I was about to enter 4th grade when our family moved about two miles in Fresno, out of what would today be called a ‘tiny house’ and into a ‘real house’ complete with a bedroom for both my sister and me. The move put me in a new elementary school and I was terrified that I’d make no friends. It was my cinnamon roll baking grandmother who, just a few weeks before the school year began in September, told me about a favorite Bible verse of hers. “This” she said as she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, “should help you” and she hugged me as I stuffed the little note card into my pocket. After she left the room I read it. She’d written a Bible reference: James 1:19. It read: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”
I wrote it out on an index card and put it in my pocket. It served me well during those tumultuous days, when I was feeling socially awkward and at times, tempted to respond to unkind words with angry verbal retribution. Instead, I’d walk away, usually saying nothing at all, amazed at the power of silence as a means of killing the momentum of escalation that so often happens in so many places:
peer groups in school
Work place gossip
Social media rants
Political parties with all their posturing
Christian leaders who shoot each other over doctrinal differences of opinion
The White House and Oval Office are the newest members of “club mud”, though none should be surprised by it. Accuse one of your political competitor’s family members of conspiring to kill President Kennedy; attach childishly insulting adjectives in front of their names, (“Lyin’ Ted. Crooked Hillary. Little Marco.”) Insult debate moderators by talking about their “blood coming out of wherever”; When exposed for shallow and deceptive egotism, respond by ranting that the political commentator was “bleeding badly from a facelift”; Respond to charges from multiple women that you were guilty of sexual misconduct by declaring that they aren’t “pretty enough” to be worthy of your advances.”
Of course you’ll be elected president.
Of course boatloads of Evangelical Christians will be at the front of the demographic pack cheering you to victory, getting out the vote, and praising God for your win, turning a blind eye, not to character flaws, which we all have, but to your utter blindness to your character flaws, and your comfort level with that blindness.
Of course you’ll continue your childish rants, rooted in ego, deception, and insecurity, three qualities wholly unbecoming of any leader of anything, let alone the leader of the free world.
What’s wrong with this picture?
My answer has nothing to do with the politics of health care, global warming, or the fact that I’m both pro-life and pro-environment (and thus a person without a political homeland). My answer also has nothing to do with the purely speculative conjecture of whether Hillary would have been less scandalous, or more, or less effective. We need at least two parties, and robust differences and dialogue if this democracy is going to work.
I’m writing to say that I’m grieved over the cavalier nature with which we Americans have grown to accept this man’s childish rants as normative for leaders. Yes, perhaps lips service has been given (finally) to the inappropriate nature of our president’s stream of consciousness calloused and degrading rhetoric. Tragically though, our collective failure to hold this man, and others, responsible for the countless lies and (with apologies to sophomores everywhere) sophomoric ‘trash talking’ has led to a loss of civility in dialogue, and a dramatic increase in polarization and division in both our churches and our culture at large.
In an attempt to raise our awareness on why we should work hard to not become hardened to this crass and demeaning repartee, I offer the following three observations:
1. Words Matter. One author writes: “Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Are we using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or compliments, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiraling into a deep depression. Furthermore, our words not only have the power to bring us death or life in this world, but in the next as well. Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That same book of James, which contained the verse given my by grandma when I was nine years old also says: “…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well…Look at ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is fire…” (James 3:2-6)
I could go on and on, sharing about Jesus’ teaching that angry words are tantamount to murder, and how the qualities of leader are ultimately confirmed or denied by the way they use their words. There’s not time for the many teachings from the Bible on the importance of words.
2. A leader’s character matters. Though many see the Old Testament as boring and, at times, eliciting more questions than answers, one principle is certain when reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles: As goes the king, so go the people. I teach this to my staff as well, telling them over and over again that the main principle of leadership is that the people we lead will, at least in some measure, “become who we are”. Two concerns are cogent at this point.
I’m concerned that people like this stuff. If you disagreed with the previous administration, fine. Our country is built on vast philosophical differences and our capacity to work together to find some common ground. The current level of discourse, however, doesn’t lead us toward that kind of bilateral end. People seem to relish the name calling, to cheer the demeaning sarcasm, to celebrate sound bytes and ignore lies. The result is an escalation in hateful rhetoric and violence.
I’m concerned when people say that policy trumps character. No. No. No. Ask the Bible. Ask anyone building a business from the ground up. Ask coaches. They’ll both tell you the same thing. Yes. Policies matter. Yes, other candidates might have been, who knows, just as bad. But make no mistake: Character matters just as much as policy or skill, maybe more.
By our passive silence, we’re telling each other that words don’t matter, that character doesn’t matter. As a result, Christians send hate mail or make hate calls to a Christian ministry because of disagreements over a policy decision. A man opens fire on a group of republicans playing baseball. And people no longer trust each other’s words. No surprise really – all of it is the fruit of our passively accepting insults and lies as normative. We can’t control our president or other politicians. We can be disgusted by his words and purpose to swim in a different ocean. Please join me in living by James 1:19,20 and by calling our churches, our children, and our Facebook feeds to do the same.
