It’s Friday. That’s meant ski day for 90% of the past four months. I hit the web to see what’s opened, what’s groomed, what’s happening. Dismay: four different ski areas within 2 miles of my house – ALL CLOSED!!
All right then. It will be a day to put on the touring skis, which means attaching friction creating skins to the base of the skis and freeing the heel so that you can ski up the mountain. At the top you’ll peel the skins off, lock down the heel, and in a few minutes ski down what it just took you and hour to go up. Some might call it hard work. I call it discipleship – learning to follow Jesus step by step. Here’s why:
There’s a calling
I cast my gaze to the ridge, the goal, some 1300plus feet above, It’s too far. Too steep. Too much. There’s an immediate visceral reaction, dwelling up a dozen or more excuses why this “isn’t a good day” for this. It’s cloudy – there’s no view to bring me joy. It might rain. I slept poorly last night. The snow’s thick, mushy. Not spoken, but the real reasons: it’s stinking hard work to walk uphill in slushy snow with skis on.
So why go? Here’s the crazy thing. I go because as John Muir said,
“the mountains are calling and I MUST go” – good weather or poor; tired or bursting with eagerness; it matters not, because the mountains themselves really are actually calling. I want to be in them, up them, challenged and transformed by their terrain; ravished and refreshed by their beauty. “I must go”
That’s discipleship too. We see, in the distance, a different life: freed from addiction, or fear, or shame. Or maybe we see a different world because Jesus and the prophets pointed to a world of peace, reconciliation, and the end of human trafficking and disease, to name just a few things. We see it out there in the distance, and we want to go there, be there – and with Christ alive in us, it seems we must take the journey!
That’s part of what calling means. And when that voice from higher up the mountain is calling, I pray you’ll go. There’ll be reasons not to, always, as Jesus warned us. Too busy. Too tired. Too tied down. Too preoccupied with the trinkets acquired by wealth. Your favorite team’s playing today. Theres’s always a reason to stay home, but if you listen carefully enough, you hear the voice of calling, and if hear it…don’t hesitate: go!
There’s a disillusionment –
It doesn’t take long to feel the effort of the journey. There’s something in me that want’s to call it quits about 500 meters in and 100 meters up because breathing is labored, legs are feeling heavy, and sweat is leaking out my skin as a means of cooling me, so that when I stop I’m not cool – I’m cold. “Is it worth it?” “I could be at home reading.” “It makes sense that I’m the only one here. Who does this?” “I could turn around now and nobody would be the wiser.”
And so it goes, in our brains, sometime after we’ve begun our pursuit of Christ too. This is because self-denial, though life giving over the long haul, is wearying in the moment. There are disciplines to discipleship, enough so that the words have the same root, and that root includes the reality of some suffering.
We all suffer. But who suffers willingly? Disciples, apparently, because Jesus said that unless we’re willing to deny ourselves, we can’t be disciples.
If we’re going to deny ourselves, then, we need some compelling vision that will allow us to transcend the gravities which pull us down into self indulgence. The vision for my little ski adventure is the thought that at the end of it there will have been both encounters with beauty and a strengthening of heart – both gifts, yes – but earned with the currency of suffering. Imagine that.
For the disciple, the self-denial and suffering produces strength of heart too, but in a different way. We become people whose lives are increasingly characterized by joy, patience, hope, peace, and generosity. We could quit the journey and indulge ourselves, or press on and enjoy this kind of beauty and transformation. That why vision matters so much. Without a reminder of what’s being produced in me, I simply won’t proceed. It’s the vision of transformation that keeps me going.
There’s a mindfulness –
Moving up steep snow on skis is an acquired skill, and the steeper the snow, the steeper the learning curve. As the initial gradual slope steepens, I’ve no longer any time to think about how painful it is, or whether I want to quit or continue. At its steepest the journey requires total focus: “slide ski upward – shift all body weight to directly above the binding, so as to mitigate risk of sliding backwards – fight the intuitive notion to lean into the mountain, committing to stay upright instead. Repeat”
My favorite hobbies have historically been skiing, rock climbing and fishing because these three disciplines require a total focus, and the total focus has a marvelous way of silencing the chatter of the mind. Such silence is life giving, wisdom imparting, and maturing.
We don’t do it well, if we’re honest. We’re easily distracted by our phones, our tunes, and our screens. And if that isn’t bad enough, when all three are absent, our mind has tricky ways of creating its own chatter, and the price is costly as seen in this excellent book.
