Steps to Peace – Jesus’ style (part 1)

Spoiler alert.  If you don’t know what happens to Jesus after his crucifixion, I’m going to share the punchline in this blog. 

“Peace be to you” says Jesus, standing in the midst of the disciples, in a room with a locked door where he’s suddenly appeared without it opening!  Their stunned silence is understandable.  After all, Jesus, the one upon whom they’d pinned their hopes, the one for whom they’d left everything, the one who they’d betrayed and denied, the one from whom they’d just fled as he hung on a cross, was dead.  Not, “as good as dead” – actually dead, and with that death, so died their hopes and dreams.

All this makes Jesus’ next line even funnier to me, when he responds to their stunned silence with “why are you troubled?” as if they should have seen this whole narrative coming from day one, since he’d talked about his death and resurrection explicitly a few times and implicitly dozens of times.  Still, somehow they missed it, and so Jesus’ words are much needed in the moment there in that room where it was slowly dawning on them that the whole course of history, not to mention their own lives, was about to change.

“Peace” and “Don’t be troubled” are his words to these anxious, troubled people, and they are just as significantly, words for us too, here and now in our troubles and anxieties.

Iran? Isis? Nigeria? Syria? Yemen? Black lives that matter?  Policemen that are dead?  Denominations that are in turmoil?

State rights? Individual rights? Health care? Your rights?  Wall street’s rights?  Workers rights? Your relationships with children, parents, spouse?

“My God, what are we doing to each other?” is the only prayer some people know how to pray these days, and it’s really nothing more than a prayer for peace, because underneath it is the profound realization that things are broken and breaking, falling faster and harder than we’ve seen before.

Jesus, though, doesn’t bust out of tomb riding a white horse, raising hell, killing his enemies, and setting up shop as the newest savior, like Alexander the Great would, or V. Lenin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or even George Washington, or some power hungry pope, or Luther or Calvin.  Instead he appears in a room with his closest friends, folk who’ve doubted, denied him, and functioned as largely clueless, fickle devotees, and offers his peace to them.

This revolution, unlike all others in history, unfolds from the inside out,  beginning with the transformation of human hearts from anxious, fearful, and angry – to this state of peace.  Wow!  Are you interested in that offer? Me too.

I’m not able to fix this broken world, but I can become a person of peace in the midst of it all, and that will make a difference, not only in me, but in those I touch.   Thankfully there are steps we can take to become people of peace, right here and now.  I share the first step here, and next steps this coming weekend:

Step One: Peace is, first of all, a person.  “He himself is our peace” is what Paul says, and he goes on to talk about how the reality of Christ in one’s life will lead to the breaking down of dividing walls, because by his very nature, Christ’s heart is for reconciliation and shalom (peace) among people.   If Christ lives in me, the tidal movement of my life will be towards unifying not dividing.

“Really?” says the thoughtful person who knows a bit of church history.  “What about Rwanda, or the Christian settler’s treatment of American Indians, or slavery, or culture wars that push people to the margins of society, or doctrinal wars that so fracture the church and fill it with hurtful words that people on the outside want nothing to do with her?  What about the 30 year war in Europe, or the Protestant’s treatment of the radical reformers, or… I could go on for a thousand words, but you get the point.

To say that God’s people are people of peace is absurd.

Ah, but Jesus knew that there was a profound difference between being religious and being people of peace.  The former draw lines and rely heavily on exclusionary and dualistic language: in/out, saved/lost, right/wrong, civilized/savage, black/white and the way this plays out often gets ugly and violent.   This was the way the disciples had been brought up.  It’s the usual way for most of us, religious or not.  That’s why Jesus’ disciples wanted to reign fire down on that village where people weren’t believing.  It’s why they were so excited on Palm Sunday, as they believed that finally Jesus was going to exercise his divine right to bear arms, destroy the Roman violence machine by violence, and finally win this simmering war.

It’s also why Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying “if only you’d known the things that make for peace” - but they didn’t.  They knew dualistic thinking.  They knew how to win by making the other guy lose.  They knew about the peace of Rome, which was a peace rooted in fear and violence.  They wanted the peace of Rome to become the Peace of Israel, still rooted in fear, but with the shoe on the other foot.

Jesus would have none of it.  He’s into breaking down dividing walls and bringing people together.  He’s into serving, even his enemies.  He’s into going the second mile, and truth telling, but truth telling  bathed in love and a commitment as far as possible, to redeeming the relationship.   He’s so into peace, that when his disciple Peter cut a soldier’s ear off, rather than teaching Peter better swordsmanship, he tells him to put the sword away, and heals the guy’s ear.  He even makes it clear that overcoming violence with violence is not a great idea. 

He wins the peace, breaks down the walls, defeats the forces of evil with the most revolutionary weapon known to humanity – infinite love.  “While we were still enemies… Christ died” 

You want peace?  It starts by yoking yourself with the prince of peace.  But be careful,  You’ll find yourself going to parties with people you didn’t think you’d like, visiting seniors who are lonely, and sharing a drink with someone whose theology is, by your standards at least, “off”.  You’ll find yourself looking for ways to bless those around with little thought of whether they’re ‘worthy’, agree with you, or even like you.  Your fear will be melting away like a spring thaw.  Love will blossom.  And the tomb that held your bitterness, rancor, and pride, especially your religious pride – well you’ll wake up one Sunday spring morning and find it:  empty.

Peace.  Don’t let your hearts be troubled.

Happy Easter…

Revival Story… My Loss and Recovery of Love

IMG_6668I didn’t even know I’d lost anything.  This is a hazard of business maybe.  We handle “God stuff” all the time, planning weddings, funerals, details, staffing issues, budgets, parking hassles with neighbors, potentially divisive theological issues bubbling under the surface, meetings, more meetings, and a few more meetings after that.  In the midst of all that there are sermons to prepare, preaching to do, young pastors to equip through one-on-one and group meetings.  It’s all there, but for any of these elements to have real meaning, they need to be infused with the grace and peace of Christ, as if Christ himself is in the midst of the decision, encounter, transaction, meeting.

Truth be told though, the ocean of details can conspire with my own Type A personality and propensity to get anxious about stuff, and “Poof!”—I’m still doing all the stuff, but Christ and his peace are no longer in my sense of reality, having been displaced by that worst of all things: religious professionalism.  The slide into this territory is so subtle you don’t even notice it, because the words don’t change a bit—you still sound as holy as ever to onlookers, and so you actually begin to believe it, approval addict that you are.

Until somebody notices, and calls you out on it.

