Longing for the Scent of Hope

It’s a Thursday morning in the San Bernardino mountains of California.  After a time of meditation, I go outside to sit and write a bit before a day filled with people, meetings, emails, and study to complete a study I’ll be leading this Sunday. 

After quieting my mind and being reminded of the presence of Christ, above, beneath, around, and within me, my move outdoors hits me like a ton of bricks.  Maybe it was the breathing and calming effects of meditation on the presence of Christ.  Maybe it was the fact that the air was cooler this morning than previous mornings here.  Whatever the cause, the scent of the air, a blend of Manzanita and Pine,  hits me fully, catching my be surprise, and I’m instantly transported back to my childhood:  

I’m 12, heading to camp for the first time, not as a camper but as a companion to my dad, who’s providing transport to my sister.  She’s 16 and it’s 1968, so her guitar goes with her, along with Peter, Paul, Mary, Janis Joplin, and the whole clan of social protest songs.  She plays her guitar in the backseat, and I’m the rhythm section, striking my thighs like they’re bongos.

We get out of the car and… that scent! It hits me for the first time ever, along with the visuals of the high Sierra, the trees, mountains, water, and deep blue sky.  And speaking of the water, the first thing dad does when he gets out of the car is make his way to the water fountain, built of stone with a simple pipe sticking up out of the middle, more like a spring than anything I’ve seen back in the valley.  He gulps vast amounts, stopping once to breathe, and a second time to say “best water anywhere” before continuing to drink more.  He’s alive, rested, happy – a contrast to the often stressful world he inhabits as the superintendent of a small rural school district on the outskirts of Fresno, California.  I’m watching, and the whole while the scent of these mountains in being imprinted deep in my soul.  It was, I believe, my first whiff of shalom.

A few years later I’ll come back here.  By the time it’s my turn for camp, my dad will have grown ill, unable to handle the thinner air of the mountains.  I’m entering 10th grade, with a crush on Linda, a plying of my basketball skills to woo her, and utter intimidation as she executes perfect dives, all week, into the pond.  She’ll go on to be on my high school’s diving team, a few levels above me in the social cast system that is high school.  But my soul will awaken to God’s wooing that same week, and that wooing will become the piece of a larger mosaic of God’s activity in those mountains, always with that same scent as the backdrop. 

I’ll go back two years out of high school, to that same camp.  I’m not in a good space as I drive up the mountain in my Ford Mustang.  I’m there because a blonde invited me, not because I’m seeking God.  But God is seeking me, and the encounter with the divine that happens that brief weekend in February will eventuate in my changing majors, schools, and states – moves that will determine the course of my life.  I prayed there, that weekend, and made knowing God a goal, and even more than a goal – declared that I wanted it to be the main thing, the north start to which I’d return over and over again when life becomes too much, as it often did, and does. 

Later, married without children, my wife and I will take a youth group I’m leading back to that same camp, and I’ll inhale that same scent, which has now come to represent so much that is holy to me.  That youth group experience will seal my call to ministry, and I’ll stay in touch with some of those students to this very day, our hearts knit together in ways I didn’t know could happen. 

After that camp experience as a youth pastor, I won’t return to that particular plot of the Sierras until the day of my mom’s funeral a few years ago.  But on that day, I drive up and stand in the very spot where I declared a desire to know God 39 years earlier, and I’ll marvel at God’s relentless pursuit of me, God’s abundance poured out, and I’ll offer tears of gratitude.  “Look what God has done” I’ll say, as once again, the scent of hope fills me. 

Maybe this back story will help you understand why II Corinthians 2:14,15 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  This is where Paul sees both his identity and calling as being “the aroma of Christ”.  Truth be told, there are, for all of us, some scents that evoke hope, joy, rightness, beauty.  The scent of the Sierras awakens something in me, something good.  Jesus’ desire is that tho who follow him and claim to know him would also awaken something in others.  That Jesus scent is powerful when Mother Teresa was loving the untouchables in India, or when MLK was renouncing violence while at the same time working for justice.  But make no mistake, the most important scents aren’t discovered in biographies and history, any more than you can smell the blood and gun powder of WWII by reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. 

