Time heals nothing

I’m not sure why “This is Us” even found its way into my life as a show to watch, but however it did, I’m often amazed by its power to speak to me at so many levels.  Aside from being well crafted, the show has lots of freaky parallels to my own story, enough to make me feel, at times, like I’m watching a movie of some sections of my life:

The show has an adopted child in the family – I’m an adopted child in my family.

The sister among the siblings struggles with weight  – my sister struggled with her weight.

The dad in the story dies during the adopted son’s senior year in high school – my dad died my senior year in high school.

The death of the dad overwhelms the mom.  The death of my dad overwhelmed my mom.

It just goes on and on, so that in last night’s episode, when the son who got accepted to an exclusive college called and said he was going to delay for year to stay at home and care for his mom, I felt every ounce of his pain because I also delayed my entry into an exclusive college to stay home and care for my mom for a year, a year that turned out to be one of the hardest of my life.  These episodes have had me reliving family history stuff related to weight, performance, how we dealt with conflict, sibling dynamics, marriage dynamics, parenting styles, adoption, and so much more.

Here’s the point though, for now:  Life, Art, and Revelation are, at their best, woven together in a cord, so tightly that it’s difficult to pull them apart, separating the one from the other, so that deep transformation or understanding can arise from short periods of intense revelation.  This happened in the past 24 hours with respect to the subject of time.

The leaving of the leaves is an annual reminder that we too will leave.

Life:  I’m driving east on I-90 after an intense period of work in the city: big meetings; small meetings; one on one meetings; board meetings.  I’m tired yes, but quickly brought to awe and worship as I see the maples and cottonwoods changing color, and leaves falling in the wind.  Every autumn is a reminder of both the gift and brevity of life for me.  Something about the trees losing their leaves shakes me awake, and I ask God, at least annually, at least in the fall, to empower me to live wisely, and well because I’m mindful that life is short.  An autumn will happen, someday, when I won’t be here to see it.  That’s why my hope is to keep my daily priorities more or less aligned with my mission statement.  I don’t want to get to the end of the game and realize that I’ve lived just to survive rather than serve, to consume rather than create, to gain rather than give.   “…teach us to number our days…” said the Psalmist, and yesterday the annual reminder of that prayer was in full color on the trees and in the air.

Art:  That episode last night ended with the mom owning up, for the first time, to her passivity regarding her daughter’s struggles with weight – owned up to the fact that her husband’s death, and particularly the circumstances surrounding it, left her empty, with no love to give her children.  The daughter owned some stuff too, in a real conversation that came about 25 years later than it needed to because we think that “time heals all wounds” for some stupid reason.

Right there, in the midst of that conversation, the producer embedded a profound Damien Rice song called “Older Chests” which poetically exposes how we speak out of both sides of our mouths regarding time.  On the one hand: “I’ll be fine.  I just need time” and on the other, “Everything’s falling apart as time marches on”.  He exposes the folly that time heals anything at all.  Yes, time is needed, but only time plus the hard work of forgiveness, or confession, or a next step of service or generosity, or a reconciliation of a relationship, or a naming of your addiction and getting help, or a step of brutal honesty — only those things heal.  Time, without the intervention of our next steps, just leads to decay, and ‘presenting problems’ and unchecked addictions that are either visible or hidden.

Revelation:  Then next, I read my devotions this morning, and came to this:  The conventional explanation regarding suffering is that God sends us the burden because God knows that we are strong enough to handle it, but this is all wrong. Living in a fallen world sends us the problem, not God. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. (My paraphrase of a good word from Richard Rohr this morning.)

So there you have it.  A theme just keeps coming up over and over again with incredible intensity for 24 hours:  “You’re getting older Richard, and your years of enjoying autumn leaves are numbered.  Use your time wisely!”  Next up:  “Time heals nothing Richard, and that show which mirrors your life so closely exposes the steps you need to take toward community in certain relationships because time doesn’t create community – calls, and supper, and conversations, and hikes, and laughter and truth telling – these create community in time.  And finally, “There are times of suffering, but these times can be only be redeemed, not by passively riding the waves of more time, but by actively taking steps that move us to whatever we need to move toward, be it forgiveness, gratitude, dependency, truth telling, or whatever.

Time heals nothing.  And I know it better today than yesterday at this time because God speaks through falling leaves, TV shows, and text… thanks be to God.

The thing that mustn’t change: Use Your Gifts!

My predecessor just keep using his gifts day after day for 38 years.

The difficult truth that few seem interested in hearing these days is that the stuff we receive in our social media feeds is overwhelmingly not convincing anyone to change their minds about anything.  Minds were mostly made up, one way or the other, about the supreme court nominee, long before the hearing on Thursday, and as a result, everything that has happened since only served to confirm predisposed biases.