The Sunday I arrived home from Sabbatical last October, someone in our church approached me and told me I looked “ten years younger” and I hugged her, of course believing that she had the gift of discernment and truth telling!  I felt it too, rested, at peace, in love with Christ.

FAST FORWARD to last Sunday. 

The same woman approached me and said, “Can I pray for you?  You look absolutely spent, and exhausted.”  I told her I was fine, but underneath the surface of propriety, the truth was that her words were as accurate then as they were last October, and I knew it; knew that something wasn’t working right; knew that I was running on fumes.  In her few pointed but accurate words, she’d ripped the veil off that I’d been wearing so skillfully—that of a religious pro who knows the words, but is, in the moment, experiencing nothing of the reality, knowing instead the companionship of anxiety and hurry, restlessness and frustration.  I’d known it, but as long as I could keep all the balls in play in this pinball machine that had become my life, nobody would know how hollow I was.  Thank God someone saw, and said, and prayed.

STEPS BACK

Meditation:  After preaching for the 4th time that Sunday, I went home and pulled a book off my shelf I’d not looked at since about 1997.  I’d first picked it up when I’d visited a convent for a personal retreat, and poured my heart out to a nun, also the librarian of the convent.  She’d recommended it, and I’d read it there, and later bought it.  It’s a book about meditation, and I hesitate to share it because so many Christ followers will be afraid of it, in spite of the fact that we’re invited to “pray without ceasing” and “meditate” on God’s word so that it saturates our being.

Anyway, this book recommends sitting quietly and praying The Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm,  or the Prayer of St. Francis, slowly, over and over again, for a period of time each morning and evening.  I started doing that, immediately that night, and then again  in the morning and evening ever since.

I can’t even begin to describe the renewed sense of peace, and awareness of the reality that Christ lives in me, with me, loves me, is for me, has called me to shine as light and given me all I need to do that, will never leave me, and (o so marvelous) has called me to peace.

I’ve known these truths in reality, but lately they’d become words for others more than a central reality in my daily experience.  Now, once again, having made a high priority of taking time to prayerfully mediate on God’s truth each morning and evening, I’ve begun to enjoy the reality of Christ’s presence in my actual living.

There’s a greater sense of peace, by the way, when driving, speaking, leading meetings.  I’m far from ‘at rest’, but utterly confident I’m on the right road, and can only pray and hope for the same for all who suffer from anxiety, fear, emptiness, boredom—in spite of being full of ‘God words’.

Gratitude:  In the wake of this new habit, a sense of profound gratitude and appreciation began growing in my moment by moment living.  I’ll be listening to some music and it will remind me of days in the past when I wrote books in a log cabin—simpler days, when I led a smaller church.  Rather than looking back wistfully though, my heart these days is filled with profound joy for the memories and privileges of the past.  Today is today—and God will give us what we need for it; but one of the things we need is a sense of gratitude for the good gifts in our past.

The other peace of gratitude has to do with a fresh sense of seeing creation and being overwhelmed with joy simply by watching the rain fall from the sky, or seeing the clouds change color in the sunset.  Yesterday I spent the day splitting and stacking wood with my wife, and we both commented on how delightful it is that we find joy anytime we can be in the midst of God’s beautiful creation.  The cathedral of God’s stunning creation is better than anything for both of us, and we like it that way!

Presence:  I’m preaching a bit about this tomorrow, but looking back, I can see how easily I slipped into losing the present moment to either past regrets or (especially) future worries.  Somehow, renewal brings with it the capacity to live more in this actual moment.   One of the highest forms of generosity you can offer another is the gift of your absolute attention.  I’m often terrible at this, but am aware that, to the extent that Christ is given freedom to express life through us, it will present, not in scattered attention, listening with one ear, while our other senses are watching our phones, or our brains are elsewhere in the future, or the other room.  Rather, we’ll be all there.

Contentment:  Finally, as ridiculous as it sounds, this little film of a skier and his dog reminded me that we’re made for fellowship:  with God, with God’s creation, with others.  People and creation itself aren’t commodities to be used for our pleasure or purposes—rather, they’re gifts to be cherished, loved, and enjoyed.

If you’re in need of renewal, I hope these principles help you forward.  May you know the peace of Christ, not as a theory, but as a reality—before this very day is over.

Good Leadership: “Reserve Capacity” and 3 ways to develop it

Leadership, which is code for parenting, teaching, working with anyone as a catalyst to get things accomplished, requires the development and nurture of several key qualities which I hope to look at in the coming few weeks.  This, the first in a series, is about developing “reserve capacity”, because without it, our leadership will crash in a crisis every time!  The exhausted parent will lash at the kids, or totally withdraw.  The “at wits end” boss will throw a tantrum creating a loss of trust that might take months to recover.  The overwhelmed teacher, will turn to something unhealthy to keep going, over caffeinating, over drinking, over eating, over something.  Then, in two years, they’re gone, having lost sight of their calling because of a failure to have reserve capacity.

What is reserve capacity and how is it developed?  Read on:

“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5)  The imagery is obvious.  Here’s a guy running with other men, which represents you and I living our lives on normal days, when there’s no significant or memorable challenges.  These days, like good officiating in football, are memorable for their forgetfulness.  A round of meetings, or taxi service for the kids.  Cooking, cleaning, jogging, maybe some ethnic food at home.  All in all though, nothing special.  We all have these days, but don’t all pull these days off with the same amount of peace and grace. 

Jeremiah’s saying that when the normal days wear you out, that’s a sign of trouble; a way of saying that if you don’t change the way you think, or live, or cope, there’ll be trouble further down the road.  If you’re exhausted by normal, says Jeremiah, “What are you going to do when all hell breaks loose?”  It’s a good question but rhetorical, because Jeremiah doesn’t want you to stroke your chin and think for a moment before saying, “Who knows?  We’ll just have to wait and see won’t we!”  No.  Jeremiah’s saying that if “normal” is hard, hard will mean meltdown.

So now, while things are normal, you need to live differently.  You need to develop “reserve capacity”.  The term comes from a health guy I like who posits that it’s loss of ‘organ reserve’ that inevitably leads to death, even for the healthiest of us.  When we’re young we have reserves.  We can eat 2 large pizzas, climb a mountain on Saturday night, and preach Sunday, not thinking a thing of it.  Aging though, diminishes lung, liver, muscle, joint, heart, capacity and with less reserve—less capacity to absorb the stresses means less reserve.  With less reserve, the extra challenges lead to breakdown.

In other words, when it’s time to race the horses, how do you think you’ll do, if the everyday “normal” of your life is exhausting?  You need to develop reserve capacity.  How do you do that?

