“Don’t Love the World” “Love the World” Which is it? … a third way

I skied today during my work break, because I’m fortunate to live just a few minutes from lifts, groomed trails, and snow.  Our hill is, by global standards, small.  I don’t care.  I don’t ski to win anything.  I ski for the beauty, for the way the light reflects off the snow, and the clouds pour over the ridge, for the sun turning icicles into prisms, and for the reminder that I’m healthy, alive, and live in a beautiful world.  Each day, each breath, is a privilege.  Later I’ll drink a glass of wine, eat some shrimp bathed in a crispy crust, along with salad and beets, and enjoy conversation, and lovely music with family.

I LOVE this world, in the kind of way that I believe the Bible tells us to love the world.  I love the intricate biosystems of the human body, and the remarkable ecosystems and varied lifeforms that all contribute to our planet.  This ordered life is the thing the Bible calls COSMOS, for that is exactly the Greek word for “world”.  Sunsets.  Laughter.  Human touch.  Sleep.  Food and drink.  The glory and mystery of each human face.  Snow.  The arrival of birds in the spring.  Summers thick with life and ripening.  Fall colors.  Snow again.  So it goes.

I LOVE the world and the God who made it, and lets us enjoy it.

So I was a bit taken aback yesterday when, at the end of teaching a delightful group of college students for about six hours, one student asked me this:  “James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”  He then asked me how we could be involved in culture, or enjoy the world God has made in light of this severe observation.  “Adultery!!”  That’s God’s assessment of those who are ‘friends with the world’  I didn’t tell him that another verse came to my mind as well, which is I John 2:15, which reads, ”Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them”.  Wow!

He waited for my answer, and though class was already dismissed, nobody had left because I think it was a good, thoughtful, question.  Everyone was gathered around, standing, eagerly waiting for some kind of answer to this question which, apparently was quite important to them.  It was a good question because of its honesty, but also because the wrong answer to this question has led Christians to everything ranging from disdain for culture, to fear of, and withdrawal from, culture – and creation, all in the name of following the Bible’s teaching to “love not the world”

The answer to question begins with understanding the meaning of the word “world” in the Greek language.

The word Cosmos essentially means an arrangement, order, or constitution.  The universe, called the cosmos in Greek and English both, is ordered brilliantly, providing the precise conditions so that life on earth can flourish.  God loves the cosmos, the ordered system(s) created by God, because they are the way the universe ought to be.  It’s broken of course, because of a rebellion, and as a result, God intervened.  “God so loved the world that God gave God’s son…”, not just to get people a destiny of heaven, but in order to bring the cosmos back into alignment with its intended design.

If this is true, then we ought to love God’s perfect design too, which would mean marveling at sunrises, the unique intricacy of snowflakes, the atomic and chemical anomaly that is water (without it’s exact nature, life on earth wouldn’t exist). When we love the world God has made, we open the door to loving God.  When science and faith, ecology and faith, beauty and faith, become antagonists, we miss our calling, as those made in God’s image, to love the world.

The antagonism comes from a misunderstanding of the “world” word as used by Greeks, because Christ followers too often apply the word to the very “cosmos” God created and loves deeply (John 3:16)  Sadly, Christians taught to “not love the world” are often taught that the physical properties and pleasures of this world are off limits to believers.  It’s an insidious form of gnosticism that creates antagonism between Christianity and science, sexuality, ecology, art, and much more.  Those taught this way often become afraid of deep joy, good food, healthy intimacy, and things like the wellspring of emotion that comes when a herd of elk are rushing a meadow at sunrise on frosty morning in Colorado.  Don’t even get them started on movies, art, or photography.

Still, the question remains.  Why does James tell us that “friendship with the world is ‘enmity with God’”?  Why does John say “Love not the world…”  Simply put, it’s because cosmos, the word for world, which simply means, ‘an ordered system’, isn’t just used for our ecosystem and all God made.  It’s used for systems this world has made, like human-trafficking, slavery, racial constructs that inflame hatred and fear, economies based on greed and corruption, and systems of systemic violence and oppression that allow us to casually watch deaths by gun violence, starvation, gang wars, and so much more and sort of surrender to it all as “just the way it is…”   These world systems are also “worlds”, but their origin isn’t in the goodness of God, it’s in the sickness of humans and the power of evil.

The tragedy when Christ followers fail to understand the various meanings of “world” is twofold . First, we’ve seen they can become suspicious of the very gifts God desires to give us as signs of kindness and love.  Instead, they should learn to enjoy and give thanks, like this: Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 9:7-9

The second tragedy though, is that we fail to do war with the truly evil worlds that destroying life, stealing joy, and threatening the planet.  Unrestricted violence, ecological catastrophes that come from overconsumption and greed, human trafficking, the degradation of women, racism, the hyer individualism that leads to loneliness and commensurate addictions, and all the other maladies of our day — these are “the world” John has in mind when he says “love not the world”.  So when I endorse violence, when I’m silent about sexual abuse or racism, when I don’t think about stewarding creation by my consumer choices, I become passively complicit with “the world” – exactly what James and John said we shouldn’t do!

