Contradictions – Embracing both the beauty and tragedy of our world

“…the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him…” – C.S. Lewis: Weight of Glory”

IMG_6531“blessed are they that mourn” – Jesus the Christ

Jesus speaks this bit about people having eyes but not seeing, and having ears but not hearing.  At first glance, he seems to just be talking about why people have a hard time understanding his parables, but I’m convinced that there’s more to it than that.  I’m convinced that most of us want to avoid either the painful realities of living in a fallen world, or the spectacular joy if the beauty God’s created, or both.  We’re living in a grey middle, feeling neither much joy nor pain.  This is wrong.

The rhythm of our recent 40 day trek in the Alps was a sort of up and down that became both literal and metaphorical.  Literally, we’d hike up out of river valleys.  The high country above tree line often had everything that’s life giving to me:  stunning 360 degree views, challenging hiking and bouldering, peaks that speak of strength and beauty and, metaphorically, eternality.    I usually didn’t want to go back down.

On the metaphorical end, the elevation lifted our spirits as much as our bodies.   It was up there, utterly disconnected from the news, that the reality of God’s love, power, and beauty were, as Romans 1 says, “clearly seen”.   Moments up there helped me become more “rooted and grounded” in God’s love, and this had profound affects, as I would find little addictions and destructive attractions that had slowly and subtly taken root down in the midst of daily living simply falling away.  Up there, I can’t imagine fear, or greed, or lust.

Then we’d go down to the river valleys, where we’d have either TV, or internet, or both, in our rooms.  I remember early in the trip turning the TV on and watching a bit of news in German, seeing some sort of riot scene with smoke, a rock throwing standoff with the military, and the presence of some sort of tank.  Crimea?  Ukraine?  Syria?  Nope:  Ferguson, Missouri.

It started there, but didn’t stop.  All summer.  Beheadings.  Political posturing in DC.  Israel and Hamas.  Human trafficking.  Environmental destruction, and our ongoing refusal to even find consensus that humans might be to blame, a constant eroding of civil rights, corruption in halls of government power, which fuels corruption in industry, and the rise of Isis, with it’s unconscionable acts of violence.

The juxtaposition is nearly unbearable, and so, many choose not to bear it all choosing one of two routes:

Embrace the beauty and deny the suffering.  We can turn off all  the media, and shrink our world, so that our concerns don’t extend beyond our personal boundaries of making a living, finding a little intimacy, hanging out with a few friends, and seeking out beauty to enjoy.  It’s an appealing path at a level, but reminds me of the last scene before intermission in the musical “Cabaret” where people are singing and dancing on stage, living in utter denial of what’s going on outside their walls.  Just when they appear to be having the time of their lives, a giant swastika flag unfurls, covering the entire back wall of the stage, while the sound of goose stepping solidiers and the voice of mad man increase in volume, inevitably drowning out the good times.

Hiding doesn’t make evil go away.  What’s more, whether we like it or not, we have been given much (time, health, clean water, access to news about the world’s woes, a savings account) are the one’s of whom much is required.  In other words, stepping into the muck and mire of injustice, poverty, human trafficking, war, and escalating violence, isn’t an option, it’s a mandate.

The fact that evil’s a deluge, an ocean, an avalanche, simply means that each of us, and our churches, must find our own particular ways to respond.  None of us can do everything, but all of us must do something, and those who want to live in isolation will miss the mark, because sitting in our nice houses watching TV while the world goes up in flames is hardly the life to which we’re called.

The other option though, comes from those who only embrace the suffering and deny the beauty.  They’re fixated on the NY Times and rail against Republicans being pawns in the hands of corporations; or they’re watching Fox News and railing against Obama because he’s slow to pull the trigger.  They have causes.  They have plans.  They’re mobilizing, protesting, and angry.

In their anger though, they don’t look very much like Jesus, and most people don’t want to be like those protestors who go down in flames with their fists raised in the air, because the reality is that there’s more to life than just human suffering – there’s a universe of beauty too.

Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both showed us a way forward:

1. Open your eyes to oceans of suffering around you and take steps to address it.   Stand in solidarity with some who are suffering.  Raise your voice for the cause of the day.  If you remain silent regarding the issue that’s rising up and becoming a fire in your soul, for fear of the relational cost, or political cost, or business cost, you become part of the problem.  You’re silence makes you complicit.

2. Recognize that you can’t address everything.  You won’t be trying to get more organic foods to market, and address 21st century slavery issues, and address environmental destruction, and work on peace initiatives in the middle east, and fix the isolation of senior citizens, and the mental health crisis, and the reality that kids are living with a nature deficit because they no longer play outside in parks, and go to Africa to help contain the Ebola virus.

Don’t trow up your hands then, and say it’s hopeless.  For God’s sake, and the sake of your own calling – take your step.  Do something.

3. Enjoy the gifts God has given you and rejoice in them.  Give thanks for them, and worship.  More than once I’ve enjoyed tears of joy because of the beauty of particular space time moments when I find myself in a place of perfect peace and shalom on our trip.  Healthy, enjoying my wife’s companionship, the recipient of a rare of gift of time to restore, and all of it in the midst of mountains I love, whose beauty never ever ceases to diminish.  These places seem to ravish me, over and over again.  All I can do is give thanks to God, recognizing that the gifts are but a foretaste of the world God wants all humanity to enjoy.

4.  Stay rooted and grounded in Christ.  The balance between IMG_6668mourning and rejoicing, between enjoying beauty and standing in solidarity with ugliness, between the pursuit of justice and the creation of a fine meal or a day of powder can be a tough balancing act.  In fact, I’d say, it’s impossible.

One of the things I love about the promise of union with Christ, though, is that with Christ’s spirit as a source of conviction and an animating force, there’ll be balance.  Bonhoeffer and Sophie were able to marvel out the clouds and the sunrise, even as the stood fast against the tyranny of oppression.

