How Naming Your Values can Change Your Life

Did you watch the funeral of President George H.W. Bush?  If so, you saw the importance of named values on full display.  From Jon Meacham’s stirring eulogy, to his son’s warm remembrances of him as both mentor and father, the entire event was testimony to a life well lived.  Raised in privilege, President Bush recognized the gospel truth that “to whom much is given, much is required” and so lived his life as a courageous servant leader.

The sad reality, though, is that the testimonies offered that day also served as a grave reminder that courage, servanthood, generosity, and civility, are in short supply these days.  It is this way because the avalanche of cultural input conspires to enflame individualism, consumerism, pettiness, a sense of personal inadequacy, and victim mentalities.  All of these shrink our world down to survival mode, which is far cry from the abundant life Christ came to give, and the “rivers of living water” that should be flowing through us to bring water to the desert that is the 21st century.

The way forward, according to Paul, is that we be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”, because without such intentional swimming upstream, we’ll be swept into the vast cultural chasm of mediocrity and narcissism that is so evident everywhere.  I find that the creation of a personal mission statement provides a huge step toward such intentionality.  I wrote about why this matters here, and how knowing your gifts is a critical part of the process here.

More than gifts are needed though.  Hitler had gifts of eloquence.  Countless leaders have gifts of charisma to motivate, and the political savvy to build coalitions of disparate parties in order to gain power.  Gifts, by themselves, are amoral.  In order to live the life for which we’re created, we need to commit to investing our gifts in ways that build up and contribute to God’s mission in the world.  Needless to say, this isn’t the only way gifts can be used.  Our gifts can be in the pursuit of power and pleasure as easily as in pursuit of the common good, actually easier!  What’s worse, we can whitewash our ignoble pursuits with noble causes and edifying vision.  This happens in church work, politics, and the non-profit world too often, as we all know.  It’s at the root of the current climate of institutional mistrust and cynicism, and is why I often hear, “I try to follow Jesus, but the church?  No thanks…” and then they share their story of feeling used.

What’s the most important thing we can do to assure that our gifts and mission work towards uplifting, rather than destructive ends?  Spend time mining and articulating our values.  Here’s why:

Values answer the question: “to what end”? 

Why am I running, or sitting on the sofa?  Why am I reading and meditating, or calling people and planning events?  Why do I give money away, or keep it?  Why do I turn the TV off, or leave it on?  The thing is, in any given situation, either answer could be right.  Decisions between this and that must be based on values, because my values will steer my ship to the desired harbor and bring balance to my life.  Otherwise, I might run a marathon, but have children I don’t know, or be culturally literate, but spiritually unable to offer people good food, or “successful” outwardly, but inwardly, as Jesus said of some successful people in his day, “full of dead man’s bones”.

Values offer course corrections

There are times when I withdraw into family life and my gifts of writing and teaching start rusting.  I need to get back in the game!  There are times when I live a fear based life and close my heart and pocketbook too readily.  I need my courage value to guide me back to being a voice of hope.  There are times when I try to pretend I’m better than I am, but valuing brokenness enables me to look in the mirror and pursue ongoing transformation.  Deeply held values become a sort of navigation system for life, enabling shifts as the winds change, so that we reach the desired goal.

Embedded Values build Character 

We all have values, but the sad truth is that without intentionality, we will passively adopt the values of prevailing culture.  We likely won’t name them, but they’ll be ours nonetheless:  Consumerism, Individualism, Material Security, Pain Avoidance.  Our values will define our choices, and our choices will define our lives.  Without intentionality, these cultural values will prevail and one day we’ll wake up and wonder where the time went, and why haven’t we accomplished much?  The answer will be that we accomplished exactly what our values determined we should accomplish.  The problem was simply that we didn’t choose our values wisely .

As I open my “to do list” every day, I read my values.  As I do this more and more often these values become more deeply embedded in me, moving from page, to mind, to heart.  Over time, this infects decision make – not perfectly, but in some measure.   The result, I hope, is that we choose wisely, and so steward our one wild and precious life better, for having taken the time to intentionally name our values.

 

 

Time heals nothing

I’m not sure why “This is Us” even found its way into my life as a show to watch, but however it did, I’m often amazed by its power to speak to me at so many levels.  Aside from being well crafted, the show has lots of freaky parallels to my own story, enough to make me feel, at times, like I’m watching a movie of some sections of my life:

The show has an adopted child in the family – I’m an adopted child in my family.

The sister among the siblings struggles with weight  – my sister struggled with her weight.

The dad in the story dies during the adopted son’s senior year in high school – my dad died my senior year in high school.

The death of the dad overwhelms the mom.  The death of my dad overwhelmed my mom.

It just goes on and on, so that in last night’s episode, when the son who got accepted to an exclusive college called and said he was going to delay for year to stay at home and care for his mom, I felt every ounce of his pain because I also delayed my entry into an exclusive college to stay home and care for my mom for a year, a year that turned out to be one of the hardest of my life.  These episodes have had me reliving family history stuff related to weight, performance, how we dealt with conflict, sibling dynamics, marriage dynamics, parenting styles, adoption, and so much more.

Here’s the point though, for now:  Life, Art, and Revelation are, at their best, woven together in a cord, so tightly that it’s difficult to pull them apart, separating the one from the other, so that deep transformation or understanding can arise from short periods of intense revelation.  This happened in the past 24 hours with respect to the subject of time.

The leaving of the leaves is an annual reminder that we too will leave.