Scent requires, not reading, not preaching, not winning theological debates, but embodiment, actually displaying in our lives the character of Jesus.  The good news is that our small acts of embodiment are like aromatherapy for the spirit.  Faithful parenting, faithful love of a spouse through illness, serving in ways the bless those living on the margins, crossing social divides, creating beauty (whether in a meal, a table, a painting, a song, or even a conversation), loving one’s neighbors in tangible ways, these are the scent of hope. 

It’s no good proving the age of earth (young or old), or the politics of Jesus (ostensibly left, or right – though in reality he was neither), or the meaning of communion or inerrancy or atonement theory, when the real need in our world is to smell the scent of hope, mercy, joy, hospitality, peace, and so much more, pouring out of us.   Being religious while emitting the stench of arrogance, pride, and judgement rather than omitting the scent of Christ is a lot like wearing a shirt that advertises some certain soap, while you haven’t showered for five days: bad advertising!  Something tells me that our culture’s perception of Christianity these days is that it stinks.  Pedophilia.  Financial corruption.  Sexual abuse scandals among Evangelical leaders of power, and much much more.  The world has inhaled and is largely saying, “no thank you” as they continue searching.  

It’s sad because our culture is rootless, aimless, addicted, lonely, and afraid.  In other words, we’re living in a dumpster.  Say we must ask ourselves:  Where is the scent of Christ?  The answer belongs to each of us, and our faith communities.  There’s no need shooting others, when I have plenty to work on myself in order to let the pure beauty of Christ’s scent be revealed through me.  I pray the same for you!

Introducing Rule of Life – the path to spirit, soul, body, wholeness

I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but recently have grown tired of the many chasms that exist between doctrines and reality.  We who follow Christ speak of love, but have a long history of hate and injustice bubbling up through our institutions.  We speak of hope and peace, but are often governed by fear and anxiety. We speak of generosity and community, but are far too often living inside the high walls of our own self-referential communities, including our churches and neighborhoods.  We speak of loving our enemies but there’s enough hate and vitriol, lots of it politically motivated, pouring out of pulpits, podcasts, and colleges.  I’m tired of a politicized gospel.  I’m tired of gospel that feeds the very phobias, prejudices, isolation, and anxieties that Jesus came to deliver us from.

I’m tired, on the one hand, of a passivity that declares that since Christ is in me, I’m already complete, and so am finished growing.  I’ll carry my dysfunctions and misrepresentations of Christ with me to the grave if I carry such a view.  The Jesus of this Christianity baptizes (often) the American dream of upward mobility and, while strict regarding certain sexual sins, turns a blind eye to the gods of materialism, individualism, and nationalism – three idols that seem to be hollowing out the core of western civilization in the moment.  Many stuck in this paradigm are outwardly successful and religious, but also can’t help but secretly wonder if Christianity is effective at all, or even true.

On the other hand, I’m tired of an overly active gospel divorced of intimacy with Jesus.  It’s present on both the left and the right, and takes the form of anger and an inflamed assessment of whatever happens to be the issue of the day.  The inflamed assessment leads to an inflamed response, with the result that dialogue and charity are displaced by protests and hate, leading only to isolation and further vilification of the other side, rather than any real change.

And finally, on the third hand, I’m saddened by the cynicism over all this that’s lead to withdrawal from faith communities.  It’s happening, big time, among millenials and gen-Z, but I’m seeing it among my own peers too.  While understandable in the current climate, withdrawal only serves to further the isolation and echo chamber tribalism that’s foundational to our culture problems.

Thanks be to God, I believe there’s a way forward.  I first discovered “rule of life” material a long time ago, when my quest for a greater sense of reality and sound creation theology introduced me to the teaching of Celtic Christianity.  This in turn, led to my discovery of “The Aidan Way”   If you click on this link, you’ll discover a “rule of life” template for this community.  When I discovered this about 15 years ago, it was like discovering an oasis after wandering in the desert of an overly legalistic and intellectualized evangelicalism for decades.  I joined the community, found a soul friend, and began a rule of life practice.  This led, eventually, to the writing of my first book:  “O2: Breathing New Life into Faith” which is now available in a 2nd edition as “Breathing New Life into Faith”.  

