August 21st was one of those rare days where people cheered darkness. In Seattle, where the eclipse only reached 92% of total, it was still dark enough, cold enough, awesome enough, to elicit cheers. It was the same everywhere along the path of darkness forged by the moon – eruptions of joy as people embraced the darkness.
The rest of our lives, it’s a different story, especially if we’ve been taught to love Jesus. We’ve often learned that darkness is unequivocally bad. Every verse mentioning it says so, linking darkness with Satan, and all else worth avoiding in the world.
As a result, we’ve managed to find ways of banishing darkness. We’ve caste it out of the natural world by lighting up the night so that we don’t need to deal with it at all until we close our eyes for sleep (though our extension of light beyond what nature intended means we’re paying a price). We’ve cast it out of our faith too, by creating what one favorite author calls “the full solar version of Christianity”, a faith which intensely seeks to keep the lights on perpetually. “All good, all the time – that’s Jesus!” they say, with a big grin and powerful handshake. In its worst forms, it claims to “pray the darkness away” whether the darkness is cancer, infidelity, abuse, job loss, or a shocking accident that leaves a husband and father suddenly staring into a future of loneliness, his family having been killed in the car. All good all the time? Wishing it were so, yea even praying it, doesn’t make it so. Ugh.
Darkness is real. But don’t despair. God lives there too.
When Abraham doubted God, where did God send him? Out into the dark to count the stars. When Jacob was running for his life as a self perceived failure and dropped down to sleep in desert, God met him there in a dream, in the dark. Later God met him again in the dark for a wrestling match. The shepherds? The dark. Jesus birth? The dark. Jesus final triumph over evil that caused him to cry “it is finished” and graves to break open? The dark yet again. It turns out some good things happen in the dark after all. But there’s more.
The reality is that darkness has been with us since the beginning, before sin. “There was evening and there was morning, the first day…” From the beginning, it was our lot in life to deal with the darkness, about half the time actually – at least physically. Ecclesiastes tells me that the same’s true in the real of spirit and emotion, at least in this present age. “There’s a time for everything” is how the wise old preacher put it: birth and death, war and peace, seeking and losing, laughter and tears – a time for everything; including darkness.
The reason this looms large as an issue is because we live in a world were all manner of bad things happen, plunging us into the darkness of uncertainty. She walks out of the oncologists office with a 40% chance of living a year. He weeps at the graveside of his spouse, wondering what’s next for he and his three children. They weep as the ultrasound reveals an abnormality.
What are we supposed to do? Celebrate? Resort to hollow praise in hopes that if we sing loud enough all will be fixed? Claim our healing and prosperity? Nope. There is one thing only:
Don’t be afraid of the dark. Recognize that these seasons of uncertainty, loss, betrayal, and even death, go with the territory of the world in which we live. I sometimes thing that some of us Christians like the light so much that, ironically, we stick our heads in the sands to live in denial of the darkness all around us. But hear this: the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that, though the darkness is real – God meets us there, and walks with us there. Our fear of the dark has the affect of shuttering our lives, so that joy dries up, risk dries up, faith and hope dry up. Our single paradigm becomes avoiding the dark – hardly a decent way to live ever, but especially if you’re called to courageous faith, as all disciples are.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” writes about one grown woman who was terrified by the dark: her fear was the fault of everyone who taught her to fear the dark, convincing her that it is cdangerous – all of it, all the time, under every circumstance – that what she cannot see will almost certainly hurt her and that the best way to protect herself from such unseen maleficence si to stay inside after dark, with the doors locked and sleep with lights on.”
Not Abraham or Jacob, as they pondered infinity under the starry sky. Not Jonah in the darkness of a fish’s belly. Not Job in the darkness of mysterious and massive loss. Not Jesus in the Garden, or even on the cross when the whole world turned dark. Not Paul and Silas in the darkness of dungeon prison.
Why? Because the light of the world is with us, even in the dark. “Even the darkness is light to you….” is how the Psalmist says it. This is why I say, “Welcome autumn – with your shorter colder days. Thank you for the chance to learn how to walk with you through the dark seasons.”
If you’d care to comment on how God has met you in the dark, I and perhaps other readers too, would be grateful.
I tell you not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. Matthew 6:29
It’s wildflower season in the mountains, and they’re everywhere. Mountain daisies made their first appearance down in the coastal foothills in late May. They’re long gone down below, and up here, after a few weeks of full glory, it’s clear that their glory days are already past.
Full flowering glory.
The Bible says that we’re just like flowers; here today, gone tomorrow. Far from depressing, I find that pondering the brevity of life is encouraging. It grants perspective, and fosters a cherishing of each moment as precious, each breath a gift.