It can be tempting in such an environment to think that shouting louder or editing our writing or footage better will somehow persuade.  I doubt it.  We’re living, overwhelmingly, in tribal, self-referential echo chambers.  I’ve never seen a more divided time, and I’m not alone in my assessment.  After the exhausting work of trying to either persuade, or at the least, point people to ‘third way’ alternatives that are neither (for example) “Do away with ICE” nor “Summarily Evict” young people who have grown up in America” – it’s tempting to simply give up.  I mean, when shouting louder doesn’t work, or posting more doesn’t work, what’s left?

“Fan into flame the gift that God has given you…”   which means that you and I have each been wired uniquely by our creator to bless and serve this broken world.  If perfecting and using our gifts is the road we’ve been called to travel, the truth of the matter is that there are about a million seductive side roads along the way.  You can be tempted to pursue success instead of using your gifts, because success can soothe your insecurities.  You can be tempted to persuade people who, in all likelihood won’t be persuaded by you, precisely because they’re already deeply entrenched, and your attempts are born out of rage, or pride that you’re enlightened, or some other dark place.  When the shouting’s done, nobody’s convinced.  You can be tempted to invest your time in self medicating your fears, frustrations, and sorrows.  You give a finger to the world and say, “A curse on all of you… I’m redefining my life as the consumption of good coffee, good wine, and the pursuit of good ski conditions.”   And just like that, you forfeit the life for which you’re created.

There’s a better way forward:

  1. You’re blessed to be a blessing.  This means that you are still here, breathing and eating, enjoying beauty and feeling pain, because God wants you to be a blessing in some way.  Writing.  Woodwork.  Hospitality with the neighbors.  Mentoring someone younger than you.  Teaching.  Healing.  So get on with it… as you’re exhorted to do here and here.
  2. This implies that you’ve come to discover how God has made you; what your unique capacities are.  Many spend the precious commodity of time on the earth never intentionally even asking the question:  What unique contributions does God want me to make to this world?  Just asking the question is a good starting point.  As I began asking this question years ago, I realized that my best strengths are almost always related to creating.  I studied architecture because I like creating space.  I studied music composition because I like creating a collection of sounds.  And now, almost every day, I create – usually using words that become books, or sermons, or classes.
  3. Stay in the Zone.  A favorite book of mine called “Flow” talks about how 100% focus on what we’re called to do leads to a beautiful space, where time almost stands still and we’re no longer anxious about things “out there”, whether that be the leaky pipes, or the state of politics in America.  While we’re at our task(s) we’re all in – and we’re intentional about getting all in every day because we have some short term goals that keep us going back to the drawing board, or wood shop, or library, or writing software, or the homeless shelter where we serve, or medical clinic, or courtroom.  We know our craft, our calling, and are committed to it regardless of the noise and villifying and arguing that’s going on out there — we’re not scattered.

This is liberating friends.  Some people have shared that they’re disappointed I don’t write as much these days about politics or divisive social and theological issues.  I don’t write as much because ironically, while such posts easily generate four or five times more readers, they persuade almost nobody, and leave acidic and hateful words in the comments section from people who seem to enjoy nothing more than calling those who disagree with them ‘idiots’.  This isn’t helping anyone, so I’ve drastically reduced such posts.

Instead, my commitment to you is to help you shine as the light God has created you to be, and I’ll leave the shouting to others.  This isn’t intended to lead to withdrawal or silence – but engagement – it’s just that engagement that comes out from a commitment to use our gifts, build up and encourage others will be the best foundation for changing the world.

I welcome your thoughts.

“…the time we’ve been given” – The Why and How of a Personal Mission Statement

I have a morning routine:

1. CoffeeAlways first:  Coffee

2. Bible reading while drinking the first cup.

3. Meditation (from the Bible reading)

4. Writing in the journal with the second cup.

5. Check my to do list.

The to-do list is a document somewhere in the cloud, and every time I open it, this shows up:

MISSION STATEMENT:  RD uses his gifts of teaching,  catalytic vision, and leadership to serve and bless people by inviting them to wholeness, and demonstrating through both teaching and living, how Christ changes everything: spirit, soul, body – intimacy, family, friendships, values, ethics, relationship with neighbors, posture vis a vis culture – priorities as a citizen, global citizen, and citizen of a heavenly kingdom – and hope regarding the future.  He offers clear steps for people to take in their journey of transformation and invites people to those next steps

This is my mission statement and I’m of the opinion that everyone needs one for two important reasons:

1. Jesus had one.  In one of Jesus’ earliest public appearances, he opened Isaiah and read this:  ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Then he closed the scroll and told everyone in the room that this scripture was being fulfilled right before their very eyes, because Jesus was the “me” to whom this text was referring.  He knew that the charge in Isaiah was his, that this was why he came to earth.

It’s best if each of us knows ‘why we’ve come to earth’ because such a knowing gives us clarity and purpose each and every day.  Clarity and purpose are not only vital to our mental and physical health, but they alleviate the frustration of ultimately looking back on our lives and wondering if we’ve invested them well.  If we both know our mission, and take the time to visit it regularly, there’s a sort of ‘sifting’ that happens, so that we spend increasingly less time doing things that don’t contribute to our mission.

