When Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem just before his crucifixion he wept and said regarding the people he loved, “if you knew the things which make for peace…” but they didn’t. And we don’t either much of the time.
We know the Bible, the words on scroll, know it like the back of our hands. But the Bible doesn’t bring peace. Neither does institutional religion, your 401(k), a great alarm system, life insurance, or enough guns in your house or your government to obliterate every enemy. Have these things or don’t have them; that’s your call—but know that they’re not what brings peace.
Peace, we saw last time, is a person. But there’s a bit more to it than that, because we can sit around and read or argue about Jesus all day without enjoying peace. Some of the most religious people I know, in fact, are some of the most anxious, fearful, argumentative people anywhere.
This is because we all have the need to move beyond some disembodied concept of Jesus into the reality of a mind, heart, and body progressively renewed, liberated, healed, and transformed by the actual presence of the living Christ. This is what happened to peace people in the Bible, like the woman at the well, and the other one caught in adultery and then freed from the religious talking heads who were ready to kill her. I don’t need a religious system; I need Christ, the Prince of Peace, changing both the way I view the world and changing me.
Here are more steps forward for those wrestling with anxiety, body image issues, fear of rejection, fear of the future, debilitating anger towards some ‘other’, or a sense of shame with its attendant fear of being discovered:
Believe by faith that Christ is with you. We’re not talking about trying to conjure up mystical feelings here. We’re talking about affirming in prayer (whether written or spoken) your belief, by faith, that Christ is with you, living in you, filling you with all he is, so that you might become all you’re created to be. “Thank you that you live in me” is a great place to start. This gratitude doesn’t answer every question about evolution, sexual morality, or the causes of human suffering in the world, but the good news is that it doesn’t need to. If you think waiting ’til you have the world figured out is a precondition for faith or peace, you’ll wait forever to start living outside your head, and doubts, and questions. If you need help with this, you might consider 02: Breathing New Life into Faith as a resource.
Take comfort in Christ’s presence. When we were climbing a klettersteig in Austria last summer, a good friend became frightened, then she froze up, afraid to take the next move. Not only is fear unpleasant; it consumes energy, and quickly her muscles were weakening, further contributing to anxiety, further weakening her body in a downward spiral. That’s when my mountain guide friend moved to be with her, gave her some encouraging words, and roped her in, tying her directly to himself and assuring her that, even if she fell, she’d be safe.
That, apparently, was all she needed, and soon she was back on the move, confidently climbing the rest of the way to the top. The assurance of someone who knew the ropes and knew the way was enough. It was a beautiful picture of Christ who promised to be “with us always, even to the end of the age”. To the extent that we believe this, the comfort and strength of it become realities. This isn’t magic; it’s the reality that we find comfort in the strength of the other; parent, mountain guide, protector. My hope is that you’d be able to discover this aspect of Christ as real, for without it we live as if we’re on our own, like sheep without a shepherd.
Take comfort in the end of the story – We’re in the middle of the story right now, and there are traffic jams and bad medical news, breakups and our own moral failings. We’re a thick soup of faith and doubt, glory and loss. Bad news breaks in and our fragile peace evaporates. This push and shove of doubt and faith, success and failure, horrific evil presenting itself in the world, with infinite love in the midst; all of it can be a bit much at times. We see both sides, perhaps, but grow tired of evil triumphing o so much of the time. How can we know peace in a world where hell seems to win so often?
Jesus took comfort in the end of story. He spoke of the sufferings of this world as birth pains which would eventually give way to full healing. There are powerful moments in film that capture this well, like reunion scenes in the Lord of the Rings and the Pianist.
God pulls the curtain back on history and shows us a future banquet where there’s great food, peace, and “death swallowed up for all time”. Every disease is healed, both emotional and physical. Every war over. Good food and wine speak of matchless beauty and abundance.
The audacious claim of God is that this is where history is heading. Believe it or don’t, but without a hope along these lines, I’d be finished. My world would shrink into the pursuit of trivial pleasures which I’m sure would eventually become addictions and destroy me. That’s not how everyone would cope, but its how I would. Bold faith in a better story—that’s what keeps me going.
Thank God there’s a different ending saturated with hope and healing, and a companion whose presence brings wisdom, strength, comfort, a new start in the wake of every failure, and bursts of joy and gratitude that seem to come out of nowhere. This whole package, I believe, is called peace—and it’s available for those who are willing to learn the reality of Christ’s presence.
