During the days between now and Christmas, I want to share some reflections with you about the many gifts that are part of the One Gift that is Christ. I’m reflecting on these gifts because, more than ever, I see the deep divisions and violence in our world. We who claim to follow Christ are at grave risk of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution if we aren’t careful to maintain what Paul calls the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”. When he writes about maintaining that, he articulates that it’s eminently easy to be “led astray”. It’s passive language because the reality is that there are strong currents that will simply carry us along unless we’re diligent to recognize the danger of the direction and swim against it.
I’m increasingly convinced that the recognition of dangerous cultural rip-tides isn’t achieved by being a cultural expert. Rather, what’s needed at a foundational level is a commitment to intimacy with Christ, for he alone is the fullness of wisdom. So what better way to prepare for the discernment that all of us will need in the coming year than by considering together the riches of the gift that is Christ. Unwrapping the glories of Christ is a bit like unwrapping a present that has another present inside, and then yet another, on and on, as we discover different facets of the gift that is Christ. Each day I’ll hope to offer a short post about a facet of the gift that is Christ and why each gift matters in 2016. I hope you’ll join me, and find encouragement in the practical value of Christ, today more than ever!
Gift #1 – Christmas means God sees and hears us.
There’s a marvelous little passage in Exodus 3:7 which declares that God heard the cry of the sons of Israel and saw that they were being oppressed, so he “has come down to deliver them”. This was neither the first nor last time God “came down” in response to the suffering of this fallen world because it’s in God’s character to “see and hear” the suffering of humanity.
We may wonder if God is listening these days. When I see the tragedies in Aleppo, the suffering of immigrants around the world, and the rise in fascist and racist ideologies, we wonder if God’s listening at all. We wonder too, in the children’s oncology ward. Who is this God who sees and hears, and why is God not intervening, God’s so good and so powerful?
It’s a fair question, and the answer is found in the name Immanuel, which means “God with Us”. What makes the “good news” good isn’t that we’re offered escapist immunity from the affects of living in a fallen world. Rather, it’s that God has promised to walk with us in the midst of everything – the suffering and the joys, and the sickness and the healing, the living and the dying. We’ve been told that life will run the gamut of experiences, that there’s “a time for everything”.
That God has been “with me” is one of the greatest gifts I’ve enjoyed in my life. It’s meant that when I lost my dad, I’d eventually come to discover that I wasn’t as alone as I thought. It meant that when I changed majors and loaded my 68 Ford Mustang to drive north to Seattle, though I’d never been north of Sacramento in my life, and knew not a single person in my new city, God was with me. It meant that while riding a midnight train from Northern India to New Delhi, a train on which I found myself because of a riot in the city where I was teaching, I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone in my berth when I was alone, and I wasn’t alone when I woke in the middle of the night to see six Indian faces staring at me.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not faced the depths of living in this fallen world in anywhere near the same degree as many others. I’ve tasted enough of it, though, to know that the companionship of Christ is, at one level, all I need in this life. And I’ve known those who’ve walked much deeper, darker valleys than mine. They too, have shared with me that this companionship has been a source of healing, sustenance, peace, and eventually for most, joy.
“God with us” begins with God seeing our suffering and hearing our cry. This is the first gift. God knows. God cares. Rejoice. Immanuel. God IS with us.
Sometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story. Here’s mine, explaining why
Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.
I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now. Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family. He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony. And music in our house? “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana. Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.
The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. God only knows why, but dad loved that piece. He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter. Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music. At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both. My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums. I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums. He was perfect on the rhythm test.” I smiled. Mom frowned. Dad said yes. By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist. I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things: Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!
Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop. My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small. Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen. There were certain pieces: “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen. What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.
Then dad died during the World Series of 1973. Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it. Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?” He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened. There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.” I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe. The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.
A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school. Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often. Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful. During Messiah, though, I never brought a book. Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song. Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible. That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore. Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it. With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture. The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.
SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 – It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more. To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic. Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood. I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone. I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it. Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends. I’ll go.
It’s a matinee, the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more. Walkers. Wheelchairs. I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges. I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.
