Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

Facebook, Nazis, and Fake News – History shows our ongoing need for Discernment

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Apr 14, 2018

I recently watched Come Before Winter, a short documentary about two foes of Hitler.  Sefton Delmer was a propagandist who broadcast fake news into Germany as a means of changing hearts and minds.  Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer was the other protaganist in the film.  I’ve written extensively about Bonhoeffer in other places, so I’ll leave him alone for now, other than to note that this documentary is perhaps the best articulation of his last days before execution you’ll find, and for that reason alone, is worth watching.  I say that because dying well, especially as a martyr (he was hanged for his part in the resistance movement in the final weeks of the war), can only happen as the fruit of living well.  Now, on to Delmer and the subject at hand.

Born in Germany and educated both there and at Oxford, Delmer was uniquely qualified to have a foot in both German and British culture, a trait which, during the 30’s caused both nations to accuse him of being “in service of the enemy”.   By 1940, however, he was recruited by the British Government to organize ‘black propoganda.’  He created several fake German radio stations broadcast by short-wave from England into Germany.  They were a mixture of truth and lies – enough truth to make the lies credible.  The intent was to demoralize, confuse, and divide the German people.  So if you think fake news is something new, think again.

Cambridge Analytica is just the most recent version of what’s been happening since the Garden of Eden.  Two things, though, make todays environment  more challenging than the past:

Everything is called “Fake” by someone.  Trump calls CNN and (“the failing”) New York Times fake.  Fox News is considered fake by most who read the Times and watch CNN.   As a result, we who digest the news increasingly ‘consider the source’, but not in a healthy way.  Instead we’re pre-emptively dismissive of a report precisely because of the source.  As a result, thoughtful people speaking important truths aren’t heard.  We’re both tribal (gathering in groups that only think like us) and post-modern (skeptical that truth is knowable) at the same time.  These two conditions, taken together, are a deadly combo.  They’re the soil in which fear, cynicism, isolation, and skepticism grow.  Sound familiar?

Here’s the deal though.  Everyone spins their news, at least a little.  CNN fact checks their stories.  So does FOX.  The problem isn’t the facts (at least in major news sources).  It’s the spin on the facts – which facts are elevated, which are hidden, and how they’re interpreted.

Our response primarily blames the source.   Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was grilled this week by congress, and the goal of the grilling seemed to be this:  “We want you to prevent liars from selling lies on your website” (along with other privacy concerns).  The notion, however, that we’ll be able to prevent lies from proliferating on the internet is, to be polite, rubbish.   Just today I learned, on the internet, that the world is ending on April 23rd, in fulfillment of hidden Biblical prophecy.  That shark cartilage will prevent and heal all forms of cancer, and that James Comey, former head of the FBI is a “leaker”, a “liar”, and an “untruthful slimball”.   Why even bother eating the cartilage, or reading Comey’s new book, if the world’s ending on April 23rd anyway? 

The Real Need:  Discernment 

Jesus said that Satan is a liar, the father of lies.  Paul said that lies come wrapped in truth sometimes.  Jeremiah said that there’d always be false prophets around.  Paul said that its in us to listen only to voices that reinforce what we already believe, and that we need to fight this tendency.

It’s as if God has gone to great lengths to shout at us in all capital letters:  YOU NEED TO LISTEN CAREFULLY AND WISELY SO THAT YOU CAN DISCERN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND LIES – BECAUSE LIES WILL ALWAYS BE RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU TO BELIEVE.

They’ll be on the sidebar of your Facebook feed.  They’re present as “slants” in the news.  Two examples: 1) The NY Times only offered criticism this morning for Trump’s role in a united allied response to Syria’s ‘crossing the line in the sand’ with chemical weapons, a response Obama promised to deliver, but never did.  2) FOX news remains remarkably silent about hush money paid to prostitutes, nepotism in the Oval Office, and the president’s inability to work with people who view the world differently than him.

These biases shouldn’t surprise us.  They should, however, remind us that there’s no cave into which we can crawl, where pure truth will be spoon fed to us.  In fact, Hebrews 6 says that maturity is defined precisely as our capacity to discern between good and evil, lies and truth, because both are coming at us 24/7 – not just in our newsfeed, but even the voices inside our heads.

Jesus taught us, outlandishly, that an obsession with him would enable us to know truth, and the truth would set us free.  Truth doesn’t mean easy, prepackaged answers that we learn when we’re children, and then spend the rest of our lives defending.  Truth means the answer to the question (as Bonhoeffer taught us when he wrestled with the question of whether to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler), “what is God asking of me in this exact moment?” – as a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, a voting citizen in a fearful and polarized society, a neighbor?

