Last Journey’s the Best

It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together.  I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.

Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for it’s beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.

The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles.  We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.

IMG_6804It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun.   We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met.  Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on step until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journey – step by step.

IMG_6787I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life.  I think about how much this mirrors real life, how its so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected.  I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows.  I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.

IMG_6622We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge.  The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.

IMG_6638As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening.  It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces.  Donna’s there first, and she signs the book.  The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find.   When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.

IMG_6651We’ve stood under many these past weeks.  Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights.  Other moments, bone weary and sore.  This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful:  for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others.   We can barely pray – mostly it’s tears of joy.

IMG_6700We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut.   Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about world cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare.  There’s laughter, IMG_6728stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.

I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way.   The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.

I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.

For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut:


The War of Fog – 3 truths for Living with Clarity in Zero Visibility

We’re waiting for the cable car that will haul us up to the Douglass Hut, the base from which we’ll be hiking over a couple of passes to another hut.  We’re waiting at the base of the lift, gazing skyward.  All we can see are two cables disappearing into the clouds.  Eventually one of them begins dancing, then the other, and finally, 150′ above us, we see something mysteriously appearing out of the grey, taking form as the cable car.  A horn sounds, and soon the car is “parked” and we step in for a ride upward.  Everything quickly disappears as we ascend, and then, moments later, we look down, seeing snow on the brush that rushes by 100 plus feet below us.  The snow gets thicker as we go higher until, finally, we’re there:  The Lunarsee and Douglas Hut, our home for the night.

IMG_5962We exit the car for one of our shorter hikes, going maybe 100 feet to the adjacent entryway of the Douglass Hut, in howling wind, wet snow, and the capacity to see nothing other than what’s exactly in front of us, moment by moment.  This is called “white out” and if you’ve been in the mountains during white out, you know it’s never, ever pleasant.  You look at the map, and know that there’s a large lake and mountains somewhere near here, but you don’t really know it in the fullest sense yet, because you only know it from the map.  We duck inside out of the cold, check in to our rooms, and are quickly in our room in this “summer only” hut, which means that the dorm’s unheated, which means that on this snowy, windy day, every blanket is cherished while we rest, along with our snow hats.

Later in the afternoon we’ll rise and go spend some time in the dining area, enjoying some good foot, hot tea, wine, and reading time.  The hours pass quickly actually.  In spite of the cabin feverish feel of the place, it’s far from empty.  There are guests sitting around IMG_5968talking, drawing, reading, playing games.  None of them speak English though, so the two of us are a bit in our own world when, as afternoon turns to evening, I hear a stirring and look up.

The fogs lifted!  Not a lot, but enough to give reality to the lake we’ve seen on the map and at least the bottoms of the surrounding mountains.  People are rushing for their boots so that can get outside with their cameras because God only knows how long the fog will keep her skirt lifted for us like this.   All attention has turned outside of ourselves the beauty show offered us.

“So it’s true” I say to myself, as reality comes into view.  There’s a sense of delight and relief to the whole situation, and above all else a sense of “We’re glad we came… in spite of the fog!”  By the day after IMG_6093tomorrow, we’ll return here to largely blue skies, and celebrate the full beauty of that which was drawn on a map and described, but unknown to us even as we were in it, because our sight was clouded by fog.  “This” I say to myself, “is an important moment”

IMG_4897 It’s important because large swaths of our lives, especially our lives of faith, are lived in the midst of a thick fog of suffering, doubt, failure, war, abuse, hunger, loneliness, cancer, addiction.  It’s all swirling around, in our own souls or the experiences of those we love, and we can’t see a blessed thing, because only the cursed things are apparent in the moment.  “Where’s God?” we ask ourselves, or we ask where hope is, or joy, or meaning.  They’re fair questions in the fog because we were promised a lake and we’re really looking hard, but all we can see is  fog.

Yes.  This is why they call it faith.  We have a map that paints glowing descriptions of both the present (in the midst of challenges and trials) and the future (when all tears are gone), and we’re invited to live, not “as if” it’s all true, but to live fully “because” it’s true, and to live into the true-ness of it in spite of the fog.   What does this mean?

1.  It’s means I’m deeply loved and fully forgiven, in spite of the fog of failure.

2. It means that I’m complete in Christ and filled with his strength, in spite of the fog of  brokenness and weakness

3. It means that all enemies have been reconciled, in spite of the fact that we also see the horrors of war and terror, custom delivered to our inboxes every day

4. It means that a day is coming when weapons will be melted down and used as farm tools, and cancer, loneliness, fear, human trafficking, abuse, and oppression will all be done away with forever.  It’s down the road a bit, but it’s coming.

Here’s the mystery of the map and fog in a nutshell: (Hebrews 2:8,9)

“God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”  For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him.  But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.  But we see him….!!

I need to believe the map, and live according to the reality of the map while I wait for the fog to clear.  This means living in a posture of thanksgiving for what is true, even when the fog is swirling so thickly that I can neither see or feel it.   The result of this posture of heart has led people to joy and peace, even in the midst of the storm.