This might sound like a mission statement will lead to a joyless life of pure self denial, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The reality is that when we’re living into our prayerfully crafted and wisely created mission statement, we will be living in ways that align with who we actually are, rather than who we perhaps want to be.  For example, I’d love to be my neighbor sometimes because he has tremendous abilities with power tools and practical problem solving when it comes to matters of property.  However, there have been a few times when I’ve tried to become him by fixing my own car, or solving an electrical problem in the house.  Oops!  The only thing I become good at when I try to be him is impatience and @#$%^.   I now know that I’m not wired for wiring.  I’m wired for writing.  So, other than simpler projects which I can pull off easily with a ‘for dummies’ guidebook, I’m leaving repairs and remodels to the folks who can do it.  I’ll stick with words, thank you very much.

As a result, because I’m doing more activities that contribute to my mission, I’m more fulfilled!

2. A mission statement prevents mission drift.  Every morning when I create my to-do list and look at past projects that are either done or due soon, I’m subconsciously weighing these activities against my mission statement.  This helps me not only stay true to my calling; it helps me continually understand my calling better.  As a result of this little daily process, I’m gaining a clearer picture of what I’ll hope to be doing with my time when, someday, I’m no longer leading a large urban church.  My mission statement helps me narrow the broad array of choices, and focus – both on a daily basis, and when asking big life questions.

Before running off to make a mission statement, there are two caveats:

Caveat #1:  Your mission statement must be more important than other things.  Some people have mission statements, but they’re actually just window dressing to cover up their truest motivations, which are about wealth, power, fame, living in a certain nice place, being super healthy, or enjoying sensual pleasures as much as possible.  It’s not that we shouldn’t care at all about such things; it’s just that when such things become central in our lives, they become terribly destructive.  So you performed well in the cross-fit gym.  Is that really why you were born?  So you have spectacular sex four nights a week, or retire with multiple millions in the bank at 36, or buy a Tuscan Villa.  Are these your core reasons for existence?  I hope not.  Our mission statement has to do with living into our perceived truest identity, and I’ll write more about that in my next post.   For now the important thing to see is that we’re to be driven by our identity, not our desires.   If I were driven solely by desires, I’d be the guy with a great villa in Tuscany and millions in the bank.

It’s better though, to be driven by the calling and identity that God has given us, which brings me to the second caveat…

Caveat #2:  We don’t create our mission statement out of thin air.  We discern it!  At a level, this is a lifelong process of answering this question carefully:  What do I do that brings me joy, and is affirmed by other people?

A deliberate, careful, and prayerful consideration of this question will likely yield a few answers, and embedded in those answers will be the seeds of your mission statement.

This is so valuable and practical for me that I hope you’ll walk with me through the process and create your own.  It’s because of this mission statement that I say “yes” to coffee with God, still say “yes” to leading the church I lead, say “yes” or “no” to hospitality and speaking invitations on various occasions, and easily say “no” to various options for use of my time or money.

Does anyone else out there have a mission statement they’d like to share?

Do you have questions about crafting your mission statement?

If “yes”, please respond in the comments section and it will help craft this series.  Thanks!

39 thoughts on marriage after 39 years

Every year for the past few, Donna and I have taken a few moments around the time of our anniversary to reflect on why we’re still happy, still in love, still feeling blessed.  We’re happy to share our discoveries with you.  In a time when the very notion of lifelong commitment is viewed cynically, we believe more strongly than ever, that real and abiding love is possible.  Far from perfect, we nonetheless still enjoy our marriage a great deal, and so offer these 39 thoughts after 39 years.  (We both wrote this and in many cases you’ll know whose writing a particular thought, but not in every case)

 

  1. We’re both youngest, and I’ve read relationships between two youngest are very challenging.  From the world wide web:

    Worst match for a lastborn: Another lastborn

    Two lastborns in a relationship is chaos. Lastborns have a tendency to get into financial trouble in a marriage, and it takes a lot of extra effort in this kind of relationship to work through who pays bills, who cleans up, who takes care of the social calendar, etc. If no firm decisions are made, lastborn pairs can quickly get into a lot of trouble.

    According to Leman, lastborns have a built-in tendency to pass the buck. So if both partners are hellbent on blaming each other for everything, that’s not going to end well.

    Whatever.  Turns out these dire predictions were all rubbish in our case, so don’t believe everything you read on the internet – some things just incite fear and anxiety.  Love wins.

