“Adventures in Saying Yes” was the best read of the summer because…

It was just a casual breakfast encounter at a conference where I was speaking last week.   He told me about his time in Indonesia.  I asked him if he’d read “Speaking of Jesus”, which is one of my favorite books, precisely because the author has a knack for telling people about Jesus as if it’s actually good news, rather than the distorted version of the gospel that implies God’s mad at the whole world.  God’s angry at sin and death, friends, and we’re trapped in a matrix of these very elements… but I digress.

The guy from Indonesia then says, “Have you read his newest book?” and when I told him I hadn’t he began to tell me about it.  “Something about fear… I can’t quite remember the title.  O wait!  ‘Adventures in Saying Yes- A Journey from Fear to Fatih’  That’s the title.”

Because I loved the other book I’d read by this author I bought it immediately.  I bought it for a second reason too: Almost everyone I know is afraid these days.  We’re afraid of the economy imploding if we elect someone untrustworthy for president.  There are unemployment fears, terror fears, fears for our children, fears of aging, fears of rejection, fears of dying, fear of conflict, and o so many more fears.  Many members of the prayer team at the church I lead tell me that fear and anxiety are the number one issues about which people are asking for prayer.  Not shame.  Not anger.  Not prayers for the health and well being of others.  Fear!

I’ll let you know that both books of Carl’s are easy reads; funny at times; brutally honest, and very practical – they will help you express the reality of your faith in Christ (if you have one) in a more natural and honest way.  Rather than saying more: here are a few quotes from his “Saying Yes” book:

Stop for a moment and think of all the things that your need for security might actually stop you from doing… 

Here’s my definition of fear: Fear is anything that potentially threatens your sense of safety and security.  

Most of our fears are ‘potential fears’.  What ifs.  Yeah buts.  Maybes.  Then whats.  They’re not real.  They could be real.  But they’re not.  Those sorts of fears are dream squashers.  They’re not fun.  They rob your joy.  

Carl decides to basically spend a year saying yes to everything, and as a result, finds himself in some amazing circumstances in the middle east, where he’s a missionary living among and loving Muslims.  As a result, the fears that he needs to overcome include things like death threats, encounters with angry Imams, and opportunities to speak hope to groups of Jews and Muslims who hate each other.  We’re afraid of losing our high paying jobs.  He’s facing the threat of death of he follows through and speaks in this one certain place.  Different fears – same principles!

That’s all that I’ll say, but I’ll share one more thing Carl says:

…fear keeps you from selling everything and moving to Lebanon with your young family.  It keeps you firmly in the grip of words like ‘responsible’ and the often-used ‘wise’.  But Mr. Wisely Responsible never had much fun.  he doesn’t go on Hobbit like adventures.  He might save money.  And he might raise three very responsible and wise children who are very well behaved.  But he doesn’t dream, never lives outside the box.  To him, life appears quite normal.  

But I say, Leap!  Dream.  Say yes!  Set out on an adventure – a risky journey with an uncertain outcome. ...

All this is terribly appropriate as I’m planning on speaking this coming Sunday about the three kinds of people in the Moses story of leading God’s people through the wilderness.  The three kinds are born from three different attitudes towards risk.

Looking back people live with a fear of the future that creates in them a bitterness about where they are and a longing for the good old days.

Looking around people decide that they’ve had enough adventures, and that they’ll spend the rest of their days staying safe.

And then there are looking ahead people.  They’re…

WAIT!  You need to hear the sermon.  And you’ll be able to hear it here – on Sunday.  But whether you listen or not – read “Saying Yes” – because saying Yes to this read might just change your life and lead to adventures!

Forest Bathing as a Vision for the Church

malala-lake-sabbath_28178040973_oThis week I’m living in the forest, in the San Bernadino mountains of California as I speak at a family conference.  As I write, the morning sun is bathing the deck and Sugar Pines, along with a form of Cedar, some oak, and Manzanita, live together as an ecosystem, offering life giving space to squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, bear, and countless other life forms.

Scientists are discovering that humans are also profound beneficiaries of the forest.  “Forsest Bathing”, which simply means to walk in a forest and pay attention to your surroundings while doing so, has been shown now, in numerous studies, to have profound health benefits.  Lower pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rates are just some of the proven benefits.  There are some who believe that prescriptions like this will be seen in the not too distant future.

Though the benefits have been easy to see, it’s been more difficult for scientists to understand and quantify the reason behind these benefits.  Is there something in the scent, the Eco-system, the earth itself?  Is it simply the contrast provided from the concrete jungle in which many of us find ourselves that makes the forest a healing place?  These questions remain, but what’s known in the moment is that a “walk in the woods” isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.

Because of numerous experiences in my own life, I wonder if the power of the forest isn’t spiritual, and therefore unquantifiable with the measuring instruments of science.  I say this because my past is filled with countless “forest encounters” with God:

1960’s – As a child I would lie in the middle of a circle of redwoods on the California coast, outside grandma’s house, and look up.  The trees would all appear to be converging at a single point in the sky, and the punctuation of variegated greens set against a backdrop of sky blue did something to me.  This was peace.  Yes that’s it –  peace.

1976 – It’s winter.  I’m in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Unbeknownst to be, the worst two years of my life are about to come to and end, as a new journey, new calling, and new priorities are born.  The death of my dad two years prior had sent me into a state of depression and isolation.  I was in the mountains for a winter ski retreat, and when the speaker said “knowing God should be the primary pursuit of every one of you in the room” I knew he was talking directly to me.  He’d been reading from Jeremiah 9 in the Bible and when his talk was finished I went out in the freezing air and prayed, in the midst of crunching snow under a million stars.  I told God that I didn’t know what it meant, but that I wanted to make knowing God the main goal of my life, just as the speaker had invited me to do.  This would lead to a change of major, a change of states, and an entirely different trajectory for my life.