Two quotes speak to this powerfully: 

IMG_4927“Don’t struggle and strive so, my child
There is no race to complete, no point to prove, no obstacle to conquer for you to win my love.
I have already given it to you.
I loved you before creation drew its first breath.
I dreamed you as I molded Adam from the mud.
I saw you wet from the womb.
And I loved you then.” Desmond Tutu

All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  Julian of Norwich

Now it’s our turn… to walk into the fog as people of hope because of what we know is true.


Strength and Beauty are Vital – and Vital to Redefine

IMG_5627 IMG_5826I’ve been overwhelmed by beauty these past 35 days or so in the Alps.  Sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and lightning, wildflowers and waterfalls, ruggedly terrifying mountain peaks and lush river valleys.  It’s been beautiful; but expected.  I came here looking for this kind of revelation and, other than the predominance of clouds that have hidden the night sky stars, I’ve not been disappointed.

Less anticipated, though, was the extent to which the aesthetics of Alpine hospitality would so bless us.  Little things, like a welcome sign IMG_5770on the door of our room in a hut, or Alpine wildflowers on the table at supper, matchless care given to clean windows and floors; even the flower boxes gracing the sides of chalet balconies, all these things have said, in their own way, “we care about those who are with us – even if they’re just passing through.”  This commitment to spatial beauty become such a norm because of the culture, that wherever it was lacking things felt sterile, as if we, the guests, were a bother, not worth the time.

Finally though, and most important, I’ve discovered a different kind of beauty that’s robust and life giving.  It came as a surprise though, sneaking up on me on Sunday afternoon.  Donna and I had come out of the high country and were staying in a wonderful hotel in a small village that we’d accidentally stumbled upon.  We’d stashed our stuff, arriving mid-afternoon, and made our way to a little food festival in the plaza, where a stage was set up and a band was singing a mix of German folk tunes and old American songs from the 60′s.

It was here on this plaza on a Sunday afternoon that I heard the famous song:  “What a Wonderful World”  Donna and I had just been pondering what it would have been like to be in this plaza 70 years earlier, in 1944, how different than the joviality of this Sunday afternoon.  Just then, I heard “What a Wonderful World”, that song made famous by Louie Armstrong.   The lyrics matched the day, as I heard:

I see friends shaking hands.
Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying,
“I love you”.

I hear babies cry,
I watch them grow,
They’ll learn much more,
Than I’ll ever know.

And I think to myself….”what a wonderful world”

The sight of elderly folk walking hand in hand, small children playing, an older man in a wheel chair, and a developmentally disabled child, all making their way through this plaza with joy, all the beloved of someone, was beautiful enough that I was undone by it.   These are the people who were declared “a burden to the state” in a previous era.  In the end, though, the beauty of compassion won.  Thanks be to God.

This has largely been the way of it during these past five weeks:  In the high country we see the fit, the strong, the capable (that they’re made up of all ages, including the elderly, is an observation for another post).  They’re up where the air is thin, often pouring over maps, and considering how they’ll use their strength to reach the next hut, or a summit or two.  They are the beauty of health and vigor.

In the valleys, though, we encounter those unable to go higher, limited in their pursuits by illness, weakness, disability.  However, and I can’t stress this enough, the beauty present in the midst of this weakness has been a greater revelation to me than the beauty found in strength.  This is because the weakness and vulnerability that I’ve seen has been met with kindness, service, and the dignifying power of profound love.  All of this is the more powerful if, while seeing it unfold before my eyes, I’m reading of the days when these very people were gathered up and “put away”.

Thank God for those who say “No!” to such thinking, for the Mother Teresa’s of the world, and Pope Francis, and those who volunteer in shelters and medical clinics, and those committed to being the presence of Christ precisely by loving and serving those most in need of love.

These are important things to ponder, because we live in a world that, increasingly, worships at the altar of a narrowly defined view of beauty, a view having to do with strength, youth,  and “capacity”, whether intellectual, financial, social, or physical.   I can’t stress how dangerous, and ultimately ugly, this path is.   How do we avoid it?

1.  Recognize the beauty of vulnerability.  It’s a soil in which powerful love will grow

2.  Recognize the beauty of brokenness and confession.  

3. Recognize the beauty of service and hospitality, and begin making both a priority – especially towards those who can’t repay.  

4. Quit walking to the other side of the road when you encounter need, weakness, brokenness.  Jump in and love instead.

IMG_6161All of this requires, not just a new set of eyes, but an openness to disruption, and that requires space in our lives, and that requires trimming the excess obligations, and that requires… alignment with God’s priorities.

Our world increasingly views those who can’t pay their way as a bother.   Imagine the power of light in the midst of such darkness when compassion, love, and service take root again.  Whatever it looks like, I know this much:  it will be beautiful

I’ve loved talking to folks in their twenties about the peaks they’re going after, but never did I imagine that the greater joy would come from chatting with elderly folks sitting on a bench, and yet that’s been the way of it, because it’s beauty I’m finding there that contains within itself the essence of the gospel.




