The Gifts of Christmas #5 – Shepherd, Provider, Gift Giver

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Over 37 years, two stockings have become ten. JOY!

It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington.  I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music.  I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me.  I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty.  It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately.  Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane.  By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots.  We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.

I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined.  I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer.  “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed.  “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything.  We belong there.”  I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor.  Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child.  It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state.  The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday.  When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here.  Home.

Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves.  My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place,  a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!

The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings.  But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given.  Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others.  It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness.  “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13).  Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss.  I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.

When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear.  The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons.  I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me.  Wow!  And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7.  Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence:  the gifts will come, are likely here already.   Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude.  They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.

Yes it’s a broken world.  Yes there are clouds on the horizon.  Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good.  Christ is still here.  And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.

The Gifts of Christmas #4: Jesus breaks dividing walls

We live in an increasingly tribal world, where white supremacists feel empowered in new ways, European nations are finding xenophobic voices on the rise, and whole people groups, like the Kurds, find themselves at risk wherever they turn.  In spite of all the good work God has done in Rwanda, tensions still brew just under the surface there, and the developed world is dealing with an exponential increase in refugees, precisely because of tribalism.

With fears of “the other” on the rise, a look at Jesus life, from beginning to end, is like a drink of fresh cold water in the midst of the desert.  This is because Jesus loved all, breaking the normal social and tribal walls that so often isolate and divide. Consider:

1. The wise men were from the east, not Jewish, and among the first worshippers, along with shepherds who, by virtue of their work, were considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite.

2. Early in his ministry, he goes out of his way “pass through Samaria” and engage with a woman who, by any standard of Jewish religious propriety, would have been an outsider.  She was a) a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealing with Samaritans b) a woman, and men have no dealings with women and c) living with a man ‘not her husband’, which would have rendered her unclean.  And yet here he is, talking theology with her, and eventually revealing his identity as Messiah.  She becomes an evangelist, telling others what she’d seen and heard, just like the shepherds before her.

3. Jesus heals a Greek woman’s daughter, commending her for her faith, and later, heals the child of a Roman soldier.

4. He calls a despised “tax collector” to become one of his disciples.

5. The complaint leveled against him by the religious establishment is that he spends time with “tax collectors and sinners”.

6. He advocates for a woman caught in “the very act of adultery” saving her life, forgiving her, and telling her to “sin no more”.

7. He tells a thief dying on the cross that he’ll be joining Jesus in paradise.

7. He even has a heartfelt and compassionate conversation with “a ruler of the Jews” who is part of the religious establishment

All these things offend the sensibilities of basically everyone, because Jesus refused to be confined to a single people group or party.  Rich or poor.  Jew or Gentile.  Slave or free.  Man or woman.  Married or those with failed marriages.  Undeniable sinner, or sinner covered in a veneer of religion – Jesus loved them all.

This is a great gift this Christmas season, because the reality is that those who love this way receive a much needed gift as a result of crossing social divides and loving those different than them – they receive the gift of joy!

I know lots of Christians, lots of religious people.  One thing I’ve learned is that its the people who “cross over” who find an element of joy in their lives unavailable to those who remain confined within the walls of “their own kind”.  This isn’t because crossing over is  easy.  It’s not.  It’s because crossing over is “the life for which we’ve been created” and when we cross over, we become aligned with the deepest part of our soul.

The gift of crossing over began early, as shepherds, judged as unclean, received a message from an angel and “crossed over” into the presence of a holiness that the religious establishment would have forbidden to them.  God, far from forbidding, initiated the invitation!  Jesus, we are told in Ephesians 2, has broken down the dividing wall.  This is a gift.

Have you unwrapped this gift, and begun enjoying relationships with those across the way – racially, economically, socially, politically? There’s joy “over there” friends, for those willing to follow Jesus and cross the divides.

Here’s the deal, as announced in Luke 2:10:

Good news 

Great joy 

For all people! 

There’ll be a banquet in the end, and most folks at the table won’t look like you; they maybe didn’t even vote like you.   But though the banquet’s still to come, the party’s started, so enter in – by crossing over!

 

The Gifts of Christmas #3: His humble circumstances free us

I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership.  The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected.  He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world.  “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.