I run the trail early in the morning and as I pass the wildflowers, ponder the power and poignancy of this millennia-old rhythm. Far from depressing, the truths apparent in the brief but spectacular wildflower cycle mirror critical truths of our lives precisely.
1. Life happens when we draw on resources. The wild daisies are in full force on the ski trail up to Thunderbird lodge, a trail that appears to be nothing but dry stone this summer in which we’ve had not a single day of significant rain in over two months. You’d think dry stones wouldn’t produce flowers, yet there they are. They find the water somehow, enough to thrive.
“What’s needed for thriving?” I ponder. I remember Jesus’ invitation, that time when he stood in the middle of a crowded courtyard and shouted, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.” It was a rhetorical question of course because, God knows, all of them, and us too, are thirsty. Not just for h2o, though that matters, but for meaning, hope, intimacy, peace, justice, enough. The outlandish promise is that those who come to Christ, wherever they are in the world, will be granted a capacity to blossom and bless. Some have blossomed as martyrs, others through radical generosity, still others through waking in valleys of poverty and injustice. The promise isn’t ease. It’s that God can use every single circumstance of every single life to pour blessing, somehow, into our world – if we’ll drink from the well that is Christ.
2. Life is a rhythm of flourishing and disappearing. The Indian Paintbrush, so abundant just a week ago are gone; so gone that to look at the hillside you’d never even realized they existed. This is the way of all living things. In fact the Bible explicitly says our lives are like flowers of the field; here and flourishing one day, gone the next, and “it’s place knows it no more”, which is a way of saying that eventually, even if you have a plaque or statue somewhere, the world is no longer yours. Like the flowers, we’ll be gone and forgotten.
Don’t forget the first part of that same passage though. We’re invited to “flourish like the flower of the field”. Over the course of the summer I realize that the flourishing of various plants come in waves. Daisy. Paintbrush. Foxglove. Bear Grass. They come, flourish, and disappear. “Pay attention Richard!” I say as I stop and soak in the landscape, which will never again be exactly this. I think of those who flourished and are no more. My dad as WWII soldier, teacher, principal, superintendent. My mentor as WWII soldier, evangelist, preacher, leader. My mom as wife, parent, teacher, volunteer, caregiver. My grandmother as baker, hostess, lover of her grandchildren. My sister as musician, mom, wife, sister, friend to so many that, at her funeral, dozens claimed her as their “best friend”.
They all flourished! They invested the preciousness of the single life each were given in ways that made a difference in the lives of others so that, in the same way that particular daisy might be gone, a daisy well-lived will carry on through generations of fruitfulness. That’s what flourishing means. As a result, my dad’s flourishing means a son who’s serving and leading. My mentor’s flourishing means there are over twenty Bible Schools around the world proclaiming Christ as life. My sister’s flourishing means the grandchildren she never met are learning to live as a blessing in the world because of her.
Yes, our time is short. Yes, we’ll disappear. Yes, we can continue to make a difference after we’re gone, and we’ll do that by flourishing while we’re here.
3. Life is short. Savor, don’t squander. A lifelong climber in Yosemite, Royal Robbins wrote this to his daughter during his end of life battle with cancer: “I mean to live this year as if it were my last (may God grant that it won’t be so), and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away, (much less days!) in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones…”
He echoes the Psalmist who reminds us that we have 70 years, maybe 80 or more if we’re fortunate, and then our days are gone, like the early season daisies. This stark observation, undeniable in spite of omega-3’s, cross-fit, stress management, and jogging, is followed immediately by a prayer. “Teach us, Lord, to number our days”. In other words, “don’t let me fritter away even a single second. Let me live with eyes wide open to all you’re saying to me – in the beauty and ugliness, the darkness and light, the joys and sorrows, the companionship and solitude. Let me absorb it all and live well, “flourishing” during those brief days I’m granted.
I look around, amazed that in all the vastness of time and space, this time, this space, are ours. We’re alive! Breathing, loving, learning, failing, weeping, serving and being served. Grant that when we sink into a mindset of squandering, allowing our lives to be reduced to bitterness, we will cease! Let us hear your voice calling us back to the fullness of life, that not another moment may be wasted.
This week I’m living in the forest, in the San Bernadino mountains of California as I speak at a family conference. As I write, the morning sun is bathing the deck and Sugar Pines, along with a form of Cedar, some oak, and Manzanita, live together as an ecosystem, offering life giving space to squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, bear, and countless other life forms.
Scientists are discovering that humans are also profound beneficiaries of the forest. “Forsest Bathing”, which simply means to walk in a forest and pay attention to your surroundings while doing so, has been shown now, in numerous studies, to have profound health benefits. Lower pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rates are just some of the proven benefits. There are some who believe that prescriptions like this will be seen in the not too distant future.