That’s why we love the sunrise and curse cancer.  Love the wine and curse alcoholism.  Love sexuality intimacy in the boundaries of marriage and curse sex trafficking and the oppression of women.  We love God’s world.  We hate the destructive world made by us as fallen humans, and as Christ followers, I pray we’ll spend our lives doing battle with that world, because of the better world that’s all around us because of Christ.

Yes.  Love the world God made.  No.  Don’t love the mess we’ve made of it.  Rather, stand against those worlds in Jesus name, just like Jesus did.

 

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When God was a Bird – A Book about Finding God in Creation

One of the most profound experiences of my life was attending a small retreat for pastors and scientists in 2010 on a tiny island in British Columbia.  The intersection of science and faith rocked my world in the best possible way.  Already a nature lover, I felt as if I’d been given permission, or more strongly, exhortation, to look for the fingerprints of God everywhere, from the structure and behavior of the atom to the vastness of black holes.  My curiosity about all things was gloriously affirmed, and new adventures of seeing how Christ affects everything, began.

Somewhere in between the micro of the atom and macro of the universe, reside the flora and fauna we encounter on a regular basis in our daily living.  They comprise our ecosystem and its increasingly clear that our Creator has called us to both feast on creation and care for it.  Mark Wallace’s new book, “When God was a Bird” magnifies this invitation with stunning clarity and significant weight.  His thesis might be controversial in evangelical circles because of how close it comes to “animism”.  I surely didn’t agree with every word he writes either, but here’s the thing:  profound truths often reside right near the edges of error, and our fear of error often prevents journey to those needed edges- and we’re all the poorer for having let this fear control us.  “When God was a Bird” was, for me, a book at the edge.  He posits, for example, that when the Holy Spirit shows up as a dove at Christ’s baptism, God is showing us that God animates and empowers ALL life, not just humans.  You can argue about it amongst yourselves.  For my part, I’ll note that a standard evangelical teaching is that, though humans are God’s image bearers, only humans are failing to display God’s glory.  The rest of creation is essentially doing fine!  (Psalm 19, Psalm 104).  So I’m fine believing that God’s spirit is omnipresent in creation, expressing glory through the myriad interactions of sun, rock, stars, moon, elk, bird, bee, pollen, spider, squirrel, seed, and …..  unfolding of each day.  Creation, in fact, is waiting for us to get our act together so that the universe can be healed!  (Romans 8)

This book is mostly about feasting, receiving, worshipping, through creation –  about learning to see God in all creation, to see that God is animating all life, and that all life is therefore, beautiful, ordered, and worthy of reverent preservation.

Using a different bird as his foundation for each chapter, Wallace examines God’s relationship to creation through a prism, revealing various facets of creation theology that instill, in me at least, greater sense of seeing and reverence.  I read, and then look out the window at the forest in which I’m blessed to live.  Long ago I realized that this forest wasn’t simply a stage on which my life was playing out, any more than your place, or any place, is simply stage.  My place is also my teacher.  Through the silence of winter snow, the song of the Varied Thrush in spring as I walk through the forest during after supper dusk, the chattering of squirrels  in the summer, and the diminuendo of voices in the vibrant colors of fall.   All are pointing to God as the source of beauty, provision, delight.  Wallace simply takes it a step further, seeking to show us that the delight we feel when we pay attention to creation IS a delight in God.  Argue the semantics of animism if you wish.  But the larger point is clear:  quit treating creation as either a stage for the play of humanity, or a store of harvesting by humanity.  God’s in all of it, and we ignore or abuse at our peril.

Anyone looking for a deeper relationship with God through paying attention to the book of creation would be well served to consider the claims of the book, even if you don’t agree with everything.  The only warning I’ll offer is that the book is academic.  It will, for most of us, require an expansion of vocabulary.  Coupled with interweaving of theology with ecology, it was, for me, a slow read.  Slow, though, is often worthwhile, and that was surely true for me in this case.  The wisdom and thought provoking revelation offered in this book will prove helpful in some emerging programs of a wilderness ministry our church offers for people in the greater Seattle Area.

note:  I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review

The most needed values in our time…

If you’re snowed in somewhere, I offer these thoughts along with a video of sermon about unity, available in the link at the bottom.  Stay warm and safe friends!  