Through developing a rule of life practice, I discovered three benefits . (I’ll be writing about each of these in upcoming subsequent posts, along with other matters related to building a rule of life, and the spiritual, physical, and emotional benefits of having one – so please subscribe if you want to catch the whole series):

  1. The Rule of Life unmoored me from the politics of evangelicalism 
  2. The Rule of Life solved the dilemma of divine action/human responsibility 
  3. The Rule of Life has become a context of freedom and transformation, rather than legalism and stagnation.  

We need a revival, many of us in our individual walks with Christ, and certainly all of us collectively, as Christ-followers.  But the way forward surely cannot be built on foundations leading to fear, tribalism, individualism, and nationalism.  The good seed of Christ has been planted in the world, watered through the blood of Jesus and bearing the fruit of transformative resurrection.  We, though, are the farmers of the soil of our human hearts and the soil of our faith communities.  It’s past time that we abandoned the industrial agricultural model of modern evangelicalism, and returned to our calling, embracing the slow, beautiful, organic work of soul care that God created. I hope you’ll join me in return to both the soil and roots of the Christ life we’re created to enjoy.

“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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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 Identity in Christ

In a previous post, I offered a review of Beauty and the Beast, noting the significance in the story line that people had forgotten their identity, and that this forgetting was at the core of their clinging to fear and ignorance.  Everywhere I go for teaching, I tell people about the many revelations from the Bible about “who we are” because of Christ.  Because the list is in high demand, I offer it here.

If you are in Christ, you can declare each of these truths with confidence 

  • I am loved. 1 John 3:3
  • I am accepted. Ephesians 1:6
  • I am a child of God. John 1:12
  • I am Jesus’ friend. John 15:14
  • I am a joint heir with Jesus, sharing His inheritance with Him. Romans 8:17
  • I am united with God and one spirit with Him. 1 Corinthians 6:17
  • I am a temple of God. His Spirit and his life lives in me. 1 Corinthians 6:19
  • I am a member of Christ’s body. 1 Corinthians 12:27
  • I am a Saint. Ephesians 1:1
  • I am redeemed and forgiven. Colossians 1:14
  • I am complete in Jesus Christ. Colossians 2:10
  • I am free from condemnation. Romans 8:1
  • I am a new creation because I am in Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:17
  • I am chosen of God, holy and dearly loved. Colossians 3:12
  • I am established, anointed, and sealed by God. 2 Corinthians 1:21
  • I do not have a spirit of fear, but of love, power, and a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7
  • I am God’s co-worker. 2 Corinthians 6:1
  • I am seated in heavenly places with Christ. Eph 2:6
  • I have direct access to God Ephesians. 2:18
  • I am chosen to bear fruit John. 15:16
  • I am one of God’s living stones, being built up in Christ as a spiritual house. 1 Peter 2:5
  • I have been given exceedingly great and precious promises by God by which I share His nature. 2 Peter 1:4
  • I can always know the presence of God because He never leaves me Hebrews. 13:5
  • God works in me to help me do the things He wants me to do Philippians 2:13
  • I can ask God for wisdom and He will give me what I need. James 1:5

A New Year – Time to Discover Old Paths (and a new resource to help you)

Note to readerIn my previous post I offered an overview of various values and priorities that are taking “the front seat” for me this year.  They’re prominent because they’re needed, both in my own life and in this moment in history.  In the coming posts, I’ll be unpacking each of these elements one by one, beginning with this post about establishing a rule of life.  Here’s a sample from my just released republication of my first book.  It’s now under the title of Breathing New Life into Faith:  Ancient Spiritual Practices for the 21st Century.  The book has new chapters and updated chapters, and largely syncs with the recent sermon series “Sustainable Faith: Soil Care for the Soul”, available free on itunes podcasts. (making a great duo for small group study) Here’s to the adventure of transformation awaiting each of us in 2018!  