Though the benefits have been easy to see, it’s been more difficult for scientists to understand and quantify the reason behind these benefits. Is there something in the scent, the Eco-system, the earth itself? Is it simply the contrast provided from the concrete jungle in which many of us find ourselves that makes the forest a healing place? These questions remain, but what’s known in the moment is that a “walk in the woods” isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.
Because of numerous experiences in my own life, I wonder if the power of the forest isn’t spiritual, and therefore unquantifiable with the measuring instruments of science. I say this because my past is filled with countless “forest encounters” with God:
1960’s – As a child I would lie in the middle of a circle of redwoods on the California coast, outside grandma’s house, and look up. The trees would all appear to be converging at a single point in the sky, and the punctuation of variegated greens set against a backdrop of sky blue did something to me. This was peace. Yes that’s it – peace.
1976 – It’s winter. I’m in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Unbeknownst to be, the worst two years of my life are about to come to and end, as a new journey, new calling, and new priorities are born. The death of my dad two years prior had sent me into a state of depression and isolation. I was in the mountains for a winter ski retreat, and when the speaker said “knowing God should be the primary pursuit of every one of you in the room” I knew he was talking directly to me. He’d been reading from Jeremiah 9 in the Bible and when his talk was finished I went out in the freezing air and prayed, in the midst of crunching snow under a million stars. I told God that I didn’t know what it meant, but that I wanted to make knowing God the main goal of my life, just as the speaker had invited me to do. This would lead to a change of major, a change of states, and an entirely different trajectory for my life.
1990 – My wife and young family move to a forested acre in the North Cascade mountains of Washington to begin a retreat center. It is there that I begin identifying with the verses about Jesus going “into the mountains alone to pray”. After a busy time of serving guests, I would depart for the high country, hiking up to some ridge, often alone, to pray, read, reflect, restore. These mountains were made for restoration, or so it seemed to me. Beauty seemed to pour through the atmosphere when I was in them. Glaciers and rocks spoke of timelessness, and I’d be reminded that I’m just here visiting, for a short time, that God’s work has been here long before me and will be long after. I’m reminded that God is the rock, a metaphor offering stability in a tenuous world. The vast distances, from the stars of space, and the surrounding peaks, reminded me that I’m small and that, in the grandness of eternity, so our my problems. The beauty of ever changing colors, the scent of the air, the form of trees, the reflections of mountain lakes… All of it together spoke “shalom”, a visible representation of peace for me. I’d come down the mountain restored, having seen something, having prayed, and having received.
And so it’s gone, year after year, until now, when I have my coffee with God in the mornings, in the midst of forest, wether misty or dry, chilled or heated, breathing in not just the words of the text, as I seek to meet Christ, but the air of the forest, which speaks of eternity and passing moments; vast strength and human fragility; and the breath of peace, offered freely to all who will receive. Things happen in the forest because of who the forest is.
The Church as a Forest
The Church, at its best, functions the same way. We pastors think that the our teaching and preaching is the most important thing in the world, but the reality is that people are often persuaded more by the collective presence of Christ and the atmosphere that creates. Maybe at their best, preaching and environment work together, but at the very least, I’ve encountered many people over the decades whose front door to faith sounded similar to these words…
“No Richard, it wasn’t your teaching that convinced me. It was the community. I’ve never seen authentic relationships where people both accepted each other and pushed each other to grow and change. I wanted to be part of that”
“It was the beauty of the people Richard. When I saw that woman in her 60’s caring for her mother and singing songs of worship with her, it stirred something in me.”
“These people who make up the church – they’re building friendships with prisoners, making meals for the homeless, caring for vulnerable children. They give me hope, and I want in…”
On top of this, there’s often the beauty of gathered worship, the beauty of sacred space, the beauty of confession and vulnerability, and the beauty of restored lives.
So without answers, I simply ponder: Is the church an ecosystem, like a forest, which is life giving when it’s properly fed, and rooted, and located in the appropriate place? I’d like to think so.
However, when the church is place of shelter for misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political fanaticism, arrogance, favoritism of the strong and wealthy, or any other number of ugly things, it’s no longer a healing forest. It becomes a place of death, a prison of sorts. Using the letters C-H-U-R-C-H and singing a bit of Hillsong doesn’t make a church the collective expression of Christ. Only real discipleship does that, and the acid test of true discipleship is simple – am I on a path of embodying more of the humility, service, unconditional love, courageous care for the marginalized, and infinite forgiving grace of Christ? Or am I just singing some songs in a building while still closing my hand to poor, calling people who disagree with me idiots, getting angry with every latest political shot fired, all while pursuing my own personal well being above all else?
Forest, prison, or place of death – how do people experience life in the church?
