I was privileged to speak to a group of university students on Monday night and in the Q&A I was asked, “What are the books that have had the greatest impact on your life?” The truth of the matter is that I read so widely that nothing came to mind immediately, jumping out as the one or two life changing books. However, the truth is that there have been hundreds, so I thought it would be fun to add a “quotables” section to this blog, highlighting various authors and books.
I don’t present them in order of importance. Rather, I read this book last fall, saw it on my shelf, and thought, “Why not start with this one?” You need to know that when I recommend books, I’m not ever endorsing everything I read in the book. Rather, I’m saying that, on the whole, a person with discernment can be well fed and shaped by the material this author shares. The quotes, on the other hand, are truths I buy into!
Enjoy these as a starter, from Richard Rohr’s “Immortal Diamond”, one of many books I’ve read about the importance of being firmly established in our true identity “in Christ”. Here are a few of my favorite thoughts from this book.
Church in any form should be a laboratory for resurrection.
All posturing and pretending are largely unnecessary….all accessorizing of any small fragile self henceforth shows itself to be a massive waste of time and energy.
Inside your true self you know that you are not alone, and you foundationally belong to God (I Cor. 3:23). You no longer have to work to feel important. You are intrinsically important, and it has all been ‘done unto you’ (Luke 1:38)
…if you do not learn the art of dying and letting go early, you will hold onto your false self for far too long, until it kills you anyway.
Satan tempts you to do proper, defensible, and often admired things, but for cold, malicious, or self-centered reasons.
…only the false self can and will sin
The anger and disrespect I find among both conservative and progressive Christians is disturbing. It feels aligned much more with political ideologies of right and left than any immersion in the beautiful love of God.
The spiritual question is this: Does one’s life give any evidence of an encounter with God? Does this encounter bring about any of the things that Paul describes as the ‘fruits of the spirit’, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
What most of Christian history did was largely dress up and disguise the false self (in Christian clothing).
Remember that resurrection is not woundedness denied, forgotten, or even totally healed. It is woundedness transformed.
The big and hidden secret is this: an infinite God seeks and desires intimacy with the human soul.
I recently watched Come Before Winter, a short documentary about two foes of Hitler. Sefton Delmer was a propagandist who broadcast fake news into Germany as a means of changing hearts and minds. Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer was the other protaganist in the film. I’ve written extensively about Bonhoeffer in other places, so I’ll leave him alone for now, other than to note that this documentary is perhaps the best articulation of his last days before execution you’ll find, and for that reason alone, is worth watching. I say that because dying well, especially as a martyr (he was hanged for his part in the resistance movement in the final weeks of the war), can only happen as the fruit of living well. Now, on to Delmer and the subject at hand.
Born in Germany and educated both there and at Oxford, Delmer was uniquely qualified to have a foot in both German and British culture, a trait which, during the 30’s caused both nations to accuse him of being “in service of the enemy”. By 1940, however, he was recruited by the British Government to organize ‘black propoganda.’ He created several fake German radio stations broadcast by short-wave from England into Germany. They were a mixture of truth and lies – enough truth to make the lies credible. The intent was to demoralize, confuse, and divide the German people. So if you think fake news is something new, think again.
Cambridge Analytica is just the most recent version of what’s been happening since the Garden of Eden. Two things, though, make todays environment more challenging than the past:
Everything is called “Fake” by someone. Trump calls CNN and (“the failing”) New York Times fake. Fox News is considered fake by most who read the Times and watch CNN. As a result, we who digest the news increasingly ‘consider the source’, but not in a healthy way. Instead we’re pre-emptively dismissive of a report precisely because of the source. As a result, thoughtful people speaking important truths aren’t heard. We’re both tribal (gathering in groups that only think like us) and post-modern (skeptical that truth is knowable) at the same time. These two conditions, taken together, are a deadly combo. They’re the soil in which fear, cynicism, isolation, and skepticism grow. Sound familiar?
Here’s the deal though. Everyone spins their news, at least a little. CNN fact checks their stories. So does FOX. The problem isn’t the facts (at least in major news sources). It’s the spin on the facts – which facts are elevated, which are hidden, and how they’re interpreted.
Our response primarily blames the source. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was grilled this week by congress, and the goal of the grilling seemed to be this: “We want you to prevent liars from selling lies on your website” (along with other privacy concerns). The notion, however, that we’ll be able to prevent lies from proliferating on the internet is, to be polite, rubbish. Just today I learned, on the internet, that the world is ending on April 23rd, in fulfillment of hidden Biblical prophecy. That shark cartilage will prevent and heal all forms of cancer, and that James Comey, former head of the FBI is a “leaker”, a “liar”, and an “untruthful slimball”. Why even bother eating the cartilage, or reading Comey’s new book, if the world’s ending on April 23rd anyway?
The Real Need: Discernment
Jesus said that Satan is a liar, the father of lies. Paul said that lies come wrapped in truth sometimes. Jeremiah said that there’d always be false prophets around. Paul said that its in us to listen only to voices that reinforce what we already believe, and that we need to fight this tendency.
