Eternity in our hearts – Leaning into our longings

IMG_4676The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.  CS Lewis

Most years, the first or second week of December, I’m in the little town of Schladming, in the Austrian Alps, to teach at a Bible school where countless lives have been transformed as students encounter the powerful cocktail of  global fellowship, creation’s stunning beauty, and teaching rooted in the central truth that Christ is still alive, wanting to express life uniquely through each of us.

Because I get to be here at that time of year, I know Schladming in winter, know the Planai as a ski area, where you’re whisked upwards 1000 meters in a few minutes time to enter a winter playground, a skier’s paradise.  When I go up the mountain, I always do the same thing after exiting the gondola:  Attach skis, turn left, and make the quick descent down to a different lift, one which will take me up the highest point.  It’s up there that make a little pilgrimage to the cross, where I’ll often snap a quick picture and offer thanks to God for health of body to be in the center of all this beauty.  On that second lift, there’s a guest house off to the left, always shuttered up, and hard to access by skis apparently, because of the hills around it.

On Saturday we hiked the ski area, following trail #50 through meadows, people’s driveways, cow pastures, and forest trails.  Up.  Up.  Up.  We’ve only a tiny tourist map and know real way of knowing where we’re going, or even where we are, other than the altimeter on my watch, which clicks off the meters of ascent, each number an encouragement amidst the sweat and work of this hike on a humid day.

Minutes turn into hours.  Breaks become a bit longer along the way, and though we’re living life and confident that up is the proper general direction, we’re equal parts “hoping” and “confident” that we’re going to reach our goal.

IMG_4657A few hours into our journey, we stop for a break, at an opening in the forest.  I’m drinking water as gaze off to the left at a guest house sitting on the crest of a little hill and slowly, I’ve this sense that I’m looking at something familiar.   “How do I know this place?”  I ask, looking intently, reading the inscription across the space between roof and windows.  And then, in an instant, I know.   My mind’s eye connects the scene of this place in snowy winter with the now summer scene in front of me, and I know precisely – precisely, where we are.

“We’re under the lift that will take us to the cross” I tell my wife, smiling, and the joy comes not just from knowing the place, but from knowing that I know.  It comes from the resonance between this experience and something deep inside of me, a memory.   In an instant everything changes.  I know where I am.  I know where I’m going.  I know I’ll get there.  This little place on this vast mountainside, itself a dot in the Alps, feels like home.

Soon we’re at the cross, but that last portion of the trip, with sure bearings and familiarity brought about by seeing something already in my heart made all the difference.   Doubt and uncertainty were vanquished by the reference point, the knowing that I’ve been here before.

When CS Lewis writes of his heart’s longing to find the source of beauty, hope, intimacy, meaning, joy, he echoes “The Preacher” from Ecclesiastes, who says in chapter three that God has placed “eternity in the hearts of people…” which means that there’s something in us that rejoices in the seeing of beauty and recoils in horror over the killing of children in war, or in the womb, or the destruction of marriages, or soil, or cities, through greed and corruption.

But especially, it means that we should be on the look out for moments where our hearts will leap because something in us will cry out, in our sensing of justice, beauty, and joy,  “Yes!  This is real life, the way life ought to be.”   It can happen when you see lavish generosity, or Rosa Parks refusing to be corralled into conformity, or a stunning sunset, or a moment of genuine intimacy.  When it happens and something deep inside us is haunted by a joyous sense we’ve been here before, we’re made for this, then we know  we’re on to something.   Keep following and you’ll find home; you’ll find the life for which you are created.

I was in college, depressed, a little disillusioned with my studies in architecture, when I went to ski retreat at a Bible camp and the speaker spoke on Jeremiah 9:23-27 about knowing God, and why that pursuit matters more than anything in the world.

Sitting in the A-frame chapel with 150 other college students, my heart caught fire.  It was as if I’d seen something I’d known before, as if I knew that this pursuit was for me, as if “seeking, and knowing God” would be a sort of “coming home to a place I’d never been before”.    I prayed that night, alone in the snow, because I knew somehow, that this pursuit was where I was meant to be.   That prayer changed my life, my priorities, ultimately my vocation.  It’s changing me still.

Moments like this come more often than we realize; in the quiet hours at sunrise with coffee and the scriptures, sitting under a redwood tree; in listening to Mozart’s Requim played by the Seattle Symphony after 9-11;  sitting with old friends high in the Austrian Alps, sharing food and speaking of life and loss,  children and love, and the faithfulness of God in the midst of all the change.  It’s those moments when God is speaking, wooing, inviting.

Listen!  Hear the voice inside you that cries out “Yes” when the reality of the moment corresponds to deep longings inside you, the life for which you were created, and invites you deeper into that life. Those are important moments, times to pay attention, for listening at such times is how we find our God, and our calling, and our joy.

 

Light for Light – The joyous necessity of shedding Stuff

photo copy 4We’ve been moving a lot lately.  Some health issues for an extended family member has meant creating a small apartment in the basement of our house, and confining our stuff to smaller space in the mountains too, so that when we get home our mountain home can be a place of hospitality for family, friends, and the staff of the church I lead.

