13 Feb

Shrewd Grace

I preached the following sermon this past week at a Preaching Workshop on the very difficult parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16.  I really didn’t think it was all that good but my peers and colleagues gave me such overwhelmingly positive reviews that I thought I would share.  The Workshop was led by Dr. Charles Campbell who is the Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School.  Part of our focus was on his book, Preaching Fools: The Rhetoric of Folly.  My sermon sought to show  this “foolishness” in my own story as it relates to this parable.9781602583658_p0_v1_s260x4201


Shrewd Grace – by Rob Touchstone 

In his book, Shrewd, author Rick Lawrence makes an astute observation about the film, The Young Victoria, in which viewers get a glimpse of the early years of Queen Victoria and her future husband, Prince Albert.  The couple will eventually lead the 19th century British Empire through some of its transformational years of revolution in serving the poor, fighting slavery, offering education, and rebirthing the arts and sciences.

MV5BMTM4MjExMDk3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTU3OTMwMw@@._V1_SX214_During a corrupt period of time before they will rule and even before they are married, Victoria and Albert are playing a game of chess.  Victoria expresses to Albert that she feels like nothing more than a pawn herself.  She laments, “I’m sure half the politicians are ready to seize hold of my skirts and drag me from square to square,” to which Albert replies, “ Then you had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.”  Those words could just as well have come from the mouth of Jesus who said, “Be shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 11.47.10 PM

Over the last couple of years I’ve learned a few things about shrewdness through coffee and business.  Believe me, I am a guy who had no business starting a business but 18 months ago I formed a team and  opened a coffeehouse on little more than a handful of money and a theology degree.

Most of the time I play the role of the jester interrupting conventional wisdom in the business world without even knowing how or why.  Our successful little coffeehouse drives capitalists insane because we measure our success not by how much we make but by how much we give away.  Through the folly of it all, I’ve learned to “play the fool” in a business world where I’m largely ignorant by using the narrative of Scripture rather than the Wall Street journal.  After all, the story of God delivers a subversive kingdom ethic in regards to money, possessions, wealth, and poverty that reads like an antithesis to Business Week.  And no one has more to say about it than Jesus.

Most of the time, we get pretty uncomfortable when Jesus talks about our money.  And typically it’s because he’s so often challenging our version of the American dream, and capitalism, and all we are told about “stocking up.”  We squirm in our seats when he tells a rich young man to give it ALL away, somehow telling ourselves that we would have never walked away from Jesus like that young man.

For most of us, Jesus is simply the “nice” or “generous” guy who challenges conventional wisdom and stands up for the poor and oppressed. And even though we may have a hard time living up to the level of sacrifice for which Jesus asks, we can buy in to the idea that it’s the right thing to do.  We may not be as sacrificial as we need to be, but most of us can smile and reach into our pockets and be our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

But then we come to a parable that no one wants to talk about because it forces us to deal with a Jesus who is more than just a generous nice guy.  This Jesus makes us a little more uncomfortable as he overturns the tables of our expectations of what He and we should and should not do.

It is a parable of shrewdness.  Just when we are set up to predict that Jesus will rebuke a  clearly dishonest man who acts shrewdly with money, we instead hear him turn the story on its head and declare that the “sons and daughters of light” could learn a thing or two from the shrewdness of this unethical scoundrel of THIS world.  How’s that for folly?

So from the lips of Jesus we meet a man in Luke 16 who is in big trouble.  He is a financial accountant for a wealthy man.  Needless to say, he has a good job.  But he has done it poorly; so poorly that he has been accused (by someone) of wasting the very possessions he has been entrusted to manage.  He is about to be relieved of his duties by his master who has heard about his poor management and demands for the book of accounts to be turned in immediately.  In essence, he is fired on the spot.  As scholar Kenneth Bailey points out, rabbinic law granted the master the right to fire one who managed his money with or without good cause and upon doing so, nothing the manager does from that point forward is binding.

It is here that we would expect Jesus to end the parable and offer a commentary on the folly of the accountant’s irresponsible handling of his master’s money.  But this parable is just beginning and may perhaps be as shocking as any ever told.

It should be noted that the accountant does not defend himself.  He knows he is guilty.  He has only one task and that is to go home and get the book of accounts.  The dreadful book of accounts.  Documents that reflect nothing but the folly of the sin of this unethical accountant.