It’s as if God has gone to great lengths to shout at us in all capital letters: YOU NEED TO LISTEN CAREFULLY AND WISELY SO THAT YOU CAN DISCERN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND LIES – BECAUSE LIES WILL ALWAYS BE RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU TO BELIEVE.
They’ll be on the sidebar of your Facebook feed. They’re present as “slants” in the news. Two examples: 1) The NY Times only offered criticism this morning for Trump’s role in a united allied response to Syria’s ‘crossing the line in the sand’ with chemical weapons, a response Obama promised to deliver, but never did. 2) FOX news remains remarkably silent about hush money paid to prostitutes, nepotism in the Oval Office, and the president’s inability to work with people who view the world differently than him.
These biases shouldn’t surprise us. They should, however, remind us that there’s no cave into which we can crawl, where pure truth will be spoon fed to us. In fact, Hebrews 6 says that maturity is defined precisely as our capacity to discern between good and evil, lies and truth, because both are coming at us 24/7 – not just in our newsfeed, but even the voices inside our heads.
Jesus taught us, outlandishly, that an obsession with him would enable us to know truth, and the truth would set us free. Truth doesn’t mean easy, prepackaged answers that we learn when we’re children, and then spend the rest of our lives defending. Truth means the answer to the question (as Bonhoeffer taught us when he wrestled with the question of whether to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler), “what is God asking of me in this exact moment?” – as a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, a voting citizen in a fearful and polarized society, a neighbor?
The right answer won’t be found in The NY Times or on Fox News. But it also won’t be found in cultural withdrawal or disengagement. It will be found by those living fully IN the world, enjoying its gifts, celebrating its beauty, mourning it’s ugliness, and fighting against its systems of oppression. And who should be able to do that better than anyone else?
Disciples of Christ. They don’t hide. The engage. They don’t call for censorship. They call for discernment.
Here’s how Bonhoeffer said it: To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom
Such wisdom is needed; now more than ever.
The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day… life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal.
In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world – all quotes by Nicholas D. Kristof from “Half the Sky”
One of the challenges that the church faces is that it has often been, rightly, accused of being part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to elevating the identity, calling, authority, strength, and leadership of women in the world. Women have been censored, marginalized, shut out from positions of spiritual leadership, treated as property, burned as witches, tortured and killed as heretics , and abused.
I, for one, would like the church I lead to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. This is why we’re presently in a series on “Called by God: Women of the Bible”. In this series my intent is to show how God has called women to frontline visible ministries as prophetesses, Apostles, judges, leaders in civil disobedience, teachers, and more. I’ll also be offering, both on this blog and on our church website, some further discussion about critical questions related to the subject of women in the Bible. I hope you’ll subscribe and join us for the discussion.
I’ve been in church settings where men have walked out when a woman opened the Bible and began to teach or preach. I grew up in a church where women had very confined roles, none of which had to do with teaching or decision making authority. I’m part of a generation that, for the most part, embraced the culturally defined gender roles of “Fiddler on the Roof”. None of this strident patriarchy was fabricated out of thin air. The views come from a certain way of reading the Bible. The reading creates the culture. The culture reinforces the prevailing reading, which deepens the culture still further. And so it goes.
Here’s what can change that:
1. Consider a fresh reading of the Bible. It’s vital to recognize the danger of “cherry picking” certain passages and building entire ethical constructs out of them. My own movement away from strong patriarchy began with the realization that not everything in the Bible that God proscribes applies for all time. We don’t continue executing disobedient children, for example. Women are no longer viewed as property as they so clearly were under Old Testament Law.
Ethics change because God’s revelation is ripening, ultimately to find its fullest blossoming in the person of Christ. In Jesus’ narrative, a woman becomes the first evangelist. Another becomes exemplary of what it means to love God. Two more are the first eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. Paul the apostle doesn’t miss a beat in his continuing liberation of women as he speaks of a female Apostle, and of “when” women prophesy in the gathered faith community. I know there are questions about particular texts that seem to indicate confinement to certain roles, and I’ll deal with these in forthcoming material. For now know this: Christ’s example liberates women from previously constrained roles. Paul, if somewhat covertly, continues to develop that same trajectory. So should we.
2. Recognize the difference between Biblical mandate and culture norms. Many women have grown up in a culture of unequal pay, in churches that silenced them, and in homes where the word ‘submission’ was unilaterally imposed on women by men, but never applied to men (as the Bible declares it should be). These women have a weight of cultural baggage to overcome. When Paul says that believers are to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds” this is a classic example of what he’s talking about. Transformation comes from recognizing cultural mores and swimming upstream against them. Men can help women do that by recognizing that they have unique callings
My wife’s perspective is that it’s difficult for a woman to find her true voice because there’s been a historical cultural weight of expectations that have kept women on a clearly defined and constricting path. She says, “Men have often thought of women as fish in a channel. Men have tried to help women get from point A to point B by ‘helping them’, which is tantamount to straightening the stream or building fish ladders. The intention is good, but still too confining. The problem is that women are actually birds, and we can get to God’s appointed destiny of our calling by making our own prayerful decisions, finding our own path with our own unique giftedness as women.”