Jesus hits on this when he tells us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” It’s his way of inviting us to be fully present. Here. Now. A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said it this way: “When you are overwhelmed and your mind it talking too much, you need to calm down and simply do the next thing.” Indeed. It’s not just a question of getting stuff done, it’s a question of growing wise because wisdom is, at the core, related to our capacity to be “all there” wherever we are, and this is a skill that’s disappearing. I’m not on my cell phone when I need to focus on putting all my body weight above my ski on a 32 degree slope. I’m all in. I’m invited, indeed called, to be “all in” most of the time: conversations made up of real listening and presence, reading, prayer, sharing a meal with friends. We’re at our best and look most like Jesus when we’re doing one thing at a time.
There’s joy –
Step by step (hence the name of this blog) I ascend upward. Step by step in real life means another diaper, another meal, another encouraging word to a co-worker, or a confession, or a moment of hospitality with a neighbor. Like ski touring, no single step seems significant, but every single step matters. This is because our lives aren’t, in reality, highlight reels of profound moments, but a ten thousand regular steps followed by a summit moment.
When I arrive at the top on this Friday, there’s nothing to see.
Fog’s set in, and everything is white other than trees right in front of me. Still, I know it’s been worth it. And there’ll be a different skill set, and a different joy on the way down.
Sometimes, too, your best efforts to follow Jesus won’t result in a highlight reel moment. And then you’ll move on. It’s fine. You know you’ve taken the steps, followed the call, done the right thing. That’s discipleship and the more you do it, the more you know you’ll do it again tomorrow, because there’ll be another calling, and you’ll say yes because its become who you are!
O Lord of the mountains and valleys.
Grant that we might first have ears to hear your call – in the cry of child, a neighbor, a refugee. Give us grace, I pray, not only to hear, but go, and endurance to continue when we feel like quitting. Thank you for the gift and discipline of mindful presence, and the circumstances that help us develop it. May we celebrate those times rather than dread them. And above all, thank you for standing on the mountain with your disciples so that we’re able, here and now, to have a glimpse of the summit that’s worth it all – Your reign made visible in our lives and world. Give us eyes to see it. Every single day.
In your great name we pray…
In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah. It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching. Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked. I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of it all… cheers!
Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause. In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away. I, the Lord, affirm it! I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”
God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden. This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome. Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money. Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help. Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another. In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.
Not burdensome? Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:
What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?
What God’s thinking about is the big picture. When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself. Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths
There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment. This is one of the most important truths in the universe. You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart. You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.
Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day. The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts. The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation. The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.
You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden. But in the end? The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy. They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.
God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers. They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest. In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden. To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway. Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy. Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.
Christ’s motivator was joy!
He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice. In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed. And yet he said his commands were not burdensome! Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?
Not at all. We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him. Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”. We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden. I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory. One taste though, and we’re hooked. When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.
A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.
And we think God’s commands are burdensome? Maybe we should reconsider. After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”
To suffering. To self-denial. To service. To life!
I welcome your thoughts….
It was just over a year ago that my mom-in-law came to visit, and some health matters made it clear it would be best for her to stay with us. This set in motion a series of events that led to my wife and I moving east of Seattle a bit, up into the mountains, where we’d planned to move eventually anyway. The self contained apartment has become my mom-in-law’s home, and she’s pure delight to have with us. We’ve rented a tiny place next to the church in the city so I can skip horrific commutes and be “down” (as we say at the pass) on a regular basis, but selling our “big house” was the obvious next step. My lovely wife’s been preparing it for market with paint and care this past week. Of course, each brush stroke brought memories. Here are her thoughts….
Yes, these walls can talk. As I find myself sitting on the hardwood floor with mahogany inlay, painting the baseboards of my Greenlake house in Seattle, I’m hearing the sounds of Legos being spilled out, the vacuum cleaner chasing dust bunnies, tap dancing on the indestructible 1920’s kitchen flooring, violins and piano echoing off the lathe & plaster walls, drums pulsing from the basement, thumps from the climbing wall in the attic. As we prepare to sell our home of the past twenty years, the flood of memories is at times overwhelming. I always said that this little house had “good bones” but my family have been the ones who have fleshed it out and given it life for these past two decades, coming and going, filling it with laughter and joy and questions and tears and decisions and major life events of every kind, mostly documented in photos at the front door before heading out on another adventure.
We found the house on a Sunday in December 1995, the FOR SALE sign having been put out the night before. Richard turned one street too early for the café he was headed that morning but that “wrong turn” led him past the house that was to become our home later that day. We made an offer an hour after seeing it and moved in within a month. It was a house like no other we had lived in; hard wood floors, white plaster walls, tiny kitchen, treeless back yard, neighbors within hearing distance on all sides. Over time, we learned to lower our indoor voices and wash dishes by hand. We planted trees in the yard that grew into our own forest retreat and discovered many, many special friends in the surrounding houses.
