story. In this memoir, you soon realize that his propensity for the darkest subject matter is directly influenced by his childhood.

But back to my point. In addition to several nonfiction titles, I had three unfinished novels in a desk drawer that I couldn't seem to finish. I'd just painted myself into a corner. I had tried to write them from a detailed outline, with a notebook full of character studies and chapter synopses. King says in effect, "I just put a couple of people I like in a bad situation and see what happens." So that's what I did. I put Emma's unhappy adult children in a tense family situation, removed the one element that would solve their problems (Emma's journal) and just let the story progress. While writing EMMA'S JOURNAL, I had a sense of the characters taking on a life of their own and the story went in a direction I never expected. It was both exciting and humbling. It was a thrill to feel the characters come alive to me personally. And it was also a reminder that God's spirit was willing to direct a simple story about an old woman, just as He does the sermons I preach.

FR: Do you read secular fiction at all? If so, who are your favorite authors and why?

ER: Of course I read "secular" fiction. I love great stories that move the heart and inspire us to greater things --- books of consequence, books about extraordinary circumstances and decisions. Much of the writing that has moved me most, tragically, did not come from the pen of Christians.

I absolutely reject the false dichotomy of sacred and secular. Madeleine L'Engle wrote, "There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation." Thomas Aquinas said long before her, "All that is true, by whomsoever it has been said, had its origin in the Spirit."

Too many Christians, in a sincere effort to be set apart, have become thin-skinned about elements of reality. Life is full of stuff we'd rather just ignore --- sex, violence, hatred, profanity. While I hate books or movies that treat these elements gratuitously, I won't reject a book or movie just because they deal with those themes honestly. Books that ignore the tension and pain of real life deserve to be ignored.

Back to favorite authors/books. I love reading great books with my kids --- everything from C. S. Lewis and L'Engle to Barbara Parks to Dav Pilkey. We like deep stuff, silly stuff, and just great stories. Before HOLES and TUCK EVERLASTING became movies, we had read the books together.

I love John Irving, Annie Proulx, Rick Bass and Ivan Doig because they write with such authenticity. Proulx captures regional dialect and the quirkiness of people better than anyone I know. Irving's work always has spiritual themes running throughout. Doig's writing is highly literary and a little slow at times, but for those who love language it is a feast. I enjoy Larry McMurtry and Tony Hillerman because of their portrayal of both the historic and the contemporary west. Wallace Stegner's work always captures the sense of place of the west better than anyone else)

I like John Grisham's non-lawyer books like A PAINTED HOUSE and SKIPPING CHRISTMAS better than his formula novels. Tim Gautreaux wrote a short story for Atlantic Monthly a few years ago called "Welding with Children" that was the most profound piece of writing with a Christian worldview I've ever read, but you'd never characterize it as "Christian fiction."

The problem with so much Christian writing is that we don't even attempt to achieve the standards of the best writers. Thomas Merton wrote, "If we do not try to be perfect in what we write, perhaps it is because we are not writing for God after all. In any case it is depressing that those who serve God and love Him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in Him take pains to write so well. I am not talking about grammar and syntax, but about having something to say and saying it in sentences that are not half dead."

My own problem is that, while I do the best I can, I am frequently intimidated by the gulf between my own feeble efforts and the work of the great writers of our day and want to just give up.

FR: What are your other media habits --- television, movies, music, etc.?

ER: First a disclaimer. I consume mass media both as a consumer, what I like, and as a student of culture. I want to lead a church that is able to interface with the real world. Therefore we have to know where culture is. The church doesn't set the artistic standards for music or story anymore, so if we care about connecting with people outside the church, we'd better know what's going on.

I reject the church as subculture that has lost credibility with contemporary culture because we are hunkered down behind the fortress walls. While the Gospel message is timeless, the context is ever changing.

I watch very little television --- the only way to find time to write is to let something go. I do enjoy reruns of Seinfeld and The Simpsons.

I love music --- classic rock and movie soundtracks are my favorites. After Martin Scorcese's documentary, I'm falling in love with the Blues. Because I have a teenage daughter I now listen to Evanescence, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, and Reliant K when I drive her to school each morning.

I listen to some Christian music, especially since I got to know many artists personally at the church we just left in Franklin, Tennessee. My favorite worship music is from Chris Tomlin and Tommy Walker.

I'm a movie nut. Our family favorite is The Princess Bride. We have the entire dialogue virtually memorized. My personal favorite is a toss up between Gladiator, The Shawshank Redemption and the original Matrix.

FR: Do you and your family have any special faith-based traditions?

ER: Would it make us seem more spiritual to say we did? No, we're just trying to raise our children to love Jesus and not be a refugee from life.

FR: Tell us about your prayer life and habits.

ER: I struggle like everyone else to have a meaningful relationship with God. I need lots of solitude and silence for spiritual direction, much more than I'm currently getting. I use a journal almost every day. I also strive to remember what Brother Lawrence taught us in PRACTICING THE PRESENCE OF GOD --- that prayer is a 24-hour-a-day opportunity.

FR: Describe what you believe the role of writing in religion is.

ER: Simply put, the best storytellers win. If Christ-followers want to regain influence in our culture, it won't be because of protests, boycotts or politics. It will be because our storytellers, both in print and on film, tell the more compelling tales of redemption, hope and love.

FR: Tell us about one or more of your favorite encounters with readers.

ER: A high school principal recently tracked down my phone number and called to tell me how much my book GO THE DISTANCE had meant to him. He wanted permission to use some of the material in teacher training at his school. As we talked, he shared about how hard it was to share his faith without jeopardizing his career, and that using my book gave him the opportunity to interweave the practical principles of purposeful living with the ultimate meaning of life. That really encouraged me, especially since GO THE DISTANCE only sold about 12 copies.

FR: Would you share a story about someone you've brought to Christ or share how your writing has helped someone?

ER: I was flying home from a workshop in Chicago the other day and sat next to a young woman on the plane who was interested in talking. She was a personal coach and taught her clients to "tap into the power of the universe." Her worldview was completely New Age, but after an intriguing 2-hour conversation, I got her address to send her a copy of EMMA'S JOURNAL and believe she's a step or two closer to considering the validity of Christianity than she was before our encounter. Evangelism is just as much about sowing as it is about harvesting.

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Waterbrook Press
ISBN: 1578567246
(October 2003)

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  • GO THE DISTANCE: 21 Habits and Attitudes of Those Who Finish Well (2002)
  • EMMA'S JOURNAL (2003)

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