1990 – My wife and young family move to a forested acre in the North Cascade mountains of Washington to begin a retreat center.  It is there that I begin identifying with the verses about Jesus going “into the mountains alone to pray”.  After a busy time of serving guests, I would depart for the high country, hiking up to some ridge, often alone, to pray, read, reflect, restore.  These mountains were made for restoration, or so it seemed to me.  Beauty seemed to pour through the atmosphere when I was in them.  Glaciers and rocks spoke of timelessness, and I’d be reminded that I’m just here visiting, for a short time, that God’s work has been here long before me and will be long after.  I’m reminded that God is the rock, a metaphor offering stability in a tenuous world.  The vast distances, from the stars of space, and the surrounding peaks, reminded me that I’m small and that, in the grandness of eternity, so our my problems.  The beauty of ever changing colors, the scent of the air, the form of trees, the reflections of mountain lakes… All of it together spoke “shalom”, a visible representation of peace for me.  I’d come down the mountain restored, having seen something, having prayed, and having received.

And so it’s gone, year after year, until now, when I have my coffee with God in the mornings, in the midst of forest, wether misty or dry, chilled or heated, breathing in not just the words of the text, as I seek to meet Christ, but the air of the forest, which speaks of eternity and passing moments; vast strength and human fragility; and the breath of peace, offered freely to all who will receive.  Things happen in the forest because of who the forest is.

The Church as a Forest 

The Church, at its best, functions the same way.  We pastors think that the our teaching and preaching is the most important thing in the world, but the reality is that people are often persuaded more by the collective presence of Christ and the atmosphere that creates.  Maybe at their best, preaching and environment work together, but at the very least, I’ve encountered many people over the decades whose front door to faith sounded similar to these words…

“No Richard, it wasn’t your teaching that convinced me.  It was the community.  I’ve never seen authentic relationships where people both accepted each other and pushed each other to grow and change.  I wanted to be part of that”  

“It was the beauty of the people Richard.  When I saw that woman in her 60’s caring for her mother and singing songs of worship with her, it stirred something in me.” 

“These people who make up the church – they’re building friendships with prisoners, making meals for the homeless, caring for vulnerable children.  They give me hope, and I want in…” 

On top of this, there’s often the beauty of gathered worship, the beauty of sacred space, the beauty of confession and vulnerability, and the beauty of restored lives.

So without answers, I simply ponder:  Is the church an ecosystem, like a forest, which is life giving when it’s properly fed, and rooted, and located in the appropriate place?  I’d like to think so.  

However, when the church is place of shelter for misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political fanaticism, arrogance, favoritism of the strong and wealthy, or any other number of ugly things, it’s no longer a healing forest.  It becomes a place of death, a prison of sorts.  Using the letters C-H-U-R-C-H and singing a bit of Hillsong doesn’t make a church the collective expression of Christ.  Only real discipleship does that, and the acid test of true discipleship is simple – am I on a path of embodying more of the humility, service, unconditional love, courageous care for the marginalized, and infinite forgiving grace of Christ?  Or am I just singing some songs in a building while still closing my hand to poor, calling people who disagree with me idiots, getting angry with every latest political shot fired, all while pursuing my own personal well being above all else?

Forest, prison, or place of death – how do people experience life in the church?

For the church to be a place filled with the kind of life that God has in mind, some things need to be true for us that are also true for the forest:

1. We need to be an ecosystem.  Christ’s vision for the church is that each person within it shares their unique contributions to for the well being of the community.  Paul the apostle unpacks this vision and explains that when it works properly, when people experience various aspects of Christ’s beauty and love through various encounters within the community, they will sense the reality of Christ’s presence.  This is paramount, because our desire is that people be given the freedom to choose or reject Christ himself, not the kind of caricatures of Christ that misrepresent him by portraying hate rather than love, law rather than grace, performance rather than receiving freely from a posture of brokenness.  So we seek, increasingly as a church, to represent the heart of Christ with greater clarity.

2. We need a vision for beauty.  My greatest moments of shalom (profound peace) have happened in either the beauty of the wilderness or the gathered community in worship.  In the latter cases, it has been the gathered body of Christ, the church, declaring something of God’s character, through worship (Yes…singing matters more than we realize), or acts of service, or prayers of praise or confession, or simply through the power of Christ’s presence so evident in the gathering.

3. We need to believe that, in spite of our imperfections, God will be revealed through our life together.  Let’s say that we, as a community, have a passion for mercy, Justice, and love (as I write about here in this book).  Let’s see we long for the fruit of the spirit to prevail, in our lives, and our life together.  To the extent that these things are true, we’re properly calibrated, heading in the right direction.  We can rest, knowing we’re becoming a life giving forest.  Of course, there’ll be the need for continual repentance and re-calibration along the way, because we’re not yet the healing, life giving force that we’re fully capable of becoming.  But we’re getting there, and that’s enough for us to confidently believe God will use us.  (“Abide in me, and you’ll bear much fruit”) is how Jesus said it.

All of this is looks very different than a community arguing about esoteric doctrines and implying that those who don’t believe exactly as our church does are lost and condemned.  There are different kinds of forests.  Catholics belong to forests.  So do Pentecostals, and Baptists, and Presbyterians.  No.  None of us will agree with everything in every forest.  But that’s no reason to start a forest fire.  As Paul said, “What then?  Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed.  In this I will rejoice.”

When Both Books Speak: 

Just two nights ago, I was privileged to serve community to the gathered body of Christ at a family camp.  We met in a lovely forest, around a campfire, praying with various people and listening and folks shared what God had been saying to them through the week.  Then we finished our time together by singing “How Great Thou Art” an old hymn that includes a verse about walking through the forest and hearing the voice of God speak through the the beauty of creation.  We finished singing, as the forest’s movement from light to darkness came to completion, ending with infinite stars hanging in the sky, and silence, save the crickets carrying on.  Life.  Beauty.  Breath.  Healing.

YES.  Not only receiving all this, but being all this for one another and our world – this is our calling.

