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

Vicarious vs. Experience: Not Even Close

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Jun 9, 2017

There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem.  “Come back!  Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!”  It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story.  She strong, lovely, confident.  And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd.  Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back.  Why?  “So that we may admire you!”

They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives.  This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate.  Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option.  Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal.  The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta.  There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity.  The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction.  Much of this is cataloged here.

Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science.  The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago.  You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world.  What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same.  He/she wants “different”.  If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.

What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention.  Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required?  You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills.  But why not play a video game instead?  Alone.  With no risk of rejection or failure.

In a word: safety.  Is this alternate world real? No.  Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No.  Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel?  No.  But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.

What’s the way forward?

1. A strong core.  If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality.  When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping.  You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world.  Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!

2. A sense of call.  When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ.  When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.

3. A high view of marriage and sexuality.  The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better.  It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation.  They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O.  All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.

4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes.  Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world).  Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.

The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen!  Here are a few resources for your consideration.

Celebrate Recovery

Homecoming

Pure Desire

There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story.   Contact us for details.  Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.

The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God.  You have a calling, a journey yet ahead.  Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you.  Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.

Into the fog of discipleship…step by step

by , on
Apr 18, 2016

It’s Friday.  That’s meant ski day for 90% of the past four months.  I hit the web to see what’s opened, what’s groomed, what’s happening.  Dismay:  four different ski areas within 2 miles of my house – ALL CLOSED!!

All right then.  It will be a day to put on the touring skis, which means attaching friction creating skins to the base of the skis and freeing the heel so that you can ski up the mountain.  At the top you’ll peel the skins off, lock down the heel, and in a few minutes ski down what it just took you and hour to go up.  Some might call it hard work.  I call it discipleship – learning to follow Jesus step by step.  Here’s why:  

There’s a calling

I cast my gaze to the ridge, the goal, some 1300plus feet above,  It’s too far.  Too steep.  Too much.  There’s an immediate visceral reaction, dwelling up a dozen or more excuses why this “isn’t a good day” for this.  It’s cloudy – there’s no view to bring me joy.  It might rain.  I slept poorly last night.  The snow’s thick, mushy.  Not spoken, but the real reasons:  it’s stinking hard work to walk uphill in slushy snow with skis on.  

So why go?  Here’s the crazy thing.  I go because as John Muir said,
“the mountains are calling and I MUST go” – good weather or poor; tired or bursting with eagerness; it matters not, because the mountains themselves really are actually calling.  I want to be in them, up them, challenged and transformed by their terrain; ravished and refreshed by their beauty.  “I must go”

That’s discipleship too.  We see, in the distance, a different life: freed from addiction, or fear, or shame.  Or maybe we see a different world because Jesus and the prophets pointed to a world of peace, reconciliation, and the end of human trafficking and disease, to name just a few things.  We see it out there in the distance, and we want to go there, be there – and with Christ alive in us, it seems we must take the journey! 

That’s part of what calling means.  And when that voice from higher up the mountain is calling, I pray you’ll go.  There’ll be reasons not to, always, as Jesus warned us.   Too busy.  Too tired.  Too tied down.  Too preoccupied with the trinkets acquired by wealth.  Your favorite team’s playing today.  Theres’s always a reason to stay home, but if you listen carefully enough, you hear the voice of calling, and if hear it…don’t hesitate:  go!

There’s a disillusionment – 

It doesn’t take long to feel the effort of the journey.  There’s something in me that want’s to call it quits about 500 meters in and 100 meters up because breathing is labored, legs are feeling heavy, and sweat is leaking out my skin as a means of cooling me, so that when I stop I’m not cool – I’m cold.  “Is it worth it?”  “I could be at home reading.”  “It makes sense that I’m the only one here.  Who does this?” “I could turn around now and nobody would be the wiser.”

And so it goes, in our brains, sometime after we’ve begun our pursuit of Christ too.  This is because self-denial, though life giving over the long haul, is wearying in the moment.  There are disciplines to discipleship, enough so that the words have the same root, and that root includes the reality of some suffering.

We all suffer.  But who suffers willingly?  Disciples, apparently, because Jesus said that unless we’re willing to deny ourselves, we can’t be disciples.  