It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself.  I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”.  I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world.  Well connected?  I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures.  I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.

I left class that day wanting to quit.  I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job.  When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:

Well connected?  He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.

Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.”  Isaiah 53:2

Agressive and ambitious?  There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on.  In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life:  “What is the will of the Father?”  When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds.  When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone.  When it led to the cross, he went there.

Wealthy?  “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.

There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected.  It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.

This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.

The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters.  I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on.  My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).

Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle.  Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t.  Some could be models, they’re so striking.  Then there are the rest of us.  Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.

Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26

For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.

 

The Gifts of Christmas: #2 – Free! Can’t be bought, only received!

There’s a fun little mystery in the Bible.  Way back in Genesis, ten brothers are starving and decide to travel down to Egypt because there’s grain for sale there.  Little do they know that the man from whom they’ll be buying grain is their little brother, hated as the favored one and sold by them into slavery, over two decades earlier.  They show up and he’s changed of course, and speaks a different language now, so they don’t recognize him.  They buy grain, but before heading home, the little brother sneaks all the money back into their sacks so that on the way home they discover that they had the grain, but didn’t pay for it.  To say there were dismayed would be an understatement, because from the very beginning of time, we’ve all known that “you get what you pay for” and that “there’s no free lunch”.  There are a million other ways we get the message too: from demanding parents who shame us when we fail, to performance reviews that populate our employment files with warnings.  The best things in life are earned.

This little story of free bread, though, tells us that there’s a different set of rules in God’s economy.  God is showing us that the things we need most fundamentally in our lives are not bought, ever.  They can only be received as gifts.  That’s why later a form of bread will show up on the desert floor when a nation is wandering through it on their way to their new home.  Centuries after that, Isaiah will speak of bread that is only available “without cost”, and then Jesus will declare that he is giving us his flesh as “the bread, for the life of the world”.

Give, give, give, means that there can be only one response.  Receive, receive, receive.  We can’t earn the gift that is Christ.  We’ll never be able to repay or reciprocate.  We can only receive, like little children.  My granddaughter, who just turned one, will be with us this Christmas and I promise you that she’ll have no problem receiving gifts without any guilt.  There’ll be no, “Rats!  Grandpa gave me some overalls and I’ve nothing for him.”  There’ll be a pattern to her Christmas day:  receive, enjoy, repeat.

For God’s sake, all of us could stand to become children again vis a vis our relationship with God and Christ:  receive; enjoy; repeat.

That requires a radical reorientation from the performance world that is often the rest of our lives, and the way to get there is to recognize that, though we’ve likely earned a bit in our lives through the sweat of our brow, the best gifts that we’ve received are the free ones.  We’ve been forgiven, I hope, by a parent, spouse, or friend.  We had a flat tire, and someone stopped to help.  We were lonely, and a friend dropped by, unannounced.  These little reminders put me in the frame of mind to see that the things I need most – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, hope, the capacity to forgive and serve… all these things can’t be bought, can’t even be created through some sort of psychological ‘cross fit’ self improvement program.  These things stem from eating the bread of life, and can only be received freely, as the gift it is.

 

 

The Gifts of Christmas: #1 – We are seen and heard

Greetings…

During the days between now and Christmas, I want to share some reflections with you about the many gifts that are part of the One Gift that is Christ.  I’m reflecting on these gifts because, more than ever, I see the deep divisions and violence in our world.  We who claim to follow Christ are at grave risk of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution if we aren’t careful to maintain what Paul calls the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.  When he writes about maintaining that, he articulates that it’s eminently easy to be “led astray”.  It’s passive language because the reality is that there are strong currents that will simply carry us along unless we’re diligent to recognize the danger of the direction and swim against it.  

I’m increasingly convinced that the recognition of dangerous cultural rip-tides isn’t achieved by being a cultural expert.  Rather, what’s needed at a foundational level is a commitment to intimacy with Christ, for he alone is the fullness of wisdom.  So what better way to prepare for the discernment that all of us will need in the coming year than by considering together the riches of the gift that is Christ.  Unwrapping the glories of Christ is a bit like unwrapping a present that has another present inside, and then yet another, on and on, as we discover different facets of the gift that is Christ.  Each day I’ll hope to offer a short post about a facet of the gift that is Christ and why each gift matters in 2016.  I hope you’ll join me, and find encouragement in the practical value of Christ, today more than ever!  

