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

Beauty, Beast, and the Gospel of Identity

by , on
Mar 28, 2017

When Christians are outraged over a movie, it’s nearly certain that, not only will I like it, but that there will be an element of the gospel clearly presented.  It happened years ago with Avatar.  Now it’s happened again with Disney’s new version of “Beauty and Beast”.

Though I didn’t want to go because our pre-purchased tickets collided with an important basketball game on TV (yes – I’m that shallow),  it was a family event, and I was persuaded it was “the right thing to do”.  My intent was to check the score regularly, ducking under my seat and checking my phone, becoming one of those rude people in the theater who can’t seem to just sit and enjoy the movie.  I checked early, but was soon deeply drawn in and forgot about the game entirely because something better was unfolding before my eyes:  the timeless story of redemption, seen through the lens of fairy tale.

New to this version is the notion that the villagers once had a relationship with the prince, before his heart was hardened and he was ultimately placed under a curse.  Part of the curse, though, was a sort of amnesia descending on the whole village, so that they forgot their identity with the prince, and identity which was recovered only after acts of profoundly sacrificial love led to the breaking of the curse.

The loss of identity and relationship is, to my mind, why the village is trapped in xenophobia, illiteracy, fear, and a destructive patriarchy.   The cycle of darkness continues as the villagers, in this heightened state of anxiety, are prone to listen to voices that feed on fear, inciting more fear and anger.   Rational voices and truth are drowned out by the loudest voices, lies, and insults.  Sound familiar?

In Mark 6:34 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”.  Forgetting their identity as the people of God, forgetting that they were made for peace, generosity, the confident rest that comes from receiving deep love and blessing, they lived as if they were on their own.  This led to various forms of legalism, pride, anger, and violence.

Nothing’s changed, of course.   The profound human dilemma is that we’re seeking to know who we are – in relation to each other, to creation, to eternity, and to our creator.  Until we get this right, the identity vacuum renders us vulnerable to all manner of voices inciting us to fear, hate, and violence.

The curse is broken in the movie, of course.  It’s broken in real life too.  The profound word of Christ on the cross that “it is finished” means that his act of sacrificial love has opened the way for us to live once again as free children of God, enjoying shalom, living in joy, and blessing our world.

The difference between the move and reality, though, is that we seem reticent to live without fear and hate, even though the curse has been broken.   Why is this?

The answer to that question is, perhaps, for a different day.

For now though, I’ll note that Paul had the same habit of finding gospel truth outside the Bible and building bridges between the questions/critiques offered by artists and authors and the eternal truth found in Christ.

We’d be wise to take a cue from him.  After all, when he quotes Greek poets, he’s quoting polytheists, and doing so as a means of defending and inviting people to Christ.  He doesn’t care that he doesn’t agree with polytheism.   Wherever he sees a kernel of truth, he celebrates it!

Many Christians have lost that capacity, preferring instead only to point out areas of disagreement.   So there you go.  You’ve shown where you’re right and they’re wrong.  You’ve entrenched a stereotype that Christians are haters.  You’ve built a wall.

Congratulations.  But make no mistake.  You’ll pay for your own wall.

The better way?  Paul rejoices wherever he finds a vestige of truth and so Greek poets find their way into his preaching, just like Eminem, Beyonce, Van Gogh, Disney, Billy Joel, and more find their way into mine.   Truth is truth, and wherever it’s found we should rejoice.

 

Handel and Messiah – Tearing Hearts Open since 1742

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Sep 27, 2016

jnSometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story.  Here’s mine, explaining why

Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.  

I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now.  Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family.  He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony.  And music in our house?  “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana.  Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.

The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  God only knows why, but dad loved that piece.  He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter.  Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music.  At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both.  My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums.  I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums.  He was perfect on the rhythm test.”  I smiled.  Mom frowned.  Dad said yes.  By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist.  I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things:  Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!

Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop.  My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small.  Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen.  There were certain pieces:  “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen.  What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.

Then dad died during the World Series of 1973.  Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it.  Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?”  He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened.  There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.”  I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe.  The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.

A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school.  Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often.  Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful.  During Messiah, though, I never brought a book.  Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song.  Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible.  That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore.  Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it.  With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture.  The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.

SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 –  It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more.  To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic.  Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood.  I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone.  I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it.  Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends.  I’ll go.

It’s a matinee,  the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more.  Walkers.  Wheelchairs.  I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges.  I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.

The play itself is masterfully delivered.  It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy.  God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation.  If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling!  I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings.  But there’s more…

I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)

Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words.  He’s known rejection, loss, shame.  These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations.  Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force.  I was rejected, but so was Christ!  Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path.  I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker.  I see a child with a disability.  And the words are there, as people rush by:  “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you.  Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.

That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again.  Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors).  Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.

Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball.  Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God.  Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1.  But O the One!  Hallelujah!

If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.

Playlists – Memorial Stones for the 21st Century

by , on
Sep 1, 2016
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retrieving our car meant enjoying this view again today!

My wife and I recently returned from a beautiful adventure, hiking 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and ending up at our front door!  A thousand times, or likely many more than that, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we’ve seen.  Even more, though, we were profoundly grateful for the rich privilege of being able to do this, for such a trip means we have means, health, access to God’s wilderness, time, and enough love for each other to still enjoy such adventures after 37 years together!  (all 87 pictures from that journey can be seen here if you’re interested!)

To make our trip a one way journey to our house we needed to drive to the trail head last week and walk from there.  Then today, we drove back and retrieved the car.  This meant that the drive from the trailhead back to our house was spent alone; just me and my itunes!  I hit the playlist I’d recently created, but not yet listened to intently, and then we began our drive out.  The first twelve miles of this trip was labelled as “not for city cars” and included a stream crossing which, though dry this time of year, was nonetheless a stony minefield for the underbellies of “smallish” cars like my Yaris!

We’re off, and I settle in to playing the game that is avoiding potholes and large stones on forest service roads, it’s not hard work, so I’m able to pay attention to the music I’m hearing.   After twelve miles of a wilderness version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I’m overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving to God because every song I heard was ripe with memories of times and places, and ways God met me.

Does music do that to you?  Do songs evoke specific memories with such power that you’re nearly transported through time and space to that very time and place when the song became meaningful?  Now, though, you’re there with the added benefits of wisdom and perspective that makes you appreciate how richly you’ve been blessed, or how faithfully you’ve been kept.

Remembering how you’ve been blessed, or kept, or guided, is more than a little bit important.  Remember the reality of God’s activity in the previous days of our lives is precisely what’s needed to sustain our joy, hope, confidence, and peace when everything appears to be falling apart.  God tells us this over and over again as seen here in just a word search of “remember” in Deuteronomy.

In the old days of what we call “Bible Times”, God often had people create signs as a means of remembering; stones in a river; a cord hanging from a window; some roasted lamb and a little flatbread – all these were at times signs intended to evoke memory.

Which brings me back to music, and today’s playlist, with every song evoking memory.   As I’m driving along, avoiding potholes, the past comes to life:

“Creed” by Rich Mullins: 

It’s 1994 and our little non-profit is making a promotional video for our summer wilderness Bible School.  We choose this song as background music for a slide show of climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking in the North Cascades.  We choose it because of one certain line in the music which says that we believe what we do because it is “the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”.  I believed it then, and believe it still – but between now and then, there have been many moments, days even, when the truth is I don’t have a clue what I believe.   I’ve doubted plenty – and yet God has been faithful and I’ve been able, again and again, to return to the rock that is my foundation.  I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I veer left and avoid a pothole.

“Speak O Lord” by Keith and Kristin Getty 

I’m at Seattle Pacific University, helping care for students after a school shooting left one dead, and a whole campus shaken.  This is the song sung at the special chapel service.  “Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, that the light of Christ may be seen today in our acts of love and our words of faith…”  That happened in the ensuing days, so that a newspaper with little sympathy for our faith called “The Stranger” would write: “The evening of the shooting, a 7 p.m. prayer service at SPU’s campus filled to overflowing. Let it be said: This community looks ready to heal itself. There were psalms and songs. The whole room sang along, harmonizing, louder and louder.”

The song reminds me that God has yoked my heart with Seattle, and the university students that study there.  I’d hear the song just about one year later in England, and the song would remind there that I need to be faithful to my calling, to not shrink back from the hard thing.  I’m grateful for the reminders of these moments today as I inhale the scent of pine mixed with dust from this dry road.

“100 Years” by Five for Fighting 

The song is seared in my memory because I heard it for the first time after spending a fall in New England with my wife to celebrate our anniversary.  We were growing older and knew it.  Friends were dying, and parents.  Life was moving on, and after walking through stunning colors and cheering on the Red Sox game six playoff victory over the Yankees at the Cheers Bar in Boston, we were heading home on i-95, listening to these words:

I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life

Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…

Indeed.  I’m reminded, every time I hear it, that life’s passing by quickly and every day – even the hard ones and boring ones, are a gift.

There are too many more to do this for each song, so I’ll leave you with “Shattered” by Trading Yesterday 

Here’s the part, in the chorus, that is deeply meaningful to me:

And I’ve lost who I am, and I can’t understand
Why my heart is so broken, rejecting your love
Without, love gone wrong; lifeless words carry on
But I know, all I know’s that the end’s beginning

Who I am from the start, take me home to my heart
Let me go and I will run, I will not be silent
All this time spent in vain; wasted years wasted gain
All is lost but hope remains and this war’s not over

I love this because it speaks to me of a time – no, of many times, when I’ve chosen the low road of fear, of cynicism, or pride, or worse; times when I’ve chosen death and indeed, I’ve lost who I am.  When I pay the price, I know that the end’s the beginning, because I know that at the bottom I’ll come to my senses and return to life and reality.

And the beauty of it, of course, is the promise though “all is lost, hope remains”  because “There’s a light, there’s a sun taking all these shattered ones to the place we belong, and his love will conquer all.”

I think of specific times, recently, when I’ve lost who I am, and yet his love has conquered.  It happens over and over again, friends, because the good news is nothing, if it’s not a story of being able to come home after running away!

There are half a dozen other songs representing significant moments –  after the death of a friend, after the completion of a book, a winter ski tour with my wife, a brother in-law’s battle with cancer.  Music and memory – for me they’re seared together beautifully, and this makes  playlists – this one anyway – a sort of “memorial stone”.  As I listen, I’m encouraged because I remember God’s been with me through good times and bad, through beauty and pain, and will be with me today, and tomorrow too, come what may!

What songs evoke worship and gratitude for you?  And if not songs, what evokes your memories of gratitude?  Smells?  Food? Places?

 

“Adventures in Saying Yes” was the best read of the summer because…

by , on
Aug 19, 2016

It was just a casual breakfast encounter at a conference where I was speaking last week.   He told me about his time in Indonesia.  I asked him if he’d read “Speaking of Jesus”, which is one of my favorite books, precisely because the author has a knack for telling people about Jesus as if it’s actually good news, rather than the distorted version of the gospel that implies God’s mad at the whole world.  God’s angry at sin and death, friends, and we’re trapped in a matrix of these very elements… but I digress.

The guy from Indonesia then says, “Have you read his newest book?” and when I told him I hadn’t he began to tell me about it.  “Something about fear… I can’t quite remember the title.  O wait!  ‘Adventures in Saying Yes- A Journey from Fear to Fatih’  That’s the title.”

Because I loved the other book I’d read by this author I bought it immediately.  I bought it for a second reason too: Almost everyone I know is afraid these days.  We’re afraid of the economy imploding if we elect someone untrustworthy for president.  There are unemployment fears, terror fears, fears for our children, fears of aging, fears of rejection, fears of dying, fear of conflict, and o so many more fears.  Many members of the prayer team at the church I lead tell me that fear and anxiety are the number one issues about which people are asking for prayer.  Not shame.  Not anger.  Not prayers for the health and well being of others.  Fear!

I’ll let you know that both books of Carl’s are easy reads; funny at times; brutally honest, and very practical – they will help you express the reality of your faith in Christ (if you have one) in a more natural and honest way.  Rather than saying more: here are a few quotes from his “Saying Yes” book:

Stop for a moment and think of all the things that your need for security might actually stop you from doing… 

Here’s my definition of fear: Fear is anything that potentially threatens your sense of safety and security.  

Most of our fears are ‘potential fears’.  What ifs.  Yeah buts.  Maybes.  Then whats.  They’re not real.  They could be real.  But they’re not.  Those sorts of fears are dream squashers.  They’re not fun.  They rob your joy.  

Carl decides to basically spend a year saying yes to everything, and as a result, finds himself in some amazing circumstances in the middle east, where he’s a missionary living among and loving Muslims.  As a result, the fears that he needs to overcome include things like death threats, encounters with angry Imams, and opportunities to speak hope to groups of Jews and Muslims who hate each other.  We’re afraid of losing our high paying jobs.  He’s facing the threat of death of he follows through and speaks in this one certain place.  Different fears – same principles!

That’s all that I’ll say, but I’ll share one more thing Carl says:

…fear keeps you from selling everything and moving to Lebanon with your young family.  It keeps you firmly in the grip of words like ‘responsible’ and the often-used ‘wise’.  But Mr. Wisely Responsible never had much fun.  he doesn’t go on Hobbit like adventures.  He might save money.  And he might raise three very responsible and wise children who are very well behaved.  But he doesn’t dream, never lives outside the box.  To him, life appears quite normal.  

But I say, Leap!  Dream.  Say yes!  Set out on an adventure – a risky journey with an uncertain outcome. ...

All this is terribly appropriate as I’m planning on speaking this coming Sunday about the three kinds of people in the Moses story of leading God’s people through the wilderness.  The three kinds are born from three different attitudes towards risk.

Looking back people live with a fear of the future that creates in them a bitterness about where they are and a longing for the good old days.

Looking around people decide that they’ve had enough adventures, and that they’ll spend the rest of their days staying safe.

And then there are looking ahead people.  They’re…

WAIT!  You need to hear the sermon.  And you’ll be able to hear it here – on Sunday.  But whether you listen or not – read “Saying Yes” – because saying Yes to this read might just change your life and lead to adventures!

Bible Reading’s Boring or Difficult? Try this at any age!

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Feb 9, 2016

“No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves.”  

 

From “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones.

Yesterday, in the church I lead, I spoke on the importance of reading the Bible on a regular basis, fully realizing that this kind of exhortation is sometimes received as well as telling a vegetarian they need to have a steak for supper. For many people the Bible is fraught with difficulties, including:

1. Failed attempts at reading it consistently in the past, due to lack of understanding, which leads to a sense of frustration, which makes the discipline extraordinarily easy to jettison as other priorities crowd it out.

2.  A sense that the Bible creates more questions than answers. “Why did God sanction violence and genocide?” “Why the polygamy?” “Why the crazy rules about underwear?”

3.  Meeting people who know the Bible well but whose actual lives aren’t very pleasant. The Bible, misused, can make you judgmental, arrogant, and less charitable. I know someone with a closet full of notebooks from sermons and knew her Bible backward and forward, but who treated her own daughter with contempt and manipulation.

4.  We don’t know where to start; so we never really start at all.

Can I suggest that all of these understandable reasons for avoiding personal Bible reading are rooted in a misunderstanding of why it’s important to read the Bible?   The Bible has one single purpose, which is to reveal God’s infinitely loving plan for humanity, a plan that ultimately presents Jesus Christ as the star, the key source of hope for each of us personally, for the future of humanity, and for the entire universe!

The fun thing I’ve discovered over the years is that when the Bible’s read through the lens of looking for Jesus, it becomes not just more enjoyable reading, but a means of building an actual relationship of intimacy with Jesus. We begin to see this standard-bearer’s heart for embodying love, servanthood, and generosity throughout the whole Bible. This is no accident, as we discover that in the end, Jesus is in every story in some way. Jesus knew this, as we read here.

We lose sight of this, though, often. We can’t see the forest for the trees, as we get tripped up on questions that we can’t answer, allow ourselves to get led down a side trail of arguments about ethics (whether about divorce, homosexuality, or the place of guns in our world), and soon we’ve lost the big picture and the main point. Questions and ethics matter, but they’re best discovered in the context of the big story.

This is where “The Jesus Storybook Bible” comes in.

It’s the only children’s book I’ve recommended for our teaching team at church, and now, if you’re looking to reinvigorate your devotional life or understand the Bible better, I’m happy to commend it to you too. I have a friend  (we’ll call her Donna)  who struggles with regular Bible reading.   However, reading the “The Jesus Storybook Bible” through the lens of a child has once again renewed her joy of discovery as it’s helped recapture the main story.

She says, “The author has a lovely way of wrapping up each story or event by pointing to Jesus. Rather than being distracted by my questions, I’m simply reminded that it’s not just a book about how God wants me to live my life but, rather, how God loves me enough to orchestrate my rescue. This is pretty exciting (& liberating)!”

Of course, if you have children, the book is a must. But if you’re 20, or 35, or 58, or 78, the book is just as valuable. I can’t think of a person who wouldn’t benefit from reading it.

Lent is coming up very quickly, and a great way to fall in love with Jesus all over again might be by reading through this grand book in preparation for Easter. You’ll be glad you did.

Lessons I’m learning in 2016 #2 – Loving My Neighbors, a mile at a time

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Jan 30, 2016
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5200 vertical = a mile of blessing and transformation

January 18th was my 60th birthday and it was more than just a great day.  It was an awakening.  The day unfolded differently than I’d anticipated.  Early rising, intense exercise, and solitude were the anticipated words of the day because these are things that, for most of my life, I’ve assumed to be life giving and energizing.  They’re the things I usually choose, or have been prone to choose.

I don’t know if it’s the 60 thing, or some other winds of change blowing through the soul these days, but this birthday unfolded completely differently, so the last post, this post, and the next one are devoted to the three things I did differently on my birthday, each of which has changes for the better.

After sleeping in, we soon received texts from the neighbors who were putting together a neighborhood ski day.  My wife, ever the lover of getting together and connecting, was all in.  I wasn’t so sure.  A year ago, when I realized my birthday was going to land on a holiday, I’d secretly declared a goal to myself that I’d ski 60′ vertical feet on my birthday, as a sort of feeble attempt to mock the inevitability of aging.  “Take that!” I’d shout after 8 solid hours of hard skiing.  Aging would smile condescendingly, knowing that the house always wins.  But whatever…that was my plan.

The neighbors have children, and skiing with children wasn’t on my radar.  Neither, for that matter, was skiing with grown up neighbors.  It would be slower.  It would be conversational.  It would be limiting.  I’ve always, at the least, been as comfortable with a day skiing alone as I’ve been skiing with friends.  There are a dozen reasons for that, all beyond the scope of this post.

Suffice it say that when Donna suggested we ski with the neighbors, my response was, predictably, “I’ll do a run with you guys.  But then I’m leaving.  I need a good workout today.”

Yes.  That’s right Richard.  Use exercise as an excuse for isolation.  It’s worked well before because it sounds so self-disciplined, so good, so pure.

We arrive and are quickly in line with the neighbors, and as fate would have it, I ended up with my neighbor Paul’s daughters:  Elizabeth and Georgia.  I’d been in rooms with them, at neighborhood parties before, and down at the end of street in the summers when we neighbors play pickle-ball, but I didn’t know them, not really, for the simple reason I’d never made the effort.

Turns out the loss was all mine.  We started skiing together and these girls ski fearlessly, joyfully, with a childhood delight that made skiing with them some sort of shalom, by which I mean a window into peace, wholeness, and hospitality.  They’d cut into the trees, take little jumps, go literally anywhere I suggested, even as I’d follow them on routes previously unknown to me.

Then there were the rides up on the lifts, learning about who likes math, and who likes swimming, and horses, and about life on a few acres outside Tacoma, and what they do at the cabin when they’re not skiing (checkers, sledding, “hangin’ out”…)

Their dad helped Donna and redesign the space under our deck so that it could become a decent wood storage space.  He’s a sort of renaissance man – teacher, inventor, pilot, woodworker – and delightful role model as both dad and husband.  I’d had a few conversations with him over the months, but the girls, never.

Until today.  By the end of the day, I’d only skied 5200 vertical feet, instead of my normal 20,000, and my ridiculous goal of 60k.  But I’d never, in recent memory, enjoyed skiing more.   The family would come over later that evening, with other neighbors, for some cookies and milk, a little birthday celebration, and I learned that they actually enjoyed skiing with me, which way maybe the best gift of my 60th birthday.   It was a wake up call, a discovery…or at the least, rediscovery.

In this year of my 60th birthday, as I think about what I need to prioritize if I’m going to continue enjoying the life God has for me, a morning of skiing with the neighbor girls taught me a vital lesson:

We’re made for relationships and community.  I’d read a great book recently about habits that help make us healthy, entitled, “The Primal Connection” documents that social isolation dramatically depresses one’s immune system, and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease, concluding that a lack of social connectedness is the health equivalent of smoking a pack a day, or drinking excessively.  Wow!   Apparently when God says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” God’s talking about something that’s good for you, both life giving and enjoyable!

Of course most of you know this, but there are two groups who are vulnerable.

First Group at Risk : There are some of us  who write, study, teach, and live inside our heads creating ideas and interacting with ideas – so much so that this cerebral world becomes more important than flesh and blood.  I’ll confess to you that this world sometimes feels safer than the messiness of relationship, so I’ve sometimes chosen isolation far too readily.  I’m repenting now…and regretting what I’ve missed.

Second Group at Risk:  The rest of you.  You’re the ones who are better and texting than talking.  Better at facebook than face to face.  Better at virtual reality than real reality.  You’re on the bus not talking to people.  You’re in bed not talking with your spouse.  You’re eating in front of a screen.   You’re failing to understand that eye contact, activities together, and actual contact face to face and heart to heart is the life for which you’re created.  You’ve traded that richness in for a fake world, a highlight reel that’s void of vulnerability, authenticity, and human touch.

That birthday gift of skiing with neighbors was more than just fun.  It rocked my world, calling me to repent of isolation, especially my isolation painted over with the thin spiritual veneer of solitude, or commitments to health.  Posh.  I’m praying I’ll spend the rest of my days investing much more intentionally in loving my neighbors, blessing and serving, being in the thick of the laughter, shared burdens, and shared joys that comes from being part of a tribe.

Thanks Georgia and Elizabeth.  Best. Birthday.  Ever.

 

 

Lessons I’m learning in 2016. #1 – Sleep and Rest

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Jan 22, 2016

Monday was my 60th birthday and it was more than just a great day.  It was an awakening.  The day unfolded differently than I’d anticipated.  Early rising, intense exercise, and solitude were the anticipated words of the day because these are things that, for most of my life, I’ve assumed to be life giving and energizing.  They’re the things I usually choose, or have been prone to choose.

I don’t know if it’s the 60 thing, or some other winds of change blowing through the soul these days, but this birthday unfolded completely differently, so this post and the next two are devoted to the three things I did differently on my birthday, things I’ve now elevated to goals for 2016.

First Thing:  Instead of early rising, sleep.  My wife and I walk with the neighbors most mornings at 7am, and I try to fit in coffee, Bible reading, and meditation prior to the walk, which means a 6am wake up call, or even earlier.  But on Monday the alarm went off and I didn’t want to get out of bed.  Then some dialogue started happening in my head as I lay there listening to my wife’s deep, rhythmic breathing.

Me: “You should get up.  That’s what productive people do.  You know those verses about the ant and the sluggard in Proverbs right?  ‘A little sleep, a little slumber… and poverty will come upon you!…’

Other Me “Yeah I know, but it’s my birthday.  It would be fun to try and sleep in, to try being a relaxed type B person for a day, maybe even type C”

Me: “That’s a slippery slope you’re on there.  Today it’s your birthday.  Tomorrow it’s too cold.  Then it’s a habit.  Then you’re fat, and broke, and dead.  If that’s what you want… sleep in”

Other Me:  “Can you shut up just for a day, please?  I’m tired of intensity, tired of being driven, especially by you and your insecure compulsions.  Lighten up.”

Me: “I will not lighten up.   Vigilance is how things happen, good things, productive things, necessary… necess… nvdlese….nsssz

Other Me: “zzzzzzzzzz”

And that was that. I didn’t wake until my wife returned from walking with the neighbors!  This is a small victory for sleep, and it’s actually a good thing.  In a recent favorite read, Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-being I learned that one of the best things we can do for our creativity, productivity, and health of both soul and body, is to get 8-9 hours of sleep a night.  This is very different than the way I’ve thought, which is, “think how much more writing, exercise, thinking, working, and living you can do if you get up early?”

In point of fact, our sleep-less-ness is tied to our beating back the night through electricity.  I know this because we were without power for four days during the Christmas season, and this meant that around 3 in the afternoon we’d sense the darkness coming on, and make sure our candles were at the ready.  They were great to sustain conversation, but not good enough for reading.  Plus, we’d powered down our media except for acute events, such as texts from work or daily checking of email.

People said to me, “Get a generator” but I said back, “Nope.  These days, hard as they’ve been, have opened my eyes to the possibility of rest.”  That’s because we’d go to bed long before nine on most nights.  “A long winter’s nap” as they say; and I woke refreshed.

Sleeping in set the stage for a great birthday, and since then I’ve been shooting for 8 hours of sleep.  Truth be told, I’m landing between 6 1/2 and 7 1/2, but still, it’s progress.   It’s counter-intuitive, because there’s a part of me that’s driven.  But as I lean into this call to rest, I find myself aligning to the rhythm of restoration that’s woven into all of creation, and the restoration that comes through the gift of sleep means more creativity, more capacity to be present, and just a general sense that life is closer to God’s shalom than it ever is when I’m anxious about staying in bed too long.

Welcome 60!  Thank you for banishing my fear of sleep, and finally giving me the courage to believe I’m not lazy.  Good night now… see you in 8 (OK, 7) hours!” 

The Art of Work: Timely Truth for Today

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Dec 7, 2015

In world where people are tending to withdraw from hope and generosity into shrunken worlds of fear and safety, I sometimes think that most important thing any of us can do is invest our hours, days, and years in activities that are aligned with who we’re created to be.  I say this because lives lived that proactively and intentionally have become rare enough that they shine as light, inspiring hope in world increasingly defined by pessimism and fear.

If finding our destiny is one of the best things we can do, then reading, “The Art of Work” by Jeff Goins is one of the best books we can read.  Jeff’s taken the subject that people of faith typically name “calling” and written a book about it; how to find it, and what it takes to develop it so that it moves from latent talent to an actual life purpose that blesses other people.

I love the chronological and linear “preparation”, “action”, and “completion” structure of the book because I can tell you, as a guy pushing sixty, that he has things in just the right order.  I can also say that because his book covers all three sections of our life work, it’s a good read no matter where you are on the spectrum.

Especially valuable though, and supremely important, is the early chapter about listening to your life.  This is where the author challenges the reader to listen to the longings of your own heart, finding both what gives you joy and what is affirmed by other people, and investing heavily in whatever it is that rises to the surface.

As one who studied both architecture and music composition before finding my calling as a pastor, Bible teacher and writer, I can tell you that learning how to listen to your life is foundational wisdom.  Without it, you’re at risk of wandering aimlessly your entire life, never finding the calling, vocation, and work that is both life giving for you and for those blessed by your gifts.

Knowing what you’re meant to be and do isn’t enough however.  There must be intentionality in developing your gifts and the wisdom offered to help achieve this is immensely practical in this book, covering subjects such as practice, apprenticeship, and how your continued commitment to the development of your craft and skills will, over time, open doors of opportunity.   The book is highly readable, offering real life stories all along the way to illustrate the principles being taught.

Paul, the great Apostle of the Bible, tells his protege Timothy to not neglect the “gift which was bestowed on you” and goes on to say that he should “persevere in these things”.   Jeff is saying the same thing in differently language, and far from being restrictive, the exhortation is liberating, because by saying yes to our calling, we’re liberated to say no to the continual temptation of distractions and diversions that offer temporary excitement, but little meaning.

Countless people spend their entire lives looking for the perfect context and work situation, all the while neglecting to develop the gifts that are lying latent within.  The treadmill of dissatisfaction that is experienced by those who live this way is exhausting and demoralizing.  Far better to find your one true thing, and get on with it.

If that’s your interest, then Jeff’s your man, and “The Art of Work” is your book.

(I was given a free copy for review, with total freedom to endorse or critique the book as I have seen fit)

Inside Out: In Praise of the Gift of Sadness

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Nov 29, 2015

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

from Rainier Rilke’s “Book of Hours”

In a few short weeks the church I lead will host a “longest night” service.  It’s offered because behind all the glitter and “city sidewalks dressed in holiday style”, there are griefs and losses which are a bit elevated in December, precisely because it’s the month when “joy” seems some sort of expected norm.  Because of this, those who don’t feel the joy are left dealing not only with their grief, but with a culturally imposed guilt because of their failure to enter into the joy that oozes through every song, every light, every tree, every cup of hot chocolate.

My parents were married on December 25th during the WWII, and so after my dad’s death, Christmas became an intensely difficult time for my mom and hence, for me too.  The second Christmas Eve after dad died, I’d hoped to go to the candlelight service at our church, mostly to be with friends and escape the cloud hanging so heavily on my mom’s broken heart.   Her car, though, was parked behind mine, and she was intent on me staying home and waxing the floors with her because her sister and their family, who live a mile away and drop in literally every day, were coming over for the Christmas meal.  “It needs to be clean for Christmas” she said wearily.  Of course, it wasn’t about the floor really, but I didn’t know that then.

I only knew that waxing the floor on Christmas Eve was, of all the options for the joyous night, somewhere just below the bottom of the list.  I wanted to be with happy people, to celebrate, to find a little hope.   Mom, though she couldn’t articulate it, wanted me mostly to be with her and since she’d found a reason to stay home, wanted me home too.   An argument ensued.  She wouldn’t let me leave.  Her car was parked behind mine and it was not to be moved.  Things got heated, and in a family with Scandinavian roots, known for moderation and civility, the tension and harsh words were some of the worst I can remember.   It was a stalemate that wouldn’t be settled until my uncle/pastor came over to mediate around midnight.  Thus when most families had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, I had visions of leaving home forever, and my poor mom had longings for her best friend to come back from the dead and restore normalcy.

Merry Christmas indeed.

Moments like that fateful Christmas night are precisely why everyone who walks through valleys of sadness, grief, and loss (which is everyone… or should be everyone) needs to watch “Inside Out”, Pixar’s marvelous movie about emotions.   A girl named Riley is at the center of the story.  Her emotions are personified and as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco the roles of joy, anger, and sadness all come into play.

Riley needs to deal with loss and grief is she’s ever going to adapt to her new environment, but those emotions are generally swept under the rug along with aging, disabilities, and failures, away from the limelight of what ‘ought to be’.   It’s not just Christ followers who have a hard time with loss; apparently its all of us.

Joy is at the helm in Riley’s emotional construct and her “can do” attitude is both vital and annoying.  The annoyance arises because “can do” isn’t always true, and until we’re willing to honestly face the losses that are present in lives, we’ll not find the critical next steps needed to move forward.

Sadness is present too inside Riley, but appears initially as a sort of unnecessary burden that she’s forced to carry.  Joy’s view is that sadness only weighs Riley down, holds her back, and makes her suffer.  Joy finds sadness annoying, and so do we some of the time, if the truth be told.   This is because there’s a mythical narrative out there that says the only right way is up, the only worthy outcome is success, the only proper response in life is joy.

To which the Psalmist David, the Wise Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Paul the Apostle, Rainier Rilke, Desmund Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoffer, would all say:  “rubbish!”  Though some of us might, in the name of authenticity, overdose on grief and sadness, most of us are addicted to joy, or at the least we’re terrified of sorrow.

Inside Out, and the Bible, both remind us that real joy is on the far side of suffering.

Christ’s birth is good news precisely because humanity’s mucked it up so much, each of us contributing mightily to the problem, that we need a savior.  “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” is good news indeed  because God knows without Christ’s coming we’d have flushed ourselves into the sewer of violence, greed and suffering that is too often our world.  Instead, there’s hope, healing, and a new trajectory for humanity, made all the sweeter by the knowledge of what we are, would forever be, without him.

There’s the pain of childbirth and the joy of new life,  the pain of hunger and loneliness, followed by the feast.  War, followed by peace.

Pretending all’s well when it isn’t has a way of numbing our longings for a better life, a better world.   Advent, ironically, is an invention to lean into our longings for the wholeness and healing that Christ alone can bring.  But giving those longings space in our hearts means giving space in our hearts to grief, and sadness, and loss.

Eight days ago I was privileged to be in the room when my oldest daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, a beautiful healthy girl.  I’m not sure any event has ever baptized my soul with more joy.  The realities of sorrow in the night and joy coming in the morning were literally true that day – and yet the first moment I left the room after her birth, my heart was pierced with a longing that my dad, my mom, my sister, aren’t here to share the joy.

Sorrow and Joy.  Longing and fulfillment.  Suffering and Glory.  This is our world friends.  May the presence of Christ give us the courage to walk every single step with courage and grace.

Why “fear of death tomorrow” prevents “joy of life today”

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May 14, 2014

I’m presently reading a book about the importance of opening oneself to direct encounter with creation, in preparation for a  40 day hike in the Alps this summer.  The author offers some of the best prose I’ve digested in a long time, but more significantly, exposes the frightful momentum in our culture towards a disembodied existence, spending most of our lives shielded by houses and screens from what God teaches us through cold and heat, wet and dry, light and dark, seasons.

David Abram  recalls his childhood of embodied movement, interacting with nature, wild eyed with wonder as he listened to frogs, waded in creeks, and got drunk on looking at the stars.  Then, in high school, he writes about hitting the books:  “The prescription for my eyeglasses  got stronger, while my skin wondered what’d become of the wind that used to explode past my face as I cycled the alleys and narrow woodlands…”  He continues:  “As I reflect on it now, it seems that my skin became less porous, less permeable to the abundant life that surrounds, as my conscious self steadily withdrew its participation from sensuous nature and began to live more in a clutch of heady abstractions.”

Why do we withdraw into walls, into our shells, into our heads?  Abram posits our fear of death leads to creation of sanitized worlds so that we won’t be reminded of  our impermanence.  We’ve worked hard to create an alternate, techno/industrial reality in which we’re shielded from the moment by moment truth that we not only eat food; our bodies are ultimately food for others.  Because this is terrifying to us, we build great systems to both stall death and hide it from our collective consciousness.  He says this so well:  “We cannot abide our vulnerability, our utter dependence upon a world that can eat us”.

Our attempts to avoid the truth, however, have come at a cost on several levels.  Withdrawal from nature cuts us off from a source of revelation that’s healing and life giving in its own right, but more importantly, invites us to lives of gratitude and celebration, ultimately inviting us to Christ himself.

Fear of death keeps us locked up.    Mosquitoes, ticks, bears, lightning, slipping on rocks, fast streams, cold, sunburn, heights.  They’re all a threat.  Why bother when you play Wii, stay indoors, and live to tell about it.   The homeless, financially shipwrecked, mentally ill – these too are perceived as threats to our so called secure lives, and so we stay away.   A bible study’s easier, in the comfort of the like minded.  Thus does the bigger world, which not only heals and delights, but also hurts and terrifies, remain distant from most our daily lives.  We’ve built a fortress and we’re hiding:  from risk and our own suffering and mortality.

This alternative comes at a great price.  Abram writes, “only now do we notice that all our technological utopias and dreams of machine mediated immortality may fire our minds but they cannot feed our bodies.  Indeed, most of our transcendent technological visions remain motivated by a fright of the body and its myriad susceptibilities.”  Or, to quote the bible,   “through fear of death (humanity) has been subject to slavery…”

I love it when people who don’t show signs of having my same faith are saying the exactly what Jesus is saying: Fear of death will kill you early.  You might live longer in terms of days, but surely not in terms of quality, because the reality is that everything worth doing in this life requires risk.

Crossing social divides requires risk, and we make the gospel real and visible when we take this risk because a core message is that the dividing walls are being broken down.

Living generously requires risk, because it means letting go of resources, whether time, energy, money, to be a blessing to others and as an act of worship, instead of storing them away for later or spending them on ourselves.

Getting out so that God can speak to you in creation requires risk, and this too has been a central reality in the lives of people who make the good news visible, from Abraham, to David, to Jesus, to Paul.  Only in very recent history has our world so elevated convenience and safety that we can now live in climate controlled comfort 24/7, bug free, dirt free, and ostensibly risk free.

Recognizing that you are part of a life cycle and that someday you’ll be food, even as today you enjoy food, requires courage, but of course we see that Paul considered dying to be gain, not loss, and so was able to live fully, freely, boldly.

That passage quoted a few lines up, from the book of Hebrews in the Bible, is set in a context which basically offers the remarkably good news that we ca be free from the fear of death, and hence free from  slavery to the Matrix that is our techno/industrial world.

How am I freed from the fear of death?

By entering eternal life now.  – The future of wholeness, joy, and generosity that God is bringing as the climax of history is already here for all who want it.  Embracing God’s reign now means that death is not a transfer of citizenship so much as a movement home to the fullness and wholeness of that which we now only know in part.

By embracing the reality of mortality.  I was chatting with a friend on Monday who said that his dad, when in his 90’s, skipped a surgery that would have prolonged his life a few months and in the end, his choice was rooted in the belief that life goes on.

By cherishing the gifts of each day for what they are:  foretastes of eternity.   Crossing social divides, loving unconditionally, giving generously, and sleeping under the stars are all cut from the same cloth called “abundant life” and all of its available by entering eternity now.