  2. She’s on at night.  I’m on in the morning. As a result, the best times for discussion are neither of those times.
  3. We don’t share any letters in the Meyers Briggs test.  Sometimes that’s annoying, but most of the time, we’ve come to see it as an asset.
  4. Our shared passion is the outdoors, and having a shared passion has been valuable.
  5. When we hike or ski, I go slower when we’re together than I would alone.  This too is a good thing.
  6. Donna pays attention to 10,000 details, and this frees me up to pay attention to big ideas, big projects, and long term vision.  It seems like a match made in heaven.
  7. If there’s going to be a difficult conversation and one of us doesn’t have the energy for it, we don’t just defer to “later”  – we set a time for the discussion.
  8. We know each other’s “Love Languages” and try to use them.
  9. We know each other’s sexual comfort zones and desires and try to honor both.
  10. We are profoundly independent in many ways, each of us having full lives apart from the other.  That’s served us well.
  11. In that same vein, my travels for work almost always intensify my appreciation of our marriage.
  12. I believe that marriage requires a commitment to help the other person become the best version of themselves they can be.  This requires not only affirmation and encouragement, but hard conversations.
  13. My wife is, without even a close second, my best friend.
  14. Knowing that she’s for me has made our marriage a place of grace where it’s easy to confess.
  15. I affirm her gifts as often as I can.
  16. Donna has her own chain saw.
  17. We encourage each other in our own unique areas of giftedness rather than competing with them.
  18. We’re quick to laugh at our own mistakes.
  19. Richard loves to cook and I love to clean up so we make a great team in the kitchen.
  20. Know the social limits of your spouse and respect them. Don’t force introverts beyond their limits.
  21. Celebrate positive habit changes with gratitude rather than an exasperated “Finally!”
  22. Desperately try to see issues from their perspective. This is crucial to empathy.
  23. Remember that you’re on the same team. True in parenting as well as marriage.
  24. “Please” and “Thank you” are always in order, no matter how long you’re married.
  25. Never ask the question “Do these jeans make me look fat?”
  26. Be willing to try new things, new foods, or new activities with an open mind. It’s ok to not like it but not until you’ve given it an honest effort.
  27. Remind yourself of the qualities that drew you to him/her back in the beginning and celebrate them.
  28. Share in the decision-making. No dictatorships in marriage.
  29. Let her purchase her own power tools. (Kitchen appliances don’t count.)
  30. Emailing product links for gift ideas is perfectly fine (preferred, actually.)
  31. Recognize that some days you’re not that easy to live with either.
  32. Snuggling is better than television, reading, sports, crafts, cleaning, computers, social media, work, eating, etc.
  33. Remember why you married.  In my case it was because she gave the freedom to fail, had a great sense of humor, and would live anywhere in the world.  Two out of three are still true, but I think we’ve both married the Pacific Northwest and called it home ’til the end.
  34. Don’t insist your devotional life be the same.  Find what works for each of you and share what you’re learning over tea, or coffee.
  35. Find a way to laugh together, if possible every day
  36. If at all possible, and it usually is, pay off your credit completely each month.
  37. Discuss major purchases over a set amount before buying
  38. Value simple timeless things over stuff:  conversation, candles, campfires, walks, starlight, and falling snow are cheaper and better than most movies, concerts, and sporting events.  Not all…. but most.
  39. Don’t buy into the lie that monogamy is over-rated.  There’s still something to be said for remaining faithful, forgiving, telling truth, and growing old together.

Your “Sphere of Influence” is calling and You must go

As happens every September, there’s a feeling of newness in the air.  It’s not just the crisp morning air and footballs flying, it’s a returning from the unusual syncopations of summer activities to the more rhythmic routine of autumn. I’ve returned from vacation this year particularly refreshed and focused, and for particular reasons.  I’ve watched with growing concern as America has become increasingly polarized politically, so much that our fragmentation is becoming, more than either party’s ideology, the biggest present threat to our future.

The church hasn’t been immune to this polarizing.  We’ve mirrored the culture’s political tribal hatred, enough so that it’s increasingly rare to find people of differing political parties willing to worship together, let alone dialogue about their differences.  We then add theological layers to the debate, elevating particular ethical issues to the status of litmus tests for fellowship, while knowing full well that there are good people who love Christ and hold to a high view of scripture who hold the opposite view.  But for too many, that fact is of no consequence as they withdraw from fellowship because of “those people”.

Toss in a healthy dose of #METOO, courtesy of a NY Times article regarding a well known evangelical church, and an ever expanding sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and I find myself, on my worst days, wanting to pull out completely.  John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go…”.   I hear them calling too but there are two phrases, each different than Muir’s, that keep me coming to work, day after day, as I soon enter what will be my 24th year of ministry in the same place.

1. The mountains are calling and I want to go…  Of course I do.  My wife and I enjoyed our first dates on hikes and snowshoeing.  The mountains are reminders for us of so much that is true and life giving:  our smallness in the light of eternity – God’s grandiose generosity and immense creativity – glimpses, in the majesty of mountains, abundance of waters, beauty of wildlife, silence of a starry night, of life as it should be:  glorious, peaceful, interdependent, thriving.  Yes, I’ll keep getting out:  for morning runs, sabbath hikes, photography meditation walks, ski tours, and more.  I need to read God’s other book, the book of creation, as much as I need to read the Bible.  Maybe you do too.

But it’s also true that….