Life:  I’m driving east on I-90 after an intense period of work in the city: big meetings; small meetings; one on one meetings; board meetings.  I’m tired yes, but quickly brought to awe and worship as I see the maples and cottonwoods changing color, and leaves falling in the wind.  Every autumn is a reminder of both the gift and brevity of life for me.  Something about the trees losing their leaves shakes me awake, and I ask God, at least annually, at least in the fall, to empower me to live wisely, and well because I’m mindful that life is short.  An autumn will happen, someday, when I won’t be here to see it.  That’s why my hope is to keep my daily priorities more or less aligned with my mission statement.  I don’t want to get to the end of the game and realize that I’ve lived just to survive rather than serve, to consume rather than create, to gain rather than give.   “…teach us to number our days…” said the Psalmist, and yesterday the annual reminder of that prayer was in full color on the trees and in the air.

Art:  That episode last night ended with the mom owning up, for the first time, to her passivity regarding her daughter’s struggles with weight – owned up to the fact that her husband’s death, and particularly the circumstances surrounding it, left her empty, with no love to give her children.  The daughter owned some stuff too, in a real conversation that came about 25 years later than it needed to because we think that “time heals all wounds” for some stupid reason.

Right there, in the midst of that conversation, the producer embedded a profound Damien Rice song called “Older Chests” which poetically exposes how we speak out of both sides of our mouths regarding time.  On the one hand: “I’ll be fine.  I just need time” and on the other, “Everything’s falling apart as time marches on”.  He exposes the folly that time heals anything at all.  Yes, time is needed, but only time plus the hard work of forgiveness, or confession, or a next step of service or generosity, or a reconciliation of a relationship, or a naming of your addiction and getting help, or a step of brutal honesty — only those things heal.  Time, without the intervention of our next steps, just leads to decay, and ‘presenting problems’ and unchecked addictions that are either visible or hidden.

Revelation:  Then next, I read my devotions this morning, and came to this:  The conventional explanation regarding suffering is that God sends us the burden because God knows that we are strong enough to handle it, but this is all wrong. Living in a fallen world sends us the problem, not God. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. (My paraphrase of a good word from Richard Rohr this morning.)

So there you have it.  A theme just keeps coming up over and over again with incredible intensity for 24 hours:  “You’re getting older Richard, and your years of enjoying autumn leaves are numbered.  Use your time wisely!”  Next up:  “Time heals nothing Richard, and that show which mirrors your life so closely exposes the steps you need to take toward community in certain relationships because time doesn’t create community – calls, and supper, and conversations, and hikes, and laughter and truth telling – these create community in time.  And finally, “There are times of suffering, but these times can be only be redeemed, not by passively riding the waves of more time, but by actively taking steps that move us to whatever we need to move toward, be it forgiveness, gratitude, dependency, truth telling, or whatever.

Time heals nothing.  And I know it better today than yesterday at this time because God speaks through falling leaves, TV shows, and text… thanks be to God.

Your “Sphere of Influence” is calling and You must go

As happens every September, there’s a feeling of newness in the air.  It’s not just the crisp morning air and footballs flying, it’s a returning from the unusual syncopations of summer activities to the more rhythmic routine of autumn. I’ve returned from vacation this year particularly refreshed and focused, and for particular reasons.  I’ve watched with growing concern as America has become increasingly polarized politically, so much that our fragmentation is becoming, more than either party’s ideology, the biggest present threat to our future.

The church hasn’t been immune to this polarizing.  We’ve mirrored the culture’s political tribal hatred, enough so that it’s increasingly rare to find people of differing political parties willing to worship together, let alone dialogue about their differences.  We then add theological layers to the debate, elevating particular ethical issues to the status of litmus tests for fellowship, while knowing full well that there are good people who love Christ and hold to a high view of scripture who hold the opposite view.  But for too many, that fact is of no consequence as they withdraw from fellowship because of “those people”.

Toss in a healthy dose of #METOO, courtesy of a NY Times article regarding a well known evangelical church, and an ever expanding sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and I find myself, on my worst days, wanting to pull out completely.  John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go…”.   I hear them calling too but there are two phrases, each different than Muir’s, that keep me coming to work, day after day, as I soon enter what will be my 24th year of ministry in the same place.

1. The mountains are calling and I want to go…  Of course I do.  My wife and I enjoyed our first dates on hikes and snowshoeing.  The mountains are reminders for us of so much that is true and life giving:  our smallness in the light of eternity – God’s grandiose generosity and immense creativity – glimpses, in the majesty of mountains, abundance of waters, beauty of wildlife, silence of a starry night, of life as it should be:  glorious, peaceful, interdependent, thriving.  Yes, I’ll keep getting out:  for morning runs, sabbath hikes, photography meditation walks, ski tours, and more.  I need to read God’s other book, the book of creation, as much as I need to read the Bible.  Maybe you do too.

But it’s also true that….

My sphere of influence: develop leaders and invite people to body/soul/spirit wholeness

2. My sphere of influence is calling, and I must go.  Sphere of influence is a little phrase I picked up decades ago in one of the best books I’ve ever read.  The author spoke of our sphere of concern, things about which we care, but are outside our control.  We care about politics, climate change, health care, increasing urban density in Seattle, the lazy employee on our team at work, the senior management that are incompetent, etc.  But many of these things, for most of us, are well outside our authority to fix.  Of course for some of them we can vote on, and perhaps if we’re motivated, we can and should organize as well, or do something more dramatic.  But what we shouldn’t do at all is spend time worrying, complaining, lamenting, gossiping, grumbling, whining, posting social media grenades, or being vexed, if it’s a matter outside our direct sphere of influence.  If we do we’ll be paralyzed, overcome with worry, and ultimately feel like disempowered victims.  Does that sound familiar to you?  Increasingly, the Victim card is the most popularly played card in the game of life.  But it’s often misguided and disempowering.