35 thoughts on marriage, after 35 years:

Today I’ll get on a bus with my wife and travel from Freiberg Germany to Munich and then a train from there to Schladming, Austria, on this, our 35th wedding anniversary.  Now that we’ve reached this milestone, I think we’re most grateful, not that we’re still married, but that we still love each other, likely more than ever before (and this after hiking together for the past 35 days).  This has me thinking about how this has happened, and so I offer these marriage observations.  It’s less advice, than observations about our marriage, but if these 35 thoughts help anyone else, we’ll both be thrilled.

1. I had a short list of qualities I was looking for in a spouse:

2.  Sense of humor – someone who would make me laugh

3. Someone who would give me the freedom to fail

4. Someone who would be willing to live anywhere in the world

5.  All three qualities have been vitalizing, sustaining, and life giving in our marriage

6.  For much of our marriage we sought approval from each other for purchases over $20, and this served us well.

7.  We’ve paid off our credit cards completely each month, and this too has served us well.

8.  The shared values of thrift, coupled with the discipline of generosity which has included giving to church have helped limit financial tensions.

9.  We’ve needed to learn about our own family of origin issues, because we brought those into the marriage, and they created problems at times.  But marriage has been a lab to expose those issues and that’s been good, though hard.

10.  We’ve made major decisions about the future by praying for guidance and then deciding together what God was saying to us.  None of this, “I’m the man and so you’ll do what I say” kind of thinking.

11.  Both of us have felt a profound sense of responsibility for the family unit, though we each contribute(d) to it in profoundly different ways.  It’s a bit like climbing – belayer, climber, both matter to the success of the mission, and both know that if either fails to pay attention, it’ll be costly to everyone.

12.  We light a candle at meals as often as possible.  This seems help create an atmosphere for conversation.

13.  Our shared love of the outdoors has served us well as a common passion.

14.  We don’t do devotions well together.  We never have.  This is because we like very different reading material.

15.  There were years when I tried to make my wife like the same reading material as I liked.

16. This lead to the sad revelation that I was trying to turn her into a version of me.

17.  I’ve since learned that we’re happier, and it’s better, if she’s  becoming the best version of her, not me.

18.  Our tastes in movies are largely different.

19.  Sex has gotten better over the years, as we’ve learned how to serve each other and communicate our desires.

20.  Grace and forgiveness are two of the most vital ingredients that have sustained our relationship.  I’ve failed, told her, and she’s forgiven.  And she’s done the same.  I can’t stress this enough

21.  We didn’t date very long before I proposed.  I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone, but I think many people today wait too long to make a commitment because they’re “shopping for a spouse” as a sort of commodity that will help them with their own goals.  This is bad at so many levels that I’ll need to write about it in a different post.

22.  My wife has gifts of serving others, and I have gifts of teaching and leading.   Knowing this has helped us accept and liberate each other to focus on what we do best, while still seeking to grow in areas where we’re not as strong.

23. I traveled extensively while our children were young, and this would have been impossible if my wife didn’t believe in my calling.

24. I went through seminary while my wife worked full time – again impossible without her belief in my calling.

25.  Her vast investment in me is just one of a hundred things that makes the notion of my ever being unfaithful impossible to imagine without getting sick to my stomach.

26.  Because she doesn’t thrive in the morning, I find the time I need for intimacy with God by rising early.

27.  We’ve prayed together often, but the most memorable prayers have come after hours of hard conversations, late at night.  These prayers were cries from the heart.

28.  We’re good enough cooks that we’d usually rather stay home and cook a great meal than eat out.

29.  When we’ve argued, 99.6% of the time we’ve ended with both of us feeling heard by the other and valued by the other.  This has been priceless.

30.  Donna let’s me invest in skiing because “it’s cheaper than therapy”

31.  We started, and ran, a non profit together.  This was hard work, that we loved, and was very good for our marriage.

32.  When we had children, we mostly brought them into our lives of faith, outdoor activities, and the non profit we ran.

33.  I’ve decided that “staying married” is setting the bar too low; that nurturing love and intimacy are worthier goals.

34.  As we’ve grown older, we’ve grown more comfortable with ourselves as individuals, and this has, ironically, strengthened our life as a couple.

35.  Donna’s personality is one of the greatest assets to my ministry and calling, but long after I’m done with my profession, I hope and pray she’s still around to make me laugh and give me the freedom to fail – anywhere in the world.

Where am I?


(I’m happy to introduce the guest author for this post as my hiking partner, best friend, and one week from today, wife of 35 years! – enjoy Donna Dahlstrom’s thoughts on guidance, reality, and journey)

I love maps. I’ve loved maps from my earliest recollections of traveling across the country with my family in the back of a camper. There was always a supply of maps we picked up from the gas stations for state after state after state between California and New York. I loved finding where we were on the map and where we were headed before jumping to the next map.

This trip in the Alps has been no different. I’ve loved pouring over the maps, discovering where we are, searching for the next destination and discerning the route to get there. I’ve learned to read the contour lines to determine if the route is going up or down. I’ve learned important German terms to accurately read these particular maps: “joch” is a pass, “hütte” is a hut (usually w/ delicious food & shelter), “spitze” denotes a summit, “see” is a lake, “alpe” is grazing land for cows, sheep or goats, and if I’m very lucky, “bahn” is a gondola whisking us over steep ski slopes.