My sphere of influence: develop leaders and invite people to body/soul/spirit wholeness

2. My sphere of influence is calling, and I must go.  Sphere of influence is a little phrase I picked up decades ago in one of the best books I’ve ever read.  The author spoke of our sphere of concern, things about which we care, but are outside our control.  We care about politics, climate change, health care, increasing urban density in Seattle, the lazy employee on our team at work, the senior management that are incompetent, etc.  But many of these things, for most of us, are well outside our authority to fix.  Of course for some of them we can vote on, and perhaps if we’re motivated, we can and should organize as well, or do something more dramatic.  But what we shouldn’t do at all is spend time worrying, complaining, lamenting, gossiping, grumbling, whining, posting social media grenades, or being vexed, if it’s a matter outside our direct sphere of influence.  If we do we’ll be paralyzed, overcome with worry, and ultimately feel like disempowered victims.  Does that sound familiar to you?  Increasingly, the Victim card is the most popularly played card in the game of life.  But it’s often misguided and disempowering.

It’s far better for me to focus on my sphere of influence.  I’ve developed a personal mission statement, which I’ll share in the next blog post.  My goals come out of this statement, and my to do list, at my best, comes out of these goals.  That way, no matter what’s going on in Syria or Washington DC, I needn’t succumb to the anxiety, fear, anger, and hand wringing that is the soil out from which our current cultural crises are being born.  Instead, I can follow the advice of Paul when he prayed that his friends would “live a life worthy of God’s calling…”.

Be faithful on your path because nobody else can!

My commitment to you:

I have a goal this fall of using this blog  as a means of encouraging you to define, refine, and excel in your calling.  I’ll write about finding your gifts, writing your own mission statement, and developing a set of core values by which to live.  YOU CAN HELP in this process by engaging with the material, subscribing (see below), and sharing the posts you like with your friends.

I’m asking you to share the material because my hope and prayer is that more and more people will step away from the negative and cynical culture wars, disempowering victim mentalities, and disengaged cynicism, and instead live fully into their callings to be people of hope in this very difficult time.  Will you join me on the journey?

O Lord Christ…

With each headline we sense a vast machine at work, destroying some things we hold dear, no matter our party, even as those operating the machinery do so in the name of preservation.  Forgive our fears, our cynicism, our anger – all of which have blinded us to the seminal truth that each of us have a place in this world: gifts to use; neighbors and children and enemies to love; our own souls to nurture toward wholeness; joy to impart.  May we get on with it, each of us, in our spheres of influence, doing whatever our hands find to do, with all our might.  And we’ll thank you for the joy, and privilege, and adventure of it – in Jesus name.

Amen

Hungry for a Tribe – musings on isolation and consumerism

A recent New York Times article (you can find the link over on my twitter account @raincitypastor) describes the gnawing hunger our culture has for belonging to a tribe, and how those longings are fulfilled in a tribe.   This longing has led to an explosion in self-help podcasts on all manner of subjects ranging from the development of morning rituals, to cold showers, meditation, and coffee made of mushrooms.

What’s going on?  Why does Joe Rogan have 30 million podcasts downloads each month?  And, more cogent to this blog and my own musings: “What needs are being met in the plethora of self-help broadcasts that the church is failing to meet?  Should the church be meeting these needs?  How?”

My observation:  In contrast to our longings for community, our consumer culture isolates and leads to paralyzing confusion.

C.S. Lewis postulates in “The Great Divorce” that hell is that place where we get whatever we want, but the result of having our particular consumerist desires met is that we become isolated.  In our zeal to build a customized life, we find ourselves increasingly isolated.   Rituals that once bound people together, such as church attendance, prayer groups, or whatever have fallen on hard times (for reasons I’ll address next).  The result is isolation and confusion.  I’m alone, and I don’t know what to do in order to live better.

Along come podcasts which call people to what are offered as life giving rituals.  Whether it’s morning meditation, fasting until lunch, or a daily cold shower, purveyors of ‘primal wisdom’ are calling people to rituals.   The value of rituals are that I now “know what to do” because someone has offered a prescription of practices that lead to life.

Second, I now have a community, if only  virtual, who share my values.   These podcasters have, in other words, tapped into a need that the church, long ago, stopped meeting.

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

My Proposals

#1 – Elevate the Value Of Rituals – in past eras of the church, the pervasiveness of  consumerism, individualism, wealth disparity, and nationalism, gave rise to a counter response called “monasticism”.  They became “The Desert Father’s” or “The Benedictines” or “The Celtic Church” which thrived beyond the structures of the Roman Empire, or the “Confessing Church” in Germany during the rise of the Reich.  All these communities called people to various rituals of prayer, fasting, Bible Reading, service, and more.

I will continue to work at this in the church I lead.  I’ve written a book  in order to help people develope “Rule of Life” rituals.   I wrote this because the hyper-individualism and consumerism that is American Evangelical Christianity is horribly ineffective.   Perhaps, in our desire to make faith accessible, we’ve lowered the bar so close to the ground that self-denial, rituals, or challenges regarding the use of our time, money, or bodies never happen.  The result of this is that we end up with nothing to offer or nothing to say.   As a result, the church has been relegated to the dust bin of irrelevance for an increasing percent of the population.