It’s far better for me to focus on my sphere of influence.  I’ve developed a personal mission statement, which I’ll share in the next blog post.  My goals come out of this statement, and my to do list, at my best, comes out of these goals.  That way, no matter what’s going on in Syria or Washington DC, I needn’t succumb to the anxiety, fear, anger, and hand wringing that is the soil out from which our current cultural crises are being born.  Instead, I can follow the advice of Paul when he prayed that his friends would “live a life worthy of God’s calling…”.

Be faithful on your path because nobody else can!

My commitment to you:

I have a goal this fall of using this blog  as a means of encouraging you to define, refine, and excel in your calling.  I’ll write about finding your gifts, writing your own mission statement, and developing a set of core values by which to live.  YOU CAN HELP in this process by engaging with the material, subscribing (see below), and sharing the posts you like with your friends.

I’m asking you to share the material because my hope and prayer is that more and more people will step away from the negative and cynical culture wars, disempowering victim mentalities, and disengaged cynicism, and instead live fully into their callings to be people of hope in this very difficult time.  Will you join me on the journey?

O Lord Christ…

With each headline we sense a vast machine at work, destroying some things we hold dear, no matter our party, even as those operating the machinery do so in the name of preservation.  Forgive our fears, our cynicism, our anger – all of which have blinded us to the seminal truth that each of us have a place in this world: gifts to use; neighbors and children and enemies to love; our own souls to nurture toward wholeness; joy to impart.  May we get on with it, each of us, in our spheres of influence, doing whatever our hands find to do, with all our might.  And we’ll thank you for the joy, and privilege, and adventure of it – in Jesus name.

Amen

Let the Journey Begin – An invitation to travel to the Alps with me

“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all” is how Helen Keller put it.  She’s was onto something, surely.  When Dave Matthews mused about the “Ants Marching” in his masterful music some years ago, it seemed to me he was pondering a sort of inevitable decay into a ritual of breakfast, commute, work, commute, supper, exhaustion, repeat.  There are surely forces at work in the systems that are western civilization contributing to this dismal picture.  However, I’d suggest that Jesus wants to infuse our normal daily existence with Divine Life so that in the midst of whatever it is we’re doing, the source of wisdom, joy, hope, mercy, justice, generosity, compassion, and service that is Christ bubbles up from deep within.  What’s more, this kind of life is available to us every single day, even the mundane ones, the unchosen periods of suffering, the challenges.

I needed to leave my job for three months and trek through the Alps to learn this lesson, and learn I did, and I’m thrilled to share my adventures with you in my new book The Map is not the Journey: Faith Renewed While Hiking the Alps”.  The death of my close friend in a paragliding accident in the Alps came just at a point in my career where I was beginning to question the future.  The convergence of these elements led, a year later, to my wife and I doing a 40 day, 400 kilometer trek through the Alps.  Beginning in Italy, we went on to experience the Alps in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.  Lessons learned there, along with all the adventure of it (yes, we did walk into our private room one night to find a couple sleeping in our bed!) are found in this new offering, now available at Amazon and fine booksellers.  Each chapter includes a link to photos from the stories of that chapter, in hopes that you’ll experience the trip we took in a small way too.

It’s a book for everyone who’s wondering what’s next, at any age.  

It’s for those whose lives have turned out differently than they’d expected.  

It’s for those who are tired, and looking a fresh infusion of life in their daily routine. 

It’s for those who have set goals that they failed to meet.  

It’s for those who want to learn about hut to hut travel in the Alps, or long range hiking.  

In short – I hope it’s for a lot of people! 

Here’s a little video teaser I made on my iphone.

You can help this book succeed in a few simple ways:

If you think you know people who might like it, share your purchase, or this blog post, on your social media.  Thanks!

Reviews on Amazon are always helpful.  Thanks!

What some have said who’ve read it:

Denny Rydberg – President Emeritus of Young Life . “For those feeling fatigue after years of faithfully doing the same thing, for those looking for new eyes to see what God is doing and has on his mind, and for those who need a jolt of adventure, this is the book to read.” 

Les Parrott, PHD – “If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring.  Richard paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation.”  

Jim Zorn (former NFL coach and player) – “Richard’s travels aren’t just good stories of adventures.  They’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people.  Those looking to find transformation in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”  

Please share this post if you think others would benefit from the book.  Thanks!

 

Are you running to Win?

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in a such a way that you may win…”

You are God’s uniquely handcrafted beautiful creation.  You have gifts to bring to our darkening and weary world, and that means you weren’t just put here to survive, or have a few grand adventures of your own.  You were put here to bless; to pour your life out onto the canvass of this world in the colors of hope, in an artistry that’s yours alone.

So get on with it.

Run to win.  

Get over the mentalities of scarcity which define survival and a hefty stash of cash as the win because God knows that the world is full of people who have more than enough food, money, water, and activities, but who are utterly missing the life for which they’re created.

You’re not made to survive and consume, though you’ll do both, throughout your days.  You’re made to thrive and bless and serve.  Abundant Life is what Jesus called it.  Don’t settle for anything less.

Run to win.  