Whether it’s Beauty and the Beast and the transformation of relationship, A Christmas Carol and the transformation of values, or The King’s Speech and a king’s movement from fear to courage, stories of change for the better inspire and resonate with our deepest longings. This is because something deep inside all of us realizes that the world, and we ourselves as individuals can be better. At an even more fundamental level, these desires for upward movement resonate because transformation is the central good news that Jesus brings us. “I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly” is how Jesus put it one day when talking with a crowd. Later, Paul would say it this way: “He [God] made him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, in order that we might become the very righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).  Our destiny is to become nothing less than “the righteousness of God,” which means that God’s desire is that justice, mercy, hospitality, peacemaking, generosity, and hope pour through our very being so that those in our lives can be blessed. That same Paul would tell us that we’re called to swim upstream against the prevailing currents of culture, not being conformed to the dominant taboos and mores, but being transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2).

How? We’ll start by saying that the narrative of culture won’t get us there. We’re increasingly stressed out, addicted, anxious, lonely, and afraid. It appears that wealth and hyper-connectivity aren’t providing a pathway to the lives of peace, intimacy, and meaning.  Jesus compared our life journeys to walking, and suggested that we’re often standing in front of two doors. One door is huge, well-lit, inviting, and the masses are clamoring to get through it. The other door is small, unassuming, and a bit “out of the way.” Jesus has an opinion about this choice: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). It’s as if Jesus is telling us that defaulting to conventional assumptions won’t get us where we want to go, and won’t enable us to build the life for which we’re created.

A crusty prophet of old hinted at the same mentality, using a road metaphor, rather than gates or doors. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16)

All of us could use a little more rest in our lives, or so it seems at least. This picture is painted by Jeremiah and Jesus, who shares a similar message, when he says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The promise is that those who are weighed down by carrying heavy burdens will be able to find rest if they can develop a consistent and real relationship with Christ (hence the phrase “learn from me” in the same invitation). A consistent and real relationship with Christ, though, is like any relationship that’s going to be consistent and real. Relationships take time and require the development of habits.

The process of developing spiritual habits on the ancient path has been called the creation of a rule of life throughout the history of the church. At the end of this book, there’s a tool that will help you in creating your own rule of life, and such a creation is precisely where everything we’ve considered has been leading. So let’s dive in and consider the what, why, and how, of that ancient path called “the rule of life.”

What is a rule of life?

A rule of life is your declared intention regarding the habits you seek to make real in your daily life. Jesus, for example, gathered with other worshippers on the sabbath, not just when he felt like it, or if the weather was just right. According to Luke 4:16, Jesus gathered with others “as was his custom.” He had a habit of worshipping with others.  Habits are brilliant, because once they become a natural part of our lives, they bring both order to our time use, and free our minds for other pursuits, as mental energy is no longer wasted on decisions.  They’re already made because you’ve developed habits!

God is simply telling us that what we already know to be true physiologically is also true spiritually: “use it or lose it!” The challenge is that we also know from history that the default for us as fallen humans is to stop using it. We stop exercising. We stop eating mindfully. We stop praying. We stop taking the stairs. We stop. Develop life-giving practices so that they become habits, and they strengthen and multiply. Neglect them, and they atrophy and decay. 

In addition to habits, your rule of life will consist of an intention to fan certain attitudes from a tiny spark into a full, raging fire. Attitudes are different than habits, in that they’re more a way of looking at and responding to the world. They could almost be called values, and they’re fanned into flame by putting them in front of you on a regular basis. Our minds are renewed and transformed by choosing wisely day after day: contentment over consumerism, hospitality over isolation, silence over noise. For example, by being mindful of Christ’s hospitality and care for people who are weary and downtrodden, I’m sensitized to the practice of hospitality, and this changes the way I relate to people. 

Intentionally choosing to build certain habits and affirm certain attitudes is what it means to build a rule of life. One author writes that a rule of life serves as a framework for freedom – not as a set of rules that restrict or deny life, but as a way of living our vocation alone and in community. It is rooted in Scripture, pointing always to Christ, and in the words of Saint Benedict, it is “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”

Why is a rule of life important?