Here’s how The NY Times article suggests that these podcasts are filling the gap:

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

To the extent that the church can once again elevate and create a culture where faith has particular practices, and to the exten that the practices offer a real path to wholeness and transformation, the church’s light might once again begin to shine.

#2 –  Stop behaving like Gnostics; Recover the Body – These podcasts, for all their flaws, are seeking to speak to the whole person.  Meditation.  Cold Showers.  Mushroom Coffee.  Finding your tribe.  Serving others.

Wow.  It’s clear to me that an appeal of podcasts is their capacity to address the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.  It’s not that I agree with everything offered (“Mushroom coffee?  Really?”).   The reality though, is that God cares about the whole person, and too often the church doesn’t.  The church’s failure to address the whole person is central to why so many are leaving the church.   Paul prayed that we’d be “set apart” and “made whole” in every way: spirit, soul, body.

I’m presently working on developing a discipleship pathway that addresses the whole person.  Such a pathway must include not only practices of prayer and generosity for the spirit, but doing soul work related to our brokenness so that our time use, money use and relationships all move toward wholeness.  Finally, we must also address the body work related to sleep, exercise, and making wise food choices.

What would it look like if God’s people were functionally tribes of people (called churches) committed to life transforming practices that will empower people to serve and bless the world out from a place of ongoing movement toward wholeness?  Such a church would shine as light in the midst of darkness, would become food in the midst of people hungry for meaning, belonging, wholeness, and ritual.  We hunger for these things because God has placed ‘eternity in the hearts’ of all people!  Thanks be to God that our world is hungry.  It’s high time we begin building cultures that become the food we’re meant to be.

I welcome your thoughts…

 

The Sacred Art of Unlearning

My granddaughter moved in a few weeks ago.  O yeah – my daughter and son-in-law moved in too, but I’m writing about my granddaughter because I was utterly surprised by her.  I knew she’d be here, but had no idea how much she’d teach me because I’d forgotten about being a child.  We bonded quickly and though I’m aware that I write shielded from the hard 24/7 work of discipline, care, and nurture that is parenting, I’m nonetheless seeing this small child, I believe, through a different lens now than the lens through which I saw my own children decades ago.  Maybe its because I’m at a stage of life where I’m less driven.  Maybe I’m a little softer now.  I don’t know.  I only know that my time with my granddaughter sweeps away some things in me that need sweeping away so that I can once again learn what it means to have ‘faith like a child’.

I hope that by sharing some things I’m learning, you too can enjoy a little refreshment.

Cultivate Curiosity – “What’s that?” is the phrase I’m hearing most these days.  Luci will point at any item in the house and ask.  She knows what she doesn’t know, and strangely, that’s a fundamental precondition for learning and knowing anything.  One of the problems with adulthood in general is that once we’ve developed a capacity to find our way through the maze that is daily living, we’re at risk of functionally becoming “zombies”; not literally of course, but in the sense that we’re falling far short of the kind of humans we’re created to be.  Instead of overflowing with delight, gratitude, and deep engagement in the moment, we’re stuck inside our heads with anxiety, fear, regret, shame, judgements, and obsession with our appetites.

We all need to re-cultivate curiosity, but none need it more than the political and religious fundamentalists of any denomination or party.  Matthew Perry, a journalist and atheist, wrote an article entitled “Africa Needs God” in which he declares that his travels in Africa revealed that, “Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.”

I wish this was true among Christ followers in America, but instead we’re predominantly listening for keywords so that we can put people in bins.  I just read that all democrats are “haters”, just as I read that all republicans are “blind,” (a charge also brought against democrats).  Don’t even get me started about the mudslinging generalizations tossed at churches by churches.  If someone doesn’t use the right word to describe the authority of the Bible or have the wrong view of who gets to be a church member, or a different view of baptism, or the meaning of what happened on the cross, or whatever, they get a label and presto!  You don’t need to learn anything from them anymore.

When did we become only turf defenders, judging those who view the world differently?  When we allowed curiosity to dry up?  Listen!  We have nothing to fear by asking questions, nothing to fear by holding our convictions with an open hand.  This is because Jesus is “the truth” and so if we’re seeking truth, then we’ll find it – eventually.  But seekers of truth operate under the presupposition that they don’t have all the answers, and that even some of the answers they hold might just need a bit of adjusting.

We’re in drought season when it comes to the matter of humble curiosity.  Children can help us unlearn our arrogance and start learning again.

Enjoy Helping –  As I was packing for my speaking trip this past week, Luci was with me so I handed her my tech cords and asked her to put them in my backpack.  She was finished in seconds and asked, “What else goes in your backpack?” And thus began a half hour of my granddaughter helping me pack, and talking about airplanes.

When did we grow up and begin viewing help as a burden, or a privilege we dole out while patting ourselves on the back?  It happened, ironically, to the extent that we became insecure in our identity, because the people who give generously to their last breath are people who know they are full.  They know they’ve received much, and so find it both a privilege and delight to give much.  What’s more, like Luci, people who serve do so as a means of bonding with people.  The task isn’t unimportant, but it’s very secondary to the relationship.  Luci wants (to my utter delight) to be with me!