All values matter.  Of course.  But I wonder if the importance of certain values rise and fall in given times and places? I can’t help but believe that certain periods of history would have turned out sustainably better if certain values had risen to prominence at just the right time.  This seems to be some of the sentiment behind the notion that “the sons of Issachar” understood the times, and understood just what Israel should do, as articulated in I Chronicles 12:32.

As I seek to understand the times in which we live, I believe that there are three values we must, MUST, embody as Christ followers, if our testimony is to have any credibility at all.  Here they are:

1. DISCERNMENT –   And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ (Philippians 1:9-10).  

We live in a time when the 24/7 news cycle offers us trinkets and shiny things, when humans are objectified, commodified, sexualized, in pursuit of sales numbers for shareholders.  It’s a time when individualism trumps the common good, when fear trumps courage, and when the pressures of cultural conformity to one’s tribe are so immense that independent thought, and thoughtful dialogue among parties that disagree, have all but vanished.  Those with the kind of discernment for which Paul prayed are able to rise above all this.  They’re neither swayed by social justice merely because its fashionable, nor by hardline pietism simply because some preacher or politician they voted for peddles it.   They are hungry, not for images, but reality.  They don’t make snap judgements and jump on bandwagons, as people did during the trial of Christ (allowing themselves, in a herd mentality, to be persuaded to release a known murderer in order to assure that Christ would be killed).  Instead they wait, allowing truth to germinate and ripen. They live what Tolkien declared:  

All that is gold does not glitter – not all who wander are lost.  

I attended the church I now lead (Bethany Community Church in Seattle) when I was a college student.  In 1978, after Jim Jones seduced more than 900 people to participate in a mass-suicide, one of the pastors led a Sunday School class and the topic was discernment.  We discussed how such an insane thing could happen, how people could be seduced by a smooth-talking charismatic leader, and how a mark of spiritual maturity was a discernment that transcended denomination, party, nation, or any other so called “loyalty.”   We need this value today, more than ever,  because people are increasingly isolating themselves in echo chambers of people who think like them, vote like them, believe like them, and practice faith like them.

It’s those closed off echo chambers that will suck all the spiritual and emotional oxygen out of the air, causing people to choke on their own self-referential, yet stylish, beliefs.  Discernment opens the windows and lets us breathe.

2. GRACE –  I’d grown up basically believing that God was deeply angry at all of humanity but that He’d taken all that anger and poured it out on Christ so that we could get a ticket to heaven.  Now, having our ticket, it was up to us to perform well so that we didn’t make God mad again.  This view of faith led to a great deal of fear (have I prayed enough, done enough, been good enough?), hiding (I surely don’t want anyone to know that about my anger, lust, or fear), and hypocrisy (“I’m just fine thanks”, I’d say in spite of my inner turmoil, self-loathing, and intellectual doubts about the faith).  Thankfully, I was introduced to the concept of grace when I began attending Bethany during college and they were reading a book called “Free for the Taking”.  (I think it’s now a rare book based on this Amazon price!)

Embracing the notion that God is FOR all people, that God LOVES all people, and that salvation is less about quenching God’s anger than it is helping us discover God’s infinite love – these were truths that liberated me to love God, walk with God, and rest in the confidence that God would never leave me, no matter how hard I fell.  Some people are afraid that this kind of high octane grace leads to lawlessness, but, at least in my life, it lead to the opposite.  I fell in love with Jesus, and He became my best friend, the one to whom I would always run when down.

I’m watching people be publicly “executed” these days for their behavior forty years ago, in spite of a track record of deeds that shout, “I’ve changed!  I’m no longer that person!”  We need grace, and second chances, for repentant people, because God’s justice is always intended to be restorative, as revealed in the garden of Eden, where God chases humanity down, and offers the promise of restoration.  What if repentance led to grace?  Our world would be filled with confession and movement towards right living!  This is a value we desperately need today

3. UNITY – The last thing Jesus prayed for prior to His arrest and execution was the visible unity of all believers.  What did we do with that prayer?

We created a very long list of denominations

We created that list by arguing and dividing over various doctrines, and racial/cultural differences

We cannibalized our own brothers and sisters, vilifying people who follow Jesus by calling them heretics and unbelievers because they don’t agree with us on every little detail.  This was the very thing Paul warned against in Romans 14 and 15.

Again, as a college student, I was overwhelmed with gratitude when I walked into Bethany Community Church and saw this sign:

In Essentials Unity

In Non Essentials Liberty 

In All things Charity 

I’d grown up in an environment where churches were splitting over the issue of divorce, and issues related to women in ministry and who ought to be the head of the house, not to mention divisions over speaking in tongues and whether or not someone could lose their salvation.  I knew people on both sides of each of these issues, good people who loved Christ.  And yet, these people where shooting each other with doctrine cannons and Bible grenades.  I was sick of it.