3. Find your gifts and use them. In the end, one of the reasons I believe women are called to any position in the church is because the last thing I’d ever want to do is censor someone from using gifts that God has given them. In Romans 12, we read that some are called to, variously, give, serve, teach, and lead. Far be it from me to prevent someone from using a certain gift because of their gender! All of us must work at understanding our strengths and how God has created us, and as we do this we’ll find those endeavors which a) bring us great joy b) we’re naturally good at and c) are affirmed by others because others are blessed by our doing them. Those endeavors are where we must focus our time.
How many women, though, have been unable to do that because of the cultural and spiritual forces of patriarchy which shut them out?
It can be otherwise, and it often begins with deconstructing the notion that women have confined roles. They’re not fish in a stream. They’re birds, with a world of heights available to them. It’s time to fly.
Every time I travel in Europe I try to read some European history, especially as it relates to the intersection of faith and culture. In the past I’ve shared stories of Sophie Scholl (regarding her martyrdom for the distribution of resistance literature against the Nazis in Bavaria), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (regarding his denouncement of Hitler from the pulpit and his underground seminary). Knowing that I’d be in France this spring, I recently read “Village of Secrets”, which is the account of the people living Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during WWII. These remarkable people sheltered thousands of Jewish children, hiding them throughout farms in this high mountain plateau.
Theirs is a story of courageously resisting the powers and offering radical hospitality, qualities which, for them, weren’t seen as exceptional, but rather “to be expected – it’s what God’s people do.” As I read the book, I knew I needed to go there and see it for myself. I wasn’t disappointed.
Donna and I made a three hour pilgrimage up to Le Chambon yesterday through pouring rain, wet snow, and periodic bursts of sunshine. We arrived mid-day, and soon found the Protestant “Temple” where Andre Trocme taught non-violent resistance of state powers and was instrumental in mobilizing people to hide condemned Jews.
There are far too many details in the story to explain it all here, but I must say, while it is still fresh in my heart, that this story matters as much today as it did then, for never in my lifetime has the need for spiritual and moral courage among God’s people been both so evident, and so lacking. Trocme and others warned against “the slow asphyxiation of our consciences” and called God’s people to absolute obedience to God alone, warning against the idolatrous seductions of power and personal safety. I see three qualities as vital in enabling the people of the plateau to do what they did.
1. Intellectual Leadership: Courageous convictions only germinate in the right soil though, and as it turns out, there were some French pastors in 1941 who were thoughtfully engaging with the questions of how to respond to the Reich. A fictional book had been written at the time called “The Village on the Hill” about a pastor who refused to proclaim that Hitler was the creator of an eternal and indestructible Reich. Eventually a Nazi mayor had him removed and he took his meetings into the forest. This work of fiction was digested by pastors wrestling with their responses to the times. In the end, these pastors declared it to be a spiritual necessity that they resist all idolatrous and totalitarian influences.
2. Thoughtful Ethics: The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in France had produced a movement called “Social Christianity” which fundamentally declared that the value of our faith is determined by the extent to which God’s people care for the weakest and most vulnerable in a community. That would include the unborn, young single mothers, immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, and of course in 1941 France, all Jews. Pastor Trocme added a deep conviction that non-violence is the way of Christ, and that it was therefore the antithesis of the word “Christian” (which means “little Christ”), to use weapons as a means of bringing about God’s will.
3. Brokenness: The people of the plateau were, themselves, offspring of families persecuted for their Protestant faith since the seventeenth century. They’d had their church buildings burnt to the ground, family members executed, properties lost. And what fruit did this suffering create generations later? A solidarity with “the least of these” and a willingness to risk everything to shelter them from harm.
Trocme ran a school, and the museum commemorating this rich history is adjacent to the school. As we finished our tour, I was looking at a certificate given to Le-Chambon which honors them as righteous Gentiles. At that moment, children poured into the adjacent play-yard for recess, with the sounds of laughter and play, and jumping on an old pile of snow.
I was filled with gratitude for that time, for this place, for those people, for the tens of thousands living today because of their courage.
I left, though, with an ache in my heart because intellectual leadership, thoughtful ethics, and brokenness are, to put it mildly, in short supply today. As a result we’re collectively rudderless, ready prey for any leader willing to make vain promises of power and greatness while silencing all detractors and thoughtful discourse through petty name calling. I for one, can only pray that I’ll find the blend of courage and prudence, grace and truth, and commitment to non-violence and caring for the weak, that I’ll be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
O Lord Christ –
We who have been given the privilege of voices must speak for those who cannot. We must give voice to your heart for peace, and courage, and love of the other. We must embrace your cross. Forgive us for being seduced by trinkets, honors, and all the glitter that passes for spirit. Grant that we might know your power to love, to serve, to shoot the moon in obedience to your calling. Give us eyes to see your light, ears to hear your voice, and grace to follow both. Amen
In a previous post, I offered a review of Beauty and the Beast, noting the significance in the story line that people had forgotten their identity, and that this forgetting was at the core of their clinging to fear and ignorance. Everywhere I go for teaching, I tell people about the many revelations from the Bible about “who we are” because of Christ. Because the list is in high demand, I offer it here.