If we’re going to deny ourselves, then, we need some compelling vision that will allow us to transcend the gravities which pull us down into self indulgence.  The vision for my little ski adventure is the thought that at the end of it there will have been both encounters with beauty and a strengthening of heart – both gifts, yes – but earned with the currency of suffering.  Imagine that.

For the disciple, the self-denial and suffering produces strength of heart too, but in a different way.  We become people whose lives are increasingly characterized by joy, patience, hope, peace, and generosity.  We could quit the journey and indulge ourselves, or press on and enjoy this kind of beauty and transformation.  That why vision matters so much.  Without a reminder of what’s being produced in me, I simply won’t proceed.  It’s the vision of transformation that keeps me going.

There’s a mindfulness – 

Moving up steep snow on skis is an acquired skill, and the steeper the snow, the steeper the learning curve.  As the initial gradual slope steepens, I’ve no longer any time to think about how painful it is, or whether I want to quit or continue.  At its steepest the journey requires total focus:  “slide ski upward – shift all body weight to directly above the binding, so as to mitigate risk of sliding backwards – fight the intuitive notion to lean into the mountain, committing to stay upright instead.  Repeat”  

My favorite hobbies have historically been skiing, rock climbing and fishing because these three disciplines require a total focus, and the total focus has a marvelous way of silencing the chatter of the mind.  Such silence is life giving, wisdom imparting, and maturing.

We don’t do it well, if we’re honest.  We’re easily distracted by our phones, our tunes, and our screens.  And if that isn’t bad enough, when all three are absent, our mind has tricky ways of creating its own chatter, and the price is costly as seen in this excellent book.

Jesus hits on this when he tells us to “take no thought for tomorrow.”  It’s his way of inviting us to be fully present.  Here.  Now.  A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said it this way:  “When you are overwhelmed and your mind it talking too much, you need to calm down and simply do the next thing.”  Indeed.  It’s not just a question of getting stuff done, it’s a question of growing wise because wisdom is, at the core, related to our capacity to be “all there” wherever we are, and this is a skill that’s disappearing.  I’m not on my cell phone when I need to focus on putting all my body weight above my ski on a 32 degree slope.  I’m all in.  I’m invited, indeed called, to be “all in” most of the time:  conversations made up of real listening and presence, reading, prayer, sharing a meal with friends.  We’re at our best and look most like Jesus when we’re doing one thing at a time.

There’s joy – 

Step by step (hence the name of this blog) I ascend upward.  Step by step in real life means another diaper, another meal, another encouraging word to a co-worker, or a confession, or a moment of hospitality with a neighbor.  Like ski touring, no single step seems significant, but every single step matters.  This is because our lives aren’t, in reality, highlight reels of profound moments, but a ten thousand regular steps followed by a summit moment.

When I arrive at the top on this Friday, there’s nothing to see.

Fog’s set in, and everything is white other than trees right in front of me.  Still, I know it’s been worth it.  And there’ll be a different skill set, and a different joy on the way down.

Sometimes, too, your best efforts to follow Jesus won’t result in a highlight reel moment.  And then you’ll move on.  It’s fine.  You know you’ve taken the steps, followed the call, done the right thing.  That’s discipleship and the more you do it, the more you know you’ll do it again tomorrow, because there’ll be another calling, and you’ll say yes because its become who you are!

O Lord of the mountains and valleys.  

Grant that we might first have ears to hear your call – in the cry of child, a neighbor, a refugee.  Give us grace, I pray, not only to hear, but go, and endurance to continue when we feel like quitting.  Thank you for the gift and discipline of mindful presence, and the circumstances that help us develop it.  May we celebrate those times rather than dread them.  And above all, thank you for standing on the mountain with your disciples so that we’re able, here and now, to have a glimpse of the summit that’s worth it all – Your reign made visible in our lives and world.  Give us eyes to see it.  Every single day.

In your great name we pray…

Amen.

 

OE or OE? Choosing the Right Letters for Life

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Feb 26, 2016

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.

 

“Not Burdensome”…. musings on the ease of obedience and self-denial

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Jun 24, 2015

 

Is self denial a burden?

In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah.  It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching.  Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked.  I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of  it all… cheers!

Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause.  In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away.  I, the Lord, affirm it!  I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”

God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden.   This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome.   Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money.  Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help.   Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another.   In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.

Not burdensome?  Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:

What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?

What God’s thinking about is the big picture.   When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself.   Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths

There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment.  This is one of the most important truths in the universe.  You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart.  You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.

Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 

The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day.  The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts.  The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation.  The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.

You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden.  But in the end?  The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy.  They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.

God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers.  They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest.   In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden.  To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway.  Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy.  Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.

Christ’s motivator was joy!

He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice.  In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed.  And yet he said his commands were not burdensome!  Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?

Not at all.  We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him.  Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”.  We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden.  I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory.  One taste though, and we’re hooked.  When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.

A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.

And we think God’s commands are burdensome?  Maybe we should reconsider.   After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”

To suffering.  To self-denial.  To service.  To life!

I welcome your thoughts….

 

 

Pursuing Peace – to what end?

by , on
Nov 19, 2014

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 beingnot 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 itit 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 outwashing 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!

 

Rethinking the Body, Aging, and Movement – 4 Vital Ideas

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Sep 25, 2014
"we started when we were kids and just never stopped"

“we started when we were kids and just never stopped”

IMG_5291

when are you too old to ride your bike to church?

They’re brothers, these two guys in their late sixties/early seventies.  They’re on the deck of the first Alpine hut we stayed in, and it’s morning, about 7:15 actually.  I’m out there to enjoy the view and take a few pictures, while these two are about to hoist their packs and head out for a long day of hiking to the next hut.  They’re strong.  They’re vibrant.  They’re optimistic.  They’re healthy.  And they’re “old.”

They are the first of an endless stream of encounters my wife and I will have with people older than us who are also stronger than us, or at least as strongwell able to carry 20 pounds on their backs for 10-15k day after day, at elevations ranging from 3,000-7,000 feet.  Their presence on the trail has shaken me in the best of ways.  By example they’ve said:  “Yes Richard… it’s possible to stay healthy for many years to come.” 

It won’t happen accidentally though, so I asked some of the “wise and wonderful” seniors I met on the trail what kept them in Gore-Tex and polar-fleece, what kept them moving into their late years.  Their answers, coupled with a careful reading of this book prior to my departure, have revealed four ideas that will give us a good shot at remaining healthy and active for a long time.

1.  A good theology of the body – You know this already, but it’s important to be reminded that we’re not disembodied spirits, that the bodies we’ve been given are marvelous wonders, and that it’s our calling and privilege to take care of our bodies, because they’re the visible expression of who we are.

2. A new vision for normal – Prior to the start of the trip, we envisioned ourselves sitting around in these huts with people between twenty and fifty.  They were there, but there were scores on either end of that, both the very young and the very old.  Their presence served to create a different vision of what normal is, or can be.  It can be normal, at nearly any age, to walk or jog several miles a dayoften with a pack on that effectively adds exponential work to your exercise.   It can be normal to eat fresh, well prepared food, rather than chemicals mixed together and microwaved.   It can be normal to respond to stress by getting adequate rest, some outdoor exercise, and by spending time with good friends.

I know that this new normal isn’t always possible.  There’s cancer and other unwanted intrusions, and some people are living in refugee camps, while others are working three jobs just to be able to afford health insurance.  But for many of us, these exceptions don’t apply.  For most of us, we have the capacity to stay healthy and active, and I’m increasingly convinced that such lifestyle commitments will make us more effective in everything else we do in our roles as teachers, health care professionals, spouses, parents, students, pastors, neighbors, and friends.

I challenge us to rethink our view of normal, because our culture faces an obesity crisis that stems from a slow decay of health habits

Klaus is 70.  He's hiked 30+ days in a row in the high country.  His favorite word:  "fantastisch!"

Klaus is 70. He’s hiked 30+ days in a row in the high country. His favorite word: “fantastisch!”

with respect to food and exercise.  What’s worse, we’re teaching the rest of the world to follow us.  It’s time for a fresh vision.  One fellow traveler on our Alps journey was a 70 year old named Klaus.  He’d been out hiking for 30 days and was nearing the end of his trek when we meet him in a hut and shared a meal.  It was cold outside.  I was tired, in spite of the fact that I’d done 1/3 the distance as him today.  We’d just had supper together and he was absolutely effervescent with joy over his hike that day on dicey ridge, conquering seven summits, all over 6,000′ elevation in 15k of distance and eight hours of hiking.  He was wild eyed as he spoke of the challenges and beauty.  When he finished supper he went outside, and came back, knowing that I too enjoyed photography, and he said, “You must photo the sunset!  Fantastisch!!”   I didn’t want to go out, but I did because of his enthusiasm, his lust for life.  Klaus became my new inspiration for a new normal that night.