For the church to be a place filled with the kind of life that God has in mind, some things need to be true for us that are also true for the forest:
1. We need to be an ecosystem. Christ’s vision for the church is that each person within it shares their unique contributions to for the well being of the community. Paul the apostle unpacks this vision and explains that when it works properly, when people experience various aspects of Christ’s beauty and love through various encounters within the community, they will sense the reality of Christ’s presence. This is paramount, because our desire is that people be given the freedom to choose or reject Christ himself, not the kind of caricatures of Christ that misrepresent him by portraying hate rather than love, law rather than grace, performance rather than receiving freely from a posture of brokenness. So we seek, increasingly as a church, to represent the heart of Christ with greater clarity.
2. We need a vision for beauty. My greatest moments of shalom (profound peace) have happened in either the beauty of the wilderness or the gathered community in worship. In the latter cases, it has been the gathered body of Christ, the church, declaring something of God’s character, through worship (Yes…singing matters more than we realize), or acts of service, or prayers of praise or confession, or simply through the power of Christ’s presence so evident in the gathering.
3. We need to believe that, in spite of our imperfections, God will be revealed through our life together. Let’s say that we, as a community, have a passion for mercy, Justice, and love (as I write about here in this book). Let’s see we long for the fruit of the spirit to prevail, in our lives, and our life together. To the extent that these things are true, we’re properly calibrated, heading in the right direction. We can rest, knowing we’re becoming a life giving forest. Of course, there’ll be the need for continual repentance and re-calibration along the way, because we’re not yet the healing, life giving force that we’re fully capable of becoming. But we’re getting there, and that’s enough for us to confidently believe God will use us. (“Abide in me, and you’ll bear much fruit”) is how Jesus said it.
All of this is looks very different than a community arguing about esoteric doctrines and implying that those who don’t believe exactly as our church does are lost and condemned. There are different kinds of forests. Catholics belong to forests. So do Pentecostals, and Baptists, and Presbyterians. No. None of us will agree with everything in every forest. But that’s no reason to start a forest fire. As Paul said, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed. In this I will rejoice.”
When Both Books Speak:
Just two nights ago, I was privileged to serve community to the gathered body of Christ at a family camp. We met in a lovely forest, around a campfire, praying with various people and listening and folks shared what God had been saying to them through the week. Then we finished our time together by singing “How Great Thou Art” an old hymn that includes a verse about walking through the forest and hearing the voice of God speak through the the beauty of creation. We finished singing, as the forest’s movement from light to darkness came to completion, ending with infinite stars hanging in the sky, and silence, save the crickets carrying on. Life. Beauty. Breath. Healing.
YES. Not only receiving all this, but being all this for one another and our world – this is our calling.
After morning coffee, I start the car and turn the defrost on, high and hot. It’s 23 degrees and a sheet of ice covers the windows. By the time I’ve gathered my things and loaded the car it’s warm and ready for the drive down to catch up with my daughter, son-in-law, and wife, who left at 3:30 AM when my pregnant daughter’s contractions could no longer be ignored. For reasons I can’t put into words, I need to be there when my first grandchild comes into the world.
There’s snow on the ground, the trees, the peaks, lit by the rising sun behind to create a riot of color. The drought and fires, so recent as a reality here, are long gone as first the rains washed all fear of inferno away and now the snow’s made all things new. Beauty is all around me, and by the time I get my phone connected to my music system for the 30 minute drive to the hospital, I’m overwhelmed by the glory of creation, shouting to me that indeed, all things will be made new if we wait long enough. When the music begins… Pandora has randomly chosen Handel’s “Messiah”. “Hallelujah!” Of course… how could it be anything else.
I’m driving yes, but really, it’s worship. This is because I’m mindful that, of all the months in my life, the one that needs to be made new more than any other is November. Long ago, my dad died suddenly in late October, and the chasm of loss was huge. We were watching the world series together on Tuesday and by Saturday morning he was gone. Baseball, and October, would never be the same.
…Until the the birth of my first child. Kristi came into the world on October 13th. We had to fly off San Juan island in a thunder storm to bring her into the world, and when we did, October was reborn. Taking away. Giving. Gain. Loss. Birth. Death. All are real. But when the giving and life happens, the beauty and joy of it cover like so much fresh rain and snow. Now October’s my favorite month.
But November, and Thanksgiving, have been muted in my life since clear back in 1995 when I got a call while teaching in Montana, that my sister had died suddenly of a heart attack. There were only two of us; Sue. Me. That is all. Gone at 42? We were just starting to be adult friends, just starting to talk about our childhood, not just the good memories, but the hard stuff too. My God. Why should someone sing your praises at a Thanksgiving service one night and be dead the next morning? Why should three nephews and a niece be motherless? Why?