In this moment of damnation however a shrewd plan is hatched.  Though short on time, the accountant has one chance and it’s going to take shrewdness.  And it is that shrewdness that will position him to be at the mercy of his master as he turns in the very book will that indict him.

Typically we think of shrewdness in negative terms.  It can certainly imply a level of dishonesty, just as is seen directly in the parable,  that we are convinced Jesus would rebuke under any circumstance.  But this is not a parable focused on dishonest vs. honest behavior, it is a parable about leverage.  It is not a parable about how much possessions are owned but about how those possessions are used.  It is a parable about cleverness.  It is one of those tension filled scenes where we want to question the ethics of stealing but the narrator insists the thief has noble intentions.  robin-hoodIt is that Robin Hood moment where want to cheer the stealing from the rich and giving to the poor but then are reminded that stealing is wrong.  Jesus has a way of inviting us into that tension.  And this is a parable in which we beg for resolution only to be left with unnerving, unresolved tension about what Jesus means by shrewdness.

The manager begins with an honest appraisal of his own assets and finds himself sorely lacking.  He cannot beg because he is too proud, meaning, he does not have the qualifications such as a disability to stand on a street corner and ask for money.  He also assesses his lack of experience in other areas of work which leave him unable to even handle a shovel well.  The commodity he does have (the accounting book) will  have to be enough but will have to be used cleverly.  And here we see what Jesus means by shrewdness.  Rick Lawrence suggests that shrewdness is:  knowing how things work.

And this clever accountant knows exactly how things work.  You win friends by doing favors.  So he meets with those who owe his master money.  One owes 900 gallons of oil.  That’s three years of wages.  We’re talking about a lot of money here.   Over $100,000 by today’s standards.  The next household owes something similar.  The manager knows what it will take to win them over and he hatches a shrewd plan.  It is a plan that will win the favor of the debtor and leverage the reputation of the master.

How will he do it? The accountant reduces the bill by half for the first and does something similar with the second household.  His goal?  To win these household over as friends in order to secure a place that will receive him.  He plays the fool.  And it works.  Upon returning the deceitfully-altered accounting book the master does exactly the opposite of what we’d expect:  he commends the accountant.  How could he?  And how could Jesus invent such a story?  In the accountant’s self-preserving deceitfulness he has placed the master in quite an interesting predicament.  He has made his master look like the most graceful person person in the town.  Though he has every right to negate the accountant’s bill reductions, does the master dare ruin the favor he would now experience from those who must be celebrating over his grace?  And though he has every right to have his accountant jailed for fraud, the master exercises foolish grace.  It is a portrait of the triumph of the cross that comes through what looks like defeat.

It should be noted that dishonesty is not commended in this story.  But shrewdness is.  Jesus interprets his own parable by holding this tension.  He is employing a rabbinic technique called kal ve’homer which is a method of showing something bigger out of a smaller thing.  It is used to show that “if this thing is true, how much more would it be true if this were to happen.”  So Jesus says that the dishonest accountant knew how to leverage his possession (the book of accounts) to manipulate a good outcome for all involved – himself, the master, and those who had their bills reduced.  It was a shrewd move.  But he’s still a man of THIS world.  This is a small story compared to the grand narrative of Almighty God.   If people of this worldy narrative can pull this off, what would happen if “sons and daughters of the narrative of light” could learn to think so cleverly?  After all, “son and daughters of the light” know better than anyone “how things work” in the kingdom of God because they have already experienced for themselves the undeserved grace from a grace-filled Master.

And finally the punchline from Jesus:  “Use worldly wealthy to gain friends for yourselves so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”  To paraphrase, use worldly wealthy for good by leveraging it to usher in the in-breaking kingdom that is at hand.  “Master the rules of the game.  And play it better than they can.”  And in doing so, we let the irresistible folly of grace that comes from a crucified king be poured out on those who don’t deserve it but are placed in its path.  Because though we can never fully understand the mystery of grace, we know how it works – through Jesus.

So what did my understanding about Jesus and shrewdness teach me about business?  Not just to give money away.  But to shrewdly make money for the sake of others.  And so at a small 18 month old coffeehouse run by a few jesters, we leverage the caffeine addictions and buying power of those who can afford $4 for a latte as a means of “taking” money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor.