If you are in Christ, you can declare each of these truths with confidence
There are over 100,000 books in the “leadership” category on Amazon. If you’re a pastor, there’s an excellent Leadership Network, and a Willow Creek Network, Soma, church planting networks, and potentially a seminar to attend every weekend, not to mention the possibility of filling your twitter stream with inspiration and equipping for the job of leadership. I’ve been to enough of these events to know two things:
It has value because everyone could use a motivational shot in the arm, a reminder that God has created each of us, whether pastors, stay at home moms & dads, code writers, marketers, health care workers, teachers, artists – we’re all made by God with gifts to contribute to this broken world. We’re all made for influence.
These leadership tools are valuable too, because influence is never automatic in life. Influence is the fruit of actions, what leadership people might call tactics. There’s a change in the voting rights of African Americans because there was a march in Selma, and an uproar, and another march. Of course, before there are tactics, there needs to be strategy, and strategy is the fruit of vision. Leadership tools often inspire people to embrace vision, creating what some call BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). Gaining voting rights for Blacks was, without question, a BHAG. So was putting a man on the moon. So was ending slavery. We’re encouraged, usually, to think big, and we hear from people who do.
And it’s right here that I move into seeing the limited value of much that is our leadership equipping culture in North America. It’s limited, not because it’s wrong (it often isn’t), but because it’s incomplete. It’s as if we’re encouraged to think big, see some need, and then follow the blueprint for making it happen: vision – strategy – tactics – all leading to the promised land of fruit and influence. Done!
I want to stand up and shout, “Not Done!” It’s as if our leadership culture teaches framing, siding, electrical, plumbing, roofing, and finish carpentry, as if those things can build a house. They’ve vital, but unless there’s a solid foundation, these skills are meaningless, and even worse than meaningless. I say “worse than” because to the extent that we believe they’re the bulk of what we need, we’ll respond to our frustrations by reaching for a more powerful dose of strategy and tactics. “We need change management” “We need better metrics” “We need an alignment strategy” Yes! We do! But not yet….
First we need to know that we’re doing the thing God has wired us to do, in the place God has called us to do it. Things break down here more often than you’d think. People have de-facto assumptions that their vision’s the right one, that they’re called to create a certain kind of influence in a certain place. Maybe. But not so fast! When the Bible says “Without a vision the people are scattered” the word vision actually means “declared revelation from God” so we’d be wise to make certain that we’re in the habit of hearing from God on a regular basis. That word, by the way, isn’t just for pastors. It’s for all of us who believe that our Designer has made each of us for unique contributions to the world, and our role is to find what that contribution is by hearing from God.
“Yes, but how does one go about hearing from God?” We hear from God the same way we hear from anyone. It requires paying attention and listening, and two disciplines that are central to any relationship of intimacy. I know how my wife wants a box of kindling before I go to work in the city, how she likes wood to be in the house drying before it’s put into the wood stove. This is her “declared revelation” to me, as I’m in charge of the wood while home. I only know what she wants by listening. I only know what God wants, too, by listening.
I write about habits that will help develop intimacy with God here, but let’s dig deeper, because just telling someone to read their Bible and listen for God’s voice isn’t very motivating. What would inspire a person to open their Bible and read, to journal and pray, to pay attention to what they perceive God is saying to them through creation, and text, and community, and trials?
I’m only motivated to seek God to the extent that I have a good dose of humility coursing through my veins. We might be tempted to think of humility as a self-bashing exercise, telling ourselves and others just how worthless we are. In reality, the Bible teaches that humility is simply one’s capacity to have an honest assessment of oneself. That means you know your strengths, and as I’ll write soon, are learning to play to them. But it also means that you’re brutally honest about your weaknesses, not just your presenting weaknesses, but the stuff that’s lurking inside you as well, waiting to push you over the proverbial cliff. I know, for example, that I’m in over my head on the tactics and strategy side of running a giant church. Some parents know they’re in over their head too, as do some CEO’s. I also know that, apart from Christ, there are dark places in me that would rise up, leading me down destructive paths rather than life giving ones.
Humility, once embraced, is at risk of being “treated” in one of two ways:
Nope. Your inadequacy isn’t a problem to be solved. Rather, it’s a gift intended to lead you to a life of intimacy with your Guide. When I don’t know the mountain, I stick with the Guide. And here’s the reality folks: Whatever it is that’s staring you in the face in the moment – you don’t know the mountain. So you need the Guide!
“Thanks for that Richard, but I’m OK. My business is doing well. My kids are healthy, 4.0, starring on their soccer team, and 1st chair musicians. To quote the favorite phrase of culture these days, ‘I’ve got this’.
Fine. If you want to continue living in fantasyland for a little while longer, go ahead. The reality though, is that every one of us will eventually find ourselves in the land of brokenness, and that’s precisely where all the good stuff starts. Brokenness, the existential awareness of our failures and inadequacies, is exactly what leads to humility, which leads to intimacy, which leads to the revelation that takes you above ground, and eventually, to the land of influence.