Gift #1 – Christmas means God sees and hears us.  

There’s a marvelous little passage in Exodus 3:7 which declares that God heard the cry of the sons of Israel and saw that they were being oppressed, so he “has come down to deliver them”.  This was neither the first nor last time God “came down” in response to the suffering of this fallen world because it’s in God’s character to “see and hear” the suffering of humanity.

We may wonder if God is listening these days.  When I see the tragedies in Aleppo, the suffering of immigrants around the world, and the rise in fascist and racist ideologies, we wonder if God’s listening at all.  We wonder too, in the children’s oncology ward.  Who is this God who sees and hears, and why is God not intervening, God’s so good and so powerful?

It’s a fair question, and the answer is found in the name Immanuel, which means “God with Us”.  What makes the “good news” good isn’t that we’re offered escapist immunity from the affects of living in a fallen world.  Rather, it’s that God has promised to walk with us in the midst of everything – the suffering and the joys, and the sickness and the healing, the living and the dying.  We’ve been told that life will run the gamut of experiences, that there’s “a time for everything”.

That God has been “with me” is one of the greatest gifts I’ve enjoyed in my life.  It’s meant that when I lost my dad, I’d eventually come to discover that I wasn’t as alone as I thought.  It meant that when I changed majors and loaded my 68 Ford Mustang to drive north to Seattle, though I’d never been north of Sacramento in my life, and knew not a single person in my new city, God was with me.  It meant that while riding a midnight train from Northern India to New Delhi, a train on which I found myself because of a riot in the city where I was teaching, I wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t alone in my berth when I was alone, and I wasn’t alone when I woke in the middle of the night to see six Indian faces staring at me.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not faced the depths of living in this fallen world in anywhere near the same degree as many others.  I’ve tasted enough of it, though, to know that the companionship of Christ is, at one level, all I need in this life.  And I’ve known those who’ve walked much deeper, darker valleys than mine.  They too, have shared with me that this companionship has been a source of healing, sustenance, peace, and eventually for most, joy.

“God with us” begins with God seeing our suffering and hearing our cry.  This is the first gift.  God knows.  God cares.  Rejoice.  Immanuel.  God IS with us.

A letter to men:

 When it comes to sexual abuse, and the treatment of women in general:

Words matter. Mr. Trump spoke on the bus about making unwanted sexual advances and literally grabbing women. He spoke to Howard Stern about walking uninvited into dressing rooms at beauty pageants (a word confirmed by beauty pageant participants). He has spoken numerous times throughout his campaign about the appearance of women, objectifying and judging them.  “Locker room talk,” he says. He’s “Sorry. But Mister Clinton was worse.” Let’s take a look at two things that have come out from hiding because of his words.

First, his words have exposed the pain of a nation. Men should read just a few of the #NOTokay posts on twitter, as Trump’s words have led to an outpouring of women empowered to share their story. To say he’s exposed something would be an understatement. Women, by the millions, have been victims of unwanted sexual advances. Many don’t have a voice to fight back, don’t know who to trust with their story. As a result, they suffer in silence. I know this because in the wake of his words, I sat in a room and listened to the anger, the hurt, the stories from women.

There’s a culture of sexual abuse in our country, and it must be named, condemned, and stopped. The problem isn’t the past; it’s the present. And the problem in the present isn’t just a presidential candidate; it’s an entire culture.

Men, we should be offering Mr. Trump a stiff reminder that words matter. “By your words you will be justified and by words you will be condemned,” is how Jesus put it. He also said that, “out of the abundance of the heart” the mouth speaks. So when a man calls women pigs and says the things he said to Howard Stern and Billy Bush, and there’s an outcry from women, Mr. Trump shouldn’t be surprised.

There should be an outcry from all of us, as well. This is not just locker room talk, or typical banter, but even if it were, it’s not OK. Words matter, and words that treat women as objects to be used for men’s pleasure are far, far from the heart of the life for which any of us are created, men or women.