One of the most famous parables in the Bible is the story about the seed and the sower. “A farmer went out to sow his seed” is how it begins, and by the end of the tale we discover that not all the seeds reached their full potential. The seed, though, was never the problem; it was the soil. Too many rocks. Too many thorns. Not enough depth.  It’s a powerful tale, because later in the Bible we’re told that “His seed abides in us.” The astonishing reality is that nothing less than the life of the resurrected Jesus has found a home “in us.” This means that His seed, if allowed to grow, will find unique expression through each of our lives, so that the joy, hope, mercy, justice, sacrifice, love, and generosity of Christ can continue to be revealed in this dark and broken world. Each of us has a part to play, and when we do this, we’re living the lives for which we’re created!

Some people recoil at the word “rule,” because they believe that since we’re saved by grace, there’s actually nothing we need to do other than receive what God has freely given. My response: “Yes. Just receive the seed, the same way soil receives the seed.” What farmer do you know who plants seeds without preparing the soil? The reality is that the seed of Christ’s life is God’s rich gift to us; the life is in the seed, the growth is in the seed, and the fruit is in the seed. Farmers don’t randomly toss seeds out from the window of their houses and say, “There’s really nothing more I can do, because it’s all about the seed.” Rubbish. Of course there’s no fruit without the seed. But there’s no fruit in your life without the union of seed and soil, and who needs to take responsibility for the soil that is your soul?  You do! Your habits and attitudes will determine the quality of the soil, and hence the fruitfulness of Christ’s seed flowering in your life, so that you can enjoy the kind of life for which you were created, a life overflowing with meaning, joy, and love.

Soil care happens. Either we’re fortifying the soil through life-giving habits and attitudes, or we’re allowing rocks, weeds, and thorns to choke the seed by neglecting soil care habits. The whole project is a lot like exercise; sometimes energizing, sometimes not so much. And yet, by faith, I’ve come to believe that it’s always valuable. Now the question is much less “How was my time of Bible reading?” because I know, through experience, that what matters isn’t the particular experience of any single day. It’s the trend line that counts.  

Soil problems in the physical worlds stem from neglect of the elements that produce long-term value in the soil in favor of policies and practices that provide instant gratification and short-term profit. The results are clear to everyone, yet everyone keeps neglecting the future in favor of the immediate. Sound familiar? It’s not just a soil problem. It’s a soul problem.

How do we care for the soil of our souls? I’m glad you asked! 

2018. Six Ways to Make it a Year of Salt and Light

I’ve noticed on my social media feeds that lots of people are happy to see 2017 disappear.  There’s been more than enough killing, lying, inappropriate touching, de-regulating, threatening, boasting, and mocking to last a lifetime, or longer.  Like the snows where I live though, “it shows no signs of stopping…” and so I’m spending a bit of time today pondering how I’ll live in 2018.  Yes, there’ll be goals and plans, but before that, I’m more convinced than ever that there needs to be priorities and values.  It’s been quite some time since we’ve collectively entered a year with such high levels of cynicism and mistrust, and the temptation in such times is to retreat from our broken world into the pursuit of our own personal peace and prosperity.  Tired of relational tensions with people of differing political or theological views, we simply shrink our world down to a more controllable size.

The problem, of course, is that this runs counter to the exhortation of Jesus who reminds us that we are light, and as such we’re made to shine into the darkness.  We are salt, and as such we’re called to bless, serve, and tell the truth so that we can contribute to the well-being of the place where we live.  Like Frodo, many of us wish we lived in better times, easier times.  But the word from Gandalf rings true, no matter when and where we live.  “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us” – to which I’d add, “and before we DO anything by way of vision and strategy, we need to decide what kind of person we’re going to BE by way of values and priorities.

Here’s my list of values and priorities which I’m using so that the light will shine and the salt will be salty in 2018:

I’m valuing my Rule of Life habits –  I taught a series this past fall at the church I lead about the timeless spiritual disciplines that enable the seed of Christ’s life to flourish in the soil of our hearts (the whole series is available on apple’s podcast site – see “sustainable faith” series).  My next post will be about how to build a rule of life in hopes that you’ll join me on the adventure of releasing the light of Christ more fully in our world by caring for our souls.

I‘m going subterranean –  Earlier in 2017 I made a little leadership pyramid for some of my senior staff, which I’ll share with you sometime in January.  The basic point of it was to show how most of what I read about leadership seems to focus on the top half of the pyramid, the visible part of our lives, which has to do with priorities, tactics, and strategies, all with an eye toward achieving goals.  This is all well and good, but the burnout rate among leaders leads me to believe that before we address these things, there are other things we should be addressing, things that are invisible to the public, but foundational to living the life for which we’re created.  In 2018 I’m going to do the needed subterranean work so that the visible fruit will be both meaningful and sustainable.