Flush your fears of thermonuclear war, political insanity down the toilet, and quit arguing, or worrying, about who stands or sits during the national anthem of a football game . You have no control of any of this.

Focus instead on what you’re going to be doing with your “one wild and precious life” because if you waste your days in fear and worry, you’re not just cheating yourself out of joy, peace, and meaning – you’re cheating the rest of us too.  The world needs what you have to offer.

Find your gift (is it teaching, healing, serving, walking with those who are suffering, empowering, creating…?) and spend your life developing your precious gifts so that you can be a blessing to others.

If you already know your gift then for God’s sake (literally – for God’s sake) turn off the TV, set aside the video games, let go of the petty tie suckers, and get on with using it.

Run to win.  

Paul the Apostle said that he disciplines his body, so that at the end of his life he’ll be confirmed to have been a participant in the abundant life Jesus offers, not just a spectator, or worse, an armchair quarterback who knows Jesus, justice, hospitality, confession, risk, love, service…but only as theory.

Run to win.  

I woke up one morning recently, having had a moment in a dream where my own moments of self-pity, petty indulgences, cynical judgement, time wasted in social media political grenade lobbing, and the paralysis of an absurd self-pity (in spite of all the blessings I enjoy) marched past my bed like characters in a parade.  Each one filled me with regret and I woke with a start, in the middle of the night – praying to God that I’d create no more of these subtle, yet despicable characters the rest of my days.  “Rather” I prayed, “may I run to win – continually receiving your revelation from creation, friendships, text, and trials” and “may I pour my life out, using my gifts to love, serve, and bless”

Are you running to participate?

Are you running when it’s convenient?

Are you running at all?

Run to win. 

 

Steal, Kill, and Destroy – Killing Hope

 

Even the desert will bloom…

Note: I’m presently offering a short series of the many ways in which our enemy seeks to steal, kill, and destroy the life for which we’re created.  At this moment in history, many are at grave risk of losing hope.  Here’s help:

If hope is a longing for a better world, then hope is a flag firmly planted in almost every human soul.  Sharin Sabestari is an example of a woman whose heart stirred with a deep and hopeful longing. She shares her story of growing up in war torn Iran and going into the mountains on hikes and climbs with her father….

Sharin Sabestari as a child in the mountains of iran

“I remember the sirens blaring and the bombs rumbling in the distance.  When we ran under our basement stairs in a blackout, I was too young to understand…  (But) I knew that soon Dad and I would be off again to the mountains, where there we no sirens and no bombs, only a world of wonders:  porcupine spines and snakeskins to collect, trees to climb, rocks to scramble.  The realm of butterflies and streams and wind…”  (Alpinist.  Vol. 58)

The beauty of creation instills hope, at any age, in any time and place.  It’s a hope that we’re not made to live amongst bombs and air raid sirens, terror and war.  We’re made for beauty, made for peace, made for fellowship.  Sharin learned this in the mountains.  For others hope is awakened at the sea, or at sunset while walking through a field, or in a circle of friends around a campfire, or in a concert hall filled with the sounds of Schubert, or Mozart, or U2.

“Deep calls to deep” is how the Bible says it, and there are some of us who believe that beauty and peace are like signed and sealed invitations from God:  “Dear Sharin… May you enjoy this gift of the mountains I’ve made, with all their flowing streams, fresh breezes ripe with the scent of pine, and gorgeous views.  You’re invited to enjoy more of my gifts and find the rich life I’ve created for you to enjoy.  Love, God.”

I’m on solid ground for believing that the first thing we should learn about God is that God’s given good gifts to humans.  Romans 2 tells us that “God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance” which is just another way of saying that God’s kindness is an invitation for us to move away from a life without God, to a life with God – as guide, companion, friend, provider, healer, and lover.

If all this intimacy is the fruit of taking a step towards God because of the presence of hope and beauty, it stands to reason that our enemy, who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, would seek to steal hope and beauty.  Knowing how this happens will help us  fan both hope and beauty into flame in our lives once again, to the end that others will see them and perhaps make a move toward the Source of it all.

Hope is stolen through misdirection.  “We’d hoped it would be the war to end all wars.”   “We’d hoped Obama would bring hope and change.”  “We’d hoped Trump would “drain the swamp”.  “We’d hoped our offer, 100k above asking price, would have gotten us a house.”  “We’d hoped the medical test would have been negative”.

They all make sense, of course, these hopes we have.  We hope for the future to turn out a certain way in countless areas over which we have no control.   The problem with all these forms of hope, though, is that they are highly contingent on events outside our control.  It’s fine to “hope” and be disappointed.  The problem comes when our meaning and identity became so yoked to our vision of the future, that any shortfall undoes us utterly.   These are the people “driven to drink, or abuse, or worse” when there’s an affair.  These are the people killing themselves when the stock market crashes.  These are millions who simply haven’t found a way to cope with the dissonance between how they’d “hoped” life would be, and how its actually turned out.   The landscape of humanity is littered with countless tragedies precisely because of unrealized hope, and our response to dashed dreams.

Some chime in at this point, and say, “The answer is simple.  Hope for nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.”  Perhaps.  But neither will you know hope or joy, and the fruit that blossoms in such an arid environment is always depressing.  Just ask Ernest Hemingway, or Kurt Cobain.   Despair is around us, even among people who “hoped for nothing”.

The better way is to recognize that “hope” isn’t actually a sort of “wishful thinking” that is rooted in a desire for things to be a certain way in our lives.   Real hope is solid.  The word might even be translated “confident expectation” in the Bible, because it’s rooted in the promises of God.

