Exercises in missing the point: What I learned visiting chapels and cathedrals

imageWe’ll leave tomorrow for the high country again, but we’ve spent a bit of time in Alpine valleys recently, and of course, this means visiting churches and cathedrals, each one filled with history.

The architecture of churches, in Tirol and Bavaria at least, testify to the union of state and church.  There are statues and frescoes celebrating violent triumph over one’s enemies, with soldiers standing on the neck of the conquered, raising a lifted sword in victory.   Then, right next to that statue, there’s one of Christ, the suffering servant laying down his life.  For that matter, the entire region has been dotted with countless crucifixes; stone or wood carved images of Christ dying on the cross.  They’re in the forest, hanging over the doors of farmer’s remote cabins at 4000′, and in high cathedrals.

The juxtaposition celebrating power while worshipping the one who embodies the utter relinquishment of power seems strange.  The thirty years war, which decimated Europe, had its roots in power struggles between Protestants and Catholics.   Warring armies throughout Europe have been appealing to the power of the sword to rule, conquer, subdue “in Jesus name”.  One wonders how this is possible, but answers come quickly, and are summarized in the simple reality that anyone… ANY. ONE. can claim Jesus and raise a flag in his name.

The self-absorbed King Ludwig, who built the famous Neuschwanstein castle as a playground for his fantasies, was utterly self-absorbed, profoundly materialistic, utterly out of touch with reality, and, get ready:  a man characterized by “deep faith”

Kings and Reich Chancellors, Presidents and Senators, NRA lobbyists and Green Peace activists,  Yankee and Confederate soldiers, Protestant and Catholic warriors, have all invoked violence in Jesus name.

There are lessons to learn here, important ones, if the church is to be a place offering any hope or meaning at all in the midst of the insanity of racism, violence, materialism, nationalism, consumerism, individualism, and all the other “isms” that, as the idols of our time, are cursing, enslaving, and destroying us.

1.  The goal must be purity.  Paul speaks of this in II Corinthians 10 when he expresses a fear that our hearts might be easily seduced away from the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”  For the rest of my days, I’ll never forget the image of two statues side by side in a church I saw last week:  A triumphant soldier standing on the neck of his enemy with sword raised was placed next to Jesus as a shepherd, a sheep on one arm while the other was still seeking, still looking.   “My God” I pray, “forgive us for losing the simplicity of devotion to you, for in that simplicity, we become servants rather than power loving leaders, humble rather than proud.  We become people for whom ‘you’ are enough, rather than you plus wealth, or you plus the assurance that we can kill anyone who trespasses our space, or your plus creature comforts.”  I pray that, on my return to ministry leadership, I’ll pursue simplicity and purity with a passion and zeal, for therein lies the reality of Christ.

image2.  When Jesus is the reference point, insanity doesn’t happen as quickly.  Really now, can you see Jesus advocating the use of an assault rifle to keep his home safe?  Can you see Jesus firing anyone who doesn’t agree with him?  Can you see Jesus living in the lap of luxury and amassing more and more while others he knows are living in abject poverty, oppressed and enslaved?

If Jesus is just a poster child for our cause, we can cherry pick some verses and justify Jesus as the slave owner, or Jesus as the gun rights advocate (“look we have two swords”, said a disciple), or Jesus as the source of our upward mobility.

Jesus, though, is no more the source of our upward mobility than he was the source of colonial expansion.  He was coopted for both causes, but read the book.  Jesus wasn’t into either of those things.  If we knew Jesus better, we’d have fewer statues celebrating wars that expanded our borders,  but as it stands, these statues stand right beside the prince of peace, and I’m not sure anyone sees the tragic joke.

3.  The problem is as old as people.  The pharisees were the religious experts of Jesus’ day and they thought they had it right when they’d raise their stones to throw at the woman caught in adultery.  But Jesus turned the tables on them to reveal that she, more than they, was closer to the kingdom of God, because she knew her own brokenness.  Forever we’ve all been claiming the moral high ground, claiming God is “on our side” – but of course, the jokes on us.  God has no sides but God’s, and you’re only on God’s side when you look like Jesus.

Churches.  They’re everywhere over here and every time I go inside one I come out praying that the community I lead would look more and more like Jesus in the coming months and years, and less like the striving, proud, divisive, complacent crowd that we’ve so often been as God’s people down through the centuries.

Do you think we can learn from history?

wondrously sheltered….

“…all we ever wanted, was just to come in from the cold…” Joanie Mitchell

imageIt’s raining from the moment we wake in Pill, at the Klausen Gasthaus, a charming little place offered us by the tourist information office in Schwaz after we came down out of the Tuxor Alps for some time to reconnect with the outside world via internet, enjoy actual towels, and explore some of the culture and history of Tirol. Today we’re going up again, this time in a hard driving rain. There’s a bus that will save us the initial elevation gain and, as it turns out, provide insights into the cultural and geographical history of the region.

The bus drops us at “Eng Alm”, a high Alpine grazing area for cows that’s uniquely populated with Maple trees planted centuries ago and preserved in their young and vulnerable years because of the Thirty Years War (1618 TO 1648). The guide, who has basically given us a personal tour in English, since his public presentation is German, confirms with us that we won’t be on the bus at 3:15 when it comes back to take people home.

“No” we say, as the rain falls harder still, “We’re going up to the Lamsenjoch Hutte and spending the night there.” He smiles, wishes us good travels, and hops back in the bus, which drives away as we put on our ponchos and prepare for our trek. It won’t be long, as treks have gone so far, but it will be steep, and wet.