Do you remember eighth grade geometry, and the subject of axioms? An axiom is “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”. An example in math would be: “if x and y are real numbers, then the sum of x+y is also a real number”. There’s no need to prove it because it’s self evident. Axioms are important because mathematicians and philosophers build structures on their foundations.
Get the axiom wrong and the whole structure will ultimately be unsustainable. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction”. This gets practical in our moment because there are claims floating around in our social/political world and they’re being accepted as axiomatic.
“The lyin’ media”
“My inauguration crowd was bigger”
“I won the popular vote”
“I was wiretapped by the previous president”
I’m not writing here as democrat (I’m independent and voted both sides in the last election) and I’m not writing about health care, or the philosophy that lower taxes will be good for the economy. Both the conservative and progressive voices are vital in shaping our democracy; their ideas need collision with each other in order to arrive at next steps in moving a country forward – at least that was the intent of the framers. Further, the conservative world won the election and has both the right and responsibility to govern. All of us are on the bus, so we’d all do well to press for success.
It’s the very desire for democracy to succeed, whoever is in power, that causes me to write today. Whatever your party loyalties, know that a very dangerous foundation is being laid when a country is asked to believe things as if they were axiomatic, simply because they’re spoken by people with authority. While not technically axioms, we’re being asked to believe more and more things, “sans evidence”.
My plea is that you not go there, that we not go there as a nation, that we not allow our leaders to take us there.
Promises gone awry are one thing. (“If you like your current health care plan you can keep it”). They’re named. Apologies are made. We learn. Hopefully we move on.
This is a different time; a different leader. As David Brooks writes: “Everything about Trump that appalls 65% of America strengthens him with the other 35%”. This is an axiom problem. It stems from a readiness to believe things, simply because they’re declared by someone, in spite of the fact that, not only are they not self-evident, but all available evidence points in a different direction.
And so we come to the importance of character. Nobody is perfect, of course, and we know our previous presidents well enough to know that feet of clay have been in the Oval Office from the beginning. Still, the accumulation of spectacular declarations lacking any evidence is new territory. The credibility gap that is nothing more than fodder for late night comedians presently, will become the soil of national crisis when we’re asked to enter a sacrificial war because our leader makes an axiomatic declaration demanding it and, no surprise, most of the notion won’t buy it.
When I teach German students, I’m happy to report that they don’t take what I say at face value. They ask hard questions. They challenge my statements. They ask for evidence. I was taken aback by this years ago, when I first began teaching in Europe. When I asked why they’re “so skeptical” they told me it had to do with their history, that they’d learned the dangers of following blindly, and so built healthy skepticism into their education of youth.
“Following blindly” is becoming a habit these days and that shouldn’t surprise us, though it should alarm us. It’s in our nature to believe what we want to believe, rather than allow ourselves to be shaped by revelation that would be disruptive to our held views. Can I suggest that, rather than elevating any human leader, or source, to the status of infallible – all of us commit to thinking both critically, and open mindedly – to engaging with those holding differing views both civilly and honestly – and that we do it all with the goal of building on a foundation of finding truth rather than defending fallacious axioms.
So here we are, with truth claims being offered and the expectation declared that we believe them axiomatically, simply because authorities have spoken.
Well Mr. President, and speakers of both house and senate, and minority leaders of those same chambers, if there’s any good news in your deplorable, unabashedly partisan behaviors of late its this: your lies have become unbelievable, even to yourselves and the people of your own parties. Your truth claims are, I can only pray, creating a vast sea of skeptics who will no longer take what’s said at face value. And in the wake of your collective integrity failure, my hope and prayer is that the next round of elections won’t be the circus this previous round was. Instead, perhaps, people will once again look for people with integrity and elect them, weighing character above everything else.
…because one thing is certain throughout the history of the world: as goes the king, so goes the nation.
NOTE: This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”. I deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post. Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!
August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m. We arrive there feeling strong, whole. Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically. It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut. Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse.
After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut. Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served. If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm.
The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one. The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over.
As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise. Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.”
“High or low?” I ask.
“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction. The trail is on the ridge the whole way.” I smile, nodding. I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”. Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together. I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes. “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning.
I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there. Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete. This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner.
This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills. I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges. My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity. You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash. Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it. Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”. They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.
As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t. As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress. It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread. The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles.
This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit. Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing. There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word. In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death.
For those with experience, this is not intimidating. You simply don’t fall. You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step. For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness. My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge. They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure. On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on.
I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing? This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me. Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face. We must descend it. On the one hand, it’s a ladder. The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much: we can climb down this ladder.
On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent. We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps. Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent. After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise.
So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder. The stakes are high. The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.
It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons. They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope. So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still. There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.
Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially. We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power. We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more. Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.
This is a very small way of living. It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels. The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top. Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before. We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank. By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.
…Except we can’t. As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created. This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management. When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling” It’s sin management. It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy. And worst of all: it’s boring.
In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin. God has a summit for us and it looks like this:
Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31 We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in. This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.