 

 

#100daysofgratitude: Aerobics for the Spirit

“The key word for methodical training of spirituality is gratefulness  – David Steindl Rast

Every August, in my normally green part of the world, the earth looks tired. Fresh, vibrant, variegated shades of green have been drained into shades of dust.  Grass is tired.  Trees are tired.  Spring and early summer have been wonderful, fruitful, beautiful, but it’s over.

Sadly, I hear the same sentiment again and again these days, with respect to marriages, vocations, our nation’s strength and politic, and yes, even faith itself.  There is, it seems, a collective weariness all around us.  When anger, fear, and anxiety are added in, we’re looking at a dangerous cocktail!   The “dog days” of summer are hounding us at every turn.

This “weariness”, this “loss of vibrancy” though, is utterly different from the vision of faith life articulated in the scriptures.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of those who will “run and not be weary…walk and not faint” or the “rivers of living water” which Jesus promises will burst from our souls when we make him the spring from which we quench our deepest thirsts.  These sages offer a picture  of strength in perpetuity, well into old age.   I think of my friend, Major Ian Thomas who, in his nineties, was still opening his Bible with pen in hand, listening, marking, praying, learning.  There’s MLK, who’d get up again and again after being beaten, threatened with countless letters of hate mail and verbal curses, jailed, beaten again, and yet again.   He’d get back up and press on.  Wilberforce, in his determination to end slavery in the British Empire faced similar resistance, less physical but nonetheless relentless.  And of course, there’s an anonymous army out there of people who keep showing up, living into that glorious exhortation from Ecclesiastes:  whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.

This kind of faith longevity never happens by accident, any more than someone just “happens to run a marathon” or “happens to summit Mount Rainier”  (“I don’t know how it happened Claudia, we started out for a little walk around the paved path by the parking and lot and decided to just keep going – suddenly we were on the summit enjoying the 80 mile per hour winds, life sucking oxygen deficit from altitude, and severe sunburn”)  No, things that are meaningful always require some intentionality.

Yes, it turns out that the life of faith, like all meaningful lives, requires some training.  David Steindl Rast explains this (in this favorite book) when he writes, “Genuine spiritual practice will inevitably include training of the body, since after all we are not disembodied beings….Since spirituality is aliveness at all levels, spiritual progress must be measured not only by increasing mental awakeness, but also by bringing the body’s spirited vigor up a few notches.  The key word for methodical training in this kind of spirituality is gratefulness.”  

He goes on to explain that the word gratitude comes from “gratis”, which means, “what is freely given”.   The reality is that, in spite of our trials, in spite of the political upheaval, anger, and uncertainties, in spite of the realities of oppression, racism, terror, and violence, good gifts continue to be poured out on us.  Every.  Single.  Day.

Paying attention to these gifts, or ignoring them, shapes our spirits, and ultimately our outlook on life.  As I presently preach through Exodus, I’m reminded of the history God’s people experienced in moving through the wilderness.  They had food, freely and miraculously provided.  They had water.  They had shoes which never wore out during the whole forty year journey.  They had guidance, every second it was needed.  Gift after gift was theirs.

Instead of joy, though, their journey was a perpetual exercise in complaining:  “The food’s no good.  The water’s no good.  The leadership stinks.   We don’t like the leader’s family.  Who does this leader think he is, trying to lead us?”  It went on like this for forty years, with the cup perpetually empty due to the fact that the whining created so many leaks that the gifts of grace quickly evaporated in their litany of complaints.

It’s in our nature to whine, to feel entitled, to complain that life isn’t aligned perfectly with our desires as seen in this, a favorite clip of mine.  This posture of what the apostle Paul calls “grumbling” in this passage, is the natural fruit of not practicing gratitude.  Put another way:   The means to overcome a posture of whining is always the same:  practice gratitude.

It shouldn’t be hard.  It just requires paying attention.  David Steindl Rast says, “Day and night gifts keep pelting down on us.  If we were aware of this, gratefulness would overwhelm us.  But we go through life in a daze.

His solution?  “Every night I note in a pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been consciously thankful.”

My solution:  #100daysofgratitude as a means of kickstarting the spiritual discipline of giving thanks.  We need this now,  in this political season, more than we ever have before.  So…

JUMP IN… call today (August 3rd) your day 1, or join with me and make it your day 2.  Then, every day, post to your instagram or facebook or whatever, a declaration of gratitude along with the hashtag #100daysofgratitude   You can then share in the joy of others on the journey by searching that hashtag and finding out that, indeed, the world and much in it, is a gift from God.   Don’t sweat skipping a day.  Better to fall and get up again than fall and then sit in a pool of self-condemnation.

Disciplines like these are life giving and teach us that every single day there’s a cause for gratitude.

I hope you’ll join me.  I know you’ll be richer if you do.

 

Beating Fear with Seven Words for Seven Summits

NOTE: I’m presently completing a book recalling various adventures of the trek through the Alps my wife and I enjoyed for 40 days in the summer of 2014.  I’m happy to share a few draft excerpts here in hopes of hearing your feedback – so thanks in advance.  This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”.  I’ll deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post, and the equally deadly danger of familiarity in my next post.   Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!

August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m.  We arrive there feeling strong, whole.  Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically.  It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut.  Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse. 

After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut.  Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served.  If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm. 

The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one.  The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over. 

As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise.  Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.” 

“High or low?” I ask. 

“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction.  The trail is on the ridge the whole way.”  I smile, nodding.  I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”.  Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together.  I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes.  “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning. 

I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there.  Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete.  This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner. 

This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills.  I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges.  My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity.  You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash.  Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it.  Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”.    They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.

alps 2As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t.  As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress.  It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread.  The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles. 

This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit.  Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing.  There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word.  In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death. 

For those with experience, this is not intimidating.  You simply don’t fall.  You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step.  For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness.  My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge.  They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure.  On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on. 

I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing?  This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me.  Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face.  We must descend it.  On the one hand, it’s a ladder.  The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much:  we can climb down this ladder. 

alps 3On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent.  We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps.  Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent.  After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise. 

So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder.  The stakes are high.  The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.

It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons.  They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope.  So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still.  There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.