God is promising a world without war, without cancer, a world of reconciled nations, and justice, a world of matchless beauty, intimacy, deliverance from enslaving addictions and, infusing every breath of our future:  joy!  I believe history is headed in that direction.  This is my confident expectation, my hope.   “What makes you so sure?” you might ask?

Two things, at least.  First, I believe in the resurrection of Christ, which is a sort of down payment on that hope.  It might sound fantastical, but make no mistake, the world is filled with thoughtful people who believe the evidence is on the side of Jesus rising.

Second, Sharin’s experience in the mountains couldn’t help but lead her to long for more of it.  It was the place her “hair could be uncovered and roam free.”  It was the place of wild horses.  It was beauty.  It was “as it should be”, and because of this, “hope” was born.

But the longings of her heart won’t be answered by Tehran embracing democracy, or Isis, capitalism or socialism.  In the end, every “ism” of this world over-promises and under-delivers.  It misplaces hope, seducing us into believing that it is the headwaters of a better world.  Every time, the tribe of the disillusioned increases, including when people put their faith in the institution of Christianity.

Our hope isn’t in any ‘ism’.  Our hope is in Christ, and because he is likened to a “solid rock”, we then have a hope that can never be shaken .   Having this hope enables us to live as people of courage and integrity, grace and mercy, generosity and peace.  We view every foretaste of glory seen in perfect powder, mountain sunrises, and the bracing cold waters of a mountain lake as foretastes of eternity; and we give thanks; and worship.  This is as it should be.

Got Hope?

If the object of your hope is Christ, the answer is a resounding yes.

All other “hopes” are forgeries, and I’m sorry to say, your real hope’s been stolen.   Why not take it back right now?

O Lord Christ – 

We thank you for the pains in our hearts that stab with every new discovery of corruption, every new lie from people in power, every new report of another friend dying of cancer.   We cry out, and weep, and lament – because at some profound level we know that we’re made for more than this, other than this.  

Forgive us for hoping in superficial solutions to the brokenness of our world, and the brokenness of our hearts.  May you be our sole source of satisfaction, our only rock and foundation.   And, filled with the confidence of your power and plan to heal the world, would you make us people of hope.  

Amen. 

 

 

The Subtle Seduction of Letting Ourselves be Bent

My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”.  The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy.  Here’s what I mean:

I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors.  Murdering another human is sin.  Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin.  Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so.  It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”

The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.

We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder.  We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness.  We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism.  We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused.  You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty.  It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall.  This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.

This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“.  Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.

II.  a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted.  In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.

The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.

The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.

The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.

The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.

You get the picture.  God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.

This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing.  This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy.  The book doesn’t trash sex.  It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated.  Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin.  Sin is a good thing bent!

III.  Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!   

This is what I love about the new book I’m reading.  It declares:

“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”

To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.

Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.

Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.

Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.

Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.

God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares.  And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.

Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.

Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint

 

 

 

Fear of Falling vs Freedom to Fail: Choose Wisely

fear of falling is more dangerous than falling

I hope you’ve seen the ascendancy of young lives as they move from infant to toddler?  If so then you know they’re bold; unafraid of falling.  In fact, they’re confident they will fall.  They fall, assess, maybe cry a bit, and then get up again.  This confidence continues on, if they’re fortunate, into childhood too.  I was recently riding the ski lift when I saw a boy take a mighty fall as he was speeding down.  Both his skis fell off and he was moving so fast that he literally bounced, before sliding down the hill for another 100′ or so.  He was crying by the time he came to a stop, and an adult skiiing with him quickly caught up after fetching his skis.  It looked serious.  I sped off the lift and headed down to see if I needed to call ski patrol, but by the time I arrived, the boy was laughing, putting on his skis, and asking his dad when they could go on the higher, steeper slopes.  No fear of falling there!

Somewhere on our journey, though, “not falling” begins to take precedent over everything else.  We’re concerned with our reputation, and the consequences of not fitting on, so we begin living on the defensiveness.  Don’t stand out.  Don’t make waves.  Conform.  And above all – don’t fall!  It makes sense to live that way, because non-conformists, risk takers, and those who pursue authenticity more than they pursue approval are often pushed out – of families, workplaces, and churches.

This lust to conform though, is value woven deeply into the fabrics of the community Jesus’ spoke about most harshly:  the Pharisees.  They were the religious experts, perceived as the kind of holiness to which people should aspire, and Jesus tells them (and us) that their fear of falling and their punishment of those who do had missed the mark in many ways:

1. It created a culture where outward conformity was all that was asked of followers.  This culture is alive and well today, as seen in the colossal failures among faith leaders, and the reality that Christ followers statistically approximate the culture at large when it comes to things like addictive behavior, divorce, consumer debt, domestic violence, and more.  In spite of our declaration that we’re made new, we look very old behind the curtain of pious music, big bibles, and arguments about which church is closest to Jesus.

2. It cast out non-conformists like the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who crashed a religious party, and in so doing, were rejecting the people who actually knew Messiah, while they continued to walk in darkness.

3. It created a culture where status and reputation mattered more to them than reality.  In such an environment, any evidence of brokenness or failure is quickly driven underground, where it will never see the light of day, and so never be dealt with.  That’s why Jesus said of this group that, though they cleaned the outside of the cup, the inside remained full of dead bones.

4. It created a vision of faith life that’s far too small.  “Not failing” isn’t the goal – never was.  We’re invited, instead, to live as people of generosity, hope, wisdom, and grace in our world, pouring out the blessings of God on a thirsty planet.