All this has been unfolding at the same time I’ve been preparing to embark on a sabbatical journey, which will begin with 40 days of hiking in the Alps with my wife, so that we can learn together -  things about endurance, walking with God, hospitality, revelation that comes through suffering and beauty, guidance, and o so much more!

For this trip, we’ll be carrying everything we need, except food, on our backs.  Toss in the reality that the planned hike will gain over 100,000 feet in elevation, and you begin thinking differently.   The physics minded among us, who think of work in terms of “foot pounds” will come to the same conclusion I did, which is that every OUNCE of additional weight, over the course of 400 miles, will create an extra 3 tons of “foot pounds”.    Lifting that extra ounce for about 20 miles of vertical elevation adds up, in other words, to a lot of work.

With this in mind, the decision making process of “letting go” began.  My wife and I would pack our stuff and then stand on the scale with our packs, and groan.  “Too much” we’d say, as we’d toss slippers, read articles about the “real” merits of some vitamins and decide that, in reality, we’re not sure we believe in their benefits enough to carry them uphill.  Toothpaste?  Extra shirt?  Third pair of underwear?  Everything’s up for debate.  This, of course, is because carrying everything had bloody well be worth it.

The very act of shedding stuff for the hike has me thinking about other realms in a similar way:

1.  Possessions in real life are work too – and as such, we should assess whether they’re worth the trouble of storing, caring, maintaining, repairing, insuring, protecting, losing, and fretting over.  With the caveat that our kids are all now grown and so we really don’t much, we’ve learned something these past three weeks.  We’ve been living in about 500 square feet, maybe a few feet more, and having a blast!  Most of the time we can’t even remember the possessions we’ve shed well enough to miss them.  We look around and say, “We have food, shelter, the clothes we ACTUALLY wear and enjoy, our health, our love, our friends….”  What more do we need?  It’s been fun to give stuff away to people who need it more than we do, and find our lives lighter as a result.

2. Activities – The shedding of activities began some time ago, with the selling of the piano I loved, but which was sitting more than being played.  I’m at a season where that which is most life giving to me is writing, teaching, and absorbing all that can be learned by being out in creation.  So I don’t play much any more.  I don’t watch TV.  I don’t keep up with the latest cultural trivia nearly as well as I once did.  I don’t know the batting averages of my favorite baseball team as I once did.   I’m no longing trying to keep with my friends at the art of cooking, because in the end, I’d rather eat a carrot than a carrot salad anyway, and bacon, by itself, brings me joy.

So the habits of coffee with God, along with a rediscovered joy of running and hiking, along with the writing, teaching, mentoring, and leading I do, plus some friendships along the way – this is enough.  I’m lighter.  And it feels better.

3. Emotions – I’m learning, through rereading the wisdom literature in the Bible, to shed some emotions too.   Life’s so short, it turns out, that bitterness, resentment, anger, anxiety over “what if’s”, and shame filled regrets over “if only’s” are all a waste of time.  I’m finding that by shedding these elements, little by little, my heart is lighter.    I don’t think this happens with the snap of the finger because, like lightening our packs, every element needs to considered and inspected for its value.  For example, close friends and work colleagues who speak hard truth into my life are priceless gifts.   Blog comments that are rude, inciting, demeaning, when I write about sexual ethics or guns, not so much.  Life’s too short, and who needs to extra weight of endless rude wrangling with people who, in the end, don’t want dialogue as much as diatribe?

Jesus declared made the remarkable statement that you “ARE” the light of the world.  Light shines, all by itself, as long as its not encrusted with the darkening burdens of excess possessions, life sucking emotions, and the diffused energy of endless priorities.  All three of of this light thieves, though, are at the door all the time, seeking to steal our joy and peace by inciting us to carry more and more and more.  But every ounce, carried for 20, 30, 50 years?  That’s many tons of foot/pounds – wasted energy.

We’ll let you know how learning to travel light goes for us.  Our first trek will be Monday, and I’ll post here when I can.

 

 

Obscurity has its privileges. Answers to feelings of insignificance.

In just a few short days, my wife and I will be off to Europe where we’ll trek through the Alps, fully expecting to find the fingerprints of God in both creations beauty and power, and in the fingerprints of history.  Carl Muth’s faithfulness in obscurity is an example of the latter, and a reminder the big, loud, high profile stuff, isn’t necessarily the best.  Obscurity has it’s privileges!  ….

In the Bavarian countryside, during the days of WWII, there was a small house, surrounded by a flourishing garden. Carl Muth lived in this house. Born in the 2nd half of the 19th century, Muth became a leading Cahtolic theologian, publishing a journal of Catholic Existential Theology for many years, until the work was censored and ultimately shut down by Hitler.

Hans Scholl found his way to Muth’s tiny house, having heard of this man who was now living in relative obscurity as the war was unfolding. It was here, at Muth’s house that Hans found both a mentor, and the theological underpinnings to carry out the subversive work of the White Rose, work which would eventually cost Scholl his life, but whose ‘subversive’ literature would be air dropped across Germany by the Allies helping to free Germany from Hitler’s grip.