The play itself is masterfully delivered. It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy. God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation. If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling! I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings. But there’s more…
I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)
Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words. He’s known rejection, loss, shame. These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations. Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force. I was rejected, but so was Christ! Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path. I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker. I see a child with a disability. And the words are there, as people rush by: “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you. Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.
That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again. Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors). Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.
Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball. Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God. Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1. But O the One! Hallelujah!
If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.
My wife and I recently returned from a beautiful adventure, hiking 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and ending up at our front door! A thousand times, or likely many more than that, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we’ve seen. Even more, though, we were profoundly grateful for the rich privilege of being able to do this, for such a trip means we have means, health, access to God’s wilderness, time, and enough love for each other to still enjoy such adventures after 37 years together! (all 87 pictures from that journey can be seen here if you’re interested!)
To make our trip a one way journey to our house we needed to drive to the trail head last week and walk from there. Then today, we drove back and retrieved the car. This meant that the drive from the trailhead back to our house was spent alone; just me and my itunes! I hit the playlist I’d recently created, but not yet listened to intently, and then we began our drive out. The first twelve miles of this trip was labelled as “not for city cars” and included a stream crossing which, though dry this time of year, was nonetheless a stony minefield for the underbellies of “smallish” cars like my Yaris!
We’re off, and I settle in to playing the game that is avoiding potholes and large stones on forest service roads, it’s not hard work, so I’m able to pay attention to the music I’m hearing. After twelve miles of a wilderness version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I’m overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving to God because every song I heard was ripe with memories of times and places, and ways God met me.
Does music do that to you? Do songs evoke specific memories with such power that you’re nearly transported through time and space to that very time and place when the song became meaningful? Now, though, you’re there with the added benefits of wisdom and perspective that makes you appreciate how richly you’ve been blessed, or how faithfully you’ve been kept.
Remembering how you’ve been blessed, or kept, or guided, is more than a little bit important. Remember the reality of God’s activity in the previous days of our lives is precisely what’s needed to sustain our joy, hope, confidence, and peace when everything appears to be falling apart. God tells us this over and over again as seen here in just a word search of “remember” in Deuteronomy.
In the old days of what we call “Bible Times”, God often had people create signs as a means of remembering; stones in a river; a cord hanging from a window; some roasted lamb and a little flatbread – all these were at times signs intended to evoke memory.
Which brings me back to music, and today’s playlist, with every song evoking memory. As I’m driving along, avoiding potholes, the past comes to life:
It’s 1994 and our little non-profit is making a promotional video for our summer wilderness Bible School. We choose this song as background music for a slide show of climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking in the North Cascades. We choose it because of one certain line in the music which says that we believe what we do because it is “the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”. I believed it then, and believe it still – but between now and then, there have been many moments, days even, when the truth is I don’t have a clue what I believe. I’ve doubted plenty – and yet God has been faithful and I’ve been able, again and again, to return to the rock that is my foundation. I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I veer left and avoid a pothole.
I’m at Seattle Pacific University, helping care for students after a school shooting left one dead, and a whole campus shaken. This is the song sung at the special chapel service. “Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, that the light of Christ may be seen today in our acts of love and our words of faith…” That happened in the ensuing days, so that a newspaper with little sympathy for our faith called “The Stranger” would write: “The evening of the shooting, a 7 p.m. prayer service at SPU’s campus filled to overflowing. Let it be said: This community looks ready to heal itself. There were psalms and songs. The whole room sang along, harmonizing, louder and louder.”
The song reminds me that God has yoked my heart with Seattle, and the university students that study there. I’d hear the song just about one year later in England, and the song would remind there that I need to be faithful to my calling, to not shrink back from the hard thing. I’m grateful for the reminders of these moments today as I inhale the scent of pine mixed with dust from this dry road.
The song is seared in my memory because I heard it for the first time after spending a fall in New England with my wife to celebrate our anniversary. We were growing older and knew it. Friends were dying, and parents. Life was moving on, and after walking through stunning colors and cheering on the Red Sox game six playoff victory over the Yankees at the Cheers Bar in Boston, we were heading home on i-95, listening to these words:
I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life
Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…
Indeed. I’m reminded, every time I hear it, that life’s passing by quickly and every day – even the hard ones and boring ones, are a gift.
