Adaptation to sameness – a skill to nurture and keep

201202-ifj-sidebar-1I went for a hike this past weekend in preparation for our upcoming plan: 40 days/400 miles of trekking in the Alps.  The big hike is now just about 3 weeks and a few days away, so these last times in our own Cascade mountains are important, as we check equipment, feel the weight of our packs to decide what we absolutely need and what’s expendable, and of course, train our bodies.

The training of the body of is vital for people like us, who have spent most of our waking hours during adulthood sitting in chairs.   Just over one year ago, my wife and I decided to tackle Mt. St. Helens in April.  We thought we were in decent shape for the hike because my wife did some circuit training a couple days a week and I did a little bit of jump roping, sit ups, and a few pull ups on a climbing wall two days a week and had skied a good amount during the previous winter.

We really thought we were in shape for it but the mountain didn’t care, and we turned back about 600 vertical feet from the summit, tired, cold, spent.  It was humbling, which I hope has led to some enlightenment.  Since then, I’ve learned a bit about the science of exercise, about mitochondria, and ATP, Cytochrome-C, and why muscles contract.

Here’s the bottom line for people planning long hikes.  The best training for you won’t be brief bursts of intensity, like a 20 minute cross fit workout.  A book specifically written to people hiking and climbing in the mountains reminds us that “the longer you can subject your muscles to a mostly aerobic stress (that’s the easier stress, like walking fast or jogging slowly) the better…”

This is because by subjecting your body to this stress, it will rise to the occasion and adapt, literally changing its own constitution so that you’ll be better able to manage the same stress the next time.  Or, to put it another way:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest (Recovery).

2014-07-02_10-25-34This insight was revolutionary to me, and I’ve been prepping for the long hike by taking longer, slower, runs, and long hikes, always wearing a heart monitor to make sure I don’t go too fast because my tendency is not to do much of anything slowly.   It’s during these long, slow, hikes, that I begin pondering how these very same principles of endurance apply to relationships, vocation, calling, and so much more in life.

In world of disposable relationships, countless job changes, hypermobility, and a kaleidoscope of “next big things” awaiting our very short attention spans, the best lives will still follow Eugene Peterson’s path of “A long obedience in the same direction”. 

We’ll get up, morning after morning, with the same spouse (or the same empty bed because of our calling/gift of singleness), make our coffee,  maybe read and pray, use our vocational skills, invest in the same relationships, encourage people, serve, practice generosity, eat real food, maybe even exercise.  We’ll do these simple things – over and over again.

It’s the sameness of this that causes people to bail out, because we like new.  We like sprints, and high intensity training, and the adrenaline rush of the start up, and church plant, and new relationship.   There’s nothing wrong with new, of course, because starting needs to happen.   But hear this:  There will be countless days that seem to be nothing more than just another step that was o so similar to yesterday’s step.   Same coffee.  Same boss.  Same friends.  Same city.  Same.  And you want to drop out and find a new race, or new trail, or new job, or new spouse.

Not so fast friend!  It’s when you feel like quitting that you are building transformative capacity by staying, (tweet this) and living, fully present and alive the moment that is so painfully “the same”.   Most folks can rise to the occasion and nail the job interview, or the first date, or the part of the climb that’s all about shopping for new equipment.  The challenge comes down the road, when you are risk of what you call “stagnation.”  Maybe.  But maybe you’re at risk of transformation, as you move into the deep waters of learning to be fully present with the o so familiar – so present that it becomes delightfully new.   The principles of the exercise formula, I’m learning, apply to every area of life:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest

Stress – The stress created by endurance training isn’t sudden and acute.  It builds slowly through the weariness that is a byproduct of sameness.  Whether you’re at 13000 feet on Mt. Rainier, or on day 1300 of the same job, or day 300 of cooking chicken fajitas for your friends or family, “you have need of endurance”.  You gain endurance by learning to be fully present with this step, this day on the job, this chicken fajita.  That’s called maturity, and learning it will make you wise.