Two things stand out about Muth. The first is his relationship with a younger generation. We read, “Muth’s magic was not only his philosophical sweep of knowledge or his deep hatred for National Socialsim, but his youthful, amost playful snesne of ethical and metaphysical exploration. He not only listened to young people, he wanted to live and share their experiences.” I love his posture towards emergent generations, maybe because I identify with it.  I don’t know why it is that to this day, I’m drawn to interact with, enjoy, and learn from, people in the late teens to early 30′s.  For whatever reason, though, I’m grateful for the privilege of investing in the next generation.  Muth did that by being not only teacher, but student, eager to learn from the thoughts and perspectives of those who are younger, even as they’re eager to learn from him.

The second quality I notice is his call to courage in the face of darkness. Again we read, “In a universe where all values have been shattered, where religions and histories and literatures and social structures have lost their meaning, man has to stand up again, accept his condition, accept that he is alone and has no protection, and proceed to create his own world, his own values, his own decisions, his own actions – and be willing at all times to pay the consequences.”

These are powerful words, calling people to stand courageously in a world adrift in every way. Hans and Sophie Scholl heeded Muth’s words and paid with their blood. Sophie took the words to heart, and every testimony said that she remained calm, steadfast, courageous to the very end. Hans shouted, “long live freedom” loud enough for his voice to be heard beyond the walls of his Munich prison, just before the blade fell, severing his head.

One of Sohpie’s last letters was sent to Carl Muth, expressing her deep gratitude for his friendship, and admiration for his life.

A man’s ministry of publishing and parish work is shut down and he’s left with nothing but tending his garden and getting by as he can. Then, a young man enters his home, his life, and soon his house is bursting with conversations and idea which would become part of the soil in which, in a world gone mad, sanity would once again be born.

In world where churches obsess about size, writers look for platform, and business and trying to capture market share, someone needs to shout, “FAME IS OVER-RATED!” at the top of their lungs.

Fame is over-rated. Muth isn’t exactly a household name, like Beyonce, or Russel Wilson.  But his seeds of faithfulness, sown in obscurity, took root in the lives of a new generation, whose literature shook Germany and the world.  They got martyrdom, and fame.  But who was the man behind the curtrain?  Carl Muth – quietly investing in a few young people who would shake the world. I think that’s the calling that belongs to all of us. I hope I can be that faithful.

Teach us Lord, to let go of our addiction to influence, knowing that in the end, it’s scope isn’t ours to create anyway.  Rather, grant that we’ll be faithful to live well, serve faithfully, and love deeply, those people and endeavors you allow into our lives, and let us rest in that, rejoicing along the way in the simplicities of beauty, fellowship, and intimacy with you. Amen

“A different plan” – Three Postures you need when Change Comes Knocking

IMG_4578
It was supposed to be the Cascades…

I spoke with a couple last week who lost their child to cancer at the age of six.  As we talked of loss, change and challenge, she reminded me that about 85% of the marriages where a child suffers a disability end in divorce.  This, I presume, is because of the tremendous gap between how we thought life would unfold, and how it actually unfolds.

Where’s your gap?  Job change, or joblessness?  Health challenges?  A relationship evaporating before your eyes?  Unexpected financial hardships?  Whatever the issue, our response is vital to our continued transformation, to our movement in the direction of joy, peace, wholeness.

The notion that we’ll escape these unforeseen changes is fantasy.  A quick glance through the Bible reveals otherwise.  Abraham left home.  Moses went home.  David became King, lost the throne because of his son’s coup, and then came back.  Let’s not forget the fallout from wars as sons were lost, families torn apart.  Job lost everything.  Peter changed vocations to follow Christ and was eventually martyred.  It’s not just that these people suffered.  It’s that they all lived in families that paid the price too.  Change comes knocking, and it opens the door whether you want to let it in or not   It’s what you do with it that matters (tweet this)

I’ve been thinking about this recently because this upcoming trip to the Alps, as amazing as it will be, wasn’t the original plan.  The plan, in less than two weeks, was to head down to southern Oregon and hike the Pacific Crest trail back home, or even further, to the Canadian border, if time permitted.

My friend’s paragliding death in the Alps eventuated in a change of plans, because he directed a Bible School with which I’m closely tied.  When the new director called and we chatted last September about the upcoming year, I knew I was to go over and help out.   So, two weeks from today, I’ll be teaching the Bible school and hiking with students high into the Alps.  My wife will be with me and we’ll separate from the students for a few days before meeting back up after hiking the “Bible smuggler’s Trail” (I’ll post about that later), speaking at graduation, and then beginning our long hike through the Alps.

The plan was solitude – The reality will be otherwise , we’ll find ourselves sleeping in bunkhouses and waiting for showers.

The plan was wilderness – The reality is that the Alps have been civilized for a thousand years, and so we’ll be learning more about the history of World Wars, religious wars, and tribalism, than we will about traveling through the wilds of our unoccupied Cascades.

The plan was to hang food in the trees so that bears can’t get to it.  Now we’ll be buying food at each hut, and it will be far better than the freeze dried stuff that would have been reconstituted each night in the wild.

It was going to be this… now it’s that.