There are too many more to do this for each song, so I’ll leave you with “Shattered” by Trading Yesterday
Here’s the part, in the chorus, that is deeply meaningful to me:
And I’ve lost who I am, and I can’t understand
Why my heart is so broken, rejecting your love
Without, love gone wrong; lifeless words carry on
But I know, all I know’s that the end’s beginning
Who I am from the start, take me home to my heart
Let me go and I will run, I will not be silent
All this time spent in vain; wasted years wasted gain
All is lost but hope remains and this war’s not over
I love this because it speaks to me of a time – no, of many times, when I’ve chosen the low road of fear, of cynicism, or pride, or worse; times when I’ve chosen death and indeed, I’ve lost who I am. When I pay the price, I know that the end’s the beginning, because I know that at the bottom I’ll come to my senses and return to life and reality.
And the beauty of it, of course, is the promise though “all is lost, hope remains” because “There’s a light, there’s a sun taking all these shattered ones to the place we belong, and his love will conquer all.”
I think of specific times, recently, when I’ve lost who I am, and yet his love has conquered. It happens over and over again, friends, because the good news is nothing, if it’s not a story of being able to come home after running away!
There are half a dozen other songs representing significant moments – after the death of a friend, after the completion of a book, a winter ski tour with my wife, a brother in-law’s battle with cancer. Music and memory – for me they’re seared together beautifully, and this makes playlists – this one anyway – a sort of “memorial stone”. As I listen, I’m encouraged because I remember God’s been with me through good times and bad, through beauty and pain, and will be with me today, and tomorrow too, come what may!
What songs evoke worship and gratitude for you? And if not songs, what evokes your memories of gratitude? Smells? Food? Places?
“The key word for methodical training of spirituality is gratefulness“ – David Steindl Rast
Every August, in my normally green part of the world, the earth looks tired. Fresh, vibrant, variegated shades of green have been drained into shades of dust. Grass is tired. Trees are tired. Spring and early summer have been wonderful, fruitful, beautiful, but it’s over.
Sadly, I hear the same sentiment again and again these days, with respect to marriages, vocations, our nation’s strength and politic, and yes, even faith itself. There is, it seems, a collective weariness all around us. When anger, fear, and anxiety are added in, we’re looking at a dangerous cocktail! The “dog days” of summer are hounding us at every turn.
This “weariness”, this “loss of vibrancy” though, is utterly different from the vision of faith life articulated in the scriptures. The prophet Isaiah speaks of those who will “run and not be weary…walk and not faint” or the “rivers of living water” which Jesus promises will burst from our souls when we make him the spring from which we quench our deepest thirsts. These sages offer a picture of strength in perpetuity, well into old age. I think of my friend, Major Ian Thomas who, in his nineties, was still opening his Bible with pen in hand, listening, marking, praying, learning. There’s MLK, who’d get up again and again after being beaten, threatened with countless letters of hate mail and verbal curses, jailed, beaten again, and yet again. He’d get back up and press on. Wilberforce, in his determination to end slavery in the British Empire faced similar resistance, less physical but nonetheless relentless. And of course, there’s an anonymous army out there of people who keep showing up, living into that glorious exhortation from Ecclesiastes: whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
This kind of faith longevity never happens by accident, any more than someone just “happens to run a marathon” or “happens to summit Mount Rainier” (“I don’t know how it happened Claudia, we started out for a little walk around the paved path by the parking and lot and decided to just keep going – suddenly we were on the summit enjoying the 80 mile per hour winds, life sucking oxygen deficit from altitude, and severe sunburn”) No, things that are meaningful always require some intentionality.
Yes, it turns out that the life of faith, like all meaningful lives, requires some training. David Steindl Rast explains this (in this favorite book) when he writes, “Genuine spiritual practice will inevitably include training of the body, since after all we are not disembodied beings….Since spirituality is aliveness at all levels, spiritual progress must be measured not only by increasing mental awakeness, but also by bringing the body’s spirited vigor up a few notches. The key word for methodical training in this kind of spirituality is gratefulness.”
He goes on to explain that the word gratitude comes from “gratis”, which means, “what is freely given”. The reality is that, in spite of our trials, in spite of the political upheaval, anger, and uncertainties, in spite of the realities of oppression, racism, terror, and violence, good gifts continue to be poured out on us. Every. Single. Day.