Rest – There’s a rhythm of work and rest in God’s design for us and we mess with this to our own detriment.  Gone are the days when I can survive on pure adrenalin, running meetings, writing and studying, counseling and leading all week, and then cramming a taxing climb in on Fri/Sat only to return and preach four times on Sunday.  Without rest, exercise is toxic to the body, a recipe for injury.  With rest, it transforms us into people of strength.  The same holds true for all the other areas of life.

By virtue of the blessings we’ve been given, many of us have a capacity to be people of strength in this world, with enough resources of joy, or hope, or even money, to be blessing for others around us.  But our strength comes from adaptation, and the formula for adaptation never changes:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest   There’s no need to mess with the formula, because it’s the way the world works!  Accept the stress, embrace the rest, grow strong, be a blessing.  Enjoy!


Achilles Heal: Lessons for life and leadership learned from a tendon

Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise.  She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died.  Achilles:  the place of vulnerability.

The Achilles story is appropriate  because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes.   Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there.  Rest.  Repeat.  Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear.  “Why is this not healing?”

Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine,  let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.

Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy.  How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical?  Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine.   Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.

1. Daily is best – Physical Therapists prescribe exercises.  “Three sets of 20 on this one.  Two sets of 10 on that.”  Etc. Etc.   These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult.  You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired.  And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.

But here’s the key.  You need to do them!  Every day.  I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks  – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well.   Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.

I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t.  When I’m motivated, and when I’m not.  This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God.   There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.

The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine.   So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts.  They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed.   It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.

Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.

2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed.  “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”.  He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free.  Slow.  But pain free.  The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties.  “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years.  The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”

I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other.  After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way.  One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture.  Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.

This too has application for the rest of life.   You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health.  Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame.  It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success.  Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable.  Both are temporary illusions.  The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel.  The bad days are as important as the good.

Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ.  This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.

3. Ego is a setback  – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow.  I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!”  or worse, to speed up.  What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me.  The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me.  I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.

Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life.  It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom.  Enough!  When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read.  It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.

Take away:  When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.

The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer.   More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.





This one weird trick will change your life: Slow Down

The tree in the backyard is growing, relentlessly, powerfully, and slowly.

Our children are growing, as we do too, slowly; imperceptibly every day.

The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.

Our world, very much alive and changing all the time, is changing slowly.

Slow, it seems, is most natural, most of the time.  And yet we lust for speed.

We look for quick fixes to relationship issues, addictions, fears and anxieties, intimacy with Christ, weight loss, studying for tests, and o so much more.  Hucksters over promise on quick transformation  (six minute abs anyone?), have been doing so for centuries, and succeed because there’s always a market for “instant”.   Lately though, I’ve learned once again, that the way of Christ followers is utterly other than that – it’s SLOW.

I’m planning a big long hike this summer, over 400 miles, with over 100,000 feet of elevation gain, and in preparation I’ve been trying to fix some injuries.  My strategy though, of resting until I feel no pain, and then getting back at it with 150 calf raises, and running stairs in a weighted backpack, hasn’t been working.  Every attempted return to activity has sent me limping home, frustrated and angry.  “They say ‘stay active as you age!'” I rant to my wife, “but they don’t tell you that when you try to, you’ll get hurt… every – single – time.”

It was during my most recent period of forced convalescence that I discovered a word I’d not encountered before:  SLOW.  The author suggested that the best thing to do after an injury is to let your jogging pace be bound by two limits:  your heart rate, and your pain.  He suggested running in minimalist shoes so that, if there was something wrong, you’d get feedback from your body earlier rather than later enabling you to adjust or stop, letting your pain be your guide.  He also suggested using a heart rate monitor and staying, relentlessly, at the low end of the aerobic zone for your age.

All right then.  With toe shoes and pulse watch, I set off, striding lightly and slowly.  Quickly, my pulse is out of bounds, so I slow down further still.  I’m on the path by the lake, “running” but not really, more like “jogging”.  No, that’s not right either.  It’s just a cut above a brisk walk, and I feel fragile and weak as all who aren’t walking pass me as if I’m standing still!  I see people from the church I lead and they wave and smile kindly, as I do when I see senior citizens courageously walking the lake.  I’m frustrated because I know that I could run faster.