Second, Mr. Trump’s words have exposed the depth of sexual victimization, misogyny, and sick patriarchy in our culture. I know this because the other trending hashtag has been #repealthe19th, which is a wish-dream to remove the women’s right to vote. That there’s a group of people who are both Islamaphobic and only want men to vote is a bit of irony. That the group is large enough to gain notice is both sad and angering. Our nation has a long way to go, but it’s better than it was in many ways. Women vote. Anyone can sit anywhere on a bus. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back.

History reminds us that redemption is often born out of the depths of darkness.  Rwanda’s genocide becomes fertile soil for a profound reconciliation movement.  Germany’s implosion in the wake of WWII becomes a context for the rebuilding of a nation on an entirely different footing, where every person has dignity and worth, and the common good matters.

If we can listen to those hurt by Mr. Trump’s words, if we feel the pain of what’s been going on for generations and let the weight of it sink into our souls, this darkness can be a low point, a wake up call when we say “enough” and begin fighting to make honor, respect, dignity, and empowerment the norm.  It needs to happen now.  Who’s in?

 

 

Handel and Messiah – Tearing Hearts Open since 1742

jnSometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story.  Here’s mine, explaining why

Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.  

I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now.  Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family.  He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony.  And music in our house?  “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana.  Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.

The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  God only knows why, but dad loved that piece.  He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter.  Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music.  At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both.  My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums.  I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums.  He was perfect on the rhythm test.”  I smiled.  Mom frowned.  Dad said yes.  By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist.  I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things:  Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!

Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop.  My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small.  Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen.  There were certain pieces:  “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen.  What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.

Then dad died during the World Series of 1973.  Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it.  Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?”  He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened.  There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.”  I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe.  The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.

A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school.  Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often.  Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful.  During Messiah, though, I never brought a book.  Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song.  Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible.  That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore.  Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it.  With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture.  The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.

SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 –  It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more.  To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic.  Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood.  I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone.  I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it.  Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends.  I’ll go.

It’s a matinee,  the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more.  Walkers.  Wheelchairs.  I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges.  I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.

The play itself is masterfully delivered.  It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy.  God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation.  If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling!  I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings.  But there’s more…

I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)

Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words.  He’s known rejection, loss, shame.  These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations.  Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force.  I was rejected, but so was Christ!  Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path.  I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker.  I see a child with a disability.  And the words are there, as people rush by:  “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you.  Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.

That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again.  Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors).  Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.

Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball.  Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God.  Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1.  But O the One!  Hallelujah!

If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.

Marriage: 37 Lessons from 37 Years of Experience

still smiling after 37 years of journeying together
still smiling after 37 years of journeying together

Thirty seven years is a long time, and yesterday my wife and I were able to celebrate that time marker as the length of marriage.  This is something that brings us both pride and gratitude, but more gratitude than  pride.  We realize that we’ve been largely healthy, and at least one of has been employed, the whole time.  We have much cause for thanks, because of the lives we’ve been given.  Still, 37 years is a big deal and to be both married and still very much in love is, we feel, no accident.  

While I’d never presume to write a book about marriage, it may prove helpful to share some of “what’s worked for us…”  So here they are:  37 lessons learned in 37 years.  Enjoy!  And if you find it helpful or think it might help others, share freely!  