And Thanksgiving’s been muted ever since, a constant reminder of loss rather than blessing, with the result that even though gratitude is supposed to be the order of the day, it’s always been muted at best.
But Hallelujah! “He has poured down for you the rain as before... (and) I will make up to you for the years the locust has eaten” There’ll be rain and laughter. The sorrows and loss of yesterday will be covered like so much snow on the brown, thirsty peaks. “Sorrow’s in the night, but Joy comes in the morning”
As I write these words in the hospital where my dear Luci has come into our beautiful world. November is redeemed, a reminder that when the grand story of our world is finished, all things will be made new.
And that is why I hope, and rejoice.
O Lord Christ
This month, as Paris, Beirut, and Mali remind us that senseless death is still woven into the fabric of our world, I pray that you would grant us eyes to see what is new. New rain. New seasons. New friends. New life. New snow.
And seeing, give us the courage and grace to rejoice without reservation, for these are the signs of what is, right here and now, and what ought to be, and what, we hope and pray and believe, will be, ultimately, for the whole universe.
We await a cosmos saturated with joy. May the foretaste you give us now not only be a cause for joy in itself; may it also be our confidence for the future.
I didn’t even know I’d lost anything. This is a hazard of business maybe. We handle “God stuff” all the time, planning weddings, funerals, details, staffing issues, budgets, parking hassles with neighbors, potentially divisive theological issues bubbling under the surface, meetings, more meetings, and a few more meetings after that. In the midst of all that there are sermons to prepare, preaching to do, young pastors to equip through one-on-one and group meetings. It’s all there, but for any of these elements to have real meaning, they need to be infused with the grace and peace of Christ, as if Christ himself is in the midst of the decision, encounter, transaction, meeting.
Truth be told though, the ocean of details can conspire with my own Type A personality and propensity to get anxious about stuff, and “Poof!”—I’m still doing all the stuff, but Christ and his peace are no longer in my sense of reality, having been displaced by that worst of all things: religious professionalism. The slide into this territory is so subtle you don’t even notice it, because the words don’t change a bit—you still sound as holy as ever to onlookers, and so you actually begin to believe it, approval addict that you are.
Until somebody notices, and calls you out on it.
The Sunday I arrived home from Sabbatical last October, someone in our church approached me and told me I looked “ten years younger” and I hugged her, of course believing that she had the gift of discernment and truth telling! I felt it too, rested, at peace, in love with Christ.
FAST FORWARD to last Sunday.
The same woman approached me and said, “Can I pray for you? You look absolutely spent, and exhausted.” I told her I was fine, but underneath the surface of propriety, the truth was that her words were as accurate then as they were last October, and I knew it; knew that something wasn’t working right; knew that I was running on fumes. In her few pointed but accurate words, she’d ripped the veil off that I’d been wearing so skillfully—that of a religious pro who knows the words, but is, in the moment, experiencing nothing of the reality, knowing instead the companionship of anxiety and hurry, restlessness and frustration. I’d known it, but as long as I could keep all the balls in play in this pinball machine that had become my life, nobody would know how hollow I was. Thank God someone saw, and said, and prayed.
Meditation: After preaching for the 4th time that Sunday, I went home and pulled a book off my shelf I’d not looked at since about 1997. I’d first picked it up when I’d visited a convent for a personal retreat, and poured my heart out to a nun, also the librarian of the convent. She’d recommended it, and I’d read it there, and later bought it. It’s a book about meditation, and I hesitate to share it because so many Christ followers will be afraid of it, in spite of the fact that we’re invited to “pray without ceasing” and “meditate” on God’s word so that it saturates our being.
Anyway, this book recommends sitting quietly and praying The Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm, or the Prayer of St. Francis, slowly, over and over again, for a period of time each morning and evening. I started doing that, immediately that night, and then again in the morning and evening ever since.
I can’t even begin to describe the renewed sense of peace, and awareness of the reality that Christ lives in me, with me, loves me, is for me, has called me to shine as light and given me all I need to do that, will never leave me, and (o so marvelous) has called me to peace.
I’ve known these truths in reality, but lately they’d become words for others more than a central reality in my daily experience. Now, once again, having made a high priority of taking time to prayerfully mediate on God’s truth each morning and evening, I’ve begun to enjoy the reality of Christ’s presence in my actual living.
There’s a greater sense of peace, by the way, when driving, speaking, leading meetings. I’m far from ‘at rest’, but utterly confident I’m on the right road, and can only pray and hope for the same for all who suffer from anxiety, fear, emptiness, boredom—in spite of being full of ‘God words’.
