The Disciplines of Self Care – (Why your Oxygen mask must go on first)

Years ago I found myself in a debate over an organization’s mission statement.  At the time it read, “meeting people at their point of need and enabling them to become all God had in mind when God made them”  I liked it, but others didn’t.  “Too consumeristic” they said, declaring that this kind of mission statement feeds narcissism, with the result that “having my needs met” would become the only thing people would care about.  It’s a legitimate concern.  The older I become, the more firmly I believe that the end goal of our lives is to become these full containers that are overflowing with compassion, generosity, courage, beauty, and creativity.  These things are a far cry from the consumerism that prevails in both the marketplace and churches of today.  And yet, the older I get, the more I stand by my statement that having our needs met isn’t just important, it’s foundational.  Until we receive, we’re unable to give.  Here’s what I mean….

You’re no doubt aware of the Mt. Everest spectacles this year.  With overcrowding and unnecessary deaths, the events of this summer hearken back to the 1996 climbing season when eight climbers died on Mount Everest during a storm. It was the worst loss of life ever on the mountain on a single day. Author Jon Krakauer, who himself attempted to climb the peak that year, wrote a best-selling book about the incident, Into Thin Air, which was published in 1997.  Anatoli Boukreev, also guiding on Everest that year, also published a book about the events entitled, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest.  (The two books offer a fascinating look at how two people, participating in the same events, can recall differently, highlight different things, and interpret the same exact events dramatically differently, attaching totally different motives to a person’s actions.  This makes for interesting consideration of how we read the Bible, but that’s a different topic, for a different day)

Boukreev, the Russian guide working for Seattle guide Scott Fisher, had taken his clients to the top earliest in the day.  He descended to the nearest camp without his clients, where he brewed tea, fortified himself, and then went back up the mountain to work on rescue operations.  Here’s an excerpt from Boukreev’s book explaining the situation:

“I said to Scott that the ascent seemed to be going slowly, and I was concerned that descending climbers could possibly run out of oxygen before their return to Camp IV (at 7,900 m). I explained that I wanted to descend as quickly as possible to Camp IV to warm myself and get a supply of hot drink and oxygen in case I might need to go back up the mountain to assist descending climbers. Scott, as had Rob Hall before him, said ‘OK’ to this plan.”

Some said Boukreev was selfish to go down.  But one article describes the value of how his time of rest for what came next:

Six people needed help and only Boukreev was willing to go out. With tea and oxygen he went out three times in the storm and brought back first Sandy Pittman, and then Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen. He repeatedly asked Sherpas and members of other expeditions to help save Yasuko Namba (Weaters wasn’t there at that point), but no one would.

(One climber), Gammelgaard, remembers seeing Boukreev after he returned with Fox and Madsen: “I woke up at around 5 a.m. and saw Anatoli [Boukreev]. He had returned. It was already light, and he sat without saying a word. He was completely exhausted. There was no energy left in him.

Going down early and resting was… selfish?  The debate here is a debate that goes well beyond the climbing world, because it’s really about the role of self-care and service of others in the lives we live.  The critics of Boukreev are perhaps rightly wary of an excessive focus on self care because, to be blunt, by almost any standard, most agree that we live in the age of the elevated selfishness.

The danger of being a “lover of self” is obvious in the Bible, and the warnings are there for a reason.  There’s something in our nature that is tempted to withdraw from compassion, service, and generosity.  When we yield to such tendencies our lives shrink dramatically, even though we have an outer coating of righteousness.  We can redefine success as not breaking laws like stealing, killing, committing adultery, paying our taxes, and even add things like going to church, verbally defending the Bible, and perhaps even defending our politics.  But this is not, by any stretch of Jesus’ imagination, what following Jesus looks like.  This is self absorbed religion, taking in, and in, and in.  If you strip the religious veneer off of it, it’s just pure narcissism – living for our own well being and not caring for others.  When the warning against being a ‘lover of self’ isn’t heeded, religious people will be the worst kind of self lovers… self righteous self-lovers!

In contrast, God’s clear calling from the beginning is that humans are invited to feast on God’s blessings, but to do so in order that we might actively bless and serve others!  Remember Abraham:  “blessed to be a blessing”.  Remember Micah: “what does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”.  Remember Jesus: “if anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink, and from his belly will burst forth rivers of living water”.  You get this picture of being filled so that we can pour out!

Which brings me, for a moment, back to Boukreev.  Remember that warning when you’re flying.  “If you’re flying with children and the oxygen masks appear, put your own mask on first!”  None of us will ever know Boukreev’s true motives.  We DO know that he had the strength and inner fortitude to rescue three people, above 8000 meters, in an Everest storm.  He had to find them, stabilize them, move them.  Some were snow blind.  Some were refusing to move, preferring instead to die.  No matter.  He served…and saved… because he was strong enough to do so.