We start out, walking through the Alm, amidst the cows, but quickly head upwards on a narrow rocky path that follows a rushing stream down out of the high country. We’ll gain about 800 feet in a short, wet time, as we make our way up the trail which eventually becomes a road. Heartened by the milk collection truck that makes its way down this road from above us, we suspect that there might, indeed, be a farm that sells milk and cheese just up the way a bit. It will be a good place, at the least, to stop and dry out.

imageIt’s unassuming from the outside, but this little farm, on this very wet day, offers two things that cold, wet bodies crave: Hospitality and warm shelter. We shed our rain ponchos outside, and enter an utterly different world, a world where everyone’s warm, and dry, and content. There’s a fire in the corner and we settle in by it and watch as families, farmers, and hikers enter – all finding more than just relief from the storm, but fellowship in that very relief, along with warm food and drink.

Meanwhile the world grows darker outside, and wetter, if that’s possible. We know we can’t stay in the warmth of this hut forever, know that there’s still 600 feet or so to ascend, and 2 or 3 miles to walk. So, after warm soup and a very local cheese platter, sourced by the cows just outside the door, we prepare to re-enter the storm. I foolishly elect to forego my second layer because had gotten so wet on this first leg of our journey that it seemed worthless. The “poncho plan” had worked so far, and was still working for Donna, but somehow today would prove to be a poncho disaster for me.

We set out well enough, but the rain was relentless, and with every step of ascent, colder. Donna, my wife, was in fine form, enjoying the scenery and impervious the weather, true to her outdoor recreation major and training in college; totally in her element. I, on the other hand, was a music major. The layer next to my body was soaking wet, and I sought to stay the chill by simply pressing on – faster would mean warmer, right? In spite of my best efforts, no. The chill continued to strengthen it’s grip, weakening me. The ridge, however, was in sight, and I knew that the hut wasn’t more than 20 minutes beyond it.

imageWhen I stepped over the ridge a biting wind hit me like a cold shower. Of course, I should have stopped and added layers and in my normal world of hiking would have. But this is “poncho world” and that means accessing anything is a major chore. Stop. Remove poncho, being careful to preserve the inside from moisture. Remove pack. Open pack. Access extra layer(s), add to body, now further chilled from not moving. Close pack. Reattach pack. Reattach poncho carefully so that moisture stays on the outside. Move again. “Easier” I said to myself, “to just move faster” and so I did – upping my pace as much as possible, both to create heat and begin my recovery. I’m shivering as I ascend the last bit, the welcoming flags of the hut flapping in the biting wind.

Again, as happened earlier in the day, the word shelter takes on new and profound meaning, because this is a moment of coming in from the cold and finding a lodging in a giant co-ed dorm where we’re stacked next to each other like matchsticks. Still, shelter never in my life felt so good. After settling in, replacing wet clothes with dry ones, and resting a bit, I join the crowd in the restaurant and watch through the window as the daisies dance in the wind and rain pelts the glass. Shelter – what a great word. What a great gift.

Joanie Mitchell wrote a favorite song of mine entitled, “Come in from the cold” whereby she muses that our deepest longings in life are for shelter. Physically? Yes, that’s a starting point not to be taken for granted these days, when insane evil drives multitudes to flee for the mountaintops, ultimately needing rescue from the options of starvation or slaughter. Refugees, exiles, and the realities of human trafficking are ever present reminders that basic, literal shelter.

But shelter means o so much more than a warm bed or a little hot soup while the rain pours down outside. It means that behind that bed and soup there’s a person who gives a damn about seeing to it that you aren’t left outside, left to suffer, or be hungry, or be cold, or in be alone. “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me” is what comes to mind.

Mary provided shelter for the vulnerable savior, and sought to do so to the very end. Jesus, the one who had no place to lay his head, provided shelter for the wanderers of the world, the lost, vulnerable, the outsiders counted as worthless by the establishment. He embodied, and still embodies, hospitality. He makes space and shelter in this cold dark world when nobody else is willing. I wonder what this means:

imageregarding my views of immigration

regarding my response to the suffering happening in refugee camps regarding the problems of homelessness and human trafficking that plague our nation

regarding the simple command to, by our very lives, be the presence of Christ and serve those on the outside, inviting them to ‘come in from the cold’ even if they never share my beliefs

These huts, these warm fires and hospitality, have become a picture, night after night, of what it means to be welcoming. But when you’re cold and WET, they provide more than just sentimental good feelings. They provide salvation. In a world filled with cold, wet, hungry outsiders, I’ll be pondering the implications of this single experience for miles to come.

Coming off the mountain: Ebola, Suicide, and Terror

imageWe’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world.  During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey.  These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter.   For these reasons, we pray, and pay attention – step by step.

These prayers, though, are also very provincial.  They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family.  We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).

High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep.  Yes. This was round one.

We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assualt, in a different direction.  We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in  St. Louis.  Bombing in Iraq?  Ukraine?  Syria?  Fires still burning.  Refugees.  And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide.  My God.  Is this the same world?

Yes.  The same world indeed.  What are we to make of the disparity between candle lit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?

My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price.  There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment.  The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a cost – vulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial.  That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.

But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college.  I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings, for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child, for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.

imageAll I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering.  Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened.  Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasy – whether that takes the form of  porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.

Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear.  He knew, as Simone Weill also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our creator.  “There’s a time for everything” is the the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.

For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days.  We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold.  We pray, we’ll be safe.  We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people.  But, The Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us cry out once again:  “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final. ”   Rilke

 

 

 

Fiercely Interdependent

perfect_day.JPGWe awoke to perfectly clear skies with stunning views of the Alps in every direction. A blanket of low clouds shrouded Innsbruck and the river valleys. Everyone was up early, per the instructions of our host the night before, and we enjoyed a breakfast of meats, cheeses, good coffee, and an egg. Again, as with yesterday, the tables were graced with candlelight, but the lingering conversations weren’t part of this morning, as everyone was eager to hit the trail.