The right answer won’t be found in The NY Times or on Fox News.  But it also won’t be found in cultural withdrawal or disengagement.  It will be found by those living fully IN the world, enjoying its gifts, celebrating its beauty, mourning it’s ugliness, and fighting against its systems of oppression.  And who should be able to do that better than anyone else?

Disciples of Christ.  They don’t hide.  The engage.  They don’t call for censorship.  They call for discernment.

Here’s how Bonhoeffer said it: To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom

Such wisdom is needed; now more than ever.

Awakening the Feminine Voice in the Church – What it means and Why it Matters

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Apr 7, 2018

More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century.

The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day… life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal.

In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world – all quotes by Nicholas D. Kristof from “Half the Sky”

Indeed.

One of the challenges that the church faces is that it has often been, rightly, accused of being part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to elevating the identity, calling, authority, strength, and leadership of women in the world.   Women have been censored, marginalized, shut out from positions of spiritual leadership, treated as property, burned as witches, tortured and killed as heretics , and abused.

I, for one, would like the church I lead to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  This is why we’re presently in a series on “Called by God: Women of the Bible”.   In this series my intent is to show how God has called women to frontline visible ministries as prophetesses, Apostles, judges, leaders in civil disobedience, teachers, and more.  I’ll also be offering, both on this blog and on our church website, some further discussion about critical questions related to the subject of women in the Bible.  I hope you’ll subscribe and join us for the discussion.

I’ve been in church settings where men have walked out when a woman opened the Bible and began to teach or preach.  I grew up in a church where women had very confined roles, none of which had to do with teaching or decision making authority.  I’m part of a generation that, for the most part, embraced the culturally defined gender roles of “Fiddler on the Roof”.  None of this strident patriarchy was fabricated out of thin air.  The views come from a certain way of reading the Bible.  The reading creates the culture.  The culture reinforces the prevailing reading, which deepens the culture still further.  And so it goes.

Here’s what can change that:

1. Consider a fresh reading of the Bible.  It’s vital to recognize the danger of “cherry picking” certain passages and building entire ethical constructs out of them.  My own movement away from strong patriarchy began with the realization that not everything in the Bible that God proscribes applies for all time. We don’t continue executing disobedient children, for example.  Women are no longer viewed as property as they so clearly were under Old Testament Law.

Ethics change because God’s revelation is ripening, ultimately to find its fullest blossoming in the person of Christ.  In Jesus’ narrative, a woman becomes the first evangelist.  Another becomes exemplary of what it means to love God.  Two more are the first eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ.  Paul the apostle doesn’t miss a beat in his continuing liberation of women as he speaks of a female Apostle, and of “when” women prophesy in the gathered faith community.  I know there are questions about particular texts that seem to indicate confinement to certain roles, and I’ll deal with these in forthcoming material. For now know this:  Christ’s example liberates women from previously constrained roles.  Paul, if somewhat covertly, continues to develop that same trajectory.  So should we.

2. Recognize the difference between Biblical mandate and culture norms.  Many women have grown up in a culture of unequal pay, in churches that silenced them, and in homes where the word ‘submission’ was unilaterally imposed on women by men, but never applied to men (as the Bible declares it should be).  These women have a weight of cultural baggage to overcome.  When Paul says that believers are to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds” this is a classic example of what he’s talking about.  Transformation comes from recognizing cultural mores and swimming upstream against them.  Men can help women do that by recognizing that they have unique callings

My wife’s perspective is that it’s difficult for a woman to find her true voice because there’s been a historical cultural weight of expectations that have kept women on a clearly defined and constricting path.  She says, “Men have often thought of women as fish in a channel.  Men have tried to help women get from point A to point B by ‘helping them’, which is tantamount to straightening the stream or building fish ladders.  The intention is good, but still too confining.  The problem is that women are actually birds, and we can get to God’s appointed destiny of our calling by making our own prayerful decisions, finding our own path with our own unique giftedness as women.”

3. Find your gifts and use them.  In the end, one of the reasons I believe women are called to any position in the church is because the last thing I’d ever want to do is censor someone from using gifts that God has given them.  In Romans 12, we read that some are called to, variously, give, serve, teach, and lead.  Far be it from me to prevent someone from using a certain gift because of their gender!  All of us must work at understanding our strengths and how God has created us, and as we do this we’ll find those endeavors which a) bring us great joy b) we’re naturally good at and c) are affirmed by others because others are blessed by our doing them.  Those endeavors are where we must focus our time.

How many women, though, have been unable to do that because of the cultural and spiritual forces of patriarchy which shut them out?

It can be otherwise, and it often begins with deconstructing the notion that women have confined roles.  They’re not fish in a stream.  They’re birds, with a world of heights available to them.  It’s time to fly.