 

3. A good aerobic base –  The book I referenced earlier taught me about “building an aerobic base.”  I thought I knew about this base, but no.  It turns out that I, like most of America, was actually not doing aerobic exercise when I was out jogging, because I was going too fast.  The whole thing’s rather complex, so I’ll spare the details because you can read them starting here. 

The bottom line is that if we’re going to be active for the rest of our lives, we’ll need to start moving, at the right speed, most days of the week, for at least an hour.  Most “walkers” need to speed up a bit.  Most “joggers” need to slow down.  On our recent hikes, we’ve encountered cross country ski teams from Russia, Italy, Sweden, and Norway.  All of them are doing the same thing.  They’re building their aerobic base through lots of long, slow, distance.

When I started exercising this way, just before leaving for Europe, I was appalled at how slow I was running around Green Lake, as I tried to keep my pulse rate in the treasured “aerobic zone.”  Not any more.  These days I’m cherishing the good vibes that come from a long slow jog, or a hike uphill, because at the end I feel great, and I know I’m building an even stronger base for the future, know that I’ll come home energized for the day, rather than drained.

4.  Consistency. 

IMG_6029“We’ve been doing this together since we were kids, and we just never stopped,” is what the two brothers said.

“We hike together every year for a week, and because of this, most of us walk nearly every day to stay in shape for this one week adventure together,” is what I heard from a group of 70 year-olds.

IMG_6515‘Use it or lose it’ is, I believe, how you say it in America, no?” said another woman, part of a group on a trail that included climbing a half dozen ladders and crossing a couple high suspension bridges.

All these testimonials from the wise and wonderful seniors we encountered elevate consistency as a high priority.   Our bodies produce everything needed for an active lifestyle as long as we stay active.  Stop moving though, and everything changes fast.

The “Body. Soul. Spirit.” logo you see on clothes I wear comes from the school where I’m presently teaching in Austria.  They take all this stuff seriously, and yesterday the students were out playing soccer or volleyball or ultimate, or jogging or hiking or climbing.  The goal though isn’t twelve weeks of thisit’s a lifestyle change we hope will last.  Same with Bible reading.  Same with prayer.  Same with fellowship:  consistency, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is the goal for every area of our livesbody, soul, and spirit.

How are yours?

 

 

 

 

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

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May 27, 2014

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.

 

 

 

 

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

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May 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How am I freed from the fear of death?

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

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

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

 

Musings on Boston Strong and why Beating Fear matters so much.

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Apr 21, 2014

Fear is a net which evil casts over us that we might become ensnared and fall. Those who are afraid have already fallen. D. Bonhoeffer

I went for a tiny little run this morning around the lake by my house, grateful for health, grateful for the remarkable hope I hold for, literally, all of humanity, because of Christ, and grateful for the beauty that attends the newness of the morning.  Running this morning, of course, I’m mindful of the many thousands who’ll be churning out their miles through the streets of Boston today, proud that there are at least two members of my own church who are there.  Boston is the ultimate in marathons, and this year’s is unlike any other because of the tragic events of last year.  This is the year when the runners, the fans, and the city of Boston declare that fear can be vanquished, that lost limbs needn’t stop runners from pressing on, that people in wheelchairs can offer hope to family members of last years victims, that every step is raising money to stand in the gap and support PTSD veterans, and families with children fighting cancer, and more; that runners say, over and over again, that they’re being carried by the spirit of the crowd.  The whole thing is a reclamation project, a way of showing fear the door, slamming it shut, and sending fear on its merry way to hell.

I love finding the image of God and snapshots of the gospel in everyday life, and today its not hard to do.  Fear is both a chief enemy of humanity, and one of Satan’s favorite and most often used tools.  The events of today are rooted in a public groundswell acknowledgement of this, and every runner, every fan, every dollar given in support of causes to serve those on the margins, testify to the reality that fear is an enemy that can be vanquished.

Simply acknowledging this is a huge step, but the good news of the gospel includes several declarations regarding why fear need never shrink our lives.