My sunglasses had disappeared the night before, and this, along with some other things, meant that we were nearly the last people to leave the hut, starting our hiking at 7:45. We immediately caught a ridge, already high above treeline, and began making our way south and up. Up. Up! Up!!

every_step_counts.JPGThis is the section of the via-Alpina about which we know absolutely nothing, having only the map, but no narrative description due to our change of plans stemming from Italy’s holiday crowds. Had we troubled ourselves to look more intently at the route we would have realized that we were in for a quite challenging day. The trail follows a high ridge up and down, seemingly endlessly, as we capture seven different summits and crosses along the way. But what the map can’t tell you is the extent to which the route demands some basic rock scrambling skills. There are places of extreme exposure, where a slip would mean a fall of a thousand feet. There are places where the “trail” is narrow, and there’s no protection in spite of the exposure. Other places have steel cables to hang onto for extra security, and there was one steel ladder that needed descending. Hang on or you’ll die!

This kind of travel is taxing in every way, both physically and mentally. As a result, we didn’t make good time at all – the first 5.5 kilometers taking a full 5 hours to complete! That wouldn’t be so bad if that were the end of it, but this was a 15k day, which meant that at the end of all the very taxing ascending and descending (7 crosses!!) we still had a 10k to complete, and this second10k took 4.75 hours! The signs said 7.5 and it had taken us 9.75.

That’s a long day, and we arrived absolutely spent. However, there’s more to the story:

On the previous day, hiking up to our hut, we’d met, and passed, two young girls in their late teens. It was clear that one of them was more highly motivated than the other, but both of them were making their way to the hut, without poles, and wearing denim! We became friends with them in the hut that afternoon, Inga and Feli, from near Frankfurt, both 17 years old. The tour was Inga’s idea as she said, “this is something I want to do, something I want to accomplish for myself, and once I do it, nobody will be able to take it away from me.” She’s a young, determined woman, who speaks English well enough to converse with us. Her friend Feli is along, and much quieter, perhaps because of the language barrier, so I don’t know her motivations.

As we began our hike and its level of difficulty became apparent, I wondered whether the girls would make it or turn back. Soon I realized that the danger of the route would be such that nobody would turn back and repeat the difficult risky moves, so Donna suggested that maybe they’d taken a different route. We were slow, and I watched with some dismay as everyone left the hut before us, and even when we began walking, distanced themselves from us because of their speed. We would be the last people to arrive at the next hut. Thankfully we’d made reservations.

As we achieved our first “summit” (a notch really, because there was no cross) we saw a view of a couple of people not far from us. As we pressed on we soon caught up with… Inga and Feli! It would turn out that we would hike the rest of the route with them.

There’s codependency in this world, and then there’s interdependency. Be careful if you use the word ‘codependent’ too much, because while it might be legitimate, it’s also possible that what you label codependent might stem more from a devotion to utter independence than anything else: trust no one, be vulnerable with no one, receive from no one, give help to others sparingly, if at all.

In this instance, all of us helped each other on the route. It was pure joy to watch Donna’s maternal instincts kick in, along with her commitment to being an encourager, as she became both mom and cheerleader for Inga and Feli. “Make sure you’re staying hydrated!” she’d say in one moment, and then “you girls are awesome” in the next.

Inga, on the other hand, was the model of healthy stoicism. She’d see a difficult climbing move that needed to be made, or another summit yet ahead, and sigh deeply. Then, after a moment of silence, she’d simply say: “and yet we must do it” in a German punctuated, matter of fact, accent, that made you actually want to do it. Though we’d have continued anyway because going back on this somewhat treacherous route would have felt like a death sentence, Inga made continuing much more palatable.

the_team_at_the_top.JPGI was wondering if I had anything to contribute to this little thrown together foursome, until we encountered a brief snowfield across which we needed to traverse. This was a high stakes 30 meters, for a mis-step would have led to a rapid, out of control snow descent to waiting rocks below.

These girls knew nothing of this and had no poles, so I, being out front in the moment, surrendered one of my poles to Feli, and explained snow traverse to the girls. “Put the weight on your heel” I said, showing them by example in case language failed, “and plant your pole too” The girls nodded, and Feli took her first step without event, but by her third, landing on her toes first, she’d begun to slip and used her pole to prevent failing, swearing in German as I’d come to recognize these days on the trail. The rest of her steps were perfect and she and Inga both crossed the snow without event.

We became friends with the girls along the final 10k, and it was there that Donna learned that Feli, too, had a sense of stoicism about her, as she revealed that someone had taken the wrong boots this morning, so that she was wearing her brand of boot, but in the wrong size! That might not sound like a big deal, but you try achieving seven summits in one day with shoes that 1 size too large!

When we finally arrived, we enjoyed a meal with these two, and exchanged email before they left for their next journey while we stayed an extra night at this hut to recover.

I have blisters. Donna has a bit of pain in her joints. We not sure we’ll have all the stuff it takes to do the long days of the via-Alpina if there are too many of them like this “seven summits” day, but the huts, and trails, and the mutual interdependency are all rich blessings that make the blisters worth it – step by step.

 

Fiercely Interdependent

Fiercely Interdependent -

We awoke to perfectly clear skies with stunning views of the Alps in every direction. A blanket of low clouds shrouded Innsbruck and the river valleys. Everyone was up early, per the instructions of our host the night before, and we enjoyed a breakfast of meats, cheeses, good coffee, and an egg. Again, as with yesterday, the tables were graced with candlelight, but the lingering conversations weren’t part of this morning, as everyone was eager to hit the trail.