But recently, running faster hasn’t been good for me, so I stick with the plan, refusing to let my pulse rise above 140.  After 28 minutes, I’m home.  The pace is embarrassingly slow on my little exercise phone app, and I fear someone will find my phone and post the data on facebook.  I ponder deleting it, but determine to run the same route two days later, keeping my heart in the same zone, just to see if my pace would quicken a bit.  It did.  So I did it again, and again, again.

I’m still running, faster every time, and injury free, as I stay in the zone and slowly, slowly, slowly, add distance.  I don’t feel the changes, day to day, workout to workout, but I know they’re happening because of that nifty app on my phone!

Of course, this isn’t ultimately about running, or hiking.  It’s about the true nature of the path to which each of us are called; the path of transformation.  Paul says that we’re called to look towards Christ, soaking in his glory and learning to enjoy intimacy with him.  This in itself is a practice which takes time to develop and countless Christ followers, if honest, would say they have little or no enjoyment of intimacy with Christ as a reality.  One reason for this is because we have this sickly “cost/benefit analysis” mentality whereby we assess the value of our activities solely based on whether they yield immediate fruit.  So we try a little Bible reading, maybe light a candle and read a prayer – but our minds wander.  It’s challenging to meet with Jesus because he’s Mr. Invisible and we’re not sure, at the level of our deepest selves, whether we’re even meeting with anyone.  So, after a little while, we ditch the effort.  Cross-fit’s more measurable, clearly a better investment of our free time.

The problem is that meeting with Jesus is like meeting with anyone.  It takes effort to carve out the time, and no single encounter, any more than a single run, or cross fit workout, is necessarily meaningful or measurable.  Like romance, or practicing the violin, meeting with Jesus is sometimes profound, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. sometimes enchanting.  And just like romance and the violin, it gets better with time.   The ones who quit too soon don’t know what they’re missing.  They think the problem is the practice, or their skill level – but the problem is impatience.  Keep showing up and good things will happen….slowly.

The transformation we’re promised is “from glory to glory” and the language implies that the change is imperceptible because it’s slow.  To the extent that we’re concerned with “how we’re doing” we’ll become mindful of our shortcomings, and then looking to fix them, one at a time, as quickly as possible.  How much better to just keep showing up in the presence of Jesus, learning to enjoy companionship with him, and resting in the belief that, by staying “in the zone” so to speak, good things will happen.

in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:

“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”

Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.  (thanks to Justin Roth of  “The Stone Mind” for this)

Focus on the practice of enjoying fellowship with Jesus, not the expectation that if you read your Bible enough, or pray enough, or are quiet long enough, you’ll make a quantum leap out of addictions, or fears.  You’ll move out alright… but It. Will. Be….. Slowly.  Step by Step.   enjoy the journey.

PS… if you’re interested in practical help with developing habits of pursuing intimacy with Jesus, I’ll be re-releasing my book “O2” for Kindle on Amazon under the title, “Breathing New Life into Faith”   Stay tuned!

A better story…on what to do with the rest of your life, and saying yes

(I’m happy to introduce my youngest daughter, Holly Dahlstrom, to you.  Her joy, courage, and love of people inspire me.  Her capacity to hear God’s voice and follow is a reminder to us all that “a better story” awaits, if we’ll but listen for the voice of our Maker and follow.  You can follow all her Rwandan adventures throughout the summer here.)

CEZ, OVC, ‘letter of invitation’, MOU, developing world, US Embassy, PEPFAR, cultural assimilation.

These are words I never expected to use in a single conversation.  Yet I found myself on the phone this morning speaking with the volunteer specialist for World Relief discussing the final details for my upcoming journey to Rwanda.  How did I find myself here?  The answer is simple.  To some the answer I will give is frustrating and naive.  To me it is merely the truth.  I would not have found myself using these terms on skype this morning if it had not been for God’s calling on my heart two years ago to do something very new.