Religion is over-rated. Peace that blossoms out of intimacy with Christ, though, is a different story entirely.
I’ve not been writing the past few weeks because a nasty little virus took up residency in my lungs, robbing my sleep, turning the act of preaching into a Herculean effort, and leaving me feeling like a limp rag doll most of the time.
As a result, I’ve had time to think, and the convergence zone of some teaching I’m doing for staff at the church I lead, and my reading has directed me toward pondering both the need for peace in our lives and the purpose of peace.
The need for peace
We live in a world where personal peace is becoming as scarce as clean water. The evidence is everywhere: sleep loss, increased chronic disease health crises, such as heart issues and diabetes, and unhealthy addiction to drugs and alcohol. There are a myriad of reasons for our collective erosion of shalom, but analysis of the why can come later, because the Apostle Paul, and Jesus Christ both offer a clear prescription which, if taken, will move us toward a beautiful sense of peace and well being—not instantly, but surely, inevitably.
Rest gives us peace.
Jesus invites all who are weary to “come unto him,” learn from him, make his priorities ours, because his plans for us surely include the reality of finding “rest for our souls”. Wow! That’s a hefty promise in age of hyper-connectivity, hypertension, isolation, and a sinking pessimism due to politics, pollution, and terror, and the feeling sometimes that our whole civilization is just hanging on by a thread. Still, it’s a promise, so I need to learn how to seek Christ and find real rest in him. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my posts under the category “coffee with God”.
Paul ups the ante when he tells us to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer… let your requests be made known to God,” and this is followed with the spectacular promise that God’s peace will become a sort of wall, protecting our hearts. I believe this literally means a greater capacity to overcome the stress of daily living, and this will even mean, in most instances, greater physical and emotional strength.
Peace gives us strength
Paul implies as much in Romans 8:11 where we read about the spirit of God, fully operational in a human, gives “life to our mortal bodies”. Picture Jesus, at rest and asleep in the storm at sea; or Paul cracking jokes at his trial, or singing in prison. Who does this stuff? People who are strong because they are at peace.
The relationship between stress and physiological decay is well documented, and the pursuit of peace is a multi-billion dollar industry, with everything from yoga to pharmaceutical companies in the game. We all want peace and rest because we know that it’s a key to well-being.
Strength gives us…. ??
So, peace gives us rest and freedom from anxiety, and freedom from anxiety makes us stronger, but why? To what end? This, I believe, is one of the critical junctures where the gospel makes a radical departure from the entire “peace and rest” industry.
Paul’s exhortation that we “be strong in the Lord” here, and the command to be strong found here, are closely linked with a clear purpose. We’re not strong so that we can live robust and healthy self-centered lives, as consumers of culture and recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, we’re always, always, “blessed to be a blessing” as God both promised and called Abraham, and God reiterated to Moses, and Christ charged the disciples, and as the early church demonstrated in so very many ways, including the strength of serving the weakest and most vulnerable, and the strength of martyrdom.
I have known friends, both Christian and Hindu, along with practitioners of Yoga and various forms of meditation, whose goal is vibrant health and peace. This might sound appealing but make no mistake about it—it misses the point utterly because in the end such singular pursuits of health are nothing more than dressed up narcissism.
Jesus made it clear that he’s writing a story of hope in this dark and broken world, and toward that end he’s building a team of light bearers, those who will go into the darkness exuding hospitality, healing, joy, forgiveness, justice, capacity for restoration, and more. So when you have your quiet time, or do your exercise routine, or buy that slab of grass fed beef, or expensive wheat not tainted with roundup, it’s all for a purpose. Christ is calling you to a life poured out—washing feet, serving, and “doing good and sharing”. Anything less is narcissism.
This surely isn’t a call to asceticism. It’s rather, a call to recognize God’s healing us and strengthening us, to the extent God is, for a purpose, and if we receive the healing but don’t engage in our calling of blessing serving, whether in business, or with our neighbors, or on the slopes and rock faces, we’re still missing the point. That’s because the point is a vast family of people living out of resurrection power, day after day.
Are you strong these days, or even pursuing strength? Pursue Christ instead, recognizing that he is the source of the strength anyway, and that the strength he gives us is toward a purpose, and that purpose is to be poured out.
Let the adventure begin!
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.
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!
I’m planning on coming back to the previous post about “the end of sex as we know it” because it addresses an important trend in our culture. But a convergence of conversations and activities have conspired to point today’s post in an entirely different direction: If there were one single habit you could develop in your life that would become so foundational that it would provide catalyst for transformation in every other area, would you be interested? If so, read on.