1. Kill the energy suckers.  We live inside our heads a lot, and when things are going smoothly, the brain is prone to welcome some toxic ghosts who’ll settle in and ruin your day, not with what is, but with what might be and what was.  Your worry and fear about tomorrow is sucking you dry.  All those ‘what ifs’ can steal your reserve at every level; body, soul, spirit.  You’ll feel it in your pulse, blood pressure, sleep habits, sense of well being and joy; all of these will be compromised when you let the ghosts settle in and poison your mind with worries.

I find that breathing deeply and praying while doing so, receiving the peace of Christ in faithful gratitude, is terribly effective in evicting the ghosts.  Try it sometime!

2. Manage the adrenaline – Question: “What’s Jesus doing sleeping in the boat when there’s a big storm happening?”  Answer:  “He’s showing us how to not panic” and this is good because adrenaline is a hormone in your body that’s there to give you extra strength in short bursts.  It’s for that time when there’s an automobile accident, but not for all the time spent in traffic.  It’s for the moment in rock climbing when you’re making a crux move, but not for the whole approach hike.  It is, in other words, for David when he meets Goliath, but not for your next staff meeting.

We’d do well to de-escalate the stakes in most of our daily experiences so that we don’t send a bunch of adrenaline into our bodies, because the truth is we’ll need that kind of strength, focus, awareness later—best to save it for then.

When I feel the surge of adrenaline coming on, my best response is to breathe deep, look around, practice a little gratitude as I see a tree in bloom, or remember that I even own a car and that’s why I’m stuck in traffic.  The little change of perspective sends adrenaline back to it’s cave, reserved for another more appropriate time.

3.  Remember the end.  The intent of terror is to fill you with fear because fear will paralyze you, draining you of your reserves, and preventing you from fulfilling your calling.  A little perspective, though, can help.  Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “do not say, ‘why is it that the former days were better than these?’ for it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.”  Don’t fret, in other words, about how bad things have become.  It changes nothing with respect to your calling to be light, and salt, and joy, and hope.  Get on with it.

What’s more, it helps me immensely to have a strong faith and belief regarding the trajectory of history.  I believe that the end of the story has all disease healed, all wars ended, all evil vanquished, and everything in the universe saturated with the beauty of Christ.  That’s how our good friend could say:  “All’s well.  All shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be well.”

People who actually believe that live well, serve well, sleep well.  And when the horses show up they’ll say:  “Bring it on! I’m ready.”

 

 

 

Setting Your Sights Higher: Why “Right Intentions” Matter so much

 “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance.  Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.”  Exodus 24:1,2

When climbers are headed up to Mt. Rainier through the Camp Muir route, they start in the parking lot of a place called “Paradise” which is the highest point to which one can drive in this beautiful national park.  This turns Paradise, at any given moments, into a weird mix of highly skilled mountaineers, beginners who are hoping to make it to the summit, and masses of people who will never leave the paved paths, ever, as long as they live.  They’re decked out in L.L. Bean’s newest and best, or REI tech gear, or whatever, slurping ice cream in the parking lot.  They’re peering through those coin operated telescopes to get a glimpse of the glacier before snapping a selfie with the imposing massif in the background, and calling it their “outdoor challenge for the year”.

The climbers are in the mix with the masses, but not for long.  They get their permit from a little office, use the bathroom, maybe grab one last taste of actual food for a few days, and that’s it, they’re gone, headed up for the summit.  When the paved path ends, the tourists turn around, while the rest step onto actual soil, and eventually snow, pressing onward, upward.  Even among the climbers, not everyone will continue to the top.  Camp Muir, at 10,400’ is the next common drop out point, as the realities of altitude sickness, sunburn, loss of appetite, cold, thirst, nausea, or any other number of factors will lead yet another group to say “far enough”.

Finally, there will be those who leave base camp the next morning with every intention of summiting.  They thought they’d prepared well enough, thought that riding their bicycle to work and doing the “7 minute workout” app on their phone twice a week would adequately prepare them for carrying 40 pounds on their back up one and a half vertical miles of snow, rock, and ice, into the thin air above treeline, where rockfall, avalanches, and crevasses hidden in the glaciers present a large menu of ways to die.  Somewhere before the summit they say, “this is good enough for me!” and either descend or stay put and wait for their group to go up and then join them on their descent.  The herd self selects out of further progress until only the best prepared, most courageous, and most diligent, make it to the top.

When God’s about to give the law to Israel as a centerpiece of establishing the new nation, a similar culling of the herd occurs.  God sets a boundary around the mountain and invites only Moses and his key leaders to ascend beyond the parking lot.  Then, beyond the high base camp, it’s to be only Moses.  Though he takes his successor, named Joshua, with him some distance, there’s no indication that Joshua summits.  At the top it’s Moses.  Alone with God.

In this story God’s the one who sets the boundaries around the mountain and keeps people away.  There are reasons for that, in that time and place, but they don’t apply to us (as I’ll write about in the forthcoming book, of which this post is a part).

We’re living in a time when summiting the pinnacle of intimacy with God is available to everyone because the barriers to the summit were annihilated at the cross.  Still, the same Christ who broke down the barriers said that the road to the summit is narrow (ref) and, like Mt. Rainier, there are few who actually find it.  There’s a parking lot filled with religion.  Jesus stickers and t-shirts are for sale, and lots people looking “a couple dollar’s worth of God”.  The parking lot is the Sunday meeting, and there are folks there for the photo ops and real estate contacts.  If there’s a little entertainment or even a dose of conviction along the way, so be it.  But they’ve not intention of going farther.  Others will hit the trail until the pavement ends.  Some fewer will keep going a bit further, until there’s more hard stuff than joyful stuff, at which point they turn around, in search of safety, predictability, warmth.

If Christ’s blown up the barriers to the summit, then what’s holding anyone back?  The answer can be found by switching metaphors, because a quick glance at Jesus’ parable of the seed and sower explains why “some seeds don’t produce fruit”, which is the same thing, metaphorically, as not reaching the summit.  And what are the reasons?  O you know; the usual suspects: affliction, worry, the lying seductions of wealth.  There are, in other words, lots of reasons to descend to the parking lot of religious carnivals.

“Up” is about the pursuit of intimacy with God, about Christ becoming, in real ways, a friend, companion, lover even, in the daily stuff of living.  Getting there, Jesus is saying, doesn’t happen by accident, any more than you wake up one morning having run a marathon, or summiting Rainier.  It requires intentionality, prioritizing, and pressing on toward the goal when others stop.  It requires shedding stuff, so that by the end, there’s one true pursuit to which all other pursuits give way.