Gratitude: In the wake of this new habit, a sense of profound gratitude and appreciation began growing in my moment by moment living. I’ll be listening to some music and it will remind me of days in the past when I wrote books in a log cabin—simpler days, when I led a smaller church. Rather than looking back wistfully though, my heart these days is filled with profound joy for the memories and privileges of the past. Today is today—and God will give us what we need for it; but one of the things we need is a sense of gratitude for the good gifts in our past.
The other peace of gratitude has to do with a fresh sense of seeing creation and being overwhelmed with joy simply by watching the rain fall from the sky, or seeing the clouds change color in the sunset. Yesterday I spent the day splitting and stacking wood with my wife, and we both commented on how delightful it is that we find joy anytime we can be in the midst of God’s beautiful creation. The cathedral of God’s stunning creation is better than anything for both of us, and we like it that way!
Presence: I’m preaching a bit about this tomorrow, but looking back, I can see how easily I slipped into losing the present moment to either past regrets or (especially) future worries. Somehow, renewal brings with it the capacity to live more in this actual moment. One of the highest forms of generosity you can offer another is the gift of your absolute attention. I’m often terrible at this, but am aware that, to the extent that Christ is given freedom to express life through us, it will present, not in scattered attention, listening with one ear, while our other senses are watching our phones, or our brains are elsewhere in the future, or the other room. Rather, we’ll be all there.
Contentment: Finally, as ridiculous as it sounds, this little film of a skier and his dog reminded me that we’re made for fellowship: with God, with God’s creation, with others. People and creation itself aren’t commodities to be used for our pleasure or purposes—rather, they’re gifts to be cherished, loved, and enjoyed.
If you’re in need of renewal, I hope these principles help you forward. May you know the peace of Christ, not as a theory, but as a reality—before this very day is over.
It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together. I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.
Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for its beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.
The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles. We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.
It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun. We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met. Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on steps until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journey—step by step.
I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life. I think about how much this mirrors real life, how it’s so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected. I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows. I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.
We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge. The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.
As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening. It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces. Donna’s there first, and she signs the book. The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find. When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.
We’ve stood under many these past weeks. Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights. Other moments, bone weary and sore. This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful: for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others. We can barely pray—mostly it’s tears of joy.
We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut. Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about World Cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare. There’s laughter, stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.
I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc.) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way. The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.
I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.
For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut:
We’re waiting for the cable car that will haul us up to the Douglass Hut, the base from which we’ll be hiking over a couple of passes to another hut. We’re waiting at the base of the lift, gazing skyward. All we can see are two cables disappearing into the clouds. Eventually one of them begins dancing, then the other, and finally, 150′ above us, we see something mysteriously appearing out of the grey, taking form as the cable car. A horn sounds, and soon the car is “parked” and we step in for a ride upward. Everything quickly disappears as we ascend, and then, moments later, we look down, seeing snow on the brush that rushes by 100 plus feet below us. The snow gets thicker as we go higher until, finally, we’re there: The Lunarsee and Douglass Hut, our home for the night.
We exit the car for one of our shorter hikes, going maybe 100 feet to the adjacent entryway of the Douglass Hut, in howling wind, wet snow, and the capacity to see nothing other than what’s exactly in front of us, moment by moment. This is called “white out” and if you’ve been in the mountains during white out, you know it’s never, ever pleasant. You look at the map, and know that there’s a large lake and mountains somewhere near here, but you don’t really know it in the fullest sense yet, because you only know it from the map. We duck inside out of the cold, check in to our rooms, and are quickly in our room in this “summer only” hut, which means that the dorm’s unheated, which means that on this snowy, windy day, every blanket is cherished while we rest, along with our snow hats.
Later in the afternoon we’ll rise and go spend some time in the dining area, enjoying some good food, hot tea, wine, and reading time. The hours pass quickly actually. In spite of the cabin feverish feel of the place, it’s far from empty. There are guests sitting around talking, drawing, reading, playing games. None of them speak English though, so the two of us are a bit in our own world when, as afternoon turns to evening, I hear a stirring and look up.
The fog lifted! Not a lot, but enough to give reality to the lake we’ve seen on the map and at least the bottoms of the surrounding mountains. People are rushing for their boots so that can get outside with their cameras because God only knows how long the fog will keep her skirt lifted for us like this. All attention has turned outside of ourselves the beauty show offered us.
“So it’s true” I say to myself, as reality comes into view. There’s a sense of delight and relief to the whole situation, and above all else a sense of “We’re glad we came… in spite of the fog!” By the day after tomorrow, we’ll return here to largely blue skies, and celebrate the full beauty of that which was drawn on a map and described, but unknown to us even as we were in it, because our sight was clouded by fog. “This” I say to myself, “is an important moment.”
