Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

Dead Flies, and the Overconfidence of Darkness – Early reflections on Paris

by , on
Nov 14, 2015

The Overconfidence of Darkness 

“And in His name all oppression shall cease…” These were the lyrics coming from the speakers yesterday afternoon when I discovered there’d been a tragedy in Paris—six actually, or seven—leaving over 100 dead and over 300 injured in a city known for love, civility, fine wine, and late walks along the Seine. If you’ve been there you know the beauty, which only serves to heighten the ugliness, as we’re reminded once again that whatever Jesus meant by “it is finished,” from our chair we pray to God that this isn’t the end of the story, because if the future is nothing but violence and hate, rising and falling according to unanticipated tides, then this is a sorry place to be, at best. All oppression hasn’t ceased. Far from it, in fact. And in moments like these, some walk away from faith entirely, convinced the joke’s been on them all along and that the whole is nothing more than a Darwinian struggle for survival, as we eat our own species to make a statement.  

Others, often in God’s name, get mad, certain if we can match violence with violence, and add just a little bit more firepower on our side, that “light will win”. While there’s a place for “the sword” as a means to curb evil, that place belongs to the state, and so I’ll leave it to John Kerry and powerful people from around the world to find a way forward on this front, praying for them and their plans, because God knows there’s zero moral high ground for this, or what happened the day before in Beirut. Pray for those charged with response, not cynically as a partisan, but simply and prayerfully, knowing they carry the weight of watching the West fall apart as much as anyone.  

 But there’s still another way to look at this, and it’s through the lens of history, realizing that this is yet another instance of evil and darkness overplaying their hand. When it says in Ecclesiastes 3 that God has placed “eternity in our hearts,” I believe this is precisely the kind of situation to which the wise philosopher speaks. Sometimes the evil, the blood of innocence, and the unabashed violence, reach a tipping point where the world rises up and says, “enough.” It happened in Germany in the 40’s, Uganda and Cambodia in the 70’s, Eastern Europe in the late 80’s, and Rwanda in the 90’s. We’re slow, tragically slow, to collectively intervene when blatant violence and injustice lay waste to a people.  But eventually something happens. The collective sickening is just too much, and there’s some sort of tipping point reached.  

 That’s because evil doesn’t know when to quit, doesn’t know or believe that humankind has a limit to its capacity for tolerating unabashed hate, violence, and death. Now, in many of the places named above, there’s a collective commitment to justice, generosity, truth-telling and confession as a foundation for real healing, and lasting peace. Could this be the event that creates our tipping point? That’s my prayer, more than anything, because the reality is that until the vastness of humanity rises up collectively and cries “enough!”, the sorry cycle will continue.  Paris, an in-your-face declaration that terrors so common in the Middle East are pouring across all borders. There’s nowhere to hide. Maybe, God help us, this will wake us up to the right questions, the right prayers, and the right collective actions, so that we’ll look back and add Paris to a long list of tipping points that turned things around. Pray with me that it will be so.  

 The Power of a Dead Fly 

 Along with the Christmas music, I was reading Ecclesiastes for my sermon tomorrow at the church I lead.  It’s in chapter 10 that I read, “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink,” and in the same way, “a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.” Indeed. A failed art student from Vienna becomes possessed with his vision of a pure race, and two decades later millions are dead, some for no other reason than being Jewish, or Communist, or gay. A Czarist apathy regarding the wholesale poverty of the Russian people combines with Lenin’s vision of workers’ rights, and suddenly there’s a totalitarian regime, complete with thought police and gulags and bread lines.

 In every instance where a little foolishness has become a weapon of mass destruction, that foolishness has always presented disguised as wisdom, and confidence.  People want significance, vision, and to be on the winning team, and so dead flies who shout they’re right in their own circus act of certitude become followable. Wisdom demands that two words of caution be offered here:  

1.     Mind your own perfume, which is another way of saying “be careful how you walk,” because you can take a million steps correctly, but it’s that one extra drink, or lingering touch, or decision to text, or that need you have to get the last word in every time that will, someday, do you in.  There are, in reality, no unimportant moments behind the wheel, or at the supper table with people you love, anymore than there are unimportant anchors to set when climbing.  It’s not a call to anxiety; just a call to sober awareness that wisdom means recognizing the potential value OR destruction of every decision.  When life’s seen through that lens, we’re more likely to pray about everything, and when that happens, more likely too, to enjoy the peace of God.  Lots of people are pointing out dead flies “out there,” but each of us responsible for our own scent.  Start there.  

