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

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!

“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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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

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

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

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”

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.

 

Walter Mitty and the Art of Waking Up

There’s a glorious life in each of us that’s waiting to be lived.  It’s the crises we face that will either fan it to flame or kill it.  That, in two sentences, is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”.  Richard Rohr, in a very good book I’m reading, says “The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently.  The new is always be definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push – usually a big one – or we will not go.”  Every story  worth telling, and every life that’s done something worthwhile, has been given such a push.  It comes, usually, in unwelcome wrappings such as the loss of a job, or infidelity, and getting caught up, or caught, in an addiction.  Maybe it’s cancer, the death of a parent, or an accident.  The point is that the push isn’t something we wanted, and yet in this fallen world, the painful push over the edge becomes the very thing that enables us to move to new heights; “abundant life” is the way Jesus spoke of it.

For Walter Mitty, masterfully played by Ben Stiller, the push comes in the form of a missing film negative.  He’s the “negatives accounts manager” for Life magazine.  The last issue’s about to be published, and the company’s just been bought out so that downsizing decisions are being made at the very time a negative’s gone missing.  This becomes Walter’s “push”.  His safe, familiar world is no longer sustainable, which is what happens to everyone eventually, in spite of our best efforts to keep the wolves of change at bay by building financial and emotional fortresses around our lives.  Still, they find their way in, and the crux of our lives has everything to do with how we respond to the unwelcome intrusions of change.  How Walter responds is the crux of the story.

Aside from the stunning cinematography (which makes the movie worth the big screen investment), 3 other things offered poignant revelations of the human condition:

The Reality of Ambivalence – There’s a scene when Walter needs to decide whether to hitch a ride on a helicopter, at the onset of a storm, piloted by a guy who’s drunk too much.  None of us would say yes under normal circumstances, but these aren’t normal circumstances.  Walter realizes that he’s at a crossroads and though the risk of going is high, the certainty of not going is that he’ll fail in his quest.  As a result, an internal war ensues inside his own soul between courage and fear, vision and safety, yes and no.

If you think this is just the stuff of movies, think again.  Though the stakes aren’t always as visible and dramatic, all of us are fighting these internal wars every day.  Just on the way to the movie I had an internal debate about whether or not to have a hard conversation with my wife about a struggle I was facing.  “Stay silent.  It’s your first night out together in a long time.  Just enjoy it.” vs. “You’re playing a game, being dishonest, if you don’t bring this stuff into the light.  Speak!”  Back and forth, almost in rhythm with the windshield wipers.  The voice we listen to in such moments might rightly be safety sometimes, but not always, and if we stop listening and only choose safety we’ll miss transformation.

This, of course, was the problem with Israel when they failed to enter the promise land under Moses’ leadership.  They’d become so schooled in choosing safety that when the chance was given for them to move into their destiny they said no, preferring the assurance of risk free living in the desert to the chance at abundance.

The Beauty of Friendship – As Walter fights these battles between courage and fear, engagement and withdrawal, it becomes clear that a critical factor in his choices is the influence of a friend.  All of us need people at times who believe in us, or our calling, more fiercely than we believe it ourselves.   Such people, such voices, are a gift from God when they appear with encouragement, giving us the strength to continue, or take the next step.  That’s why I’m increasingly convinced that encouragement is an important value we’d all do well to nurture in our lives, particularly we who’ve received lots of it.

The hints of Christ in Sean –  Who invites us, though circumstances, to come to himself?  Who teaches us to see the world beauty in the midst of brokenness, to exalt servanthood over the trinkets of upward mobility, to take time for celebration, relationship, and really seeing?  The answer’s Christ, of course, for we who believe.  All those qualities, and more, are seen in Sean, the photographer whose lost negative is at the root of Walter’s quest and transformation.  Jesus was always building bridges between himself and the world around him, and we’d be wise to look for such bridges too.  They exist because artists are seeking to shake us awake and see things that are true about the human condition, and the truth is that all of us are in need of Someone who will help us see ourselves and the world with greater clarity, and who will be both the object of our seeking and our companion on the journey.  That we’re in need of such a Someone is a point in this film;  that the final answer to such a quest will be found in Christ is, I believe, the grand story of the Bible.  Sometimes, though, you need to go to the movies to be reminded of what you already know.

Faith, Sight, and Cairnes on trails: Examining the “historical” Jesus in the bestseller: “Zealot”

ImageReza Aslan has written “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”.  I’ve read much of it and will have finished it by Monday night so that I can chat intelligently about it at The Kindlings Muse (Seattle folk: Hale’s Brewery, 7-8:30, register here).  I don’t want to spoil the upcoming event, so the focus of this post isn’t the book.  Instead, the author’s foundational statements are a launching pad for a single consideration:  what if there’s a gap between the Jesus we think we know, and the actual historical Jesus.

At the outset, Aslan shares his testimony of becoming a Christian, and then his predictable college deconstruction of his faith, as he writes,  “the more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unblievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.”  He goes on to write, “No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.”

Aslan’s attempt to unearth the real Jesus and deconstruct the evangelical Jesus is fraught with huge faith leaps, contradictions, and assumptions in my opinion – but I’ll save that critique for Monday night.  In spite of my disagreements with him though, the author has provoked a valuable conversation about the limits of knowing, the role of faith, and way we choose how to live.

The Limits of Knowing –

Aslan makes the claim that we can’t know history accurately, but that it doesn’t matter, because “The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age”  It’s not rocket science to counter with the observation that history is, by nature, not observable.  Nobody alive today observed Lincoln’s assassination.  History is the testimony of eyewitnesses and, like criminal cases today, its ours to consider the weight of evidence, the credibility of the authors, and decide whether to believe or not.

The certainty of our conclusions, though, gets thinner as history gets older.  It’s become trendy to get all postmodern with respect to ancient history and say, “we simply don’t know”, to which I would reply, no, you don’t KNOW, with all caps and a big bold font.  But you can still know enough to take a step.  In fact, you must take step, because even your failure to take a step is, itself, a step, a declaration that you know enough to know that you can’t know enough to take a step.

We are hemmed in, all of us, to the necessity of taking steps, even when we don’t know with certainty, and that’s OK.  “We walk by faith, not by sight”

The Role of Faith

The strength of post-modernity, though, is the acknowledgement that everyone walks by faith – believer, agnostic, atheist alike.  We walk by faith, because we’re making choices about things that are eternal and invisible.  These things require a different means of choosing than the choice we make when we drive from Seattle to Portland.  The map tells us that we head south on I-5.  We do it.  We get there.  It’s verifiable immediately.  History isn’t.  Neither is the afterlife.

So, we need more faith when deciding what we’ll believe about Christ, than we do when considering whether i-5 south will get a person from Seattle to Portland.

It’s ironic to me, then, that at a time when the world is finally beginning to acknowledge that there are limits to knowing, and that much in our lives requires faith, there are Christians declaring that they can “prove” the resurrection, or the worldwide flood.  They come out with mounds of evidence, all but saying that believing in the historicity of the whole bible doesn’t require any faith at all.  This is rubbish.  We’re better off acknowledging that faith leaps aren’t blind, but are based on some evidence.  We take into account the trustworthiness of the testimony, the strength of the evidence and then, KNOWING WE DON’T KNOW, take a step.  That step is called faith.  To imply that such a step isn’t needed because we can “prove” history is not only foolish, its unbiblical.

How we choose to live.

ImageIt’s one thing to hop on the interstate, map in hand, and head to some city.  It’s another thing entirely to hike, leave the trail, and negotiate the backcountry with nothing more than the narrative from a book of Cascade Scrambles, and a sketchy map copied from the same.  In such a setting, especially when negotiating scree fields that have no hint of a trail or boot path, you’ll tune your senses to look for signs.  On scree fields, those signs will be cairns, little stacks of rocks that are intended to point the way.  They’re placed by others who’ve gone before you and are trying to help by pointing the way.   You pass a cairn and then you stop and look carefully for the next one.  Each movement towards a cairn is an act of faith, a belief that there weren’t hikers there before you who had something to gain by misleading you.  Could there be such hikers, with misleading cairns?  Of course.  That’s why its called faith.  But you trust, you go, you continue one, looking carefully, walking carefully, and over time you become more and more certain, because of your sense of direction, that the placers of the cairns were telling the truth.

The gospels and early church history are cairns for me.  Do I know that Jesus rose from the dead in the same way I know that I’m typing this on a mac computer?  Nope.  But I believer, and my belief isn’t a shot in the dark.  I’m following the cairns, markers placed on the trail of history by those who clearly had nothing to gain, humanly speaking, by their testimony.  Peter?  Crucified upside down.  James?  Beheaded.  Thomas?  Possibly boiled in hot oil.  The martyrdom of the disciples and the early church is well attested history by credible sources, and they died believing Jesus to be who he said he was – Messiah, Savior, King.  I’ll put my faith dollar there, gladly.

Another set of cairns for me happen to be the saints of history.  Even if none of its true, I’d rather live like Bonhoeffer, or Sophie Scholl, or Dorothy Day, or MLK, or Paul Brand, then settle into a smaller story of either fearfully ‘safe’ living, or a Hemingway like pursuit of ‘adventure for adventure’s sake’.  The narcissism of adventurers and suburbanite conformists are, in the end, still narcissists.  I’d rather live for something larger than myself, so that when Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life – lived to the full – to point of overflowing” I say, by faith in the thousands of cairns dotting the historical landscape, “I’m in!  Sign me up”  – 

Brownie Points: Colorful considerations of race, class, and community

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.  —Plato

It’s true.  It’s also true that the ‘everyone’ of whom Plato is speaking includes me, and you, and each of us.  This makes his admonition all the more challenging because there are two edges to it: be kind…right in the midst of fighting your own battles.  It’s tough to be kind when I’m in the trenches, dealing with my own pains and poverty, be they emotional, physical, relational, financial, spiritual.  I need to work it out, get through it, overcome.  If you’re like me, that means focusing: on me, my pain, and getting rid of it.  Fixate on the pain though, and here’s the irony:  I’ll not only fail to find solutions… I’ll inflict pain on others, intentionally or unintentionally.

These weighty themes are artfully woven into a lighthearted comedy currently making its west-coast debut here in Seattle entitled: Brownie Points.  Set in Forsyth County (yes… of Forsyth County fame), the play gives us a front-row sit for the dialogue of five women joined together because their daughters are all part of the same Girl Scout troop.  They’ve come together for a camping weekend, and the moms are diverse: Jewish, African-American, divorced, and a WASP mom whose son is handicapped.  The mix is a blend of comedy and poignant, challenging realities waiting to happen—and they do.

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