It’s been fun to have these two-dimensional maps become three dimensional as we hike through villages or look out over towns from the mountaintops. What was once nothing more than a name on a map is now a neighborhood with lovely flower boxes outside the windows, a especially cheerful waitress, a helpful information desk worker, a tiny church with a pipe organ, a grand monastery built 700 years ago, an elderly woman who exuded joy through her eyes and sweet smile even while indicating she had no available rooms to offer.

Another thing I’ve learned about maps is that they’re only helpful if you can identify at least one location on the map. Without having a known starting point, it’s challenging to orient your location to anything on the map. It’s possible to make guesses, especially if there is only one mountain or one river on the map but it gets difficult when there are many mountain ranges, many little villages, many roads and rivers from which to choose. Such was the case when we stepped off a train in a town of which we thought we knew the name but could never locate any of the other locations we explored on the map around the town. We discovered the next day that we were actually in a different town entirely! Aha! Now it made sense as we located all the other familiar points on the map near the correct town!

This minor error simply added to the special spontaneity of this particular stop along the train route but we could have run into serious difficulty if we’d been in the high country of the Alps, continuing to venture without knowing where we really were. Stopping to consult the map to be sure you’re on the right path is essential to safety in the high country. When the contour lines on the map are very close together, it means you’re either at the base of a cliff or about to go over one. Knowing your location will help protect you from making a wrong step and guide you to a safer path. We have found it essential to take the time to repeatedly check our locations on the paths we’ve been on while trekking and I can see now the importance of doing the same in everyday life.

Presently, I’m in a change of season in my life. My children have grown up. My vocation has changed. I have a new set of responsibilities before me, some not yet clearly defined. I’m at a crossroads. Time to check my map to determine the correct path. Which one am I on? Which way should I go? What are the trail markers and signs around me telling me? With an ear to God’s voice, whether by people offering advice or inner promptings or scripture verses, I need to be checking my path with God’s map for my life. Am I on the right path? Have I consulted the Mapmaker recently to honestly assess where I am? Walking step by step these past thirty days has impressed upon me the importance of not just wandering aimlessly, but walking informed by God as my guide who wants to show me amazing things along the way, whether it be castles or chocolate factories or gracious guesthouse hosts or majestic ripples of mountain ranges. Listening to His voice is impossible when I’m doing the talking (and planning.) Learning to be quiet in order to hear His voice is not easy for me but step by step, I’m a little bit closer than I was thirty days ago.

Encounter: Finding Revelation Everywhere

“Transformation is the result of response to revelation” is something you might hear me  say more than a little bit if you attend the church I lead, or if we’re able to share a cup of coffee together, or a glass of wine.

This notion became part of my world around 38 years ago when I was in the midst of a depression that came about as the result of my dad’s death.   My health was bad, I was anxious about the future, and had severe doubts that a life of joy was possible because of the untimely intrusions of death that had happened for me over and over again in my young life.

But at a retreat, the speaker offered the liberating truth that if we keep showing up, keep getting to know God a bit better, the by-product of that showing up would be our own transformation, for the better.    Some call this the principle of proximity:  We become like those with whom we spend time; so spend time with the joy, wisdom, creativity, generosity, and love of God, and you become more joyful, wiser, more creative, and…well you get the picture.

My youth pastor years ago had said the same thing a different way:  “Garbage in garbage out” as a sort of negative image of the same truth, as he tried to scare us all away from porn, drinking, and untimely sex.   That way of saying it might be equally true, but I wasn’t into porn, drinking or sex anyway, so I sort of stopped listening at youth group, and invested my social energies in the marching band, where people seemed happier; less judgemental and fear based.

Death and depression though, coupled with the principal of proximity being articulated positively at a ski camp for college students, had a way of shaking me up.  The message took, and I became committed to getting to know God.  That path would, over time, lead me away from the study of architecture, into vocational ministry, which would eventuate in my becoming the leader of a very large church in Seattle, and teaching the Bible around the world with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship.

My initial response to the principle of proximity led me to heavy doses of Bible study.  I learned Greek, and enough Hebrew to convince myself I knew Hebrew (but I don’t… not really) so that I could read the Bible in the original text.  I read the Bible a lot, becoming familiar with the chronology of the big story, and many of the little stories embedded in it.   The study of the Bible also led to the study of ethics, of course, as I sought to understand what, if anything, God might have to say about, say, divorce, sex outside of marriage,  the human responsibility for environmental stewardship, the problem of the disappearing middle class, racism, sexism, greed, the violence of our culture, and o so much more.

I’d say, to this very day, that reading the Bible with a view towards developing a relationship of intimacy with the creator is one of the best priorities I ever determined to make in my life.  I’ve loved that I can leave the transformation business, in a sense, to God.  It’s not that I’ve become utterly passive.  Instead, it’s simply true that a relationship with Christ can, slowly over time, help me look more like Christ, but in a way that’s unique to who I am.  I don’t worry much about being introverted or extroverted.  I don’t worry about market share, or success.  I don’t worry growing my platform or sphere of influence (or at least, I try not to).  I just seek to enjoy intimacy with Jesus and align my priorities with his, and get on with life… enjoying the days I’ve been given.