2.     Don’t be a fool in this coming election season. Confidence isn’t the same thing as wisdom, and shouting that something is true doesn’t make it so. If ever there was a time when we need wisdom among the upcoming lot of elected officials, it’s now. A dead fly in 2016 would be a terrible mistake.

 

O Lord Christ… 

Even as we pray for Paris, France, and the international coalition forming to address the scourge of terror saturating our planet, we pray too for our own hearts. Grant that we might rest in the confidence that, indeed, darkness overplays its hand every time. We pray for an awakening hunger for peace across the globe, so that we might have the collective courage needed. We pray too, for our own perfume, mindful that the scent that is our lives and those of our families and churches, are the thing that matters most in the moment. Grant that we might be so filled with your life that, indeed, it is joy, courage, hope, peace, and longings for justice, that become our scent. Amen.  

When the Clouds Part – and how to part them.

by , on
Nov 6, 2015

IMG_2469At the end of a day spent sitting at a desk, I hop in the car and drive two short miles to the trailhead.  There are rumors of snow on the peaks just above the house where I live at the pass, but I’ve yet to see any evidence as the clouds have enshrouded the high country all day long.  Is it curiosity to know the truth, an itch to move instead of sit, or simply the intoxication of scent that wet fir trees offer the trail runner in the thick of autumn?  I don’t know the answer; likely all three.  All I know is that, as John Muir wrote:  “the mountains are calling and I must go”

Muir loved not just being outside, but being outside in weather; storms, wind, snow.  He felt that the mountains spoke powerfully during such times, and that the very act of listening would be transformative for him.

“Let the sea roar, and all its creatures, the world and those who dwell in it.  Let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills sing aloud together before the Lord; for God comes to judge the earth.  The Lord will judge the earth with righteousness and the peoples in justice.”  (Psalm 98:7-9)

IMG_2468As soon as I leave the car and turn around I see it; the first snow of the season.  The broken clouds have parted long enough to reveal what was hidden, and, just for a moment, I see that what’s been hidden is beautiful.  Quickly the clouds cover over the peaks again, as if embarrassed to have been seen naked.  For the rest of the run it will be this way:  a glimpse of glory, just above me, just out of reach, and then hidden again.  Another peek, with promising hope that this time the skies will truly part, and clear.  Poof!  Gone again.

The mountains and sky are toying with me, and I keep running up the trail, higher, higher, in search of clarity, until the darkness overtakes and all hope of seeing is gone, at least until morning.  Then, armed with headlamp and iphone as torches, a retreat to the car over stones, streams, steps, and roots.  The darkness is thick by the time I’m back at the car and make my way home to aromas of onions and the warmth of a fire and I ponder that the run was good, not just for my body, but for my spirit too.

The clouds of war, torture, economic injustice and racism are all around us these days.  It’s a fog, born of greed and lust for power, laced with violence.  Though thick, the fog isn’t new, having been with us from the beginning of the tragedy and beauty that is our story.  And yet, always, the clouds have parted.  Yes, there was Auschwitz, and stories that nobody believed because darkness couldn’t be that dark.  But when the clouds parted there was Sophie Scholl, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, courageous resistance work and prayer meetings.  Yes there was apartheid.  But light broke through.  His name was Mandela.  Yes, there was genocide, but there’s been a reconciliation movement in which the brightness of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation wash over the past like first snow.

As the clouds of Isis, school shootings, human trafficking, and a refugee crisis that will change Europe forever, it’s vital to remember what kind of world exists, already, because of what Christ did on the cross.  When he said, “it’s finished” he didn’t just mean that he was finished breathing, he meant that the destiny of history as a place of death and despair was over.  Isaiah foretold it:

  • He spoke of a time of peace, when all wars and oppression would be done with
  • He spoke of time of environmental restoration, so that this groaning earth would groan no more.
  • He spoke of a vast banquet, symbolic of abundance and joy, where every tear would be dried from every eye, and death would be done away with for good
  • He spoke of profound healing of bodies
  • He spoke of justice, so that a man who plants can enjoy the fruit of his own labor.