The damage done by a commitment to simply “being a good person” for the sake of one’s reputation, of calling “not falling” the pinnacle of success is huge.  There’s a better way, and it’s shown us by lots of different characters in the Bible.

Abraham is chosen by God, obeys God and leaves his homeland, exercises faith and generosity numerous times, doubts, sleeps with the maid, and lies about the identity of his wife out of fear for his life.

David is called by God to be king, creates poetic worship songs, courageously stands against the giant, sleeps with girl next door (using his own abuse of power to do so), lies to her husband, and ultimately has him killed.

Peter declares that Christ is Messiah, preaches boldly, leaves everything behind to follow Christ, denies Christ, compromises his beliefs at gathering of Jews and Gentiles, boldly preaches the first sermon in early church history (where 3000 are saved), denies Christ, argues about greatness, speaks when he should have shut up, decides to quit the ministry, and ultimately lives with such grace and courage that he dies for his faith, crucified upside down.

Paul?  Courageous and argumentative.  Humble and proud.  Content and coveting.

Jonah? Obedient preacher, and bitter xenophobic nationalist.

Solomon?  Wisdom exceeding all others on many fronts, and a crazy sort of “polygamy gone wild” with approximately 1000 women victimized by his predatory abuse of power (more on this in my upcoming “Song of Solomon” series)

Every person who is “all in” with respect to walking with God and being fully involved in the story of hope God is writing in the world falls.  Every.  Person.  But in the Bible, the ones who fall, confess, and learn from it get right back up, putting their skis on and seeking higher, steeper slopes, now that they’ve learned a thing or two through falling.  This is the husband caught in porn addiction. This is woman who loses her job.  This is the couple that faced the pain they’d caused in each other’s lives head on, and wept over it.  This is every one of us who say with Paul, “the good I want to do, I don’t do… the bad I don’t want to do, I do.”

All right then.  We’ve fallen.  We’ve named it.  We’ve seen it.  We’ve picked up our stuff and continued on.  That’s the way it should work.  That’s why Martin Luther said,  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.

Paul said it similarly when he wrote that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”  

These saints are both telling us that our fear of failure will squeeze us into a mold of conformity that will rob us of joy, and prevent the kind of growth that always and only comes on the far side of failure.  Since every saint failed, and since failure was the soil in which profound movement toward maturity happened, and since failure made every saint a bit more gracious, patient, and generous – then let your fear of failure die.

I’m annoyed with those who think this means “license to sin”, as all of us are sitting around searching our Bibles for excuses to indulge our destructive appetites.  Rubbish.  If I really wanted to indulge those appetites regularly, I wouldn’t be walking the faith life at all.  You are simply invited to live honestly enough to acknowledge that you’re imperfect, and humble enough to name the rough edges when they appear in the midst of your attempts to walk as a person of hope in this broken world.  Remember, it’s those who pretended they didn’t fail, either through denial or blaming others, that faced swift judgement.  Failure’s not the problem – it’s a reality.  The problem is how we view failure; and the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that we can stop pretending we’re always on the moral high ground and see ourselves on a lifelong journey of transformation instead.

Why don’t we set out to live this way? 

Doing so requires nuanced thinking, and the acknowledgement that our leaders, teachers, parents, pastors – and we ourselves, are all a blend of wisdom and folly.  We’d rather deify and vilify.  We like it black and white; in or out; right or wrong.

Doing so requires a willingness to let go of what other people think because its the people who “shoot for the moon” who also fail mightily sometimes, but they’d have never set out, were it not for the fact that they’d let go of the idol of popularity and reputation.

Doing so requires a belief in the grace of God, a belief that God really is the good dad waiting with the porch light on when we come running home.  Beneath all our songs about amazing grace, though, I fear many of us are still stuck in performance mode, afraid of being struck down the first time we fail.

Infants get this.  So do most children.  And climbers too.  Isn’t it high time the rest of us joined their ranks?

 

Marriage: 37 Lessons from 37 Years of Experience

still smiling after 37 years of journeying together
still smiling after 37 years of journeying together

Thirty seven years is a long time, and yesterday my wife and I were able to celebrate that time marker as the length of marriage.  This is something that brings us both pride and gratitude, but more gratitude than  pride.  We realize that we’ve been largely healthy, and at least one of has been employed, the whole time.  We have much cause for thanks, because of the lives we’ve been given.  Still, 37 years is a big deal and to be both married and still very much in love is, we feel, no accident.  

While I’d never presume to write a book about marriage, it may prove helpful to share some of “what’s worked for us…”  So here they are:  37 lessons learned in 37 years.  Enjoy!  And if you find it helpful or think it might help others, share freely!  