Fear:

Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially.  We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power.  We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more.  Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.

This is a very small way of living.  It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels.  The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top.  Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before.  We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank.  By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.

…Except we can’t.  As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created.  This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management.   When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling”  It’s sin management.  It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy.  And worst of all: it’s boring.

In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin.  God has a summit for us and it looks like this:

Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31  We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in.  This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.

Abundance  “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10  This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die.  I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing.  I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving. 

Wholeness  “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21   Yes!  The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning.  The vision is much more positive, more summit like.  God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living.  The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living.  Summits.  All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear. 

After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure.  We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides.  It looks daunting, and is.  Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”. 

Exactly!  The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option.  I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut.  The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck.  It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here.  No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip.   And for this, I’ll be forever grateful. 

alps 4Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety.  We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust.  The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain.  The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!

The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way.  They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets.  They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives!  They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities.  They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so.  They rose above the valleys of mediocrity.  Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home.  But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world.  When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential. 

Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit?   When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits:  Fear not – for I am with you!

Seeing and Gratitude: Fuel for the Desert Journey

IMG_040410:30 PM.  Wednesday July 12th.  I’m wide awake and my wife has long ago drifted off.  It’s not supposed to be a contest, but somehow when she falls asleep first I feel cheated, and on my worst days that feeling can send me spiraling down a ridiculous hole of self pity, made all the deeper this week by the global context of violence, fear, and racism that seem to be spreading like a pandemic virus without a cure.

I decide that awake and watching the completion of the ESPY’s, ESPN’s annual sports awards show is as good as awake and simmering with frustration in bed.  I wrap myself in blankets and settle in just in time for the award for courage, given this year to Craig Sager, a sportscaster for TNT, who has terminal leukemia, but who has lived his life abundantly, courageously, and joyfully through the midst of wrenching treatments.  He has, as much as possible, continued to work, laugh, love, and do his job with both grace and gratitude.  You can see his story and acceptance speech here.  It’s a twenty minute investment of time, but I’d suggest a much better investment of time than Pokeman-Go, political conventions, or some of my sermons.  Enjoy – and I’ll see you in twenty minutes, or if you want the essence, try this.

By the end I’m wiping tears from my eyes and when the speech is over I turn the TV off and pray.  I confess how prone I’ve been lately to living small – confess that I’ve been worried about the future, sad about growing older, overwhelmed by feeling that there’s too much to do, even though it isn’t true.  Craig’s story puts things in perspective, but not in a “you think you have it bad – just look at that guy with cancer” sort of way.

Instead, Craig reminds me of the very thing I’ve been studying earlier in the day in preparation for preaching Sunday.  He reminds me that gratitude is a choice, utterly unrelated to circumstances.  I’d said the very same thing to some of my staff last week in a meeting, but applying the words I speak?  Now that’s a different, and harder task.  Craig’s little speech brought his own choice to bless others     and stay in the game into stark relief, not with my outer persona, but with my inner attitude.  Anxiety displaces peace.  Complaining wins another round, crushing gratitude.  Cynicism carries the day over encouragement.

As I ponder this and listen to Craig’s speech again this morning, I come to discover that the difference between this sportscaster and this preacher is that sportscaster has, right in the midst of terminal cancer, developed what I call “the Art of Seeing” and this art is the main ingredient of gratitude.  A favorite author of mine writes in “A Listening Heart” that the path to God starts at the gates of perception.  How much splendor of life is wasted on us because we go through life half blind, half deaf, with all our senses throttled and numbed by habituation.  He goes on to challenge me.  Will I wake up and begin paying attention to the daily wonders and miracles which, if I but see them, will naturally lead to joy and gratitude?  Or will I continue to take the thousand miracles a day for granted – walking through life as one of those of whom Jesus speaks, “having eyes but not seeing – ears but not hearing?”

In prayer, I tell my friend Jesus that I choose the latter.  I ask for fresh eyes to see the miracles of life all around me, and soon fall asleep.

Thursday, July 13th.  Everything is different today even though nothing’s changed.  Two neighbors help my wife haul some logs from a neighbor’s house to ours, while I study for my sermon.  When they’re finished, I invite them in for good coffee and tell them the story of my little Italian coffee making machine.  I give thanks for these new friends, unknown to me just a few years ago but now woven into the fabric of my life as sources of joy, laughter, and support.  During my next break from studies I split wood and instead of the common theme all summer of cursing my aging body, I’m grateful for the ability to do it at all, grateful for the smell of the sap, grateful that this wood, gathered in the heat of summer, will become the heat of winter while snows fall outside.  Grateful for my wife who sets the pieces I split and stacks the wood; that she finds more joy in the forest than I do gives me joy.  Grateful for the scent of the air, and the little forest aviary nearby, where both birds and squirrels gather for a meal.  My whole body is smiling and yes, my shoulder hurts; I have a cold; I’m getting old and the wood splitting stuff is more challenging than ever.  Yes, I’ll watch the news tonight and violent deaths again.  In France.  Gratitude doesn’t alleviate pain.  Rather, it fills the cup that is our life so that, right in the midst of the pain, we’re able to be people of hope – like Craig.

In “A Listening Heart”, David Rast says, “Every night I note in a pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been consciously grateful.  Do you think it’s difficult to find a new reason for gratitude every day? Not just one, but three, four, five, pop into my mind some evenings…” 

Seeing the gifts raining down on our lives every day and making enough space to express gratitude is, for me, the front range lesson I’m learning.  It’s what I most need to practice, and  I suspect I’m not alone.  Everywhere I look people are afraid, angry, and anxious.

But before there’s a solution to the world’s problems, there’s a desperate need for us to become better people.  And that begins with paying attention, and seeing, and gratitude.

Are you in?  I am.  Let’s travel the road together.

Mythical Freedom and Real Freedom

What_does_freedom_really_mean.jpgYesterday we celebrated freedom here in America.

But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free?  The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies.  So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ.  They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.

He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

A freedom tied to obedience

These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute.  As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.”  Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”.  The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom.  There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.