I’m seeking my flow – I read “Flow” in 2017, a popular book about maximizing human performance.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the book because it’s longer than it needs to be, but there are some principles in it that I’ll share in an upcoming post that have helped me be fully present with whatever I’m doing, whether work, conversation, exercise, writing, photography, everything.  When I’m in the flow state, my inner critic dies down, I’m more creative, and time flies by!  Hours feel like minutes, and I’m usually at my best during these flow times.  I believe that contemporary psychology is actually in pursuit of something Jesus spoke of in several places, as I’ll share in my post.

I’m focusing on my gifts – “Stir up the gift that is in you!  Be devoted to (your gifts) so that your progress might be evident to all…” are two ways Paul the apostle spoke of this.  As I grow older and come to see the inevitability of the finish line, I’m increasingly filled with a desire to spend as much time as I can doing the things I’m best at.  It’s a matter of stewardship, of taking care of what God’s given you.  In an upcoming post, I’ll write about how people find their gifts, and how liberating it is to focus on them.

I’m going holistic – Sleep is a spiritual matter.  When the Bible says “above all else, guard your heart”, it just might be possible that God is telling us to pay attention to our physical heart, because our heart indicators are often revealing the wisdom or foolishness of our life choices.  Prayer is a physical matter, affecting not only the spirit, but the physical heart, sleep patterns, and emotional well being.  Exercise of the body affects the spirit.  Exercise of the spirit strengthens the mortal body.

I’m cultivating curiosity – This article in the Harvard Business Review talks about the challenge of turning people with leadership potential into successful leaders.  What is the characteristic that shows up most consistently as a predictor of success in developing leaders? Curiosity!  It trumps engagement, determination, and insight as the quality most consistently present and needed!  For this reason, I’ll be posting about how to develop curiosity in yourself and others.

I’m living like each day matters – “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Mary Oliver asks this marvelous question in her poem “The Summer Day” and it reminds me that we’ve only this one life in which to bless, serve, use our gifts, and make a difference.  My hope is to plow through the dense and destructive news cycle, staying informed without allowing myself to get derailed by it, and simply getting on with doing what I’m called to do.  I hope you’ll join me in the adventure that is 2018.

Expect more detailed posts about each of these elements in the days ahead.  As always, I welcome your thoughts.

 

 

Post a Review – maybe win a book… or two…or three.

It’s Black Friday, and I’m here to help you with your Christmas Shopping!

It’s this simple:

  1. If you’ve read it, write and post a review of The Map is Not the Journey on either Amazon or Facebook.
  2. show me a link to your review in a message on facebook, or a comment here.
  3. that’s it – you’re entered in a drawing for two winners that happens on December 3rd.

1st place (random drawing) wins 2 copies of “The Map is not the Journey” and one copy of “The Colors of Hope” (winner of a Christianity Today “Best Book” award in 2011)

2nd place wins one copy of “The Map is not the Journey”

Thanks, in advance, to all who are able to share their reviews of “The Map is not the Journey”.

And here’s hoping your journey throughout the Advent season is filled with the peace and joy of Christ.

 

 

Thanksgiving Tips for Civil Conversation: Embrace the Exile

The political and theological left and right have become so tired of both shooting each other and being shot at, that there’s little stomach left for honest conversation about ethics, faith, and the relationship of faith to politics.  So when you go over the river and through the woods to enjoy a family gathering at Grandma’s house this coming Thursday, what will you talk about?  Here’s a little guide to help:

  1. Christ followers are exiles.  Accept it.  We always have been, always will be.  When Paul said “maranatha” in I Corinthians 16:22 he was declaring that our deepest and most profound hope is rooted in the return of Christ.  He’d know well, of course, that the state wasn’t ever going to provide some sort of theocratic rule of law.  He never hoped for it, never advocated pursuing it, never even indicated that it was a possibility.  Paul never said, “If we can just get a few more red seats in the halls of congress then we’ll protect life in the womb.” Nor, “If only we had a blue emperor, there’d be health care for all, and housing for the poor.”  It’s not that issues don’t matter.  It’s not that we shouldn’t care.  It’s not even that we can’t have robust discussion about these matters.  It’s just that, in the end, our calling is to create an alternative ethic and kingdom that will thrive right in the midst of Rome, or Babylon, or the European Union of Socialism, or the United States of Shopping.   We have a better hope than the trinkets of any prevailing culture.  We have the assurance of the end of the story, an end where all life is honored:  the unborn, the homeless, the refugee, the sick, the aged…all!   I hope that, no matter your party, or your conviction on particular issues, you can agree with other Christ followers that we’re exiles.  Learning to live as exiles is a great topic for conversation.  Instead of cursing the darkness, how about we light a candle.  We are, after all, the light of the world.
  2. There’s still beauty in the world.  See it and give thanks – There’s beauty in intimacy, in friendship, in creation, in children whose eyes are filled with hope, in generosity, in forgiveness, in music and sport, in good food and good conversation, and in stories of transformation, as people move toward wholeness and joy and hope.  So perhaps we can look for beauty this week, and take seriously the admonition of the scriptures to “give thanks in everything.”  The truth of the matter is that all of us easily become myopic, so fixated on our personal problems, or the global state of things, that we lose sight of the reality that much, much, much, is still beautiful.  My neighbor met a man this summer who had ridden his bicycle around the world twice, both north to south and east to west.  He told my neighbor, people are still beautiful, still generous, still sacrificial, almost always, almost everywhere.  Of course, its not in the news cycle, but it’s true, or at least likely true.  Let’s learn to be people of gratitude in spite of temptations to fixate on the darkness.
  3. You are made for joy, so rejoice.  The apostle Paul never solved the unjust problems of Rome.  It was a culture of peace for the wealthy landowners, all of whom were male.  If you were slave, woman, a renter or someone in debt, a non-citizen, the so called “peace of Rome” wasn’t for you.  Paul knew this, just like we know this.  He also knew, unlike some of us, that no political system, no kingdom of the world, will even last – let alone solve our world’s ailments.  He also knew that Christ would bring joy to each human heart, right here, right now.  Yes, he fought for justice, addressed social issues (though covertly most of the time); but he also rejoiced, in nearly every circumstance, the joy of Christ remained evident.  So he, the one who was beaten, imprisoned, and persecuted as a threat to both Rome and the religious establishment, he was able to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always… again I say, rejoice.”   He didn’t write that from a position of privilege.  He wrote it from a position of privilege lost.  And still, he found joy.  So can we.

 

Here’s hoping you embrace your identity as exile so you can relax and live into the confidence of your citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.  May you find beauty there, and hope, and may the light of your joy and gratitude radiate at your Thanksgiving table, wherever you are.  

Amen 

 

COMING SOON:  Let me help with your Christmas shopping, as I’ll be giving away three copies of The Map is Not the Journey and two copies of The Colors of Hope.   Details next week!

You Can’t Live on Adrenaline Forever – A call to rest

12699122_f520 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Jesus the Christ 

In quietness and confidence is your strength – Isaiah the prophet

God, in infinite wisdom, has given us a credit card for energy.  It’s called adrenaline and comes in handy when we need to “rise to the occasion”.  Historically it came in handy when a lion was roaming nearby in the savannah.  You’d come up over a hill and your eyes would meet. Instantly, your heart rate elevates, glucose is released to give you both clarity and strength, and a whole cocktail of other chemicals and hormones begin coursing through your blood so that you can either “fight” with strength, or “flight” with speed, and have the wisdom to know which to choose.

Then it’s over, you’re either safe or dead.  Either way, the draw down of energy for the acute crisis stops and (if you’re not dead) recovery begins.  You breathe deep, and slowly, your heart rate returns to normal.  You sit with your tribe in the fire circle, recounting stories from the day, and then maybe sing a song, before falling asleep amidst the safety of the camp.  While you rest, you digest, your recover, your recharge your emergency energy credit card, so that the next time you go out, you’ll be ready again.