What a joy to find a church who, at least aspirationally, desired to maintain unity in spite of some differences, because, after all, “if we all love Jesus, can’t we unite around that?” To this day I believe that the answer is a resounding YES, and that’s why I’m preaching this weekend on Romans 14 and you can watch it here

And, can watch an intro here.

 

 

 

Post Modernity Grows Up, Functioning Shuts Down

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Voltaire.

You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. Jesus.

I often remind people who look disdainfully at philosophy and history as “impractical subjects” that ideas have consequences.  What begins in academia and the arts eventually overflows the confines of those containers, staining everything else.  “Postmodernity” is something I’ve been hearing about for a few decades now, though its roots are much older.  At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, I’ll note that a skepticism about knowing anything with certitude is a view that runs deep in postmodern thought.  It’s resulted in the deconstruction of literature, the doubting of certain historical narratives, and even the notion of holding science with an open hand, as Newtonian physics gave way to quantum physics and a measure of “mystery” and “uncertainty.”

Postmodernity didn’t arise in a vacuum; it arose because people lie; not even maliciously necessarily.  They lie toward a justified end.  They lie because they believe the lie created by their cultural lens.  They lie because they only know part of the truth.  But untruth, whatever the basis, happens. When people lie, and later it becomes evident that they were lying, it creates a cynicism regarding truth.  The prevailing narrative about Columbus Day is one example.  When I was a child, we celebrated “Columbus’ discovery of America” as three ships sailed from Europe to expand European ‘influence’ among the uncivilized who needed it.  Today we tell a different story.…or should.

Politicians regularly tell lies, like these told by Obama:

FEB. 24, 2009.“We import more oil today than ever before.” (Oil imports peaked in 2005.)
MAR. 10, 2009.“Our high school dropout rate has tripled in the past thirty years.” (It had actually declined by a third.)
JUNE 1, 2009.“If you actually took the number of Muslims [sic] Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” (Almost 60 other countries were home to more Muslims.)
Bush was no better, of course, with his “weapons of mass destruction” basis for the invasion of Iraq, along with his VP’s declaration that our inability to find any evidence merely proves how good they are at hiding them!
The seeds of cynicism and doubting that truth is knowable, though, are ripening.  The challenge, of course, is that none of us can live forever in the land of agnostic uncertainty.  It’s unendurable, because our values need to be rooted in, at the least, what we believe to be reality.  So, needing to find  a reality in which to believe, we’ve increasingly chosen to simply identify with the view that appeals to us.  Then, we stay there, closing our ears to any possibility that our tribe, our view, might need adjusting.  “The other side is lying” we say to ourselves, and they likely are, at least a little bit.  The lies of the other, however, don’t make your view true!!  
When Speaker Pelosi calls a wall “immoral” she neglects to mention that Democrats have supported walls, and fences, and barriers in the past, recently offering a much higher number of dollars to border security which would have included walls.  When Democrats say that arrests at the border are at an all time low, they neglect to mention that families seeking asylum are coming to the border in record high numbers, and are crossing, on foot, barriers designed to stop vehicles, not foot traffic.
This flood creates a backlog of asylum seekers that’s now growing even more rapidly due to the fact that none are being processed during a government shutdown.
Why I don’t I hear democrats talking about these things?  It’s because they’ve chosen to believe a narrative that is in need of nuanced clarification, at the least.  It’s their tribe’s talking points, so they parrot.
The other side’s no better – in fact, is worse – much worse.   Trump’s bent toward lying is well documented, beginning with crowd size at his inauguration, and continuing on to his talking points about the reason we need a border wall.   In spite of reality, Trump and his team continue to offer “alternative reality” and his followers seem to parrot it, just like the left does with theirs.
The result:  “Morality is at stake!”  “Security is at stake!”  Both sides shout, louder, longer.  Both sides dig in.  As a result, healthy food, safe flights, small business loans, vital surgeries, mortgage payments, car payments, and a million other things, all conspire to shout that lies “steal, kill, and destroy”, just like Jesus said they would.
I can’t unpack all the cultural trends that have brought us to this new low, but I’ll observe this:
Unless “we the people” recover a longing for truth from those we elect, and demand that truth be told, and hold leaders relentlessly accountable for lying, the future will only be worse.  Weaker.  More violent.  Louder shouting.  Poorer. Hungrier. More tribal.
Yes, I know there are politics involved in this particular example, but the peace we’ve made with lying, the peace we’ve made with calling accurate reporting “fake news”, the peace we’ve made with “alternative facts” will sink our ship.  Both sides are guilty.  The guiltiest party of all though:  We the people, who’ve created a culture void of thoughtful discourse, reason, and the spirited pursuit of truth.
NEXT UP:  Knowing Truth in a Post Modern World.