I sometimes think that “call” is a term overused in Christian culture.  I always wondered how I was supposed to know if I was being “called” to do something or if I just felt like it.  Was God going to speak to me from the clouds like He seemed to do in the Old Testament?  Would it be through miracles and signs that I knew the feelings I was feeling were from God?  I truly never understood the concept of “calling” until I was in the midst of my own call.  One night I went to bed living my life as usual and the next day I woke up and realized that my life was never going to look the way I thought it would.

Continue reading “A better story…on what to do with the rest of your life, and saying yes”

Don’t find your passion—find your lover

what skills are needed to get to the future?

Graduation is in the air, and David Brooks’ excellent article about the wrong-headed speeches he’s heard this graduation season is a great jumping-off point for a very important conversation.  Brooks makes the important observation that today’s generation is entering a world of unemployment and an unprecedented convergence of challenges on several fronts.  But, as Brooks notes, “College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.”  In other words, having been raised in an educational zoo, today’s students are released into the “jungle” that is the real world.  What skills are needed to navigate this transition?

The preponderance of graduation speeches all follow the same flow according to Brooks:  “Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”  Of course the problem is that this mantra doesn’t work for anyone… Christian, or not so much.  This is because the hyper-individualism that built the American dream is presently running on fumes, as the middle-class disappears, prisons overflow, human trafficking continues nearly unchecked, soil erodes, water tables decline, and on and on and on it goes.  It’s not that there aren’t heart warming success stories here and there; but our commitment to follow our dreams and passions, and each of us following our own inner drummer hasn’t exactly gotten us closer to shalom.  There are other options: 

Continue reading “Don’t find your passion—find your lover”

The rest of the story—and a way to share it

Yes.  Of course.  Westboro Baptist church is planning a protest for President Obama’s visit to Joplin, Mo., to inflict a little hate and misery, in Jesus’ name.  That the rapture didn’t happen this past Saturday was in the news as much as if it had happened.  And people are still debating whether Rob Bell is saved.

This is the stuff that generates tweets, blogs, Facebook fodder, debates, ill-will, and the general opinion that people of faith are more interested in their own internal squabbles than doing much that’s meaningful in the world.  It’s the stuff that’s good for readership because everybody loves a scandal, a controversy, a debate.  The cumulative effect of this, though, has been to give our larger culture a caricatured view of Christ followers, painting us as self-absorbed, combative, fearful, arrogant—and painting all of us with these colors, as I shared here.

This not just a terrible pity; it’s a terrible lie.  The truth of the matter is that God is making His good reign visible in some rather remarkable ways these days but, as is usually the case, the real redemptive work doesn’t get much press. It’s hidden, like a mustard seed. It’s there though:  I think of my friend Walter, who’s focused on freeing women from sexual slavery in Ghana. Then there’s Curtis and his band, who make beautiful music and donate some of their profits to International Justice Mission.  Let’s not forget Laura, whose movie has spawned the Rwanda Initiative.  World Relief?  One Day’s Wages? Aurora Commons?  I could go on, and on, and on.

Continue reading “The rest of the story—and a way to share it”

Hope has primary colors…

…and those colors aren’t personal peace and prosperity (“give me my stuff and leave me alone”), individualism, and “heaven when I die.” Or perhaps I should say, those aren’t God’s primary colors.  I love how God has taken all the complexity of religion, and boiled it down to the essence, down to three imperatives, three colors:

Do justice – like my friends at International Justice Mission who are working to end human slavery, or my friend Walter who’s saving women out of slavery in Ghana, or my friend Eugene, with his One Day’s Wages campaign, or our church’s Spilling Hope campaign.

Love mercy – like Gahigi, whose story is told in this movie.  He’s lost 142 family members to the Rwandan genocide, and yet, he’s now not only forgiven the perpetrators, he’s become a pastor who mediates reconciliation between perpetrators and victims in Rwanda.  I met him this winter, and he’s one of the most joyful men I’ve met, wealthy in ways we simply don’t understand.  The Mentoring Project is another picture of the color of mercy.