1. We’re freed from the fear of death, according to this declaration.  I have friends who have stared death in the face for their faith.  Their belief that death isn’t the end of the story enabled them to live with courage and integrity in the face of persecution.  Some of these friends escaped death and others didn’t.  All of them, though, lived with integrity to the very end, believing that death isn’t the end of the story.  Everything many of us celebrated yesterday is rooted in this reality, and if it’s not a reality for us, the fear of death will creep into our lives and create a terrible prudence, shrinking our concerns to the very private and personal, rather than the large outwardly focused hearts of generous service for which we’re created.  I need to live every day intent on doing the right thing, because that matters more than the outcome, even if the outcome is death.

2. We’re freed from ever being alone.  The first time I taught a Bible study, the text was Joshua 1:1-9, and the final declaration of that section shook my world that day I studied in preparation for teaching a small group of high school students in Fresno:  “Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous!  Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  The reason we’re called to courage is because God has promised to be with us, ‘wherever we go’.   I tell people I never fly alone, and they say, “So your wife goes with you on all your teaching trips?”

“No” I say, and when they look at me for more; “Jesus always goes with me – he travels coach too!”  That reality has served me well these past 40 years, because I’ve learned, through the untimely deaths of many friends and family, that our companions for our journey aren’t necessarily always able to with us.  Sometimes they even stop wanting to be with us, as relationships drift apart.  My dad; a favorite associate pastor at the church I lead (cancer); one of my best friends (paragliding accident); another close mountaineering friend (avalanche).  You never know.  One thing I do know, though, is that I’ll never be alone.  That’s why I take coffee with God so seriously, and nurturing the reality of companionship with Christ.  Our fear of being alone sometimes leads us into unhealthy relationships, or shabby substitutes for real intimacy, both of which can suck the joy and hope out of living.  How much better to begin with the reality and confidence of companionship with Christ.

There are a host of other fears from which we’re freed because of the power, beauty, and truth of the gospel, but I simply offer these two in order to prime the pump of your own thinking.  Because God loves us, God hates to see us enslaved to fear – ever.  As runners cross the finish line today, I’m celebrating the image of God in humanity, and realizing once again that the best lives in history were those who gave fear the boot.  As my favorite pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said so well:

It is not only anxious fear that is infectious, but also the calmness and joy with which we encounter what is laid on us. 

O thou Christ;

What a privilege to be reminded this day and every day, that we’re at our best when we do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.  Thank you for the many provisions granted us in you which enable to us to choose courage rather than fear.  Grant that we might hear your voice and, having heard, move with confidence into the future you have for each of us, clinging to you every step of the way and finding the joy and confidence that are ours in you.  This way we will be people of hope in a world still trembling, most days, with fear.   Thank you for the adventure awaiting us as we follow you every step of the way – and thank you for the marathon.

Amen…

 

 

Setbacks and Overcoming – The first is assured; the second is optional.

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Feb 26, 2014

sometimes your world gets shattered

Dream big and work hard for it, because doing so takes you places — not always where you want, but often way farther than you can imagine. – Ranniveig Aamodt

 

 

 

Setbacks come in all shapes and sizes.  They are relational, financial, physical, emotional, spiritual.  They are sometimes enormous, like divorce, and other times “death by a thousand cuts”, occurring so slowly that you wake up years later and find yourself wondering why you’re in a story that so utterly misrepresents your deepest self.

Setbacks come for all kinds of reasons.  They’re the result of our own bad choices, or the wrong actions of others, or both.  They’re caused by the market (that’s me), or the weather, or political turmoil, or a cell that randomly decides to multiply out of control.  They’re the result of ice on the road (that’s me), or a drunk driver, or a hidden chunk of ice and ski binding that doesn’t release (that’s me), or a salesperson who lied to you.

One thing’s certain though: Setbacks happen.  Moses came to the point where he’d rather die than continue embracing his role as leader of a whining nomadic tribe.  He wasn’t where he wanted to be.  Jeremiah complained that God tricked him when God called him to be a prophet and now that things had turned out as they had, he was reconsidering.  Peter thought he was strong enough to stand in solidarity with Christ but when he say Jesus’ eyes after his denial, he ran away weeping.  Paul preaches and suddenly finds himself in a random dungeon, chained to the wall.

The question of the day then is “What principles can help me respond well when setbacks happen?”