What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong.  If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?

Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love.  We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny.  This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.

I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers.  They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.

A freedom tied to external revelation 

One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed.  “If you want to own a gun, own a gun.  If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion.  If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.”  What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone.  Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being.  What if you want my wife?  Or my children?  Or my stuff?

So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”

Ah, but there’s the problem.  One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone.  Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine  rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server.  But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.

The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage.  Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul.  “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you”  Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom.  Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.

Simple right? We’re all free.  Yes, free.  And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom.  How’s this working for us?  Not so well, I’d argue.

What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke.  Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing.  My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps.  Freedom?  Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway.  That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.

Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable.  Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.

In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more.  But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.

The Illusion of Freedom 

When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children.  We have never been anyone’s slaves…”  In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?”  I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome.  Before that it was Greece.  Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire.  Before that it was Babylon.  Before that it was Assyria.  Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.

We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.

But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need.  This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”.  And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough.  Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority.  That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.

“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”

 

The Death of Mourning – And the Need for its Resurrection

there’s a time to mourn…

There were times, not so long ago, when mourning was the first response to tragedy.  This is appropriate.  When 9.11 happened, there was a global coming together that simply grieved the catastrophic loss, acknowledging, before any rush to response or solution, that the world is not meant to be this way.  Waves of grief and anger over “the way it is” rise up in the human heart when tragedy happens.

Or should, at least.  In Ezekiel 18:32 God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone”  In John 11, Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and wept tears of grief, because death is an intrusion in our fallen world – a source of profound loss, sorrow, and separation.

These days though, there’s no time for mourning.  The blood wasn’t dry on the floor before this tragedy was politicized.  Islamaphobia.  Homophobia.  Gun Control.  ISIS.  Immigration policy.  NRA.  Ban on assault weapons.  Blame Obama.  Mock Trump, or praise him.   Why mourn, when you can blame, or use the event to justify your worldview?

Here’s an observation friends:  this is  sick

Our rush to judgement is a cultural disease, the natural fruit of our increasing inability to listen, think, and learn a bit before talking.  I was in Austria when Sandy Hook occurred and the first things I read in social media had to do with blaming the NRA, or declaring preemptively that “the gun control liberals will use this to steal our guns”.   Heated rhetoric, even before the children were buried.  An alligator steals a child from a theme park, and before his body has even been found, people are  lecturing the parents about “responsible parenting”.   The biggest mass shooting in American history happens and before there’s a single funeral, Muslims are blamed.  Immigration debates fill the air.  Christians are blamed.  Guns are blamed.  And those blamed respond with a whiplash of defensiveness.

Lost in all of it is the time honored tradition, in nearly every culture in the world, to “mourn first – thoroughly – and then respond”   The cost of this loss will be huge, is already huge – because what’s happened is that all of us are now constantly at war, with each other.  Constantly on the defensive, or to avoid that, on the pre-emptive offense.

Job’s friends may not have assessed Job’s problems accurately, but at least they had the decency to mourn with him a little bit before offering their misguided solutions.  The same was true 15 years ago, when America, even the world, stopped for a week or so, and mourned.  We were all angry.  We were all learning new things about terror and waking up to the realization that our world had changed forever.  But we held our tongues.

The Bible is a rich pool of lament for many reasons, one of which is that it allows the dissonance between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be to ferment in our spirits and souls.  Such fermentation, born of compassion for victims of suffering and loss, strengthens our longings for the beauty of Christ’s reign to break into our world with full force.  It’s only out from those deep longings, ripened in mourning, that the best wisdom of next steps will be born.

Last week was too busy for mourning for me.  I was in meetings overseas from morning to night, and squeezing church work and sermon prep into the little margins.  I barely saw the headlines, and then quickly saw the polarizing comments, coming from everywhere.  Really!  Everywhere.  The weight of what happened didn’t hit me until yesterday, when I had some time to finally digest the event while sitting in the Frankfurt airport waiting to come home.

Today then, is a day of mourning for me – for one thing.  The victims.  Young lives were cut down too soon and while death is always tragic, it’s always the more so when the lives are young, still looking forward to most of their days.

Yes, the church must participate in robust and civil discourse about sexual ethics, gun control, gun rights, immigration, Islam, and more.  Those are different topics for different days.  But not today.  Today I mourn…which begins with empathy, and compassion, which simply means, “to suffer with”.  For God’s sake, and your own, learn compassion before anything else.

Again violence has taken young lives.

Again people woke in the morning not knowing their hours were numbered.   

Again families of victims are faced with an unanticipated hole in their lives, with many parents facing the most difficult grief of all, the death of their own children.  Of all the things that “aren’t supposed to happen”, this is near the top of the list.

 

Let your tears run down like a river day and night

As the beginning of the night watches

Pour out your heart like water

Before the presence of the Lord;

Life up your hands to Him

For the life of your little ones… Lamentations 2

 

 

Threads: Crocheting a Legacy, knot by knot

It’s the day after my youngest daughter’s wedding, a grand yet simple affair that included three wedding dresses, a parade from the church to the park led by wedding guests playing the Star Wars theme, and an open mic, poignant and ripe with the love of relationship nurtured by my daughter and her husband through years of showing up and building community.  They left the church at dusk, on bicycles, after running a gauntlet of sparklers.  With tears and weariness, I thought, “Done.  The weekend can’t get any better.”

The day after blowout parties like these should be a day of silence and rest in my introverted mind.  In our case though, the gathering continued because my mother in law is turning 90 this month.  She’s been living with us for a little less than two years, and  has, besides her daughter (who I married) three other sons, living in Oregon, and one each in Northern and Southern California.  They were all here for the wedding, along with their spouses, and many of the grandchildren too, so it just made sense to throw a big party the day after the wedding.