Paying attention to these gifts, or ignoring them, shapes our spirits, and ultimately our outlook on life. As I presently preach through Exodus, I’m reminded of the history God’s people experienced in moving through the wilderness. They had food, freely and miraculously provided. They had water. They had shoes which never wore out during the whole forty year journey. They had guidance, every second it was needed. Gift after gift was theirs.
Instead of joy, though, their journey was a perpetual exercise in complaining: “The food’s no good. The water’s no good. The leadership stinks. We don’t like the leader’s family. Who does this leader think he is, trying to lead us?” It went on like this for forty years, with the cup perpetually empty due to the fact that the whining created so many leaks that the gifts of grace quickly evaporated in their litany of complaints.
It’s in our nature to whine, to feel entitled, to complain that life isn’t aligned perfectly with our desires as seen in this, a favorite clip of mine. This posture of what the apostle Paul calls “grumbling” in this passage, is the natural fruit of not practicing gratitude. Put another way: The means to overcome a posture of whining is always the same: practice gratitude.
It shouldn’t be hard. It just requires paying attention. David Steindl Rast says, “Day and night gifts keep pelting down on us. If we were aware of this, gratefulness would overwhelm us. But we go through life in a daze.
His solution? “Every night I note in a pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been consciously thankful.”
My solution: #100daysofgratitude as a means of kickstarting the spiritual discipline of giving thanks. We need this now, in this political season, more than we ever have before. So…
JUMP IN… call today (August 3rd) your day 1, or join with me and make it your day 2. Then, every day, post to your instagram or facebook or whatever, a declaration of gratitude along with the hashtag #100daysofgratitude You can then share in the joy of others on the journey by searching that hashtag and finding out that, indeed, the world and much in it, is a gift from God. Don’t sweat skipping a day. Better to fall and get up again than fall and then sit in a pool of self-condemnation.
Disciplines like these are life giving and teach us that every single day there’s a cause for gratitude.
I hope you’ll join me. I know you’ll be richer if you do.
There were times, not so long ago, when mourning was the first response to tragedy. This is appropriate. When 9.11 happened, there was a global coming together that simply grieved the catastrophic loss, acknowledging, before any rush to response or solution, that the world is not meant to be this way. Waves of grief and anger over “the way it is” rise up in the human heart when tragedy happens.
Or should, at least. In Ezekiel 18:32 God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” In John 11, Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and wept tears of grief, because death is an intrusion in our fallen world – a source of profound loss, sorrow, and separation.
These days though, there’s no time for mourning. The blood wasn’t dry on the floor before this tragedy was politicized. Islamaphobia. Homophobia. Gun Control. ISIS. Immigration policy. NRA. Ban on assault weapons. Blame Obama. Mock Trump, or praise him. Why mourn, when you can blame, or use the event to justify your worldview?
Here’s an observation friends: this is sick
Our rush to judgement is a cultural disease, the natural fruit of our increasing inability to listen, think, and learn a bit before talking. I was in Austria when Sandy Hook occurred and the first things I read in social media had to do with blaming the NRA, or declaring preemptively that “the gun control liberals will use this to steal our guns”. Heated rhetoric, even before the children were buried. An alligator steals a child from a theme park, and before his body has even been found, people are lecturing the parents about “responsible parenting”. The biggest mass shooting in American history happens and before there’s a single funeral, Muslims are blamed. Immigration debates fill the air. Christians are blamed. Guns are blamed. And those blamed respond with a whiplash of defensiveness.
Lost in all of it is the time honored tradition, in nearly every culture in the world, to “mourn first – thoroughly – and then respond” The cost of this loss will be huge, is already huge – because what’s happened is that all of us are now constantly at war, with each other. Constantly on the defensive, or to avoid that, on the pre-emptive offense.
Job’s friends may not have assessed Job’s problems accurately, but at least they had the decency to mourn with him a little bit before offering their misguided solutions. The same was true 15 years ago, when America, even the world, stopped for a week or so, and mourned. We were all angry. We were all learning new things about terror and waking up to the realization that our world had changed forever. But we held our tongues.