 

Lighten up! The value of Hope over rage, cynicism, and despondency

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Dec 22, 2017

Warning:  I don’t like the tax bill that just passed, or the quality of judges currently being appointed, or much else happening presently in Washington.  Having said that, I have a concern that Christ followers in  both parties have elevated politics to a status of idolatry.  We who follow Christ have a primary calling – and it’s not electing leftists or rightists.  It’s lighting candles!!  In this darkest season, (at least literally, and for many, in every way) here’s what I mean…

The first winter we lived in the mountains, an early storm knocked down hundreds of fir trees deep in the cascades, and those trees knocked down wires and transformers, resulting in just over five full days without power, along with temperatures in the single digits and teens.  We heat with wood and have a functional BBQ so survival wasn’t an issue.  The big issue we faced every day, though, was the inevitable approach darkness.

About 2 in the afternoon we’d feel it; darkness was coming fast and if we weren’t prepared, it wouldn’t be pretty.  So our afternoon routine consisted of cursing the darkness and saving up facebook rants to share when the power came back on.  We’d spin some cool theories blaming Russians, fire tweets on our still live phones about just how dark the darkness was, is, and ever shall be – unless we vote differently next time.  We were especially bitter at those with generators –  you know:  the 1%.  The oligarchy.

Rubbish, of course.  We were too busy lighting candles, and making sure we knew where the next candles were stored so that when these went out we were good to go.  Sure, darkness comes (and goes too, by the way, as I share in the chapter, “Towns”, in my new book).  Of course there are times to expose the darkness, rage against the darkness, and articulate the better alternative to which we’re all invited (see #metoo).  Without this, Sophie Scholl contents herself, perhaps, with a private faith that pays no regard to the evil realities happening all around her.  MLK withdraws from the conflict, bowing to the pressures of evil rather than fighting to assure that justice for all means “for all”.  There’s a time and place to act boldly.  However….

On this, the darkest night of the year, I’m reminded that the first order of business is make sure there’s a lit candle somewhere in the room when darknesses of injustice, corruption, greed, complacency, and cynicism seem to be growing.  It’s far too easy in this environment to elevate the realities of darkness to such an extent that we forget our calling is to light a candle.  Lose sight of our calling, and the darkness seems darker than it is.  Then our despondency runs the risk of empowering said darkness even more.  Let’s get off that train for a while, and talk about the light instead, and our calling to make it real.

The message of the 2nd advent, when Christ returns to reign fully, is that we’ll have no need for sun because there’ll be no more night (I think it’s poetic metaphor, but that’s not the point right here).  Obviously, we’re not there yet.  In the meantime, the light of Christ is intended to be these shining moments of hope, justice, beauty, and healing breaking through the darkest nights, like angels did for shepherds that glad night.   The message of light sounds like this:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear…?”

“Make your face shine upon us and we shall be saved…”

“…shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death…”

“…put aside the deeds of darkness; put on the armor of light…”

The theme that’s woven through these verses can be summed up this way:  Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle!!   What does that mean, and how do we do it?

Draw near to the light.  The big theme of the Bible isn’t that darkness is vanquished.  That’s just the final chapter.  Rather, we’re reminded over and over again that, in the midst of darkness, whether found in prison camps or oncology wards, therapist’s offices or the scene of the accident, there’s a light, “Emmanuel.  God with us!”   Light in the darkness.  I fear that over the past year evangelicals on both the left and right have spoken more about darkness than light.  This can never be a good thing.  My prayer for 2018, at least for the community I lead in Seattle, is that we’ll be characterized as “people of the light” by virtue of our pursuit of Christ, our true and brightest light.  I believe such a pursuit will begat generosity, hospitality, care for earth, and solidarity with those in need, so that the light of Christ will shine through us in these darkest days.

Rejoice in what’s good.  There are countless causes for joy every day, no matter if they are private or national trials because God is giving us good gifts, reconciling relationships, liberating captives, and using people to create little moments of light over and over again.  Psalm 126:3 says, “the Lord has done great things for us… so we will rejoice!”

Joy, as I’ll share on Christmas Eve is a natural response when we pay attention to God’s revelation, noting what God has done, and made, and given us.  This is why I tell my children, “every day is Christmas and God is a good parent giving me gifts”.   The gifts include:  forgiveness of my failures and the confidence that God loves me in spite of them, sunrises, snowfalls, friendships around the world and good conversations, running, skiing, trees, the privilege of teaching and leading, intimacy, revelation while studying, the chance to create, snowfalls, a warm house, clean water, music, sleep, a bed, shoes, and… I could go on, but you get the picture.  LISTEN!!  We all need to pay attention to the state of the world, but when all you can see is injustice, division, the rise of fear and hate, and leadership crises, your light’s going out!  You need to wake and pay attention to the things that bring joy.  See them.  Name them.  Give thanks.  Poof!  Your candle’s lit again!