As a result, we found ourselves gathered in our mountain house on that first Sunday in May for day long festival of eating, drinking, mountain exploration, of celebration of Ruth.  When someone turns 90, I’m afraid that there’s sometimes not much to celebrate, other than the elder’s dogged determination to live on.  The truth of the matter is that the sunset years can be more fog than beauty, more resignation than hope.  The ravages of time and the painful losses people have experienced by that age often leave people vastly diminished, or bitter, or only looking back, offering little more than a sigh for those gathered to honor.

And then there’s Ruth. She’s one of those exceptions that both brings me deep joy and gives me hope.   The celebration of her life was a perfectly appropriate extension and affirmation of the life of celebration she pursues almost every day.  The chair where she fills her days IMG_1124looks out to the front of our house where she can watch it snow or, this time of year, enjoy the birds and squirrels as they vie for food.  She’s always sitting there when I’m returning from work, or an outdoor adventure, or a walk with neighbors, and almost all of the time, she has crochet needles in her hands, and yarn at her feet.  She smiles, waves maybe, and gets on with her craft…stitch by stitch.

I’ve been married 37 years, and this stitching of hers was a habit long before I entered her world.  She makes things.  And what becomes of those miles of yarn, stitched one knot at time so faithfully these past decades?  The answer to that question formed the basis of our celebration.  My wife and her brothers collected photos from family members, friends, and children in our church who’ve been the recipients of a coveted “Ruth” blanket.  I received one as a welcome to the family years ago.  My kids each have one.  Dozens of new babies in the various churches I’ve led have one.  Neighbors.  More distant relatives.  Blankets ranging from Seahawks logos, to Bears, to a WSU Cougar, are scattered across the country, and so pictures began pouring in.  By the end there more than 60.

My daughter Kristi crafted the submissions into a book, which became the centerpiece gift for this woman who I view with the same sense of awe at times as I view the mystics.  I hold this view because of her capacity to be fully present, attentive to the moment and task at hand, in spite of the chaos that life sometimes tosses as us.

Her world has risen and fallen, known death and life, wealth and poverty, health and sickness,  joy and profound sorrow.  The larger world too, has offered up a full dose, just in her lifetime, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, financial scandals, near impeachment of a president, terror, wildfires, earthquakes, and floods.  On the surface of things, it’s a whirlwind of change, chaotic.  At times upheaval might have been the norm more than stability.  Like all of us, I suppose Ruth might have fodder for complaint, or withdrawal into fear.  I know that when my own little world is threatened, I’m sometimes overwhelmed and anxious – and my problems are petty in the grand scheme.

In this world of upheaval, both personal and global, she doesn’t complain.  She crochets.  There’s always another stitch, and then another, and then another.  Life’s not stable, nor is it lacking its share of pain and loss.  But instead of fear, or the paralysis of anxiety, this woman does what gives her joy, faithfully, as hours turns into days, turn into years, turn in blankets – and blessings – and joy.  And it’s that quiet, generous, stable, uncomplaining joy that we were privileged to celebrate that sunny Sunday in the mountains.

My words might preach, if only sometimes.  Her life preaches.  I know people who can quote chapter and verse, but who are so filled with fear, petty judgements, and bitterness, that they give me reasons not to believe.  But this one, sitting quietly, and doing the next thing in spite of everything else that’s happening in the world, and letting a string of faithful moments become a gift to someone, this one, makes me want to live faithfully as a person of service and hope.

She smiles.  She blows on her candles, and gets a bit of help finishing the job.  She receives as graciously as she gives.  And in all of it she reminds me of something I heard recently:  “the way we inhabit our spaces – this constitutes our calling”.

Thank you Ruth, for inhabiting so very well.  We not only love and honor you, but we want you to know that you bless us – and not bless us only, though that would be enough.  You teach us.  And to the extent we learn the peace of quiet service, our lives will be the richer for it.

Into the fog of discipleship…step by step

It’s Friday.  That’s meant ski day for 90% of the past four months.  I hit the web to see what’s opened, what’s groomed, what’s happening.  Dismay:  four different ski areas within 2 miles of my house – ALL CLOSED!!

All right then.  It will be a day to put on the touring skis, which means attaching friction creating skins to the base of the skis and freeing the heel so that you can ski up the mountain.  At the top you’ll peel the skins off, lock down the heel, and in a few minutes ski down what it just took you and hour to go up.  Some might call it hard work.  I call it discipleship – learning to follow Jesus step by step.  Here’s why:  

There’s a calling

I cast my gaze to the ridge, the goal, some 1300plus feet above,  It’s too far.  Too steep.  Too much.  There’s an immediate visceral reaction, dwelling up a dozen or more excuses why this “isn’t a good day” for this.  It’s cloudy – there’s no view to bring me joy.  It might rain.  I slept poorly last night.  The snow’s thick, mushy.  Not spoken, but the real reasons:  it’s stinking hard work to walk uphill in slushy snow with skis on.  

So why go?  Here’s the crazy thing.  I go because as John Muir said,
“the mountains are calling and I MUST go” - good weather or poor; tired or bursting with eagerness; it matters not, because the mountains themselves really are actually calling.  I want to be in them, up them, challenged and transformed by their terrain; ravished and refreshed by their beauty.  “I must go”

That’s discipleship too.  We see, in the distance, a different life: freed from addiction, or fear, or shame.  Or maybe we see a different world because Jesus and the prophets pointed to a world of peace, reconciliation, and the end of human trafficking and disease, to name just a few things.  We see it out there in the distance, and we want to go there, be there – and with Christ alive in us, it seems we must take the journey! 

That’s part of what calling means.  And when that voice from higher up the mountain is calling, I pray you’ll go.  There’ll be reasons not to, always, as Jesus warned us.   Too busy.  Too tired.  Too tied down.  Too preoccupied with the trinkets acquired by wealth.  Your favorite team’s playing today.  Theres’s always a reason to stay home, but if you listen carefully enough, you hear the voice of calling, and if hear it…don’t hesitate:  go!

There’s a disillusionment – 

It doesn’t take long to feel the effort of the journey.  There’s something in me that want’s to call it quits about 500 meters in and 100 meters up because breathing is labored, legs are feeling heavy, and sweat is leaking out my skin as a means of cooling me, so that when I stop I’m not cool – I’m cold.  “Is it worth it?”  “I could be at home reading.”  “It makes sense that I’m the only one here.  Who does this?” “I could turn around now and nobody would be the wiser.”