There’s a delight in relationship that trumps task and this becomes the culture in which service can grow.

Laugh – while we were sitting together watching the World Cup final, Luci brought out a quartet of tiny stuffed animals, all from the Winnie the Pooh collection.  I tossed one at her and it hit her on the head.  She burst into laughter so I threw another, and another, and another, until all four were on the floor.  When she stopped laughing for two seconds she picked them up and tossed them at me.  I caught them and threw them back, not ‘to’ her, but ‘at’ her, and soon she was on the floor laughing more, and more and more.

I don’t think I’d laughed that hard in real life for a quite a while because, you know, adulthood.  Plans.  Goals.  Aches and pains.  Fears and regrets. Investments.  Properties.  Retirement.  Health Insurance.  Politics…and a host of other things that steal our capacity to find joy in the moment.   The serious business of living.

Really?  How about we become like children again and live out from a posture of trust? “Faith like a child” is what Jesus called it, and when we live like that, we’re less worried about the future, less shamed over our past, and as a result, more completely in the moment.

Addressing Poverty – one by one by one by one

In the wake of the recent head tax hysteria in Seattle, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mother Teresa’s famous quote about poverty. Answering the question “Which is the poorest nation on earth?” in a very Mother Teresa-like manner, she said, “Yes, yes, yes. I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because,”,she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

This relates to the head tax, and to the liberal dream that money and programs can eventually solve homelessness.  Money, the increasing divide between the rich and poor, the disappearing middle class, and cost of health care are all, as the left  points out, contributing factors to the present and increasing crisis. I, for one, agree.

But the left often seems blind the fact that a strong social network and strong family ties are even more foundational.  When these are in place, individuals in crisis are offered a web into which they might fall, giving their lives a resiliency, emotional strength, and confidence that they are loved. These things, believe me, go a long way in mitigating a myriad of social problems, including homelessness. To believe that addressing all the real problems in the above paragraph without naming the demise of family networks as a scourge is pure folly. The elephant in the room is that we suffer from a depth of relational poverty that isolates, leaving people without the safety net that first and foremost should is the purvue of healthy family systems.

Normalize divorce, encourage endless consumerism in the name of economic growth, steal childhood from young lives by hiring phones and iPads as babysitters, substitute “staying married” for “intimacy,” allow political divides to make family members enemies, toss in a good dose of hypermobility, stay too busy to visit family, raise your children with manipulation to fulfill your unmet ambitions, and presto – you have the recipe for isolation. Isolation is a factor in addictive behavior, which itself becomes an employment factor, and a factor in domestic violence. Can you see the storm arising? The results are people living on the streets who are cut off from family, victims of domestic violence, or opioids, or foreclosure.

You could buy a house for everyone on the streets, but until you address the all the factors that elevate hyper-individualism to the status of an idol, homelessness will continue to mature into an economic pandemic.

The good news is that there’s plenty each of us can do to shine as light in the midst of this dark problem.

1. Recognize the value of family ties. I just returned from speaking at a camp in the coastal redwoods where my grandma was a cook. Every time I’m there, I need to tell the guests to whom I’m speaking that this place is holy ground for me, because when I was a child it was literally the safest place on earth for my young soul. I still have memories of gramdma’s delight as she picked me up, hugged my little four-year-old body and delightedly cried, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here.” The ensuing days as a child where filled with the scent of redwoods and cinnamon rolls, coastal air and bacon. There was laughter, storytelling, rock skipping at the creek, sand castle building in Santa Cruz, and a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Last week, I went and sat outside her still-standing house and could nearly see the ghosts of my whole family, laughing, reading, resting. Heaven on earth.

Her legacy is why I’m so delighted that my oldest daughter, her husband, and my granddaughter are living with us.  I hope and pray that when little Luci is 60, she’ll look back on her time in the fir forest east of Seattle as a safe place, a little heaven on earth. We’ll watch World Cup together, toss a ball, roast hot dogs on a campfire, wade in Coal Creek across the street, maybe even sleep under the stars a night or two.  Hopefully she’ll learn, not by preaching, that people who love God also love people, laugh a lot, are curious, and love the world God has made.

The notion that any program will ever be able to create that is rubbish. Yes, by all means we need to care for the current generation living on the streets and provide both food and compassion. But if we take the long view, we’d be wise to also elevate the value of healthy marriages, of enough time for hugs and freshly cooked food, of family systems where truth and grace and prevail. These, though, are moral issues, solvable only by saying there are things we can value that increase the odds of making families healthier.

2. Name values – and the greatest of these is love. I’ll forever declare that healthy marriages aren’t made by people “staying together” because “the Bible says so.”. Rather, healthy marriages require love, and love requires vulnerability and truth-telling, confession and forgiveness, mutual servanthood, and time, and energy.  I’ll forever declare that sexual intimacy belongs in covenant relationships, that sex isn’t just a form of recreation, that “serial monogamy” is destroying the possibilities of real intimacy, even as evangelical shaming does the same.