It was going to be a life together.  Now there’s been infidelity and he/she doesn’t want to rebuild.  It was going to be comfortable retirement.  Now, after losing everything in the ’07 meltdown, I’ll be working into my 70′s.  It was going to be the lush green and mild climates of Seattle.  Now I’m living in Phoenix.  It was going to be a small, simple, rural ministry.  Now it’s urban, and complex, and 3500 people.

Yes, I know the illustration’s weak, because the choice between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Alps is like choosing between Filet Mignon and Copper River Salmon.  “All right God… I’ll go to the Alps!  Force me!”  Suffering?  Disappointment?  Get real.

Still, while a hike in the Alps isn’t, in the least, disappointing (how could it be?), it does require an adjustment, and the postures enabling us to adjust are, in the end, the same, no matter how joy filled or painful our unintended changes:

Availability – When God calls to Abraham in Genesis 22, his answer is “Here I am”, a Hebrew word (Hineni) which implies availability and a willingness to embrace whatever God brings to us.  This stands in stark contrast a word Abraham could have used, “I’m here” (Poh) which would have meant:  “Tell me what you want me to do and then I’ll decide my answer.”

My wife sometimes says, “Will you do me a favor?” and though the right answer is “Yes”, I often blurt out “What do you want?”, as if to say that I don’t trust you enough to give a preemptive yes, because I’m afraid of what you’ll ask.  I wonder how much richer our lives would be if our posture, vis a vis the God who loves us, would be “Hineni” rather than “Poh”?

A phone call from Austria was all it took to set in motion a drastic change of plans.  All of us have had far more profound phone calls, from doctors, spouses, parents, that rocked our world.  Our willingness to inhale and embrace what’s on our plates rather than railing against the universe can make all the difference between a life of joy and bitterness.

Honesty – There was no mourning or loss over the change of plans, from Pacific Crest to Alps.  The same can’t be said for many other changes life brings.   The parents of the little girl who died of cancer, the wife of my friend who died paragliding the Alps, the other who lost his business; these are utterly unwelcome changes.  They’re a reminder that we leave in a world of dissonance as the chords of beauty, peace, and health, clash with the unwelcome intrusions of disease, loss, war, poverty, injustice.  We’re right to mourn, as Job teaches us, or David, or Jesus.

It’s no good pretending that unwelcome change is welcome, no good painting over it with some spiritual language about God being “all good – all the time”  God may be all good all the time, but this world is messed up.  So weep, for God’s sake, and your own.   This is the best way forward.

Acceptance and Gratitude – Acceptance and gratitude were layups for me with this whole “Alps instead of Cascades” plan.   In real life, though, change that forces its way through the door, ultimately requires a measure of acceptance if we’re to avoid shriveling up and becoming bitter people in the end.  Acceptance is born out of facing the reality that this intrusion is in my life.   Eventually, after a spouse dies, or we lose a job, or a house, or certainly with lesser intrusions, we say, “All right then… this is the way of it.  Let’s go.”  Fail to get there and you’ll spend the rest of your days in regret.

This acceptance, finally, leads to gratitude, not for the unwelcome change, but for the good that can and usually does come out of it.  Voices as diverse as Victor Frankl and Jesus Christ have taught us that, in the end, our gratitude is born from the faith that God is well able to bring beauty of ashes, hope out of despair, and a strange divine strength out of the darkest moments in our lives.  So we thank God, not for the change, but for what God will do because of it.

 

Adaptation to sameness – a skill to nurture and keep

201202-ifj-sidebar-1I went for a hike this past weekend in preparation for our upcoming plan: 40 days/400 miles of trekking in the Alps.  The big hike is now just about 3 weeks and a few days away, so these last times in our own Cascade mountains are important, as we check equipment, feel the weight of our packs to decide what we absolutely need and what’s expendable, and of course, train our bodies.

The training of the body of is vital for people like us, who have spent most of our waking hours during adulthood sitting in chairs.   Just over one year ago, my wife and I decided to tackle Mt. St. Helens in April.  We thought we were in decent shape for the hike because my wife did some circuit training a couple days a week and I did a little bit of jump roping, sit ups, and a few pull ups on a climbing wall two days a week and had skied a good amount during the previous winter.

We really thought we were in shape for it but the mountain didn’t care, and we turned back about 600 vertical feet from the summit, tired, cold, spent.  It was humbling, which I hope has led to some enlightenment.  Since then, I’ve learned a bit about the science of exercise, about mitochondria, and ATP, Cytochrome-C, and why muscles contract.

Here’s the bottom line for people planning long hikes.  The best training for you won’t be brief bursts of intensity, like a 20 minute cross fit workout.  A book specifically written to people hiking and climbing in the mountains reminds us that “the longer you can subject your muscles to a mostly aerobic stress (that’s the easier stress, like walking fast or jogging slowly) the better…”

This is because by subjecting your body to this stress, it will rise to the occasion and adapt, literally changing its own constitution so that you’ll be better able to manage the same stress the next time.  Or, to put it another way:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest (Recovery).