Around year five, I ventured into adding color to the walls and have since painted every room and hallway in the house. And they’re not neutral colors. Most are bold and bright. They’re not of the same color palette so they may be puzzling to potential buyers or new owners. But for me, the matriarch of this home, they are telling me story after story of the inhabitants of each room. I know, that under this freshly painted “guest room” in the basement, there are lovely blue walls with fluffy white clouds near the ceiling, carefully sponged on by our oldest daughter in her room where she filled journals with creative stories. The bright yellow room on the main floor has always been bright yellow, just like our bouncy youngest daughter who covered most of the walls with drama production posters and pictures with friends (hence needing to be repainted once we peeled the paint with each removal.) The dark forest green room belonged to our equally artistic son who choose to glue his excellent black and white photography masterpieces to the walls (in addition to a pastel mural drawn on one wall that never quite washed off as expected) but fresh paint repaired all that.
The Paprika red basement family room housed many late night slumber parties and “Basement Club” meals and movie events as well as hundreds of college students who found their way to our house for the Final Four Basketball Championships for several years. The bright green living room-turned dining room hosted our oldest daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner, hearing stories of how this group of thirty people happened to gather from all around the world to celebrate this special event. Birthday parties, holiday meals, ordinary meals, small group gatherings, meetings of many sorts, fill the dining room with stories. I’ll always remember my mother-in-law sitting for hours at the front window, reporting on all the comings and goings of the neighbors or my dad who was the last one to bring order to my workbench in the garage, many years ago.
The attic was what sold us on the house twenty years ago. The top floor became our master bedroom, our place of intimacy and “retreat” after long days. The same friend who built our indoor climbing wall also paneled the ceiling in knotty pine to match our log bed that was clamored upon every Christmas morning by our three children, no matter how old they became. We hung an Austrian cow bell on the front door to alert us when the kids came home and I’ll never forget the sound of the door opening to the stairwell while waiting for them to come up and check in. Sometimes there were long conversations, perched at the foot of the bed, about the event from which they had just returned and sometimes it was just a kiss goodnight, but always, a feeling of relief that they were home, safe and sound.
And then there is the kitchen. It was a difficult adjustment when we moved in, being about one third the size of my former kitchen. It has a smaller than average refrigerator and no automatic dishwasher and yet I’m proud to say that I managed to raise three very responsible adults from this kitchen. I’m fairly confident that potential buyers will see my woefully ill-equipped kitchen as a liability, but they will be mistaken. I think our step-saver kitchen has been our greatest asset. It taught us all to be creative. It taught me contentment. It always became the gathering place for conversation while chopping vegetables or stirring at the stove or scooting someone aside to open the oven door. And I’ve also discovered that there is something magical about soapy dishwater, lending itself to camaraderie and honest conversation. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned kitchen with old-fashioned values but the cabinets have a fresh coat of paint and shiny new knobs that may very well get pulled out by new owners, but they served our family well and the many guests whom we were privileged to host.
I know it’s silly to get sentimental about a house, but I’m going to just let the tears flow and pray that the next family is blessed by the stories imbedded in these walls. Thank you, sturdy little house, for protecting us from storms, within and without, for rooting us deeply in this neighborhood and in this city, and for filling our lives with tremendous memories. May the next occupants be sheltered well by your walls, making our sturdy little house a home once again.
One of the reasons I love living in the mountains is because the weather changes dramatically, almost all the time. Waking up in the morning is a bit like unwrapping a fresh present each day whose content is utterly unknown. Will it be like a warm cup of coffee enhanced with the light of a thousand candles and the fragrance of fresh blossoms, or ice, wind, and darkness, stark in its beauty, but hard to handle nonetheless, especially in April.
It turned dark late this past Friday afternoon, and the mixed snow and rain turned to just snow, pure and white, cold in her beauty, relentless in her covering of every fresh blossom of spring. We watched with a bit of anxiety as the fresh blossoms in the hanging baskets were blanketed in signs of winter, and sat by the window with our relatives from California, watching winter fall from the sky on April 24th.
Saturday morning when we woke everything was under a white blanket as we gathered with our neighbors for our morning walk. Halfway through the walk, I left them for a run, and by the time I returned, heading east toward my street, there was a blazing sunrise, back lighting the trees like we were in a studio somewhere, only better.