  1. We’ve always made big decisions entirely together.  Why would we move, buy or sell a car, change jobs, or practice radical hospitality, if only one party thought it was a good idea?
  2. Candles at supper have been the default for the 37 years.  We’re at our best when the TV is off and we’re eating together, sharing, talking, and listening.
  3. Our devotional lives are very different, and though it took over a decade for me to realize it…that’s OK.
  4. Our circadian rhythms are also different, and while I’m still convinced God’s desire is for all humans to rise early, I’ll confess I enjoy the quiet house before 7.
  5. We’ve learned to fan each other’s strengths into flame.  She’s better at details, organizing, and maintaining.  I’m better at vision, words, writing, teaching.  We’re done trying to change the other in these realms, now seeing them as assets.
  6. We enjoyed our children when they were small, and still do now that they’re all adults and married. 
  7. Though we enjoy our children, they’ve never defined us fully.  The whole time we’ve been married we realized that we’d been a couple before we had children, and would still be a couple (short of death), after they left home.
  8. Donna’s heart of compassion for others is a quality I celebrate, and I’m in awe of it on a regular basis. 
  9. Her compassion makes me a better pastor and teacher.  I know this, and so any accolades that come my way for my work, I share with her so she knows the important role she plays in my world outside the home.
  10. Donna has her own chain saw.   You have no idea how important this is unless you burn wood as your primary heat source. 
  11. We both love cutting wood, and I love splitting, while she loves stacking.  It’s as if we’re made for each other.
  12. We are both terribly easily pleased.  Sunsets, simple meals, good coffee or tea, the smell of the forest, and the sound of birds bring us as much joy as a night at a fancy restaurant, or a concert or sporting event. 
  13. We’ve learned that we’re aging (in spite of fish oil and eating occasional vegetables) and have adapted.  In fact, I’d say “adaptation to life’s changing seasons” has been one of the most important reasons we’re still wildly in love.  We gave up the illusion of control a long time ago.
  14. We’ve worked at our sex life to make sure it’s still enjoyable and life giving to both of us.  This requires conversation, total transparency, a bit of trial and error, and a sense of humor.  That is all.  
  15. She wants a cat and I don’t.  I want a big dog, like a Malamute or Husky, and she doesn’t.  So we’re happily pet free.
  16. Our shared love of the mountains, evident from the day we met, has been a good glue.  We get outside together often, and always have.  It’s a context where real sharing occurs.
  17. I’ve appreciated Donna’s quickness to forgive.  “The freedom to fail” was one of the three things I was looking for in a spouse.  She’s given me that and the result has been a profound transparency that I now realize is too rare among married couples.
  18. She’s not picky about music and I am.  This has worked out well for me and, I can only assume, for her too. 
  19. Early on we sought approval from each other for any expenses over $20.  The amount’s gone up.  The principle remains – no money is “mine” or “hers”.  It’s ours. 
  20. We’ve paid our credit cards on time every month, which means we’ve bought less than we’ve made.   
  21. We’ve given our money away – both to our church and other organizations.  We’ve done this regularly, even when we were making “not so much”. 
  22. Beyond our economic compatibility is the unanticipated gift that I’ve never felt pressured to “earn up” in order to achieve a lifestyle.  Only now, looking through the rear view mirror, can I see what a blessing this was, and still is. 
  23. We are both strong as individuals.  This has been important because throughout our marriage there have been seasons where we’ve been able to offer less of ourselves to each other.  Travel for work, young children, and aging parents, all come to mind.  I tell young couples that one of the best things they can do to prepare for marriage is develop a strong sense of personal identity, so that they’re not making incessant demands on their spouse to fill some gaping hole in their life. 
  24. To really know what the other person wants in a given situation we sometimes jokingly say, “What would you do right now if I weren’t here… If I were dead?”  “Well if you were dead, I’d have steak, mushrooms, and a spinach salad.  Then I’d go for a walk and listen to the birds.”  Done.  Evening planned, or decision made, according to the desires of one or the other of us. 
  25. Each of us believe that marriage requires a million tiny little positive investments, and that each positive investment will eventually yield rich dividends.  As a result, a neck rub, a clean kitchen, a meal prepared while the other rests after a hard day, are things we enjoy doing for each other.  We’ve recognized that the joy isn’t just in the moment, but that there will be joy later because of these tiny acts of kindness.
  26. We don’t watch much TV at all.
  27. When we argue, the win isn’t that one of us is right and one is wrong.  The win is that we both feel heard and honored by the time we’re done. 
  28. We both believe that God brought us together, and brings every couple together, in order to create a new union that will bless the world uniquely.  Because of this we have a sense of calling to be a blessing to others, and though we debate what that means and looks like, we are truly seeking to live into that calling.
  29. We are both able to say the hard thing to the other and know it will eventually be received. 
  30. We laugh nearly every single day and this seems, to me, to be a sign that we’re still having fun, and she’s still the one!
  31. We share some deep commitments to a body/soul/spirit theology that means we take exercise, food, stress managements, and sleep seriously, just as we take prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, and service seriously.
  32. We share some recreation, in particular hiking and downhill skiing. 
  33. Sharing recreation requires that we appreciate each other’s personalities.  I go fast and push for more.  She slows down to savor.  It’s a dance and we do it well enough that we genuinely enjoy our shared loves. 
  34. Traveling together has not only expanded our world, but increased our intimacy.  We’ve seen things in other parts of the world that have challenged our ways of thinking, and that we’ve seen them together has been helpful.
  35. We know each other’s love languages.  Hers is “words of affirmation” and mine is “time spent together”.  Knowing this and serving each other in these ways is huge.
  36. Christ is the foundation of our marriage in the sense that our completion in Christ is the well from which we’re able to draw so that we can serve and bless each other freely.
  37. Forgiveness.  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”. Ephesians 5:32