  1. We’ve always made big decisions entirely together.  Why would we move, buy or sell a car, change jobs, or practice radical hospitality, if only one party thought it was a good idea?
  2. Candles at supper have been the default for the 37 years.  We’re at our best when the TV is off and we’re eating together, sharing, talking, and listening.
  3. Our devotional lives are very different, and though it took over a decade for me to realize it…that’s OK.
  4. Our circadian rhythms are also different, and while I’m still convinced God’s desire is for all humans to rise early, I’ll confess I enjoy the quiet house before 7.
  5. We’ve learned to fan each other’s strengths into flame.  She’s better at details, organizing, and maintaining.  I’m better at vision, words, writing, teaching.  We’re done trying to change the other in these realms, now seeing them as assets.
  6. We enjoyed our children when they were small, and still do now that they’re all adults and married. 
  7. Though we enjoy our children, they’ve never defined us fully.  The whole time we’ve been married we realized that we’d been a couple before we had children, and would still be a couple (short of death), after they left home.
  8. Donna’s heart of compassion for others is a quality I celebrate, and I’m in awe of it on a regular basis. 
  9. Her compassion makes me a better pastor and teacher.  I know this, and so any accolades that come my way for my work, I share with her so she knows the important role she plays in my world outside the home.
  10. Donna has her own chain saw.   You have no idea how important this is unless you burn wood as your primary heat source. 
  11. We both love cutting wood, and I love splitting, while she loves stacking.  It’s as if we’re made for each other.
  12. We are both terribly easily pleased.  Sunsets, simple meals, good coffee or tea, the smell of the forest, and the sound of birds bring us as much joy as a night at a fancy restaurant, or a concert or sporting event. 
  13. We’ve learned that we’re aging (in spite of fish oil and eating occasional vegetables) and have adapted.  In fact, I’d say “adaptation to life’s changing seasons” has been one of the most important reasons we’re still wildly in love.  We gave up the illusion of control a long time ago.
  14. We’ve worked at our sex life to make sure it’s still enjoyable and life giving to both of us.  This requires conversation, total transparency, a bit of trial and error, and a sense of humor.  That is all.  
  15. She wants a cat and I don’t.  I want a big dog, like a Malamute or Husky, and she doesn’t.  So we’re happily pet free.
  16. Our shared love of the mountains, evident from the day we met, has been a good glue.  We get outside together often, and always have.  It’s a context where real sharing occurs.
  17. I’ve appreciated Donna’s quickness to forgive.  “The freedom to fail” was one of the three things I was looking for in a spouse.  She’s given me that and the result has been a profound transparency that I now realize is too rare among married couples.
  18. She’s not picky about music and I am.  This has worked out well for me and, I can only assume, for her too. 
  19. Early on we sought approval from each other for any expenses over $20.  The amount’s gone up.  The principle remains – no money is “mine” or “hers”.  It’s ours. 
  20. We’ve paid our credit cards on time every month, which means we’ve bought less than we’ve made.   
  21. We’ve given our money away – both to our church and other organizations.  We’ve done this regularly, even when we were making “not so much”. 
  22. Beyond our economic compatibility is the unanticipated gift that I’ve never felt pressured to “earn up” in order to achieve a lifestyle.  Only now, looking through the rear view mirror, can I see what a blessing this was, and still is. 
  23. We are both strong as individuals.  This has been important because throughout our marriage there have been seasons where we’ve been able to offer less of ourselves to each other.  Travel for work, young children, and aging parents, all come to mind.  I tell young couples that one of the best things they can do to prepare for marriage is develop a strong sense of personal identity, so that they’re not making incessant demands on their spouse to fill some gaping hole in their life. 
  24. To really know what the other person wants in a given situation we sometimes jokingly say, “What would you do right now if I weren’t here… If I were dead?”  “Well if you were dead, I’d have steak, mushrooms, and a spinach salad.  Then I’d go for a walk and listen to the birds.”  Done.  Evening planned, or decision made, according to the desires of one or the other of us. 
  25. Each of us believe that marriage requires a million tiny little positive investments, and that each positive investment will eventually yield rich dividends.  As a result, a neck rub, a clean kitchen, a meal prepared while the other rests after a hard day, are things we enjoy doing for each other.  We’ve recognized that the joy isn’t just in the moment, but that there will be joy later because of these tiny acts of kindness.
  26. We don’t watch much TV at all.
  27. When we argue, the win isn’t that one of us is right and one is wrong.  The win is that we both feel heard and honored by the time we’re done. 
  28. We both believe that God brought us together, and brings every couple together, in order to create a new union that will bless the world uniquely.  Because of this we have a sense of calling to be a blessing to others, and though we debate what that means and looks like, we are truly seeking to live into that calling.
  29. We are both able to say the hard thing to the other and know it will eventually be received. 
  30. We laugh nearly every single day and this seems, to me, to be a sign that we’re still having fun, and she’s still the one!
  31. We share some deep commitments to a body/soul/spirit theology that means we take exercise, food, stress managements, and sleep seriously, just as we take prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, and service seriously.
  32. We share some recreation, in particular hiking and downhill skiing. 
  33. Sharing recreation requires that we appreciate each other’s personalities.  I go fast and push for more.  She slows down to savor.  It’s a dance and we do it well enough that we genuinely enjoy our shared loves. 
  34. Traveling together has not only expanded our world, but increased our intimacy.  We’ve seen things in other parts of the world that have challenged our ways of thinking, and that we’ve seen them together has been helpful.
  35. We know each other’s love languages.  Hers is “words of affirmation” and mine is “time spent together”.  Knowing this and serving each other in these ways is huge.
  36. Christ is the foundation of our marriage in the sense that our completion in Christ is the well from which we’re able to draw so that we can serve and bless each other freely.
  37. Forgiveness.  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”. Ephesians 5:32

We’d love to hear what’s worked for you in the comments section.  Cheers!  

Playlists – Memorial Stones for the 21st Century

IMG_1105
retrieving our car meant enjoying this view again today!

My wife and I recently returned from a beautiful adventure, hiking 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and ending up at our front door!  A thousand times, or likely many more than that, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we’ve seen.  Even more, though, we were profoundly grateful for the rich privilege of being able to do this, for such a trip means we have means, health, access to God’s wilderness, time, and enough love for each other to still enjoy such adventures after 37 years together!  (all 87 pictures from that journey can be seen here if you’re interested!)