Or, you live in the 21st century, where the credit card draw down is, for too many of us, a nearly continuous elevation to the fight or flight response for any number of reasons:

1. The rude awakening with the alarm  2. The 24/7 news cycle, because it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, it’s presented as a crisis of epic proportions.  Toss in a measure of guilt or despair for not doing enough about it, or weariness because you are doing enough, marching every weekend.  3. The rent increases, or tax increases.  4. commute challenges and work challenges, encompassing a host of emotions.  5. A virtual world on social media that is, for too many, its own form of porn, offering escape from painful realities, and painting fantasy pictures of a world better than our own. 6. Relational challenges with spouse, children, parents, roommates, friends, ex-friends – or the opposite challenge of 7. Isolation, which was never God’s intention of people 8. Sleep challenges, usually stemming from some combination of spiritual, emotional, and physical reasons.  9. Foods that stress our body because, though tolerable, God didn’t design your body to eat pre-fab food.  10. A perverted notion of faith that leaves one questioning whether they’ve done enough, learned enough, are holy enough – so that there’s a constant nagging that ranges somewhere between shame and inadequacy.

In such a world, overdraws of your stress response credit card become the norm.  Still, you need to pay.  And you will.  it will show up in hypertension, or obesity, heart disease or diabetes, or perhaps any one of a number of other “diseases of civilization”.

When Jesus invites us to learn the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’, what’s he talking about?  For one thing, I strongly believe he’s inviting us to a rhythm of engagement and withdrawal, as well as an internal perspective of mindfulness, because these two things, taken together, can create break the cycle of the chronic stress response.  Here are some practical steps to take:

1. No screens for two hours prior to bedIn one of my favorite books, I learned that sleep difficulties are a major challenge in the 21st century, and that this matters because the evidence is in:  sleep shortage has all kinds of negative effects, the summary of which is described by Robert Stickgold, sleep specialists who builds a compelling case that chronic sleep shortages make us, to quote Stickgold, “sick, fat, and stupid”.   One of the major contributors to sleep loss is screen time before bed, because it dampens the production of sleep hormones that would be created if we were, instead, reading a real book via real light, or better yet, doing our stretching, praying, or snuggling, by candlelight.

2. Spend more energy on your sphere of influence than your sphere of concern.   Jesus hints at this numerous times, but nowhere more clearly than in Luke 12:25, where he ponders the question:  “can any of you make yourself an inch taller by worrying about your height?”  Your height is in your sphere of concern, but not your sphere of influence.  You can’t change it!!  And you can’t change who’s in the White House right now, or the cost of housing, or how your boss will respond to your request for a raise.

The point Jesus is trying to make?  He’s calling us to wisely invest most of our energy in things over which we DO have influence, rather than whining about, or worrying about, things over which we don’t have influence.  This isn’t a call to passivity or withdrawal.  We live in a democracy and all of us have some influence over big things.  But we need to invest most of our energies in things over which we have direct control.  Am I loving my people?  Am I living generously and enjoying intimacy with Christ?  Am I standing for actual vulnerable people in my life, not just advocating for an anonymous “people group”?   It’s been freeing in my own life to begin with things over which I have control, and move outward from there.  Until I learned that lesson, my sphere of concern was paralyzing me with worry, and rendering me ineffective in my sphere of influence.

3. Learn to live in the present – with gratitude.    Jesus is our guide here, when he tells us to take no thought for tomorrow.  You don’t know how long you’ll live, don’t know how the market will do, don’t know when the next terror attack will be, or what will be tomorrow’s news from the white house.  You don’t know.  So don’t live in anxiety over what you don’t know.

You do know that today, the days are getting longer.  You know that there’s glory and beauty in the face of those you love.  You know that you are forgiven, and that One is infinitely and irrevocably for you – and not only you, but for all of humanity, and the planet.  You know that, in spite of everything, there’s beauty still in this world, in abundance.  You know where history’s headed.  You know you have a next step to take, a practical one, that will bring life and hope to the world.

Knowing these things, and rejoicing in them, is enough to stop the adrenaline credit card drain, and bring the rest and peace you need.

NEXT UP:  three more practices –

1. Eat real food

2. Get outside

3. Love your friends