THE POINT OF IT ALL

I’m increasingly convinced that one of the largest barriers to healthy marriages, families, churches, non-profits, businesses, even cities and nations, is the appalling condition of the people in charge.  When I go to pastors’ conferences, for example, I hear material that is good, inspiring, and even important – things about casting vision, managing well, staffing and hiring decisions, change management, conflict management, how to think big, etc.  Without being dismissive of any of it, my complaint is that if you sweep all of that stuff away, a fundamental truth remains:  healthy leaders are the foundational element for creating healthy systems.  Healthy individuals who marry create healthy marriages.  Healthy couples create healthy families.  Healthy pastors help create healthy churches.  And so it goes.  There are exceptions of course, but this is a deep flowing river of reality.

That’s why Boukreev warmed, rested, and drank tea.  That’s why David “strengthened himself in the Lord” prior to his battle.  That’s why Jesus went off “early in the morning to the mountains to pray”.  Whole people have resources to share, not out pride, or anger, or to create something that will fill ego needs.  Their strength of inner resources enable them to serve!  That’s the reason things like solitude, silence, moving your body, eating real food, getting enough sleep, enjoying creation, and meditation are important.  It isn’t so that you can become a dammed up narcissist.  It’s so you can fully bless and serve others.

Paul prays that our spirit, soul, and body, would be made whole!  I’m presently developing a curriculum around this theme, and know that one of the first things people will feel is that this is too self-absorbed.  My answer:  Yes, if you’re warming up, and napping, and drinking tea, just so you can stay comfortable while others die on the mountain, it’s self-absorbed.  But if your wholeness leads to service, hospitality, justice, mercy, crossing social divides, and being compassionately present with others in the midst of their suffering, then it’s a different story.  That’s the life for which you’re created:  receiving fullness, that you might be fully poured out!

I’ll be writing more on this very important subject of wholeness, and starting a podcast soon, around the subject spirit/soul/body wholeness, but the healthy pursuit of wholeness is always toward a particular end:  we seek fulness so that we might become people who shine as beacons of light, joy, compassion, hope and generosity in a world overwhelmingly governed by fear, anger, tribalism, and pettiness.  I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

 

 

Seasons of Life and Lessons in Staying and Letting Go

left to right: Martin, Director of Tauernhof, Richard, Charlie, board member of Tauernhof.

“Stay a little longer” my friend Martin invited from Austria over FaceTime last August as I was planning my teaching trip for December.  “We’re dedicating the new building the weekend after you finish teaching.  So you should stay for that.” And so it was this past Sunday, (12.9.18) sitting in a marvelous new building, I was eking out enough understanding of German to not only celebrate the great new work there, but to recommit to my own work and calling in a fresh way.

I was reminded, both in the dedication sermon and the interactions with guests, that the work of God in a locale is bigger by far than any individual.  Lacking this understanding, too many leaders develop Messiah complexes and make the work about them.  Others hang on desperately to their titles and positions out of personal fear of letting go.  Still others leave too soon out of odd ambitions, fear of conflict, or just plain laziness.  All these options are toxic, both to the work and to the individuals clinging to, or fighting for, titles.

Phil, the first principal I worked for, and David, the current principal.

I’ve been visiting this Bible school as a teacher since 1995, invited by the principal at that time, named Phil Peters.  Years later, Phil left, and Martin Buchsteiner took his place.  Then, in August of 2013, the Director of Tauernhof, my good friend Hans Peter, died in a paragliding accident.  His death came 25 years after the founding director, Gernot Kunzelmann died in a paragliding accident in 1988.  Gernot began Tauernhof 22 years earlier in a facility that began as an orphanage more than five decades before.  After Hans Peter’s death, Martin became the Director, and David Hines, a bi-lingual German who was studying at Gordon Seminary in the states, became the new principal of the Bible School.

What a joy to hear a sermon reminding us that the torch of leadership is only carried by any of us as individuals for a season and is then passed to a new generation.  Gernot to Hans Peter to Martin.  Phil to Martin to David.  The torch passes and new generations carry on the work.  The power of this was multiplied for me as I was able to share conversations with family members from each of these leaders.  Garnot’s wife Gertraud was in attendance, as was Hans Peter’s son, and of course, Martin, Phil, and David (all three Principals of the Bible School during the decades I’ve taught there).

With each leader, there’s been a beautiful carrying of the timeless torch, the message of Christ as life, embodied in both the teaching and the life of the community.  But there’s also been unique contributions from each leader, so that the whole is a reflection, like a prism, of the unique colors of Christ brought by each one.