The Bible is a rich pool of lament for many reasons, one of which is that it allows the dissonance between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be to ferment in our spirits and souls. Such fermentation, born of compassion for victims of suffering and loss, strengthens our longings for the beauty of Christ’s reign to break into our world with full force. It’s only out from those deep longings, ripened in mourning, that the best wisdom of next steps will be born.
Last week was too busy for mourning for me. I was in meetings overseas from morning to night, and squeezing church work and sermon prep into the little margins. I barely saw the headlines, and then quickly saw the polarizing comments, coming from everywhere. Really! Everywhere. The weight of what happened didn’t hit me until yesterday, when I had some time to finally digest the event while sitting in the Frankfurt airport waiting to come home.
Today then, is a day of mourning for me – for one thing. The victims. Young lives were cut down too soon and while death is always tragic, it’s always the more so when the lives are young, still looking forward to most of their days.
Yes, the church must participate in robust and civil discourse about sexual ethics, gun control, gun rights, immigration, Islam, and more. Those are different topics for different days. But not today. Today I mourn…which begins with empathy, and compassion, which simply means, “to suffer with”. For God’s sake, and your own, learn compassion before anything else.
Again violence has taken young lives.
Again people woke in the morning not knowing their hours were numbered.
Again families of victims are faced with an unanticipated hole in their lives, with many parents facing the most difficult grief of all, the death of their own children. Of all the things that “aren’t supposed to happen”, this is near the top of the list.
Let your tears run down like a river day and night
As the beginning of the night watches
Pour out your heart like water
Before the presence of the Lord;
Life up your hands to Him
For the life of your little ones… Lamentations 2
It’s the day after my youngest daughter’s wedding, a grand yet simple affair that included three wedding dresses, a parade from the church to the park led by wedding guests playing the Star Wars theme, and an open mic, poignant and ripe with the love of relationship nurtured by my daughter and her husband through years of showing up and building community. They left the church at dusk, on bicycles, after running a gauntlet of sparklers. With tears and weariness, I thought, “Done. The weekend can’t get any better.”
The day after blowout parties like these should be a day of silence and rest in my introverted mind. In our case though, the gathering continued because my mother in law is turning 90 this month. She’s been living with us for a little less than two years, and has, besides her daughter (who I married) three other sons, living in Oregon, and one each in Northern and Southern California. They were all here for the wedding, along with their spouses, and many of the grandchildren too, so it just made sense to throw a big party the day after the wedding.
As a result, we found ourselves gathered in our mountain house on that first Sunday in May for day long festival of eating, drinking, mountain exploration, of celebration of Ruth. When someone turns 90, I’m afraid that there’s sometimes not much to celebrate, other than the elder’s dogged determination to live on. The truth of the matter is that the sunset years can be more fog than beauty, more resignation than hope. The ravages of time and the painful losses people have experienced by that age often leave people vastly diminished, or bitter, or only looking back, offering little more than a sigh for those gathered to honor.
And then there’s Ruth. She’s one of those exceptions that both brings me deep joy and gives me hope. The celebration of her life was a perfectly appropriate extension and affirmation of the life of celebration she pursues almost every day. The chair where she fills her days looks out to the front of our house where she can watch it snow or, this time of year, enjoy the birds and squirrels as they vie for food. She’s always sitting there when I’m returning from work, or an outdoor adventure, or a walk with neighbors, and almost all of the time, she has crochet needles in her hands, and yarn at her feet. She smiles, waves maybe, and gets on with her craft…stitch by stitch.
I’ve been married 37 years, and this stitching of hers was a habit long before I entered her world. She makes things. And what becomes of those miles of yarn, stitched one knot at time so faithfully these past decades? The answer to that question formed the basis of our celebration. My wife and her brothers collected photos from family members, friends, and children in our church who’ve been the recipients of a coveted “Ruth” blanket. I received one as a welcome to the family years ago. My kids each have one. Dozens of new babies in the various churches I’ve led have one. Neighbors. More distant relatives. Blankets ranging from Seahawks logos, to Bears, to a WSU Cougar, are scattered across the country, and so pictures began pouring in. By the end there more than 60.