I stopped, overwhelmed by the beauty of it, but not for long, as I finished my run, got my camera and returned, shooting a dozen pictures before the bacon was even in the pan. Why? Two reasons:
1. Snow in spring is reminder of how the story ends, and this gives me hope.
There’s enough news of brokenness these days to make our heads spin. Yemen. Isis. Baltimore. Nepal. Syria and poisonous gas. Maybe some can just shut it all out by turning up the baseball game or chatting about their latest investments or a vacation plans to Europe, but I can’t. Day after day, the avalanche of suffering and death, most of it inflicted on humanity by humanity, leaves me reeling, wondering if these storms won’t in the end, carry the day, the way snow around here usually wins by Thanksgiving, covering everything and hiding all signs of life until sometime around high school graduations. I wonder if peace will ever happen, if oppression will ever end.
The same thing happens personally sometimes. There are setbacks. We break promises made to ourselves, or are suddenly wallowing in the deep freeze of broken relationships, when only a few days earlier we were basking the warmth of the Holy Spirit’s gentle turning of our hearts toward God in some area. We feel as divided as fresh blossoms blanketed in ice and we wonder. “Who are we really? And who are we becoming?”
The good news of the Gospel is that we, along with the whole cosmos, are heading toward an end when everything will be shot through with the glory of God. All wars will be over. All relationships will be reconciled. All diseases will be healed. Every tear will be dried up.
We know this because Easter is like a fresh blossom in spring, “the first fruits of the resurrection” we’re told. That means the snows of suffering we see these days whether in Yemen or in our own hearts, are winter’s last gasp. New Life is inexorably growing and will continue its miraculous and healing work until all things are made new.
If I didn’t believe that, I’d quit my job, never watch the news again, and confine myself to the pure pursuit of pleasure. Why not, if winter wins in the end? But of course, winter doesn’t win… so Paul, with promise of eternal spring in mind, reminds us to get on with making springtime visible: “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord…” This is what gives me hope, what gets me up in the morning, what gives me a love for my calling.
2. Snow in spring is a reminder that there’ll be storms until the sun reigns completely.
When we walk with our neighbors during these crazy spring snow storms, nobody’s afraid that we’re going to miss summer. In spite of the thick white everywhere, there’s a quiet confidence in the inevitability of the sun’s power, and this confidence sucks all power out of the storm. The fear is gone.
You’ve had faith setbacks, relationship setbacks, financial hardships, health challenges. We all have, in varying measure. And yet, the reality is that these things aren’t the biggest challenge most of the time. Most of the time the big challenge is our reaction to these things, and all the drama we bring to the situation. It’s as if we’re worried that April snow is going to kill God’s love for us, or that this setback will spell the end of our marriage, or this unimaginable loss means there is no God at all.
The truth of the matter, though, is that these are April snow storms. In spite of the thorough victory acheived at the cross and resurrection, we’re told explicitly that “we do not yet see all things subject to him” which is God’s way of saying that it snows in April, May, even in July and August if you live in the high country of vibrant faith.
You’ll be cold alright. The ice will inflame your heart with a longing for God’s divine fire. As a result, precisely because of the storm, you’ll know facets of God’s character you’d never have otherwise seen, and grow in confidence that God’s trajectory is assured, that we are, indeed, moving “from glory to glory”.
Is it snowing in your life just now? Know that underneath it all, the strong juice of Christ’s resurrection life is working its relentless purposes toward peace, beauty, hope, and joy.
O Lord of all seasons
We thank you for the inevitability of spring, for the hope found in the cycles of renewal that reminds us of where history is heading. Grant that we might be people of hope in spite of the storms that blast us, knowing that through it all, your life is filling us, changing us, and making us fruitful.
“Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.” Exodus 24:1,2
When climbers are headed up to Mt. Rainier through the Camp Muir route, they start in the parking lot of a place called “Paradise” which is the highest point to which one can drive in this beautiful national park. This turns Paradise, at any given moments, into a weird mix of highly skilled mountaineers, beginners who are hoping to make it to the summit, and masses of people who will never leave the paved paths, ever, as long as they live. They’re decked out in L.L. Bean’s newest and best, or REI tech gear, or whatever, slurping ice cream in the parking lot. They’re peering through those coin operated telescopes to get a glimpse of the glacier before snapping a selfie with the imposing massif in the background, and calling it their “outdoor challenge for the year”.
The climbers are in the mix with the masses, but not for long. They get their permit from a little office, use the bathroom, maybe grab one last taste of actual food for a few days, and that’s it, they’re gone, headed up for the summit. When the paved path ends, the tourists turn around, while the rest step onto actual soil, and eventually snow, pressing onward, upward. Even among the climbers, not everyone will continue to the top. Camp Muir, at 10,400’ is the next common drop out point, as the realities of altitude sickness, sunburn, loss of appetite, cold, thirst, nausea, or any other number of factors will lead yet another group to say “far enough”.