I left the dedication ceremony and skied alone for a couple of hours, weighing what I’d heard, seen, conversed about.  So many Decembers in this space, and a few spring, summer, and fall weeks as well.  I’ve seen the changes – staffing changes, facility changes, senior leadership changes.  But at the top of the climbing wall that sits at the back of the property there’s a banner which reads, “Jesus Christ.  The same yesterday, today, and forever.”  So leaders come and go, but the essence, the declaration of Christ in a way that moves people toward body/soul/spirit wholeness, goes on – bigger than any single leader.  This, of course, is as it should be; must be if the work really belongs to God.  I exhale, and rest, finding peace in the reminder that I don’t dare hold on to any role for a day longer than I should out of fear or pride (nor a day shorter out of laziness, or conflict aversion for that matter!)  Rather, you and I are called to carry the torch of Christ into various spaces that are the contexts God has given us, and to be all in, all there, for those seasons God gives us, confident that whatever we build that has the mark of Christ will not have been a waste of days.

As I exit the gondola at the top of the ski hill, the valley rains that were my companion when I boarded the lift have turned to snow, the first real snowfall of the year.  “Ah yes” I say to myself.  “Another season has come, faithfully, finally, to the mountain.  Thanks be to God.”

I came off the mountain and settled in front of my computer to listen to a live stream of the church I lead.  I was privileged to watch one of our most recently hired pastors preach, and as I listened, I thought to myself, “yes God…your work will be fine for many years to come.”  Strangely, in the act of letting go and trusting God with the future, I felt a sense of refreshment in my own work, and vision for the future – because vision can only fill empty hands!

O Lord Christ

Thank you for the timeless nature of your work in the world, bigger than any of us.

Thank you for the privilege of carrying the torch and using our gifts for a season to bless and serve.

Forgive us for any decisions we make about the future that are rooted in greed, or fear, or pride, or laziness.

Teach us to number our days and pour ourselves out fully in them, knowing that joy will be our gift.

Teach us to say goodbye at the right time, neither too early nor too late, but only in response to You.

And we will rest in trusting You with the future of the work, knowing it was Yours all along. 

SPECIAL NOTE:  I’m happy to be speaking at the International Ski Week from March 10-16 in 2019 and you’re invited.   Ski instruction in the morning.  Free time in the afternoon for skiing, napping, touring the area, and Bible sessions/worship in the evening. Here’s the link with details and costs, and here’s a link to a few pictures from last year.

 

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.

 

 

The thing that mustn’t change: Use Your Gifts!

My predecessor just keep using his gifts day after day for 38 years.

The difficult truth that few seem interested in hearing these days is that the stuff we receive in our social media feeds is overwhelmingly not convincing anyone to change their minds about anything.  Minds were mostly made up, one way or the other, about the supreme court nominee, long before the hearing on Thursday, and as a result, everything that has happened since only served to confirm predisposed biases.

It can be tempting in such an environment to think that shouting louder or editing our writing or footage better will somehow persuade.  I doubt it.  We’re living, overwhelmingly, in tribal, self-referential echo chambers.  I’ve never seen a more divided time, and I’m not alone in my assessment.  After the exhausting work of trying to either persuade, or at the least, point people to ‘third way’ alternatives that are neither (for example) “Do away with ICE” nor “Summarily Evict” young people who have grown up in America” – it’s tempting to simply give up.  I mean, when shouting louder doesn’t work, or posting more doesn’t work, what’s left?

“Fan into flame the gift that God has given you…”   which means that you and I have each been wired uniquely by our creator to bless and serve this broken world.  If perfecting and using our gifts is the road we’ve been called to travel, the truth of the matter is that there are about a million seductive side roads along the way.  You can be tempted to pursue success instead of using your gifts, because success can soothe your insecurities.  You can be tempted to persuade people who, in all likelihood won’t be persuaded by you, precisely because they’re already deeply entrenched, and your attempts are born out of rage, or pride that you’re enlightened, or some other dark place.  When the shouting’s done, nobody’s convinced.  You can be tempted to invest your time in self medicating your fears, frustrations, and sorrows.  You give a finger to the world and say, “A curse on all of you… I’m redefining my life as the consumption of good coffee, good wine, and the pursuit of good ski conditions.”   And just like that, you forfeit the life for which you’re created.