It’s important because large swaths of our lives, especially our lives of faith, are lived in the midst of a thick fog of suffering, doubt, failure, war, abuse, hunger, loneliness, cancer, addiction. It’s all swirling around, in our own souls or the experiences of those we love, and we can’t see a blessed thing, because only the cursed things are apparent in the moment. “Where’s God?” we ask ourselves, or we ask where hope is, or joy, or meaning. They’re fair questions in the fog because we were promised a lake and we’re really looking hard, but all we can see is fog.
Yes. This is why they call it faith. We have a map that paints glowing descriptions of both the present (in the midst of challenges and trials) and the future (when all tears are gone), and we’re invited to live, not “as if” it’s all true, but to live fully “because” it’s true, and to live into the true-ness of it in spite of the fog. What does this mean?
1. It’s means I’m deeply loved and fully forgiven, in spite of the fog of failure.
2. It means that I’m complete in Christ and filled with His strength, in spite of the fog of brokenness and weakness
3. It means that all enemies have been reconciled, in spite of the fact that we also see the horrors of war and terror, custom delivered to our inboxes every day
4. It means that a day is coming when weapons will be melted down and used as farm tools, and cancer, loneliness, fear, human trafficking, abuse, and oppression will all be done away with forever. It’s down the road a bit, but it’s coming.
Here’s the mystery of the map and fog in a nutshell: (Hebrews 2:8,9)
“God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we see him….!!
I need to believe the map, and live according to the reality of the map while I wait for the fog to clear. This means living in a posture of thanksgiving for what is true, even when the fog is swirling so thickly that I can neither see or feel it. The result of this posture of heart has led people to joy and peace, even in the midst of the storm.
Two quotes speak to this powerfully:
“Don’t struggle and strive so, my child.
There is no race to complete, no point to prove, no obstacle to conquer for you to win my love.
I have already given it to you.
I loved you before creation drew its first breath.
I dreamed you as I molded Adam from the mud.
I saw you wet from the womb.
And I loved you then.” Desmond Tutu
All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Julian of Norwich
Now it’s our turn… to walk into the fog as people of hope because of what we know is true.
(I’m happy to introduce the guest author for this post as my hiking partner, best friend, and one week from today, wife of 35 years! Enjoy Donna Dahlstrom’s thoughts on guidance, reality, and journey.)
I love maps. I’ve loved maps from my earliest recollections of traveling across the country with my family in the back of a camper. There was always a supply of maps we picked up from the gas stations for state after state after state between California and New York. I loved finding where we were on the map and where we were headed before jumping to the next map.
This trip in the Alps has been no different. I’ve loved pouring over the maps, discovering where we are, searching for the next destination and discerning the route to get there. I’ve learned to read the contour lines to determine if the route is going up or down. I’ve learned important German terms to accurately read these particular maps: “joch” is a pass, “hütte” is a hut (usually with delicious food and shelter), “spitze” denotes a summit, “see” is a lake, “alpe” is grazing land for cows, sheep, or goats, and if I’m very lucky, “bahn” is a gondola whisking us over steep ski slopes.
It’s been fun to have these two-dimensional maps become three dimensional as we hike through villages or look out over towns from the mountaintops. What was once nothing more than a name on a map is now a neighborhood with lovely flower boxes outside the windows, an especially cheerful waitress, a helpful information desk worker, a tiny church with a pipe organ, a grand monastery built 700 years ago, an elderly woman who exuded joy through her eyes and sweet smile even while indicating she had no available rooms to offer.
Another thing I’ve learned about maps is that they’re only helpful if you can identify at least one location on the map. Without having a known starting point, it’s challenging to orient your location to anything on the map. It’s possible to make guesses, especially if there is only one mountain or one river on the map but it gets difficult when there are many mountain ranges, many little villages, many roads and rivers from which to choose. Such was the case when we stepped off a train in a town of which we thought we knew the name but could never locate any of the other locations we explored on the map around the town. We discovered the next day that we were actually in a different town entirely! Aha! Now it made sense as we located all the other familiar points on the map near the correct town!
This minor error simply added to the special spontaneity of this particular stop along the train route but we could have run into serious difficulty if we’d been in the high country of the Alps, continuing to venture without knowing where we really were. Stopping to consult the map to be sure you’re on the right path is essential to safety in the high country. When the contour lines on the map are very close together, it means you’re either at the base of a cliff or about to go over one. Knowing your location will help protect you from making a wrong step and guide you to a safer path. We have found it essential to take the time to repeatedly check our locations on the paths we’ve been on while trekking and I can see now the importance of doing the same in everyday life.