We are all called to participate in our own shrewd ways in the kingdom of God.  This doesn’t come through 5 steps or a business plan that I can lay out for you today but through your own unique experience of how foolish grace works in your life and how you can leverage the gifts you’ve been given to help others to live into the presence of a self-giving Master whose grace and provision continuously interrupt and defy all boundaries and expectations.


05 Feb

A Shepherd Boy, A Stone, & Two Balloons

IMG_5470In my previous post I shared how much I couldn’t wait to reveal the future location(s) of The Well Coffeehouse.  I’ve been so excited to reveal what I thought God was speaking through the two balloons that I launched on that cool, rainy day in October.  And now I can tell you one of them.  You perhaps get to help shape what He’s writing on the other.  But first, let me let me tell you a story….1453702_10151820882287099_1579577959_o

Two years ago I started drawing circles.  I’d read in a theology book about a 1st century rabbi named Choni The Circle Drawer.  The story became popularized in Mark Batterson’s recent book, The Circle Maker.  During a season of devastating draught in Israel, Choni took his staff and drew a circle around himself on the ground.  He then declared, “God, I will not leave this circle until you send the rain.”  God sent the rain.  The story is much richer and fuller than that (see here for the full Choni story) and I was moved by the boldness of Choni.  I had never talked to God that way before.  Not yet.

A few years ago, I believed God had given me a vision for a coffeehouse that could change lives globally and locally.  I wanted to create a space where people could be loved into His kingdom.  I wanted to make money only to give it away to the poor, the impoverished, and the thirsty.  I wanted to change the world!  There was only one problem.  I had no business experience.  None.  Zero.  I’d never even taken a business class in my life.  My degree was in youth ministry and I was finishing a Master of Divinity in theology.  To put it mildly, I had no business starting a business.  I felt like a little shepherd boy.  No experience. No expertise.  Only a dream in hand.book-large

But God has a way of using shepherd boys.  He once took a shepherd boy who refused the traditional armor and sent him into battle to take on a giant.  And that boy had only one thing he needed.  A stone.

After sharing the vision of The Well with my dear friends who became The Well team we had a bold vision.  But again there was something lacking.  Funds.  We prayed for God to show us where to open The Well and how to get there.  converting a burger king to a coffeehouseNot long after, we were told about an opportunity to lease an old Burger King near Lipscomb University that had been closed for years.  It seemed like the perfect spot to get started.  But it was going to take a lot of money just to get off the ground. And we had none.  I repeat, NONE, as in ZERO.   That amount of money felt like a giant.  And I was reminded I was nothing but a shepherd boy.

So we prayed.  But not just a “Dear God, please help us” kind of  prayer.  We prayed circles.  Bold circles.  One night a couple of us decided to pray literal circles around the old Burger King building.  I was really excited. I’d never prayed like this before.  I was ready.  I got some chalk out of my kids’ toy closet and I was ready to go change the world.  I got there about 10pm and started praying boldly as I walked around the building.  “God give us this building, not for my glory but for yours.  God let this be a kingdom business that will save lives by giving water to those dying of thirst.  God let the people who enter this building come in for coffee but walk out with Living Water. ”  And then I took out my chalk.  This was my Choni moment.

Rob & Chris make first ever cup of coffee at The Well

Rob Touchstone and Chris Soper enjoy the first two cups of coffee ever made at The Well Coffeehouse.

I got down on my knees and began to draw my circle. I couldn’t help but wonder what I must have looked like to anyone driving by.  I kept thinking I was going to get arrested for loitering or looking like a drunken fool.  “Um….yes sir officer I’m just drawing prayer circles around this old building because I want to change the world, that’s all.”  Fortunately no one saw me.  At least not that I knew of.

But then it happened.  My chalk ran out.  Epic fail.  I had such good intentions.     I was going to draw a circle that would change the world!  But I didn’t even bring enough chalk.  Way to be prepared.  I was immediately reminded of my inadequacies.  No business experience.  No money.  And not even enough chalk. prayer circle I drew around the building that is now The WellAnd then I saw it.

As I bowed my head in defeat, it was right beside my foot.  A stone.  That’s it!  Who needs chalk!  I excitedly grabbed that little stone and got back to work.  If I thought it was hard to get on my hands and knees and draw with chalk, this was ten times harder.  Now I was scratching the pavement with all of my might just to get the marks to show up.  But it was working!  I prayed, I scratched, and I crawled.  A shepherd boy with nothing but a stone in hand.  And the giant fell.

