Category Archives: Featured

Addressing Poverty – one by one by one by one

In the wake of the recent head tax hysteria in Seattle, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mother Teresa’s famous quote about poverty. Answering the question “Which is the poorest nation on earth?” in a very Mother Teresa-like manner, she said, “Yes, yes, yes. I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because,”,she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

This relates to the head tax, and to the liberal dream that money and programs can eventually solve homelessness.  Money, the increasing divide between the rich and poor, the disappearing middle class, and cost of health care are all, as the left  points out, contributing factors to the present and increasing crisis. I, for one, agree.

But the left often seems blind the fact that a strong social network and strong family ties are even more foundational.  When these are in place, individuals in crisis are offered a web into which they might fall, giving their lives a resiliency, emotional strength, and confidence that they are loved. These things, believe me, go a long way in mitigating a myriad of social problems, including homelessness. To believe that addressing all the real problems in the above paragraph without naming the demise of family networks as a scourge is pure folly. The elephant in the room is that we suffer from a depth of relational poverty that isolates, leaving people without the safety net that first and foremost should is the purvue of healthy family systems.

Normalize divorce, encourage endless consumerism in the name of economic growth, steal childhood from young lives by hiring phones and iPads as babysitters, substitute “staying married” for “intimacy,” allow political divides to make family members enemies, toss in a good dose of hypermobility, stay too busy to visit family, raise your children with manipulation to fulfill your unmet ambitions, and presto – you have the recipe for isolation. Isolation is a factor in addictive behavior, which itself becomes an employment factor, and a factor in domestic violence. Can you see the storm arising? The results are people living on the streets who are cut off from family, victims of domestic violence, or opioids, or foreclosure.

You could buy a house for everyone on the streets, but until you address the all the factors that elevate hyper-individualism to the status of an idol, homelessness will continue to mature into an economic pandemic.

The good news is that there’s plenty each of us can do to shine as light in the midst of this dark problem.

1. Recognize the value of family ties. I just returned from speaking at a camp in the coastal redwoods where my grandma was a cook. Every time I’m there, I need to tell the guests to whom I’m speaking that this place is holy ground for me, because when I was a child it was literally the safest place on earth for my young soul. I still have memories of gramdma’s delight as she picked me up, hugged my little four-year-old body and delightedly cried, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here.” The ensuing days as a child where filled with the scent of redwoods and cinnamon rolls, coastal air and bacon. There was laughter, storytelling, rock skipping at the creek, sand castle building in Santa Cruz, and a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Last week, I went and sat outside her still-standing house and could nearly see the ghosts of my whole family, laughing, reading, resting. Heaven on earth.

Her legacy is why I’m so delighted that my oldest daughter, her husband, and my granddaughter are living with us.  I hope and pray that when little Luci is 60, she’ll look back on her time in the fir forest east of Seattle as a safe place, a little heaven on earth. We’ll watch World Cup together, toss a ball, roast hot dogs on a campfire, wade in Coal Creek across the street, maybe even sleep under the stars a night or two.  Hopefully she’ll learn, not by preaching, that people who love God also love people, laugh a lot, are curious, and love the world God has made.

The notion that any program will ever be able to create that is rubbish. Yes, by all means we need to care for the current generation living on the streets and provide both food and compassion. But if we take the long view, we’d be wise to also elevate the value of healthy marriages, of enough time for hugs and freshly cooked food, of family systems where truth and grace and prevail. These, though, are moral issues, solvable only by saying there are things we can value that increase the odds of making families healthier.

2. Name values – and the greatest of these is love. I’ll forever declare that healthy marriages aren’t made by people “staying together” because “the Bible says so.”. Rather, healthy marriages require love, and love requires vulnerability and truth-telling, confession and forgiveness, mutual servanthood, and time, and energy.  I’ll forever declare that sexual intimacy belongs in covenant relationships, that sex isn’t just a form of recreation, that “serial monogamy” is destroying the possibilities of real intimacy, even as evangelical shaming does the same.

This brings me to the next important observation which is that, when our values differ among family members regarding sexuality, money, politics, or any other divisive thing, love needs to win.  You don’t disown your children because they don’t share your view. You don’t spend your meals together endlessly trying to convince the other party. You have the conversation once, or once in a while; never proportionally more than spice to the omellete. Life’s too short for that kind of hostility, and it’s not the way of Jesus.

3. Practice hospitality. The couple in this picture came up to me at the camp where I spoke and told me that they were the “young kids” on staff when my grandma was the cook in the early 60’s.  “We loved your grandma,” he said. “They were hospitable!”  Another old man at the conference told me he was single when he arrived at Mount Hermon and that my grandma had the only TV in the area in the early 60s.  “She invited all the single people over on New Year’s Day for pancakes, the Rose Parade, and the Rose Bowl.” Yes. Food. Sport. And a welcoming home.