Walk humbly with God – With  the debt and dollar crises, war and terror, unemployment and loneliness, it’s terribly easy to get caught in a web of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety these days.  Others just withdraw, waiting for Jesus to come fix it all. I’m convinced that those who are yoked with their Creator are granted gifts, insight, and capacity to live not only fearlessly, but creatively, blessing this world with the colors of hope.

It’s time for people who follow Christ to get beyond arguments about emergent church vs. neo-Calvinist, and arguments about heaven and hell.  It’s time to get beyond the polarizing language adopted from political dialogue, with people withdrawing into the their corners to shoot Bible grenades at the other side.  It’s time to move beyond our reputation as being only AGAINST things, and become a people of hope, known by our passion for justice, mercy, and intimacy.

This is what my new book, available today, is about.

There’s a better way…a better story…better colors.  Join the conversation here: click on like and download a free chapter.

The canvas of our world?  It’s waiting for the right colors.

Crazy Confidence in a Shaky World

there's a new way to live...better, freer

It’s available for all of us.  It’s not contingent (thank God) on circumstances.  It’s able to move us, faster than a glacier, but slower than jet, towards a quietness and confidence that enables us to be people of hope. Every.  Single.  Day.

I’m talking about the new covenant, which is the topic of our present sermon series at the church where I teach.  Who’d have thought that, in the midst of career crises, housing crises, financial crises, global security crises on three continents, and personal crises of every stripe, there would be a way to live—not above it all (in some sort of Pietist separation with nothing more than a longing to get out of here and get to heaven), but in the midst of it all, as people of hope.

Paul exemplified this in the way he lived with such confidence and joy right in the midst of challenges and setbacks.  The came could be said of my friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived so courageously right in the midst of all the darkness and insanity that was the Third Reich (if you’re in Seattle, don’t miss the play about his life).  If Paul could exemplify hope in the midst of imprisonment, and Bonhoeffer in the midst of a culture plagued with a genocidal maniac, I’m thinking there’s got to be a way for me to exemplify hope too, right in the midst of my setbacks and challenges, which pale in comparison.

The principles of the New Covenant are simple to articulate:

1. Believe that Christ lives in you. Believe it enough to say “thank you” every morning for who you are, now that you’re “in Christ.”  You’ve been given everything pertaining to life and godliness, so you don’t need to ask for things like wisdom, strength for your circumstances, or joy.  You need to thank God for what he’s already given and believe that, in God’s time and way, these elements will find expression through you.

2. Thank God for the day ahead. Pray something like this:  “Thank you God, that this is the day you’ve made.  Thank you that you’ve given me everything I need in this day to face the challenges that will come my way.  I commit the day to you, thanking you that come what may, I’ll be able to display your character in some measure.”

“What what happens if this doesn’t work?” is the question I hear all the time.

“And what happens if your kale doesn’t germinate in a day?” is the answer I give all the time.  But Paul said it this way, and Jesus said it this way—so maybe you should check their stuff out first.  All three of us are saying the same thing though:  we’re all saying that transformation happens—but now as quickly or visibly as we goal setting, driven, objective minded, introspective, efficiency obsessed, people would like.  Stick with the new covenant, and over time (I can say this now that I’m old) Christ in way will find a way to become visible through you—increasingly, eventually, patiently.

Learning this is more important than what you do for a living, what’s in your bank, who you will vote for, whether or not you believe in predestination, and even who you believe will be in heaven or hell.  And yet, in spite of its importance, the simple truth of learning what it means that Christ lives in you remains in the shadows, while church conferences focus on the techniques of starting new church (80% of which will fail, according to statistics), and why it’s important to be “emergent” or “anti-emergent,” “Calvinist” or “Anti-Calvinist,” “mega” or “anti-mega.”  These conversations have value in the same way that there’s value in debating whether it’s best to run barefoot or wear shoes.  It’s a great debate if you run—but pointless if you don’t.

Hear me in this:  If we’re not actively practicing the truth of the new covenant, we’re not even running!

Isn’t it time to get in the race? I welcome your thoughts.

PS: Though I don’t normally do this, but I commend my sermon on this subject to you, available here, because I believe it’s so foundational to everything it means to follow Christ.  Please listen— and pass it on to others who will benefit!