Authentic Health: A Good Read to start 2019

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – I Thessalonians 5:23

If you’re taking stock of your health this New Years season, I’m happy to recommend a book that has proven helpful to me this fall.  There are more than a few of us, Christian and otherwise, who have our “pedal to the metal.”  We work long hours, stay up late, and play hard in our free time.  Our problem isn’t that we don’t exercise, or have the occasional smoothie filled with green things, it’s that we don’t have an off switch.

Authentic Health by Gus Vickery M.D., is just the book for such people.  Though there are chapters on nutrition and exercise, they weren’t game changers for me (though the material about intermittent fasting was compelling).  My health problems stem more from doing too much than too little, from going too fast than too slow.  For these reasons, the chapters on sleep and stress reduction through meditation were a big deal.  The material presented was compelling enough to motivate, and simple enough to take action immediately.  I did, and am now sleeping eight hours a night most nights, and have moved my morning practice of meditating on scripture and praying to a higher level of priority and thus consistency.  The results of these two things have been measurable; reduced resting pulse, reduced blood pressure, increased presence in the moment when in conversations with people, increased sense of peace and joy in situations that previously created stress for me, and less anxiety about the future.

Before the chapters on these matters are presented, the good doctor spends time challenging us to think about whether we really want good health enough to make needed changes, or if it’s just a wish dream.  The chapters on motivation and habits are, in my opinion, worth the price of the book because the reality is that most of us reading this have ample time to create the kind of habits that will allow us to live in the fulness of Paul’s prayer that we prosper in spirit, soul, AND body.  He suggests that we often unconsciously choose habits (foods, sedentary use of time, anxious thoughts).  This book isn’t a promise, by any means, of immunity from disease or suffering.  Far from it.  Countless people do all the right things, and yet are victimized by cancer, or heart disease.  On the other hand, it’s equally true, that a commitment to spirit/soul/body health not only mitigates the risks of contracting chronic diseases, it empowers us to do what we’re born to do!

My interest in health is, at the core, an interest in calling.  I fully realize that whatever contribution I’m called to share with the world can only be made to the extent that I have the emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to be poured out.  That energy cache is filled or depleted, to a large extent, by what I think about, what I consume, and how I use my time.  As I grow older, I’ve discovered that my body is less forgiving of bad habits, too little sleep, too much exercise, too much junk food, too little meditation and prayer, have almost immediate negative effects showing up in my body and emotions.

I recommend the book because for too long, followers of Jesus have lived like gnostics, nurturing the invisible realm, while neglecting the body.  This is not better than the opposite problem of materialists who are seeking to prolong bodily health forever, fearing its all they have.  The real truth:  You are an ecosystem, and your body, spirit, and soul feed off of each other’s health.  Neglect any one of these three legs on the stool that is your life and you’ll fall over.

If you’re even thinking about “movement and play”, “eating for health”, “sleeping better” or “getting in the right mindset to live well” in 2019, I wholeheartedly recommend Authentic Health.

Note:  I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Dear Green Lake: Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year

Dear Green Lake

When I moved to Seattle in the fall of 1976, you were my first discovery beyond the confines of the little college I was attending.  I’d made friends with lots of runners so, of course, they brought me to you. We’d run the lake and then head over to Beth’s Cafe for a giant omelette or cinnamon roll.  You introduced me to seasons that first year: spectacular fall colors graced the lakeside trees, shoreline ice and stark grey trees in winter, vibrant blossoms and infinite shades of green each spring.  You seduced me, and I started falling in love with Seattle.  Throw in a Sonics World Championship, a new football team, and world class symphony and Seattle won my heart.

Before my five year departure from Washington, I walked the frozen shores with the woman who is now my wife and after that walk, made a decision to propose.  When we left Seattle in 1979, we grieved.  Little did we know that, 16 years later, we’d return with our young family as I followed my calling to Bethany Community Church, just a few hundred yards from the lake!

My love affair with you reignited instantly and in these subsequent 25 years, I’ve run at least several thousand miles around your shores, at all times of day and night, and in every season.  I’ve run with friends and congregants, and run alone.  I’ve run with music and in silence.  I’ve run in snow and oppressive heat.  Every season.  Every occasion.  You’ve been there for me.  Thank you!