My dad’s death. My terrible year one in an urban church. My melancholy. My fear of rejection born from adoption… these are all part of my brokenness, yes. But they’re also gifts – the bedrock out from which intimacy with God is born.
My complaint with American leadership culture is that it minimizes brokenness, or even vilifies it. In my view, it’s a gift. One author says it this way: “…so we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. And that does not mean reading about falling, as you are doing here. We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide!” Yes indeed. So let’s start teaching and learning the foundational principles of Underground Leadership, in hopes that each of us will find the life for which God has created us.
Note to reader: In my previous post I offered an overview of various values and priorities that are taking “the front seat” for me this year. They’re prominent because they’re needed, both in my own life and in this moment in history. In the coming posts, I’ll be unpacking each of these elements one by one, beginning with this post about establishing a rule of life. Here’s a sample from my just released republication of my first book. It’s now under the title of Breathing New Life into Faith: Ancient Spiritual Practices for the 21st Century. The book has new chapters and updated chapters, and largely syncs with the recent sermon series “Sustainable Faith: Soil Care for the Soul”, available free on itunes podcasts. (making a great duo for small group study) Here’s to the adventure of transformation awaiting each of us in 2018!
Whether it’s Beauty and the Beast and the transformation of relationship, A Christmas Carol and the transformation of values, or The King’s Speech and a king’s movement from fear to courage, stories of change for the better inspire and resonate with our deepest longings. This is because something deep inside all of us realizes that the world, and we ourselves as individuals can be better. At an even more fundamental level, these desires for upward movement resonate because transformation is the central good news that Jesus brings us. “I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly” is how Jesus put it one day when talking with a crowd. Later, Paul would say it this way: “He [God] made him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, in order that we might become the very righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). Our destiny is to become nothing less than “the righteousness of God,” which means that God’s desire is that justice, mercy, hospitality, peacemaking, generosity, and hope pour through our very being so that those in our lives can be blessed. That same Paul would tell us that we’re called to swim upstream against the prevailing currents of culture, not being conformed to the dominant taboos and mores, but being “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2).
How? We’ll start by saying that the narrative of culture won’t get us there. We’re increasingly stressed out, addicted, anxious, lonely, and afraid. It appears that wealth and hyper-connectivity aren’t providing a pathway to the lives of peace, intimacy, and meaning. Jesus compared our life journeys to walking, and suggested that we’re often standing in front of two doors. One door is huge, well-lit, inviting, and the masses are clamoring to get through it. The other door is small, unassuming, and a bit “out of the way.” Jesus has an opinion about this choice: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). It’s as if Jesus is telling us that defaulting to conventional assumptions won’t get us where we want to go, and won’t enable us to build the life for which we’re created.
A crusty prophet of old hinted at the same mentality, using a road metaphor, rather than gates or doors. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16)
All of us could use a little more rest in our lives, or so it seems at least. This picture is painted by Jeremiah and Jesus, who shares a similar message, when he says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The promise is that those who are weighed down by carrying heavy burdens will be able to find rest if they can develop a consistent and real relationship with Christ (hence the phrase “learn from me” in the same invitation). A consistent and real relationship with Christ, though, is like any relationship that’s going to be consistent and real. Relationships take time and require the development of habits.
The process of developing spiritual habits on the ancient path has been called the creation of a rule of life throughout the history of the church. At the end of this book, there’s a tool that will help you in creating your own rule of life, and such a creation is precisely where everything we’ve considered has been leading. So let’s dive in and consider the what, why, and how, of that ancient path called “the rule of life.”
What is a rule of life?
A rule of life is your declared intention regarding the habits you seek to make real in your daily life. Jesus, for example, gathered with other worshippers on the sabbath, not just when he felt like it, or if the weather was just right. According to Luke 4:16, Jesus gathered with others “as was his custom.” He had a habit of worshipping with others. Habits are brilliant, because once they become a natural part of our lives, they bring both order to our time use, and free our minds for other pursuits, as mental energy is no longer wasted on decisions. They’re already made because you’ve developed habits!
God is simply telling us that what we already know to be true physiologically is also true spiritually: “use it or lose it!” The challenge is that we also know from history that the default for us as fallen humans is to stop using it. We stop exercising. We stop eating mindfully. We stop praying. We stop taking the stairs. We stop. Develop life-giving practices so that they become habits, and they strengthen and multiply. Neglect them, and they atrophy and decay.
In addition to habits, your rule of life will consist of an intention to fan certain attitudes from a tiny spark into a full, raging fire. Attitudes are different than habits, in that they’re more a way of looking at and responding to the world. They could almost be called values, and they’re fanned into flame by putting them in front of you on a regular basis. Our minds are renewed and transformed by choosing wisely day after day: contentment over consumerism, hospitality over isolation, silence over noise. For example, by being mindful of Christ’s hospitality and care for people who are weary and downtrodden, I’m sensitized to the practice of hospitality, and this changes the way I relate to people.