There’s a better way forward:

  1. You’re blessed to be a blessing.  This means that you are still here, breathing and eating, enjoying beauty and feeling pain, because God wants you to be a blessing in some way.  Writing.  Woodwork.  Hospitality with the neighbors.  Mentoring someone younger than you.  Teaching.  Healing.  So get on with it… as you’re exhorted to do here and here.
  2. This implies that you’ve come to discover how God has made you; what your unique capacities are.  Many spend the precious commodity of time on the earth never intentionally even asking the question:  What unique contributions does God want me to make to this world?  Just asking the question is a good starting point.  As I began asking this question years ago, I realized that my best strengths are almost always related to creating.  I studied architecture because I like creating space.  I studied music composition because I like creating a collection of sounds.  And now, almost every day, I create – usually using words that become books, or sermons, or classes.
  3. Stay in the Zone.  A favorite book of mine called “Flow” talks about how 100% focus on what we’re called to do leads to a beautiful space, where time almost stands still and we’re no longer anxious about things “out there”, whether that be the leaky pipes, or the state of politics in America.  While we’re at our task(s) we’re all in – and we’re intentional about getting all in every day because we have some short term goals that keep us going back to the drawing board, or wood shop, or library, or writing software, or the homeless shelter where we serve, or medical clinic, or courtroom.  We know our craft, our calling, and are committed to it regardless of the noise and villifying and arguing that’s going on out there — we’re not scattered.

This is liberating friends.  Some people have shared that they’re disappointed I don’t write as much these days about politics or divisive social and theological issues.  I don’t write as much because ironically, while such posts easily generate four or five times more readers, they persuade almost nobody, and leave acidic and hateful words in the comments section from people who seem to enjoy nothing more than calling those who disagree with them ‘idiots’.  This isn’t helping anyone, so I’ve drastically reduced such posts.

Instead, my commitment to you is to help you shine as the light God has created you to be, and I’ll leave the shouting to others.  This isn’t intended to lead to withdrawal or silence – but engagement – it’s just that engagement that comes out from a commitment to use our gifts, build up and encourage others will be the best foundation for changing the world.

I welcome your thoughts.

“…the time we’ve been given” – The Why and How of a Personal Mission Statement

I have a morning routine:

1. CoffeeAlways first:  Coffee

2. Bible reading while drinking the first cup.

3. Meditation (from the Bible reading)

4. Writing in the journal with the second cup.

5. Check my to do list.

The to-do list is a document somewhere in the cloud, and every time I open it, this shows up:

MISSION STATEMENT:  RD uses his gifts of teaching,  catalytic vision, and leadership to serve and bless people by inviting them to wholeness, and demonstrating through both teaching and living, how Christ changes everything: spirit, soul, body – intimacy, family, friendships, values, ethics, relationship with neighbors, posture vis a vis culture – priorities as a citizen, global citizen, and citizen of a heavenly kingdom – and hope regarding the future.  He offers clear steps for people to take in their journey of transformation and invites people to those next steps

This is my mission statement and I’m of the opinion that everyone needs one for two important reasons:

1. Jesus had one.  In one of Jesus’ earliest public appearances, he opened Isaiah and read this:  ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Then he closed the scroll and told everyone in the room that this scripture was being fulfilled right before their very eyes, because Jesus was the “me” to whom this text was referring.  He knew that the charge in Isaiah was his, that this was why he came to earth.

It’s best if each of us knows ‘why we’ve come to earth’ because such a knowing gives us clarity and purpose each and every day.  Clarity and purpose are not only vital to our mental and physical health, but they alleviate the frustration of ultimately looking back on our lives and wondering if we’ve invested them well.  If we both know our mission, and take the time to visit it regularly, there’s a sort of ‘sifting’ that happens, so that we spend increasingly less time doing things that don’t contribute to our mission.

This might sound like a mission statement will lead to a joyless life of pure self denial, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The reality is that when we’re living into our prayerfully crafted and wisely created mission statement, we will be living in ways that align with who we actually are, rather than who we perhaps want to be.  For example, I’d love to be my neighbor sometimes because he has tremendous abilities with power tools and practical problem solving when it comes to matters of property.  However, there have been a few times when I’ve tried to become him by fixing my own car, or solving an electrical problem in the house.  Oops!  The only thing I become good at when I try to be him is impatience and @#$%^.   I now know that I’m not wired for wiring.  I’m wired for writing.  So, other than simpler projects which I can pull off easily with a ‘for dummies’ guidebook, I’m leaving repairs and remodels to the folks who can do it.  I’ll stick with words, thank you very much.

As a result, because I’m doing more activities that contribute to my mission, I’m more fulfilled!

2. A mission statement prevents mission drift.  Every morning when I create my to-do list and look at past projects that are either done or due soon, I’m subconsciously weighing these activities against my mission statement.  This helps me not only stay true to my calling; it helps me continually understand my calling better.  As a result of this little daily process, I’m gaining a clearer picture of what I’ll hope to be doing with my time when, someday, I’m no longer leading a large urban church.  My mission statement helps me narrow the broad array of choices, and focus – both on a daily basis, and when asking big life questions.