I didn’t even mention my gratitude for a new identity in Christ that includes access to all the power, hope, love, wisdom and strength that is the resurrected Jesus, alive in me and you!

Remember the end of the storyLight Wins!!  We likely don’t all agree on what that looks like, or how we’ll get there, but if we’re in Christ, can we not all agree that the day is coming when every disease will be healed, every war ended, and all poverty vanquished?  There’s a banquet coming, with the best food and wine, and we’ll look around the table, populated by left and right, black and white, asian and hispanic, rich and poor.  Listen to this:  “God will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and remove the reproach of His people from all the earth….and it will be said on that day, “this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us!” “  

There’s your end to the story!!  Yes, the darkness will arrive again tonight, both physically and when I watch the news.  But rather than cursing the darkness, I’ll choose, tonight and throughout 2018, to light a candle.  I hope you’ll join me.

 

Merry Christmas.

 

PS – if you’re near Seattle on Sunday…

8023 Greenlake Dr N. Seattle, WA 98103

 

Are you running to Win?

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Sep 28, 2017

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in a such a way that you may win…”

You are God’s uniquely handcrafted beautiful creation.  You have gifts to bring to our darkening and weary world, and that means you weren’t just put here to survive, or have a few grand adventures of your own.  You were put here to bless; to pour your life out onto the canvass of this world in the colors of hope, in an artistry that’s yours alone.

So get on with it.

Run to win.  

Get over the mentalities of scarcity which define survival and a hefty stash of cash as the win because God knows that the world is full of people who have more than enough food, money, water, and activities, but who are utterly missing the life for which they’re created.

You’re not made to survive and consume, though you’ll do both, throughout your days.  You’re made to thrive and bless and serve.  Abundant Life is what Jesus called it.  Don’t settle for anything less.

Run to win.  

Flush your fears of thermonuclear war, political insanity down the toilet, and quit arguing, or worrying, about who stands or sits during the national anthem of a football game . You have no control of any of this.

Focus instead on what you’re going to be doing with your “one wild and precious life” because if you waste your days in fear and worry, you’re not just cheating yourself out of joy, peace, and meaning – you’re cheating the rest of us too.  The world needs what you have to offer.

Find your gift (is it teaching, healing, serving, walking with those who are suffering, empowering, creating…?) and spend your life developing your precious gifts so that you can be a blessing to others.

If you already know your gift then for God’s sake (literally – for God’s sake) turn off the TV, set aside the video games, let go of the petty tie suckers, and get on with using it.

Run to win.  

Paul the Apostle said that he disciplines his body, so that at the end of his life he’ll be confirmed to have been a participant in the abundant life Jesus offers, not just a spectator, or worse, an armchair quarterback who knows Jesus, justice, hospitality, confession, risk, love, service…but only as theory.

Run to win.  

I woke up one morning recently, having had a moment in a dream where my own moments of self-pity, petty indulgences, cynical judgement, time wasted in social media political grenade lobbing, and the paralysis of an absurd self-pity (in spite of all the blessings I enjoy) marched past my bed like characters in a parade.  Each one filled me with regret and I woke with a start, in the middle of the night – praying to God that I’d create no more of these subtle, yet despicable characters the rest of my days.  “Rather” I prayed, “may I run to win – continually receiving your revelation from creation, friendships, text, and trials” and “may I pour my life out, using my gifts to love, serve, and bless”

Are you running to participate?

Are you running when it’s convenient?

Are you running at all?

Run to win. 

 

Steal, Kill, and Destroy – Stealing Time

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Jul 29, 2017

I tell you not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  Matthew 6:29

It’s wildflower season in the mountains, and they’re everywhere.   Mountain daisies made their first appearance down in the coastal foothills in late May.  They’re long gone down below, and up here, after a few weeks of full glory, it’s clear that their glory days are already past.


The pattern is evident:

Absent.

Present.

Full flowering glory.

Weariness.

Death.

Absence again.

The Bible says that we’re just like flowers; here today, gone tomorrow.  Far from depressing, I find that pondering the brevity of life is encouraging.  It grants perspective, and fosters a cherishing of each moment as precious, each breath a gift.

I run the trail early in the morning and as I pass the wildflowers, ponder the power and poignancy of this millennia-old rhythm.  Far from depressing, the truths apparent in the brief but spectacular  wildflower cycle mirror critical truths of our lives precisely.

1.  Life happens when we draw on resources.  The wild daisies are in full force on the ski trail up to Thunderbird lodge, a trail that appears to be nothing but dry stone this summer in which we’ve had not a single day of significant rain in over two months.  You’d think dry stones wouldn’t produce flowers, yet there they are.  They find the water somehow, enough to thrive.