My sunglasses had disappeared the night before, and this, along with some other things, meant that we were nearly the last people to leave the hut, starting our hiking at 7:45. We immediately caught a ridge, already high above treeline, and began making our way south and up. Up. Up! Up!!

This is the section of the via-Alpina about which we know absolutely nothing, having only the map, but no narrative description due to our change of plans stemming from italy’s holiday crowds.  Had we troubled ourselves to look more intently at the route we would have realized that we were in for a quite challenging day. The trail follows a high ridge up and down, seemingly endlessly, as we capture seven different summits and crosses along the way.  But what the map can’t tell you is the extent to which the route demands some basic rock scrambling skills. There are places of extreme exposure, where a slip would mean a fall of a thousand feet. There are places where the “trail” is narrow, and there’s no protection in spite of the exposure. Other places have steel cables to hang onto for extra security, and there was one steel ladder that needed descending. Hang on or you’ll die!

This kind of travel is taxing in every way, both physically and mentally. As a result, we didn’t make good time at all – the first 5.5 kilometers taking a full 5 hours to complete! That wouldn’t be so bad if that were the end of it, but this was a 15k day, which meant that at the end of all the very taxing ascending and descending (7 crosses!!) we still had a 10k to complete, and this second10k took 4.75 hours! The signs said 7.5 and it had taken us 9.75.

That’s a long day, and we arrived absolutely spent. However, there’s more to the story:

On the previous day, hiking up to our hut, we’d met, and passed, two young girls in their late teens. It was clear that one of them was more highly motivated than the other, but both of them were making their way to the hut, without poles, and wearing denim! We became friends with them in the hut that afternoon, Inga and Feli, from near Frankfurt, both 17 years old. The tour was Inga’s idea as she said, “this is something I want to do, something I want to accomplish for myself, and once I do it, nobody will be able to take it away from me.” She’s a young, determined woman, who speaks English easily well enough to converse with us. Her friend Feli is along, and much quieter, perhaps because of the language barrier, so I don’t know her motivations. 

As we began our hike and its level of difficulty became apparent, I wondered whether the girls would make it or turn back. Soon I realized that the danger of the route would be such that nobody would turn back and repeat the difficult risky moves, so Donna suggested that maybe they’d taken a different route. We were slow, and I watched with some dismay as everyone left the hut before us, and even when we began walking, distanced themselves from us because of their speed. We would be the last people to arrive at the next hut. Thankfully we’d made reservations.

As we achieved our first “summit” (a notch really, because there was no cross) we saw a view of a couple of people not far from us. As we pressed on we soon caught up with… Inga and Feli! It would turn out that we would hike the rest of the route with them.

There’s codependency in this world, and then there’s interdependency. Be careful if you use the word ‘codependent’ too much, because while it might be legitimate, it’s also possible that what you label codependent might stem more from a devotion to utter independence than anything else: trust no one, be vulnerable with no one, receive from no one, give help to others sparingly, if at all.

In this instance, all of us helped each other on the route. It was pure joy to watch Donna’s maternal instincts kick in, along with her commitment to being an encourager, as she became both mom and cheerleader for Inga and Feli. “Make sure you’re staying hydrated!” she’d say in one moment, and then “you girls are awesome” in the next.

Inga, on the other hand, was the model of healthy stoicism. She’d see a difficult climbing move that needed to be made, or another summit yet ahead, and sigh deeply. Then, after a moment of silence, she’d simply say: “and yet we must do it” in a German punctuated, matter of fact, accent, that made you actually want to do it. Though we’d have continued anyway because going back on this somewhat treacherous route would have felt like a death sentence, Inga made continuing much more palatable.

I was wondering if I had anything to contribute to this little thrown together foursome, until we encountered a brief snowfield across which we needed to traverse. This was a high stakes 30 meters, for a mis-step would have led to a rapid, out of control snow descent to waiting rocks below.

These girls knew nothing of this and had no poles, so I, being out front in the moment, surrendered one of my poles to Feli, and explained snow traverse to the girls. “Put the weight on your heel” I said, showing them by example in case language failed, “and plant your pole too” The girls nodded, and Feli took her first step without event, but by her third, landing on her toes first, she’d begun to slip and used her pole to prevent failing, swearing in German as I’d come to recognize these days on the trail. The rest of her steps were perfect and she and Inga both crossed the snow without event.

We became friends with the girls along the final 10k, and it was there that Donna learned that Feli, too, had a sense of stoicism about her, as she revealed that someone had taken the wrong boots this morning, so that she was wearing her brand of boot, but in the wrong size! That might not sound like a big deal, but you try achieving seven summits in one day with shoes that 1 size too large!

When we finally arrived, we enjoyed a meal with these two, and exchanged email before they left for their next journey while we stayed an extra night at this hut to recover.

I have blisters. Donna has a bit of pain in her joints. We not sure we’ll have all the stuff it takes to do the long days of the via-Alpina if there are too many of them like this “seven summits” day, but the huts, and trails, and the mutual interdependency are all rich blessings that make the blisters worth it – step by step.

 

Kindness shown to strangers…

“I was a stranger…”

It’s Saturday when we leave Schladming, Austria, a town with which I’m familiar through twenty years of visits for teaching.  Our adventure is to begin with a train trip to Sillian, the end of the line for Austrian trains, where we’ll spend the night before busing across the border the next morning for Sesto, Italy, where we’ll begin our journey.