Mostly though, I’ve run alone.  Well, not alone really.  I’ve run early in the morning, before work, after a little time of reading, stretching, prayer.  You’ve been the context where so many things have become clear.  I don’t know if it’s the rhythm of the running, the beauty of the sunrise, the sounds of the bird, the scent of the blossoms, the fecundity of the fallen leaves, or the lake itself, but you’ve been the place where ideas have germinated, conversations initiated, confessions made, next steps determined.  It’s not a stretch at all for me to say that God spoke during those morning runs, profoundly, too many times to number.  I believe it’s because you, Green Lake, represent the beauty of creation, in a world increasingly threatened by our human lust for more.  You represent consistency in a city that I’ve lived in long enough to mourn countless changes.  And what’s more, you don’t just represent beauty in a world marred by the ugliness of oppression, loneliness, and disease. You are beauty.  I know you’re facing your own challenges.  I know you’re threatened often, and neglected, even abused at times.  But there you are, reminding me of so much that I love about Seattle, and setting a table for me to meet with God. Thank you!

In the past I’d run around you three times in preparation for a big race, like the Bloomsday thing in Spokane, or the Torchlight Run in the summer across the soon to be departing beloved viaduct (may it rest in peace).  Then two became my max.  Now it’s one lap, with a little extra distance  tossed in around the playfields and tennis courts.  No matter.  The pace per mile has changed.  The city has changed.  I’ve changed.  But the thing that hasn’t changed is that when I put one foot in front of the other in the midst of your divine beauty, I hear God’s voice.  So I’ll keep coming back, as long as I’m privileged to live and serve this city I love, until my running becomes walking, becomes sitting.  Thank you for being my cathedral, sanctuary, and resting place.

Our city is filled with more challenges and opportunities than I can ever remember.  And this, too, is why I’ll keep coming back to listen for the Voice of guidance, hope, vision, encouragement, and correction that somehow seems clearer there, on most days, than nearly anywhere else, at least for me.

Merry Christmas Green Lake, and Happy New Year.  May 2019 be a year of hearing God’s voice with greater clarity than ever as I run your shores, cherish your seasons, and absorb your beauty.

 

Seasons of Life and Lessons in Staying and Letting Go

left to right: Martin, Director of Tauernhof, Richard, Charlie, board member of Tauernhof.

“Stay a little longer” my friend Martin invited from Austria over FaceTime last August as I was planning my teaching trip for December.  “We’re dedicating the new building the weekend after you finish teaching.  So you should stay for that.” And so it was this past Sunday, (12.9.18) sitting in a marvelous new building, I was eking out enough understanding of German to not only celebrate the great new work there, but to recommit to my own work and calling in a fresh way.

I was reminded, both in the dedication sermon and the interactions with guests, that the work of God in a locale is bigger by far than any individual.  Lacking this understanding, too many leaders develop Messiah complexes and make the work about them.  Others hang on desperately to their titles and positions out of personal fear of letting go.  Still others leave too soon out of odd ambitions, fear of conflict, or just plain laziness.  All these options are toxic, both to the work and to the individuals clinging to, or fighting for, titles.

Phil, the first principal I worked for, and David, the current principal.

I’ve been visiting this Bible school as a teacher since 1995, invited by the principal at that time, named Phil Peters.  Years later, Phil left, and Martin Buchsteiner took his place.  Then, in August of 2013, the Director of Tauernhof, my good friend Hans Peter, died in a paragliding accident.  His death came 25 years after the founding director, Gernot Kunzelmann died in a paragliding accident in 1988.  Gernot began Tauernhof 22 years earlier in a facility that began as an orphanage more than five decades before.  After Hans Peter’s death, Martin became the Director, and David Hines, a bi-lingual German who was studying at Gordon Seminary in the states, became the new principal of the Bible School.

What a joy to hear a sermon reminding us that the torch of leadership is only carried by any of us as individuals for a season and is then passed to a new generation.  Gernot to Hans Peter to Martin.  Phil to Martin to David.  The torch passes and new generations carry on the work.  The power of this was multiplied for me as I was able to share conversations with family members from each of these leaders.  Garnot’s wife Gertraud was in attendance, as was Hans Peter’s son, and of course, Martin, Phil, and David (all three Principals of the Bible School during the decades I’ve taught there).

With each leader, there’s been a beautiful carrying of the timeless torch, the message of Christ as life, embodied in both the teaching and the life of the community.  But there’s also been unique contributions from each leader, so that the whole is a reflection, like a prism, of the unique colors of Christ brought by each one.

I left the dedication ceremony and skied alone for a couple of hours, weighing what I’d heard, seen, conversed about.  So many Decembers in this space, and a few spring, summer, and fall weeks as well.  I’ve seen the changes – staffing changes, facility changes, senior leadership changes.  But at the top of the climbing wall that sits at the back of the property there’s a banner which reads, “Jesus Christ.  The same yesterday, today, and forever.”  So leaders come and go, but the essence, the declaration of Christ in a way that moves people toward body/soul/spirit wholeness, goes on – bigger than any single leader.  This, of course, is as it should be; must be if the work really belongs to God.  I exhale, and rest, finding peace in the reminder that I don’t dare hold on to any role for a day longer than I should out of fear or pride (nor a day shorter out of laziness, or conflict aversion for that matter!)  Rather, you and I are called to carry the torch of Christ into various spaces that are the contexts God has given us, and to be all in, all there, for those seasons God gives us, confident that whatever we build that has the mark of Christ will not have been a waste of days.