“What’s needed for thriving?” I ponder.  I remember Jesus’ invitation, that time when he stood in the middle of a crowded courtyard and shouted, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.”  It was a rhetorical question of course because, God knows, all of them, and us too, are thirsty.  Not just for h2o, though that matters, but for meaning, hope, intimacy, peace, justice, enough.  The outlandish promise is that those who come to Christ, wherever they are in the world, will be granted a capacity to blossom and bless.  Some have blossomed as martyrs, others through radical generosity, still others through waking in valleys of poverty and injustice.  The promise isn’t ease.  It’s that God can use every single circumstance of every single life to pour blessing, somehow, into our world – if we’ll drink from the well that is Christ.

2.  Life is a rhythm of flourishing and disappearing.   The Indian Paintbrush, so abundant just a week ago are gone; so gone that to look at the hillside you’d never even realized they existed.  This is the way of all living things.  In fact the Bible explicitly says our lives are like flowers of the field; here and flourishing one day, gone the next, and “it’s place knows it no more”, which is a way of saying that eventually, even if you have a plaque or statue somewhere, the world is no longer yours.   Like the flowers, we’ll be gone and forgotten.

Don’t forget the first part of that same passage though.  We’re invited to “flourish like the flower of the field”.  Over the course of the summer I realize that the flourishing of various plants come in waves.  Daisy.  Paintbrush. Foxglove.  Bear Grass.    They come, flourish, and disappear.  “Pay attention Richard!” I say as I stop and soak in the landscape, which will never again be exactly this.  I think of those who flourished and are no more.  My dad as WWII soldier, teacher, principal, superintendent.  My mentor as WWII soldier, evangelist, preacher, leader.   My mom as wife, parent, teacher, volunteer, caregiver.   My grandmother as baker, hostess, lover of her grandchildren.  My sister as musician, mom, wife, sister, friend to so many that, at her funeral, dozens claimed her as their “best friend”.

They all flourished!  They invested the preciousness of the single life each were given in ways that made a difference in the lives of others so that, in the same way that particular daisy might be gone,  a daisy well-lived will carry on through generations of fruitfulness.   That’s what flourishing means.    As a result, my dad’s flourishing means a son who’s serving and leading.  My mentor’s flourishing means there are over twenty Bible Schools around the world proclaiming Christ as life.  My sister’s flourishing means the grandchildren she never met are learning to live as a blessing in the world because of her.

Yes, our time is short.  Yes, we’ll disappear.  Yes, we can continue to make a difference after we’re gone, and we’ll do that by flourishing while we’re here.

3. Life is short.  Savor, don’t squander.   A lifelong climber in Yosemite, Royal Robbins wrote this to his daughter during his end of life battle with cancer:  “I mean to live this year as if it were my last (may God grant that it won’t be so), and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away, (much less days!) in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones…”

He echoes the Psalmist who reminds us that we have 70 years, maybe 80 or more if we’re fortunate, and then our days are gone, like the early season daisies.  This stark observation, undeniable in spite of omega-3’s, cross-fit, stress management, and jogging, is followed immediately by a prayer.  “Teach us, Lord, to number our days”.  In other words, “don’t let me fritter away even a single second.  Let me live with eyes wide open to all you’re saying to me – in the beauty and ugliness, the darkness and light, the joys and sorrows, the companionship and solitude.  Let me absorb it all and live well, “flourishing” during those brief days I’m granted.

O Lord Christ – 

I look around, amazed that in all the vastness of time and space, this time, this space, are ours.  We’re alive!  Breathing, loving, learning, failing, weeping, serving and being served.  Grant that when we sink into a mindset of squandering, allowing our lives to be reduced to bitterness, we will cease!  Let us hear your voice calling us back to the fullness of life, that not another moment may be wasted.  

Amen 

Steal, Kill, and Destroy – Killing Hope

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Jul 26, 2017

 

Even the desert will bloom…

Note: I’m presently offering a short series of the many ways in which our enemy seeks to steal, kill, and destroy the life for which we’re created.  At this moment in history, many are at grave risk of losing hope.  Here’s help:

If hope is a longing for a better world, then hope is a flag firmly planted in almost every human soul.  Sharin Sabestari is an example of a woman whose heart stirred with a deep and hopeful longing. She shares her story of growing up in war torn Iran and going into the mountains on hikes and climbs with her father….

Sharin Sabestari as a child in the mountains of iran

“I remember the sirens blaring and the bombs rumbling in the distance.  When we ran under our basement stairs in a blackout, I was too young to understand…  (But) I knew that soon Dad and I would be off again to the mountains, where there we no sirens and no bombs, only a world of wonders:  porcupine spines and snakeskins to collect, trees to climb, rocks to scramble.  The realm of butterflies and streams and wind…”  (Alpinist.  Vol. 58)

The beauty of creation instills hope, at any age, in any time and place.  It’s a hope that we’re not made to live amongst bombs and air raid sirens, terror and war.  We’re made for beauty, made for peace, made for fellowship.  Sharin learned this in the mountains.  For others hope is awakened at the sea, or at sunset while walking through a field, or in a circle of friends around a campfire, or in a concert hall filled with the sounds of Schubert, or Mozart, or U2.

