“Boots on the Ground – Or Heads in the Clouds” – The biggest challenge Christ followers face

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  bikerlittle 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 lifeshopping, 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:

yanceyquoteWe’re good, it seems, at talking about Jesuswho 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 knowif something’s gotta give, it won’t be the living of it any morethat’s become a higher priority.  Pray that I’ll live it.  New adventures await, as I learn to be a Samaritan… who’s in?


“Five Values for Sustainable Leadership”, vital for churches, families, calling (part 1)

Will you still be using your gifts at 83 like Fred Beckey is here?  I hope so.
Will you still be using your gifts at 83 like Fred Beckey is here? I hope so.

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

5. Adaptation


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.

Adaptive Leadership –

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…