We’d love to hear what’s worked for you in the comments section.  Cheers!  

Playlists – Memorial Stones for the 21st Century

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retrieving our car meant enjoying this view again today!

My wife and I recently returned from a beautiful adventure, hiking 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and ending up at our front door!  A thousand times, or likely many more than that, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we’ve seen.  Even more, though, we were profoundly grateful for the rich privilege of being able to do this, for such a trip means we have means, health, access to God’s wilderness, time, and enough love for each other to still enjoy such adventures after 37 years together!  (all 87 pictures from that journey can be seen here if you’re interested!)

To make our trip a one way journey to our house we needed to drive to the trail head last week and walk from there.  Then today, we drove back and retrieved the car.  This meant that the drive from the trailhead back to our house was spent alone; just me and my itunes!  I hit the playlist I’d recently created, but not yet listened to intently, and then we began our drive out.  The first twelve miles of this trip was labelled as “not for city cars” and included a stream crossing which, though dry this time of year, was nonetheless a stony minefield for the underbellies of “smallish” cars like my Yaris!

We’re off, and I settle in to playing the game that is avoiding potholes and large stones on forest service roads, it’s not hard work, so I’m able to pay attention to the music I’m hearing.   After twelve miles of a wilderness version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I’m overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving to God because every song I heard was ripe with memories of times and places, and ways God met me.

Does music do that to you?  Do songs evoke specific memories with such power that you’re nearly transported through time and space to that very time and place when the song became meaningful?  Now, though, you’re there with the added benefits of wisdom and perspective that makes you appreciate how richly you’ve been blessed, or how faithfully you’ve been kept.

Remembering how you’ve been blessed, or kept, or guided, is more than a little bit important.  Remember the reality of God’s activity in the previous days of our lives is precisely what’s needed to sustain our joy, hope, confidence, and peace when everything appears to be falling apart.  God tells us this over and over again as seen here in just a word search of “remember” in Deuteronomy.

In the old days of what we call “Bible Times”, God often had people create signs as a means of remembering; stones in a river; a cord hanging from a window; some roasted lamb and a little flatbread – all these were at times signs intended to evoke memory.

Which brings me back to music, and today’s playlist, with every song evoking memory.   As I’m driving along, avoiding potholes, the past comes to life:

“Creed” by Rich Mullins: 

It’s 1994 and our little non-profit is making a promotional video for our summer wilderness Bible School.  We choose this song as background music for a slide show of climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking in the North Cascades.  We choose it because of one certain line in the music which says that we believe what we do because it is “the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”.  I believed it then, and believe it still – but between now and then, there have been many moments, days even, when the truth is I don’t have a clue what I believe.   I’ve doubted plenty – and yet God has been faithful and I’ve been able, again and again, to return to the rock that is my foundation.  I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I veer left and avoid a pothole.

“Speak O Lord” by Keith and Kristin Getty 

I’m at Seattle Pacific University, helping care for students after a school shooting left one dead, and a whole campus shaken.  This is the song sung at the special chapel service.  “Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, that the light of Christ may be seen today in our acts of love and our words of faith…”  That happened in the ensuing days, so that a newspaper with little sympathy for our faith called “The Stranger” would write: “The evening of the shooting, a 7 p.m. prayer service at SPU’s campus filled to overflowing. Let it be said: This community looks ready to heal itself. There were psalms and songs. The whole room sang along, harmonizing, louder and louder.”