“Deep calls to deep” is how the Bible says it, and there are some of us who believe that beauty and peace are like signed and sealed invitations from God:  “Dear Sharin… May you enjoy this gift of the mountains I’ve made, with all their flowing streams, fresh breezes ripe with the scent of pine, and gorgeous views.  You’re invited to enjoy more of my gifts and find the rich life I’ve created for you to enjoy.  Love, God.”

I’m on solid ground for believing that the first thing we should learn about God is that God’s given good gifts to humans.  Romans 2 tells us that “God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance” which is just another way of saying that God’s kindness is an invitation for us to move away from a life without God, to a life with God – as guide, companion, friend, provider, healer, and lover.

If all this intimacy is the fruit of taking a step towards God because of the presence of hope and beauty, it stands to reason that our enemy, who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, would seek to steal hope and beauty.  Knowing how this happens will help us  fan both hope and beauty into flame in our lives once again, to the end that others will see them and perhaps make a move toward the Source of it all.

Hope is stolen through misdirection.  “We’d hoped it would be the war to end all wars.”   “We’d hoped Obama would bring hope and change.”  “We’d hoped Trump would “drain the swamp”.  “We’d hoped our offer, 100k above asking price, would have gotten us a house.”  “We’d hoped the medical test would have been negative”.

They all make sense, of course, these hopes we have.  We hope for the future to turn out a certain way in countless areas over which we have no control.   The problem with all these forms of hope, though, is that they are highly contingent on events outside our control.  It’s fine to “hope” and be disappointed.  The problem comes when our meaning and identity became so yoked to our vision of the future, that any shortfall undoes us utterly.   These are the people “driven to drink, or abuse, or worse” when there’s an affair.  These are the people killing themselves when the stock market crashes.  These are millions who simply haven’t found a way to cope with the dissonance between how they’d “hoped” life would be, and how its actually turned out.   The landscape of humanity is littered with countless tragedies precisely because of unrealized hope, and our response to dashed dreams.

Some chime in at this point, and say, “The answer is simple.  Hope for nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.”  Perhaps.  But neither will you know hope or joy, and the fruit that blossoms in such an arid environment is always depressing.  Just ask Ernest Hemingway, or Kurt Cobain.   Despair is around us, even among people who “hoped for nothing”.

The better way is to recognize that “hope” isn’t actually a sort of “wishful thinking” that is rooted in a desire for things to be a certain way in our lives.   Real hope is solid.  The word might even be translated “confident expectation” in the Bible, because it’s rooted in the promises of God.

God is promising a world without war, without cancer, a world of reconciled nations, and justice, a world of matchless beauty, intimacy, deliverance from enslaving addictions and, infusing every breath of our future:  joy!  I believe history is headed in that direction.  This is my confident expectation, my hope.   “What makes you so sure?” you might ask?

Two things, at least.  First, I believe in the resurrection of Christ, which is a sort of down payment on that hope.  It might sound fantastical, but make no mistake, the world is filled with thoughtful people who believe the evidence is on the side of Jesus rising.

Second, Sharin’s experience in the mountains couldn’t help but lead her to long for more of it.  It was the place her “hair could be uncovered and roam free.”  It was the place of wild horses.  It was beauty.  It was “as it should be”, and because of this, “hope” was born.

But the longings of her heart won’t be answered by Tehran embracing democracy, or Isis, capitalism or socialism.  In the end, every “ism” of this world over-promises and under-delivers.  It misplaces hope, seducing us into believing that it is the headwaters of a better world.  Every time, the tribe of the disillusioned increases, including when people put their faith in the institution of Christianity.

Our hope isn’t in any ‘ism’.  Our hope is in Christ, and because he is likened to a “solid rock”, we then have a hope that can never be shaken .   Having this hope enables us to live as people of courage and integrity, grace and mercy, generosity and peace.  We view every foretaste of glory seen in perfect powder, mountain sunrises, and the bracing cold waters of a mountain lake as foretastes of eternity; and we give thanks; and worship.  This is as it should be.

Got Hope?

If the object of your hope is Christ, the answer is a resounding yes.

All other “hopes” are forgeries, and I’m sorry to say, your real hope’s been stolen.   Why not take it back right now?

O Lord Christ – 

We thank you for the pains in our hearts that stab with every new discovery of corruption, every new lie from people in power, every new report of another friend dying of cancer.   We cry out, and weep, and lament – because at some profound level we know that we’re made for more than this, other than this.  