On this trip, I’ve discovered once again (not for the first time, but certainly as a powerful reminder) that this revelation from God comes from all kinds of sources.  What do I mean?

Generosity:  We’ve spent a day hiking down out of the high country in search of lodging because the huts in Italy were full.  The first town:  Also full.  The second town?  Two rooms left, but only one in the town, and by the time we call it’s gone, meaning we’ll need to hike 3 miles back up into the mountains to find the last room anywhere.  That doesn’t sound far, unless you’ve been hiking all day.  Then it sounds like a marathon.  Donna, my wife, knocks on the window of a car where a couple our age are about to drive away.  Boldly, she tells them of our plight and asks for a ride  up the mountain for us.  I’m grateful for her boldness, and mortified at the same time, but even more grateful when they look at each other for one second before saying in English:  “Of course.  We are hikers too.  We understand tired.”   In this, I’ve learned of generosity, and am reminded of Jesus’ simple words about being bold enough, and humble enough, to ask.

P1070612Encouragement:  We’re hiking on a ridge, where we’ll encounter two summits.  These ridges can be intimidating.  We’re at the bottom, packs off and ready to set out for the total unknown, other than those foreboding signs that say:  “Mountain experience needed.  Don’t go if you have fear of heights”  While fortifying ourselves with food, a man is coming down.  I’d asked the previous couple for a trail report but they spoke no English.  This man, however, speaks perfect English, both lexically and grammatically.  He offers assurance that, though it’s exposed and there are cables, he’s “seen children do it” and this is enough to encourage us.  A few minutes later I see his clerical collar and ask if he’s a priest.  He nods, affirming, and this leads to a discussion of his sabbatical journey on foot to Jerusalem and back, and mine.  We exchange website information about our blogs, and later pray together, as he speaks of his impending move to Vienna and how he’ll miss these mountains.  We set off, encouraged by his confidence in us.

IMG_5937Longing:  Today I’m hiking alone, and at Kesselfalls I stop to take a picture that requires a tripod.  As I set it up on the bridge over the falls, I see a woman and invite her to pass.  She speaks very little English, but it’s clear to me that she doesn’t want to proceed, even though it’s equally clear, as she points to her legs that are shaking, that the step drop into the ravine is fearful to her.  I suggest that if she’s afraid she could perhaps, move off the bridge.  This is when she says in very broken English:  “But I must be here (on this bridge) to see this beauty.”  There are nearly tears in her eyes, as she absorbs the power, majesty, and beauty of this falls, tucked away outside a tiny village high in the Alps, far from beheadings, and Ebola, and at least for now, threats from Putin, and far, too, from the meltdowns of leaders that have become so common in my world back home, whether in church or state.  For her, this beauty is worth the risk, worth the fear, worth the going out on the bridge.  “I must be here”   Her pursuit of that which inspires her encourages me.   “What am I willing to risk in order to be inspired?” 

I could give you twenty more ways in which God has spoken to me without my ever opening the Bible, but I won’t.  For now, the point that’s important to share is this:

Revelation is everywhere.  Be open to it.  

When revelation hits you, respond.  Annie Lamont’s three simple prayers are probably enough:  “Wow” or “Thanks” or “Help.”  God knows we’ve shouted all three this past 30 days.

I still read the Bible.  But as I’ll share soon, it’s becoming more and more of a map to me; vital to interpret the journey I’m on, the journey we’re on as humanity…. but not the actual journey.  O no.   The revelation that comes from the real journey comes through encounters with people, and creation, and beauty, and brokenness.

Here’s hoping that for each of us, our eyes will be open to all God is revealing through the journeys of our lives – in changing diapers and majestic mountains, health clinics and classrooms, chapels and kitchens.


The Wind of the Spirit – blowing plans away day by day

imageIt’s elemental things like wind, clouds, and fire that God uses to guide people throughout the Bible. “Don’t move unless the flame moves..” “The wind blows. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the spirit.”

Our view of guidance is important, because unless we believe God can still direct our lives, orchestrating encounters, moving us to certain places, then the bottom line is that we’ll go where we damn well please. If we’re tired of the heat, we’ll move north. If we’re tired of poverty, we’ll get another degree. We’ll marry or not, move or not, based on our own motives, goals, internal drives.

But to the extent that we let the wind of the spirit blow, filing the halls of our soul, a different story unfolds (from end to beginning):

8:00 PM – We’re sitting in a tiny chapel, in a dot on the map village named Zell, with 25 other people listening to “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, the pipe organ filling the chapel as we soak in the ambiance of sunflowers on the altar, rustic wooden pews, candlelight, dusk light wafting through the windows. God is speaking to me here, bringing restoration, as I inhale and soak in revelation from every sense.