“Right Intentions” is the starting point: the way of fruitful discipleship.  Making intimacy with Christ your summit goal will be simple because you need to travel light if you’re going to travel at all.  It will be hard because it requires letting go of stuff the majority carry with them daily, stuff like self-medicating when disappointed, and being defined by consumerism and what we own, and feeding on a diet of entertainment rather than creativity.  It’s beautiful because the glory of meeting Christ in thin and unpolluted air will ravish you.  It’s ugly because you want to quit due to pain, more than once.

Where on this mountain called discipleship, are you headed?  If it’s the summit of intimacy, know that it takes more than the right gear.  It takes traveling light, endurance, and a hunger for the summit of knowing Christ like a lover.  Who’s in?  The rest of you?  Enjoy the telescopes and ice-cream.  I’ll see you later.

O God of the summit invitation

Thank you for inviting us to ascend utterly.  Stir in our hearts a discontent for the tourist faith that’s commonplace, where signing a card and signing a song, substitute for radical discipleship.  Fill us with a longing for the summit instead, and teach us to travel light, shedding the fears, bitterness, lusts, and attachments that the whole world seems to carry on its collective back this days.  When we tire, give us the grace to take next steps, and rest, and celebrate beauty.  But may we never, ever turn back short of knowing you fully.  

Amen.  

5 Sentences: The Wisest Advice I’ve ever Received

five wordsIn the avalanche of words that constitute our lives, I hope that for each of us there are particular conversations and moments that stand out as especially meaningful.  Such words remain, long after the vast majority have evaporated, and they remain for good reason.  They’re life giving, and wise.  Here are five sentences filled with wisdom that I’ve received over the years, offered in hopes that they’ll be helpful to you as well.  Enjoy!

1. Make knowing God the number one priority in your life. This was the word spoken to me from Jeremiah 9 when I was 20 years old and I realized at the moment that “knowing God” was at best, a peripheral pursuit in my life, far behind vocational aspirations, financial security, and having a little bit of fun.  I was not only convicted by the truth of Jeremiah’s words, but I was drawn by their simplicity.  In a world where I’m constantly being told to readjust my priorities to include P90X, wise investing, taking a cruise, losing weight, getting an advanced degree, finding cheaper insurance, avoiding cancer, finding my calling, protecting my identity from thieves, and about a thousand other things, the notion that the deepest joy in life can come from simply enjoying intimacy with my creator was stunningly beautiful.  I’ve since come to see that truth in many texts, and have experienced the bliss, at my best, of knowing “the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.  This is the North Star to which I return over and over again.

2. Everyone knows how rotten they are – they need to know how gifted and loved they are.  My friend Jim said this while I was in architecture school, and he practiced it too.  I was a wreck at the time, body, soul, and spirit—and yet felt encouraged and affirmed by this wild eyed Jesus fanatic who also happened to be a great architecture student.  But what struck me most about him was his real, demonstrable knack for encouraging and loving people.  When I asked him about it one day, he said this;  “People know their own shortcomings, but need to know they’re loved.”  At my best, I seek to remind people of this too.  At my worst, I default, not to hyper criticism, but benign neglect, which might even be worse!

3. When you have too much to do and you’re overwhelmed – remember to let the peace of Christ reign in the moment. Breathe deeply.  Do the next thing.  This word comes from Elisabeth Elliot, wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliot.  She no doubt faced an ocean of suffering and questions after her husband’s untimely death at the hands of the Auca Indians, and yet she managed to keep her wits.  Eventually she would return to minister among the very tribe that killed her husband, and after that, return to Wheaton College with the newly saved man who was the killer.  He stood in chapel at Wheaton and declared himself as a Christ follower because of this woman’s faithfulness.  That faithfulness was micro, step by step, in the wake of loss.  All those little steps built a life.  Nothing’s changed since then.  Books are written a word at a time, churches built a sermon, prayer, visit at a time; children raised, a meal, bedtime story, teachable moment at a time. The good life is neither microwavable nor achievable without a million “next things” being done—step by step.

4. If you have a million dollars, but you don’t have a leader, you don’t have anything. If you have a leader and a nickel… you have a significant future. Ray Harrison, founder of the  International Needs ministry our church supports, told me this in response to my question: “When people give you unrestricted funds, how do you decide what to do with them?”  His answer: “Invest in good leaders, because…” and then he said what I wrote above.  The word has served me well in my own leadership role, and has been confirmed time and again.  A good leader will be exerting influence even without money or a title and so, ironically, will likely gain both.

5. Take care of your whole self. You are body, soul, spirit. In all three areas, rest, exercise, and what you eat, matter.  This comes from my friend who runs a Bible based wilderness program in Austria where I teach, and from I Thessalonians 5, where Paul prays that we’d all prosper in all three areas.  I’ve come to see that my life is an eco-system and that body neglect will affect my spiritual life just as spirit neglect will harm my body.  As a result, I try to get enough sleep and also spend time “letting the peace of Christ” rule in my heart.  I try to eat good food, and ingest healthy reading material for spirit and soul as well.  Whole life discipleship is the only kind of discipleship worth pursuing.

It’s an overwhelming world at times, and this is why the wisdom that’s risen to the top like cream and stayed there, is so very important.  We’re at risk in a world where anchors are disappearing daily, of being tossed around, squandering the precious gift of our daily lives because we just don’t know what to do next.  But these words have anchored me more than once, and so I’ll be forever grateful for those folk who spoke them and lived them.

Three Ways Sabbath practice will help you become whole.

IMG_7876
“all who are thirsty…”

Yesterday I spent some time in what is slowly becoming a sabbath routine for this season of life.  My wife and I packed a small lunch and some extra clothes in our backpacks and took off for a day of hiking.  In a normal year it would be a ski day, but this is not a normal year.  All the snow is over in Boston, and here where we normally get over 400 inches a year, the ski hills are brown brush; so we hike.

As we hike, we talk about life.  It’s become maybe the best time of the week for sharing, because we have uninterrupted space for needed dialogue, punctuated by periods of silence for reflection, response, or even just enjoyment of the woods.  The conversations always include remembrances of the past and considerations of the future.  The two subjects feed each other by this time in our life together.  We’ve seen 35 years of God’s faithful provision in our lives; seen many decisions we made with finite information which turned out far better than we’d anticipated, precisely because (we believe) God knew ‘the rest of story’ as only God can.

For example, I was sharing yesterday how profound it was to contemplate that we’d purchased this house in the mountains that had its own apartment, solely with a view of retiring there someday and renting it out as a ski chalet in the meantime, while keeping the small apartment for our own, for skiing, writing, hiking, and such.