Abundance “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10 This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die. I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing. I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving.
Wholeness “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21 Yes! The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning. The vision is much more positive, more summit like. God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living. The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living. Summits. All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear.
After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure. We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides. It looks daunting, and is. Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”.
Exactly! The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option. I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut. The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck. It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here. No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip. And for this, I’ll be forever grateful.
Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety. We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust. The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain. The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!
The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way. They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets. They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives! They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities. They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so. They rose above the valleys of mediocrity. Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home. But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world. When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential.
Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit? When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits: Fear not – for I am with you!
The Overconfidence of Darkness
“And in His name all oppression shall cease…” These were the lyrics coming from the speakers yesterday afternoon when I discovered there’d been a tragedy in Paris—six actually, or seven—leaving over 100 dead and over 300 injured in a city known for love, civility, fine wine, and late walks along the Seine. If you’ve been there you know the beauty, which only serves to heighten the ugliness, as we’re reminded once again that whatever Jesus meant by “it is finished,” from our chair we pray to God that this isn’t the end of the story, because if the future is nothing but violence and hate, rising and falling according to unanticipated tides, then this is a sorry place to be, at best. All oppression hasn’t ceased. Far from it, in fact. And in moments like these, some walk away from faith entirely, convinced the joke’s been on them all along and that the whole is nothing more than a Darwinian struggle for survival, as we eat our own species to make a statement.
Others, often in God’s name, get mad, certain if we can match violence with violence, and add just a little bit more firepower on our side, that “light will win”. While there’s a place for “the sword” as a means to curb evil, that place belongs to the state, and so I’ll leave it to John Kerry and powerful people from around the world to find a way forward on this front, praying for them and their plans, because God knows there’s zero moral high ground for this, or what happened the day before in Beirut. Pray for those charged with response, not cynically as a partisan, but simply and prayerfully, knowing they carry the weight of watching the West fall apart as much as anyone.
But there’s still another way to look at this, and it’s through the lens of history, realizing that this is yet another instance of evil and darkness overplaying their hand. When it says in Ecclesiastes 3 that God has placed “eternity in our hearts,” I believe this is precisely the kind of situation to which the wise philosopher speaks. Sometimes the evil, the blood of innocence, and the unabashed violence, reach a tipping point where the world rises up and says, “enough.” It happened in Germany in the 40’s, Uganda and Cambodia in the 70’s, Eastern Europe in the late 80’s, and Rwanda in the 90’s. We’re slow, tragically slow, to collectively intervene when blatant violence and injustice lay waste to a people. But eventually something happens. The collective sickening is just too much, and there’s some sort of tipping point reached.
That’s because evil doesn’t know when to quit, doesn’t know or believe that humankind has a limit to its capacity for tolerating unabashed hate, violence, and death. Now, in many of the places named above, there’s a collective commitment to justice, generosity, truth-telling and confession as a foundation for real healing, and lasting peace. Could this be the event that creates our tipping point? That’s my prayer, more than anything, because the reality is that until the vastness of humanity rises up collectively and cries “enough!”, the sorry cycle will continue. Paris, an in-your-face declaration that terrors so common in the Middle East are pouring across all borders. There’s nowhere to hide. Maybe, God help us, this will wake us up to the right questions, the right prayers, and the right collective actions, so that we’ll look back and add Paris to a long list of tipping points that turned things around. Pray with me that it will be so.
The Power of a Dead Fly
Along with the Christmas music, I was reading Ecclesiastes for my sermon tomorrow at the church I lead. It’s in chapter 10 that I read, “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink,” and in the same way, “a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.” Indeed. A failed art student from Vienna becomes possessed with his vision of a pure race, and two decades later millions are dead, some for no other reason than being Jewish, or Communist, or gay. A Czarist apathy regarding the wholesale poverty of the Russian people combines with Lenin’s vision of workers’ rights, and suddenly there’s a totalitarian regime, complete with thought police and gulags and bread lines.
In every instance where a little foolishness has become a weapon of mass destruction, that foolishness has always presented disguised as wisdom, and confidence. People want significance, vision, and to be on the winning team, and so dead flies who shout they’re right in their own circus act of certitude become followable. Wisdom demands that two words of caution be offered here:
1. Mind your own perfume, which is another way of saying “be careful how you walk,” because you can take a million steps correctly, but it’s that one extra drink, or lingering touch, or decision to text, or that need you have to get the last word in every time that will, someday, do you in. There are, in reality, no unimportant moments behind the wheel, or at the supper table with people you love, anymore than there are unimportant anchors to set when climbing. It’s not a call to anxiety; just a call to sober awareness that wisdom means recognizing the potential value OR destruction of every decision. When life’s seen through that lens, we’re more likely to pray about everything, and when that happens, more likely too, to enjoy the peace of God. Lots of people are pointing out dead flies “out there,” but each of us responsible for our own scent. Start there.
2. Don’t be a fool in this coming election season. Confidence isn’t the same thing as wisdom, and shouting that something is true doesn’t make it so. If ever there was a time when we need wisdom among the upcoming lot of elected officials, it’s now. A dead fly in 2016 would be a terrible mistake.