I thought the notion of coffee with God was unique to me, but this little devotional (it’s nine minutes that might just change your life utterly) reminds me that an older, wiser pastor also uses the term. The pastor shares the story of a man whose life was completely transformed as the result of developing the habit of meeting with Jesus every day. If need help making this commitment and getting started, consider this:
Failure to enjoy coffee with God is almost never a shortage of time – it’s a matter of priorities. Of course it might be fair to say that I don’t make the time because the time’s never been meaningful, but don’t say you don’t have time. Do you have time to brush your teeth? Work out? Eat? Sleep? We make time for stuff that matters – so maybe the question should be, “How can I make this time matter more?”
Create a consistent space and time. It’s helpful to view your time meeting with God as a genuine encounter with a living being. Setting a space for it to happen helps. The video referenced earlier is about a man who began meeting God daily in a rocking chair. The story will, perhaps, motivate you to name some space and begin meeting God there because you’ll hear the man’s story from the prime of his career until the end of his days. Think what might happen to you if you develop habits of intimacy with Jesus for the next 40 years!
Read the Bible. If it helps to have someone help you with the meaning, consider this book. If you want some directed prayer as well, consider this book. There are dozens of reading programs on your computer that will send you some portions of the Bible every day. It’s like getting an e-mail from God! You can’t meet with God unless you’re willing to read your Bible, which is revelation vital for our transformation. Here we are, all of us striving for better relationships, better careers, to overcome bad habits, and more – and all the while, the council of God awaits. We’d be wise to start the habit of listening.
Don’t get frustrated by setbacks. So you’re reading and it gets boring; or you sleep in; or your habit slips a bit. Don’t worry about it. It’s a relationship and any relationship hits dry spots and rough patches. We need to just hit reset, and get back in our chair.
Keep a journal. This might be optional, but I like it because this is where I write prayers, concerns, thoughts. It’s where I wrestle with what God is revealing and ask God questions. It’s priceless from my perspective, because it’s my response, and my response is what makes it a real relationship.
The video (did I suggest you watch it?) tells the story what happens to someone when they develop this habit.
Here we are, talking about national debt, spying, schisms in the faith, self-improvement programs, body image issues, sexism, racism, money, power. We’re worried, scattered, often afraid, often driven – wondering what’s around the corner, what’s next. I know, from first hand experience, that the scattering of concerns, the anxiety, and the striving that so often marks our lives, fall away like leaves on October, when we develop this habit.
I’m praying as I publish this – that people will do more than read. I’m praying new habits of intimacy with Jesus will form because it’s this, in the end, that is all we need.
6AM – The alarm goes off and it needs to, even for morning people at this time of year. Autumn in northern latitudes means every day the sun sleeps in a little longer, the morning air’s a little colder, and the bed’s a little more inviting. “Why get up and suffer in the dark?” I ask myself, when I can stay wrapped in a cocoon of safety and comfort.
Embodiment is the answer. I’m old enough to know that if I don’t get up and do something with my body before the day gets on, I won’t do anything physical. I have a desk job, which means that I live most of my best hours sitting in a chair, often communicating in a virtual world with pixels, bytes, and other relatively recent inventions. An e-mail here – a facebook post there – a text message. A step up from this is reading a real book, and I’ll do some of that too, if it’s a good day. O so much of my life, though, is lived necessarily inside my head and the affect for me, and probably you too, is not good. Like fluorescent lights, the disembodied life in the realm of ideas and virtual relationships has a subtle but damaging long term affect on our lives. Wendell Berry, who still writes on a typewriter, has been declaring this for decades, like a prophet before his time. Some of us are beginning to believe he’s onto something, including Phillip Zimbardo from Stanford, and Bill Plotkin, who is spending his life helping people get out of their heads.
What helps me get out of my head is exercising, outside, in whatever weather happens to be there. It’s only by showing up consistently, darkness and light, rain and shine, that I’ll be able to learn from all the revelation God is offering me through creation. Afternoons don’t work for me. I’m spent. So I force myself out, and after coffee with God, I’m soon running the stairs at the Greenlake Aqua Theater, which is the remnant of a place where everyone from Led Zeppelin to Bob Hope performed back in the day. Now it’s just stairs, for sitting, or mostly, for crazy people who like to run up them early in the morning.