The song reminds me that God has yoked my heart with Seattle, and the university students that study there.  I’d hear the song just about one year later in England, and the song would remind there that I need to be faithful to my calling, to not shrink back from the hard thing.  I’m grateful for the reminders of these moments today as I inhale the scent of pine mixed with dust from this dry road.

“100 Years” by Five for Fighting 

The song is seared in my memory because I heard it for the first time after spending a fall in New England with my wife to celebrate our anniversary.  We were growing older and knew it.  Friends were dying, and parents.  Life was moving on, and after walking through stunning colors and cheering on the Red Sox game six playoff victory over the Yankees at the Cheers Bar in Boston, we were heading home on i-95, listening to these words:

I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life

Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…

Indeed.  I’m reminded, every time I hear it, that life’s passing by quickly and every day – even the hard ones and boring ones, are a gift.

There are too many more to do this for each song, so I’ll leave you with “Shattered” by Trading Yesterday 

Here’s the part, in the chorus, that is deeply meaningful to me:

And I’ve lost who I am, and I can’t understand
Why my heart is so broken, rejecting your love
Without, love gone wrong; lifeless words carry on
But I know, all I know’s that the end’s beginning

Who I am from the start, take me home to my heart
Let me go and I will run, I will not be silent
All this time spent in vain; wasted years wasted gain
All is lost but hope remains and this war’s not over

I love this because it speaks to me of a time – no, of many times, when I’ve chosen the low road of fear, of cynicism, or pride, or worse; times when I’ve chosen death and indeed, I’ve lost who I am.  When I pay the price, I know that the end’s the beginning, because I know that at the bottom I’ll come to my senses and return to life and reality.

And the beauty of it, of course, is the promise though “all is lost, hope remains”  because “There’s a light, there’s a sun taking all these shattered ones to the place we belong, and his love will conquer all.”

I think of specific times, recently, when I’ve lost who I am, and yet his love has conquered.  It happens over and over again, friends, because the good news is nothing, if it’s not a story of being able to come home after running away!

There are half a dozen other songs representing significant moments –  after the death of a friend, after the completion of a book, a winter ski tour with my wife, a brother in-law’s battle with cancer.  Music and memory – for me they’re seared together beautifully, and this makes  playlists – this one anyway – a sort of “memorial stone”.  As I listen, I’m encouraged because I remember God’s been with me through good times and bad, through beauty and pain, and will be with me today, and tomorrow too, come what may!

What songs evoke worship and gratitude for you?  And if not songs, what evokes your memories of gratitude?  Smells?  Food? Places?

 

Completion as a Starting Point

50 miles of the PCT

I started a little vacation about a week ago.  The plan was to hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife of nearly 37 years.  This kind of space would provide the kind of beauty and clarity needed for me to see far into the future (“Do you have a five year plan?” someone asks me) and so be able to prepare for it.  After all, we learn from an early age that life’s about setting goals, envision a future, and then going after it with all the gusto we can muster.  This is all well and good, perhaps, if you know exactly what your future is to be, but as one grows older assurances about the future become harder to assess.  There are too many wild cards.  Health.  Money.  The shelf life in one’s profession.  Needs out there which you might be able to help meet.  Your own need for rest.  Desires to write.  Or travel.  Desires to keep doing what you’re doing.

The options are dizzying, and unknowable.  Still, I thought the space of hiking through the wild would grant clarity; that I’d come home with needed understanding and some goals to pursue, marching orders for the next chapter.  Mercifully that whole line of thinking fell off a cliff somewhere below Cathedral Rock on day two of our hike.

Instead, clear as the mountain peaks around me, I was granted the realization that two realities must be in place in order for any of us to move toward the life for which we’re created.  What are they?

1. We need right motives for what we’re doing.  Proverbs 16:2 says that “people may be pure in their own eyes, but the Lord weights the motives”.  This is a stunning statement because we tend to look at a person’s pursuits as indicative of their wisdom, and the quality of their life.  Look at the triathlete and you think, “self discipline”.  Look at the person who started that non-profit and you think, “idealistic; devoted”.  Look at the rich person with a reputation for generosity:  “sacrificial”.  It’s all very impressive, and certainly extends to people who work in ministry, or speak for a living, or are super committed to raising ‘excellent kids’.  Yes.  Let’s be a version of human that causes people to take notice, in a positive way.