O Lord Christ…
Even as we pray for Paris, France, and the international coalition forming to address the scourge of terror saturating our planet, we pray too for our own hearts. Grant that we might rest in the confidence that, indeed, darkness overplays its hand every time. We pray for an awakening hunger for peace across the globe, so that we might have the collective courage needed. We pray too, for our own perfume, mindful that the scent that is our lives and those of our families and churches, are the thing that matters most in the moment. Grant that we might be so filled with your life that, indeed, it is joy, courage, hope, peace, and longings for justice, that become our scent. Amen.
In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah. It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching. Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked. I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of it all… cheers!
Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause. In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away. I, the Lord, affirm it! I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”
God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden. This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome. Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money. Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help. Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another. In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.
Not burdensome? Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:
What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?
What God’s thinking about is the big picture. When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself. Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths
There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment. This is one of the most important truths in the universe. You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart. You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.
Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day. The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts. The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation. The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.
You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden. But in the end? The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy. They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.
God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers. They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest. In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden. To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway. Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy. Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.
Christ’s motivator was joy!
He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice. In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed. And yet he said his commands were not burdensome! Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?
Not at all. We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him. Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”. We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden. I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory. One taste though, and we’re hooked. When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.
A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.
And we think God’s commands are burdensome? Maybe we should reconsider. After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”
To suffering. To self-denial. To service. To life!
I welcome your thoughts….
Leadership, which is code for parenting, teaching, working with anyone as a catalyst to get things accomplished, requires the development and nurture of several key qualities which I hope to look at in the coming few weeks. This, the first in a series, is about developing “reserve capacity”, because without it, our leadership will crash in a crisis every time! The exhausted parent will lash at the kids, or totally withdraw. The “at wits end” boss will throw a tantrum creating a loss of trust that might take months to recover. The overwhelmed teacher, will turn to something unhealthy to keep going, over caffeinating, over drinking, over eating, over something. Then, in two years, they’re gone, having lost sight of their calling because of a failure to have reserve capacity.
What is reserve capacity and how is it developed? Read on:
“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5) The imagery is obvious. Here’s a guy running with other men, which represents you and I living our lives on normal days, when there’s no significant or memorable challenges. These days, like good officiating in football, are memorable for their forgetfulness. A round of meetings, or taxi service for the kids. Cooking, cleaning, jogging, maybe some ethnic food at home. All in all though, nothing special. We all have these days, but don’t all pull these days off with the same amount of peace and grace.
Jeremiah’s saying that when the normal days wear you out, that’s a sign of trouble; a way of saying that if you don’t change the way you think, or live, or cope, there’ll be trouble further down the road. If you’re exhausted by normal, says Jeremiah, “What are you going to do when all hell breaks loose?” It’s a good question but rhetorical, because Jeremiah doesn’t want you to stroke your chin and think for a moment before saying, “Who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see won’t we!” No. Jeremiah’s saying that if “normal” is hard, hard will mean meltdown.
So now, while things are normal, you need to live differently. You need to develop “reserve capacity”. The term comes from a health guy I like who posits that it’s loss of ‘organ reserve’ that inevitably leads to death, even for the healthiest of us. When we’re young we have reserves. We can eat 2 large pizzas, climb a mountain on Saturday night, and preach Sunday, not thinking a thing of it. Aging though, diminishes lung, liver, muscle, joint, heart, capacity and with less reserve—less capacity to absorb the stresses means less reserve. With less reserve, the extra challenges lead to breakdown.
In other words, when it’s time to race the horses, how do you think you’ll do, if the everyday “normal” of your life is exhausting? You need to develop reserve capacity. How do you do that?
1. Kill the energy suckers. We live inside our heads a lot, and when things are going smoothly, the brain is prone to welcome some toxic ghosts who’ll settle in and ruin your day, not with what is, but with what might be and what was. Your worry and fear about tomorrow is sucking you dry. All those ‘what ifs’ can steal your reserve at every level; body, soul, spirit. You’ll feel it in your pulse, blood pressure, sleep habits, sense of well being and joy; all of these will be compromised when you let the ghosts settle in and poison your mind with worries.
I find that breathing deeply and praying while doing so, receiving the peace of Christ in faithful gratitude, is terribly effective in evicting the ghosts. Try it sometime!
2. Manage the adrenaline – Question: “What’s Jesus doing sleeping in the boat when there’s a big storm happening?” Answer: “He’s showing us how to not panic” and this is good because adrenaline is a hormone in your body that’s there to give you extra strength in short bursts. It’s for that time when there’s an automobile accident, but not for all the time spent in traffic. It’s for the moment in rock climbing when you’re making a crux move, but not for the whole approach hike. It is, in other words, for David when he meets Goliath, but not for your next staff meeting.
We’d do well to de-escalate the stakes in most of our daily experiences so that we don’t send a bunch of adrenaline into our bodies, because the truth is we’ll need that kind of strength, focus, awareness later—best to save it for then.