Intentionally choosing to build certain habits and affirm certain attitudes is what it means to build a rule of life. One author writes that a rule of life serves as a framework for freedom – not as a set of rules that restrict or deny life, but as a way of living our vocation alone and in community. It is rooted in Scripture, pointing always to Christ, and in the words of Saint Benedict, it is “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
Why is a rule of life important?
One of the most famous parables in the Bible is the story about the seed and the sower. “A farmer went out to sow his seed” is how it begins, and by the end of the tale we discover that not all the seeds reached their full potential. The seed, though, was never the problem; it was the soil. Too many rocks. Too many thorns. Not enough depth. It’s a powerful tale, because later in the Bible we’re told that “His seed abides in us.” The astonishing reality is that nothing less than the life of the resurrected Jesus has found a home “in us.” This means that His seed, if allowed to grow, will find unique expression through each of our lives, so that the joy, hope, mercy, justice, sacrifice, love, and generosity of Christ can continue to be revealed in this dark and broken world. Each of us has a part to play, and when we do this, we’re living the lives for which we’re created!
Some people recoil at the word “rule,” because they believe that since we’re saved by grace, there’s actually nothing we need to do other than receive what God has freely given. My response: “Yes. Just receive the seed, the same way soil receives the seed.” What farmer do you know who plants seeds without preparing the soil? The reality is that the seed of Christ’s life is God’s rich gift to us; the life is in the seed, the growth is in the seed, and the fruit is in the seed. Farmers don’t randomly toss seeds out from the window of their houses and say, “There’s really nothing more I can do, because it’s all about the seed.” Rubbish. Of course there’s no fruit without the seed. But there’s no fruit in your life without the union of seed and soil, and who needs to take responsibility for the soil that is your soul? You do! Your habits and attitudes will determine the quality of the soil, and hence the fruitfulness of Christ’s seed flowering in your life, so that you can enjoy the kind of life for which you were created, a life overflowing with meaning, joy, and love.
Soil care happens. Either we’re fortifying the soil through life-giving habits and attitudes, or we’re allowing rocks, weeds, and thorns to choke the seed by neglecting soil care habits. The whole project is a lot like exercise; sometimes energizing, sometimes not so much. And yet, by faith, I’ve come to believe that it’s always valuable. Now the question is much less “How was my time of Bible reading?” because I know, through experience, that what matters isn’t the particular experience of any single day. It’s the trend line that counts.
Soil problems in the physical worlds stem from neglect of the elements that produce long-term value in the soil in favor of policies and practices that provide instant gratification and short-term profit. The results are clear to everyone, yet everyone keeps neglecting the future in favor of the immediate. Sound familiar? It’s not just a soil problem. It’s a soul problem.
How do we care for the soil of our souls? I’m glad you asked!
I’ve noticed on my social media feeds that lots of people are happy to see 2017 disappear. There’s been more than enough killing, lying, inappropriate touching, de-regulating, threatening, boasting, and mocking to last a lifetime, or longer. Like the snows where I live though, “it shows no signs of stopping…” and so I’m spending a bit of time today pondering how I’ll live in 2018. Yes, there’ll be goals and plans, but before that, I’m more convinced than ever that there needs to be priorities and values. It’s been quite some time since we’ve collectively entered a year with such high levels of cynicism and mistrust, and the temptation in such times is to retreat from our broken world into the pursuit of our own personal peace and prosperity. Tired of relational tensions with people of differing political or theological views, we simply shrink our world down to a more controllable size.
The problem, of course, is that this runs counter to the exhortation of Jesus who reminds us that we are light, and as such we’re made to shine into the darkness. We are salt, and as such we’re called to bless, serve, and tell the truth so that we can contribute to the well-being of the place where we live. Like Frodo, many of us wish we lived in better times, easier times. But the word from Gandalf rings true, no matter when and where we live. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us” – to which I’d add, “and before we DO anything by way of vision and strategy, we need to decide what kind of person we’re going to BE by way of values and priorities.
Here’s my list of values and priorities which I’m using so that the light will shine and the salt will be salty in 2018:
I’m valuing my Rule of Life habits – I taught a series this past fall at the church I lead about the timeless spiritual disciplines that enable the seed of Christ’s life to flourish in the soil of our hearts (the whole series is available on apple’s podcast site – see “sustainable faith” series). My next post will be about how to build a rule of life in hopes that you’ll join me on the adventure of releasing the light of Christ more fully in our world by caring for our souls.
I‘m going subterranean – Earlier in 2017 I made a little leadership pyramid for some of my senior staff, which I’ll share with you sometime in January. The basic point of it was to show how most of what I read about leadership seems to focus on the top half of the pyramid, the visible part of our lives, which has to do with priorities, tactics, and strategies, all with an eye toward achieving goals. This is all well and good, but the burnout rate among leaders leads me to believe that before we address these things, there are other things we should be addressing, things that are invisible to the public, but foundational to living the life for which we’re created. In 2018 I’m going to do the needed subterranean work so that the visible fruit will be both meaningful and sustainable.