Before running off to make a mission statement, there are two caveats:

Caveat #1:  Your mission statement must be more important than other things.  Some people have mission statements, but they’re actually just window dressing to cover up their truest motivations, which are about wealth, power, fame, living in a certain nice place, being super healthy, or enjoying sensual pleasures as much as possible.  It’s not that we shouldn’t care at all about such things; it’s just that when such things become central in our lives, they become terribly destructive.  So you performed well in the cross-fit gym.  Is that really why you were born?  So you have spectacular sex four nights a week, or retire with multiple millions in the bank at 36, or buy a Tuscan Villa.  Are these your core reasons for existence?  I hope not.  Our mission statement has to do with living into our perceived truest identity, and I’ll write more about that in my next post.   For now the important thing to see is that we’re to be driven by our identity, not our desires.   If I were driven solely by desires, I’d be the guy with a great villa in Tuscany and millions in the bank.

It’s better though, to be driven by the calling and identity that God has given us, which brings me to the second caveat…

Caveat #2:  We don’t create our mission statement out of thin air.  We discern it!  At a level, this is a lifelong process of answering this question carefully:  What do I do that brings me joy, and is affirmed by other people?

A deliberate, careful, and prayerful consideration of this question will likely yield a few answers, and embedded in those answers will be the seeds of your mission statement.

This is so valuable and practical for me that I hope you’ll walk with me through the process and create your own.  It’s because of this mission statement that I say “yes” to coffee with God, still say “yes” to leading the church I lead, say “yes” or “no” to hospitality and speaking invitations on various occasions, and easily say “no” to various options for use of my time or money.

Does anyone else out there have a mission statement they’d like to share?

Do you have questions about crafting your mission statement?

If “yes”, please respond in the comments section and it will help craft this series.  Thanks!

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

Hungry for a Tribe – musings on isolation and consumerism

A recent New York Times article (you can find the link over on my twitter account @raincitypastor) describes the gnawing hunger our culture has for belonging to a tribe, and how those longings are fulfilled in a tribe.   This longing has led to an explosion in self-help podcasts on all manner of subjects ranging from the development of morning rituals, to cold showers, meditation, and coffee made of mushrooms.

What’s going on?  Why does Joe Rogan have 30 million podcasts downloads each month?  And, more cogent to this blog and my own musings: “What needs are being met in the plethora of self-help broadcasts that the church is failing to meet?  Should the church be meeting these needs?  How?”

My observation:  In contrast to our longings for community, our consumer culture isolates and leads to paralyzing confusion.

C.S. Lewis postulates in “The Great Divorce” that hell is that place where we get whatever we want, but the result of having our particular consumerist desires met is that we become isolated.  In our zeal to build a customized life, we find ourselves increasingly isolated.   Rituals that once bound people together, such as church attendance, prayer groups, or whatever have fallen on hard times (for reasons I’ll address next).  The result is isolation and confusion.  I’m alone, and I don’t know what to do in order to live better.

Along come podcasts which call people to what are offered as life giving rituals.  Whether it’s morning meditation, fasting until lunch, or a daily cold shower, purveyors of ‘primal wisdom’ are calling people to rituals.   The value of rituals are that I now “know what to do” because someone has offered a prescription of practices that lead to life.

Second, I now have a community, if only  virtual, who share my values.   These podcasters have, in other words, tapped into a need that the church, long ago, stopped meeting.

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

My Proposals

#1 – Elevate the Value Of Rituals – in past eras of the church, the pervasiveness of  consumerism, individualism, wealth disparity, and nationalism, gave rise to a counter response called “monasticism”.  They became “The Desert Father’s” or “The Benedictines” or “The Celtic Church” which thrived beyond the structures of the Roman Empire, or the “Confessing Church” in Germany during the rise of the Reich.  All these communities called people to various rituals of prayer, fasting, Bible Reading, service, and more.

I will continue to work at this in the church I lead.  I’ve written a book  in order to help people develope “Rule of Life” rituals.   I wrote this because the hyper-individualism and consumerism that is American Evangelical Christianity is horribly ineffective.   Perhaps, in our desire to make faith accessible, we’ve lowered the bar so close to the ground that self-denial, rituals, or challenges regarding the use of our time, money, or bodies never happen.  The result of this is that we end up with nothing to offer or nothing to say.   As a result, the church has been relegated to the dust bin of irrelevance for an increasing percent of the population.

Here’s how The NY Times article suggests that these podcasts are filling the gap:

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

To the extent that the church can once again elevate and create a culture where faith has particular practices, and to the exten that the practices offer a real path to wholeness and transformation, the church’s light might once again begin to shine.

#2 –  Stop behaving like Gnostics; Recover the Body – These podcasts, for all their flaws, are seeking to speak to the whole person.  Meditation.  Cold Showers.  Mushroom Coffee.  Finding your tribe.  Serving others.

Wow.  It’s clear to me that an appeal of podcasts is their capacity to address the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.  It’s not that I agree with everything offered (“Mushroom coffee?  Really?”).   The reality though, is that God cares about the whole person, and too often the church doesn’t.  The church’s failure to address the whole person is central to why so many are leaving the church.   Paul prayed that we’d be “set apart” and “made whole” in every way: spirit, soul, body.