2:30 PM – We learned of the chapel and the concert because we’d set out walking after checking into our lodging in Oberstaufen (which means “the high village”) tucked in the base of the Alps. We’d wandered down a street and encountered a hall named after Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and this is why I stopped and read the literature posted to the reader board, which included notice of the concert (my German just good enough to figure this out). With map and compass, we discerned that Zell was only about 3k away, and determined to walk there and hear a little organ music. The walk was every bit as glorious as the concert, through fields of freshly mown hay, with hot air balloons in the sky to the west, and contrasting lavish greens from fields and firs.

1:30 PM – We get off the train in Oberstaufen, having never been there before, and find, at the tourist information center, a large touch screen “lodging genie” which enables us to quickly find which inns have rooms. There’s a place within 50 meters of where we’re standing and when we go to inquire, the owner wins our hearts with his smile and gentleness, and we’re finished looking.

1:10 PM – We decide, as a result of conversing with a couple (she from Germany, he from Alabama), to get off the train at Oberstaufen instead of Lindau because the woman tells us that Lindau, being by the vacation destination of lake Constance will be “very full and very expensive” at this time in August.

12:47 PM – We board the train, this particular one having individual cabins that seat up to six people. As we’re getting on, a man is busily removing his stuff from one cabin to move to another so that his whole party can be together. This leaves a German/American couple alone in a car and we join them. As we begin to discuss where to get off the train in Lindau, she says “Perhaps I can help answer your questions? I live in Lindau.”

11:34 AM – We board a train to our intended destination, Lindau. It will have one change over to a different train that will its station at 12:47PM

11:00 AM – We disembark from the lift that carries us down from the high country and find our way to the Bahnhoff, where we purchase tickets to Lindau, with the intent of exploring there for a day before visiting friends in Friedrichschaffen.

10:45 AM – Donna passes through the gate to board the lift, carrying my pack, as I intend to run down the mountain. At the last second, for reasons that can only be described as “promptings”, I change my mind and join her. “Wait” I shout, as I too use my ticket to descend via lift instead of jogging down. “Why did you join me?” she asks. “Because I like being with you” is the shortest and easiest answer, though the mystical prompting is there too.

9:00 AM – We’re out the door, heading down and out instead of our planned “up and in” deeper into the Alps to “Bad Kissinger Hutte” (no political jokes please). We’d eaten lunch at this hut the day before after climbing to the top of Aggenstein peak, and were looking forward to spending the night there, but the danger of the hike is obvious to everyone.

image6:45 AM – The silence on the windows feels ominous instead of hopeful after a night of listening to pelting rain on the windows of our hut. “Could it be?” the eight of us sharing a room ask as morning dawns. It is. “Snow!” The weather report had predicted this to be a good day, sunny and warm. By breakfast some of the snow is sticking to the tables outside. We know the route to the hut, know that it’s a trail strewn with rocks that will be “slippery when wet”, know that there are sections where it’s so steep that one must use cables to “hang on”, know that the Romanian who speaks English and works out Bad Kissinger Hut but was helping out at the hut we’re staying in will tell us to go down the mountain, as everyone else will also decide to do.

6:00 AM – Howling wind and rain make sounds when a hut is situated on a high Alpine ridge. The whole place shakes a bit. Sleep is a fitful in such a space.

9:30 PM – I fall asleep after taking pictures of the evening lights of Bavaria from the stunning hut. We’re looking forward to being still deeper in the Alps by tomorrow night.

Proverbs 16:9 says “A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps”

One of the great lessons I’m learning on this trip is both the importance and danger of goals. We’re at our best when we can live in the tension between planning, and holding our plans with open hands. We won’t reach our 400 miles in 40 days goal because snow changes plans, and the impossibility of some routes during bad weather changes plans, and the reality that we want to go slow enough to experience the Alps has also changed plans.

Yet still, we’re trekking nearly every day, committing each day to Christ at the outset and believing that weather, train schedules, and the people we meet along the way aren’t random encounters – they’re divinely orchestrated encounters intended to lead to “Jesu – the joy of man’s desiring”

Does this apply to real life as well? Yes. We believe that God is guiding our lives, but this belief, rather than leading to a sense of fear (have I missed God’s will?) and paralysis (I can’t do anything until I’ve heard God’s voice) should lead to a sense of confident rest, assured that God is both speaking to our hearts and orchestrating the daily encounters of our lives. In this paradigm, we’re always on the lookout for the wind of the spirit, holding everything, including our plans, with an open hand. Then, and only then, will life become the adventure God intends it to be.

Exercises in missing the point: What I learned visiting chapels and cathedrals

imageWe’ll leave tomorrow for the high country again, but we’ve spent a bit of time in Alpine valleys recently, and of course, this means visiting churches and cathedrals, each one filled with history.

The architecture of churches, in Tirol and Bavaria at least, testify to the union of state and church.  There are statues and frescoes celebrating violent triumph over one’s enemies, with soldiers standing on the neck of the conquered, raising a lifted sword in victory.   Then, right next to that statue, there’s one of Christ, the suffering servant laying down his life.  For that matter, the entire region has been dotted with countless crucifixes; stone or wood carved images of Christ dying on the cross.  They’re in the forest, hanging over the doors of farmer’s remote cabins at 4000′, and in high cathedrals.