And therein, my friends, is the problem because pursuits born out of a desire to be well thought of by others will lead us down the wrong path – every time – even when the pursuit seems noble.  So will stuff born out of a desire to please others and avoid their judgement.  So will stuff born out of a sense of the overwhelming needs we see, for the there are needs all around us and they will never go away.  Ministries and philanthropic organizations are littered with broke down lives who could never say “no” because the need was always there, always hungry, always thirsty, always needing more us.  So it’s not the thing itself that offers assurance we’re on the right path.  It’s far too easy to justify the nobleness of any pursuit in our own eyes, even in the eyes of others.

“…the Lord weighs the motives” means just that.  Pursuits born out of greed, or anger, or need for approval, or fear of rejection, or a desire for comfort, or a desire to prove something to someone – all these will, in the end, melt away.  The one thing that matters is this:  “What is God asking of me in this particular moment?” I think of Jesus in Mark 1.  He’d healed some people and cast out demons, taught them, and hung out at a house ’til late into the night.  By the next morning, word of his power had spread and whole town as knocking on the door, wanting to be with him.  His response:  “Time to move on to somewhere else and preach there. For that is what I came for.”  This is impressive to me because it tells me that his motive is, as he says elsewhere, simply to do the will of the one who sent him.

How freeing would that be?  For starters, it would free you and me from doing anything out of a FOMO, or any other fear.  We’d also be liberated from being driven to action by every need we see, which can only, in the end, result on compassion fatigue in a world where racism, global poverty, sexism, oppression, environmental degradation, family breakdown, health crises, mental illness, and o so much more are knocking at our doors.  It’s too much for any one to bear.  What’s needed, then, is for each of us to know our part and do it, recognizing that along the way some will view us heartless, too liberal, too conservative, too prudent, too foolish, too ambitious, too lazy, and on and on it goes.  If we’re in the right space, we’ll be able to sift this stuff and move forward with our true calling, but doing so requires that we have the second reality in our experience as well as the first one.

2. We need to be secure that we are complete in Christ.  If the starting point of my life is that I’m already complete, then I’ve nothing to earn, nothing to prove, and nothing to fear.  All my actions, when born from the reality of completion and security in Christ, will be nothing more than saying yes to God’s next step.  For Elisabeth Elliot, decades ago, it meant moving back to Central America to live among the people who had murdered her husband, in order to share the reality of Christ with them.  For another it means retiring early to care for aging parents.  For another it means staying in the same job for 50 years.  For another it means moving often.  One might write and never sell more than a few thousand books, or less even.  Another might regularly make the NYT Bestseller list.  One’s a millionaire.  Another’s living in a camper van.

50 Miles of PCT

 Like various flora in the forest, each is fulfilling its calling without the anxiety and compulsion of comparison or fear.

How cool would it be to be secure in the assurance that we’re loved completely, perfectly, infinitely?  It would free us to believe that, in Christ, we have a unique role to play in blessing the world, and our one true thing will be to pursue that thing – not out of a desire for fame, or financial security, or to prove to someone how important we are, but simply out of love for the one who has healed us, filled us with life and hope, and given us the chance to participate in blessing a world thirsty for blessing.  That’s the life I’m after friends, no matter where it leads.

The good news is that Christ came to fill us with nothing less than his life so that we can enjoy this “confidence of completion”.  The bad news is that religion has too often mutated into some sort of performance whereby we’re trying earn approval, from each other, or God, or the church.  Sick stuff, really, when you realize the whole point of the gospel was to set us free from that very mindset!!

The hike’s over and the particulars of the five year plan are no less clear.  Any anxieties I had about not knowing are gone though.  They been blown away by the comforting winds of the Holy Spirit, who has reminded me that I’m complete, already, because of what God has done in Christ.  I’m done performing for approval – seeking instead to live a life poured out in obedience to Christ as an act of gratitude for his matchless love.

Does this sound unapologetically Christo-centric?  I hope so.  People may or may not use the language of Christ, but I’m convinced, more than ever, that a world thirsting for peace, meaning, hope, joy, strength, confidence, beauty, intimacy, and Justice, is a world searching of Jesus.

 

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step