Presently, I’m in a change of season in my life. My children have grown up. My vocation has changed. I have a new set of responsibilities before me, some not yet clearly defined. I’m at a crossroads. Time to check my map to determine the correct path. Which one am I on? Which way should I go? What are the trail markers and signs around me telling me? With an ear to God’s voice, whether by people offering advice or inner promptings or scripture verses, I need to be checking my path with God’s map for my life. Am I on the right path? Have I consulted the Mapmaker recently to honestly assess where I am? Walking step by step these past thirty days has impressed upon me the importance of not just wandering aimlessly, but walking informed by God as my guide who wants to show me amazing things along the way, whether it be castles or chocolate factories or gracious guesthouse hosts or majestic ripples of mountain ranges. Listening to His voice is impossible when I’m doing the talking (and planning). Learning to be quiet in order to hear His voice is not easy for me but step by step, I’m a little bit closer than I was thirty days ago.
We’ve been moving a lot lately. Some health issues for an extended family member has meant creating a small apartment in the basement of our house, and confining our stuff to smaller space in the mountains too, so that when we get home our mountain home can be a place of hospitality for family, friends, and the staff of the church I lead.
All this has been unfolding at the same time I’ve been preparing to embark on a sabbatical journey, which will begin with 40 days of hiking in the Alps with my wife, so that we can learn together – things about endurance, walking with God, hospitality, revelation that comes through suffering and beauty, guidance, and o so much more!
For this trip, we’ll be carrying everything we need, except food, on our backs. Toss in the reality that the planned hike will gain over 100,000 feet in elevation, and you begin thinking differently. The physics minded among us, who think of work in terms of “foot pounds” will come to the same conclusion I did, which is that every OUNCE of additional weight, over the course of 400 miles, will create an extra 3 tons of “foot pounds”. Lifting that extra ounce for about 20 miles of vertical elevation adds up, in other words, to a lot of work.
With this in mind, the decision making process of “letting go” began. My wife and I would pack our stuff and then stand on the scale with our packs, and groan. “Too much” we’d say, as we’d toss slippers, read articles about the “real” merits of some vitamins and decide that, in reality, we’re not sure we believe in their benefits enough to carry them uphill. Toothpaste? Extra shirt? Third pair of underwear? Everything’s up for debate. This, of course, is because carrying everything had bloody well be worth it.
The very act of shedding stuff for the hike has me thinking about other realms in a similar way:
1. Possessions in real life are work too – and as such, we should assess whether they’re worth the trouble of storing, caring, maintaining, repairing, insuring, protecting, losing, and fretting over. With the caveat that our kids are all now grown and so we really don’t much, we’ve learned something these past three weeks. We’ve been living in about 500 square feet, maybe a few feet more, and having a blast! Most of the time we can’t even remember the possessions we’ve shed well enough to miss them. We look around and say, “We have food, shelter, the clothes we ACTUALLY wear and enjoy, our health, our love, our friends….” What more do we need? It’s been fun to give stuff away to people who need it more than we do, and find our lives lighter as a result.
2. Activities – The shedding of activities began some time ago, with the selling of the piano I loved, but which was sitting more than being played. I’m at a season where that which is most life giving to me is writing, teaching, and absorbing all that can be learned by being out in creation. So I don’t play much any more. I don’t watch TV. I don’t keep up with the latest cultural trivia nearly as well as I once did. I don’t know the batting averages of my favorite baseball team as I once did. I’m no longing trying to keep with my friends at the art of cooking, because in the end, I’d rather eat a carrot than a carrot salad anyway, and bacon, by itself, brings me joy.
So the habits of coffee with God, along with a rediscovered joy of running and hiking, along with the writing, teaching, mentoring, and leading I do, plus some friendships along the way – this is enough. I’m lighter. And it feels better.
3. Emotions – I’m learning, through rereading the wisdom literature in the Bible, to shed some emotions too. Life’s so short, it turns out, that bitterness, resentment, anger, anxiety over “what if’s”, and shame filled regrets over “if only’s” are all a waste of time. I’m finding that by shedding these elements, little by little, my heart is lighter. I don’t think this happens with the snap of the finger because, like lightening our packs, every element needs to considered and inspected for its value. For example, close friends and work colleagues who speak hard truth into my life are priceless gifts. Blog comments that are rude, inciting, demeaning, when I write about sexual ethics or guns, not so much. Life’s too short, and who needs to extra weight of endless rude wrangling with people who, in the end, don’t want dialogue as much as diatribe?
Jesus declared made the remarkable statement that you “ARE” the light of the world. Light shines, all by itself, as long as its not encrusted with the darkening burdens of excess possessions, life sucking emotions, and the diffused energy of endless priorities. All three of of this light thieves, though, are at the door all the time, seeking to steal our joy and peace by inciting us to carry more and more and more. But every ounce, carried for 20, 30, 50 years? That’s many tons of foot/pounds – wasted energy.
We’ll let you know how learning to travel light goes for us. Our first trek will be Monday, and I’ll post here when I can.