The juxtaposition celebrating power while worshipping the one who embodies the utter relinquishment of power seems strange.  The thirty years war, which decimated Europe, had its roots in power struggles between Protestants and Catholics.   Warring armies throughout Europe have been appealing to the power of the sword to rule, conquer, subdue “in Jesus name”.  One wonders how this is possible, but answers come quickly, and are summarized in the simple reality that anyone… ANY. ONE. can claim Jesus and raise a flag in his name.

The self-absorbed King Ludwig, who built the famous Neuschwanstein castle as a playground for his fantasies, was utterly self-absorbed, profoundly materialistic, utterly out of touch with reality, and, get ready:  a man characterized by “deep faith”

Kings and Reich Chancellors, Presidents and Senators, NRA lobbyists and Green Peace activists,  Yankee and Confederate soldiers, Protestant and Catholic warriors, have all invoked violence in Jesus name.

There are lessons to learn here, important ones, if the church is to be a place offering any hope or meaning at all in the midst of the insanity of racism, violence, materialism, nationalism, consumerism, individualism, and all the other “isms” that, as the idols of our time, are cursing, enslaving, and destroying us.

1.  The goal must be purity.  Paul speaks of this in II Corinthians 10 when he expresses a fear that our hearts might be easily seduced away from the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”  For the rest of my days, I’ll never forget the image of two statues side by side in a church I saw last week:  A triumphant soldier standing on the neck of his enemy with sword raised was placed next to Jesus as a shepherd, a sheep on one arm while the other was still seeking, still looking.   “My God” I pray, “forgive us for losing the simplicity of devotion to you, for in that simplicity, we become servants rather than power loving leaders, humble rather than proud.  We become people for whom ‘you’ are enough, rather than you plus wealth, or you plus the assurance that we can kill anyone who trespasses our space, or your plus creature comforts.”  I pray that, on my return to ministry leadership, I’ll pursue simplicity and purity with a passion and zeal, for therein lies the reality of Christ.

image2.  When Jesus is the reference point, insanity doesn’t happen as quickly.  Really now, can you see Jesus advocating the use of an assault rifle to keep his home safe?  Can you see Jesus firing anyone who doesn’t agree with him?  Can you see Jesus living in the lap of luxury and amassing more and more while others he knows are living in abject poverty, oppressed and enslaved?

If Jesus is just a poster child for our cause, we can cherry pick some verses and justify Jesus as the slave owner, or Jesus as the gun rights advocate (“look we have two swords”, said a disciple), or Jesus as the source of our upward mobility.

Jesus, though, is no more the source of our upward mobility than he was the source of colonial expansion.  He was coopted for both causes, but read the book.  Jesus wasn’t into either of those things.  If we knew Jesus better, we’d have fewer statues celebrating wars that expanded our borders,  but as it stands, these statues stand right beside the prince of peace, and I’m not sure anyone sees the tragic joke.

3.  The problem is as old as people.  The pharisees were the religious experts of Jesus’ day and they thought they had it right when they’d raise their stones to throw at the woman caught in adultery.  But Jesus turned the tables on them to reveal that she, more than they, was closer to the kingdom of God, because she knew her own brokenness.  Forever we’ve all been claiming the moral high ground, claiming God is “on our side” – but of course, the jokes on us.  God has no sides but God’s, and you’re only on God’s side when you look like Jesus.

Churches.  They’re everywhere over here and every time I go inside one I come out praying that the community I lead would look more and more like Jesus in the coming months and years, and less like the striving, proud, divisive, complacent crowd that we’ve so often been as God’s people down through the centuries.

Do you think we can learn from history?

wondrously sheltered….

“…all we ever wanted, was just to come in from the cold…” Joanie Mitchell

imageIt’s raining from the moment we wake in Pill, at the Klausen Gasthaus, a charming little place offered us by the tourist information office in Schwaz after we came down out of the Tuxor Alps for some time to reconnect with the outside world via internet, enjoy actual towels, and explore some of the culture and history of Tirol. Today we’re going up again, this time in a hard driving rain. There’s a bus that will save us the initial elevation gain and, as it turns out, provide insights into the cultural and geographical history of the region.

The bus drops us at “Eng Alm”, a high Alpine grazing area for cows that’s uniquely populated with Maple trees planted centuries ago and preserved in their young and vulnerable years because of the Thirty Years War (1618 TO 1648). The guide, who has basically given us a personal tour in English, since his public presentation is German, confirms with us that we won’t be on the bus at 3:15 when it comes back to take people home.

“No” we say, as the rain falls harder still, “We’re going up to the Lamsenjoch Hutte and spending the night there.” He smiles, wishes us good travels, and hops back in the bus, which drives away as we put on our ponchos and prepare for our trek. It won’t be long, as treks have gone so far, but it will be steep, and wet.