Climbing Kilimanjaro step by step – Lessons for America from Africa

In about 11 hours our team from Seattle will board a flight that will take us (eventually, by the 5th airport) to Seattle, and we’ll be home, our exploratory trip of this region completed.  We came here in order to meet some people who are doing marvelous development work and to visit the sites of wells our church has funded, some of them completed already, and one just getting started on the day we arrived in Uganda.

We encountered so much in the previous 8 days that it seems like a lifetime ago when last I was in Seattle.  Before we leave, I wanted to gather my thoughts for a brief few minutes and share them with you.  Woven into the fabric of this trip there have been cords have new friendships, amazing conversations, wrenching poverty, and infectious joy.  I hope to share much more from these categories in the days ahead.  But above all else, this has been a trip of receiving, learning, and being challenged.

1. Development is different than Relief – Our team read the book “When Helping Hurts”, and learned, even before landing, of the substantial distinction between relief and development.  Development consists of initiatives which will move people towards sustainability and independence.  Relief is an intervention to stem a crisis.  This is an important distinction and conversation, because as the book “Dead Aid” addresses, too much relief creates a dependency mentality and can ultimately have the effect paralyzing communities rather than empowering them. Armed with this simple principle it was tremendous to see local initiatives, supported by local village churches (usually working together ecumenically), to change the culture, leading their communities in next steps, not towards entrenched dependency, but empowerment.  This doesn’t make relief an unimportant matter, but it’s vital, whether working on Aurora are in Rwanda, to see that the ultimate goal is empowerment.

2. Poverty is complex – One village stopped drinking from their new well because their poop suddenly became solid.  For the first time in their lives they didn’t have diarrhea, but since diarrhea was their “normal”, the new normal was perceived as wrong.  Getting to the “New Normal”, whether that means fidelity in marriage, drinking healthy water, brushing one’s teeth, practicing genuine democracy, or moving from self-interests and independence (our American normal) to interdependence and communitarian values, doesn’t just happen with a snap of the fingers.  Whether it’s the poverty of relationships in our own country, or the material poverty we’ve seen these past days, it’s vital to understand that many factors have created the culture, that long term solutions take some time, that change is challenging.

3. Joy is available everywhere.  In the midst of poverty beyond description, our team gathered for worship this past Sunday.  After the offering, some began singing and within minutes most of the congregation was up dancing including me.  Three little boys, less than 7 years old, made their way over to me and we danced together – pure joy on their faces as they lived in the only moment they know or care about – this one.  Without the trinkets of civilization, I’m guessing billions know what we have a hard time perceiving, let alone believing; that joy comes from relationships.  Without skiis or bikini waxes, without even a bicycle for transport, without sanitation or infrastructure, joy’s still available.   Every time I travel outside the US I’m reminded of the truth that my material wealth blinds me to the reality of my relational poverty, and I’ve a feeling I’m not alone.

4. Step by step – The complexity of it, the immensity of it, the slowness of progress, the powerful interests that are threatened by movements towards wholeness combine to potentially paralyze our hearts.  Yesterday I, and the rest of our team, were sitting on the platform with the 1st lady of Uganda (another story for later) and while she gave her speech (which included a thank you to Bethany Community Church for the wells we’ve provided) I was able to look, behind a thousand African faces, out to the hillsides beyond, where my eye caught two women walking, with loads on their heads.  In all likelihood, they’ll never see anything within more than a five mile radius of their huts, maybe ten.  As they walked with their loads, patiently, step by step, I realized that whether you are addressing global poverty, trying to live more simply yourself,  seeking deeper friendships, or simply trying to pray five minutes a day, nothing happens fast!

There’s a saying: Americans are on time.  Africans have time.  Indeed – they’ve time to laugh, dance, sing their hearts out in joy, time to live.  Movement and progress require patience.  They’ve got it.  I need it, maybe you do too.

See you, hopefully, soon.