This brings me to the next important observation which is that, when our values differ among family members regarding sexuality, money, politics, or any other divisive thing, love needs to win.  You don’t disown your children because they don’t share your view. You don’t spend your meals together endlessly trying to convince the other party. You have the conversation once, or once in a while; never proportionally more than spice to the omellete. Life’s too short for that kind of hostility, and it’s not the way of Jesus.

3. Practice hospitality. The couple in this picture came up to me at the camp where I spoke and told me that they were the “young kids” on staff when my grandma was the cook in the early 60’s.  “We loved your grandma,” he said. “They were hospitable!”  Another old man at the conference told me he was single when he arrived at Mount Hermon and that my grandma had the only TV in the area in the early 60s.  “She invited all the single people over on New Year’s Day for pancakes, the Rose Parade, and the Rose Bowl.” Yes. Food. Sport. And a welcoming home.

We can and must address acute social problems. But we cannot, and must not, kid ourselves into thinking that money solves the most glaring poverty on the planet – the relational poverty that comes from thinking individualism and more stuff can solve all problems.  One of the best things you and I can do in the wake of our multiple national crises is embody the values that make for strong social networks and strong families.

Silence, Suicide and the folly of our “left vs right” polarization

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life!  – Jesus the Christ

Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there.  Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team.  But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.

Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically.  45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide.  It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic.  As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.

We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well.  When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.

It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days.  I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian.  When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left.   The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world.   We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.

But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide.  A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide.  Another young gay man commits suicideTo the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer:  yes.  

In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him.  This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it.  There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something.  A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.

On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change.  Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity.  Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story.  It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now.  Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…”  Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something:  Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.

So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.

Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere.  There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.

We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.  

Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843.  Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain.  Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.

 

 

The Collapse of Everything, and Why it’s a Source of Hope

I’m on holiday today, and went hiking, which can be an exciting activity during spring in the Cascades.  I begin my ascent at 1900’ and over the course of three miles climb to 3800’ before a slight descent down to my mountain lake destination.  There’s not a hint of snow until I get close the lake, but then the trail crosses several avalanche chutes still filled with snow debris from a wild winter.  Avalanche chutes are stripped bear of any trees so this means I’m crossing snow that has warm rock just beneath the surface, which means that I’m walking on snow bridges, often of unknown strength.  The snow’s been melting out from the bottom up so that the thickness of the snow can vary from a foot or more to less than an inch.  Add in the fact that the strength of said bridge varies not only by it’s depth, but by it’s temperature, and suddenly walking across these bridges can feel like you’re playing Russian roulette with every step.

Plunge your pole, hard, into the place you anticipate placing your foot.  Look carefully.  Step quickly.  Go! They’ve collapsed under my weight more than once during spring hiking, but thankfully I’ve never been seriously injured by it.  Not everyone is so lucky.  There are lots of ways to mitigate this risk, but I’m using snow bridges as a metaphor today to remind you that every bridge in your life will collapse someday.  If a bridge is what we depend on in our lives for security or meaning, the reality is that nothing lasts forever; vocation, health, marriage, children, are all destined for change along our journey.  Like snow bridges these blessings are dynamic.  One day everything appears solid and then, BOOM!  There’s a heart condition, or a financial trial and the risk of foreclosure.  Even the best of marriages usually end with one party dying first, leaving the other alone, grieving over the loss of that bridge which gave so much meaning to life.  Economic boom periods are cyclical, just like the building of a snow bridge through the winter and its eventual collapse later in the spring.  The same could be said of political parties, and even of nations.  Nothing lasts forever.  There’s a cycle of birth, vibrancy, decay, and death, that’s woven into the fabric of world.

Those who embrace this inevitable temporality of all things are standing on the threshold of freedom and peace!  This is because there’s a single exception, in all the universe, to this reality.  We who believe that Jesus rose from the dead see that resurrection as the shining light of hope, offering “the power of an indestructible life” as the prototype of where history’s headed.  IF this is true, then we have a bridge that will never weaken, melt, or be destroyed.  In fact, this is the langauge we find in the Bible…

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea – Psalm 46:2

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.  The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. – Hebrews 12:26,27

(Jesus) has been constituted a Priest, not on the basis of a bodily legal requirement [an externally imposed command concerning His physical ancestry], but on the basis of the power of an endless and indestructible Life. – Hebrews 7:16

There’s an indestructible life which cannot be shaken, and this life is united with the lives of all who call upon him, so that we become partakers of eternity.  This means that we’re part of a better story, a story where God is making all things new, moving the cosmos away from the cycle of birth, death, and decay, to “life for the ages” which is the literal meaning of eternal life.

Where are you putting you weight these days?  What bridges are you trusting in to give you meaning and security.  I stood on a path today and at one point plunged by pole into the place where I intended to step and it broke through, collapsing the bridge and revealing huge rocks.  A fall could have been serious.  We need to put our weight where we know we’re safe, where we know that, come what may, our source will always be with us.

We need these truths, all of us, eventually in our lives.  My hope is we’ll learn to seek the eternal rock sooner rather than later.