There’s nobody on the stairs this morning, but that’s unusual, because this is a great place to get your heart pumping. I always regret getting out of bed to come here and I’m always excited to run them once I arrive. My goal is to dash up them 14 times and I usually enjoy the first four of five sets. After that, suffering joins the party and I’m faced with the constant realization that I don’t need to do this. I’m alone so there’s no reputation to preserve. There’s enough suffering in the world already, so why I am inflict more by doing this? I always ponder quitting before 14. I usually make my goal. Today though, I’m flooded with inspiration, right in the midst of my suffering.
The value of the stairs, I realize, is that it’s a school of sorts, preparing me for the rest of my day and the rest of my life. “How so?” you ask. Here’s how:
1. It builds endurance. There’s little in life worth doing that doesn’t require consistent showing up, even when you don’t feel like it. Marriage is that way. So is the priceless work of developing intimacy with Jesus. So is developing whatever craft or calling belongs to you, or starting a business, or learning to ski better, or improving your communication skills, or leadership skills, or pottery skills…or any skills. If you can’t break through and keep going when you feel like quitting, you’ll get stuck halfway up the mountain or halfway in your marriage. It won’t be pretty. Every time I run stairs I want to quit. That’s a good thing because I’m not just exercising my legs and lungs, I’m exercising my will.
2. It builds capacity. God spoke to the prophet Jeremiah once when he was discouraged, and God’s word seemed harsh on the surface of things. Jeremiah was complaining about how hard life had become for he and his people, but instead of sympathy, God offers this word: “If you’ve run with the footmen, and they’ve tired you out, how will you run with the horses?” From this, I learn that I need to have not just “enough in my tank” for what I think life will throw at me, but hopefully, extra capacity, so that I’m able to serve, or give, or go the extra mile, or do what needs to be done – precisely by developing habits that create capacity. We’d all do well to ask ourselves how we’re building extra capacity – body, soul, spirit – and if we’ve no answers, we’d do well to take a step towards building some.
3. It teaches you to look for joy in the midst of pain. When the heart’s up to 170 and every breath feel inadequate, and I’m only on round 10 of 14, the best way for to me avoid the thought of quitting is to look for some beauty and soak it in. It’s always there somehow – the silhouette of a runner, a flock of geese, a heron, a falling yellow leaf, eventually the sunrise itself. I don’t know why this happens, but the beauty helps me continue because I think that at some primal level beauty is the continual reminder that life is still worth living. Our disembodied virtual worlds can only offer imitations or at best representations of real beauty. We need to get out and touch, taste, see if the transforming power of beauty is to bath our souls in life giving ways.
4. Bacon. You think I’m kidding. Consider Hebrews 11, which is the reminder that Moses endured all the suffering of his calling because he was looking “to his reward”. After the stairs, four slices, with eggs covered in sun dried tomatoes and sprinkled with Romano cheese, an orange on the side. After the hard marriage talk, or a few of them; genuine intimacy and revealing. After the hard thing, the reward. The principle extends all the way to grave, as Paul declares that the greatest reward of all is Christ himself. My friend Hans Peter, who died this summer in an accident, said once that dying will be like “a kid running home to papa after his first day of school”. Our willingness to do the right thing, even though the right thing often means delayed gratification or suffering, is the price of our transformation. The reward? Our transformation.
Why wouldn’t we?
It’s been a week. In the normally limp and newsless lazy days of late August, our senses have been assaulted by horrific images, at home and abroad. We’ve learned that the Syrian government is exterminating their own people, and that options of intervention run the risk of a full scale attack of Israel, an event which puts the middle east, and hence the world, in a heightened state of vulnerability – more ready to burst into flames than a California forest.
Meanwhile, our pop culture offers one of it’s stars at a music awards show and we’re struck with the realization that nobility, inspiration, edification, and real beauty are all lying on the ash heap of a previous era. In their place, we’re offered objectified and sexualized bodies, bawdy lyrics, and the stark realization that our cultural “elite” have played their hand, declaring that this is, and will be, the new lower norm. CNN’s elevation of the event to front and center news is newsworthy in its own right because the huge spike in readership for this “news” over any real news reveals the depths of depravity (yes, it’s an Onion article, because truth is sometimes best told through satire) to which our collective culture is rapidly sinking.