I’m presently working on developing a discipleship pathway that addresses the whole person.  Such a pathway must include not only practices of prayer and generosity for the spirit, but doing soul work related to our brokenness so that our time use, money use and relationships all move toward wholeness.  Finally, we must also address the body work related to sleep, exercise, and making wise food choices.

What would it look like if God’s people were functionally tribes of people (called churches) committed to life transforming practices that will empower people to serve and bless the world out from a place of ongoing movement toward wholeness?  Such a church would shine as light in the midst of darkness, would become food in the midst of people hungry for meaning, belonging, wholeness, and ritual.  We hunger for these things because God has placed ‘eternity in the hearts’ of all people!  Thanks be to God that our world is hungry.  It’s high time we begin building cultures that become the food we’re meant to be.

I welcome your thoughts…

 

The Collapse of Everything, and Why it’s a Source of Hope

I’m on holiday today, and went hiking, which can be an exciting activity during spring in the Cascades.  I begin my ascent at 1900’ and over the course of three miles climb to 3800’ before a slight descent down to my mountain lake destination.  There’s not a hint of snow until I get close the lake, but then the trail crosses several avalanche chutes still filled with snow debris from a wild winter.  Avalanche chutes are stripped bear of any trees so this means I’m crossing snow that has warm rock just beneath the surface, which means that I’m walking on snow bridges, often of unknown strength.  The snow’s been melting out from the bottom up so that the thickness of the snow can vary from a foot or more to less than an inch.  Add in the fact that the strength of said bridge varies not only by it’s depth, but by it’s temperature, and suddenly walking across these bridges can feel like you’re playing Russian roulette with every step.

Plunge your pole, hard, into the place you anticipate placing your foot.  Look carefully.  Step quickly.  Go! They’ve collapsed under my weight more than once during spring hiking, but thankfully I’ve never been seriously injured by it.  Not everyone is so lucky.  There are lots of ways to mitigate this risk, but I’m using snow bridges as a metaphor today to remind you that every bridge in your life will collapse someday.  If a bridge is what we depend on in our lives for security or meaning, the reality is that nothing lasts forever; vocation, health, marriage, children, are all destined for change along our journey.  Like snow bridges these blessings are dynamic.  One day everything appears solid and then, BOOM!  There’s a heart condition, or a financial trial and the risk of foreclosure.  Even the best of marriages usually end with one party dying first, leaving the other alone, grieving over the loss of that bridge which gave so much meaning to life.  Economic boom periods are cyclical, just like the building of a snow bridge through the winter and its eventual collapse later in the spring.  The same could be said of political parties, and even of nations.  Nothing lasts forever.  There’s a cycle of birth, vibrancy, decay, and death, that’s woven into the fabric of world.

Those who embrace this inevitable temporality of all things are standing on the threshold of freedom and peace!  This is because there’s a single exception, in all the universe, to this reality.  We who believe that Jesus rose from the dead see that resurrection as the shining light of hope, offering “the power of an indestructible life” as the prototype of where history’s headed.  IF this is true, then we have a bridge that will never weaken, melt, or be destroyed.  In fact, this is the langauge we find in the Bible…

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea – Psalm 46:2

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.  The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. – Hebrews 12:26,27

(Jesus) has been constituted a Priest, not on the basis of a bodily legal requirement [an externally imposed command concerning His physical ancestry], but on the basis of the power of an endless and indestructible Life. – Hebrews 7:16

There’s an indestructible life which cannot be shaken, and this life is united with the lives of all who call upon him, so that we become partakers of eternity.  This means that we’re part of a better story, a story where God is making all things new, moving the cosmos away from the cycle of birth, death, and decay, to “life for the ages” which is the literal meaning of eternal life.

Where are you putting you weight these days?  What bridges are you trusting in to give you meaning and security.  I stood on a path today and at one point plunged by pole into the place where I intended to step and it broke through, collapsing the bridge and revealing huge rocks.  A fall could have been serious.  We need to put our weight where we know we’re safe, where we know that, come what may, our source will always be with us.

We need these truths, all of us, eventually in our lives.  My hope is we’ll learn to seek the eternal rock sooner rather than later.

 

Awakening the Feminine Voice in the Church – What it means and Why it Matters

More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century.

The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day… life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal.

In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world – all quotes by Nicholas D. Kristof from “Half the Sky”

Indeed.

One of the challenges that the church faces is that it has often been, rightly, accused of being part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to elevating the identity, calling, authority, strength, and leadership of women in the world.   Women have been censored, marginalized, shut out from positions of spiritual leadership, treated as property, burned as witches, tortured and killed as heretics , and abused.