Forgive us for hoping in superficial solutions to the brokenness of our world, and the brokenness of our hearts.  May you be our sole source of satisfaction, our only rock and foundation.   And, filled with the confidence of your power and plan to heal the world, would you make us people of hope.  

Amen. 

 

 

“Steal, Kill, and Destroy” – Your Time’s Been Stolen!

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Jul 13, 2017

You’ve been ripped off

I mean to live this year as if it were my last, and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones. I have been full of good intentions. Watch and see what happens when action takes the place of intention. –  Royal Robbins   1935-2017

The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.  I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. – Jesus the Christ

The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates

A week ago I finished watching a Frasier rerun one evening on Amazon Prime.  It was free.  My evening was free.  It was funny.  I was a little down for reasons that aren’t relevant to my point.  I watched.  I laughed.  I finished.  I waited for the next one.

Though I knew it was the last show, the finale, it didn’t really strike me with full force until I saw that the next episode up was Season One, Episode One.   I’d watched all eleven seasons over the course of the winter and spring.   In horror, I turned the TV off and calculated, roughly, how many hours I’d squandered.  I’d allowed what could have been, in moderation and under control, a fun little diversion to steal a week’s worth of precious hours from my life.  That’s a week of conversation, or writing, or learning German, or stargazing, or reading great books, or nurturing relationships with friends and family.

Poof!  They’re gone, those precious hours, and with them, all that might have been.   The moment was my own version of that time when an alcoholic wakes up and sees empty bottles strewn everywhere, or the food addict surveys the empty Ben & Jerry’s cartons scattered about the room.   These are what I call “mirror moments”, those times when we’re able to see ourselves clearly, and the seeing reveals something we don’t like.

Mirror moments needn’t be bad.  Indeed, they’re actually precious gifts, because they offer us a chance at recalibrating.   For that to happen, I simply need to pause, ponder, learn, and respond.  Here’s what happened when I did that:

Pause and Ponder.  After shutting the TV off, I sit and consider what I’ve unwittingly done, how I’ve chosen to consume rather than create, how it became a habit over the dark winter months, and then continued on as the snows melted and spring turned to summer.  I remember that poignant word from Jesus:  “the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy”, and begin to ponder the many ways this is true in our culture, in families, and in each of our individual lives.  Suddenly I see it; see the insidious strategy of my soul’s enemy, and how his thefts occur in the dark, so subtly that I don’t even know they’ve happened until a bucket of cold water wakes me up.

Learn.  “This is not who I want to be.  This is not how I want to spend the precious gift of time that is my life.  This ends.  Now.”  Jesus goes on, in the subsequent word after talking about theft and murder, to declare that he came to this earth for exactly the opposite reasons, that we might live our lives in the fullest way possible.  I know that making such a promise a reality in my life will require continual adjustments to priorities, continual willingness to change and be stretched.

The next morning I’m reading a eulogy of a famous climber who just died after a long battle with illness.  His letter to his daughter, wherein he says that he doesn’t want to fritter “seconds, minutes, or hours away in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones”  is simultaneously convicting and inspiring, likely the best sermon I’ve heard in a while, all wrapped in that single half-sentence.

In my journal I write a list of the many pieces of our lives that are destroyed, stolen, or killed.  The list is long and I decide that it would be good to write about the many ways robust life is being stolen from us.  I purpose, then and there, to return to my calling, my part of God’s story.  “I will use the gifts God has give me, will continue to perfect them, all with the goal of blessing and serving others.”

Respond.  None of the seeing, pausing, pondering, or learning matter if I don’t respond.  So I resurrect an old “500 words a day” habit I had once, some years ago when life was less complex, and determine that, yes, this is part of my calling, part of who I am.  The days of letting precious time be stolen are over.  It’s time to get back to living.

NOTE: I’m planning on writing a bit more about other elements of our lives that are stolen or destroyed, such as joy, confidence, grace.  What would you add to the list?

Words Matter: It’s high time we believe that!

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Jun 30, 2017

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.

The Subtle Seduction of Letting Ourselves be Bent

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May 24, 2017

My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”.  The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy.  Here’s what I mean:

I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors.  Murdering another human is sin.  Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin.  Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so.  It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”

The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.

We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder.  We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness.  We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism.  We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused.  You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty.  It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall.  This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.

This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“.  Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.

II.  a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted.  In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.

The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.

The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.

The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.

The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.

You get the picture.  God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.

This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing.  This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy.  The book doesn’t trash sex.  It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated.  Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin.  Sin is a good thing bent!

III.  Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!   

This is what I love about the new book I’m reading.  It declares:

“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”

To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.

Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.

Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.

Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.

Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.