The trains are late and so our mid-afternoon arrival in Sillian becomes 8:15pm, just as the sun is setting.  There are no signs from the train station to the hotel.  We talk to someone who points away from town when we tell him the name of the establishment, frowning as he says, “it’s a long walk.”  I ask about cabs, and he says, “not at this late hour” (of 8:30pm), so we begin walking, as dusk segues to darkness.  We see no signs and I begin to think about what I should do to protect my wife and daughter, for the night,  when we meet an older couple heading our direction on the walking trail with their two dogs and grown son.  I ask about the Alpine Hotel and he begins talking rapidly in German, his wife interjecting with hand motions.  Kristi, my daughter, speaks German, so soon the three of the are conversing and we turn back for a short minute or two, cross a bridge, head down another path on the other side of the river, and then they tell us, through our daughter’s translation, that they know a shortcut, as they lead us into the forest, in the dark, in this place of which we know nothing.  They’re laughing, talking with Kristi, and soon we hear the sounds of line dancing unfolding on what we’ll soon discover is the hotel front plaza, and we’ve arrived.

There are times in life when we’re thrust into the unknown, and it’s those times when our trust grows most dramatically.  During our trek, I’m profoundly aware of how easily my anxiety level grows when I’m in the midst of the unfamiliar, which, during these days, is pretty much all the time.

Yesterday we were the recipients of vast kindness yet again.  Having read that it would be enough to call ahead the night before at each hut in order to reserve space for the next night, we were disappointed to receive “all full” messages from two upcoming huts, leaving us in need of a plan B.  We hiked out of the high country with the intent of finding lodging in the more populated valley, and though the story has more detail than here, were told at least seven times by different establishments that “everything is full.”

Two encounters along the way, though, stand out as memorable:

In the town of Wellsberg, we visited a Gasthas (home with private rooms, cheaper than hotels) that came recommended by a young woman.  When this woman, perhaps in her late sixties, opened the door, she embraced each of us, her hands greetings ours, with a countenance overflowing with joy and peace.  Though she could offer no lodging,  there was something overwhelmingly Christlike in her presence, and I’m convinced that the trip to Wellsberg in search of lodging, fruitless with respect to that goal, will bless me the rest of my life because of this woman’s faith, whose joy and peace transcended language.  We left the brief encounter refreshed.

At the end of the day, we’d finally found the last lodging in the valley, but also learned that it was halfway back up the valley – 4 miles and 1000′ of elevation gain after an already full day.  Cabs don’t run there.  Buses are done for the night.  Options are done.  We’re tired and hungry, and not in a frame for an evening hike.

Donna sees a couple just pulling away from closed tourist information center and simply knocks the window, asking if they speak English.  They do, and she tells them of our plight, and asks for a ride up the valley.  They, also in their late sixties, look at each other and then he says, “we are hikers too – we know your plight.  Let us take you there.”

Soon were in the back seat, chatting with a couple from somewhere between Hanover and Berlin, for the 10 minute ride back up into the hills.  And just like that, we’re at our place of lodging for the night.

We thought hiking would be the hardest part of the trip, but it isn’t.  So far, it’s finding a place to rest our heads at night because Italy, it appears, is “full.”  Today (Wednesday) we’ll re-calibrate somehow, change our plans.  But the lessons learned in these moments have been priceless:

The news while we’ve been gone is mind numbing – Israel/Hamas, Iraq, Ebola.  I’ve been thinking, while walking, about how evil is boiling over across the globe.  Also, though, across the globe, every day, there are acts of generosity and kindness, shown to strangers who will never repay, that look a lot like Jesus – an extra 20 minutes out of their way on their dog walk, to show Americans the way to the hotel, hidden in the forest; a ride up a river valley at sunset offered to strangers, just because they look tired, and are; a warm embrace and smile that makes one feel loved.  Wow!  I’m rich beyond words today for these things.

I fall asleep thinking of Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” and I know that, come what may, I will look at opportunities to extend simple human kindness as a privilege, in the name of Jesus, for the rest of my days.

 

Eternity in our hearts – Leaning into our longings

IMG_4676The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.  CS Lewis

Most years, the first or second week of December, I’m in the little town of Schladming, in the Austrian Alps, to teach at a Bible school where countless lives have been transformed as students encounter the powerful cocktail of  global fellowship, creation’s stunning beauty, and teaching rooted in the central truth that Christ is still alive, wanting to express life uniquely through each of us.

Because I get to be here at that time of year, I know Schladming in winter, know the Planai as a ski area, where you’re whisked upwards 1000 meters in a few minutes time to enter a winter playground, a skier’s paradise.  When I go up the mountain, I always do the same thing after exiting the gondola: attach skis, turn left, and make the quick descent down to a different lift, one which will take me up the highest point.  It’s up there that I make a little pilgrimage to the cross, where I’ll often snap a quick picture and offer thanks to God for health of body to be in the center of all this beauty.  On that second lift, there’s a guest house off to the left, always shuttered up, and hard to access by skis apparently, because of the hills around it.

On Saturday we hiked the ski area, following trail #50 through meadows, people’s driveways, cow pastures, and forest trails.  Up.  Up.  Up.  We’ve only a tiny tourist map and no real way of knowing where we’re going, or even where we are, other than the altimeter on my watch, which clicks off the meters of ascent, each number an encouragement amidst the sweat and work of this hike on a humid day.

Minutes turn into hours.  Breaks become a bit longer along the way, and though we’re living life and confident that up is the proper general direction, we’re equal parts “hoping” and “confident” that we’re going to reach our goal.

IMG_4657A few hours into our journey, we stop for a break, at an opening in the forest.  I’m drinking water as I gaze off to the left at a guest house sitting on the crest of a little hill and slowly, I’ve this sense that I’m looking at something familiar.   “How do I know this place?”  I ask, looking intently, reading the inscription across the space between roof and windows.  And then, in an instant, I know.   My mind’s eye connects the scene of this place in snowy winter with the now summer scene in front of me, and I know precisely – precisely, where we are.