And so it goes, in our brains, sometime after we’ve begun our pursuit of Christ too.  This is because self-denial, though life giving over the long haul, is wearying in the moment.  There are disciplines to discipleship, enough so that the words have the same root, and that root includes the reality of some suffering.

We all suffer.  But who suffers willingly?  Disciples, apparently, because Jesus said that unless we’re willing to deny ourselves, we can’t be disciples.  

If we’re going to deny ourselves, then, we need some compelling vision that will allow us to transcend the gravities which pull us down into self indulgence.  The vision for my little ski adventure is the thought that at the end of it there will have been both encounters with beauty and a strengthening of heart – both gifts, yes – but earned with the currency of suffering.  Imagine that.

For the disciple, the self-denial and suffering produces strength of heart too, but in a different way.  We become people whose lives are increasingly characterized by joy, patience, hope, peace, and generosity.  We could quit the journey and indulge ourselves, or press on and enjoy this kind of beauty and transformation.  That why vision matters so much.  Without a reminder of what’s being produced in me, I simply won’t proceed.  It’s the vision of transformation that keeps me going.

There’s a mindfulness – 

Moving up steep snow on skis is an acquired skill, and the steeper the snow, the steeper the learning curve.  As the initial gradual slope steepens, I’ve no longer any time to think about how painful it is, or whether I want to quit or continue.  At its steepest the journey requires total focus:  “slide ski upward – shift all body weight to directly above the binding, so as to mitigate risk of sliding backwards – fight the intuitive notion to lean into the mountain, committing to stay upright instead.  Repeat”  

My favorite hobbies have historically been skiing, rock climbing and fishing because these three disciplines require a total focus, and the total focus has a marvelous way of silencing the chatter of the mind.  Such silence is life giving, wisdom imparting, and maturing.

We don’t do it well, if we’re honest.  We’re easily distracted by our phones, our tunes, and our screens.  And if that isn’t bad enough, when all three are absent, our mind has tricky ways of creating its own chatter, and the price is costly as seen in this excellent book.

Jesus hits on this when he tells us to “take no thought for tomorrow.”  It’s his way of inviting us to be fully present.  Here.  Now.  A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said it this way:  “When you are overwhelmed and your mind it talking too much, you need to calm down and simply do the next thing.”  Indeed.  It’s not just a question of getting stuff done, it’s a question of growing wise because wisdom is, at the core, related to our capacity to be “all there” wherever we are, and this is a skill that’s disappearing.  I’m not on my cell phone when I need to focus on putting all my body weight above my ski on a 32 degree slope.  I’m all in.  I’m invited, indeed called, to be “all in” most of the time:  conversations made up of real listening and presence, reading, prayer, sharing a meal with friends.  We’re at our best and look most like Jesus when we’re doing one thing at a time.

There’s joy – 

Step by step (hence the name of this blog) I ascend upward.  Step by step in real life means another diaper, another meal, another encouraging word to a co-worker, or a confession, or a moment of hospitality with a neighbor.  Like ski touring, no single step seems significant, but every single step matters.  This is because our lives aren’t, in reality, highlight reels of profound moments, but a ten thousand regular steps followed by a summit moment.

When I arrive at the top on this Friday, there’s nothing to see.

Fog’s set in, and everything is white other than trees right in front of me.  Still, I know it’s been worth it.  And there’ll be a different skill set, and a different joy on the way down.

Sometimes, too, your best efforts to follow Jesus won’t result in a highlight reel moment.  And then you’ll move on.  It’s fine.  You know you’ve taken the steps, followed the call, done the right thing.  That’s discipleship and the more you do it, the more you know you’ll do it again tomorrow, because there’ll be another calling, and you’ll say yes because its become who you are!

O Lord of the mountains and valleys.  

Grant that we might first have ears to hear your call – in the cry of child, a neighbor, a refugee.  Give us grace, I pray, not only to hear, but go, and endurance to continue when we feel like quitting.  Thank you for the gift and discipline of mindful presence, and the circumstances that help us develop it.  May we celebrate those times rather than dread them.  And above all, thank you for standing on the mountain with your disciples so that we’re able, here and now, to have a glimpse of the summit that’s worth it all – Your reign made visible in our lives and world.  Give us eyes to see it.  Every single day.

In your great name we pray…

Amen.

 

Lightening Our Loads: Musings on Genocide in Holy Week

(This will take a few minutes to read, and maybe create more questions than answers.  So at the outset, please know:  I believe in just war – I believe in the right of governments to carry the sword in order curb evil as seen in Romans 13.  And, I believe in that the path of the cross is our calling as Christ followers.  May God give us wisdom)

Of course it happened again. We all knew it was just a matter of time before another bomb went off, this time in Belgium. The explosion and shrapnel, though, is never, never the end of the story. Rather it’s a beginning. It sets off another round of fear, profiling, stereotyping, and hatred. It becomes the soil in which the human heart is tempted or incited to match violence with violence. It mobilizes armies, entrenches already held ideologies, and loads lives down with anxiety over the future. Fear of neighbors. Fear of burkas. Fear of travel. And worse than fear; hate. And worse than hate; the threat of violence in retaliation. And worse than the threat of violence; actual violence.

It’s nothing new. And further, it’s nothing new to note that it’s all being done in God’s name by both sides. Giving a soldier a Bible though, or a suicide bomber the Koran doesn’t sanctify the cause, and there’s no better time to be reminded of this than Holy Week because while wounded people are treated in hospitals, while victim’s families mourn, millions will spend time this week pondering the path of Jesus walking to the cross. That cross, and then one who went there, still speaks and lives today, imploring us to follow him on a different path than the one that matches violence for violence, fear for fear, hate for hate.

As Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem on the last week of his life, his poignant cry is telling. We read that “…he saw the city and wept over it saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!…” And then he entered the city, spoke truth to power, was arrested, unjustly tried, forgave his accusers, and died.