Here’s Sophie Scholl on the day of her execution:

”How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause,” Sophie said. ”Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go,” she continued, ”but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

I pray I’ll live with that same enjoyment of beauty, creation, and fellowship, while being bold to stand in solidarity with the injustices of our world.  May God empower each of us to go there.

 

Rethinking the Body, Aging, and Movement – 4 Vital Ideas

"we started when we were kids and just never stopped"
“we started when we were kids and just never stopped”
IMG_5291
when are you too old to ride your bike to church?

They’re brothers, these two guys in their late sixties/early seventies.  They’re on the deck of the first Alpine hut we stayed in, and it’s morning, about 7:15 actually.  I’m out there to enjoy the view and take a few pictures, while these two are about to hoist their packs and head out for a long day of hiking to the next hut.  They’re strong.  They’re vibrant.  They’re optimistic.  They’re healthy.  And they’re “old”.

They are the first of an endless stream of encounters my wife and I will have with people older than us who are also stronger than us, or at least as strong – well able to carry 20 pounds on their backs for 10-15k day after day, at elevations ranging from 3-7000 feet.  Their presence on the trail has shaken me in the best of ways.  By example they’ve said:  “Yes Richard… it’s possible to stay healthy for many years to come” 

It won’t happen accidentally though, so asked some of the “wise and wonderful” seniors I met on the trail what kept them in gore-tex and polar-fleece, what kept them moving into their late years.  Their answers, coupled with a careful reading of this book prior to my departure, have revealed four ideas that will give us a good shot at remaining healthy and active for a long time.

1.  A good theology of the body – You know this already, but it’s important to be reminded that we’re not disembodied spirits, that the bodies we’ve been given are marvelous wonders, and that it’s our calling and privilege to take care of our bodies, because they’re the visible expression of who we are.

2. A new vision for normal – Prior to the start of the trip, we envisioned ourselves sitting around in this huts with people between twenty and fifty.  They were there, but there were scores on either end of that, both the very young and the very old. Their presence served to create a different vision of what normal is, or can be.  It can be normal, at nearly any age, to walk or jog several miles a day – often with a pack on that effectively adds exponential work to your exercise.   It can be normal to eat fresh, well prepared food, rather than chemicals mixed together and microwaved.   It can be normal to respond to stress by getting adequate rest, some outdoor exercise, and by spending time with good friends.

I know that this new normal isn’t always possible.  There’s cancer ad other unwanted intrusions, and some people are living in refugee camps, while others are working three jobs just to be able to afford health insurance.  But for many of us, these exceptions don’t apply.   For most us, we have the capacity to stay healthy and active, and I’m increasingly convinced that such lifestyle commitments will make us more effective in everything else we do in our roles as teachers, health care professionals, spouses, parents, students, pastors, neighbors, friends.

I challenge us to rethink our view of normal, because our culture faces an obesity crisis that stems from a slow decay of health habits

Klaus is 70.  He's hiked 30+ days in a row in the high country.  His favorite word:  "fantastisch!"
Klaus is 70. He’s hiked 30+ days in a row in the high country. His favorite word: “fantastisch!”

with respect to food and exercise.  What’s worse, we’re teaching the rest of the world to follow us.   It’s time for a fresh vision.  One fellow traveler on our Alps journey was a 70 year old named Klaus.  He’d been out hiking for 30 days and was nearing the end of his trek when we meet him in a hut and shared a meal.  It was cold outside.  I was tired, in spite of the fact that I’d done 1/3 the distance as him today.  We’d just had supper together and he was absolutely effervescent with joy over his hike that day on dicey ridge, conquering seven summits, all over 6000′ elevation in 15k of distance and eight hours of hiking.  He was wild eyed as he spoke of the challenges and beauty.  When he finished supper he went outside, and came back, knowing that I too enjoyed photography, and he said, “you must photo the sunset!  Fantastisch!!”   I didn’t want to go out, but I did because of his enthusiasm, his lust for life.  Klaus became my new inspiration for a new normal that night.

 

3. A good aerobic base -  The book I referenced earlier taught me about “building an aerobic base”  I thought I knew about this base, but no.  It turns out that I, like most of America, was actually not doing aerobic exercise when I was out jogging, because I was going to fast.  The whole thing’s rather complex, so I’ll spare the details because you can read them starting here. 

The bottom line is that if we’re going to be active for the rest of our lives, we’ll need to start moving, at the right speed, most days of the week, for at least an hour.  Most “walkers” need to speed up a bit.  Most “joggers” need to slow down.   On our recent hikes, we’ve encountered cross country ski teams from Russia, Italy, Sweden, and Norway.  All of them are doing the same thing.  They’re building their aerobic base through lots of long, slow, distance.

When I started exercising this way, just before leaving for Europe, I was appalled at how slow I was running around Greenlake, as I tried to keep my pulse rate in the treasured “aerobic zone”.  Not any more.  These days I’m cherishing the good vibes that come from a long slow jog, or a hike uphill, because at the end I feel great, and I know I’m building an even stronger base for the future, know that I’ll come home energized for the day, rather than drained.

4.  Consistency. 

IMG_6029“We’ve been doing this together since we were kids, and we just never stopped” is what the two brothers said.

“We hike together every year for a week, and because of this, most of walk nearly every day to stay in shape for this one week adventure together” is what I heard from a group of 70 year olds.

IMG_6515‘Use it our lose it’ is, I believe, how you say it in America, no?” said another woman, part of a group on a trail that included climbing a half dozen ladders and crossing a couple high suspension bridges.

All these testimonials from the wise and wonderful seniors we encountered elevate consistency as a high priority.   Our bodies produces everything needed for an active lifestyle as long as we stay active.  Stop moving though, and everything changes fast.