“We’re under the lift that will take us to the cross” I tell my wife, smiling, and the joy comes not just from knowing the place, but from knowing that I know.  It comes from the resonance between this experience and something deep inside of me, a memory.   In an instant everything changes.  I know where I am.  I know where I’m going.  I know I’ll get there.  This little place on this vast mountainside, itself a dot in the Alps, feels like home.

Soon we’re at the cross, but that last portion of the trip, with sure bearings and familiarity brought about by seeing something already in my heart made all the difference.   Doubt and uncertainty were vanquished by the reference point, the knowing that I’ve been here before.

When CS Lewis writes of his heart’s longing to find the source of beauty, hope, intimacy, meaning, joy, he echoes “The Preacher” from Ecclesiastes, who says in chapter three that God has placed “eternity in the hearts of people…” which means that there’s something in us that rejoices in the seeing of beauty and recoils in horror over the killing of children in war, or in the womb, or the destruction of marriages, or soil, or cities, through greed and corruption.

But especially, it means that we should be on the look out for moments where our hearts will leap because something in us will cry out, in our sensing of justice, beauty, and joy,  “Yes!  This is real life, the way life ought to be.”   It can happen when you see lavish generosity, or Rosa Parks refusing to be corralled into conformity, or a stunning sunset, or a moment of genuine intimacy.  When it happens and something deep inside us is haunted by a joyous sense we’ve been here before, we’re made for this, then we know  we’re on to something.   Keep following and you’ll find home; you’ll find the life for which you are created.

I was in college, depressed, a little disillusioned with my studies in architecture, when I went to ski retreat at a Bible camp and the speaker spoke on Jeremiah 9:23-27 about knowing God, and why that pursuit matters more than anything in the world.

Sitting in the A-frame chapel with 150 other college students, my heart caught fire.  It was as if I’d seen something I’d known before, as if I knew that this pursuit was for me, as if “seeking, and knowing God” would be a sort of “coming home to a place I’d never been before.”  I prayed that night, alone in the snow, because I knew somehow, that this pursuit was where I was meant to be.  That prayer changed my life, my priorities, ultimately my vocation.  It’s changing me still.

Moments like this come more often than we realize; in the quiet hours at sunrise with coffee and the scriptures, sitting under a redwood tree; in listening to Mozart’s Requiem played by the Seattle Symphony after 9-11;  sitting with old friends high in the Austrian Alps, sharing food and speaking of life and loss,  children and love, and the faithfulness of God in the midst of all the change.  It’s those moments when God is speaking, wooing, inviting.

Listen!  Hear the voice inside you that cries out “Yes” when the reality of the moment corresponds to deep longings inside you, the life for which you were created, and invites you deeper into that life. Those are important moments, times to pay attention, for listening at such times is how we find our God, and our calling, and our joy.

 

Light for Light – The joyous necessity of shedding Stuff

photo copy 4We’ve been moving a lot lately.  Some health issues for an extended family member has meant creating a small apartment in the basement of our house, and confining our stuff to smaller space in the mountains too, so that when we get home our mountain home can be a place of hospitality for family, friends, and the staff of the church I lead.

All this has been unfolding at the same time I’ve been preparing to embark on a sabbatical journey, which will begin with 40 days of hiking in the Alps with my wife, so that we can learn together -  things about endurance, walking with God, hospitality, revelation that comes through suffering and beauty, guidance, and o so much more!

For this trip, we’ll be carrying everything we need, except food, on our backs.  Toss in the reality that the planned hike will gain over 100,000 feet in elevation, and you begin thinking differently.   The physics minded among us, who think of work in terms of “foot pounds” will come to the same conclusion I did, which is that every OUNCE of additional weight, over the course of 400 miles, will create an extra 3 tons of “foot pounds”.    Lifting that extra ounce for about 20 miles of vertical elevation adds up, in other words, to a lot of work.

With this in mind, the decision making process of “letting go” began.  My wife and I would pack our stuff and then stand on the scale with our packs, and groan.  “Too much” we’d say, as we’d toss slippers, read articles about the “real” merits of some vitamins and decide that, in reality, we’re not sure we believe in their benefits enough to carry them uphill.  Toothpaste?  Extra shirt?  Third pair of underwear?  Everything’s up for debate.  This, of course, is because carrying everything had bloody well be worth it.

The very act of shedding stuff for the hike has me thinking about other realms in a similar way:

1.  Possessions in real life are work too – and as such, we should assess whether they’re worth the trouble of storing, caring, maintaining, repairing, insuring, protecting, losing, and fretting over.  With the caveat that our kids are all now grown and so we really don’t much, we’ve learned something these past three weeks.  We’ve been living in about 500 square feet, maybe a few feet more, and having a blast!  Most of the time we can’t even remember the possessions we’ve shed well enough to miss them.  We look around and say, “We have food, shelter, the clothes we ACTUALLY wear and enjoy, our health, our love, our friends….”  What more do we need?  It’s been fun to give stuff away to people who need it more than we do, and find our lives lighter as a result.

2. Activities – The shedding of activities began some time ago, with the selling of the piano I loved, but which was sitting more than being played.  I’m at a season where that which is most life giving to me is writing, teaching, and absorbing all that can be learned by being out in creation.  So I don’t play much any more.  I don’t watch TV.  I don’t keep up with the latest cultural trivia nearly as well as I once did.  I don’t know the batting averages of my favorite baseball team as I once did.   I’m no longing trying to keep with my friends at the art of cooking, because in the end, I’d rather eat a carrot than a carrot salad anyway, and bacon, by itself, brings me joy.