2014-07-02_10-25-34This insight was revolutionary to me, and I’ve been prepping for the long hike by taking longer, slower, runs, and long hikes, always wearing a heart monitor to make sure I don’t go too fast because my tendency is not to do much of anything slowly.   It’s during these long, slow, hikes, that I begin pondering how these very same principles of endurance apply to relationships, vocation, calling, and so much more in life.

In world of disposable relationships, countless job changes, hypermobility, and a kaleidoscope of “next big things” awaiting our very short attention spans, the best lives will still follow Eugene Peterson’s path of “A long obedience in the same direction”. 

We’ll get up, morning after morning, with the same spouse (or the same empty bed because of our calling/gift of singleness), make our coffee,  maybe read and pray, use our vocational skills, invest in the same relationships, encourage people, serve, practice generosity, eat real food, maybe even exercise.  We’ll do these simple things – over and over again.

It’s the sameness of this that causes people to bail out, because we like new.  We like sprints, and high intensity training, and the adrenaline rush of the start up, and church plant, and new relationship.   There’s nothing wrong with new, of course, because starting needs to happen.   But hear this:  There will be countless days that seem to be nothing more than just another step that was o so similar to yesterday’s step.   Same coffee.  Same boss.  Same friends.  Same city.  Same.  And you want to drop out and find a new race, or new trail, or new job, or new spouse.

Not so fast friend!  It’s when you feel like quitting that you are building transformative capacity by staying, (tweet this) and living, fully present and alive the moment that is so painfully “the same”.   Most folks can rise to the occasion and nail the job interview, or the first date, or the part of the climb that’s all about shopping for new equipment.  The challenge comes down the road, when you are risk of what you call “stagnation.”  Maybe.  But maybe you’re at risk of transformation, as you move into the deep waters of learning to be fully present with the o so familiar – so present that it becomes delightfully new.   The principles of the exercise formula, I’m learning, apply to every area of life:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest

Stress – The stress created by endurance training isn’t sudden and acute.  It builds slowly through the weariness that is a byproduct of sameness.  Whether you’re at 13000 feet on Mt. Rainier, or on day 1300 of the same job, or day 300 of cooking chicken fajitas for your friends or family, “you have need of endurance”.  You gain endurance by learning to be fully present with this step, this day on the job, this chicken fajita.  That’s called maturity, and learning it will make you wise.

Rest – There’s a rhythm of work and rest in God’s design for us and we mess with this to our own detriment.  Gone are the days when I can survive on pure adrenalin, running meetings, writing and studying, counseling and leading all week, and then cramming a taxing climb in on Fri/Sat only to return and preach four times on Sunday.  Without rest, exercise is toxic to the body, a recipe for injury.  With rest, it transforms us into people of strength.  The same holds true for all the other areas of life.

By virtue of the blessings we’ve been given, many of us have a capacity to be people of strength in this world, with enough resources of joy, or hope, or even money, to be blessing for others around us.  But our strength comes from adaptation, and the formula for adaptation never changes:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest   There’s no need to mess with the formula, because it’s the way the world works!  Accept the stress, embrace the rest, grow strong, be a blessing.  Enjoy!

 

95th minute… 50th year… 26th mile. Why Endurance Matters

every minute matters.. especially the last one!!

I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the course.  I have kept the faith – Paul the Apostle

You have need of endurance… Hebrews 10:36

Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way. – Annonymous

When the USA was beating Portugal, at the end of regulation, I said, “please please… let it be only two or three minutes of stoppage time”  as a sort of prayer to the soccer gods who I don’t believe in.  Then I saw the sign:  5 Minutes.  FIVE?   NOOOOOOOO!!!

Yes.  And as anyone who knows anything about soccer knows, the trouble came in the fifth minute… about 30 seconds into the fifth and final minute, when a brilliant pass and header moved the USA from a new version of “miracle on ice” to a mere tie.   We played brilliantly, to almost the very end.  Almost, though, is an important word.  The difference between almost and actually is found in a single word:  endurance.

Just this past weekend, a co-worker finished a marathon, friends celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and another friend presses on in his vital leadership role, right in the midst of a battle with cancer.  What all these remarkable people share is a commitment to finishing well, and endurance is a key ingredient for doing that.

Jesus doesn’t congratulate us for starting well, because the truth is that for most of us, starting is exciting.  Right now, in preparation for a planned 400 mile hike in the Alps, my wife and I are in the midst of equipment preparation, trying out our shoes, reading maps and books, and all the other things that generate the excitement of anticipation.  Engaged couples share that same sense, as do most people in their first week at a new job.  New presidents, new locations, new friendships.  We’ve all known the thrill of starting.

I’ve started enough things, though, to know that the thrill of starting isn’t sufficient to sustain me for the distance.   The times I’ve done some mountaineering, I’ve loved the packing, loved the meal on the way to the parking lot, loved the first 1/2 mile.   But shortly after that there’s an ache in my back, and later in the day my thighs or calves, too, are screaming.  Did I mention hunger, altitude sickness, sunburn, and the need to build a base camp, boil snow for cooking and drinking water, cook a meal, clean the dishes, and set out equipment for summit day – when all you want to do is sleep or throw up?

Endurance means you keep going when you feel like quitting.  In fact that the very definition of endurance; our need for it presupposes that we’ll encounter seasons in any worthwhile endeavor when we’ll need to silence the voice telling us to quit.