As I exit the gondola at the top of the ski hill, the valley rains that were my companion when I boarded the lift have turned to snow, the first real snowfall of the year.  “Ah yes” I say to myself.  “Another season has come, faithfully, finally, to the mountain.  Thanks be to God.”

I came off the mountain and settled in front of my computer to listen to a live stream of the church I lead.  I was privileged to watch one of our most recently hired pastors preach, and as I listened, I thought to myself, “yes God…your work will be fine for many years to come.”  Strangely, in the act of letting go and trusting God with the future, I felt a sense of refreshment in my own work, and vision for the future – because vision can only fill empty hands!

O Lord Christ

Thank you for the timeless nature of your work in the world, bigger than any of us.

Thank you for the privilege of carrying the torch and using our gifts for a season to bless and serve.

Forgive us for any decisions we make about the future that are rooted in greed, or fear, or pride, or laziness.

Teach us to number our days and pour ourselves out fully in them, knowing that joy will be our gift.

Teach us to say goodbye at the right time, neither too early nor too late, but only in response to You.

And we will rest in trusting You with the future of the work, knowing it was Yours all along. 

SPECIAL NOTE:  I’m happy to be speaking at the International Ski Week from March 10-16 in 2019 and you’re invited.   Ski instruction in the morning.  Free time in the afternoon for skiing, napping, touring the area, and Bible sessions/worship in the evening. Here’s the link with details and costs, and here’s a link to a few pictures from last year.

 

How Naming Your Values can Change Your Life

Did you watch the funeral of President George H.W. Bush?  If so, you saw the importance of named values on full display.  From Jon Meacham’s stirring eulogy, to his son’s warm remembrances of him as both mentor and father, the entire event was testimony to a life well lived.  Raised in privilege, President Bush recognized the gospel truth that “to whom much is given, much is required” and so lived his life as a courageous servant leader.

The sad reality, though, is that the testimonies offered that day also served as a grave reminder that courage, servanthood, generosity, and civility, are in short supply these days.  It is this way because the avalanche of cultural input conspires to enflame individualism, consumerism, pettiness, a sense of personal inadequacy, and victim mentalities.  All of these shrink our world down to survival mode, which is far cry from the abundant life Christ came to give, and the “rivers of living water” that should be flowing through us to bring water to the desert that is the 21st century.

The way forward, according to Paul, is that we be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”, because without such intentional swimming upstream, we’ll be swept into the vast cultural chasm of mediocrity and narcissism that is so evident everywhere.  I find that the creation of a personal mission statement provides a huge step toward such intentionality.  I wrote about why this matters here, and how knowing your gifts is a critical part of the process here.

More than gifts are needed though.  Hitler had gifts of eloquence.  Countless leaders have gifts of charisma to motivate, and the political savvy to build coalitions of disparate parties in order to gain power.  Gifts, by themselves, are amoral.  In order to live the life for which we’re created, we need to commit to investing our gifts in ways that build up and contribute to God’s mission in the world.  Needless to say, this isn’t the only way gifts can be used.  Our gifts can be in the pursuit of power and pleasure as easily as in pursuit of the common good, actually easier!  What’s worse, we can whitewash our ignoble pursuits with noble causes and edifying vision.  This happens in church work, politics, and the non-profit world too often, as we all know.  It’s at the root of the current climate of institutional mistrust and cynicism, and is why I often hear, “I try to follow Jesus, but the church?  No thanks…” and then they share their story of feeling used.

What’s the most important thing we can do to assure that our gifts and mission work towards uplifting, rather than destructive ends?  Spend time mining and articulating our values.  Here’s why:

Values answer the question: “to what end”? 

Why am I running, or sitting on the sofa?  Why am I reading and meditating, or calling people and planning events?  Why do I give money away, or keep it?  Why do I turn the TV off, or leave it on?  The thing is, in any given situation, either answer could be right.  Decisions between this and that must be based on values, because my values will steer my ship to the desired harbor and bring balance to my life.  Otherwise, I might run a marathon, but have children I don’t know, or be culturally literate, but spiritually unable to offer people good food, or “successful” outwardly, but inwardly, as Jesus said of some successful people in his day, “full of dead man’s bones”.