Now here we are, living there, with my mom-in-law in the perfect little apartment as life circumstances converged so that it was best for her to move in with us.  Her love of mountains and snow, and our purchase converged to meet a need we didn’t even know would exist when we bought the place.  But God knew, and has provided space.  We tell each other these kinds of stories while we hike, recalling God’s faithfulness in the past.

We speak of the future too; pondering how we can best use the gifts and resources God has given us to live fully into the story God desires to write through us.  We ponder options, and they become matters for prayer.  We speak of our heart’s desires in ways that we don’t during week because the week’s too full of obligations to spend much time pondering deeper longings.  Giving voice to these longings is healthy, appropriate, necessary, if we’re to continue growing.

And of course, we speak of the presentof our own marriage, our children, decisions that need to be made.  We speak of money, car brakes, schedules for the coming week, and of trees, waterfalls, lichen, weather, and rocks.

We share a meal at the top.  We hike out.  We drive home.  Then there’s a meal, and peace, and a sense we’ve connected with God and each other.  We propose to do it again next time.  Sabbath; a gift from God.

Of course, this isn’t always the case.  In many circles, Sabbath is nothing more than a legalistic noose tied around the necks of religious people to prevent them from doing anything the religious elite consider work.  The list varies from generation to generation and place to place, including soccer, shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, wearing false teeth, and lifting anything heavier than two dried figs.  This is just one of many reasons why people rightly hate religion.  Jesus said you could know the worthiness of a person’s teachings and worldview ‘by their fruits’ and if the fruit of Sabbath keep is fear, withdrawal, and judgmentalism, I for one will be at the front of the line to condemn it.

Another group, seeing this legalist nonsense, has done away with the Sabbath completely.  It’s either spiritualized (“Every day is a day of rest in Christ”), or bastardized into simply a “day off” which means a time to knock oneself out with shopping, or obligations with the kids, or find some sort of adrenaline hit so that we can maintain our stress levels until Monday, though because it’s chosen, it’s good stress rather than distress.

Either way is an exercise in missing the point.  Sabbath, when properly practiced as a spiritual discipline, helps create a soil in which several good things can happen.  Here’s what I mean:

A good and consistent Sabbath practice, over time will:

1. Create capacity in our lives – The creation narrative offers a profound revelation that life is intended to be lived in a IMG_7920complimentary manner:  day and night; heaven and earth; sea and dry land; male and female; and yeswork and rest.  God was the prototype of this rhythm, and those who violate it do so at great risk to their own fruitfulness and well  being.  This is because we’re made for a pattern of engagement and withdrawal, and if our Sabbath’s neglect withdrawal, we’ll enter our weekly responsibilities of engagement with even diminishing resources.  The presenting symptoms will be stress related things like sleep troubles, nervousness, fatigue, and/or high anxiety.  When it comes to exercise, we all know that we need to both exercise and rest.  The same’s true with the whole of our lives and the Sabbath is God’s gift to provide for this.

2. Create a context for guidance – My wife and I have made many major life decisions in the context of Sabbaths, because that’s where we make the needed space to ponder God’s faithfulness in the past, and prayerfully give voice to our longings and hopes for the future, so that we can hear God speak and show us next steps.  The worst thing we can do is be reactionary with our lives, both day to day in our obligations and with respect to major life decisions.  It’s far better to be proactive, and this proactivity will come from creating space to pour our hearts out to God and then listen, and then act.

3. Remind you that you’re not the Messiah – One of the practical purposes of Sabbath practice when Israel was in the wilderness was so that they might learn that God will take care of them, all the time, even when they rest.  The more and better anyone learns this, the more fully and profoundly they come to believe that God sustains God’s work and will do so even when we step away from it.  I’ll be blunt in saying that its our sense of indispensability that often turns us into very ugly peoplecontrolling, demanding, fearful, even manipulative; all in the name of “getting the job done”.  The Sabbath, practiced well, will help you get over yourself, and rest in the reality that our participation in whatever work it is to which God has called us, is a privilege, not a necessity.

Make space please!  For remembering; for considering; for sharing; for praying; for restoring.  If that’s not a habit for you, now’s a good time to begin.

Here’s a resource I’ll recommend to round out and develop this discussion further.

 

The Art of Paying Attention, courtesy of Seattle Seahawks

In the morning on Sunday, I preached about paying attention by quoting Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 13 where he says, “Are you listening?  Really listening?”  Jesus says that because stuff doesn’t “just happen”.  Stuff happens, and it elicits a response in our hearts, some mighty Yes, or No!, or tears of rage, or shouts of joy.  9/11 did that.  Sunrises do that, and coffee, and funerals.   Making love?  News of terror attacks?  Conversations with those whose beliefs are different than yours?  Yes.  Lots of events elicit response.  But a football game?  Absolutely…

The touchdown pass in overtime yesterday shook the city.  Literally.  The stadium was equipped with earthquake censors for some tests, and when the Wilson to Kearse pass was completed it was game over, but the shaking had just begun.  Hugs and irrational joy in the basement of my friend’s house where we were watching were matched by fireworks outside and the commencement of a celebration that would last well into the night throughout the city.  Clichés about it not being over ’til its over ricocheted off the walls of skyscrapers downtown, intermingled with the tears of those who left early, or tweeted too soon about boycotting cheese and other nonsense.

I had the privilege of driving all the way home, an hour east of Seattle, late at night when I’d caught my breath, and I did something I never do.  I listened to sports radio.  It was there I learned that the last pass of the game was really a story of redemption.  Kearse, you see, wasn’t always a starter.  He worked his way onto the practice squad, before making his way to first string in 2013, a local success story coming from the University of Washington.

But yesterday’s performance was anything but successful.  In the first half, QB Wilson threw his way three times with the results:  three interceptions.  The ball didn’t come his way again until 5:06 left in the game, at which point the pass once again bounced out of his hands, resulting in an interception.

By any definition, his was a terrible day.  The kind of day that makes you wonder why you’re even bothering to show up.  He said after the game: “There’s some plays I felt like I could have made.  I could have stopped some plays from happening on interceptions. I could have just turned the defender and tried to knock the ball down.”  Yes, and he could have caught two passes too, which instead became interceptions.

Summary:  Not just 0-4.  Each pass was intercepted!

So of course, it makes sense that, after a miracle comeback which led to overtime, QB Wilson would tell his coach during the break:  “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown.”  To quote our local Seahawks radio voice, Steve Raible, “Are you kidding me?” 

No.  He’s not kidding at all.  He’s a believer in the reality that every play is like a new day, that by God, we’re not going to be defined by our failures; that fall we will, but though we fall we’ll get up.