When I feel the surge of adrenaline coming on, my best response is to breathe deep, look around, practice a little gratitude as I see a tree in bloom, or remember that I even own a car and that’s why I’m stuck in traffic. The little change of perspective sends adrenaline back to it’s cave, reserved for another more appropriate time.
3. Remember the end. The intent of terror is to fill you with fear because fear will paralyze you, draining you of your reserves, and preventing you from fulfilling your calling. A little perspective, though, can help. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “do not say, ‘why is it that the former days were better than these?’ for it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.” Don’t fret, in other words, about how bad things have become. It changes nothing with respect to your calling to be light, and salt, and joy, and hope. Get on with it.
What’s more, it helps me immensely to have a strong faith and belief regarding the trajectory of history. I believe that the end of the story has all disease healed, all wars ended, all evil vanquished, and everything in the universe saturated with the beauty of Christ. That’s how our good friend could say: “All’s well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
People who actually believe that live well, serve well, sleep well. And when the horses show up they’ll say: “Bring it on! I’m ready.”
It’s Advent, and that means there are daily reports on the success of our national goal to “shop ’til we drop”. Black Friday’s off a bit from previous years, and the experts declared over the weekend that it was because more people would be shopping online, on “Cyber Monday”. That also came and went, with less than expected results, and so now new theories are being spun, about people waiting for “super deals” closer to Christmas. Whatever. I no longer care—because as a pastor, I have bigger concerns.
That’s because I live in a different world. I live in a world where I know more and more people who are coming out of closet; they’re gay, Christian, and wanting to find the grace and acceptance of Christ in their churches. I live in a world where black people love Jesus but also feel on the outside of things, not because of Ferguson, but because 400 years is a long time to be sub-humanized, bought and sold, denied the chance to vote, and o so much more, and they’re a bit tired of white people just telling them to “get over it” while the distrust continues. I live in a world where women who have gifts of teaching and leadership can use them in lots of places, but still not in some churches. I live in a world where people I know are deeply divided on how the church should respond to all kinds of things, including mental illness, poverty, and gun violence.
In all these matters, the church is divided, but not just divided, deeply fractured, as evidenced by blogs and discussions this past week about Ferguson, World Vision’s challenges earlier this year, and the inflamed language associated with any attempt at a good conversation around the issues of gun violence.
It’s this deeply divided faith world, with its attendant hateful, sarcastic, and derogatory language aimed at the other side, that’s the biggest issue on my plate these days. This is because I serve in a church that has sought to live faithfully for many generations on the basis of this declaration: In Essentials Unity. In Non-Essentials Liberty. In all Things Charity.
Finding unity seems harder and harder these days, because the list of essentials seems to be growing for most people. Real people of faith need to be for gun control or against it; for same-sex marriage, or against it; for the police, or for Michael Brown. And its vital these days that you not just be FOR or AGAINST —but that do so with enough dogma that the true faith of those on the other side is called into question.
This is not only rubbish, but really very alarming to me for several reasons:
1. Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 4:13 says we’ll keep growing “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” which implies (as reinforced here) that we’re not in a state of unity yet. What’s more, that’s apparently OK, because Paul indicated that in this moment, we see through a glass darkly. That means we don’t have perfect knowledge yet, so we’ll need to keep at this; keep dialoguing, growing, learning, praying.
2. Our division into self-referential communities kills our testimony because Jesus says that it’s our unity that is the best evidence that our faith and life in Christ is real. There’s a unity that comes from uniformity of agreement on ALL things, but this is, at best, an ideal to which we aspire, rather than an experience we’ll be able to attain in this fallen world. But there can be a unity that’s willing to say, “Look. We don’t know all the answers about every doctrinal or ethical issue that comes from following Christ. But we do know this much: Jesus is Lord. He’s the hope for this shattered world. He’s the One we’re committed to proclaiming, loving, obeying, and serving.” Living through this lens, World Vision phone workers wouldn’t have been sworn at and been the objects of cruel hate in the wake of their initial decision last spring.
3. Our self-referential communities allow us to prematurely think we have the moral high ground because, in our smaller worlds of Fox News, or MSNBC, or whatever is the denominational equivalent, we’re in an echo chamber where all our reasoning, assumptions, and conclusions are airtight. As long as we stay inside the echo chamber, we’ll be happy, resting in the delusion that our way is, and always will be, the right way.
How can we approach unity?
1. Get out more – meet people different than you. (By the way, one of the very best reasons to travel.)
Our view of things is all good until we actually meet a person with a different view who, just like us, loves Jesus, prays regularly, and desires nothing more than to be a vessel filled with the life of Christ.
Suddenly, we’ve meet the ones we vilified, and have come to see that we have more in common than we’d ever have guessed. We see that we’d made a caricature of those whose view is different than ours, and that “the other,” looking at the world through a different lens, differs with us for reasons that (gasp) make sense. We’re not persuaded, necessarily, to change our view, but having met the other, we find it harder to label them and shoot them.