So the habits of coffee with God, along with a rediscovered joy of running and hiking, along with the writing, teaching, mentoring, and leading I do, plus some friendships along the way – this is enough.  I’m lighter.  And it feels better.

3. Emotions – I’m learning, through rereading the wisdom literature in the Bible, to shed some emotions too.   Life’s so short, it turns out, that bitterness, resentment, anger, anxiety over “what if’s”, and shame filled regrets over “if only’s” are all a waste of time.  I’m finding that by shedding these elements, little by little, my heart is lighter.    I don’t think this happens with the snap of the finger because, like lightening our packs, every element needs to considered and inspected for its value.  For example, close friends and work colleagues who speak hard truth into my life are priceless gifts.   Blog comments that are rude, inciting, demeaning, when I write about sexual ethics or guns, not so much.  Life’s too short, and who needs to extra weight of endless rude wrangling with people who, in the end, don’t want dialogue as much as diatribe?

Jesus declared made the remarkable statement that you “ARE” the light of the world.  Light shines, all by itself, as long as its not encrusted with the darkening burdens of excess possessions, life sucking emotions, and the diffused energy of endless priorities.  All three of of this light thieves, though, are at the door all the time, seeking to steal our joy and peace by inciting us to carry more and more and more.  But every ounce, carried for 20, 30, 50 years?  That’s many tons of foot/pounds – wasted energy.

We’ll let you know how learning to travel light goes for us.  Our first trek will be Monday, and I’ll post here when I can.

 

 

Obscurity has its privileges. Answers to feelings of insignificance.

In just a few short days, my wife and I will be off to Europe where we’ll trek through the Alps, fully expecting to find the fingerprints of God in both creations beauty and power, and in the fingerprints of history.  Carl Muth’s faithfulness in obscurity is an example of the latter, and a reminder the big, loud, high profile stuff, isn’t necessarily the best.  Obscurity has it’s privileges!  ….

In the Bavarian countryside, during the days of WWII, there was a small house, surrounded by a flourishing garden. Carl Muth lived in this house. Born in the 2nd half of the 19th century, Muth became a leading Cahtolic theologian, publishing a journal of Catholic Existential Theology for many years, until the work was censored and ultimately shut down by Hitler.

Hans Scholl found his way to Muth’s tiny house, having heard of this man who was now living in relative obscurity as the war was unfolding. It was here, at Muth’s house that Hans found both a mentor, and the theological underpinnings to carry out the subversive work of the White Rose, work which would eventually cost Scholl his life, but whose ‘subversive’ literature would be air dropped across Germany by the Allies helping to free Germany from Hitler’s grip.

Two things stand out about Muth. The first is his relationship with a younger generation. We read, “Muth’s magic was not only his philosophical sweep of knowledge or his deep hatred for National Socialsim, but his youthful, amost playful snesne of ethical and metaphysical exploration. He not only listened to young people, he wanted to live and share their experiences.” I love his posture towards emergent generations, maybe because I identify with it.  I don’t know why it is that to this day, I’m drawn to interact with, enjoy, and learn from, people in the late teens to early 30′s.  For whatever reason, though, I’m grateful for the privilege of investing in the next generation.  Muth did that by being not only teacher, but student, eager to learn from the thoughts and perspectives of those who are younger, even as they’re eager to learn from him.

The second quality I notice is his call to courage in the face of darkness. Again we read, “In a universe where all values have been shattered, where religions and histories and literatures and social structures have lost their meaning, man has to stand up again, accept his condition, accept that he is alone and has no protection, and proceed to create his own world, his own values, his own decisions, his own actions – and be willing at all times to pay the consequences.”

These are powerful words, calling people to stand courageously in a world adrift in every way. Hans and Sophie Scholl heeded Muth’s words and paid with their blood. Sophie took the words to heart, and every testimony said that she remained calm, steadfast, courageous to the very end. Hans shouted, “long live freedom” loud enough for his voice to be heard beyond the walls of his Munich prison, just before the blade fell, severing his head.

One of Sohpie’s last letters was sent to Carl Muth, expressing her deep gratitude for his friendship, and admiration for his life.

A man’s ministry of publishing and parish work is shut down and he’s left with nothing but tending his garden and getting by as he can. Then, a young man enters his home, his life, and soon his house is bursting with conversations and idea which would become part of the soil in which, in a world gone mad, sanity would once again be born.

In world where churches obsess about size, writers look for platform, and business and trying to capture market share, someone needs to shout, “FAME IS OVER-RATED!” at the top of their lungs.

Fame is over-rated. Muth isn’t exactly a household name, like Beyonce, or Russel Wilson.  But his seeds of faithfulness, sown in obscurity, took root in the lives of a new generation, whose literature shook Germany and the world.  They got martyrdom, and fame.  But who was the man behind the curtrain?  Carl Muth – quietly investing in a few young people who would shake the world. I think that’s the calling that belongs to all of us. I hope I can be that faithful.

Teach us Lord, to let go of our addiction to influence, knowing that in the end, it’s scope isn’t ours to create anyway.  Rather, grant that we’ll be faithful to live well, serve faithfully, and love deeply, those people and endeavors you allow into our lives, and let us rest in that, rejoicing along the way in the simplicities of beauty, fellowship, and intimacy with you. Amen

“A different plan” – Three Postures you need when Change Comes Knocking

IMG_4578
It was supposed to be the Cascades…

I spoke with a couple last week who lost their child to cancer at the age of six.  As we talked of loss, change and challenge, she reminded me that about 85% of the marriages where a child suffers a disability end in divorce.  This, I presume, is because of the tremendous gap between how we thought life would unfold, and how it actually unfolds.