IMG_2470These are the Colors of Hope – the Colors of the Kingdom of God; and the glad news is that this kingdom always breaks through to refresh and restore.  What’s more, each moment of refreshment is a hint of how the story ends, where eternity’s headed.

As Christ-followers, it’s no good being glum, down in the mouth, and cynical about politicians, systems, and economies.  That doesn’t do much good for anyone.  On the other hand, those who believe that behind the clouds there’s a glory, become people who point the way.  They encourage people to make snow right where they are, to cover sadness and failure, shame and greed, fear and addiction – cover it all with the freedom found in Christ.

It starts, of course, with believing that there’s something hopeful there, behind the fog.  But it requires more than that – it requires a commitment to embody that hope and, like John Muir, get people out there into the wild places where hope is visible so that they can see it for themselves.

And all of this, of course, requires that we keep showing up.  Dozens of times I’ve brought people to places in the wild in hopes of showing them the view, only to have it shrouded in fog.  “Come back tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that” I’ll say, “and you’ll see it for sure!”  Likewise, I’m always on the lookout for Christ’s hope, in the generosity of a friend, in a community surrounding a beloved during their time of death, in the birth of a new child, in the remarkable signs of peace that the news never shows.

We need to keep showing up and keep looking.  When we do, sometimes the clouds part and we found hope, which means we can become hope, which means clarity, blessing, joy – not just for ourselves, but others too.

That hope, more than for the health of my heart, is why I run in the mountains.

When shoot happens… what happens next?

by , on
Oct 6, 2015

The latest shooting is over.  Very soon it will fade like invisible ink, further hardening our collective consciousness against a despicable form of violence against innocence.

By now, unless the shooting is personal, we Americans know the drill quite well.  Our president will stand up and talk about the need for a change in gun policy.  The president of the NRA will get up and talk about the 2nd ammendment, and mental health. The press and internet will explode with arguments and stats, and mentions of Australia and Honduras.  The left and right will talk loudly, with lots of inflammatory language, but neither side will do much listening.  There will be news clips about the victims, the shooter, his mental health (it’s almost always a male), and his family (in this case his mother was a gun rights advocate who kept a loaded AR 15 and AK 47 in her house.  There’ll be stirring pictures of the memorial service, and a nod to some heroic figure who put themselves in harm’s way.

Then, after a week, everyone will get back to living their lives as if nothing happened.  Then it will happen again.  And again.  And again.  This one appears like it will be #298 on the list once it’s updated; more than one a day, in the most civilized nation in the world.

All this is tragedy enough.  But the bigger tragedy, in my opinion, is the peace we’ve made with this ongoing scar and tragedy, so visible to the rest of the world, and yet becoming an increasingly evident blind spot in our collective national consciousness. We seem to “get over it” in short order, so that this will become just one more thing to which we adapt.  Like late term abortion, food policies that are killing both people and the land, childhood obesity, and homelessness, human trafficking, and mass shootings are quickly becoming the new normal.

According Walter Brueggeman, the prophetic role during the time of the Old Testament was to awaken hope for something different.  This was important than, as now, because dysfunction had become the new normal.  Without such hope, we accept our new normal, and then we retreat into tiny survivalist mentalities whereby our personal safety, long life, and well being become paramount.  Of course we all know what Jesus had to say about that kind of mind set right?

I don’t have solutions.  I know the challenge of putting the genie back in the bottle, even if our country wanted things to change.  I understand a belief in self defense and defense of family.  I understand the rhetoric for both sides, and have been around this discussion long enough now to know that there’s no simple way forward.  The right and left and mostly preaching to echo chambers.  But most of all, I understand that the violence is systemic, and the status quo isn’t changing a thing.

For the love of God (and I choose the words, not as a saying, but intentionally because they mean something) I have a suggestion:  Can we please pray that the trend line of becoming numb to this kind of violence ends, and that we’re shaken awake to the tragedy this is? I say this because mourning is the soil out from which a vision for change will someday occur.

There’s much that’s right with our nation, and against the backdrop of Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine, and dozens of other locales, our challenge pales.  Still, this is our challenge, and it’s important that, as was prayed decades ago by the founder of World Vision, that “our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God”

Can we at least start there?