2. Embrace the humble belief that you’re not yet perfect.
It’s not that we don’t believe in absolute truth. It’s just that we don’t believe that we’ve yet understood it perfectly, communicated it perfectly, received it perfectly, because our understanding of the world is filtered through the lens of not only the Holy Spirit, but our fallen humanity.
A quick view of history reveals that there have been about a thousand blind spots among Christ followers. We’ve wrongly predicted the date of Christ’s return at least 500 times, taught that blacks aren’t human, justified land theft and colonization, barred women from having a voice in the church, taught anti-semitism, persecuted Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Anabaptists, all in Jesus’ name.
I wonder what our blind spots our today? If you say you don’t have any, then I already know your blind spot, before even meeting you: it’s pride and self-righteousness. So let’s relax and enjoy the dialogue, giving each other space to let Christ continue to teach us without doubting the authentic faith of the other who claims Christ as her own.
“Really? How long should we do that….?”
In two weeks I’ll be home, preparing to meet people in the church I lead who I haven’t seen in nearly three months. Their priceless gift of a sabbatical has blessed me with a rare opportunity for extended time away from church life, American culture, and the day-to-day responsibilities of my job. As a result, I’ll return restored spiritually and emotionally, refreshed and stronger physically (up to around 500k in hiking, running mileage now), and challenged.
I’m challenged because these three months have been a concentrated time away from teaching, studying, and writing, three activities I enjoy and look forward to doing again when I return. As much as I enjoy them though, I’ve come to see them as dangerous because America’s about education, and among American cities, Seattle’s all the more about education, and among Seattle churches, the church I lead, filled with university students and professors is even all the more about education. We’re educated. Highly.
All this education has upsides of course, but this trip has made me aware of the downside. That’s because I’ve met lots people with little formal education who in spite of their “lack” have poured generosity, service, hospitality, and joy, from their cups to ours, over and over again. Whether it’s been food, hospitality, the gift of sunglasses at a hut when mine had been stolen, directions offered when uncertain of the way to go, a much needed ride from strangers, or bus drivers signalling ahead to another bus so that it wait would for us, so that we’d make our train connection, we’ve seen people with large hearts, who allowed themselves to be inconvenienced in order to care for us.
Remember that story in the Bible about the guy who gets robbed and beaten up? Jesus uses it to draw a distinction between the educated religious leaders who, in spite of their eloquent sermons and theological precision, frankly didn’t give a damn about the wounded victim, even though they knew Hebrew. Then there was the Samaritan. He’s the one who, for the purposes of this story, is, (are you ready for this?): Blue Collar. He never went to college, earns below the median wage, and is having a hard time affording the new mandated health care. He doesn’t enjoy reading C.S. Lewis much and doesn’t even know who N.T. Wright is. He can’t tell the difference between a Neo-Calvinist, and a Rob Bell devotee because frankly, he’s too tired at the end of the day to read all the blogs and add his own comments. Besides, he doesn’t really care.
He works. He comes home and cares for all the things that need to be cared for in life—shopping, cooking, maintenance, friendships. You’re not even sure where he stands on most issues because in small group he doesn’t say much. He prays. He’s not perfect, God knows. He’s got issues, but he’s working on them. In the meantime though, until he’s perfect, his greatest joy isn’t found in talking about faith. It’s found in living it—“boots on the ground” as the saying goes.
When there’s a need in the shelter though, he volunteers.
When there’s a homeless person outside TJ’s he often makes the time to engage in conversation.
When there’s a neighbor in the hosptial, he’s there with meals, and laughter, and maybe even an awkward prayer.
He’s as generous with his limited money as he is with his time. He doesn’t know where he stands on the issues of homosexuality and gun control, but he’s had dinner with the newly married gay couple on his block, and the NRA guy whose Jeep has a bumper sticker with something about his “cold dead hand.”
Who is this guy? Never went to seminary. Falls asleep in most Bible studies. Wakes up immediately when someone needs a helping hand.
The point Jesus is making in Luke 10:36 is that this (along with loving God) is the point of the Christian life. And in that story, the protagonist is a Samaritan for God’s sake; a compromising half-breed who “anyone with a Bible degree would know is an outsider because his belief system takes him to the wrong mountain, and my pastor, who has a PHD (or is “super funny and edgy”) says that such people are…” blah blah blah.
Talk on if you must, o educated one. I’m tired.
Tired of doctrine being more important than living.
Tired of words being more important than actions.
Tired of writing about life as a substitute for living it.
Tired of Sunday being viewed as the peak experience of faith rather than Monday, or especially, Tuesdays.
Tired of hype and zeal on the surface, and pride and greed at the core.
Tired of ministry professionals like me thinking they have all the answers for “the little people.”
I don’t know all the ways that I’ve changed as a result of being on sabbatical. But I know this much: in the days to come, my criteria for personal health and spiritual maturity will have more to do with how I know and treat my neighbors, friends, co-workers, and those in need around me, than the size of my church, the “impact” of my sermons, or the hits on my website.
I know this because I’ve been pierced by the degree to which I’ve often lived alone, inside my head these past years, as slowly, I confused right thinking, and speaking/writing about right thinking, with spiritual maturity.
