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

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 

 

Fear of Falling vs Freedom to Fail: Choose Wisely

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Apr 7, 2017

fear of falling is more dangerous than falling

I hope you’ve seen the ascendancy of young lives as they move from infant to toddler?  If so then you know they’re bold; unafraid of falling.  In fact, they’re confident they will fall.  They fall, assess, maybe cry a bit, and then get up again.  This confidence continues on, if they’re fortunate, into childhood too.  I was recently riding the ski lift when I saw a boy take a mighty fall as he was speeding down.  Both his skis fell off and he was moving so fast that he literally bounced, before sliding down the hill for another 100′ or so.  He was crying by the time he came to a stop, and an adult skiiing with him quickly caught up after fetching his skis.  It looked serious.  I sped off the lift and headed down to see if I needed to call ski patrol, but by the time I arrived, the boy was laughing, putting on his skis, and asking his dad when they could go on the higher, steeper slopes.  No fear of falling there!

Somewhere on our journey, though, “not falling” begins to take precedent over everything else.  We’re concerned with our reputation, and the consequences of not fitting on, so we begin living on the defensiveness.  Don’t stand out.  Don’t make waves.  Conform.  And above all – don’t fall!  It makes sense to live that way, because non-conformists, risk takers, and those who pursue authenticity more than they pursue approval are often pushed out – of families, workplaces, and churches.

This lust to conform though, is value woven deeply into the fabrics of the community Jesus’ spoke about most harshly:  the Pharisees.  They were the religious experts, perceived as the kind of holiness to which people should aspire, and Jesus tells them (and us) that their fear of falling and their punishment of those who do had missed the mark in many ways:

1. It created a culture where outward conformity was all that was asked of followers.  This culture is alive and well today, as seen in the colossal failures among faith leaders, and the reality that Christ followers statistically approximate the culture at large when it comes to things like addictive behavior, divorce, consumer debt, domestic violence, and more.  In spite of our declaration that we’re made new, we look very old behind the curtain of pious music, big bibles, and arguments about which church is closest to Jesus.

2. It cast out non-conformists like the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who crashed a religious party, and in so doing, were rejecting the people who actually knew Messiah, while they continued to walk in darkness.

3. It created a culture where status and reputation mattered more to them than reality.  In such an environment, any evidence of brokenness or failure is quickly driven underground, where it will never see the light of day, and so never be dealt with.  That’s why Jesus said of this group that, though they cleaned the outside of the cup, the inside remained full of dead bones.

4. It created a vision of faith life that’s far too small.  “Not failing” isn’t the goal – never was.  We’re invited, instead, to live as people of generosity, hope, wisdom, and grace in our world, pouring out the blessings of God on a thirsty planet.

The damage done by a commitment to simply “being a good person” for the sake of one’s reputation, of calling “not falling” the pinnacle of success is huge.  There’s a better way, and it’s shown us by lots of different characters in the Bible.

Abraham is chosen by God, obeys God and leaves his homeland, exercises faith and generosity numerous times, doubts, sleeps with the maid, and lies about the identity of his wife out of fear for his life.

David is called by God to be king, creates poetic worship songs, courageously stands against the giant, sleeps with girl next door (using his own abuse of power to do so), lies to her husband, and ultimately has him killed.

Peter declares that Christ is Messiah, preaches boldly, leaves everything behind to follow Christ, denies Christ, compromises his beliefs at gathering of Jews and Gentiles, boldly preaches the first sermon in early church history (where 3000 are saved), denies Christ, argues about greatness, speaks when he should have shut up, decides to quit the ministry, and ultimately lives with such grace and courage that he dies for his faith, crucified upside down.

Paul?  Courageous and argumentative.  Humble and proud.  Content and coveting.

Jonah? Obedient preacher, and bitter xenophobic nationalist.

Solomon?  Wisdom exceeding all others on many fronts, and a crazy sort of “polygamy gone wild” with approximately 1000 women victimized by his predatory abuse of power (more on this in my upcoming “Song of Solomon” series)

Every person who is “all in” with respect to walking with God and being fully involved in the story of hope God is writing in the world falls.  Every.  Person.  But in the Bible, the ones who fall, confess, and learn from it get right back up, putting their skis on and seeking higher, steeper slopes, now that they’ve learned a thing or two through falling.  This is the husband caught in porn addiction. This is woman who loses her job.  This is the couple that faced the pain they’d caused in each other’s lives head on, and wept over it.  This is every one of us who say with Paul, “the good I want to do, I don’t do… the bad I don’t want to do, I do.”

All right then.  We’ve fallen.  We’ve named it.  We’ve seen it.  We’ve picked up our stuff and continued on.  That’s the way it should work.  That’s why Martin Luther said,  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.

Paul said it similarly when he wrote that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”  

These saints are both telling us that our fear of failure will squeeze us into a mold of conformity that will rob us of joy, and prevent the kind of growth that always and only comes on the far side of failure.  Since every saint failed, and since failure was the soil in which profound movement toward maturity happened, and since failure made every saint a bit more gracious, patient, and generous – then let your fear of failure die.