Values offer course corrections

There are times when I withdraw into family life and my gifts of writing and teaching start rusting.  I need to get back in the game!  There are times when I live a fear based life and close my heart and pocketbook too readily.  I need my courage value to guide me back to being a voice of hope.  There are times when I try to pretend I’m better than I am, but valuing brokenness enables me to look in the mirror and pursue ongoing transformation.  Deeply held values become a sort of navigation system for life, enabling shifts as the winds change, so that we reach the desired goal.

Embedded Values build Character 

We all have values, but the sad truth is that without intentionality, we will passively adopt the values of prevailing culture.  We likely won’t name them, but they’ll be ours nonetheless:  Consumerism, Individualism, Material Security, Pain Avoidance.  Our values will define our choices, and our choices will define our lives.  Without intentionality, these cultural values will prevail and one day we’ll wake up and wonder where the time went, and why haven’t we accomplished much?  The answer will be that we accomplished exactly what our values determined we should accomplish.  The problem was simply that we didn’t choose our values wisely .

As I open my “to do list” every day, I read my values.  As I do this more and more often these values become more deeply embedded in me, moving from page, to mind, to heart.  Over time, this infects decision make – not perfectly, but in some measure.   The result, I hope, is that we choose wisely, and so steward our one wild and precious life better, for having taken the time to intentionally name our values.

 

 

The Fight for Hope: A Life Worth Living

I was sick last week, and in my down time thoroughly enjoyed reading “A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War:  How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918”.  Aside from being the longest book title I’ve encountered recently, the book was a sort of wake up call for me, a reminder of how easily I, and perhaps others, are lulled into complacent slumber these days.  Many in the western world find ourselves disillusioned with the loss of integrity in politics, religion, business, and education.  It feels as if the ground is crumbling all around us and there’s no safe place to find shelter.

My temptation in such times is what sociologists call ‘cocooning’, a tendency to withdraw into the predictability of our homes, close the drapes, and live our private lives.  The temptation is real because fighting, even if the pen and words are your tools, and even if your intent is solely to point people toward a greater hope, is hard work, and at times discouraging.  Those intent on pointing people to the possibilities of a better world, a lasting hope, encounter an avalanche of cynicism, if not outright opposition.  There are stakeholders in our culture who deal in the currency of fear, hate, and tribalism – and these stakeholders exist on the both the left and the right.  They have language intended to objectify and incite rather than build and heal.  As a result, many of us have stopped talking to each other, choosing the cocoon rather than the front lines of ideological discourse.

I was surprised to learn that both Tolkien and Lewis, two of my favorite Christian authors, fought on the front lines in WWI, literally serving in the trenches because the weight of western civilization hung in the balance.  After the war, when nearly every other author was ripe with cynicism, these two swam upstream, invoking that people be willing to courageously fight for the better world that only comes when the real king, the eternal One, reigns.  They held the line through words, myths and tales  of Lions, Wardrobes, and Rings.  To read their correspondence is to discover that at a time when the whole world was cynical, these two held on to hope.  What’s more, it shows me that each of them provided needed encouragement to  the other, a sort of sustenance for the battle. Lewis encouraged Tolkien to publish The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien told Lewis to keep writing the Narnia series.

The book’s a good read for anyone who’s a fan of Tolkien and Lewis, but in addition to discovering their life stories, I came away with some deepened convictions:

  1. I’ll be called outside my zone of giftedness at times.  I still need to go.  Neither of these two were soldiers by nature, and yet when called, they rose to the occasion, doing what was needed in the hour of trial.  Many of us withdraw from anything “uncomfortable” or anything out of alignment with “our passions” and I’d suggest that these two teach us that’s a big mistake.  Their lives in the trenches, with the stench of war and death, became the soil out from which two of the great literary works of all time were created.  Nothing in your life is ever lost if you show up fully.
  2. The call to hope is usually challenged.  I still need to fight for it Just look at the Bible; the hope of entering the promised land is challenged – the hope of Peter’s fidelity to Christ is challenged – the hope of remaining steadfast in the midst of trials and setbacks is challenged.  I’m increasingly convinced that every step of forward progress toward embodying hope, inviting people to hope, or creating hope, will be met with naysayers, rock slingers, and haters, and that they’ll come in all forms from atheist to evangelical, left to right, rich to poor.  That’s because, conversely, those committed to “The Return of the King” and the “Destruction of the Ring” and the “Freedom of Narnia” are found in all those same forms of rich, poor, left, right, etc. Aslan’s on the move, sweeping through all the categories that divide and building a tribe out of the displaced and disillusioned, the wounded and scarred, the frightened and the sick – and it’s this tribe that is God’s army of hope for today.    Are you in?   This book will sustain you… to the last battle. 

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.