I suspect I’m not alone, because look at what Phil Yancey has to say in his upcoming book:
We’re good, it seems, at talking about Jesus—who he was, what he taught and stood for, how he died, how he rose, why it matters, and what people should do about it. I’m just suspicious (and so are lots of other people apparently) that I, maybe even we, have elevated our words as the real proving ground of maturity. When we do that, huge blind spots will remain and we’ll think we’re fine, when we’re really far from the life Jesus has for us.
It’s a dilemma for me. This is because words still matter. We grow in response to revelation and my calling and gifts have to do with teaching God’s revelation so others can respond. So we all need words in our lives, and I need to study words, teach words, write words.
And yet, I need and want to make room in my life for actually putting those words into practice with real neighbors, and co-workers, and friends, and family. How does it all fit together?
That’s the question I bring home with me, but this much I know—if something’s gotta give, it won’t be the living of it any more—that’s become a higher priority. Pray that I’ll live it. New adventures await, as I learn to be a Samaritan… who’s in?
My predecessor at the church I lead in Seattle served that community for 38 years. The farmers in these high Alps have held the same land, stewarding the soil and shepherding the flocks entrusted to them, for generations. Fred Beckey is still climbing in his 90’s, in the mountains he’s been exploring since 1936. And yes, there are healthy marriages where spouses are still in love, having been faithful to each other in every way for over half a century.
In a world where leaders often burn out, melt down, get bored, or create some sort of credibility gap that forfeits them from leadership, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to be the kind of person whose life is characterized by longevity and sustainability rather than crisis and frequent change.
As I return to Seattle, soon to begin my 19th year in ministry at the same church, and begin my 25th year of teaching with Torchbearers this week, it’s become clear to me that there are some (at least five) non-negotiable values anyone interested in “being in it for the long haul” should assess, develop, and fan into flame. I don’t offer these from some high point of arrival, but I do offer them as priorities that I’m trying to continually build into my life so that I’ll be able to use the gifts God’s given me for many more years. The values?
1. Teachability/Humility – This is the most important thing of all, because pride seems to be, as C.S. Lewis says, “the greatest sin” due to the reality that it shuts us off from receiving much needed truth so that we might continue to grow. When we refuse to let other people speak hard truth into our lives, we’ve essentially sealed ourselves off from the food we need to keep our spirits alive. After all, revelation doesn’t come from merely locking ourselves in a room and praying. It comes from other people, whom God uses to challenge us, encourage us, and expose us so that we can grow.
If my spouse says I have an anger problem, the next ten seconds are the clearest revelation of my truest character. If my friends or co-workers try and show me an issue and I refuse to see it; if my boss confronts me repeatedly on a performance issue and I become repeatedly defensive, then my days are numbered, no matter how many other well developed skills I have in my tool kit. Teachability is the one ingredient I, you, everyone, must have, if we’ll keep growing our whole lives.
David was undone by the prophet’s exposure of the lust, deception, and abuse of power he thought he’d hidden so well. There was no self-justification, no mitigating circumstances, nothing but pure confession as you can read in Psalm 51. Saul on the other hand self-justifies, denies, blames others and circumstances for his issues.
All of us are either becoming more like Saul or more like David every single day, and we’d be wise to ask ourselves which way we’re moving because history is littered with highly gifted people whose gifts ended up on the sidelines precisely because they built walls around themselves and became “untouchable,” “unconfrontable,” “unteachable”. Great gifts without humility and teachability can create a dangerous cocktail.
2. Rhythm of Work and Rest – I hope to write more about this soon, but for now I’ll note that we’d arrive “bone weary” at the various huts during our days of trekking. Just this past Friday, I felt spent after our 3000′ ascent to the hut. My legs ached, and the muscles around my shoulders were nearly yelling at me for carrying a heavy load on my back yet again, as I’d been doing so often the previous 40 days. I took my pack off even before arriving, leaving it on a bench outside the hut. I couldn’t imagine hiking another step.
Some soup. A nap. We wake, and I can’t even believe I’m saying, “let’s go for a hike before dinner” to my wife, who’s as ready to go as I am. We ascend a summit, and enjoy some holy moments on our last night in the high Alps. Without the rest, we’d not have made it, or enjoyed it. With it, the miracle of restoration happened, physically and emotionally.
Are you finding a rhythm to your day that provides enough sleep and food and fresh air and exercise? If not, don’t speak of “burn out” until you address the imbalance because you might just need a nap and a cup of soup.
How about your week? Is there a day with less adrenaline, or are your weekends as packed as your week? You can live that way for a while; just know it’s not sustainable. You’re wired for rest.
Sabbatical years, and years of Jubilee were intended by God because the entire universe runs on principles that God will bring restoration when space is provided for rest; when people rest, when the land rests, good things happen.
Sure, there are seasons of intensity and periods on our trek when we did a few consecutive long days. But it’s unsustainable. If we’re going to to go the distance, we’ll need to take sleep, Sabbath and extended periods of real rest seriously.