I’m seeking my flow – I read “Flow” in 2017, a popular book about maximizing human performance. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the book because it’s longer than it needs to be, but there are some principles in it that I’ll share in an upcoming post that have helped me be fully present with whatever I’m doing, whether work, conversation, exercise, writing, photography, everything. When I’m in the flow state, my inner critic dies down, I’m more creative, and time flies by! Hours feel like minutes, and I’m usually at my best during these flow times. I believe that contemporary psychology is actually in pursuit of something Jesus spoke of in several places, as I’ll share in my post.
I’m focusing on my gifts – “Stir up the gift that is in you! Be devoted to (your gifts) so that your progress might be evident to all…” are two ways Paul the apostle spoke of this. As I grow older and come to see the inevitability of the finish line, I’m increasingly filled with a desire to spend as much time as I can doing the things I’m best at. It’s a matter of stewardship, of taking care of what God’s given you. In an upcoming post, I’ll write about how people find their gifts, and how liberating it is to focus on them.
I’m going holistic – Sleep is a spiritual matter. When the Bible says “above all else, guard your heart”, it just might be possible that God is telling us to pay attention to our physical heart, because our heart indicators are often revealing the wisdom or foolishness of our life choices. Prayer is a physical matter, affecting not only the spirit, but the physical heart, sleep patterns, and emotional well being. Exercise of the body affects the spirit. Exercise of the spirit strengthens the mortal body.
I’m cultivating curiosity – This article in the Harvard Business Review talks about the challenge of turning people with leadership potential into successful leaders. What is the characteristic that shows up most consistently as a predictor of success in developing leaders? Curiosity! It trumps engagement, determination, and insight as the quality most consistently present and needed! For this reason, I’ll be posting about how to develop curiosity in yourself and others.
I’m living like each day matters – “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver asks this marvelous question in her poem “The Summer Day” and it reminds me that we’ve only this one life in which to bless, serve, use our gifts, and make a difference. My hope is to plow through the dense and destructive news cycle, staying informed without allowing myself to get derailed by it, and simply getting on with doing what I’m called to do. I hope you’ll join me in the adventure that is 2018.
Expect more detailed posts about each of these elements in the days ahead. As always, I welcome your thoughts.
Warning: I don’t like the tax bill that just passed, or the quality of judges currently being appointed, or much else happening presently in Washington. Having said that, I have a concern that Christ followers in both parties have elevated politics to a status of idolatry. We who follow Christ have a primary calling – and it’s not electing leftists or rightists. It’s lighting candles!! In this darkest season, (at least literally, and for many, in every way) here’s what I mean…
The first winter we lived in the mountains, an early storm knocked down hundreds of fir trees deep in the cascades, and those trees knocked down wires and transformers, resulting in just over five full days without power, along with temperatures in the single digits and teens. We heat with wood and have a functional BBQ so survival wasn’t an issue. The big issue we faced every day, though, was the inevitable approach darkness.
About 2 in the afternoon we’d feel it; darkness was coming fast and if we weren’t prepared, it wouldn’t be pretty. So our afternoon routine consisted of cursing the darkness and saving up facebook rants to share when the power came back on. We’d spin some cool theories blaming Russians, fire tweets on our still live phones about just how dark the darkness was, is, and ever shall be – unless we vote differently next time. We were especially bitter at those with generators – you know: the 1%. The oligarchy.
Rubbish, of course. We were too busy lighting candles, and making sure we knew where the next candles were stored so that when these went out we were good to go. Sure, darkness comes (and goes too, by the way, as I share in the chapter, “Towns”, in my new book). Of course there are times to expose the darkness, rage against the darkness, and articulate the better alternative to which we’re all invited (see #metoo). Without this, Sophie Scholl contents herself, perhaps, with a private faith that pays no regard to the evil realities happening all around her. MLK withdraws from the conflict, bowing to the pressures of evil rather than fighting to assure that justice for all means “for all”. There’s a time and place to act boldly. However….
On this, the darkest night of the year, I’m reminded that the first order of business is make sure there’s a lit candle somewhere in the room when darknesses of injustice, corruption, greed, complacency, and cynicism seem to be growing. It’s far too easy in this environment to elevate the realities of darkness to such an extent that we forget our calling is to light a candle. Lose sight of our calling, and the darkness seems darker than it is. Then our despondency runs the risk of empowering said darkness even more. Let’s get off that train for a while, and talk about the light instead, and our calling to make it real.
The message of the 2nd advent, when Christ returns to reign fully, is that we’ll have no need for sun because there’ll be no more night (I think it’s poetic metaphor, but that’s not the point right here). Obviously, we’re not there yet. In the meantime, the light of Christ is intended to be these shining moments of hope, justice, beauty, and healing breaking through the darkest nights, like angels did for shepherds that glad night. The message of light sounds like this:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear…?”
“Make your face shine upon us and we shall be saved…”
“…shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death…”
“…put aside the deeds of darkness; put on the armor of light…”
The theme that’s woven through these verses can be summed up this way: Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle!! What does that mean, and how do we do it?