The “Body. Soul. Spirit.” logo you see on clothes I wear comes from the school where I’m presently teaching in Austria.  They take all this stuff seriously, and yesterday the students were out playing soccer or volleyball or ultimate, or jogging or hiking or climbing.  The goal though isn’t twelve weeks of this – it’s a lifestyle change we hope will last.  Same with Bible reading.  Same with prayer.  Same with fellowship:  Consistency, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is the goal for every area of our lives – body, soul, and spirit.

How are yours?

 

 

 

 

Five Values for Sustainable Leadership (pt 2).

just to be loved... can it be enough?
just to be loved… can it be enough?

My previous post offered the first two of five essential values for leaders to nurture and develop if they hope to still be living into their calling and sustaining important relationships, “for the long haul”.   Giftedness will get you in the door as a leader, and romance will get you started in a relationship, but it’s these five critical qualities that will allow you stay in the game for decades.    In addition to teachability/humility and a rhythm of work and rest, you’ll also need:

#3 To be Rooted and Grounded (A Firm Identity)   Jesus does things that are utterly exasperating to contemporary leaders, like walking away from his ministry in Capernaum when word about him had spread and “the whole city” was looking for him.  Who walks away from an opportunity to “expand their platform” or “build their brand” or “capture more market share?”  Apparently Jesus does, and this makes no sense to we who are bred in the capitalist mindset that bigger and more is always the highest and best way to go.

The thing about Jesus though was that he had only one foundational source from which he drew his sense of significance, and that source wasn’t the size or success of his ministry.  It wasn’t the response of the crowds either, because in John 6, Jesus is utterly undisturbed, even when the crowds shrink exponentially because of the harsh reality of his message.   It wasn’t the faithfulness of his disciples, all of whom fled the scene when things got tough.

What keeps Jesus so grounded, so solid, in spite of the ups and downs of popularity in the polls, and in spite of the reality that his closest friends didn’t have a clue what he was about ’til the very end of his post resurrection life?

The answer’s found in John 13:3, where we’re told that Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from the Father and was returning to the Father….  Because of this rootedness, Jesus is able to bend down and wash the feet of those who will betray and abandon him within a few short hours.  It’s this identity with the Father that is the foundation of his life because Jesus knows his place in the universe, knows his relationship with God is secure, knows his destiny.    And…

THAT.

IS.

ENOUGH.

Yes, enough for Jesus, but not us, because we have a gaping hole in our lives that longs to be filled with significance, and so we set off to plant 1000 churches, or to have a perfect marriage that’s the envy of the world, or raise children who are scholars, athletes, saints, who always eat their organic vegetables and never get cavities.  Or we knock ourselves out to get whatever is, in our own world, the equivalent of a bestseller.    Armed with these goals, we’re convinced that when we reach them, it will be enough.

It won’t.  You’ll need to sustain it if you succeed, and then eventually you’ll need to let go of it because someday you’ll be old and tired.   Then what will be enough?  Or maybe sustaining it won’t be enough at all, because success can be addicting, like eating potato chips.  You won’t be able to stop.  If that’s you, then you’ll be on the tread mill in full swing, and it’s all for God, of course, because we’ve been told how vital it is that we use our gifts, and be a blessing, and make a difference.  The whole message, at its worst, baptizes ambitions born of insecurities and leaves us desperate to succeed.

When success is our goal (marriage success, family success, ministry success, job success, publishing success) then the people in our lives become tools to help us get there.  When that happens, I have a feeling we’ll no longer be washing the feet of our family members, or co-workers, or spouses, or church members  when they fail to agree with us or appreciate us, because we’ll see them as barriers to our success, and our since our success is our identity, “what will we do” if our children rebel, or our church doesn’t grow, or our book doesn’t get published?

Can you see how a wrong definition of success and our desire to “impact the world” is fraught with the potential for burn-out, and even the possibility of becoming a user of people rather than a servant/lover of people?  I hope so, because I can tell you from the driver’s seat that these temptations are real, and the world is filled with stories of power abuse at the hands of those who, with the very highest and noble goals articulated, came to insist that those goals be met at any cost, including the cost of servanthood, humility, and love.

The way of Jesus is different than this on two fronts:

A)  Jesus invites us to union with himself and makes the audacious claim that this will make us profoundly content, regardless of the scope and nature of “impact” we have, or “fruit” we display in our lives.  This is why leaders who are in it for the long haul have an identity rooted in what Christ has done for them and is doing for them, rather than in their own accomplishments.   People like this don’t need outward success as much because what sustains them is fellowship with Christ and enjoying the gifts of Christ revealed in creation, beauty, good food, meaningful conversation and laughter.  These gifts are received with gratitude by those whose life in Christ is their most precious gift.

Paul calls this being “rooted in grounded in love” so that coming to explore and experience the heights and depths of Christ’s love became the greatest joy, even greater than capturing market share!

Ministry, family, marriage, work; all these things are great gifts from God.  But none of them are foundational, and to be blunt, none will last.  The joy I have in knowing Christ, however, is a different story.  He’s with me know in the midst of this oh so busy season in life.  He’ll be with me later, when I’m sitting on a bench, too tired to run, or run a ministry.  And he’ll be with me at my last breath.  Why would I want to build on any other foundation?

God is in the mist
yes… just to be loved is enough.

B)  Jesus invites us to leave the scope and nature of the fruit he produces in our lives with him.   I’ll confess that it’s easy to get excited when I get published, easy to get discouraged when sales don’t match my hopes.  Church life?  Parenting?  Marriage?  Health?  Money?  In every area, we can get overly high or low based on whether reality matches our expectations.

How about, instead, we let go of our expectations, and simply rest in the confidence that Christ will express life through us in his way, his time, in the places of his choosing?  That would lead to security.  And rest.  And peace.