We start out, walking through the Alm, amidst the cows, but quickly head upwards on a narrow rocky path that follows a rushing stream down out of the high country. We’ll gain about 800 feet in a short, wet time, as we make our way up the trail which eventually becomes a road. Heartened by the milk collection truck that makes its way down this road from above us, we suspect that there might, indeed, be a farm that sells milk and cheese just up the way a bit. It will be a good place, at the least, to stop and dry out.

imageIt’s unassuming from the outside, but this little farm, on this very wet day, offers two things that cold, wet bodies crave: Hospitality and warm shelter. We shed our rain ponchos outside, and enter an utterly different world, a world where everyone’s warm, and dry, and content. There’s a fire in the corner and we settle in by it and watch as families, farmers, and hikers enter – all finding more than just relief from the storm, but fellowship in that very relief, along with warm food and drink.

Meanwhile the world grows darker outside, and wetter, if that’s possible. We know we can’t stay in the warmth of this hut forever, know that there’s still 600 feet or so to ascend, and 2 or 3 miles to walk. So, after warm soup and a very local cheese platter, sourced by the cows just outside the door, we prepare to re-enter the storm. I foolishly elect to forego my second layer because had gotten so wet on this first leg of our journey that it seemed worthless. The “poncho plan” had worked so far, and was still working for Donna, but somehow today would prove to be a poncho disaster for me.

We set out well enough, but the rain was relentless, and with every step of ascent, colder. Donna, my wife, was in fine form, enjoying the scenery and impervious the weather, true to her outdoor recreation major and training in college; totally in her element. I, on the other hand, was a music major. The layer next to my body was soaking wet, and I sought to stay the chill by simply pressing on – faster would mean warmer, right? In spite of my best efforts, no. The chill continued to strengthen it’s grip, weakening me. The ridge, however, was in sight, and I knew that the hut wasn’t more than 20 minutes beyond it.

imageWhen I stepped over the ridge a biting wind hit me like a cold shower. Of course, I should have stopped and added layers and in my normal world of hiking would have. But this is “poncho world” and that means accessing anything is a major chore. Stop. Remove poncho, being careful to preserve the inside from moisture. Remove pack. Open pack. Access extra layer(s), add to body, now further chilled from not moving. Close pack. Reattach pack. Reattach poncho carefully so that moisture stays on the outside. Move again. “Easier” I said to myself, “to just move faster” and so I did – upping my pace as much as possible, both to create heat and begin my recovery. I’m shivering as I ascend the last bit, the welcoming flags of the hut flapping in the biting wind.

Again, as happened earlier in the day, the word shelter takes on new and profound meaning, because this is a moment of coming in from the cold and finding a lodging in a giant co-ed dorm where we’re stacked next to each other like matchsticks. Still, shelter never in my life felt so good. After settling in, replacing wet clothes with dry ones, and resting a bit, I join the crowd in the restaurant and watch through the window as the daisies dance in the wind and rain pelts the glass. Shelter – what a great word. What a great gift.

Joanie Mitchell wrote a favorite song of mine entitled, “Come in from the cold” whereby she muses that our deepest longings in life are for shelter. Physically? Yes, that’s a starting point not to be taken for granted these days, when insane evil drives multitudes to flee for the mountaintops, ultimately needing rescue from the options of starvation or slaughter. Refugees, exiles, and the realities of human trafficking are ever present reminders that basic, literal shelter.

But shelter means o so much more than a warm bed or a little hot soup while the rain pours down outside. It means that behind that bed and soup there’s a person who gives a damn about seeing to it that you aren’t left outside, left to suffer, or be hungry, or be cold, or in be alone. “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me” is what comes to mind.

Mary provided shelter for the vulnerable savior, and sought to do so to the very end. Jesus, the one who had no place to lay his head, provided shelter for the wanderers of the world, the lost, vulnerable, the outsiders counted as worthless by the establishment. He embodied, and still embodies, hospitality. He makes space and shelter in this cold dark world when nobody else is willing. I wonder what this means:

imageregarding my views of immigration

regarding my response to the suffering happening in refugee camps regarding the problems of homelessness and human trafficking that plague our nation

regarding the simple command to, by our very lives, be the presence of Christ and serve those on the outside, inviting them to ‘come in from the cold’ even if they never share my beliefs

These huts, these warm fires and hospitality, have become a picture, night after night, of what it means to be welcoming. But when you’re cold and WET, they provide more than just sentimental good feelings. They provide salvation. In a world filled with cold, wet, hungry outsiders, I’ll be pondering the implications of this single experience for miles to come.

Coming off the mountain: Ebola, Suicide, and Terror

imageWe’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world.  During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey.  These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter.   For these reasons, we pray, and pay attention – step by step.

These prayers, though, are also very provincial.  They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family.  We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).

High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep.  Yes. This was round one.

We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assualt, in a different direction.  We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in  St. Louis.  Bombing in Iraq?  Ukraine?  Syria?  Fires still burning.  Refugees.  And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide.  My God.  Is this the same world?

Yes.  The same world indeed.  What are we to make of the disparity between candle lit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?

My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price.  There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment.  The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a cost – vulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial.  That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.

But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college.  I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings, for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child, for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.

imageAll I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering.  Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened.  Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasy – whether that takes the form of  porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.

Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear.  He knew, as Simone Weill also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our creator.  “There’s a time for everything” is the the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.

For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days.  We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold.  We pray, we’ll be safe.  We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people.  But, The Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us cry out once again:  “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final. ”   Rilke




Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step