What are the qualities that build endurance capacity?

1. A goal.  The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is always helpful because it is, in a sense the reward.  26.2 miles is a long way, but if you know that’s how far it is, you can steel yourself for the task by training both mentally and physically for it.  Marriage?  Our goal is a deeper love, a truer knowing, a profound intimacy.  Vocation?  Our goal is excellence at our craft.

“If only the goal was meaningful” you say.  Don’t say that too quickly.  Rico Medellin works on an assembly line at a work station where it’s expected that he perform the same exact work over 600 times a day, or once every 43 seconds.  Rico’s goal wasn’t to “make it through the day” so that he could go home and a enjoy a few beers.  Instead he perfected his craft, reducing his performance time to 28 seconds per unit.  Working at peak performance levels is his goal.  Day after month after year, and he calls the experience “enthralling”

The good news is that meaningful goals can sustain us and motivate us, and the better news, from every century of history, is that meaningful goals are available to everyone: sick or healthy, free or imprisoned, wealthy or impoverished, single or married.  Don’t fall into the trap of making “a change of circumstances” the pre-condition for going after a goal.  There’s a reason to excel, a summit to pursue right here, right now.

Do have a goal for your fitness, spiritually, vocationally, relationally, physically?

2. Patience - A favorite recent read says, “The Gradual Progress Principle says that everything has to grow incrementally through its own developmental stages, from less to more or from smaller to larger.”  Lincoln fought, not for every freedom for African Americans, but for the Emancipation Proclamation.  He knew that change happens best when it happens gradually.  Go further back and you find William Wilberforce working tirelessly for decades to abolish the slave trade in England.

You don’t wake up one morning and move from couch potato to marathoner, from stale marriage to deep intimacy, from mediocrity to excellence.  But you can wake up each day and, as I like to say, “move the ball the down the field”.    I often need to ask the question,  “What’s the next step to reach the goal?”  and take it, being content to realize the gain might be visible to nobody but me.  Still, it’s a step, and as I’m about to learn on my 400 mile hike, every step matters.

Other times, I can simply continue in practices that I know are transformative.  Keep making eye contact with my wife at least once a day; run three times a week; continue having coffee with God.  With such habits I can rest in the confidence that I’m being transformed step by step.  This too requires patience.

What else aids in the development of endurance?

3.  Needed Nutrients

4. Focus: Distance and Present

5. Joy

6. Adaptation

My goal is to address these elements in the next three weeks.  I hope you’ll join me for this mini series on endurance because whether it’s a 400 mile hike, a desire to walk faithfully with Christ for decades, a marriage in need of passion, or a calling in need of fulfillment, endurance is a vital ingredient for your journey.

 

Stones, Doors, and the vital necessity of remembering

Today’s “door picture” will remind us of my wife’s 13 years of faithful service at Seattle Pacific University.

Where, in the wake of tragedy and loss, do we find the strength to press on as people of hope?  The answer is in remembering… and stones, or diplomas, or pictures, or even  a door, can help.

There’s a front door in our house, of course.  Without much thought at all it became the place where pictures were taken on those monumental days:  IMG_0380first days of school – graduations – proms – our youngest heading out the door to dance and sing in a musical.  For 19 years this door has been the equivalent of the stones about which we read in Joshua.  When Israel miraculously crosses the Jordan river, they’re told to make a pile of stones, told that these stones will become the reminder of God’s faithfulness, and so they should take a peek at them every once in a while, because there will be days, weeks, months, when memories will be our most precious asset in carrying us forward.

What a year it’s been!  Santa Barbara, and SPU, and Las Vegas, and friendly fire, and NSA, and politcal polarization, and corporate corruption;  daily news coupled with personal loss create a deadly cocktail in which many of us are at risk of losing hope.   And if hope dies, we’ve nothing to build on, nothing to offer, no reason to continue.  Our worlds will shrink to purely private pursuits of pleasure, prosperity, security.  When that happens, it matters not if we go to church, read our Bibles, or play at religion.  We’re dead already, even while we live.  I’ve seen it often.

IMG_0926The way to avoid this is to collect a few remembrance stones, and put them in a book somewhere, or a door, so you can look at them once in a while, and remind yourself of one big thing:

How God has been faithful - You graduated; or got the job; or moved from single to married, or renting to owning, or brought a life into your home through birth, or adoption, or foster care.  You finished a marathon, or summited Mt. Rainier.   The days these things happen aren’t “just another Tuesday”, they’re significant because they represent either the completion of something, or the start of something else, or usually both at the same time.

It’s important to periodically celebrate, and remind ourselves how far we’ve come by looking at our remembering stones and recalling what we’ve done.  As Paul reminds us, the lives we enjoy are the fruit of God’s faithfulness, because they’re built on the raw material of God’s gifts:  health, education, opportunity, intimacy, adventure?  Think of anything that brings you joy, and then ask yourself where the raw materials of that experience came from?  God’s the source, always, of “every good and perfect gift” as the scriptures remind us.  My diploma, my coffee, the mountains I love, the family that saturates with me joy – none of them are mine because of me.  They’re gifts.  So fifteen years from now, when I look at this picture by our “door of remembrance” as my wife goes out the door to finish her 13 years of working at Seattle Pacific University, I’ll say “Thanks be to God, who provided for our family every step of the way.”   And, “Thanks be to God for a wife who has been willing, over and over again, to set aside her personal goals in pursuit of family goals – she’s been the greatest gift of all.”  