My daughter Kristi crafted the submissions into a book, which became the centerpiece gift for this woman who I view with the same sense of awe at times as I view the mystics. I hold this view because of her capacity to be fully present, attentive to the moment and task at hand, in spite of the chaos that life sometimes tosses as us.
Her world has risen and fallen, known death and life, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, joy and profound sorrow. The larger world too, has offered up a full dose, just in her lifetime, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, financial scandals, near impeachment of a president, terror, wildfires, earthquakes, and floods. On the surface of things, it’s a whirlwind of change, chaotic. At times upheaval might have been the norm more than stability. Like all of us, I suppose Ruth might have fodder for complaint, or withdrawal into fear. I know that when my own little world is threatened, I’m sometimes overwhelmed and anxious – and my problems are petty in the grand scheme.
In this world of upheaval, both personal and global, she doesn’t complain. She crochets. There’s always another stitch, and then another, and then another. Life’s not stable, nor is it lacking its share of pain and loss. But instead of fear, or the paralysis of anxiety, this woman does what gives her joy, faithfully, as hours turns into days, turn into years, turn in blankets – and blessings – and joy. And it’s that quiet, generous, stable, uncomplaining joy that we were privileged to celebrate that sunny Sunday in the mountains.
My words might preach, if only sometimes. Her life preaches. I know people who can quote chapter and verse, but who are so filled with fear, petty judgements, and bitterness, that they give me reasons not to believe. But this one, sitting quietly, and doing the next thing in spite of everything else that’s happening in the world, and letting a string of faithful moments become a gift to someone, this one, makes me want to live faithfully as a person of service and hope.
She smiles. She blows on her candles, and gets a bit of help finishing the job. She receives as graciously as she gives. And in all of it she reminds me of something I heard recently: “the way we inhabit our spaces – this constitutes our calling”.
Thank you Ruth, for inhabiting so very well. We not only love and honor you, but we want you to know that you bless us – and not bless us only, though that would be enough. You teach us. And to the extent we learn the peace of quiet service, our lives will be the richer for it.
At the end of a day spent sitting at a desk, I hop in the car and drive two short miles to the trailhead. There are rumors of snow on the peaks just above the house where I live at the pass, but I’ve yet to see any evidence as the clouds have enshrouded the high country all day long. Is it curiosity to know the truth, an itch to move instead of sit, or simply the intoxication of scent that wet fir trees offer the trail runner in the thick of autumn? I don’t know the answer; likely all three. All I know is that, as John Muir wrote: “the mountains are calling and I must go”
Muir loved not just being outside, but being outside in weather; storms, wind, snow. He felt that the mountains spoke powerfully during such times, and that the very act of listening would be transformative for him.
“Let the sea roar, and all its creatures, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills sing aloud together before the Lord; for God comes to judge the earth. The Lord will judge the earth with righteousness and the peoples in justice.” (Psalm 98:7-9)
As soon as I leave the car and turn around I see it; the first snow of the season. The broken clouds have parted long enough to reveal what was hidden, and, just for a moment, I see that what’s been hidden is beautiful. Quickly the clouds cover over the peaks again, as if embarrassed to have been seen naked. For the rest of the run it will be this way: a glimpse of glory, just above me, just out of reach, and then hidden again. Another peek, with promising hope that this time the skies will truly part, and clear. Poof! Gone again.
The mountains and sky are toying with me, and I keep running up the trail, higher, higher, in search of clarity, until the darkness overtakes and all hope of seeing is gone, at least until morning. Then, armed with headlamp and iphone as torches, a retreat to the car over stones, streams, steps, and roots. The darkness is thick by the time I’m back at the car and make my way home to aromas of onions and the warmth of a fire and I ponder that the run was good, not just for my body, but for my spirit too.
The clouds of war, torture, economic injustice and racism are all around us these days. It’s a fog, born of greed and lust for power, laced with violence. Though thick, the fog isn’t new, having been with us from the beginning of the tragedy and beauty that is our story. And yet, always, the clouds have parted. Yes, there was Auschwitz, and stories that nobody believed because darkness couldn’t be that dark. But when the clouds parted there was Sophie Scholl, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, courageous resistance work and prayer meetings. Yes there was apartheid. But light broke through. His name was Mandela. Yes, there was genocide, but there’s been a reconciliation movement in which the brightness of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation wash over the past like first snow.