First Resolution: five options for five minutes of prayer

Life, it seems, is coming at us faster than ever.  Longer hours at work, more stress, commutes, repairs, exercise, relationships, and endless social connections that encourage us to remain linked in, with updated status reports and timeless tweets – add it all up and life can feel like a video game.  It’s coming at you and you’re reacting.  Reacting, though, is much different than living.  When I’m reacting, I end up preaching because I’m expected to say something, rather than because I’ve something to say.  I feel scattered, ineffective, stressed.

I’ve felt this way too much in 2010, and so I’m heading back to “first things”, foundational truths that are considered foundational precisely because life can be built on them.  I Samuel 30 tells the story of a time in David’s life when he felt overwhelmed.  After some enemies ransacked a village, stealing his wives and children, he was overwhelmed with grief.  On top of that, his few faithful friends were so angry over the kidnapping that they blamed David for it and there was talk of stoning him to death.  It was a bad week.  We all have them, though not often to that degree.

The first thing David did, we learn, was he “strengthened himself in the Lord”.  This is the best first thing any of us could do, before diet, exercise, yoga classes, new goals and objectives, or attending another seminar.  Billions are made each year by capitalizing on our fundamental discontent – our sense of dis-ease that sends us looking in a thousand directions for ways to make life better.  I’d like to humbly suggest that whatever you’re resolving to do differently in 2011, if you don’t have any habits that help you strengthen yourself in the Lord, start there.   Specifically:

I resolve to pray 5 minutes a day – at least 5 days a week.

If that sounds overwhelming, here are five options for structuring your five minutes of prayer:

1. write your prayers in a journal. This helps you keep track of your prayers and see progress (or areas where you might be stuck).

2. meditative prayer means that you memorize a prayer, like the Lord’s prayer, or the 23rd Psalm, or the prayer of St. Francis.  Then, having memorized it, you say it slowly, offering a phrase (aloud or silently) with each exhaling breath.

3. contemplative prayer – which means, practically, sitting silently and envisioning the reality that you are wrapped in the arms of a loving God.  You don’t need to say anything, and when your mind wanders (it will) you simply return to pondering God’s loving presence.  Another way of doing this is to repeat a word that God might give you.  I’ll sometimes pray this way:  “I receive your wisdom Lord – thank you” or instead of wisdom, maybe ‘peace’, ‘patience’, ‘courage’ or whatever is needed for the day.

4. Identity prayers – read through specific bible verses that declare your identity in Christ, thanking God in prayer for each truth as you read them.

5. talk to God – if you’re not a journal keeper, then just talk with God.  If you need some structure to the conversation, try categories:  a) Give thanks for a blessing you’ve experience (whether a sunrise, or good conversation, or….)  b) confess where you’ve failed or are struggling, and thank God for his forgiveness  c) request from God things that are own your heart, as you express your need for provision, direction, healing  d) pray for others, asking God to respond to situations in your sphere of concern.

I don’t want to guilt anyone into this.  I do want everyone who reads this to know that I’ve never met anyone who has grown into a sense of genuine intimacy with God who would easily walk away from their time with God in prayer.  What’s more, habits of prayer have marked those whose lives have overflowed with blessing of Christ, for countless generations.  You don’t “skip prayer” and know intimacy with God.  Prayer has been foundational for millions, for generations.  So simple.  So transformative.  So rare.

We’re in a state of information overload and as a result, it’s easy for us to end up worrying about many things in the world: money, sexuality, terrorism, which party is in power, how to lose weight, what will happen to the economy (and our jobs), singleness, marriage, children, aging parents.  As we flit from worry to worry, the life gets sucked out of us, and we find ourselves weary, confused, overwhelmed – at least some of us do.

If we pray first, though, our answers are built on the foundation of intimacy with our creator.  Can you think of a better foundation?  Neither can I.  That’s why I’m calling our church to develop habits of prayer in 2011, and I hope you’ll join us.

I hope we can help each other, in 2011, become people who pray.

Please share your own thoughts on:

1. why regular prayer times can be hard to acheive

2. what benefits you’ve found from regular prayer times

Thanks!  I’ll be writing more about this after I return from Africa.