I, for one, would like the church I lead to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  This is why we’re presently in a series on “Called by God: Women of the Bible”.   In this series my intent is to show how God has called women to frontline visible ministries as prophetesses, Apostles, judges, leaders in civil disobedience, teachers, and more.  I’ll also be offering, both on this blog and on our church website, some further discussion about critical questions related to the subject of women in the Bible.  I hope you’ll subscribe and join us for the discussion.

I’ve been in church settings where men have walked out when a woman opened the Bible and began to teach or preach.  I grew up in a church where women had very confined roles, none of which had to do with teaching or decision making authority.  I’m part of a generation that, for the most part, embraced the culturally defined gender roles of “Fiddler on the Roof”.  None of this strident patriarchy was fabricated out of thin air.  The views come from a certain way of reading the Bible.  The reading creates the culture.  The culture reinforces the prevailing reading, which deepens the culture still further.  And so it goes.

Here’s what can change that:

1. Consider a fresh reading of the Bible.  It’s vital to recognize the danger of “cherry picking” certain passages and building entire ethical constructs out of them.  My own movement away from strong patriarchy began with the realization that not everything in the Bible that God proscribes applies for all time. We don’t continue executing disobedient children, for example.  Women are no longer viewed as property as they so clearly were under Old Testament Law.

Ethics change because God’s revelation is ripening, ultimately to find its fullest blossoming in the person of Christ.  In Jesus’ narrative, a woman becomes the first evangelist.  Another becomes exemplary of what it means to love God.  Two more are the first eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ.  Paul the apostle doesn’t miss a beat in his continuing liberation of women as he speaks of a female Apostle, and of “when” women prophesy in the gathered faith community.  I know there are questions about particular texts that seem to indicate confinement to certain roles, and I’ll deal with these in forthcoming material. For now know this:  Christ’s example liberates women from previously constrained roles.  Paul, if somewhat covertly, continues to develop that same trajectory.  So should we.

2. Recognize the difference between Biblical mandate and culture norms.  Many women have grown up in a culture of unequal pay, in churches that silenced them, and in homes where the word ‘submission’ was unilaterally imposed on women by men, but never applied to men (as the Bible declares it should be).  These women have a weight of cultural baggage to overcome.  When Paul says that believers are to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds” this is a classic example of what he’s talking about.  Transformation comes from recognizing cultural mores and swimming upstream against them.  Men can help women do that by recognizing that they have unique callings

My wife’s perspective is that it’s difficult for a woman to find her true voice because there’s been a historical cultural weight of expectations that have kept women on a clearly defined and constricting path.  She says, “Men have often thought of women as fish in a channel.  Men have tried to help women get from point A to point B by ‘helping them’, which is tantamount to straightening the stream or building fish ladders.  The intention is good, but still too confining.  The problem is that women are actually birds, and we can get to God’s appointed destiny of our calling by making our own prayerful decisions, finding our own path with our own unique giftedness as women.”

3. Find your gifts and use them.  In the end, one of the reasons I believe women are called to any position in the church is because the last thing I’d ever want to do is censor someone from using gifts that God has given them.  In Romans 12, we read that some are called to, variously, give, serve, teach, and lead.  Far be it from me to prevent someone from using a certain gift because of their gender!  All of us must work at understanding our strengths and how God has created us, and as we do this we’ll find those endeavors which a) bring us great joy b) we’re naturally good at and c) are affirmed by others because others are blessed by our doing them.  Those endeavors are where we must focus our time.

How many women, though, have been unable to do that because of the cultural and spiritual forces of patriarchy which shut them out?

It can be otherwise, and it often begins with deconstructing the notion that women have confined roles.  They’re not fish in a stream.  They’re birds, with a world of heights available to them.  It’s time to fly.

 

Lighten up! The value of Hope over rage, cynicism, and despondency

Warning:  I don’t like the tax bill that just passed, or the quality of judges currently being appointed, or much else happening presently in Washington.  Having said that, I have a concern that Christ followers in  both parties have elevated politics to a status of idolatry.  We who follow Christ have a primary calling – and it’s not electing leftists or rightists.  It’s lighting candles!!  In this darkest season, (at least literally, and for many, in every way) here’s what I mean…

The first winter we lived in the mountains, an early storm knocked down hundreds of fir trees deep in the cascades, and those trees knocked down wires and transformers, resulting in just over five full days without power, along with temperatures in the single digits and teens.  We heat with wood and have a functional BBQ so survival wasn’t an issue.  The big issue we faced every day, though, was the inevitable approach darkness.

About 2 in the afternoon we’d feel it; darkness was coming fast and if we weren’t prepared, it wouldn’t be pretty.  So our afternoon routine consisted of cursing the darkness and saving up facebook rants to share when the power came back on.  We’d spin some cool theories blaming Russians, fire tweets on our still live phones about just how dark the darkness was, is, and ever shall be – unless we vote differently next time.  We were especially bitter at those with generators –  you know:  the 1%.  The oligarchy.