IMG_1245This past summer I stood beside an ampi-theater in what was once the moat of Edinburgh castle.  This picture from there is a form of remembrance stone, because the last time I stood in that spot was 41 years earlier as an awkard 16 year old who, because he could play drums well, was invited to travel in Europe with his high school’s concert band.  Now I’m back in that same spot, this time, enjoying a brief holiday before heading off to be with my theological family and speak at the gathered community of leaders in the Torchbearer Missionary Fellowship in England.  I stood there thinking about the past 41 years and how, in spite of loss, and bad choices, and failure, and doubt, and melancholy – God has been faithful to me.  Wow!  Just the act of remembering became a reminder that I, we, rest entirely in the faithfulness of God, and this is liberating.

Similarly, all our events:  graduations, weddings, children, next steps,  will matter more, I hope, twenty years from now than they do today, because they become reminders of a gift God gave you, and by then there’ll be more gifts too.  Instead of saying, “Wow.  I’m awesome.  Look what I’ve done” your stones of remembering will give you a profound humility that will make yours a life of gratitude, not grumbling; worship, not boasting.  I could wish nothing more for any of you.

 

From Germany to Seattle – finding hope in the midst of grief

My oldest daughter is a Seattle Pacific Alum and writes from Germany this morning as she ponders the tragic shootings here in Seattle and the  empty pages in the books that are the lives of her juniors in high school, encouraging each one to fill the pages with hope.  Her words about being grounded hope in the midst of bitter realities are appropriate, not just in Germany, but right here, right now, in Seattle.  May peace be upon us as we grieve and hope — here are her thoughts:

As my first period takes the first final of Exam Week, I’m reading news updates from Seattle, where a gunman recently opened fire on the campus of my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Yesterday, I read this letter to my students, promising that while the general discontent of American Literature is an honest response to the real suffering inherent to human life, we have better dreams, rooted in the love of a Creator who cares for us. This seems appropriate this morning, as I consider the broken world in which we live, and mourning with and praying for peace of those who are suffering in my home city, halfway around the world.

Period Five enjoying sunshine at our Literary Picnic on the last day of school.

My Dear Juniors,

Happy last day of school! I know as well as you that there are a few more hurdles to conquer before we’re officially in Summer World, but as today is the last day of regular classes, it will have to do for a farewell, for now. For some of you, this is a first last day. For others, there have been more than ten, but I win this game, at least in present company. This is my nineteenth last day of school. I don’t expect that you’ll all become teachers, but for those who will, I’ll tell you that even on the nineteenth time, it doesn’t get old. The last day of school is still relaxing, the first one still thrilling, and snow days still a magical treat made of time and ice. It’s a good life I still get to live alongside you.

I used to be jealous of Ernest Hemingway, specifically the version of his life he portrayed in A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his early years in Paris. He described a life of simplicity, a pleasant parade of words, food and sunshine. I wanted that. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I have everything he has, and more. I am richer than Hemingway. Because for him, the picnics on the Seine, the trips to the Alps, the attic in which to write, these things were as good as it got. We’ve been blessed so richly, students, given this time and place in which to learn and grow, yet even when we leave this quiet, emerald valley, the glory doesn’t end. We go on living and learning, growing in peace and joy as we follow Christ down the wildly divergent paths ahead of us.

Coming once again through the brightly whimsical postmodern gates at the end of our (literary studies) journey together, I notice that the path of American Literature has hardly been a happy one. Though I enjoy every book we share, I know that none of them—not one—offers a picture of wholeness, peace or joy. While the Thoreaus of the world are hiding in their cabins, watching even the ants wage war with one another, the Steinbecks are still pestering us with the suspicion that human life is full of trouble and disappointment, that sometimes even the simplest dreams are out of reach.

Of course, we know all this. We know that life is full of both beauty and brokenness. Christ promised us that, while we live in this world, we’ll “have trouble. But take heart!” He continued. “I have overcome the world.” Having come to love and respect you, my students, I wish I could promise smooth roads to success, romantic dreams-come-true for all of you, but at the end of this year of sad and lovely literature, the true triumph is that these aren’t our stories. Though we’ll all encounter setbacks and disappointments, I’m confident that each of your futures, bound up in the unspeakable imagination of our Creator, is better than a house of your own, stronger than rabbits, more realistic than time travel, and more complicated than the most postmodern plot sequence.

Wherever you go, this summer or a year from now, take heart in the knowledge that you bring with you wide eyes to see the world around you, and strong hearts, full of the joy of Christ, with which to serve and love it. I am incredibly proud of the vibrant young people who you are becoming, and eager to see Christ’s work in you.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi Gaster  (you can follow her writings here)

Postcard from Fresno…

I process by writing… and I’m here in Fresno because my mom’s resting, and ready to go home and be with Jesus.  Here’s what I’m thinking while she sleeps.