To make our trip a one way journey to our house we needed to drive to the trail head last week and walk from there.  Then today, we drove back and retrieved the car.  This meant that the drive from the trailhead back to our house was spent alone; just me and my itunes!  I hit the playlist I’d recently created, but not yet listened to intently, and then we began our drive out.  The first twelve miles of this trip was labelled as “not for city cars” and included a stream crossing which, though dry this time of year, was nonetheless a stony minefield for the underbellies of “smallish” cars like my Yaris!

We’re off, and I settle in to playing the game that is avoiding potholes and large stones on forest service roads, it’s not hard work, so I’m able to pay attention to the music I’m hearing.   After twelve miles of a wilderness version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I’m overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving to God because every song I heard was ripe with memories of times and places, and ways God met me.

Does music do that to you?  Do songs evoke specific memories with such power that you’re nearly transported through time and space to that very time and place when the song became meaningful?  Now, though, you’re there with the added benefits of wisdom and perspective that makes you appreciate how richly you’ve been blessed, or how faithfully you’ve been kept.

Remembering how you’ve been blessed, or kept, or guided, is more than a little bit important.  Remember the reality of God’s activity in the previous days of our lives is precisely what’s needed to sustain our joy, hope, confidence, and peace when everything appears to be falling apart.  God tells us this over and over again as seen here in just a word search of “remember” in Deuteronomy.

In the old days of what we call “Bible Times”, God often had people create signs as a means of remembering; stones in a river; a cord hanging from a window; some roasted lamb and a little flatbread – all these were at times signs intended to evoke memory.

Which brings me back to music, and today’s playlist, with every song evoking memory.   As I’m driving along, avoiding potholes, the past comes to life:

“Creed” by Rich Mullins: 

It’s 1994 and our little non-profit is making a promotional video for our summer wilderness Bible School.  We choose this song as background music for a slide show of climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking in the North Cascades.  We choose it because of one certain line in the music which says that we believe what we do because it is “the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”.  I believed it then, and believe it still – but between now and then, there have been many moments, days even, when the truth is I don’t have a clue what I believe.   I’ve doubted plenty – and yet God has been faithful and I’ve been able, again and again, to return to the rock that is my foundation.  I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I veer left and avoid a pothole.

“Speak O Lord” by Keith and Kristin Getty 

I’m at Seattle Pacific University, helping care for students after a school shooting left one dead, and a whole campus shaken.  This is the song sung at the special chapel service.  “Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, that the light of Christ may be seen today in our acts of love and our words of faith…”  That happened in the ensuing days, so that a newspaper with little sympathy for our faith called “The Stranger” would write: “The evening of the shooting, a 7 p.m. prayer service at SPU’s campus filled to overflowing. Let it be said: This community looks ready to heal itself. There were psalms and songs. The whole room sang along, harmonizing, louder and louder.”

The song reminds me that God has yoked my heart with Seattle, and the university students that study there.  I’d hear the song just about one year later in England, and the song would remind there that I need to be faithful to my calling, to not shrink back from the hard thing.  I’m grateful for the reminders of these moments today as I inhale the scent of pine mixed with dust from this dry road.

“100 Years” by Five for Fighting 

The song is seared in my memory because I heard it for the first time after spending a fall in New England with my wife to celebrate our anniversary.  We were growing older and knew it.  Friends were dying, and parents.  Life was moving on, and after walking through stunning colors and cheering on the Red Sox game six playoff victory over the Yankees at the Cheers Bar in Boston, we were heading home on i-95, listening to these words:

I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life

Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…

Indeed.  I’m reminded, every time I hear it, that life’s passing by quickly and every day – even the hard ones and boring ones, are a gift.

There are too many more to do this for each song, so I’ll leave you with “Shattered” by Trading Yesterday 

Here’s the part, in the chorus, that is deeply meaningful to me:

And I’ve lost who I am, and I can’t understand
Why my heart is so broken, rejecting your love
Without, love gone wrong; lifeless words carry on
But I know, all I know’s that the end’s beginning

Who I am from the start, take me home to my heart
Let me go and I will run, I will not be silent
All this time spent in vain; wasted years wasted gain
All is lost but hope remains and this war’s not over

I love this because it speaks to me of a time – no, of many times, when I’ve chosen the low road of fear, of cynicism, or pride, or worse; times when I’ve chosen death and indeed, I’ve lost who I am.  When I pay the price, I know that the end’s the beginning, because I know that at the bottom I’ll come to my senses and return to life and reality.

And the beauty of it, of course, is the promise though “all is lost, hope remains”  because “There’s a light, there’s a sun taking all these shattered ones to the place we belong, and his love will conquer all.”

I think of specific times, recently, when I’ve lost who I am, and yet his love has conquered.  It happens over and over again, friends, because the good news is nothing, if it’s not a story of being able to come home after running away!

There are half a dozen other songs representing significant moments –  after the death of a friend, after the completion of a book, a winter ski tour with my wife, a brother in-law’s battle with cancer.  Music and memory – for me they’re seared together beautifully, and this makes  playlists – this one anyway – a sort of “memorial stone”.  As I listen, I’m encouraged because I remember God’s been with me through good times and bad, through beauty and pain, and will be with me today, and tomorrow too, come what may!

What songs evoke worship and gratitude for you?  And if not songs, what evokes your memories of gratitude?  Smells?  Food? Places?