Finally, there will be those who leave base camp the next morning with every intention of summiting. They thought they’d prepared well enough, thought that riding their bicycle to work and doing the “7 minute workout” app on their phone twice a week would adequately prepare them for carrying 40 pounds on their back up one and a half vertical miles of snow, rock, and ice, into the thin air above treeline, where rockfall, avalanches, and crevasses hidden in the glaciers present a large menu of ways to die. Somewhere before the summit they say, “this is good enough for me!” and either descend or stay put and wait for their group to go up and then join them on their descent. The herd self selects out of further progress until only the best prepared, most courageous, and most diligent, make it to the top.
When God’s about to give the law to Israel as a centerpiece of establishing the new nation, a similar culling of the herd occurs. God sets a boundary around the mountain and invites only Moses and his key leaders to ascend beyond the parking lot. Then, beyond the high base camp, it’s to be only Moses. Though he takes his successor, named Joshua, with him some distance, there’s no indication that Joshua summits. At the top it’s Moses. Alone with God.
In this story God’s the one who sets the boundaries around the mountain and keeps people away. There are reasons for that, in that time and place, but they don’t apply to us (as I’ll write about in the forthcoming book, of which this post is a part).
We’re living in a time when summiting the pinnacle of intimacy with God is available to everyone because the barriers to the summit were annihilated at the cross. Still, the same Christ who broke down the barriers said that the road to the summit is narrow (ref) and, like Mt. Rainier, there are few who actually find it. There’s a parking lot filled with religion. Jesus stickers and t-shirts are for sale, and lots people looking “a couple dollar’s worth of God”. The parking lot is the Sunday meeting, and there are folks there for the photo ops and real estate contacts. If there’s a little entertainment or even a dose of conviction along the way, so be it. But they’ve not intention of going farther. Others will hit the trail until the pavement ends. Some fewer will keep going a bit further, until there’s more hard stuff than joyful stuff, at which point they turn around, in search of safety, predictability, warmth.
If Christ’s blown up the barriers to the summit, then what’s holding anyone back? The answer can be found by switching metaphors, because a quick glance at Jesus’ parable of the seed and sower explains why “some seeds don’t produce fruit”, which is the same thing, metaphorically, as not reaching the summit. And what are the reasons? O you know; the usual suspects: affliction, worry, the lying seductions of wealth. There are, in other words, lots of reasons to descend to the parking lot of religious carnivals.
“Up” is about the pursuit of intimacy with God, about Christ becoming, in real ways, a friend, companion, lover even, in the daily stuff of living. Getting there, Jesus is saying, doesn’t happen by accident, any more than you wake up one morning having run a marathon, or summiting Rainier. It requires intentionality, prioritizing, and pressing on toward the goal when others stop. It requires shedding stuff, so that by the end, there’s one true pursuit to which all other pursuits give way.
“Right Intentions” is the starting point: the way of fruitful discipleship. Making intimacy with Christ your summit goal will be simple because you need to travel light if you’re going to travel at all. It will be hard because it requires letting go of stuff the majority carry with them daily, stuff like self-medicating when disappointed, and being defined by consumerism and what we own, and feeding on a diet of entertainment rather than creativity. It’s beautiful because the glory of meeting Christ in thin and unpolluted air will ravish you. It’s ugly because you want to quit due to pain, more than once.
Where on this mountain called discipleship, are you headed? If it’s the summit of intimacy, know that it takes more than the right gear. It takes traveling light, endurance, and a hunger for the summit of knowing Christ like a lover. Who’s in? The rest of you? Enjoy the telescopes and ice-cream. I’ll see you later.
O God of the summit invitation
Thank you for inviting us to ascend utterly. Stir in our hearts a discontent for the tourist faith that’s commonplace, where signing a card and signing a song, substitute for radical discipleship. Fill us with a longing for the summit instead, and teach us to travel light, shedding the fears, bitterness, lusts, and attachments that the whole world seems to carry on its collective back this days. When we tire, give us the grace to take next steps, and rest, and celebrate beauty. But may we never, ever turn back short of knowing you fully.
In the avalanche of words that constitute our lives, I hope that for each of us there are particular conversations and moments that stand out as especially meaningful. Such words remain, long after the vast majority have evaporated, and they remain for good reason. They’re life giving, and wise. Here are five sentences filled with wisdom that I’ve received over the years, offered in hopes that they’ll be helpful to you as well. Enjoy!