As the clouds of Isis, school shootings, human trafficking, and a refugee crisis that will change Europe forever, it’s vital to remember what kind of world exists, already, because of what Christ did on the cross. When he said, “it’s finished” he didn’t just mean that he was finished breathing, he meant that the destiny of history as a place of death and despair was over. Isaiah foretold it:
These are the Colors of Hope – the Colors of the Kingdom of God; and the glad news is that this kingdom always breaks through to refresh and restore. What’s more, each moment of refreshment is a hint of how the story ends, where eternity’s headed.
As Christ-followers, it’s no good being glum, down in the mouth, and cynical about politicians, systems, and economies. That doesn’t do much good for anyone. On the other hand, those who believe that behind the clouds there’s a glory, become people who point the way. They encourage people to make snow right where they are, to cover sadness and failure, shame and greed, fear and addiction – cover it all with the freedom found in Christ.
It starts, of course, with believing that there’s something hopeful there, behind the fog. But it requires more than that – it requires a commitment to embody that hope and, like John Muir, get people out there into the wild places where hope is visible so that they can see it for themselves.
And all of this, of course, requires that we keep showing up. Dozens of times I’ve brought people to places in the wild in hopes of showing them the view, only to have it shrouded in fog. “Come back tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that” I’ll say, “and you’ll see it for sure!” Likewise, I’m always on the lookout for Christ’s hope, in the generosity of a friend, in a community surrounding a beloved during their time of death, in the birth of a new child, in the remarkable signs of peace that the news never shows.
We need to keep showing up and keep looking. When we do, sometimes the clouds part and we found hope, which means we can become hope, which means clarity, blessing, joy – not just for ourselves, but others too.
That hope, more than for the health of my heart, is why I run in the mountains.
Some days of our lives are thematic. We don’t know it at the time, but throughout the day we’re learning a single significant life grounding lesson through seemingly random and disparate experiences. At the end of the day, or perhaps in the middle of the night, we can see that there was one theme played by several instruments, and that if we’ll only have ears to hear, we’ll be changed for the better. Yesterday was just such a day for me, as it included encounters with Boko Haram, the Pope, and Dracula, all offering the same life giving message….
It began with this remarkable story from Nigeria about learning to love Boko Haram. “What enemies, precisely, are we to love Jesus? I mean, there are those who gossip about us, or we find annoying at work. I’ll get there. But terrorists? Be serious Jesus” Boko Haram has destroyed 278 buildings and 1674 gathering places for Christians in Nigeria. Monica Dna watched Boko Haram behead her husband and slit the throats of two sons after forcibly entering her home in the middle of the night. Her throat was cut too and she was left for dead but survived and is one of many survivor voices advocating ‘the way of Jesus’ as response.
There’s been a systematic campaign of assassinations and bombings of Christians since 2009. What’s less known is that the Christians of Nigeria are overwhelmingly Anabaptist, which means that they are theologically and philosophically committed to non-violence, and as such have had their ideology deeply tested. It’s one thing to be pacifist in the USA, another thing entirely in 2015 Nigeria. The stories in the article tell of the profound otherworldly courage which exists in such faith communities. Sacrifice, prayer, faith, love for one’s enemies, and depth of courage are present here in a way that seems conspicuously absent among those vocally arguing for the right to own guns in the name of freedom. One pastor writes, “because I was raised Muslim I know how they think and how to calm them down and make peace. I always treat them as fellow human beings, trying to understand them.” He then adds, “We take what Jesus said about forgiveness seriously…” as he speaks of a vision to break the cycle of violence through the way of forgiveness and unconditional love of one’s enemies.
I put the article down, convicted and chastened by the example of my Nigerian brothers and sisters, and then turn on the TV to watch while I work out. The Pope is just being introduced to the US Congress, and so I sit and watch, transfixed as this godly man speaks truth to power. He’ll challenge our political leaders to value all life, including life in the womb and the lives of immigrants fleeing terror and oppression. He’ll challenge the crass consumption of consumerist capitalism as a source not only of soul grief, but environmental degradation. But most significant, he’ll speak of the need for civility and cooperation as the most vital ingredients those charged with governing must exercise in these perilous challenging times. I watch, grief stricken, as the respective sides of the aisle cheer only when their party’s agenda is vindicated by his words, offering stony silence when chastened.