Sound familiar?  Maybe not, if you live in the world of business, the world which says, “past performance is the best indicator of future reality,” the world which drops you when you drop the ball,  the world of performance-based approval.

This, as you may know, is much of our world.  We’re defined, as often as not, by our singular failures, which in a world of conditional love serve to sideline us rather than transform us.  QB’s get exasperated and determine to throw to someone else.  Managers fire us, or move us to a basement office.

And then there’s Jesus with Peter.  No, it wasn’t four missed catches.  It was three outright denials of any affiliation with Jesus the Christ.  It was fear, hubris, lying, shame, defeat.  In the end he’s even worthless as a fisherman.

So what does Jesus do after three denials and a failed night of fishing?  He meets Peter and puts him in charge of the church during its infancy.  “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, along with some other charges and a prediction that the job will cost him his life as a martyr.  Peter will go on to preach the first sermon with a boldness and fire that was utterly other than the man standing by the fire who didn’t have the guts to even let the servant girl know that he knew Christ.  Cowardice to CourageFailure to Faith.  It’s nearly as good as the football story, maybe betterand equally true.

“But God… being rich in mercy” is how Paul interprets this somewhere.  What he’s saying is that God delights in making unlikely heroes, in writing unlikely stories.  That’s why the game yesterday was more than just a gameat least for those who know how to pay attention.

It was my birthday yesterday too, and as I received kind notes of encouragement for folks in many parts of the world, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to Christ for continuing to throw to me after what seems like a nearly infinite number of dropped passes.

The gospel is a story of redemption, of God intervening in a performance world and writing an unlikely script with unlikely players.  A punter from Canada throws a touchdown pass to a lineman.  A third-round draft pick deemed “too short” by every talking head in the sports world tosses a pass to a guy who barely made the practice squad at one point, and had been, to say the least, “unhelpful” all day today.  And the results?

Are you kidding me?

Such stories aren’t just for football.  They’re the gospel.  Illustrated.  If we pay attention.

‘O Lord Christ

Thanks be to you for inviting us into your story, for keeping us on the field when we want to quit, for teaching us through failure, for believing in our capacity to live into your calling in our lives even when we don’t believe in ourselves.  Give us the grace to say yes, and open our arms, and receive.  When we respond with delight and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’  You’ll say, ‘Not at all – this is the gospel.’  And we’ll rejoice.  Amen.

The gains that come from loss

As the cemetery comes into view on this spectacular January afternoon, I feel as if I’m being transported back in time, because this little piece of geography is so ripe with memories that all the feelings attending those memories flood to the surface, unbidden.  I see the canopy where the graveside service will take place, but we’re early; early enough that we’ve time for a little drive.  I head out, a bit further from the center of Kingsburg, to the land my grandpa farmed, the place where we’d put grapes on trays to dry in the scorching sun when we were kids.  He had grapes and peaches, but now everything’s gone.  All the cropland has just recently been stripped of any vestige of tree or vine, so empty soil, ready for a new generation of fruitfulness, surrounds the house.  The soil’s the same, more or less, only now empty, which is somehow fitting for the occasion.

Just down the road a bit more, is where my aunt had a peach farm. Her land, too, has changed.  Where the farmhouse that felt ancient fifty years ago once stood, there’s a modern ranch home complete with a bevy of solar panels leaning up against the south wall. Beyond the walls of the cemetery, it seems that life goes on; new crops, new houses, new families…new.

Returning to the cemetery though, all that’s new on this day will be an addition: Betty Nadine Dahlstrom, who died just before Christmas, at the age of 95.  There are a few family members present and the service is short, a bit understated perhaps.  I can say that because I was the officiant.  The gold of the day came after the service. I’d wanted my youngest daughter to see some of the other headstones of family members, but they were all covered by the cheap artificial astro-turf that’s placed, temporarily, under the canopy, in order to provide solid footing for guests as the pass by the coffin before it’s lowered into the ground.

Image 2 “I didn’t come this far to miss showing my daughter her family story” I said to myself, and so asked the landscape guy who would soon be putting mom’s body in the ground if we could peel away the AstroTurf to look at the other stones. A strange request, no doubt, but he accommodated, and soon we were looking at all the names, with their year and month of death:

Oscar Stokes – February 1972

Lillian Stokes – April 1973

Romaine Dahlstrom – October 1973

Esther Dahlstrom – 1975

Dorothy Stokes – April 1976

I’d known the “what” of my own story quite well. Right in the midst of that dark time of losing all my grandparents, I’d graduated from high school.  The festival of death that reigned down on our family plunged me into a depression and faith crisis, hidden from most, but nonetheless real to me.  At the time of my dad’s untimely death I’d decided that nothing was nailed down, no meaningful relationship secure.  The same thing happens, of course, when there’s infidelity, or abandonment, but at least then you can rage at the perpetrator. In my story though, God was the perpetrator (or so it seemed at the time) and I was in a church with precious little space for honest to God grief, as Sundays were filled with praise music that seemed absurd, or dishonest, at least for me in that time and space.

So, instead of getting angry, I got depressed, but determined, at the same time, to leave a mark beyond the brief matchlight of my life by designing cool spaces as an architect. I was running from God, as sure as Jacob, or Jonah, or Moses, or any of the other graybeards of old. We all had different reasons, but the results are the same. It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want with it, so leave me alone.

Ah, but it didn’t work out that way at all, because in my pursuit of autonomous plans, I made my way to a state school, so called secular, and there met Christians robust with joy who drew me into their circle through love. I was doubting, they believed. I had health problems related to my depression. They didn’t care. I was confused about everything. They had a faith that believed God changed lives, swapping out anxiousness and replacing it with peace, or despair with hope. You get the picture.

And then, already drawn to the light, I went to a retreat up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, solely because a cute blonde invited me. Looking back, I can see that the stars were aligned for a mega shift in my life. The Christian students in my dorm had loved me well and I was not only finding my way out of the depression, but was experiencing a strange growing longing to share this same kind of love with others because it was working such magic in healing my own soul.

Yes, but how? I was still angry with God for stealing my dad.  Every time I thought about my mom, and the reality that she lost both her parents, her husband, and her beloved mother-in-law in the span of two years, the doubts and anger grew. “No loving God would steal everyone in that short a time, so maybe God doesn’t exist at all” was one line of thinking. I was caught between hope and despair, and honestly, being pulled in both directions.