1. Make knowing God the number one priority in your life. This was the word spoken to me from Jeremiah 9 when I was 20 years old and I realized at the moment that “knowing God” was at best, a peripheral pursuit in my life, far behind vocational aspirations, financial security, and having a little bit of fun. I was not only convicted by the truth of Jeremiah’s words, but I was drawn by their simplicity. In a world where I’m constantly being told to readjust my priorities to include P90X, wise investing, taking a cruise, losing weight, getting an advanced degree, finding cheaper insurance, avoiding cancer, finding my calling, protecting my identity from thieves, and about a thousand other things, the notion that the deepest joy in life can come from simply enjoying intimacy with my creator was stunningly beautiful. I’ve since come to see that truth in many texts, and have experienced the bliss, at my best, of knowing “the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”. This is the North Star to which I return over and over again.
2. Everyone knows how rotten they are – they need to know how gifted and loved they are. My friend Jim said this while I was in architecture school, and he practiced it too. I was a wreck at the time, body, soul, and spirit—and yet felt encouraged and affirmed by this wild eyed Jesus fanatic who also happened to be a great architecture student. But what struck me most about him was his real, demonstrable knack for encouraging and loving people. When I asked him about it one day, he said this; “People know their own shortcomings, but need to know they’re loved.” At my best, I seek to remind people of this too. At my worst, I default, not to hyper criticism, but benign neglect, which might even be worse!
3. When you have too much to do and you’re overwhelmed – remember to let the peace of Christ reign in the moment. Breathe deeply. Do the next thing. This word comes from Elisabeth Elliot, wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliot. She no doubt faced an ocean of suffering and questions after her husband’s untimely death at the hands of the Auca Indians, and yet she managed to keep her wits. Eventually she would return to minister among the very tribe that killed her husband, and after that, return to Wheaton College with the newly saved man who was the killer. He stood in chapel at Wheaton and declared himself as a Christ follower because of this woman’s faithfulness. That faithfulness was micro, step by step, in the wake of loss. All those little steps built a life. Nothing’s changed since then. Books are written a word at a time, churches built a sermon, prayer, visit at a time; children raised, a meal, bedtime story, teachable moment at a time. The good life is neither microwavable nor achievable without a million “next things” being done—step by step.
4. If you have a million dollars, but you don’t have a leader, you don’t have anything. If you have a leader and a nickel… you have a significant future. Ray Harrison, founder of the International Needs ministry our church supports, told me this in response to my question: “When people give you unrestricted funds, how do you decide what to do with them?” His answer: “Invest in good leaders, because…” and then he said what I wrote above. The word has served me well in my own leadership role, and has been confirmed time and again. A good leader will be exerting influence even without money or a title and so, ironically, will likely gain both.
5. Take care of your whole self. You are body, soul, spirit. In all three areas, rest, exercise, and what you eat, matter. This comes from my friend who runs a Bible based wilderness program in Austria where I teach, and from I Thessalonians 5, where Paul prays that we’d all prosper in all three areas. I’ve come to see that my life is an eco-system and that body neglect will affect my spiritual life just as spirit neglect will harm my body. As a result, I try to get enough sleep and also spend time “letting the peace of Christ” rule in my heart. I try to eat good food, and ingest healthy reading material for spirit and soul as well. Whole life discipleship is the only kind of discipleship worth pursuing.
It’s an overwhelming world at times, and this is why the wisdom that’s risen to the top like cream and stayed there, is so very important. We’re at risk in a world where anchors are disappearing daily, of being tossed around, squandering the precious gift of our daily lives because we just don’t know what to do next. But these words have anchored me more than once, and so I’ll be forever grateful for those folk who spoke them and lived them.
In the morning on Sunday, I preached about paying attention by quoting Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 13 where he says, “Are you listening? Really listening?” Jesus says that because stuff doesn’t “just happen”. Stuff happens, and it elicits a response in our hearts, some mighty Yes, or No!, or tears of rage, or shouts of joy. 9/11 did that. Sunrises do that, and coffee, and funerals. Making love? News of terror attacks? Conversations with those whose beliefs are different than yours? Yes. Lots of events elicit response. But a football game? Absolutely…
The touchdown pass in overtime yesterday shook the city. Literally. The stadium was equipped with earthquake censors for some tests, and when the Wilson to Kearse pass was completed it was game over, but the shaking had just begun. Hugs and irrational joy in the basement of my friend’s house where we were watching were matched by fireworks outside and the commencement of a celebration that would last well into the night throughout the city. Clichés about it not being over ’til its over ricocheted off the walls of skyscrapers downtown, intermingled with the tears of those who left early, or tweeted too soon about boycotting cheese and other nonsense.
I had the privilege of driving all the way home, an hour east of Seattle, late at night when I’d caught my breath, and I did something I never do. I listened to sports radio. It was there I learned that the last pass of the game was really a story of redemption. Kearse, you see, wasn’t always a starter. He worked his way onto the practice squad, before making his way to first string in 2013, a local success story coming from the University of Washington.