I’m annoyed with those who think this means “license to sin”, as all of us are sitting around searching our Bibles for excuses to indulge our destructive appetites.  Rubbish.  If I really wanted to indulge those appetites regularly, I wouldn’t be walking the faith life at all.  You are simply invited to live honestly enough to acknowledge that you’re imperfect, and humble enough to name the rough edges when they appear in the midst of your attempts to walk as a person of hope in this broken world.  Remember, it’s those who pretended they didn’t fail, either through denial or blaming others, that faced swift judgement.  Failure’s not the problem – it’s a reality.  The problem is how we view failure; and the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that we can stop pretending we’re always on the moral high ground and see ourselves on a lifelong journey of transformation instead.

Why don’t we set out to live this way? 

Doing so requires nuanced thinking, and the acknowledgement that our leaders, teachers, parents, pastors – and we ourselves, are all a blend of wisdom and folly.  We’d rather deify and vilify.  We like it black and white; in or out; right or wrong.

Doing so requires a willingness to let go of what other people think because its the people who “shoot for the moon” who also fail mightily sometimes, but they’d have never set out, were it not for the fact that they’d let go of the idol of popularity and reputation.

Doing so requires a belief in the grace of God, a belief that God really is the good dad waiting with the porch light on when we come running home.  Beneath all our songs about amazing grace, though, I fear many of us are still stuck in performance mode, afraid of being struck down the first time we fail.

Infants get this.  So do most children.  And climbers too.  Isn’t it high time the rest of us joined their ranks?

 

Idol Busting and Fire Walking – the power of right habits

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Apr 4, 2017

“Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up? If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question. If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.””

‭‭Daniel‬ ‭3:14-18‬ ‭CEB‬‬

I know it’s not technically firewalking, but its fire – maybe “fire bathing“?  The point of the story is that there are three men who are so deeply committed to worship their God, and no other, that they’re willing to pay the ultimate price while being mindful, as well, that their God is powerful enough to protect them in the fire.

In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg helps readers see that when we determine in advance what our routine will be when certain cues occur in our lives, our response to those cues become habits.  Cue: stress   Response: nicotine.  Habit: chain-smoking.    Cue: weariness.  Routine: TV.  Habit: wasting your life!     Cue: loneliness. Routine: porn  Habit: arousal addiction (as brilliantly articulated in this book).

Our three fire bathing friends have something significant to teach us about this.  They’ve determined in advance that when the cue is worship, the routine will be to worship their own God, and no other.  It’s become so entrenched in them that they don’t seem to wrestle with it at all.  They’re all in, with no thought of turning back, even at cost of their lives.

The critical question that comes into play here for me at this point in their story is:  “What’s their reward?” It’s an important question because the reality is that we’re built for rewards.  You run (or sit and eat ice cream) for the reward.  You get an education (or stop learning and growing) for the reward.  You do your job with excellence (or choose to scaresly show up) for the reward.  We do what we do, including following Christ – or abandon fidelity to Christ in pursuit of other sources, in order to receive a reward.

Our rewards are the same as these three enjoy:  confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, and power – which are all promised to us in the scriptures as fruits of faithfully looking to Christ as our source.

APPLICATION: 

Our eyes tend to glaze over when we think of idolatry these days, because the word conjures imagery of statues, altars, and visible representations of false gods.  Here in the west, though, our idols are different: less visible, and more seductive.

Our idols anything we look to in our lives as our foundational source for comfort, meaning, direction, security.  Our idols, then, are our ROUTINE RESPONSES in the cue, routine, reward loop, that we look toward as a primary means of coping with a particular state of mind and heart.

“When I’m lonely I visit chat rooms”

“When I’m stressed I drink”

“When I’m frustrated I get angry and blame”

“When I’m _________ I ________”

Especially to the extent that any unhealthy response to a cue becomes a habit – we’re enslaved, and hurtling toward idolatry, if not already there.   Idols overpromise and under-deliver – every time.

In contrast, whenever I choose cues that contribute to my fundamental identity as a child of God, or to my calling – the rewards of confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, are ignited and I’m strengthened to walk through fires – surely most of which are metaphorical, while believing that if I’m meant to walk through literal fires, the power will be granted.

TRY THIS: 

Consider an unhealthy cue, response, reward pattern in your life and change both the response the reward.  Do you believe that, over time at least, the right response will lead to the fourfold reward of confidence, courage, peace, and freeedom?  Then determine the right response to the cue, the response of faithfulness that will bring the reward:  

When I’m lonely I will call a friend to encourage, be encouraged, or both.

When I’m stressed, I will exercise and give thanks for my body

When I’m frustrated at work, I will pray for the wisdom and strength to be a person of peace, grace, and truth – and by faith thank God that I’m becoming such… little by little.

You get the picture.  Changing our habits of response to life’s cues isn’t just what the book The Power of Habit is all about – it’s what Christ followers call discipleship.

 

 

The Gifts of Christmas #5 – Shepherd, Provider, Gift Giver

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Dec 24, 2016
img_1627-1

Over 37 years, two stockings have become ten. JOY!

It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington.  I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music.  I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me.  I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty.  It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately.  Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane.  By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots.  We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.

I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined.  I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer.  “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed.  “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything.  We belong there.”  I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor.  Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child.  It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state.  The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday.  When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here.  Home.

Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves.  My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place,  a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!

The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings.  But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given.  Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others.  It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness.  “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13).  Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss.  I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.

When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear.  The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons.  I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me.  Wow!  And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7.  Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence:  the gifts will come, are likely here already.   Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude.  They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.

Yes it’s a broken world.  Yes there are clouds on the horizon.  Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good.  Christ is still here.  And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.