It’s tempting to respond to all of it by turning off all media and withdrawing to a cave, or a fundamentalist church that’s working on personal purity and self-fulfillment while waiting for Jesus to come fix it all. Nope: that’s a false hope leading to disengagement and private faith. It’s tempting too, to mobilize, aligning ourselves with campaigns to reign in the crass media, and make sure our military, and Israel’s are both strong enough, not only to win the impending wars, which could be massive, but also the wars that will happen AFTER the wars are won, because God only knows who will fill the power vacuum in a new Syria. It will become Egypt 2.0, only worse. Nope: that’s false anger, leading to public rage, and more fear based responses.
How about this instead?
Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the anciengt paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ – Jeremiah 6:16
What are these ancient paths that will enabling us to know peace, beauty, hope, in the midst of the meltdown?
1. They are paths that take intimacy with God seriously. Jeremiah lived in similar days, when people couldn’t look outside or inside without getting depressed or overwhelmed. When all hell breaks loose, whether personally, culturally, or globally, it will be good to already have habits that take intimacy with God seriously. This was Jeremiah’s point in my favorite Bible verse, found here. He said that no other pursuit is worthy of “boasting”, which is a way of saying that nobody really cares about the car you drive, or the mountains you’ve climbed (corporate or literal), and neither, in the end, should you. Your real joy, real meaning, ultimately should have intimacy with God at its foundation. He’s the one who, as Jeremiah says, “practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth…” Make knowing God a priority, and God’s priorities become yours. You’re called, in the midst of all this insanity, to look like Jesus, and you will, as a by product of making intimacy with God your main priority. We won’t always have economic prosperity, national greatness, physical strength – but we’ll always have our relationship with God – right up to our dying breath, and beyond.
Knowing God means looking for revelation from God everywhere, as I’ll write about later next week. But to begin with, everyone needs a lens through which to look at everything differently. Acquiring this lens comes by making a habit of listening for God’s voice in a daily encounter. If you need help with that, let me suggest this resource, or this one, or this one.
I rise early, make my coffee, open my bible, sit in the forest, receive God’s revelation, pray a bit – and get on with my day. Over time, I’m gaining a perspective on reality that’s different, more hopeful, less fearful. I wish the same for you!
2. It’s a path that looks around and does something. It’s easy, when the bottom drops out, to allow our concerns to shrink until our concerns become nothing more than our personal peace and safety. Jeremiah, though, writing to people in the midst of a world (and culture) gone mad, writes: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
This is Jeremiah’s way of saying that hand wringing, and moaning, whining and withdrawing into our Christian ghettos to talk about how the world’s all “gone to hell”, or spinning conspiracy theories about birth certificates or NSA wire tappings or whatever it is that Limbaugh’s saying today isn’t, in any way, the Christian life. Rather, the Christian life means being the presence of Jesus, right where you are, which means:
Giving stuff away, throwing a party for the neighbors, visiting someone in the hospital, spending time with children, mentoring a young mom, or young teen, serving in a homeless shelter, planting a garden, making beautiful music or art or great coffee, visiting someone who’s lonely, spending quality time with your grown children, or o so much more.
The days ahead don’t look very bright from my chair. Years ago, though, I read this about that:
Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
Good idea… I think I will.
The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. – Michael Porter
There’s a forest in my backyard. One day earlier this summer I was sitting in on the deck that overlooks that forest when my neighbor, a former forest service ranger said, “when this area was logged, it was never replanted, so there are actually too many trees in your forest.” He want on to explain that the same principle of pruning that applies to vines and vineyards, applies to forests. “Get rid of the skinniest trees. They’re taking nutrients, but they’ll never get enough light to grow. They’re just taking up space.”
Too many trees. Too many buds on the vine. Too many activities on the calendar. Too many goals on the wish lists. Too many leftovers in the garage. Too much life.
A book I’m reading called “Necessary Endings” states that we need to “accept the fact that life produces too much life”. The author continues:
One reason pruning is needed is the fact that the bush produces more buds than it can bring to full maturity. Any bush that is alive and thriving is producing more and more buds every cycle. And any person or business that is thriving is doing the same. Life begets life. That is normal. But it can be too much, as well. Life can produce more relationships than you can nurture, activities than you can keep up with, strategies and goals than you can execute.
That’s why forest manager remove the skinny trees, why the farmer prunes the vine, why Jesus left one place, in spite of an entire city clamoring at the door, to head elsewhere. Nobody can do it all. We need to periodically get out our shears and prune our lives. How does this work?