I’m sitting in the dining hall at the retirement center in Fresno, needing to study for Sunday, but finding it hard to do so.  Instead I’m thinking about the inevitability of loss, the profound joy of life, and how any attempts to separate the one from the other will always have the affect of making us hollow, shallow caricatures of the people we’re meant to be.

My mom’s asleep in the other room, waking long enough to tell me she’s thirsty, that she loves me, and “why did you have onions for breakfast?”  (I didn’t)  I show her pictures on my laptop and she smiles, in awe of my children, and mountains, and flowers, with her classic line “my goodness!”, which I’ve heard ten thousand times at least,  these 58 years.

I look at the pictures on her bookshelf, of she and dad in their youth – vibrant and hope filled.   Maybe like most children, I know my parents story better than any other, in my case even better than my own since I’m adopted.  I know she skated on frozen ponds in Colorado when they were stationed there during WWII, that they returned to central California to build a life because that’s where family was, and that’s what you do.   They suffered profound loss during those days, and great success and joy too.  Dad moved from teacher to principal, to superintendent, but always missed the classroom and the kids as his leadership role grew.  There were health issues, losses, struggles; there were vacations at the coast, and Giant games with Willie Mays, Rook games, and going to “The Sound of Music” as a family.   Joy and sorrow.  Laughter and tears.  Life and death.  Gain and Loss.  That’s what real life is, and the sooner we embrace that reality the better.  There is, after all,  a time for everything, including loss, want, and saying good-bye.

Our attempts to turn daily life into a highlight reel are offensive to me as I sit here and look at the half-dozen seniors sleeping in their chairs.  Real life, I’ve finally learned, is created by stacking normal days, one on top of the other, for decades, and living each of those days as fully as possible, embracing whatever each day brings.

I think about my mom canning peaches in the later summer heat, and my grandpa putting grapes on trays in the oppressive sun to dry them to raisins because Methodists don’t drink wine, and then coming in and making poetry at night in a house without air conditioning.  Oil changes.  Diaper changes.  House Payments.  Holidays.  My dad tossing fake vomit on the sidewalk at a party when I was about 7 and my mom thinking I was lying when I told her felt fine, sending me to my room where I watched as she tried to rinse it off the sidewalk and it slid, in tact, into the garden, while Dad fell over laughing;  A rubber hot dog in the fridge that mom tossed into the garbage disposal because it looked funky, and then hearing her scream as it shot out when she turned the disposal on with dad, again doubled over in laughter;  Skipping evening church, once a year, to watch “The Wizard of Oz” on TV.  The epic excitement of the same when we finally got (last on our block) a color TV.  Weddings.  Funerals.  BBQ spare ribs in the backyard summer heat.  H-O-R-S-E with dad after school.   It all adds up to what can be a remarkable life, if we’ll but learn that it’s less about what we’re doing, and more about the attitude with which we’re doing it.  Lives of faith, I’m discovering, can be rich even in poverty.  Vibrant even in the midst of health challenges.  Lush even in the desert.  I know.  I watched this kind of normal, in this slightly “out of the way” town, for decades.

I just preached this past Sunday on the importance of making the most of “the time we’ve been given” and I’m sitting here realizing that I lived in a family that, for all flaws, sought precisely that.   I’m just now reading Ecclesiastes and am reminded that it’s only in jumping into the deep end of both joy and sorrow, responsibility and goofing off, life and death, that we find the treasure called abundant life.  That’s why Rilke said:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Keep going, no matter what. No sensation is too far out. Let nothing separate you from me….the land which they call ‘life’ is near. You will recognize it by it’s serious demands. Give me your hand!”

Or, to quote the preacher from Ecclesiastes:  “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” – Today, my hand finds itself in the hand of my mom and she squeezes and says, “why did you have onions for breakfast?”

 

 

 

 

Achilles Heal: Lessons for life and leadership learned from a tendon

Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise.  She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died.  Achilles:  the place of vulnerability.

The Achilles story is appropriate  because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes.   Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there.  Rest.  Repeat.  Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear.  “Why is this not healing?”

Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine,  let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.

Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy.  How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical?  Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine.   Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.

1. Daily is best - Physical Therapists prescribe exercises.  “Three sets of 20 on this one.  Two sets of 10 on that.”  Etc. Etc.   These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult.  You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired.  And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.

But here’s the key.  You need to do them!  Every day.  I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks  – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well.   Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.

I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t.  When I’m motivated, and when I’m not.  This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God.   There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.

The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine.   So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts.  They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed.   It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.

Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.

2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed.  “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”.  He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free.  Slow.  But pain free.  The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties.  “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years.  The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”

I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other.  After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way.  One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture.  Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.

This too has application for the rest of life.   You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health.  Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame.  It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success.  Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable.  Both are temporary illusions.  The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel.  The bad days are as important as the good.

Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ.  This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.

3. Ego is a setback  – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow.  I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!”  or worse, to speed up.  What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me.  The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me.  I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.

Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life.  It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom.  Enough!  When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read.  It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.

Take away:  When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.

The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer.   More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.

 

 

 

 

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step