I fell to my knees after I got the phone call two weeks later.  It was a donor.  I had very sheepishly (pun most definitley intended) asked him to help us to fund the startup cost needed to open The Well.  I hated asking for money.  Not just a little bit.  A lot.  But God prompted me to ask, and this amazingly generous friend called to say, “this is what I’d like to do…”  (You know who you are dear friend and I am still amazed by your generosity.  The Well wouldn’t exist without God providing through you.) I hung up the phone and knew The Well was going to become a reality.  And it did.

One year into our journey we were told by our landlord, “There’s a very good chance this building is going to be demolished…soon.”

Artistic rendition of the high rise that will be built on The Well's current location.

Artistic rendition of the “giant” that will be built on The Well’s current location.

Several months later, we looked a giant directly in the eyes.  It was true.  Our building was sitting right on the spot where a developer wanted to build a new high rise residential/retail center.  How’s that for a giant?

We prayed.  And we prayed more.  We prayed boldly.  We prayed circles.  Challenge after challenge came our way.  I could have never imagined how difficult it could be to find a location we could afford.  Time was running out.  As of November, we were down to a month until our demolition date and we had nowhere to go.

And then the rain finally began to fall that would fill The Well with just what we needed.  First it was time.  They extended our stay in our current location by 2 months.  Then came not one incredible opportunity…but two. And now with nothing more than a small stone in hand, this little shepherd boy is happy to announce that The Well has a new home.  Up, up, and away!

And what about that second balloon?  Let’s just say I can’t get it off the ground without YOU.  I come to you as a shepherd with nothing but a stone.  Enjoy the exciting news…and read on to see how you can help us launch another amazing opportunity!





The Well Coffeehouse is excited to announce that we have signed a long-term lease to inhabit a space in the brand new Shops at Seven Springs on Old Hickory Blvd!

The Well Coffeehouse has officially signed a long-term lease in The Shops at Seven Springs!  We’ll be inhabiting a new 2100 sq ft space in a brand new shopping center in one of the busiest parts of Nashville!  Our new store will be located just east of I-65.  We are so blessed that we were offered the opportunity to lease this space and so grateful for your support.Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 8.18.31 PM This location is strategically positioned to help us take our missional nonprofit coffeehouse to another level of being able to make money for the sake of the impoverished. And we look forward to continuing to serve Nashville what we believe is the best cup of coffee in town.   We’re finishing design work now and you’re going to love the look!  Look for the same rustic, organic, and earthy decor that has become our trademark but with some big improvements!  And of course, look for all the things you already love about The Well…and much more!

Our goal is to be open by the end of April.  We can’t wait to share a cup of coffee with you in this incredible new space!


Again, all I can say is…we can’t do it without you.  And so I came to you once again as a little shepherd boy with nothing but a stone in hand.  Here’s the need as I’ve written it on The Well’s webpage.  If you feel led to give, we’d be so deeply humbled.  Pray circles with us.  Let’s take on this giant…

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  For the past year, we have worked hard to find a way to stay in the Green Hills community but there has not been a location available with a monthly lease we could afford.  Until now… Lipscomb University (half a mile from our current store) has approached us with an opportunity that would allow The Well to stay in our current community.  Pizza Perfect (a business across the street from Lipscomb) has decided to close their doors for good.  Lipscomb has the lease on the property and is offering a very favorable sublease to The Well.  We would very much love to inhabit this space and keep our presence in our current community.  In order to do so we must raise $75,000 in startup costs in the next two weeks. Should we meet our goal of $75,000 The Well would be able to open in this location in mid-March, the same time we must be out of our current location (which will be demolished).  This would keep us from having to close for any period of time and allow for a seamless transition. As our loyal customers, we’re asking for your help in reaching this goal.  We simply can’t do it without your support.   Our team would be grateful for any amount you’d be willing to share with us to help expand our vision.  As a coffeehouse in our infancy, we believe we’re just getting started as we seek to change the world…one cup of coffee at a time. We want nothing more than to continue to reach our global community as we provide clean water for the impoverished and to reach our local community by loving and serving.  Thank you sincerely for helping us to do both.  Love.  Coffee.  The perfect blend.   Donate to The Well HERE