Rubbish, of course.  We were too busy lighting candles, and making sure we knew where the next candles were stored so that when these went out we were good to go.  Sure, darkness comes (and goes too, by the way, as I share in the chapter, “Towns”, in my new book).  Of course there are times to expose the darkness, rage against the darkness, and articulate the better alternative to which we’re all invited (see #metoo).  Without this, Sophie Scholl contents herself, perhaps, with a private faith that pays no regard to the evil realities happening all around her.  MLK withdraws from the conflict, bowing to the pressures of evil rather than fighting to assure that justice for all means “for all”.  There’s a time and place to act boldly.  However….

On this, the darkest night of the year, I’m reminded that the first order of business is make sure there’s a lit candle somewhere in the room when darknesses of injustice, corruption, greed, complacency, and cynicism seem to be growing.  It’s far too easy in this environment to elevate the realities of darkness to such an extent that we forget our calling is to light a candle.  Lose sight of our calling, and the darkness seems darker than it is.  Then our despondency runs the risk of empowering said darkness even more.  Let’s get off that train for a while, and talk about the light instead, and our calling to make it real.

The message of the 2nd advent, when Christ returns to reign fully, is that we’ll have no need for sun because there’ll be no more night (I think it’s poetic metaphor, but that’s not the point right here).  Obviously, we’re not there yet.  In the meantime, the light of Christ is intended to be these shining moments of hope, justice, beauty, and healing breaking through the darkest nights, like angels did for shepherds that glad night.   The message of light sounds like this:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear…?”

“Make your face shine upon us and we shall be saved…”

“…shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death…”

“…put aside the deeds of darkness; put on the armor of light…”

The theme that’s woven through these verses can be summed up this way:  Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle!!   What does that mean, and how do we do it?

Draw near to the light.  The big theme of the Bible isn’t that darkness is vanquished.  That’s just the final chapter.  Rather, we’re reminded over and over again that, in the midst of darkness, whether found in prison camps or oncology wards, therapist’s offices or the scene of the accident, there’s a light, “Emmanuel.  God with us!”   Light in the darkness.  I fear that over the past year evangelicals on both the left and right have spoken more about darkness than light.  This can never be a good thing.  My prayer for 2018, at least for the community I lead in Seattle, is that we’ll be characterized as “people of the light” by virtue of our pursuit of Christ, our true and brightest light.  I believe such a pursuit will begat generosity, hospitality, care for earth, and solidarity with those in need, so that the light of Christ will shine through us in these darkest days.

Rejoice in what’s good.  There are countless causes for joy every day, no matter if they are private or national trials because God is giving us good gifts, reconciling relationships, liberating captives, and using people to create little moments of light over and over again.  Psalm 126:3 says, “the Lord has done great things for us… so we will rejoice!”

Joy, as I’ll share on Christmas Eve is a natural response when we pay attention to God’s revelation, noting what God has done, and made, and given us.  This is why I tell my children, “every day is Christmas and God is a good parent giving me gifts”.   The gifts include:  forgiveness of my failures and the confidence that God loves me in spite of them, sunrises, snowfalls, friendships around the world and good conversations, running, skiing, trees, the privilege of teaching and leading, intimacy, revelation while studying, the chance to create, snowfalls, a warm house, clean water, music, sleep, a bed, shoes, and… I could go on, but you get the picture.  LISTEN!!  We all need to pay attention to the state of the world, but when all you can see is injustice, division, the rise of fear and hate, and leadership crises, your light’s going out!  You need to wake and pay attention to the things that bring joy.  See them.  Name them.  Give thanks.  Poof!  Your candle’s lit again!

I didn’t even mention my gratitude for a new identity in Christ that includes access to all the power, hope, love, wisdom and strength that is the resurrected Jesus, alive in me and you!

Remember the end of the storyLight Wins!!  We likely don’t all agree on what that looks like, or how we’ll get there, but if we’re in Christ, can we not all agree that the day is coming when every disease will be healed, every war ended, and all poverty vanquished?  There’s a banquet coming, with the best food and wine, and we’ll look around the table, populated by left and right, black and white, asian and hispanic, rich and poor.  Listen to this:  “God will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and remove the reproach of His people from all the earth….and it will be said on that day, “this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us!” “  

There’s your end to the story!!  Yes, the darkness will arrive again tonight, both physically and when I watch the news.  But rather than cursing the darkness, I’ll choose, tonight and throughout 2018, to light a candle.  I hope you’ll join me.

 

Merry Christmas.

 

PS – if you’re near Seattle on Sunday…

8023 Greenlake Dr N. Seattle, WA 98103