Then it happened.  At that winter camp, in pursuit of that cute blonde, I made my way into the chapel for the evening talk. It was on Jeremiah 9:23ff, about how the only thing in this broken world that’s worth boasting about is that we know God.  The word had a ring of truth to it even though the God I thought I knew a bit about might not be worth knowing.  Still, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and when the preacher pointed directly at me and said, “There are some of you in this room who need to make knowing God the number one priority of your life,” I knew that I knew that I knew God was speaking to me!

I didn’t know what would change by making knowing God a central goal of life.  I didn’t even know if I’d like what I found.  But I knew I wanted to know God better, and so after the talk I went outside on a starry night, and knelt down in the snow to pray.  I told God that I wanted to make knowing Him the central priority of my life. I didn’t know what would happen because I prayed that prayer, but I didn’t think it would be anything dramatic.

I was wrong.  Seven months later I was packing my red Ford Mustang with my few possessions and driving north to Seattle. Having never been north of Sacramento in my life, I was heading to Seattle Pacific University to study music, with an eye toward somehow entering ministry.  What happened after that retreat was that the big deal in my life became sharing with other people that knowing God was worth the effort.  This is because inexplicably, something started immediately inside me.  I surely didn’t have all the answers to all the questions; still don’t.  At the same time, the gaping void of loneliness in my soul was being filled with God, and more strangely still, a sense of companionship with God.

As a result, I found myself more interested in my role as piano player in the Sunday night bible study my friends were leading than I was in designing apartments for my drafting class.  I was sleeping better, more fully engaged with people, less worried about the future.  The poisonous introspection that had attended my depression and insecurity was replaced by a quiet confidence that, come what may, God would be my companion in this journey called life, and the reality of that gave me a joy, confidence, and peace that had been missing for about a decade.  By the end of the school year, I knew that I needed to share this good news with others as much as possible, and so I changed majors and changed schools with an eye toward some sort of ministry.

The day at the cemetery to bury mom’s body was preceded by a day at the camp in the mountains, a pilgrimage of sorts, to thank the good Lord for the landscape of my life.  It was the convergence of these two spots on the planetSugar Pine Camp, and Kingsburg Cemetery, that showed me that the life I live is precisely the fruit of new life born out of loss.

And this, dear friends, is the glory of the gospel. It’s not that we’re granted immunity from suffering.  Far from it.  The grand hope that is ours in Christ is that in this broken world, where loss in a thread woven into the fabric of everyone’s story, God’s wisdom is able to turn every loss into gain.  It’s still loss; of that there’s no doubt.  We can mourn, must mourn, because loss, and loneliness, and betrayal, is what happens in a fallen world.

But loss needn’t define us, because every loss opens a door for new facets of God’s character to be experienced in our lives.  Of course I wish my dad had been at my wedding.  Of course I wish he’d known his grandkids, and the fine folk they married.  Even more, I wish they’d known him.  But no.  It’s a fallen world, and numerous bouts of pneumonia as a child meant dad had weak lungs that would catch up to him and steal his life at 55.  The loss though, prepared the soil, and the life I’ve known, the wife I’ve married, the places I’ve travelled, the friends of madeall of it has sprouted in the soil stripped bare by loss.  Wow.  That’s a story a worth telling.

My daughter Holly is bent down, in tears, over my dad’s tombstone.  I kneel down with her and cry. “I wish you could have known him,” I said. And yet I wonderif she’d have had the chance to know him, would I have ever lived in Seattle?  Ever met my wife?  Would Holly have ever been born?  And that’s when it hits methe glory of the gospel is its profound capacity to turn loss into gain, as evidenced by the cross itself.

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!  Romans 11

 

 

Lessons and Gifts from my Mom at Christmas

IMG_7747 A few years ago I sat with my mom and punched “record” on my iPad before I asked her about her childhood on the farm, in the searing heat of the San Joaquin Valley.  She told me that when electric power became available, back in the day, her folks had decided it would only be affordable if they moved the house out to the street in order to save money on the trenching costs.  Imagine that: easier to move the house than dig a trench!  And so, they moved the house; picked it up and moved.  I think it was easier to move houses back then because there was no indoor plumbing, but still…it’s not the kind of thing you do today.

The story exemplifies the spirit of many who lived through the Great Depression and fought a World War in Europe and Asia at the same time, with all that entailed (buying war bonds, food, gas, rubber, rationing, separation, suffering, death).  They came home and built lives, schools, interstate highways, and got on with life.

IMG_7752The way my mom got on with life was to start a  family, but the baby died shortly after childbirth, and nearly cost mom her life.  The ensuing surgery meant she’d never have children, so adoption became the plan.  Enter Susan, in 1952, and me four years later, in 1956.  The convergence of suffering and loss in mom’s life was precisely how I ended up being raised by this woman who died yesterday, and so I’m spending part of today remembering the gifts I’ve been given by her, and the family to which I belonged.  In particular, I’m giving thanks for these three gifts:

Our family had faith –  If you go back in the archives of First Baptist Church in Fresno, you’ll find my dad on the building committee, on the board, on the finance committee.  You’ll find my mom doing something called “circle” where women gathered, apparently in a circle, to work on projects that would somehow support missionaries.  The only time I was ever recused from the Wednesday night programs at church was when the San Francisco Giants were in town to play a spring exhibition game.  Dad had his priorities, and he picked me up from school right after lunch so that we could be there in time to watch Willie Mays take batting practice.

Their faith though, wasn’t really about involvement in all these church activities.  Those were just the fruit of their lives being rooted in Christ.  We prayed as a family, read the Bible together, talked about God as if God were real, because we believed He was.  When Billy Graham came to town in 1962 we were there every night.  I was six, and knew the tug of God on my heart, even then.

This wasn’t “church on Sundayand then swearing, drinking, and raising hell” the rest of the week, behind the religious curtain.  Nope.  This was the real thing.  I saw it, absorbed it, wanted it for myself.

So this Christmas I’ll celebrate having grown up in a family that, for all its flaws, believed they were known and loved by their Creator.  Mom’s biggest joy in life, her primal prayer at some level, was that her kids would know this too.  That we did, and still do, is a testimony to her legacy.

Our faith served –  Mom knew a lot of loss in her life;  the death of an infant; infertility; a good dose of poverty too, and then later, the untimely death of her husband in 1973, and her daughter, my sis, in 1995.

Still, for all that, mom’s paradigm for living seems simple to me in retrospect.  She’d look for a need and meet it.  I don’t even know how I was related to Aunt Josie, who looked terribly old and frail when I was a small child (she was probably in her 50’s), but I remember being annoyed that, after my little league games, we’d need to go visit this woman.  The same thing was true when we visited her sick friends, Bug and Edie, while we were on the coast for holiday.  She always found people with less than her, less energy, less family, less joyand she’d go spend time with them.