But yesterday’s performance was anything but successful. In the first half, QB Wilson threw his way three times with the results: three interceptions. The ball didn’t come his way again until 5:06 left in the game, at which point the pass once again bounced out of his hands, resulting in an interception.
By any definition, his was a terrible day. The kind of day that makes you wonder why you’re even bothering to show up. He said after the game: “There’s some plays I felt like I could have made. I could have stopped some plays from happening on interceptions. I could have just turned the defender and tried to knock the ball down.” Yes, and he could have caught two passes too, which instead became interceptions.
Summary: Not just 0-4. Each pass was intercepted!
So of course, it makes sense that, after a miracle comeback which led to overtime, QB Wilson would tell his coach during the break: “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown.” To quote our local Seahawks radio voice, Steve Raible, “Are you kidding me?”
No. He’s not kidding at all. He’s a believer in the reality that every play is like a new day, that by God, we’re not going to be defined by our failures; that fall we will, but though we fall we’ll get up.
Sound familiar? Maybe not, if you live in the world of business, the world which says, “past performance is the best indicator of future reality,” the world which drops you when you drop the ball, the world of performance-based approval.
This, as you may know, is much of our world. We’re defined, as often as not, by our singular failures, which in a world of conditional love serve to sideline us rather than transform us. QB’s get exasperated and determine to throw to someone else. Managers fire us, or move us to a basement office.
And then there’s Jesus with Peter. No, it wasn’t four missed catches. It was three outright denials of any affiliation with Jesus the Christ. It was fear, hubris, lying, shame, defeat. In the end he’s even worthless as a fisherman.
So what does Jesus do after three denials and a failed night of fishing? He meets Peter and puts him in charge of the church during its infancy. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, along with some other charges and a prediction that the job will cost him his life as a martyr. Peter will go on to preach the first sermon with a boldness and fire that was utterly other than the man standing by the fire who didn’t have the guts to even let the servant girl know that he knew Christ. Cowardice to Courage—Failure to Faith. It’s nearly as good as the football story, maybe better—and equally true.
“But God… being rich in mercy” is how Paul interprets this somewhere. What he’s saying is that God delights in making unlikely heroes, in writing unlikely stories. That’s why the game yesterday was more than just a game—at least for those who know how to pay attention.
It was my birthday yesterday too, and as I received kind notes of encouragement for folks in many parts of the world, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to Christ for continuing to throw to me after what seems like a nearly infinite number of dropped passes.
The gospel is a story of redemption, of God intervening in a performance world and writing an unlikely script with unlikely players. A punter from Canada throws a touchdown pass to a lineman. A third-round draft pick deemed “too short” by every talking head in the sports world tosses a pass to a guy who barely made the practice squad at one point, and had been, to say the least, “unhelpful” all day today. And the results?
Are you kidding me?
Such stories aren’t just for football. They’re the gospel. Illustrated. If we pay attention.
‘O Lord Christ
Thanks be to you for inviting us into your story, for keeping us on the field when we want to quit, for teaching us through failure, for believing in our capacity to live into your calling in our lives even when we don’t believe in ourselves. Give us the grace to say yes, and open our arms, and receive. When we respond with delight and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You’ll say, ‘Not at all – this is the gospel.’ And we’ll rejoice. Amen.
I’m coming home next week “aware of a million failures”. There are “church fails” in my city. “Health care fails” in Texas. “Personal failures” on the list of summits and huts I didn’t reach, chapters I’ve not yet written, spiritual habits I’ve not yet mastered. My conversations these past weeks have largely been with people who are deeply aware of both their own failings and the failings of others, and who wonder what to do next. That’s why I wrote this post.
Failure isn’t really the main problem in this world. There are remedies for failures, and often clear steps to take so that in the wake of failure our lives can be stronger, richer, more compassionate, and more honest than they ever might have been without failing at all.
So failure’s not the biggest problem any of us face. The critical moments are the steps we take immediately after though. It’s those steps that will become the main determinants of our future. So here’s a quick and (I hope) practical guide, offering both critical steps to avoid and critical steps to take, after failure.
Steps to Avoid
Denial – Rock climbing is nice because a fail is always an obvious failure. It can be valuable and transformative, but it’s always a failure. Nobody cheers when you fall. I wish all of life were that easy because perhaps the biggest problem with respect to many failures is that we remain blissfully and intentionally unaware. We’ve got a temper problem, or control problem, or abuse problem, or a drinking problem, but don’t see it. In our own minds though, we’re just social drinkers, and have the guts to tell the truth when nobody else will, or to take control of things, or to put people in their place so that things can get done.
