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

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.


“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.


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.

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step