We can and must address acute social problems. But we cannot, and must not, kid ourselves into thinking that money solves the most glaring poverty on the planet – the relational poverty that comes from thinking individualism and more stuff can solve all problems.  One of the best things you and I can do in the wake of our multiple national crises is embody the values that make for strong social networks and strong families.

Silence, Suicide and the folly of our “left vs right” polarization

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life!  – Jesus the Christ

Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there.  Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team.  But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.

Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically.  45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide.  It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic.  As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.

We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well.  When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.

It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days.  I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian.  When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left.   The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world.   We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.

But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide.  A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide.  Another young gay man commits suicideTo the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer:  yes.  

In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him.  This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it.  There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something.  A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.

On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change.  Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity.  Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story.  It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now.  Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…”  Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something:  Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.

So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.

Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere.  There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.

We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.  

Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843.  Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain.  Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.

 

 

Success, Sabbaticals, Loss, and Heading to the Alps

afterlight(this new blog address reflects my profound belief that our lives are journeys of transformation, and that there’s always a step we can take towards wholeness – my upcoming sabbatical was the catalyst for the change, as you see here…)

If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber.

Has it ever happened to you?  You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time.  You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your goal.  It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.  You took initial step into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success.  The business grew.  You were promoted.  The publisher said yes.

It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities.  All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing.  You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff.  Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, Little League, Prom night.  It’s not perfect.  There are bumps along the way, but you’re still getting more responsibilities.  The business is gaining new market share.  Investments are doing their job.  It’s all paying off.

Days become decades, quickly.  Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed.  You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more.  Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful.  That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become “successful”.   You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below.  You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.

You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar.  You’re not sure where you are anymore.  You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute.  The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too.  You went, almost without questioning.   And then comes a moment when you know it’s time to rest and recalibrate.

Just such a moment came my way last summer.   I’d come home from  two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night.  At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position.  These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang.  “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code.  Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.

“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”

Silence.   And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”

“Peter.  I thought you were Kristi.  Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”

“Nope.  I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.”  I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings my food.  I’m sitting in the glorious Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today paragliding in the Alps.  They found his body early this evening.  I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.”  After a silent moment Peter says,  “I know.  Stunning.”  We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me.  I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to.    Then I go going home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love reeling in darkness.

One of my best friends is dead.   We’d skied the Alps together, snowshoed the Cascades east of  Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst monuments of Washington DC.  We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids.  We’d argued theology and commiserated about leadership.   Even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends.   And now he’s gone.   The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff.  It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and  I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner.  The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for video that needed making.  Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.

After that I collapsed.  There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job.   It was time for a sabbatical, a break from the normal routine in order to restore.  I knew I needed it.

Sabbaticals are for pastors, what fallow land is for a farm.  God invoked farmers to let the land rest every seven years, as a remembrance that God’s the provider, and as a gift of restoration for both the land and the farmer!  It’s important for the health of everyone: the pastor and the church, the farmer and the land.  It was time.

When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. It’s like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”.  You want it to shine on you too.  We call it lots of things, depending on our profession.  We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love.  Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life.  Maybe this isn’t a bad thing.  After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning.  We want our lights to shine.  We want significance.  I get it.

Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success.  That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy.  There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believing that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.

I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp.  In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year.  In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper.  We were rural, small, subsistence.  There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Keroak  spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings around the kitchen table.  It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.

That was nearly twenty years ago.  Between then and now, I’ve been privileged to pastor what I believe to be one of the great churches, in one of the great cities of the world.  Grace infuses our life together as we try to focus more on how Jesus unites us than how lesser issues divide.  There’s joy and laughter, there’s brokenness and healing.  It’s far from perfect.  But I’ve been thrilled and honored to carry the torch for this season.   In order to restore creativity and vision, though, I knew it was time, not for something different, but for a pause.

I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with a sense of refreshment, and  a re-calibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs.

I’ve been intrigued with the notion of pilgrimage for my sabbatical time, trying to learn what it means to walk with God by literally walking… for 40-45 days, through the high Alps.  My intent is to move away for three months:  out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency.  The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, putting one foot in front of the other for 400 miles.

Lessons will be learned through preparation and travel about suffering, traveling light, encounter, endurance, beauty, hospitality, and much more.   And while the original thought was to travel the Pacific Crest trail from the Canadian border south into Oregon, or from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Shasta, the death of my Austrian friend left a teaching hole for this summer that I’m qualified to fill, so I’ll teach the last week of their program and then my wife and I will begin in Northern Italy, head up through Austria into Germany, then west before dropping down and finishing our trek in Switzerland with friends.

I’ll post what we’re experiencing and learning here as I’m able, so I hope you’ll join us!

Departure: July 23rd  Return:  October 23rd – Here’s a Sabbatical Video  that will answer more questions.