Any failure that remains hidden will be repeated over and over again until it becomes a deep part of our character. This is the first and primary reason we’re a world of addicts and abusers. If we could ever move beyond the denial stage, we’d eventually do the beautiful and hard work of transformation, but until we overcome denial, we can’t overcome anything else. This applies, of course, to persons and institutions. A relentless commitment to uncovering reality, or “ground truth” as Susan Scott likes to say, is not the solution to anything—but it’s surely the first step for everything.
Of course, it’s easier to see your failures than mine. There’s no shortage of critics in this world. That’s why I love David in the Bible. His interest was in his own transformation when he prayed that God would search his heart and “reveal any unclean ways”. Try praying that, and the remedy for failure will begin to work immediately!
Blame – Once I’ve embraced the reality of the situation, it’s vital that I own my part. If it’s marriage, or church, or the corporate world, I’ll be sorely tempted to deflect my responsibility for the problem by blaming “circumstances beyond my control”. You know the suspects: spouse, board, pastor, co-worker, boss.
Of course there are circumstances beyond our control, but our response to those circumstances is entirely ours. We were free to leave and we stayed, or vice versa. We were free to respond with grace, but we lashed out. We were free to find comfort in some redemptive way, but we self-medicated with drugs, or porn, or drink, or shopping instead. It happened. Don’t blame the others.
Shame/Cynicism – For lots of Christ followers these twins are the biggest problems. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, they both have the effect of taking us out of God’s story. Embrace shame and you’ll say that you’re nothing but rubbish, and that God has nothing for you, and can’t/won’t use the likes of you. Don’t believe it for two seconds. A quick overview of the Bible shows us that some of the people most deeply involved in God’s story had also sold family members as slaves, slept with their daughter-in-law, committed adultery and murdered the husband, had a quick temper and rushed to judgement, doubted, had arrogance problems until their catastrophic failure forced confession etc., etc. O yes. God can use you. Whether you stay in the game or go to the bench for a break is God’s prerogative, not yours. But don’t preemptively bench yourself—you may never get back in.
Steps to Take
Embrace – This is really the positive flip side of denial. “Yes” we say, to ourselves if our failure is private, or to the one or ones we’ve hurt if public, “I failed—I own it without excuses.” You drank too much, or ate too much, or look back at your week and see that you didn’t pursue Christ, or exercise, or engage your neighbors in conversation, or whatever it was that you said you’d do and didn’t.
Own it. In the Bible this is called confession, and we’re told it’s the key to moving forward, both with relationships, and in our own internal freedom. I needed to do this again this morning—and pray it will remain a lifestyle for the rest of my days.
Learn – This principle requires more space than a sub-point in a blog post, but it’s vital. If you failed to a reach a goal, maybe it’s too big a goal and you need to adjust, or maybe it was just a bad week and you need to start fresh tomorrow. If it’s some besetting sin like anger, drinking, cynicism, or unhealthy sex, you need to discover why you go there; what are the triggers that move you, and how can you avoid them?
How can you build your life differently to favor transformation? Do you need accountability? Counseling? A chat with a friend who’ll walk with you in pursuit of your transformation? Someone to exercise with? Find your next step and take it.
Receive – Receive forgiveness from Christ, and hopefully from others, if others are involved. It’s vital to believe we’re forgiven because there’ll be a little shadow creature perched on your shoulder telling you that you are your failure, that you’ll never get over it, that you’re worthless rubbish and “why bother”—all in an attempt to keep you stuck in your patterns and failure. Give that voice the finger please—any finger you want, as long as the result is that you stand in the truth that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
Continue – I watched a little kid take an epic fall skiing a couple years ago. I was heading up on the lift and I saw him lose control, fall, slide 150′ down the hill, scraping his face on ice the whole way, and then screaming as he lay there in pain. I quickly got off the lift and skied down to see if I could help or call ski patrol. By the time I got there, he was putting his skis on again and within seconds was off again, bombing down the mountain.
I thought to myself, “Learn from this, R. This is how you fall and fail well. Whatever else you do, you need to get up and carry on.”
Please don’t misunderstand this critical last step. I’m not suggesting that we simply proceed as if nothing’s happened. Do that and we’ll just fall harder the next time. There’s a time to leave your job; or your church; or your leadership position, or your abusive relationship. The steps we’ll need to take in order to be free and really grow often require dramatic changes.
But, and here’s the key, they are changes toward transformation. Wisdom will be able to identify the steps God has for us. Leave your position. Change your church. File for separation and insist that your spouse get help precisely because you want a loving marriage rather than a shell. Join a gym. Find a program that limits your time on social media. Whatever it is… do it.
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.