When mom was 80 she’d drive over to the rest home where she ultimately lived for ten years, in order the “pick up the old people and take them to church.”  Who does that?  Mom did, apparently.

One way of dealing with loss is to sink into a cycle of bitterness and self pity, but I’ve come to believe that my mom’s faith buoyed her and propelled her outward, with eyes to see needs and a heart to serve.

Though I’m very different than mom in this realm, I can connect the dots too.  When I had a profound encounter with God in 1976, it quickly became apparent that drawing concepts of buildings wasn’t going to be “service enough” for me, that I needed to be with people in some way, helping them discover and live into the grand adventure of knowing God.  For me this led to a life of church leadership, pastoring, and teaching.  Surely though, if you’d asked me where I learned about the possibilities of serving, in spite of loss, in spite of health challenges, in spite of insecurities, in spite of questions, I’d point to my mom and say:  “Blame her… she showed me how…”

Our family laughed – in spite of everything.   Mom was more often the butt of jokes than the initiator (just like my wife, Donna) but she laughed along with the rest of us when dad bought a rubber hot dog and she tossed it into the garbage disposal, where it shot out like a rocket, leaving us all on the floor laughing.  We laughed when a 10-year-old guest was reading a morning devotional passage and when he came to the word “misled” (i.e. “He misled his sister) he paused, having a bit of trouble with pronunciation.  Mom glanced over at the book and said, “MY-ZELD” as in “My Zeld is better than your zeld”)  Dad says, “No.  It’s mis-led” but mom wouldn’t bend, and soon we’re laughing as she tried to justify her mispronunciation, even though we all knew that she knew.

There’s a myth out there that our capacity for service, laughter, love, are proportional to the ease of our lives.  So there we go, trying hard to live the good life, by which we mean the life insulated from difficulty.  This insulated life, though, creates fear, walls, anxiety.

Mom and Dad showed me a better way.  They showed me that, regardless of setbacks, we have our faith, our intimate relationship with Christ.  Regardless of our suffering, there are those with less, and we have chances to serve.  Regardless of our losses, we can laugh, and love generously.

I’ll miss you this Christmas Mom, but these are some of the many gifts you’ve shared that are still giving.   Thanks!

Ambition or Temptation? How to tell the difference

“What is that in your hand?”  God

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes

I’m sure you’ve been there.  You want something to be different in your life.  Maybe it’s a vocational success you’re after, or a new house, a remodel, a spouse, (a remodel of a spouse? nope), a successful and meaningful retirement.  Or you want things to be different in the world because the racism, injustice, human trafficking, environmental destruction, or whatever it is for you, just incenses you so much that you’re “mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.”

It seems that all of us, at times, are on the hunt for the “next big thing” in our lives.  I have a friend in his twenties about to move overseas; a friend in his thirties about to make a major job change; and a friend in his seventies who’s trying to figure out what to do with the time he has left.  All of them are looking for the next big thing.

This last guy, the older one, taught me a great lesson when we met recently.  I’d seen him a few days earlier and he said, “we need to catch a coffee” and, with a grin on his face, “I’ve found the answer to the question of what to do with the rest of my time!!”

We met in my office recently, late in the afternoon, and he walked in with a gleam in his eye.  He’s always been upbeat, as long as I’ve known him, but this was different.  This was a gleam of settledness, contentment, purpose, calling.  “Well,” I asked, “what’d you find?”  He pulls a sheet of lined paper out of his pocket and holds it up in front of me.  It’s filled, or nearly so, with names.

“See this?” he says.  “These are the ‘kids’ I’m meeting with.  All of them are in their twenties and thirties.  I’m meeting them for coffee, walking the lake with them, having them over to my house.  Whatever it takes.  I’m investing in young kids!”  He’s giddy with joy as he tells me about the newest name on the list; how they met, what they’re doing together.

I’m happy for him, of course, and curious.  He has a contentment and enthusiasm that’s a refreshing contrast to the common “striving” mindset and posture that so many of us have so much of the time.  I ask him how he came to the discovery of this calling.

He smiles and says, “I was already doing it! That’s what’s so funny!”  He goes on to tell me that this new chapter isn’t as much new, as it is going deeper into what he’s already doing, what’s already been bringing joy to him and life to the young adults with whom he meets.  “It was there all the time,” he said, and this got me thinking about calling, contentment, and ambition.  Here’s what his story can teach us all:

1.  If we don’t start where we are, we’ll never move successfully.   You know the story from Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation about the weird unemployed uncle who’s living in a trailer?  Fat, unshaven, and with all the emotional intelligence of some “real housewife” on TV, he’s “holding out for a management position.”  He’s waiting for something better is another way of saying it, but whether you’re waiting for something better, or going after something better, the message is the same:

Don’t neglect “what’s in your hand” because according to this story, it’s what’s in your hand today that God will use to direct you to God’s preferred future for your tomorrow.  One of the greatest forms of temptation many of us face, is the mirage like opportunity that’s “out there” somewhere.  Its existence entices and, like the new wool sweater, we’re sure we’ll be more fulfilled if we can get there.  So we go after it, with gusto, and sometimes with the side effect of neglecting what’s in our hand.

I’m presently working on two books and leading a large church in Seattle, along with needing to prepare for speaking at some upcoming things.  At the time I met with my friend though, I was determined to get a magazine article published.  I’d started writing it, and was researching the query letter when we met and the meeting was like a bucket of ice water, snapping me back to reality:

“Get a grip man!  You already have a life.  Do what’s in your hand now, with a whole heart, and joy.  Quit looking over the fence, because where you go tomorrow is my responsibility, not yours.”

2. There’s a time for tossing projects in the trash.

Thank God.  It’s a good word, and I suspect, not just for me.  Discontent, at its worst, is a paralyzing mindset that strips our joy, inviting us to believe the lie that what God’s given us to do today isn’t worth doing, so instead we’d better spend our time creating a different tomorrow.  Goals have value, surely, but they’re dangerous too, and just for this reason: they can make us neglect today in our pursuit of tomorrow.

I’ve literally thrown the query letter and article in my little virtual trash can on my computer, and taken out the trash.  It was liberating!  I’m back in the groove, focusing on what’s already on my plate:  the church I lead, the writing on which I’m already working, the teaching for which I’m preparing, and the fantastic family with whom I’ll spend a glorious Christmas.

Sometimes we need to toss what we think are ambitions in the trash because they’re not ambitions; they’re temptations and distractions from the present.  What have you let go of lately, or need to let go of,  so that you can focus on what God’s already given you?

 

 

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step