Next up…

#4 Patience but Relentless Pursuit

#5 Adaptation

 

 

 

 

“Five Values for Sustainable Leadership”, vital for churches, families, calling (part 1)

Will you still be using your gifts at 83 like Fred Beckey is here?  I hope so.
Will you still be using your gifts at 83 like Fred Beckey is here? I hope so.

My predecessor at the church I lead in Seattle served that community for 38 years.  The farmers in these high Alps have held the same land, stewarding the soil and shepherding the flocks entrusted to them, for generations.   Fred Beckey is still climbing in his 90′s, in the mountains he’s been exploring since 1936.   And yes, there are healthy marriages where spouses are still in love, having been faithful to each other in every way for over half a century.

In a world where leaders often burn out, melt down, get bored, or create some sort of credibility gap that forfeits them from leadership, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to be the kind of person whose life is characterized by longevity and sustainability rather than crisis and frequent change.

As I return to Seattle, soon to begin my 19th year in ministry at the same church, and begin my 25th year of teaching with Torchbearers this week, its become clear to me that there are some (at least five) non-negotiable values anyone interested in “being in it for the long haul” should assess, develop, and fan into flame.  I don’t offer these from some high point of arrival, but I do offer them as priorities that I’m trying to continually build into my life so that I’ll be able to use the gifts God’s given me for many more years.   The values?

1. Teachability/Humility -  This is the most important thing of all, because pride seems to be, as CS Lewis says, “the greatest sin” due to the reality that it shuts us off from receiving much needed truth so that we might continue to grow.   When we refuse to let other people speak hard truth into our lives, we’ve essentially sealed ourselves off from the food we need to keep our spirits alive.  After all, revelation doesn’t come from merely locking ourselves in a room and praying.  It comes from other people, whom God uses to challenge us, encourage us, and expose us so that we can grow.

If my spouse says I have an anger problem, the next ten seconds are the clearest revelation of my truest character.    If my friends or co-workers try and show me an issue and I refuse to see it; if my boss confronts me repeatedly on a performance issue and I become repeatedly defensive, then my days are numbered, no matter how many other well developed skills I have in my tool kit.   Teachability is the one ingredient I, you, everyone, must have, if we’ll keep growing our whole lives.

David was undone by the prophet’s exposure of the lust, deception, and abuse of power he thought he’d hidden so well.  There was no self-justification, no mitigating circumstances, nothing but pure confession as you can read in Psalm 51.  Saul on the other hand self-justifies, denies, blames others and circumstances for his issues.

All of us are either becoming more like Saul or more like David every single day, and we’d be wise to ask ourselves which way we’re moving because history is littered with highly gifted people whose gifts ended up on the sidelines precisely because they built walls around themselves and became “untouchable” “unconfrontable” “unteachable”.   Great gifts without humility and teachability can create a dangerous cocktail.

2. Rhythm of Work and Rest – I hope to write more about this soon, but for now I’ll note that we’d arrive “bone weary” at the various huts during our days of trekking.   Just this past Friday, I felt spent after our 3000′ ascent to the hut.  My legs ached, and the muscles around my shoulders were nearly yelling at me for carrying a heavy load on my back yet again, as I’d been doing so often the previous 40 days.  I took my pack off even before arriving, leaving it on a bench outside the hut.  I couldn’t imagine hiking another step.

Some soup.  A nap.  We wake, and I can’t even believe I’m saying, “let’s go for a hike before dinner” to my wife, who’s as ready to go as I am.  We ascend a summit, and enjoy some holy moments on our last night in the high Alps.  Without the rest, we’d not have made it, or enjoyed it.  With it, the miracle of restoration happened, physically and emotionally.

Are you finding a rhythm to your day that provides enough sleep and food and fresh air and exercise?  If not, don’t speak of “burn out” until you address the imbalance because you might just need a nap and a cup of soup.

How about your week?  Is there a day with less adrenaline, or are your weekends as packed as your week?  You can live that way for a while; just know it’s not sustainable.  You’re wired for rest.

Sabbatical years, and years of Jubilee were intended by God because the entire universe runs on principles that God will bring restoration when space is provided for rest; when people rest, when the land rests, good things happen.

Sure, there are seasons of intensity and periods on our trek when  we did a few consecutive long days.  But it’s unsustainable.  If we’re going to to go the distance, we’ll need to take sleep, sabbath, and extended periods of real rest seriously.

There are three more principles, equally important, and I’ll share them later this week:

3. Rooted and Grounded:  A Firm Identity

4. Patience, but Relentless Pursuit

5. Adaptation

so….

History’s filled with gifted people who refused to deal with the glaring dysfunction because they thought their giftedness would see them through.  It won’t.   Others neglected vital rest, thinking  their devotion to the work required the sacrifice of their emotional, physical, spiritual health.  It doesn’t.

Marriages, churches, athletes, students, leaders, farmers, all need more than mere gifts, exciting plans, and adrenaline induced zeal.  They need values that will lead to sustained fruitfulness.  Here’s hoping each of us take these values seriously.

I welcome your thoughts.

Last Journey’s the Best

It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together.  I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.

Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for it’s beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.

The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles.  We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.

IMG_6804It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun.   We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met.  Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on step until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journey – step by step.

IMG_6787I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life.  I think about how much this mirrors real life, how its so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected.  I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows.  I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.

IMG_6622We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge.  The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.

IMG_6638As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening.  It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces.  Donna’s there first, and she signs the book.  The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find.   When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.

IMG_6651We’ve stood under many these past weeks.  Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights.  Other moments, bone weary and sore.  This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful:  for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others.   We can barely pray – mostly it’s tears of joy.

IMG_6700We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut.   Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about world cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare.  There’s laughter, IMG_6728stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.

I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way.   The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.

I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.