There are three more principles, equally important, and I’ll share them later this week:
3. Rooted and Grounded: A Firm Identity
4. Patience, but Relentless Pursuit
History’s filled with gifted people who refused to deal with the glaring dysfunction because they thought their giftedness would see them through. It won’t. Others neglected vital rest, thinking their devotion to the work required the sacrifice of their emotional, physical, spiritual health. It doesn’t.
Marriages, churches, athletes, students, leaders, farmers, all need more than mere gifts, exciting plans, and adrenaline induced zeal. They need values that will lead to sustained fruitfulness. Here’s hoping each of us take these values seriously.
I welcome your thoughts.
You might remember the book “Into Thin Air” from over a decade ago? It catalogs some teams climbing Everest and attempting to summit on May 10, 1996, a day which became the deadliest day, in the deadliest year, of Everest mountaineering history. One of the heroic stories of that day was the actions of Ed Viesturs and his climbing team, who were on the mountain to make an IMAX film. Though they would summit later, their encounter of the storm created an entire reshuffling of their expedition’s goals and timetables, as the needs of the moment superseded previous goals. You can read about all that here. Ed demonstrates the priority of what I call “adaptive leadership”
There’s a fine line between healthy vision and ambition, on the one hand, and the dangers of unbridled devotion to one’s goals, on the other. Scott Fischer and Rob Hall were leading expeditions that day and what made them great climbers was their commitment to their summit goals. They were the kind of visionaries who could see the future so clearly that they’d let nothing stand in their way of getting to the top. That same sense of drivenness, though, is what made them dead climbers by the end of that same fateful day.
There are important lessons to be learned here for anyone who’s charged with leadership. I was at a conference two weeks ago, where some high powered, nationally famous pastors were charging up a room full of low powered, anonymous pastors. There were lights, rocking music, and lots of good teaching about vision casting and leadership. There were plenty of “take aways” from this conference, and I was grateful to be there. I’m still digesting lots of the valuable things a learned.
I left this conference feeling these guys were the spiritual rock stars of American Christianity. They have goals to plant 1000 churches, or take their stuff ‘on the road’, franchising their worship services for sites across the country. They’ve some ambitious summits in their sites. This is a good thing, largely. We all need goals, because goals frame our values and priorities. They unify people and align their energies towards a purpose. They catalyze. Yes. Yes. I get that.
My biggest problem with this, though, is that many stories of the Bible don’t point me in the direction of unbridled devotion to goals.
#1 – God tells Abraham to go to a new land, where he’ll become the father of nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham might have questions: “How long will it take?” “Where is this new land?” “How will I know when I’ve arrived there?” “When will the baby come?” Over and over again, God says, in essence, “I’m not telling – just follow me.”
#2 – God tells Moses that he’ll lead people out of slavery, into the promise land. He doesn’t talk about how whiny the people will be, or how they’ll make idols, or how he’ll never actually realize the goal.
#3 – Jesus tells Peter at the end of John to follow Him, and hints that some things will happen to Peter that will be hard. Peter looks at John and says, “What about him? Will he have it tough too?” Jesus won’t answer, he just says, “you follow me.”
#4 – Over and over again in the church of Acts, the apostles are essentially saying, “what do we do now?” We’ve grown faster than we thought we would, or one of our members has been killed for his faith, or there’s some doctrinal division cropping up, or some people in need of help over here because of a famine. What’s next?
These Bible stories paint a picture of leaders who knew a general direction, but its clear that there was more about the future that they didn’t know, than that they knew. When I listen to the rock star pastors, and then have breakfast with a guy who’s leading a church of 40 people, I realize that there’s a missing piece to the grand vision discussion, and the missing piece is adaptive leadership.
We who lead need to be mindful, not only of the grand vision, but of the continually changing landscape of personalities and events around us that are beyond our control. We can’t control how many people will come to our church (I suppose we can, by being sloppy about what we do, but you get my point). We can’t control how our children will respond to the gospel. We can’t control the economy. We can’t foretell where the next earthquake, or terrorist attack, or doctrinal challenge will come from. But we can adapt. We can respond to our situations in such a way that we emerge from unanticipated crises stronger than ever.
The climbers who died that day allowed unbridled commitment to the summit to become the real vision, and it cost them their lives. We who lead churches are called to do one thing: go into the world and make disciples. We’re not told how far to go, or how many disciples to make. We’re not told whether to franchise our efforts or content ourselves with a house church, or simply making disciples in our family. We can expect fruit, surely. But that timing and nature of that fruit is, frankly, beyond our control. Presuming a certain particular scope of fruitfulness might get us in trouble, if our commitment to that scope causes us to lose sight of more important things, like the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. Failures here have resulted in abuses of power that have wounded multitudes over the centuries.
As our church begins a new season of ministry, we have plans, and we’re growing, and we’re believing God wants us to impact our city significantly. But we’re holding all of it with an open hand because in the end, how high we’ll climb is dependent on factors outside our control, which is actually very good news when the One who’ll make that call is Jesus.
I welcome your thoughts…