1. Recognize your main things – We need to make space for our primary gifts and calling to rise up so that we can do what we’re most fundamentally created to do. These are the trees that need to stay. I’m a teacher (and therefore a learner), a visionary, a writer, a husband and dad. Those are the five biggest trees in my forest, my five most important roles. Do you know your five biggest trees? It’s normally to have lots of trees growing in the forest when we’re young, but eventually the time comes when we need to prune, and the pruning comes by looking around and asking ourselves which trees both a) give us joy and energy and b) are affirmed by others.
2. Recognize the ecology of the forest that is your life. There are five big trees, but for a forest to thrive, there needs to be a whole ecosystem so that your whole person, body, soul, and spirit, can be healthy and feed your trees. Exercise, friendship, coffee with God, good food, and sleep are all part of the ecosystem. Neglect any of them and the whole will suffer. These elements, though, aren’t my trees. I ski – but I’m not a skier. I read my Bible and pray most days, but I’m not a monk. When we try to be experts in 20 things, we grow weary, and do nothing well.
Our progress in life comes from settling in, nurturing a few significant gifts, a few significant relationships. This starts, though, when I recognize that I’m generating more ideas, relationships, and activities than I can successfully nurture. “Too much” always becomes an exercise in frustration, where we feel as if we’re in a video game and everything is coming at us so quickly that we no longer have time to react. I’ve lived that life of “too much” too often.
3. Cut the trees that need to be cut – In other words, quit stuff, so that you can focus on the few trees and healthy ecosystem that is your life. One author talks about his practice of “Quit Anything” Thursdays – an idea whose time has come for many of us. Far from imprisoning our lives, or cheating us of joy, pruning is the key to healthy, focused, fruitful living.
4. Go slow to go fast. The counter intuitive element for we who like activity is that we need to stop, regularly, and assess where we’re at with all the activities and obligations that constitute our life, asking whether we know what our main trees are, and whether we’re nurturing them adequately. This, in itself, takes time. And there’s the rub. If we’re too busy for this kind of thoughtful quiet, too busy for coffee with God, then we’re on a road to nowhere.
Jesus words about pruning vines come in the context of his simple invitation for us to “abide” in him, which means developing a spirit of dependency on Christ, acknowledging that the story God wants to write through our lives, the trees he wants to grow; these are the best. Thus we listen, pray, respond, and let the pruning, and fruitfulness, and more focused, restful life, begin.
If nutrition is a hobby of yours, then you know that something as simple and straightforward as eating food has dozens of conflicting schools of thought. Macrobiotic people swear by rice and seaweed. Paleolithic people think rice, and most agriculture for that matter, is from the devil himself. Vegetarians think meat eaters are cruelly killing animals, and, by eating meat, their own bodies. Vegetarian Myth (a favorite book of mine) takes pretty much the opposite approach. Back in the day, low fat was all the rage.
Now it’s not low-fat, but good fat that matters. Milk will kill you. Milk is the perfect and pure food—you could live on it and nothing else!
Here’s what’s funny to me. In spite of all the differing theories, everybody, and I mean EVERY. BODY. EATS! What’s more, they all agree that real food is best. Nobody’s fasting until the “right answer” is established as fact, because there’s a sort of intuitive belief that we don’t “know this” perfectly. So we live into it—but all the while agreeing, even among the differing schools of thought, that real food is better than twinkies and chips, and that you should eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full. This is the basic stuff all foodies buy into, though there are chasms of disagreement under this surface.
The church ought to take a lesson.
This past week has included what, on the surface, appear to be two radically divergent investments of my time. It included some passionate visioning conversations at the church I lead, and important reading in preparation for my upcoming week at conference addressing the intersection of science and faith.
While on the surface, they appear to be two wildly different worlds, they came together this morning in my quiet moments in the backyard. Everything’s becoming new these days in the backyard: deciduous trees have new leaves. Evergreens have new needles. And all kinds of things are popping out of the ground, including the health-enhancing dandelion, and the flower (name unknown) whose blossoms serve no purpose known to me other than that of being beauty. As I’m paying attention, I’m now thinking about DNA and reproductive cycles, of seasons and how both temperature and longer days play roles in all that I’m seeing. Francis Collins book, the Language of God is helping me understand the building blocks of the universe, and though there’s much more to say about this, I’ll offer only one quote: “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself.” Collins’ reminder is an important one because nature, whether studied through a microscope, or a telescope, points to the Creator, inviting worship.
Meanwhile, I’m also looking at these things through the lens of questions about change and finding the life for which we’re made, whether as individuals, or as the people of God called the church.