For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut:

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The War of Fog – 3 truths for Living with Clarity in Zero Visibility

We’re waiting for the cable car that will haul us up to the Douglass Hut, the base from which we’ll be hiking over a couple of passes to another hut.  We’re waiting at the base of the lift, gazing skyward.  All we can see are two cables disappearing into the clouds.  Eventually one of them begins dancing, then the other, and finally, 150′ above us, we see something mysteriously appearing out of the grey, taking form as the cable car.  A horn sounds, and soon the car is “parked” and we step in for a ride upward.  Everything quickly disappears as we ascend, and then, moments later, we look down, seeing snow on the brush that rushes by 100 plus feet below us.  The snow gets thicker as we go higher until, finally, we’re there:  The Lunarsee and Douglas Hut, our home for the night.

IMG_5962We exit the car for one of our shorter hikes, going maybe 100 feet to the adjacent entryway of the Douglass Hut, in howling wind, wet snow, and the capacity to see nothing other than what’s exactly in front of us, moment by moment.  This is called “white out” and if you’ve been in the mountains during white out, you know it’s never, ever pleasant.  You look at the map, and know that there’s a large lake and mountains somewhere near here, but you don’t really know it in the fullest sense yet, because you only know it from the map.  We duck inside out of the cold, check in to our rooms, and are quickly in our room in this “summer only” hut, which means that the dorm’s unheated, which means that on this snowy, windy day, every blanket is cherished while we rest, along with our snow hats.

Later in the afternoon we’ll rise and go spend some time in the dining area, enjoying some good foot, hot tea, wine, and reading time.  The hours pass quickly actually.  In spite of the cabin feverish feel of the place, it’s far from empty.  There are guests sitting around IMG_5968talking, drawing, reading, playing games.  None of them speak English though, so the two of us are a bit in our own world when, as afternoon turns to evening, I hear a stirring and look up.

The fogs lifted!  Not a lot, but enough to give reality to the lake we’ve seen on the map and at least the bottoms of the surrounding mountains.  People are rushing for their boots so that can get outside with their cameras because God only knows how long the fog will keep her skirt lifted for us like this.   All attention has turned outside of ourselves the beauty show offered us.

“So it’s true” I say to myself, as reality comes into view.  There’s a sense of delight and relief to the whole situation, and above all else a sense of “We’re glad we came… in spite of the fog!”  By the day after IMG_6093tomorrow, we’ll return here to largely blue skies, and celebrate the full beauty of that which was drawn on a map and described, but unknown to us even as we were in it, because our sight was clouded by fog.  “This” I say to myself, “is an important moment”

IMG_4897 It’s important because large swaths of our lives, especially our lives of faith, are lived in the midst of a thick fog of suffering, doubt, failure, war, abuse, hunger, loneliness, cancer, addiction.  It’s all swirling around, in our own souls or the experiences of those we love, and we can’t see a blessed thing, because only the cursed things are apparent in the moment.  “Where’s God?” we ask ourselves, or we ask where hope is, or joy, or meaning.  They’re fair questions in the fog because we were promised a lake and we’re really looking hard, but all we can see is  fog.

Yes.  This is why they call it faith.  We have a map that paints glowing descriptions of both the present (in the midst of challenges and trials) and the future (when all tears are gone), and we’re invited to live, not “as if” it’s all true, but to live fully “because” it’s true, and to live into the true-ness of it in spite of the fog.   What does this mean?

1.  It’s means I’m deeply loved and fully forgiven, in spite of the fog of failure.

2. It means that I’m complete in Christ and filled with his strength, in spite of the fog of  brokenness and weakness

3. It means that all enemies have been reconciled, in spite of the fact that we also see the horrors of war and terror, custom delivered to our inboxes every day

4. It means that a day is coming when weapons will be melted down and used as farm tools, and cancer, loneliness, fear, human trafficking, abuse, and oppression will all be done away with forever.  It’s down the road a bit, but it’s coming.

Here’s the mystery of the map and fog in a nutshell: (Hebrews 2:8,9)

“God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”  For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him.  But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.  But we see him….!!

I need to believe the map, and live according to the reality of the map while I wait for the fog to clear.  This means living in a posture of thanksgiving for what is true, even when the fog is swirling so thickly that I can neither see or feel it.   The result of this posture of heart has led people to joy and peace, even in the midst of the storm.

Two quotes speak to this powerfully: 

IMG_4927“Don’t struggle and strive so, my child
There is no race to complete, no point to prove, no obstacle to conquer for you to win my love.
I have already given it to you.
I loved you before creation drew its first breath.
I dreamed you as I molded Adam from the mud.
I saw you wet from the womb.
And I loved you then.” Desmond Tutu

All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  Julian of Norwich

Now it’s our turn… to walk into the fog as people of hope because of what we know is true.

 

Strength and Beauty are Vital – and Vital to Redefine

IMG_5627 IMG_5826I’ve been overwhelmed by beauty these past 35 days or so in the Alps.  Sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and lightning, wildflowers and waterfalls, ruggedly terrifying mountain peaks and lush river valleys.  It’s been beautiful; but expected.  I came here looking for this kind of revelation and, other than the predominance of clouds that have hidden the night sky stars, I’ve not been disappointed.

Less anticipated, though, was the extent to which the aesthetics of Alpine hospitality would so bless us.  Little things, like a welcome sign IMG_5770on the door of our room in a hut, or Alpine wildflowers on the table at supper, matchless care given to clean windows and floors; even the flower boxes gracing the sides of chalet balconies, all these things have said, in their own way, “we care about those who are with us – even if they’re just passing through.”  This commitment to spatial beauty become such a norm because of the culture, that wherever it was lacking things felt sterile, as if we, the guests, were a bother, not worth the time.

Finally though, and most important, I’ve discovered a different kind of beauty that’s robust and life giving.  It came as a surprise though, sneaking up on me on Sunday afternoon.  Donna and I had come out of the high country and were staying in a wonderful hotel in a small village that we’d accidentally stumbled upon.  We’d stashed our stuff, arriving mid-afternoon, and made our way to a little food festival in the plaza, where a stage was set up and a band was singing a mix of German folk tunes and old American songs from the 60′s.

It was here on this plaza on a Sunday afternoon that I heard the famous song:  “What a Wonderful World”  Donna and I had just been pondering what it would have been like to be in this plaza 70 years earlier, in 1944, how different than the joviality of this Sunday afternoon.  Just then, I heard “What a Wonderful World”, that song made famous by Louie Armstrong.   The lyrics matched the day, as I heard:

I see friends shaking hands.
Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying,
“I love you”.

I hear babies cry,
I watch them grow,
They’ll learn much more,
Than I’ll ever know.

And I think to myself….”what a wonderful world”

The sight of elderly folk walking hand in hand, small children playing, an older man in a wheel chair, and a developmentally disabled child, all making their way through this plaza with joy, all the beloved of someone, was beautiful enough that I was undone by it.   These are the people who were declared “a burden to the state” in a previous era.  In the end, though, the beauty of compassion won.  Thanks be to God.

This has largely been the way of it during these past five weeks:  In the high country we see the fit, the strong, the capable (that they’re made up of all ages, including the elderly, is an observation for another post).  They’re up where the air is thin, often pouring over maps, and considering how they’ll use their strength to reach the next hut, or a summit or two.  They are the beauty of health and vigor.

In the valleys, though, we encounter those unable to go higher, limited in their pursuits by illness, weakness, disability.  However, and I can’t stress this enough, the beauty present in the midst of this weakness has been a greater revelation to me than the beauty found in strength.  This is because the weakness and vulnerability that I’ve seen has been met with kindness, service, and the dignifying power of profound love.  All of this is the more powerful if, while seeing it unfold before my eyes, I’m reading of the days when these very people were gathered up and “put away”.

Thank God for those who say “No!” to such thinking, for the Mother Teresa’s of the world, and Pope Francis, and those who volunteer in shelters and medical clinics, and those committed to being the presence of Christ precisely by loving and serving those most in need of love.

These are important things to ponder, because we live in a world that, increasingly, worships at the altar of a narrowly defined view of beauty, a view having to do with strength, youth,  and “capacity”, whether intellectual, financial, social, or physical.   I can’t stress how dangerous, and ultimately ugly, this path is.   How do we avoid it?

1.  Recognize the beauty of vulnerability.  It’s a soil in which powerful love will grow

2.  Recognize the beauty of brokenness and confession.  

3. Recognize the beauty of service and hospitality, and begin making both a priority – especially towards those who can’t repay.  

4. Quit walking to the other side of the road when you encounter need, weakness, brokenness.  Jump in and love instead.

IMG_6161All of this requires, not just a new set of eyes, but an openness to disruption, and that requires space in our lives, and that requires trimming the excess obligations, and that requires… alignment with God’s priorities.

Our world increasingly views those who can’t pay their way as a bother.   Imagine the power of light in the midst of such darkness when compassion, love, and service take root again.  Whatever it looks like, I know this much:  it will be beautiful

I’ve loved talking to folks in their twenties about the peaks they’re going after, but never did I imagine that the greater joy would come from chatting with elderly folks sitting on a bench, and yet that’s been the way of it, because it’s beauty I’m finding there that contains within itself the essence of the gospel.

 

 

 

35 thoughts on marriage, after 35 years:

Today I’ll get on a bus with my wife and travel from Freiberg Germany to Munich and then a train from there to Schladming, Austria, on this, our 35th wedding anniversary.  Now that we’ve reached this milestone, I think we’re most grateful, not that we’re still married, but that we still love each other, likely more than ever before (and this after hiking together for the past 35 days).  This has me thinking about how this has happened, and so I offer these marriage observations.  It’s less advice, than observations about our marriage, but if these 35 thoughts help anyone else, we’ll both be thrilled.

1. I had a short list of qualities I was looking for in a spouse:

2.  Sense of humor – someone who would make me laugh

3. Someone who would give me the freedom to fail

4. Someone who would be willing to live anywhere in the world

5.  All three qualities have been vitalizing, sustaining, and life giving in our marriage

6.  For much of our marriage we sought approval from each other for purchases over $20, and this served us well.

7.  We’ve paid off our credit cards completely each month, and this too has served us well.

8.  The shared values of thrift, coupled with the discipline of generosity which has included giving to church have helped limit financial tensions.

9.  We’ve needed to learn about our own family of origin issues, because we brought those into the marriage, and they created problems at times.  But marriage has been a lab to expose those issues and that’s been good, though hard.

10.  We’ve made major decisions about the future by praying for guidance and then deciding together what God was saying to us.  None of this, “I’m the man and so you’ll do what I say” kind of thinking.

11.  Both of us have felt a profound sense of responsibility for the family unit, though we each contribute(d) to it in profoundly different ways.  It’s a bit like climbing – belayer, climber, both matter to the success of the mission, and both know that if either fails to pay attention, it’ll be costly to everyone.

12.  We light a candle at meals as often as possible.  This seems help create an atmosphere for conversation.

13.  Our shared love of the outdoors has served us well as a common passion.

14.  We don’t do devotions well together.  We never have.  This is because we like very different reading material.

15.  There were years when I tried to make my wife like the same reading material as I liked.

16. This lead to the sad revelation that I was trying to turn her into a version of me.

17.  I’ve since learned that we’re happier, and it’s better, if she’s  becoming the best version of her, not me.

18.  Our tastes in movies are largely different.

19.  Sex has gotten better over the years, as we’ve learned how to serve each other and communicate our desires.

20.  Grace and forgiveness are two of the most vital ingredients that have sustained our relationship.  I’ve failed, told her, and she’s forgiven.  And she’s done the same.  I can’t stress this enough

21.  We didn’t date very long before I proposed.  I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone, but I think many people today wait too long to make a commitment because they’re “shopping for a spouse” as a sort of commodity that will help them with their own goals.  This is bad at so many levels that I’ll need to write about it in a different post.

22.  My wife has gifts of serving others, and I have gifts of teaching and leading.   Knowing this has helped us accept and liberate each other to focus on what we do best, while still seeking to grow in areas where we’re not as strong.

23. I traveled extensively while our children were young, and this would have been impossible if my wife didn’t believe in my calling.

24. I went through seminary while my wife worked full time – again impossible without her belief in my calling.

25.  Her vast investment in me is just one of a hundred things that makes the notion of my ever being unfaithful impossible to imagine without getting sick to my stomach.

26.  Because she doesn’t thrive in the morning, I find the time I need for intimacy with God by rising early.

27.  We’ve prayed together often, but the most memorable prayers have come after hours of hard conversations, late at night.  These prayers were cries from the heart.

28.  We’re good enough cooks that we’d usually rather stay home and cook a great meal than eat out.

29.  When we’ve argued, 99.6% of the time we’ve ended with both of us feeling heard by the other and valued by the other.  This has been priceless.

30.  Donna let’s me invest in skiing because “it’s cheaper than therapy”

31.  We started, and ran, a non profit together.  This was hard work, that we loved, and was very good for our marriage.

32.  When we had children, we mostly brought them into our lives of faith, outdoor activities, and the non profit we ran.

33.  I’ve decided that “staying married” is setting the bar too low; that nurturing love and intimacy are worthier goals.

34.  As we’ve grown older, we’ve grown more comfortable with ourselves as individuals, and this has, ironically, strengthened our life as a couple.

35.  Donna’s personality is one of the greatest assets to my ministry and calling, but long after I’m done with my profession, I hope and pray she’s still around to make me laugh and give me the freedom to fail – anywhere in the world.

Where am I?

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(I’m happy to introduce the guest author for this post as my hiking partner, best friend, and one week from today, wife of 35 years! – enjoy Donna Dahlstrom’s thoughts on guidance, reality, and journey)

I love maps. I’ve loved maps from my earliest recollections of traveling across the country with my family in the back of a camper. There was always a supply of maps we picked up from the gas stations for state after state after state between California and New York. I loved finding where we were on the map and where we were headed before jumping to the next map.

This trip in the Alps has been no different. I’ve loved pouring over the maps, discovering where we are, searching for the next destination and discerning the route to get there. I’ve learned to read the contour lines to determine if the route is going up or down. I’ve learned important German terms to accurately read these particular maps: “joch” is a pass, “hütte” is a hut (usually w/ delicious food & shelter), “spitze” denotes a summit, “see” is a lake, “alpe” is grazing land for cows, sheep or goats, and if I’m very lucky, “bahn” is a gondola whisking us over steep ski slopes.

It’s been fun to have these two-dimensional maps become three dimensional as we hike through villages or look out over towns from the mountaintops. What was once nothing more than a name on a map is now a neighborhood with lovely flower boxes outside the windows, a especially cheerful waitress, a helpful information desk worker, a tiny church with a pipe organ, a grand monastery built 700 years ago, an elderly woman who exuded joy through her eyes and sweet smile even while indicating she had no available rooms to offer.

Another thing I’ve learned about maps is that they’re only helpful if you can identify at least one location on the map. Without having a known starting point, it’s challenging to orient your location to anything on the map. It’s possible to make guesses, especially if there is only one mountain or one river on the map but it gets difficult when there are many mountain ranges, many little villages, many roads and rivers from which to choose. Such was the case when we stepped off a train in a town of which we thought we knew the name but could never locate any of the other locations we explored on the map around the town. We discovered the next day that we were actually in a different town entirely! Aha! Now it made sense as we located all the other familiar points on the map near the correct town!

This minor error simply added to the special spontaneity of this particular stop along the train route but we could have run into serious difficulty if we’d been in the high country of the Alps, continuing to venture without knowing where we really were. Stopping to consult the map to be sure you’re on the right path is essential to safety in the high country. When the contour lines on the map are very close together, it means you’re either at the base of a cliff or about to go over one. Knowing your location will help protect you from making a wrong step and guide you to a safer path. We have found it essential to take the time to repeatedly check our locations on the paths we’ve been on while trekking and I can see now the importance of doing the same in everyday life.

Presently, I’m in a change of season in my life. My children have grown up. My vocation has changed. I have a new set of responsibilities before me, some not yet clearly defined. I’m at a crossroads. Time to check my map to determine the correct path. Which one am I on? Which way should I go? What are the trail markers and signs around me telling me? With an ear to God’s voice, whether by people offering advice or inner promptings or scripture verses, I need to be checking my path with God’s map for my life. Am I on the right path? Have I consulted the Mapmaker recently to honestly assess where I am? Walking step by step these past thirty days has impressed upon me the importance of not just wandering aimlessly, but walking informed by God as my guide who wants to show me amazing things along the way, whether it be castles or chocolate factories or gracious guesthouse hosts or majestic ripples of mountain ranges. Listening to His voice is impossible when I’m doing the talking (and planning.) Learning to be quiet in order to hear His voice is not easy for me but step by step, I’m a little bit closer than I was thirty days ago.

Encounter: Finding Revelation Everywhere

“Transformation is the result of response to revelation” is something you might hear me  say more than a little bit if you attend the church I lead, or if we’re able to share a cup of coffee together, or a glass of wine.

This notion became part of my world around 38 years ago when I was in the midst of a depression that came about as the result of my dad’s death.   My health was bad, I was anxious about the future, and had severe doubts that a life of joy was possible because of the untimely intrusions of death that had happened for me over and over again in my young life.

But at a retreat, the speaker offered the liberating truth that if we keep showing up, keep getting to know God a bit better, the by-product of that showing up would be our own transformation, for the better.    Some call this the principle of proximity:  We become like those with whom we spend time; so spend time with the joy, wisdom, creativity, generosity, and love of God, and you become more joyful, wiser, more creative, and…well you get the picture.

My youth pastor years ago had said the same thing a different way:  “Garbage in garbage out” as a sort of negative image of the same truth, as he tried to scare us all away from porn, drinking, and untimely sex.   That way of saying it might be equally true, but I wasn’t into porn, drinking or sex anyway, so I sort of stopped listening at youth group, and invested my social energies in the marching band, where people seemed happier; less judgemental and fear based.

Death and depression though, coupled with the principal of proximity being articulated positively at a ski camp for college students, had a way of shaking me up.  The message took, and I became committed to getting to know God.  That path would, over time, lead me away from the study of architecture, into vocational ministry, which would eventuate in my becoming the leader of a very large church in Seattle, and teaching the Bible around the world with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship.

My initial response to the principle of proximity led me to heavy doses of Bible study.  I learned Greek, and enough Hebrew to convince myself I knew Hebrew (but I don’t… not really) so that I could read the Bible in the original text.  I read the Bible a lot, becoming familiar with the chronology of the big story, and many of the little stories embedded in it.   The study of the Bible also led to the study of ethics, of course, as I sought to understand what, if anything, God might have to say about, say, divorce, sex outside of marriage,  the human responsibility for environmental stewardship, the problem of the disappearing middle class, racism, sexism, greed, the violence of our culture, and o so much more.

I’d say, to this very day, that reading the Bible with a view towards developing a relationship of intimacy with the creator is one of the best priorities I ever determined to make in my life.  I’ve loved that I can leave the transformation business, in a sense, to God.  It’s not that I’ve become utterly passive.  Instead, it’s simply true that a relationship with Christ can, slowly over time, help me look more like Christ, but in a way that’s unique to who I am.  I don’t worry much about being introverted or extroverted.  I don’t worry about market share, or success.  I don’t worry growing my platform or sphere of influence (or at least, I try not to).  I just seek to enjoy intimacy with Jesus and align my priorities with his, and get on with life… enjoying the days I’ve been given.

BUT SOMETHING HAS CHANGED!

On this trip, I’ve discovered once again (not for the first time, but certainly as a powerful reminder) that this revelation from God comes from all kinds of sources.  What do I mean?

Generosity:  We’ve spent a day hiking down out of the high country in search of lodging because the huts in Italy were full.  The first town:  Also full.  The second town?  Two rooms left, but only one in the town, and by the time we call it’s gone, meaning we’ll need to hike 3 miles back up into the mountains to find the last room anywhere.  That doesn’t sound far, unless you’ve been hiking all day.  Then it sounds like a marathon.  Donna, my wife, knocks on the window of a car where a couple our age are about to drive away.  Boldly, she tells them of our plight and asks for a ride  up the mountain for us.  I’m grateful for her boldness, and mortified at the same time, but even more grateful when they look at each other for one second before saying in English:  “Of course.  We are hikers too.  We understand tired.”   In this, I’ve learned of generosity, and am reminded of Jesus’ simple words about being bold enough, and humble enough, to ask.

P1070612Encouragement:  We’re hiking on a ridge, where we’ll encounter two summits.  These ridges can be intimidating.  We’re at the bottom, packs off and ready to set out for the total unknown, other than those foreboding signs that say:  “Mountain experience needed.  Don’t go if you have fear of heights”  While fortifying ourselves with food, a man is coming down.  I’d asked the previous couple for a trail report but they spoke no English.  This man, however, speaks perfect English, both lexically and grammatically.  He offers assurance that, though it’s exposed and there are cables, he’s “seen children do it” and this is enough to encourage us.  A few minutes later I see his clerical collar and ask if he’s a priest.  He nods, affirming, and this leads to a discussion of his sabbatical journey on foot to Jerusalem and back, and mine.  We exchange website information about our blogs, and later pray together, as he speaks of his impending move to Vienna and how he’ll miss these mountains.  We set off, encouraged by his confidence in us.

IMG_5937Longing:  Today I’m hiking alone, and at Kesselfalls I stop to take a picture that requires a tripod.  As I set it up on the bridge over the falls, I see a woman and invite her to pass.  She speaks very little English, but it’s clear to me that she doesn’t want to proceed, even though it’s equally clear, as she points to her legs that are shaking, that the step drop into the ravine is fearful to her.  I suggest that if she’s afraid she could perhaps, move off the bridge.  This is when she says in very broken English:  “But I must be here (on this bridge) to see this beauty.”  There are nearly tears in her eyes, as she absorbs the power, majesty, and beauty of this falls, tucked away outside a tiny village high in the Alps, far from beheadings, and Ebola, and at least for now, threats from Putin, and far, too, from the meltdowns of leaders that have become so common in my world back home, whether in church or state.  For her, this beauty is worth the risk, worth the fear, worth the going out on the bridge.  “I must be here”   Her pursuit of that which inspires her encourages me.   “What am I willing to risk in order to be inspired?” 

I could give you twenty more ways in which God has spoken to me without my ever opening the Bible, but I won’t.  For now, the point that’s important to share is this:

Revelation is everywhere.  Be open to it.  

When revelation hits you, respond.  Annie Lamont’s three simple prayers are probably enough:  “Wow” or “Thanks” or “Help.”  God knows we’ve shouted all three this past 30 days.

I still read the Bible.  But as I’ll share soon, it’s becoming more and more of a map to me; vital to interpret the journey I’m on, the journey we’re on as humanity…. but not the actual journey.  O no.   The revelation that comes from the real journey comes through encounters with people, and creation, and beauty, and brokenness.

Here’s hoping that for each of us, our eyes will be open to all God is revealing through the journeys of our lives – in changing diapers and majestic mountains, health clinics and classrooms, chapels and kitchens.

 

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step