Here too, I see that the way of Jesus is the way of surrender. I see that I’ll not get everything I want; ever. Therefore, if I’m to work of the common good of a culture, I’ll need to work with those who view the world differently than I, and this will require listening, dialogue, friendship, and the willingness to lay down my ideological arms at times in pursuit of real answers that will only arise when people listen and work together.
That this Pope will leave this hall of power and dine with the homeless reminds me that looking like Jesus means not just serving, actually loving, the vulnerable and marginalized who are in our worlds, and they are in all of our worlds if we’ll but open our eyes. But this too requires sacrifice, of time, comfort, and personal agendas.
Finally, the day ends at the theater, where my wife and I watch Dracula, a play adaption of the Bram Stoker novel. Without giving too much away, I’ll simply say two things:
1) If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss it – playing at Taproot Theater now.
2) The play tied the day together perfectly, as it became apparent, one last time, that the dark and destructive powers of this world will always and only be disarmed by sacrifice. The broken body. The poured blood, The crushed grape. The cross. The non-violence of the Anabaptists of Nigeria. The release of one’s fundamentalist political ideology, sacrificed for the common good.
All day long, God was saying the same thing to me. “You think that power and influence are the fuel of the gospel Richard? Think again. It’s always been the same, whether in resistance Germany, or MLK’s south, or present day Nigeria. God’s weapons are love, service, and sacrifice. “ Take those out of your Christianity and you have words; you have religious systems; you have institutions — but the essence will be gone.
I’m still thinking about all three encounters today, as I look over my sermon notes for Sunday, split wood, and pray for Nigeria, the US Congress, and those stuck in the oppression of addiction and darkness.
O thou Christ
Thank you for speaking into our dark world through the example of suffering saints, speeches to Congress, and dark novels. Give us not only eyes to see, but hearts that are receptive enough to respond, in order the way might become people of hope and light in the midst of all that’s unfolding in our dark world. Amen.
The call came at 6:30 in the morning from my wife. “Uncle Earnest died last night” she said, and we launched into a discussion about travel details. I had a 7AM meeting, then some teaching at 9 and more meetings and reports all day long, so that there wasn’t time to process. “97” I remember thinking to myself when I heard the news, “is a good long life” and went on with my day.
A few tears begin, because I realize that, indeed, I’m singing my uncle’s song now that he’s gone, for he’s the one who introduced me to the song that is my calling as a pastor and Bible teacher. He was the one I called in about 1977 and said, “I’ve made a terrible mistake! I’ve agreed to teach the high school Sunday school class tomorrow!”
“That’s great!” he said.
“No! I have no idea how to teach the Bible!” He asked if I was assigned a text and when I said ‘no,’ he told me to come over to his house right away.
It was a Saturday afternoon and now that I’m a pastor, I know how precious and restorative Saturday afternoons can be, ought to be. Yet there I stood at his door, an interruption to his perfectly good Saturday. He invited me in and with enthusiasm usually reserved for sports fans, said, “you need to teach Joshua 1 – it’s amazing” The dining room table was stacked with commentaries and we sat down to study together. First, observe the text. Then interpret it. Then apply it. Then check your books for more insights. “Keep studying until you’re excited about it” he said. Being a pastor, I’d entered into his world, and he was thrilled by that. If I was Luke, he was Yoda. If Frodo, Gandalf.
“How long will that take?” I said, overwhelmed.
“It doesn’t matter” he said. “It will happen if you stick with it.”
And it did happen. We studied together a bit, and I took all his books home with me to scatter on my own kitchen table. Observe. Interpret. Apply. Repeat. It took a while, but by midnight I was excited about Joshua 1, not as a lesson to share, but as life-giving fuel for a kid who’d just lost his dad a couple years earlier and was racked with insecurities. “Be strong and courageous!” it says, over and over again. If ever I needed courage, it was that moment in my young life. Not for teaching only; that was the least of it. I needed answers, hope, joy, guidance, boldness, vision for the canvass of life that lay ahead.