Draw near to the light. The big theme of the Bible isn’t that darkness is vanquished. That’s just the final chapter. Rather, we’re reminded over and over again that, in the midst of darkness, whether found in prison camps or oncology wards, therapist’s offices or the scene of the accident, there’s a light, “Emmanuel. God with us!” Light in the darkness. I fear that over the past year evangelicals on both the left and right have spoken more about darkness than light. This can never be a good thing. My prayer for 2018, at least for the community I lead in Seattle, is that we’ll be characterized as “people of the light” by virtue of our pursuit of Christ, our true and brightest light. I believe such a pursuit will begat generosity, hospitality, care for earth, and solidarity with those in need, so that the light of Christ will shine through us in these darkest days.
Rejoice in what’s good. There are countless causes for joy every day, no matter if they are private or national trials because God is giving us good gifts, reconciling relationships, liberating captives, and using people to create little moments of light over and over again. Psalm 126:3 says, “the Lord has done great things for us… so we will rejoice!”
Joy, as I’ll share on Christmas Eve is a natural response when we pay attention to God’s revelation, noting what God has done, and made, and given us. This is why I tell my children, “every day is Christmas and God is a good parent giving me gifts”. The gifts include: forgiveness of my failures and the confidence that God loves me in spite of them, sunrises, snowfalls, friendships around the world and good conversations, running, skiing, trees, the privilege of teaching and leading, intimacy, revelation while studying, the chance to create, snowfalls, a warm house, clean water, music, sleep, a bed, shoes, and… I could go on, but you get the picture. LISTEN!! We all need to pay attention to the state of the world, but when all you can see is injustice, division, the rise of fear and hate, and leadership crises, your light’s going out! You need to wake and pay attention to the things that bring joy. See them. Name them. Give thanks. Poof! Your candle’s lit again!
I didn’t even mention my gratitude for a new identity in Christ that includes access to all the power, hope, love, wisdom and strength that is the resurrected Jesus, alive in me and you!
Remember the end of the story – Light Wins!! We likely don’t all agree on what that looks like, or how we’ll get there, but if we’re in Christ, can we not all agree that the day is coming when every disease will be healed, every war ended, and all poverty vanquished? There’s a banquet coming, with the best food and wine, and we’ll look around the table, populated by left and right, black and white, asian and hispanic, rich and poor. Listen to this: “God will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and remove the reproach of His people from all the earth….and it will be said on that day, “this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us!” “
There’s your end to the story!! Yes, the darkness will arrive again tonight, both physically and when I watch the news. But rather than cursing the darkness, I’ll choose, tonight and throughout 2018, to light a candle. I hope you’ll join me.
PS – if you’re near Seattle on Sunday…
Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next. If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media. For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul. Happy reading, and happy sharing.
Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’ Richard Rohr
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. Bill Gates
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you…. Jesus the Christ
“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time. You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened. You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success. The business grew. You were promoted. The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities. All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing. You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff. Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, Prom night, graduations. It’s not perfect. There are bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days. Life’s filling up. The business is gaining new market share. Investments are doing their job. It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly. Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed. You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more. Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful. That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become, in some measure at least, “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below. You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar. You’re not sure where you are anymore. You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute. The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too. You went, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll. You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living. Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly. There’s your influence to consider, and reputation. You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night. At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position. These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang. “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code. Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter. I thought you were Kristi. Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope. I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.” I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings our food. I’m sitting in rare Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today in the Alps. Paragliding. They found his body early this evening. I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.” After a silent moment Peter says, “I know. I’m sick too.” We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me. I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to. Then I go home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love mourning in darkness.
Hans Peter was the director of a school in the Alps where I teach regularly, and a kindred spirit. We’d skied his mountains together there, snowshoed in mine east of Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst the monuments of Washington DC. We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids; argued theology and commiserated about leadership. We’d walked life together enough that even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff. It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner. The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for a video that needed making. Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed. There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job. The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.
Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing. It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”. But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all. Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself. Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition? What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness. I wondered if I was on the right mountain.
Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table. Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them. I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant. What was wrong with me? As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.
I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring. Like any peak, it came at a cost. Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing. New locations. New leaders. New responsibilities. New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships. The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting. But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year. Success! And emptiness at the same time. Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. Success is like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”. You want it to shine on you too. We call it lots of things, depending on our profession. We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love. Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning. We want our lights to shine. We want significance. I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success. That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy. There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believe that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp. In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year. In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper. We were rural, small, subsistence. There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Kerouac spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings, laughing around the kitchen table. It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people. “Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small. I was wrong of course. Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me. I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger. Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame. In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment. When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.
That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily. This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more. HR task forces. Policy Manuals. Bigger and bigger budgets. Adapt. Grow. Celebrate. Adapt. Grow. Mourn a little bit. Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership. Grow more. Repeat.
People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all. I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy. After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”. I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”. Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth. The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people. Healed. Empowered. Transformed. Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question: “Where does this story end?” and the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room. The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable. “Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity. Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well. But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified. And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading. What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty. When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves. Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long. I knew I needed to move.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters. The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father. Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale. And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements. We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more. Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency. I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic, treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away. The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail. In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days
And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.
You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers. My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages.