Meditation: Good for the heart; the literal one that pumps your blood

If you’re any kind of endurance athlete, you’ve likely heard of Heart Rate Variability, the notion that when you’re least stressed, the length of time between each heart beat is varied, so that it doesn’t sound like a metronome, but a bit more random.  Random is good!  It means you’re healthy and at rest, not feeling any sense of threat.  There are lots of ways to determine your HRV (heart rate variability) including apps for your phone, and various watches.  My watch gives me a stress score!  Whether I’m watching an exciting basketball game, sitting in a meeting, or enjoying an after supper conversation, I’m able to see at a glance how my HRV is doing.

Meanwhile, there’s a verse in the Bible that says, “above all else guard your heart”, for from it flow the wellsprings of life.”  I’ve read that a few hundred times, at least, and always thought of it as purely synonymous with “spirit” as if they’re exactly the same thing.  As a result, I’ve applied the verse to mean, “make sure you don’t anything that God doesn’t like – anything unspiritual”.  This view led to a bit of fixation on avoiding sexual sin, bad movies, lying, and a few other notable evils.

Heart guarded?  Spirit Preserved?  Check

I’m not so sure anymore.  As I’ve looked at my stress levels, and how they rise and fall, I’ve come to discover that my stress, and hence my heart, isn’t rising and falling randomly, but rather in response to a cocktail of my cardiac health, life circumstances, the particular activity of the moment, and my response to that activity.  What if, in God’s wisdom, God is telling me to choose activities and thoughts that will allow my actual physical heart to enjoy the rest and peace that ought to be its default position much more than I presently do?  What if guard your heart means, “pay attention to your stress levels and when you’re constantly under stress and/or anxious, take the steps  I show you in order to fix it” . 

“There are steps?” you might be asking.  Yes!  There’s a fascinating series in Psychology Today about this entitle “The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide” (because HRV is controlled largely by your vagus nerve).  It turns out there are things you can do to increase your HRV, but what’s simply amazing to me is that each of this things that the author exhorts us to do has a parallel in the universe of spiritual disciplines.  Over time I’ll show you all of them.  The first one, covered here today is meditation.

Bergland calls it “diaphragmatic breathing exercises” but it’s meditation.  The Hebrew word for meditation is “hagah” and is used in Psalm 1, Joshua 1, Psalm 63, and elsewhere.  The word includes the meaning of “chewing on” and even implies a vocal participation.  We’re told that those who meditate will be fruitful, confident, and courageous.  That sounds like “not stressed”, and I’ll be such a person’s HRV would be stellar.  So how does meditation (on scripture or scriptural truths) touch our physical heart?

When you repeat a scripture like “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” or “I am complete in Christ” or “Christ lives in me”, slowly, over and over again, either silently or aloud, your breathing will slow down.  Why?  Because your breath responds to how you perceive the world at any given moment.  When the world’s a threat, you go into flight or fight mode and your breathing speeds up.  Stress hormones pour into your body and your HRV goes down, while your pulse goes up.  None of this is helping you live a longer life – it’s only helping you fight for a moment or two, or run away.  The trouble is that we’re essentially facing the “flight or fight” perspective almost all the time these days, from the tension of meetings and production deadlines, to traffic, to the news out of DC, Syria, Iran, and everywhere, to our own brokenness, body image issues, wondering if we’re “enough”, and a host of other issues.

Meditation is like shutting your computer down when it’s frozen and the spinning “wheel of death” won’t let you do anything and the little fan motor is whirring because its overheating and the CPU thing says its using a ton of memory and energy, which is weird because the only thing open is a word doc, and youtube.  So “shut her down” and start over.  Meditation does that!

I sit, take a couple of breaths, ring a gong on an app that has a timer set for ten minutes, and then begin breathing slowly.  On my inhale, I say my meditation verse for the day.  On the exhale I say “thank you”.  It’s prayer really, and an expression of gratitude for something that’s true about my identity, a deep reminder, so that the truth doesn’t get essentially stolen by the birds of worry, lust, fear, anger, traffic, shame, etc. etc.

My breathing slows down, my worries get swept away.  The truth of who I am in Christ comes flooding in.  And….

My pulse slows down.  My blood pressure drops.  My HRV goes up.  I’m at rest.

I close by praying for people that God brings to mind.  The bell rings again.  I start my day.  But I start my day with a guarded heart, bathed in the infinite love the creator.  It’s not a magic trick.  It’s meditation – which means saturating my being with the truth that I’m deeply loved by the creator of the universe.

People think that jogging and skipping bacon are the only ways to care for their hearts, and while at least one of those disciplines has merit, the habit of meditation has helped me live more deeply “rooted and grounded in love” as Paul desired all Christ followers be – and that’s a pretty good way of starting my day.  Try it!

The Disciplines of Self Care – (Why your Oxygen mask must go on first)

Years ago I found myself in a debate over an organization’s mission statement.  At the time it read, “meeting people at their point of need and enabling them to become all God had in mind when God made them”  I liked it, but others didn’t.  “Too consumeristic” they said, declaring that this kind of mission statement feeds narcissism, with the result that “having my needs met” would become the only thing people would care about.  It’s a legitimate concern.  The older I become, the more firmly I believe that the end goal of our lives is to become these full containers that are overflowing with compassion, generosity, courage, beauty, and creativity.  These things are a far cry from the consumerism that prevails in both the marketplace and churches of today.  And yet, the older I get, the more I stand by my statement that having our needs met isn’t just important, it’s foundational.  Until we receive, we’re unable to give.  Here’s what I mean….

You’re no doubt aware of the Mt. Everest spectacles this year.  With overcrowding and unnecessary deaths, the events of this summer hearken back to the 1996 climbing season when eight climbers died on Mount Everest during a storm. It was the worst loss of life ever on the mountain on a single day. Author Jon Krakauer, who himself attempted to climb the peak that year, wrote a best-selling book about the incident, Into Thin Air, which was published in 1997.  Anatoli Boukreev, also guiding on Everest that year, also published a book about the events entitled, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest.  (The two books offer a fascinating look at how two people, participating in the same events, can recall differently, highlight different things, and interpret the same exact events dramatically differently, attaching totally different motives to a person’s actions.  This makes for interesting consideration of how we read the Bible, but that’s a different topic, for a different day)

Boukreev, the Russian guide working for Seattle guide Scott Fisher, had taken his clients to the top earliest in the day.  He descended to the nearest camp without his clients, where he brewed tea, fortified himself, and then went back up the mountain to work on rescue operations.  Here’s an excerpt from Boukreev’s book explaining the situation:

“I said to Scott that the ascent seemed to be going slowly, and I was concerned that descending climbers could possibly run out of oxygen before their return to Camp IV (at 7,900 m). I explained that I wanted to descend as quickly as possible to Camp IV to warm myself and get a supply of hot drink and oxygen in case I might need to go back up the mountain to assist descending climbers. Scott, as had Rob Hall before him, said ‘OK’ to this plan.”

Some said Boukreev was selfish to go down.  But one article describes the value of how his time of rest for what came next:

Six people needed help and only Boukreev was willing to go out. With tea and oxygen he went out three times in the storm and brought back first Sandy Pittman, and then Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen. He repeatedly asked Sherpas and members of other expeditions to help save Yasuko Namba (Weaters wasn’t there at that point), but no one would.

(One climber), Gammelgaard, remembers seeing Boukreev after he returned with Fox and Madsen: “I woke up at around 5 a.m. and saw Anatoli [Boukreev]. He had returned. It was already light, and he sat without saying a word. He was completely exhausted. There was no energy left in him.

Going down early and resting was… selfish?  The debate here is a debate that goes well beyond the climbing world, because it’s really about the role of self-care and service of others in the lives we live.  The critics of Boukreev are perhaps rightly wary of an excessive focus on self care because, to be blunt, by almost any standard, most agree that we live in the age of the elevated selfishness.

The danger of being a “lover of self” is obvious in the Bible, and the warnings are there for a reason.  There’s something in our nature that is tempted to withdraw from compassion, service, and generosity.  When we yield to such tendencies our lives shrink dramatically, even though we have an outer coating of righteousness.  We can redefine success as not breaking laws like stealing, killing, committing adultery, paying our taxes, and even add things like going to church, verbally defending the Bible, and perhaps even defending our politics.  But this is not, by any stretch of Jesus’ imagination, what following Jesus looks like.  This is self absorbed religion, taking in, and in, and in.  If you strip the religious veneer off of it, it’s just pure narcissism – living for our own well being and not caring for others.  When the warning against being a ‘lover of self’ isn’t heeded, religious people will be the worst kind of self lovers… self righteous self-lovers!

In contrast, God’s clear calling from the beginning is that humans are invited to feast on God’s blessings, but to do so in order that we might actively bless and serve others!  Remember Abraham:  “blessed to be a blessing”.  Remember Micah: “what does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”.  Remember Jesus: “if anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink, and from his belly will burst forth rivers of living water”.  You get this picture of being filled so that we can pour out!

Which brings me, for a moment, back to Boukreev.  Remember that warning when you’re flying.  “If you’re flying with children and the oxygen masks appear, put your own mask on first!”  None of us will ever know Boukreev’s true motives.  We DO know that he had the strength and inner fortitude to rescue three people, above 8000 meters, in an Everest storm.  He had to find them, stabilize them, move them.  Some were snow blind.  Some were refusing to move, preferring instead to die.  No matter.  He served…and saved… because he was strong enough to do so.

THE POINT OF IT ALL

I’m increasingly convinced that one of the largest barriers to healthy marriages, families, churches, non-profits, businesses, even cities and nations, is the appalling condition of the people in charge.  When I go to pastors’ conferences, for example, I hear material that is good, inspiring, and even important – things about casting vision, managing well, staffing and hiring decisions, change management, conflict management, how to think big, etc.  Without being dismissive of any of it, my complaint is that if you sweep all of that stuff away, a fundamental truth remains:  healthy leaders are the foundational element for creating healthy systems.  Healthy individuals who marry create healthy marriages.  Healthy couples create healthy families.  Healthy pastors help create healthy churches.  And so it goes.  There are exceptions of course, but this is a deep flowing river of reality.

That’s why Boukreev warmed, rested, and drank tea.  That’s why David “strengthened himself in the Lord” prior to his battle.  That’s why Jesus went off “early in the morning to the mountains to pray”.  Whole people have resources to share, not out pride, or anger, or to create something that will fill ego needs.  Their strength of inner resources enable them to serve!  That’s the reason things like solitude, silence, moving your body, eating real food, getting enough sleep, enjoying creation, and meditation are important.  It isn’t so that you can become a dammed up narcissist.  It’s so you can fully bless and serve others.

Paul prays that our spirit, soul, and body, would be made whole!  I’m presently developing a curriculum around this theme, and know that one of the first things people will feel is that this is too self-absorbed.  My answer:  Yes, if you’re warming up, and napping, and drinking tea, just so you can stay comfortable while others die on the mountain, it’s self-absorbed.  But if your wholeness leads to service, hospitality, justice, mercy, crossing social divides, and being compassionately present with others in the midst of their suffering, then it’s a different story.  That’s the life for which you’re created:  receiving fullness, that you might be fully poured out!

I’ll be writing more on this very important subject of wholeness, and starting a podcast soon, around the subject spirit/soul/body wholeness, but the healthy pursuit of wholeness is always toward a particular end:  we seek fulness so that we might become people who shine as beacons of light, joy, compassion, hope and generosity in a world overwhelmingly governed by fear, anger, tribalism, and pettiness.  I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

 

 

Hungry for a Tribe – musings on isolation and consumerism

A recent New York Times article (you can find the link over on my twitter account @raincitypastor) describes the gnawing hunger our culture has for belonging to a tribe, and how those longings are fulfilled in a tribe.   This longing has led to an explosion in self-help podcasts on all manner of subjects ranging from the development of morning rituals, to cold showers, meditation, and coffee made of mushrooms.

What’s going on?  Why does Joe Rogan have 30 million podcasts downloads each month?  And, more cogent to this blog and my own musings: “What needs are being met in the plethora of self-help broadcasts that the church is failing to meet?  Should the church be meeting these needs?  How?”

My observation:  In contrast to our longings for community, our consumer culture isolates and leads to paralyzing confusion.

C.S. Lewis postulates in “The Great Divorce” that hell is that place where we get whatever we want, but the result of having our particular consumerist desires met is that we become isolated.  In our zeal to build a customized life, we find ourselves increasingly isolated.   Rituals that once bound people together, such as church attendance, prayer groups, or whatever have fallen on hard times (for reasons I’ll address next).  The result is isolation and confusion.  I’m alone, and I don’t know what to do in order to live better.

Along come podcasts which call people to what are offered as life giving rituals.  Whether it’s morning meditation, fasting until lunch, or a daily cold shower, purveyors of ‘primal wisdom’ are calling people to rituals.   The value of rituals are that I now “know what to do” because someone has offered a prescription of practices that lead to life.

Second, I now have a community, if only  virtual, who share my values.   These podcasters have, in other words, tapped into a need that the church, long ago, stopped meeting.

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

My Proposals

#1 – Elevate the Value Of Rituals – in past eras of the church, the pervasiveness of  consumerism, individualism, wealth disparity, and nationalism, gave rise to a counter response called “monasticism”.  They became “The Desert Father’s” or “The Benedictines” or “The Celtic Church” which thrived beyond the structures of the Roman Empire, or the “Confessing Church” in Germany during the rise of the Reich.  All these communities called people to various rituals of prayer, fasting, Bible Reading, service, and more.

I will continue to work at this in the church I lead.  I’ve written a book  in order to help people develope “Rule of Life” rituals.   I wrote this because the hyper-individualism and consumerism that is American Evangelical Christianity is horribly ineffective.   Perhaps, in our desire to make faith accessible, we’ve lowered the bar so close to the ground that self-denial, rituals, or challenges regarding the use of our time, money, or bodies never happen.  The result of this is that we end up with nothing to offer or nothing to say.   As a result, the church has been relegated to the dust bin of irrelevance for an increasing percent of the population.

Here’s how The NY Times article suggests that these podcasts are filling the gap:

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

To the extent that the church can once again elevate and create a culture where faith has particular practices, and to the exten that the practices offer a real path to wholeness and transformation, the church’s light might once again begin to shine.

#2 –  Stop behaving like Gnostics; Recover the Body – These podcasts, for all their flaws, are seeking to speak to the whole person.  Meditation.  Cold Showers.  Mushroom Coffee.  Finding your tribe.  Serving others.

Wow.  It’s clear to me that an appeal of podcasts is their capacity to address the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.  It’s not that I agree with everything offered (“Mushroom coffee?  Really?”).   The reality though, is that God cares about the whole person, and too often the church doesn’t.  The church’s failure to address the whole person is central to why so many are leaving the church.   Paul prayed that we’d be “set apart” and “made whole” in every way: spirit, soul, body.

I’m presently working on developing a discipleship pathway that addresses the whole person.  Such a pathway must include not only practices of prayer and generosity for the spirit, but doing soul work related to our brokenness so that our time use, money use and relationships all move toward wholeness.  Finally, we must also address the body work related to sleep, exercise, and making wise food choices.

What would it look like if God’s people were functionally tribes of people (called churches) committed to life transforming practices that will empower people to serve and bless the world out from a place of ongoing movement toward wholeness?  Such a church would shine as light in the midst of darkness, would become food in the midst of people hungry for meaning, belonging, wholeness, and ritual.  We hunger for these things because God has placed ‘eternity in the hearts’ of all people!  Thanks be to God that our world is hungry.  It’s high time we begin building cultures that become the food we’re meant to be.

I welcome your thoughts…

 

Creating Habits that Lead to Life – with a free book chapter to help

One of the great paradoxes of Christianity is that there isn’t a single thing we can do save ourselves, transform ourselves, or grow ourselves.  The life for which we’re created is nothing more or less than a life of continually appropriating the life of the resurrected Jesus who lives within us.  The reality is that there’s only person who can live the Christian life and his name is Jesus.  That would be bad news except for the fact that Jesus lives in you, and desires nothing other than to so fill, empower, and energize your life, that you become a unique expression of Christ himself.  All the joy, wisdom, strength, peace, power and generosity of Jesus, displayed through the prism of your unique personality!  That’s the life for which we’re created, and it’s that life we’re invited to pursue.

The paradox however is this:  though there’s nothing we can do live the Christian life other than allow the seed that is Christ’s life to grow within us, we’re told that we should “work out our salvation”.  In other words, there’s stuff to do!  The stuff we’re to do has to do with creating the condition in which Christ’s life can flourish, in much the same way that a farmer caring for soil creates condition in which the life inside the side can grow and multiply.  Soil care without a seed is hopeless, so there’s no point in thinking that it’s “what we do” that causes growth.  Still, the soil needs care if the seed is to grow, and caring for the soil that is our souls require steps from us.

Developing the habits that will care for soil of your soul has been called, throughout church history, developing your “rule of life”.  One author says:  A Rule then is a means whereby, under God, we take responsibility for the pattern of our spiritual lives. It is a ‘measure’ rather than a ‘law’. The word ‘rule’ has bad connotations for many, implying restrictions, limitations and legalistic attitudes. But a Rule is essentially about freedom. It helps us to stay centred, bringing perspective and clarity to the way of life to which God has called us. The word derives from the Latin ‘regula’ which means ‘rhythm, regularity of pattern, a recognisable standard’ for the conduct of life. Esther De Waal has pointed out that ‘regula’ ‘is a feminine noun which carried gentle connotations’ rather than the harsh negatives that we often associate with the phrase ‘rules and regulations’ today. We do not want to be legalistic. 

You can find the practices that we’re using at Bethany here.

Many years ago I wrote a book entitled “o2: Breathing New Life into Faith” and am presently putting the finishing touching on a 2nd edition which I hope will be out after the first of the year, entitled: “Breathing New Life into Faith”.  For now, though, you can enjoy the chapter about building your rule of life here: breath of life final – rule of life creation

Life is complex, filled with unanticipated joys and sorrow, setbacks and advances, fears and anxieties.  What keeps us going in the right direction?  Caring for the conditions of our heart so that all the wisdom, power, justice, and mercy of Christ can flourish in us and find expression through us.  My prayer is that 2018 will be a year when Christians will enter more intentionally into the adventure of discipleship that, alone, can lead us to the life of joy for which we’re created.

May the habits and practices your create enable you to find the reality of Christ through the coming advent season. 

Sustainable Faith requires Practices

On Sunday November 25th I’ll be speaking at all our Bethany locations on the very important subject of how to turn spiritual disciplines into regular practices in your life so that you’re able to grow in joy, confidence, wisdom, mercy, strength, love, and freedom.  I hope you’ll make every effort to attend, and if you can’t I hope you’ll attend online, because this is what ties everything we’ve been discussing this fall together.  I believe it’s one of the most important sermons I’ve ever preached, and the material we receive tomorrow will lay the foundation for solid discipleship in our communities for years to come.  Here’s what I mean:

Saturday, November 25th, 4PM.  I’m on a train in Germany between the small village of Kandern where my daughter teaches, and the established city of Friedrichshafen, where I’ll be teaching this week at Bodenseehof.  I have a window seat, and it’s November dark, with clouds burying the Alps in a grey that’s reflected back on Lake Constance.  Trees are naked, stripped of all leaves, all color, all life.  The whole of the moment cries, “selah”, which means “pause”, “rest”, “pay attention”.  I do, and in the moment, breathe deep.  Classical music fills my ears, from the like of Josh Groban and Yo Yo Ma.  Indescribable.

Aren’t you glad they practiced?  These artists have gifts, though the word gift is dangerous.  It implies that the skills of a virtuoso simply bubbled up from within until they overflowed, like a jar of kombucha tea that’s been shaken too much.  BOOM!  Talent awakens and bookings begin.  Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  Everything worth doing requires intention and practice, and while there are various theories about how to practice, and how much to practice, everyone agrees that there are things you must do if you’re going to master a skill.

Christianity isn’t a skill, of course, like playing the cello or singing.  But Christianity does, on the other hand, have deliverables, given by Jesus himself.  He said: When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father (John 15:8).   Fruit has nothing to do with electing republicans, contrary to current conventional evangelical wisdom (after all, you never saw Jesus advocating for a certain party, for the obvious reason that ‘his kingdom is not of this world’.  He brings an ethic that transcends all parties, nations, and economic systems – but I digress).  Fruit has to do with displaying the character of Jesus, allowing it to flower and blossom so that a supernatural love and joy, peace and hope, wisdom and patience, well up from deep within, arising from nothing less than the resurrected Jesus who’s taken up residence inside us!

If Christians could learn that this fruit of changed behavior and countenance, not the proving the resurrection or the age of the earth or the superiority of water baptism, is the whole point of the gospel, we’d all be a lot healthier.

Real health, though, arises in individual believers and faith communities, not when they know the right goal, but when they move toward it.  So the vital question for our consideration is this.  How do we who are filled with Christ, come to live lives that display Christ in greater measure?  

The short answer is this:  by developing ancient soul care practices!  This is because the right practices will have the effect of allowing the Christ who lives in us to find unique expression in our lives in greater and greater measure as days become weeks become decades.  Little by little, Christ is being formed, and growing and bearing fruit.  But only if the soil of our hearts is in the right condition – and that soil care is our responsibility.

There are people who’ve said they don’t like the notion of “spiritual disciplines” because they imply, wait for it…. discipline.  “I was in a legalistic church back in the day and there’s no way I’m going back to that phony, judgemental structure.”  Please don’t!  Go forward instead – into the life for which you are created.

You weren’t created for a noose of legalism.  Too many faith stories have ended shipwrecked on the rocks of shame imposed by authorities who understood neither grace, nor the reasons people should have spiritual practices.

You weren’t created for the desert of spiritual anarchy either.  Many, wary of legalism, have swung on the pendulum, and are now “free” which is code for “doing nothing intentional about growing in my faith”

You were created for “the ancient paths” – practices that can start with alarming ease and be incorporated into your existing routines, but which will, over time, transform you so that:

You enjoy increasing freedom from shame, fear, and addiction.

You enjoy increasing power and purpose.

You enjoy increasing companionship with Christ as your best friend, so that you can worship, while traveling alone on a train in November as you pass through barren fields in southern Germany with immigrants from Morocco to your left and from Somalia behind you.

A friend once said, “the Christian life hasn’t been found tried and wanting – it’s not been found tried at all.”  Too many of us got our salvation card punched, (or at least thought we did) by giving assent to some doctrines.  But we never grew into the life for which we’re created.  The way forward into robust faith reality is found on those ‘ancient paths’.  Don’t miss the November 25th sermon, and accompanying literature – live or online.

Thanksgiving Tips for Civil Conversation: Embrace the Exile

The political and theological left and right have become so tired of both shooting each other and being shot at, that there’s little stomach left for honest conversation about ethics, faith, and the relationship of faith to politics.  So when you go over the river and through the woods to enjoy a family gathering at Grandma’s house this coming Thursday, what will you talk about?  Here’s a little guide to help:

  1. Christ followers are exiles.  Accept it.  We always have been, always will be.  When Paul said “maranatha” in I Corinthians 16:22 he was declaring that our deepest and most profound hope is rooted in the return of Christ.  He’d know well, of course, that the state wasn’t ever going to provide some sort of theocratic rule of law.  He never hoped for it, never advocated pursuing it, never even indicated that it was a possibility.  Paul never said, “If we can just get a few more red seats in the halls of congress then we’ll protect life in the womb.” Nor, “If only we had a blue emperor, there’d be health care for all, and housing for the poor.”  It’s not that issues don’t matter.  It’s not that we shouldn’t care.  It’s not even that we can’t have robust discussion about these matters.  It’s just that, in the end, our calling is to create an alternative ethic and kingdom that will thrive right in the midst of Rome, or Babylon, or the European Union of Socialism, or the United States of Shopping.   We have a better hope than the trinkets of any prevailing culture.  We have the assurance of the end of the story, an end where all life is honored:  the unborn, the homeless, the refugee, the sick, the aged…all!   I hope that, no matter your party, or your conviction on particular issues, you can agree with other Christ followers that we’re exiles.  Learning to live as exiles is a great topic for conversation.  Instead of cursing the darkness, how about we light a candle.  We are, after all, the light of the world.
  2. There’s still beauty in the world.  See it and give thanks – There’s beauty in intimacy, in friendship, in creation, in children whose eyes are filled with hope, in generosity, in forgiveness, in music and sport, in good food and good conversation, and in stories of transformation, as people move toward wholeness and joy and hope.  So perhaps we can look for beauty this week, and take seriously the admonition of the scriptures to “give thanks in everything.”  The truth of the matter is that all of us easily become myopic, so fixated on our personal problems, or the global state of things, that we lose sight of the reality that much, much, much, is still beautiful.  My neighbor met a man this summer who had ridden his bicycle around the world twice, both north to south and east to west.  He told my neighbor, people are still beautiful, still generous, still sacrificial, almost always, almost everywhere.  Of course, its not in the news cycle, but it’s true, or at least likely true.  Let’s learn to be people of gratitude in spite of temptations to fixate on the darkness.
  3. You are made for joy, so rejoice.  The apostle Paul never solved the unjust problems of Rome.  It was a culture of peace for the wealthy landowners, all of whom were male.  If you were slave, woman, a renter or someone in debt, a non-citizen, the so called “peace of Rome” wasn’t for you.  Paul knew this, just like we know this.  He also knew, unlike some of us, that no political system, no kingdom of the world, will even last – let alone solve our world’s ailments.  He also knew that Christ would bring joy to each human heart, right here, right now.  Yes, he fought for justice, addressed social issues (though covertly most of the time); but he also rejoiced, in nearly every circumstance, the joy of Christ remained evident.  So he, the one who was beaten, imprisoned, and persecuted as a threat to both Rome and the religious establishment, he was able to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always… again I say, rejoice.”   He didn’t write that from a position of privilege.  He wrote it from a position of privilege lost.  And still, he found joy.  So can we.

 

Here’s hoping you embrace your identity as exile so you can relax and live into the confidence of your citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.  May you find beauty there, and hope, and may the light of your joy and gratitude radiate at your Thanksgiving table, wherever you are.  

Amen 

 

COMING SOON:  Let me help with your Christmas shopping, as I’ll be giving away three copies of The Map is Not the Journey and two copies of The Colors of Hope.   Details next week!

Soil Conditions for seeds of hope – Lessons learned on a bike ride

It’s no news that we live in a world of increasing insanity, where daily headlines serve to remind us that humanity is collectively, like Sarumon in Lord of the Rings “replacing reason with madness” by choosing arrogance over humility, violence over reconciliation, individualism over community, and fear over hope.

The upcoming series I’m preaching at the church I lead is predicated on the very good news that nobody need be swept away in this avalanche of darkness, that there’s a different way of living, a way of hope.  The foundation of this hope, as this video declares, is that we have the seed of Christ within us (or at least can have that seed if we desire it), and that this seed is the essence of wisdom, strength, humility, and infinite love.  It falls to us, then, not to create these qualities, but to create the conditions in which these qualities can take root, germinate, and blossom.

What have been called ‘spiritual disciplines’ down through the ages provide the path for the soil care of our souls.  All good.  All true.  All vital.  And yet…

All of us need to be reminded that there are lots of other seeds in our souls besides the seed of Christ.  Much has been sown there that’s destructive, things like self-loathing and lust, rage and greed, pride and hate.    Some of the seeds are sown because of our stories – abuse, divorce, addiction, absence, and dozens of other family systems maladies sow destructive seeds.  They’re there, inside us, waiting to choke out the good seed of Christ.

Other seeds are sown through our culture, which saturates us with lies in order to make us anxious consumers, buying more and more in order to escape the sense of inadequacy and meaninglessness that so often characterizes life.

So there are other seeds settled in the soil of our hearts.   What shall we do about that?

Make the conditions right for Christ’s life.   On a particular bike ride near my house I’m able to see the transformation of the landscape, from cedar and fir, to fir, to fir and pine, to pine.  It all happens in the space of about 10 miles as I ride from western to eastern Washington.  The difference of conditions cause one seed to take root, germinate, and thrive, while another withers.

A vital question for each of us is whether or not we’re creating conditions in our lives for Christ’s seed to thrive, or the invasive species of greed, violence, and lust.

I’m increasingly convinced that the news cycle feeds the invasive species.  So does our tolerance of violence, in both video games and entertainment.   Our unlimited access to sexual fantasy.  The access to highly customizable entertainment that feeds our individualistic tendencies.  Our access to meeting the demands of any and every appetite on demand.  All of these create the wrong conditions, because by living these ways we’re inviting the wrong seeds, welcoming them even.

The whole scene hearkens me back to a profound scene in Deuteronomy.  God says this to Israel:  When the Lord your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.

All of this plays out in an antiphonal scene, clearly articulating two different lifestyles, with attendant consequences on two different types of terrain:  “the blessings are over here.  The curses are over there.”   And then, with everyone standing between the two, God casts the vision:  “So choose life, in order that you may live…”

This becomes a helpful lens, as we see that the quality of our lives is ultimately determined by whether or not we’ve made the soil of our hearts favorable for good seed or bad seed – and that determination is made by a thousand little choices every week, maybe even every day:

Will I gossip to boost my ego by putting someone down, or remain quiet?

Will I indulge my appetites for every creature comfort of food, warmth, and entertainment, or will I align myself with Christ and learn to overcome my appetites so that I’m master over them rather than they over me?

Will I open my fist and give freely of my time and money in order to bless others, or will I continue to grasp, and so develop the scarcity mentality that is part of the curse?

What will I think about when I have time to think?

What media will I consume, and how much?

Will I give thought to my food choices, my movement choices, my sleep habits, and simply go with the flow of culture?

Every choice is conditioning the soil of my heart to favor pine or fir, hope or despair, freedom or slavery, blessing or curse.

Learning to choose wisely requires disciplines… spiritual disciplines… soil care for the soul.

 

 

 

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

You’ve been ripped off

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

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

The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idol Busting and Fire Walking – the power of right habits

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

‭‭Daniel‬ ‭3:14-18‬ ‭CEB‬‬

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

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

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

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

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

APPLICATION: 

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

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

“When I’m lonely I visit chat rooms”

“When I’m stressed I drink”

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

“When I’m _________ I ________”

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

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

TRY THIS: 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

OE or OE? Choosing the Right Letters for Life

You wake up in the morning and scan the news on your phone.  Two text messages into your day you already know you’ll be working late.  Then you discover you’re out of coffee and realize that you’d stopped at the store on your way home last night for only one reason: to buy the beans.  As you entered though, you saw the oranges and thought you should pick a few up since it’s the end of citrus season, and that led you down a different aisle where you picked up a few malted peanut butter balls as comfort food and some oatmeal to counter the effects of the balls.  You decided on fish for supper and found a wine to pair with it, and left satisfied.  Only now, just when you need the most, you’re lacking the beans so you curse yourself for being so flighty.  The presidential debate debrief in the news tells you that every single candidate on stage last night lied numerous times except the guy that will soon need to quit because he has only 3% of the vote.   You slam your fist on the table, wondering what’s to become of our country when clowns and mad men are the ones America is clamoring to elect.

While you drink your tea (TEA!!!  ugh), you scan your schedule and realize you have three difficult meetings today and then a notification hits your phone for a fourth, slated for that time you were planning a stress relieving run.  The traffic getting in is ridiculous, and by the time you arrive at work, you can only think of one thing:  the weekend.   You grit your teeth and prepare to endure another day in the trenches, just hanging on until you can breathe again. 

Let’s hone in on that one phrase: “endure another day” because I’m increasingly convinced that, while there’s a place for endurance in our world, we endure we more than we should.  Endurance is what we often choose when we’re facing circumstances that are different than our expectations.  When we encounter them, we hang on, pushing through until it’s over.    Hard meetings.   Company.  Meetings.  The dentist.   Eating our broccoli.  There are lots of things we ‘endure’.

I’d argue that everything in life is either OE or OE.  Either we have Obligations to be Endured, or Opportunities to be Enjoyed.  As I grow older I’m learning that things I once thought of as obligations can just as easily be thought of as opportunities, and when considered in the light of opportunities, they become easier, lighter, and more joy filled, even if they’re things I would never have chosen.    Notice I said, “easier” rather than “easy” because let’s face it, not everything is easy.  Still, I’ve been a pastor long enough now to have watched people go through unemployment, business failure, cancer, the loss of a parent or child, and relationship implosion.  Nobody would choose any of these things, but in this fallen world, these are realities that come our way.

What I’ve seen is that there are people who, though they wouldn’t have chosen their circumstance, manage to be fully present in it, and find enough beauty and joy in the moment to be express gratitude.  I know one man who, shortly before he died, said to me, “Richard I am so grateful for all the things I’ve learned through my cancer, and how it’s shaped me to be a better husband, father, and Christ follower.”  Then, with tears, he said, “I don’t know if I’d have learned these things without the cancer”  Wow!

He reminds me of Paul who, in writing his letter to the Philippians, says, “I want you to know that my circumstances (of being imprisoned) have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel…and in this I rejoice.”   The capacity to find opportunity and enjoyment in circumstances we’d never have chosen is, I’m learning, a sign of wisdom.

In contrast, I’ve known people for whom the couple is always half empty.  Anger over their employment situation; bitterness over health challenges; staleness in their marriage; there are people who are, when they wake in the morning, already looking forward to the end of the day.  This is sad to me, because their days are piling up as Obligations to be Endured.  Joyless.  Lifeless.  Stressful.  It’s ironic that Paul, in prison, sees an Opportunity to be Enjoyed, and I can’t even handle my commute.

It’s my commute, by the way, that showed me the power of this lesson.  I received a fitbit watch for Christmas so that I can now see my pulse whenever I want just by looking at my wrist.  The southbound traffic from North Seattle to downtown is almost always bad when I’m heading home, and since I’m new to commuting the time quickly became a source of frustration, an obligation to be endured.  I’d fume about the poor planning of our city officials, fume about the endless growth of our city, fume about the tunnel project that I voted against twice!  The whole time, I was also thinking, “as soon as I get past Issaquah, I’ll be happy again”  thus making my commute through the city an obligation to be endured.

Then I started looking at my pulse while I was sitting in traffic and realized it was way too high, and I’d fume about my pulse, and my anxiety levels, which only made me more anxious, and then my pulse would go up some more.  You get the picture.  Type A; more than I care to admit.

Then I repented.  I begin to see my commute as an opportunity to be enjoyed.  The first day with this new perspective, I started paying attention to the views: our glorious space needle; queen Rainier; Lake Union.  I’d pray little prayers of gratitude for the privilege of serving the city I love more than any other in the world.  I’d thank God for the beauty.  I’d pray for shalom for our city, pray for the churches.

After doing this once or twice, I looked at my pulse watch and didn’t believe it.  My pulse was 25 beats lower per minute!  This has been happening consistently now for a couple of months, so I know it’s not a mistake.  It is, rather, a change of perspective.  It’s a matter of looking forward to the commute as a time to pray, enjoy the beauty, maybe listen to a staff member’s sermon online to help give feedback.  Enjoyment leads to peace, and peace leads to joy, or something like that.

I’ve begun expanding this little trick, applying it to other things.  Social engagements I wouldn’t have chosen?   The fourth sermon of the day?  A report that needs to be written?   A salad?

It’s crazy, but when I seek to follow the example of Joseph in Genesis, and Paul in Philippians and the later chapters of Acts, I begin to view most of life as an opportunity to be enjoyed, and the results are an increased sense of joy and gratitude, not to mention better health!   If the only thing on your “opportunity to be enjoyed” list, is your hobby and your free time, you’ve got a problem.  You’re cheating yourself out of joy most of your waking moments.  Repent.  Enjoy.

An Austrian monk explains this perspective better than anyone I know.  Take a few minutes now and watch this, and then go out and finish your day with the perspective that most of it, as much as possible, is a gift from God, an opportunity to be enjoyed!

Cheers friends, and may the Peace of Christ be yours in full measure as you seek Him.