1. Always get up –  Failure is rarely our biggest problem.  It’s how we respond to failure that sinks us.  If the failure’s the result of our own bad choices, it’s easy to relive the moment or the decision that led to our predicament, over and over again.  “Why didn’t I…?”  If it’s the result of another person’s wrong actions, bitterness comes knocking.  “If only…”  as we replay the boneheaded or evil actions of the other.  Random stuff that falls on us, like tornadoes, or cancer, are maybe hardest of all because there’s nothing, no one to blame.

Whatever the cause the, though best response is always the same.  “All right then.  This is where I’m at.  What’s the next step?”  That’s the remarkable story of Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, whose climbing partner, thinking Joe to be dead, cut the rope, sending him into a crevasse with an already shattered leg.  That’s the story of David after committing adultery and murder.  Every story of transformation and climbing out of the hole that is our setback starts with a profound acknowledgement of reality, a belief that transformation is not only possible, but our calling, and a commitment to take step after step, for ten thousand steps if necessary, as we seek to move into a different place.  Self-pity, after about 20 seconds, is a waste of time, and needs to be seen for the enemy it is.

2. You are not your circumstances – When Norwegian climber Ranniveig Aamodt fell, she was damaged beyond recognition: “I had three compression fractures in my back from L2 – L4. I had broken my pelvis, both my talus bones (the main weight bearing bones in the ankle), as well as numerous small bones in my feet. The ligaments in my ankles were stretched and torn and had ripped small pieces of bone off the bones they were attached to. My right elbow was broken into many small pieces and my triceps tendon was torn halfway off. I’d also smashed up my front teeth.”
Her accident shattered her identity as well, and in the end she needed to say, “I realized that I had to distinguish between who I am, and what I do: I’m not a climber. Climbing is something I do. Even if I lost climbing, I would still be me.”  Setbacks happen precisely because they create a dissonance between we think we are, and what reality presents in the moment.  I thought I’d be married.  I thought I’d be rich.  I thought I’d be healthy.  I thought I was a climber.

Her recognition that she is not her climbing became a critical foundation upon which she would rebuild her life and, ironically, climb again.  All of us have images of who we think we are and some of those images need to die, not so that we can become less, but so that we can become whole.  This is because it’s vital to be passionate about our goals and pursuits, but always with an open hand, allowing God to shape them in ways we wouldn’t have anticipated or chosen.  Jesus reminded Peter, after his failure, that in the end he’d be taken places he didn’t want to go, but that this wouldn’t make him less, it would make him more.

 

3. You are not your limitations – The notion of holding our goals with an open hand, though, is dangerous.  It becomes, at times, a license to embrace our limitations and wounds, cherishing them to the point where they come to define us.  When we find ourselves making peace with our setbacks and sort of “moving in and setting up furniture” we need to shout, “Noooooooo!” and fight back.  That’s the biggest value I find in Ranniveig’s story (a little long, but worth it).  The word “overcome” and “overcomer” runs throughout the New Testament because God is trying to tell us that it’s our move, that we have next steps to take, that we are not our failures, that we can overcome.

The point for Ranniveig isn’t to get back to climbing again.  It’s to overcome the incredible pull of complacency, pain, and self-pity that will not only prevent climbing again, but prevent any sort of meaningful life.  We need to find our next steps, recognize that there’ll be a piece of us that doesn’t want to take them, and then take them anyway.  She writes:

I decided to accept the condition I was in, think positive, and face what as ahead. This triggered a kind of power. “Bring it on,” I thought. “I will do everything I can to make the best of this situation.”

4. You are not your fear.  The most insidious thing about setbacks is that as we begin to recover, we’re sorely tempted to spend the rest of our days avoiding the possibility of ever reverting to that pain again.  Of course, when we do that, the pain begins to define us.  Again:  “Nooooooo!”

Our friend writes about it this way:  my physiotherapist asked me to jump 40 centimeters up onto a squishy foam pad. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and the idea of jumping with my bad ankles was terrifying. But I had to make a choice. So in action and attitude, I jumped. I still remember his words: If you don’t do this, you’ll try to find ways around your limitations. But to know your true limits, you have to get in over your head, and more often than not, you’ll realize your limits are greater than you thought.

We need to step back in:  to relationships, on the slopes, in the gym, in our walk with God, whatever it is.  And yes, we’ll be afraid.  That’s why it’s called “overcoming”

What’s your limitation?  What’s your fear?  What’s your next step?