Why did he say that? Evangelicals might have been happier if he’d said, “If you had known the prayer to pray so that you can get to heaven when you die…” Or, “If you had known the right sexual ethic or aligned with the right (or further right) political party.” Or, “If only you had armed yourselves and exercised your 2nd amendment rights.” Don’t misunderstand, please. Prayer, sexual ethics, and one’s views on gun control matter. But Jesus wept because the people who studied, defended, and sought to protect the ancient texts, never knew the things which make for peace:

They never understood, not really, that monotheism is, at the core, about peace. The God of the Bible was distressed in the early parts of Genesis because of the violence which had filled the earth, and monotheism began in the midst of polytheistic world views characterized by violence, tribalism, and slavery. In such cultures, religion was the mask used to cover the pursuit of power for the few at the cost of oppression for the many. So it has always been. So it is to this day.

But the God of Abraham, who by the way, is the God at the headwaters of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, posits an entirely different path. Jonathan Sacks, in his marvelous and timely book, “Not in God’s Name” writes:

Not all at once but ultimately it made extraordinary claims. It said that every human being, regardless of color, culture, class or creed, was in the image and likeness of God. The supreme power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless. (According to this God)….A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Life is sacred. Murder is both a crime and a sin. Between people there should be a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love. Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. Though he lived differently from his neighbours, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God –‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

Things turned out differently of course. Judaism became marked by a terrible superiority complex of self righteousness. Christianity quickly became wedded with state power, and we’re still bearing the ugly fruits of violent colonialism, crusades, and violence carried out in Jesus’ name. And Islam mutated too, presenting itself as overflowing with hate and a lust to destroy, as seen yet again in Belgium this week. Boom!

Jesus words are haunting. “if you’d known the things which make for peace…” Though we hate what happened this week, and in Paris, and in Istanbul, and in Egypt, and in Syria, I wonder: Do I know the things which make for peace? Or have I baptized my lust for comfort and control in Bible words, and continued to wander in the deep ditch that is violence done in God’s name, matching hate for hate, threat for threat, bomb for bomb?

The answer comes as I walk with Jesus to the cross this Holy Week, and perhaps in light of all that’s happening, this Holy Week is the most important week of our lives.   When I walk with Jesus with a goal, not just of feeling bad about how much he suffered FOR me, but rather, through the lens of seeing him as the prototype of what it means to be a person of peace, I’m struck with some profound and radical realities:

I learn that retaliation isn’t God’s way. Peter pulls out a sword and is ready to take on the army, but after cutting off a guy’s ear, Jesus heals him (the very soldier who’s come to arrest him) and tells Peter to put away the sword, reminding him that the one “who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Sure, if you want to get all pragmatic about it, the fact is that if someone’s dead, they’re no longer a threat to you.  But their family?  Their tribe?  Their government?  All of them will make sure that, by god, “you will pay.”  All the way back in Genesis 4, a man named Lamech boasts, “I have killed a man for wounding me…and a boy for striking me” and goes on to say that if anyone tries to extract retaliation he’ll pay them back 77x greater!  Yes.  This is our world.

No.  This is never.  Ever.  The way of the cross.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.

I learn that forgiveness IS God’s way. Later, after Jesus has been beaten, spit on, humiliated, and nailed to a cross, a crowd is mocking him. Jesus’ response is to pray, asking God to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Wow. If I’m going to walk with Jesus, rather than just appropriating him for my own political ends, I’m going to need to lay down my weapons, lay down my life, and pray for my enemies.  I’m going to need to learn how to forgive the very people who aren’t even aware they’re wrong.  As Jesus warned the disciples, “an hour is coming when people will think they are doing God’s will by killing you.”  That hour is here.

Those who did that to Christ were forgiven.  Without confession.  Without acknowledgement of guilt.  Read it here.  Forgiven.  In a world where bitterness is the norm, and prevailing ‘wisdom’ teaches us that a scorched earth policy will eventually solve the problem, this notion of forgiving is hard to swallow, and surely leads to more questions than answers.  I know because I have the questions too.  It seems nonsensical and too idealistic.

But the one answer it does lead to is this:  those who have the courage to forgive will break the cycle of retaliation and hatred.  They’ll break it rather than escalate it, and those are the only options, friend.  Either the cycle of retaliation is  broken, or it’s escalated.  Will I be part of the problem or part of the solution?

I learn that fear must be overcome. The way of the cross is exactly the opposite of the way of upward mobility, or comfort, or expansion, or matching violence for violence. It’s the way of fidelity to God’s vision for peace, by being peace in the midst of a violent world.

If you think that path was easy for Jesus, consider his sweating drops of blood in the garden on the last night before crucifixion and his prayer that if there were any other way to bring peace, would God please offer a way out, because this way resides far from our instincts for self-preservation! In the end though, those instincts went to the cross too, because the way of peace is the way of losing one’s life to find it, the way of turning the other cheek, the way of letting God make things right through God’s means and timetable rather than taking things into our own hands.

Bombs go off and we’re afraid, especially in proportion to their proximity. But in this global village, every bomb is a cause for fear, a cause for retreating into our cocoon of tribalism or racism or religious retaliation.

It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said “It is better to be feared than to be loved”: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. (Jonathan Sacks)

Yes, and it was Jesus who said, “he who seeks to save his life will lose it.  But he who loses his life for my sake, will keep it.”  If you think that doesn’t require courage, just ask:

Martin Luther King

Sophie Scholl

Dietrcih Bonhoeffer.

Or Jesus.

Now it’s our turn, and in the midst of all the political rhetoric inciting violence and hate, my prayer is that you and I will have the courage to walk the way of the cross.  That’s what makes this week so special this year.  It’s not just for me.  It’s my path too. To make it on this path, though, I’ll need to take both fear and retaliation out of my pack, and exchange them for an eagerness to forgive and love.  It’s the way of Jesus, and his load is the right one.

I pray I’ll have the courage to go there.

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step