Where’s your gap?  Job change, or joblessness?  Health challenges?  A relationship evaporating before your eyes?  Unexpected financial hardships?  Whatever the issue, our response is vital to our continued transformation, to our movement in the direction of joy, peace, wholeness.

The notion that we’ll escape these unforeseen changes is fantasy.  A quick glance through the Bible reveals otherwise.  Abraham left home.  Moses went home.  David became King, lost the throne because of his son’s coup, and then came back.  Let’s not forget the fallout from wars as sons were lost, families torn apart.  Job lost everything.  Peter changed vocations to follow Christ and was eventually martyred.  It’s not just that these people suffered.  It’s that they all lived in families that paid the price too.  Change comes knocking, and it opens the door whether you want to let it in or not   It’s what you do with it that matters (tweet this)

I’ve been thinking about this recently because this upcoming trip to the Alps, as amazing as it will be, wasn’t the original plan.  The plan, in less than two weeks, was to head down to southern Oregon and hike the Pacific Crest trail back home, or even further, to the Canadian border, if time permitted.

My friend’s paragliding death in the Alps eventuated in a change of plans, because he directed a Bible School with which I’m closely tied.  When the new director called and we chatted last September about the upcoming year, I knew I was to go over and help out.   So, two weeks from today, I’ll be teaching the Bible school and hiking with students high into the Alps.  My wife will be with me and we’ll separate from the students for a few days before meeting back up after hiking the “Bible smuggler’s Trail” (I’ll post about that later), speaking at graduation, and then beginning our long hike through the Alps.

The plan was solitude – The reality will be otherwise , we’ll find ourselves sleeping in bunkhouses and waiting for showers.

The plan was wilderness – The reality is that the Alps have been civilized for a thousand years, and so we’ll be learning more about the history of World Wars, religious wars, and tribalism, than we will about traveling through the wilds of our unoccupied Cascades.

The plan was to hang food in the trees so that bears can’t get to it.  Now we’ll be buying food at each hut, and it will be far better than the freeze dried stuff that would have been reconstituted each night in the wild.

It was going to be this… now it’s that.

It was going to be a life together.  Now there’s been infidelity and he/she doesn’t want to rebuild.  It was going to be comfortable retirement.  Now, after losing everything in the ’07 meltdown, I’ll be working into my 70′s.  It was going to be the lush green and mild climates of Seattle.  Now I’m living in Phoenix.  It was going to be a small, simple, rural ministry.  Now it’s urban, and complex, and 3500 people.

Yes, I know the illustration’s weak, because the choice between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Alps is like choosing between Filet Mignon and Copper River Salmon.  “All right God… I’ll go to the Alps!  Force me!”  Suffering?  Disappointment?  Get real.

Still, while a hike in the Alps isn’t, in the least, disappointing (how could it be?), it does require an adjustment, and the postures enabling us to adjust are, in the end, the same, no matter how joy filled or painful our unintended changes:

Availability – When God calls to Abraham in Genesis 22, his answer is “Here I am”, a Hebrew word (Hineni) which implies availability and a willingness to embrace whatever God brings to us.  This stands in stark contrast a word Abraham could have used, “I’m here” (Poh) which would have meant:  “Tell me what you want me to do and then I’ll decide my answer.”

My wife sometimes says, “Will you do me a favor?” and though the right answer is “Yes”, I often blurt out “What do you want?”, as if to say that I don’t trust you enough to give a preemptive yes, because I’m afraid of what you’ll ask.  I wonder how much richer our lives would be if our posture, vis a vis the God who loves us, would be “Hineni” rather than “Poh”?

A phone call from Austria was all it took to set in motion a drastic change of plans.  All of us have had far more profound phone calls, from doctors, spouses, parents, that rocked our world.  Our willingness to inhale and embrace what’s on our plates rather than railing against the universe can make all the difference between a life of joy and bitterness.

Honesty – There was no mourning or loss over the change of plans, from Pacific Crest to Alps.  The same can’t be said for many other changes life brings.   The parents of the little girl who died of cancer, the wife of my friend who died paragliding the Alps, the other who lost his business; these are utterly unwelcome changes.  They’re a reminder that we leave in a world of dissonance as the chords of beauty, peace, and health, clash with the unwelcome intrusions of disease, loss, war, poverty, injustice.  We’re right to mourn, as Job teaches us, or David, or Jesus.

It’s no good pretending that unwelcome change is welcome, no good painting over it with some spiritual language about God being “all good – all the time”  God may be all good all the time, but this world is messed up.  So weep, for God’s sake, and your own.   This is the best way forward.

Acceptance and Gratitude – Acceptance and gratitude were layups for me with this whole “Alps instead of Cascades” plan.   In real life, though, change that forces its way through the door, ultimately requires a measure of acceptance if we’re to avoid shriveling up and becoming bitter people in the end.  Acceptance is born out of facing the reality that this intrusion is in my life.   Eventually, after a spouse dies, or we lose a job, or a house, or certainly with lesser intrusions, we say, “All right then… this is the way of it.  Let’s go.”  Fail to get there and you’ll spend the rest of your days in regret.

This acceptance, finally, leads to gratitude, not for the unwelcome change, but for the good that can and usually does come out of it.  Voices as diverse as Victor Frankl and Jesus Christ have taught us that, in the end, our gratitude is born from the faith that God is well able to bring beauty of ashes, hope out of despair, and a strange divine strength out of the darkest moments in our lives.  So we thank God, not for the change, but for what God will do because of it.

 

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step