God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares.  And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.

Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.

Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint

 

 

 

United Airlines, Holy Week, and Missing the Forest for the trees

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Apr 12, 2017

Behavior needs to match mission, right?

They did it “according to the book”.  With too many passengers and not enough seats, they asked for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight for a reward, and fly later.  You know, by now, what happened on UAL flight 3411.  Before it was over, a passenger was forcibly, violently dragged from the plane, getting bloodied in the process.  This gave birth to a viral video of the scene, leading to a public relations nightmare and an over 6% decline in UAL stock as outrage over the event filled social media.  In my own facebook feed I saw pics of cancelled UAL flight tickets, and declarations of breakup with “the friendly skies” (a breakup I made years ago because of my own encounter with “less than friendly” customer service – but I digress)

The point for the moment is simple.  By contract and policy, the airline had every right to remove the man.  The man’s refusal to leave led to a need to call security, and security did what security does: they resorted to force.  That’s how the man ended up blooodied, being dragged down the aisle while a full flight of paying customers looked on, as seen here.  The flight would, of course, end with a steward or stewardess thanking everyone for “flying the friendly skies”.  Ugh.

I don’t write to do a post event analysis.  Most of us have pondered why too many passengers were allowed to board; why they didn’t up the ante even more in hopes that eventually someone would volunteer; why the security people treated the guy with a level of force that would be the same as if he was a threat to other passengers?  We can ask these questions, but have no way of knowing the answers.

Here’s what we do know: This doesn’t look like “friendly skies.”   People who belong to a company whose mission statement and slogan elevate customer service as a central value need to be empowered to maintain that core value.  Further, if they are empowered, they need to always, always, ask the simple question:  “does this action make us look friendly?”

REI gets this.  Nordstrom gets this.  Starbucks gets this.  Amazon gets this.

If your actions are contradictory to what you say you’re about, then you need to rethink your actions.

This is important for every Christ follower to ponder because the Apostle Paul says that it was God’s intent to “reveal his Son in me.” We come to discover God’s intent for humankind in this verse.  In other words, our mission statement as Christ followers is to look like Jesus.  You know: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, cross social divides, be people of peace, give dignity to those suffering on the margins, don’t cling to your own personal rights, bless and forgive generously – preemptively even.   These are the means by which we fulfill our calling, the corollary statement is equally important:  any action derived from our policy manual (the Bible) that misrepresents Jesus’ heart, needs to be reconsidered!

And this means a few elements of church history would have played out differently:

The church wouldn’t have fractured again and again and again over words and secondary doctrines, because Jesus’ heart was, above all other things, for Christians to live in peaceable unity.  The east/west church schism, the multiple popes debacle, the protestant reformation, and the over twenty thousand denominations?  Poof!  They’re gone.

The sanctioning of Slavery in Jesus name?  The anti-semitic edict declared by the church, forcing all Jews to leave Spain (and leave their wealth behind, by the way) in the late 15th century?  The horrific genocide in Rwanda, even as this country was being touted as a Christian missionary success story?   All these things change dramatically if Christians stay committed to the vision and mission of their calling, which is to look like Jesus.

I’ve lived long enough to remember specific times when I had the doctrinal moral high ground, but my posture of pride, anger, and a cynical tongue, discredited my doctrine.

So the next time you win a political argument by calling the other person stupid, remember that you’ve lost.

The next time you’re debating same sex marriage, whatever your position on the matter, if your anger toward the other person means you stop listening, stop loving, stop treating them as image bearers even though you disagree, you’ve lost, even if you won.

The next time your reading of the Bible leads to behaviors of racism, or xenophobia, or leads you to withdraw from a group of people in either fear or disgust, I don’t care what the letter of the text you’re reading leads you to believe, you’re reading it wrong.

I say this with confidence, not only because of the clarity of our calling to look like Jesus, but because we’re also told, in numerous places in the Bible, that Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s character.  So instead of microscopically proof texting your way to arrogant, violent, fear based, or isolationist behavior, how about becoming obsessed with the character of Jesus instead?

You’ll likely find a gentler voice, throw a party for your neighbors, celebrate beauty more often, and choose peace, patience, and joy more consistently.  Yes, there’s a manual.  But more important, there’s a mission statement, a vision: making the real Christ visible on a day to day basis.  As we walk towards Good Friday and pondering the sacrifice of Christ, I’d suggest that is a mission worth pursuing.

O Lord Christ; 

You’ve shown us the way, but we confess that too often we’ve coopted your name and used it to create a thin religious veneer over hate, violence, greed, and fear – all the while quoting the Bible to justify it.  Have mercy on us Lord.  Grant that we might see your heart with greater clarity, and have the courage to to allow your life to find fuller expression in each of us during this Holy week, and beyond.  

Amen