There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem. “Come back! Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!” It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story. She strong, lovely, confident. And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd. Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back. Why? “So that we may admire you!”
They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives. This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate. Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option. Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal. The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta. There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity. The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction. Much of this is cataloged here.
Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science. The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago. You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world. What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same. He/she wants “different”. If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.
What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention. Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required? You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills. But why not play a video game instead? Alone. With no risk of rejection or failure.
In a word: safety. Is this alternate world real? No. Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No. Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel? No. But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.
What’s the way forward?
1. A strong core. If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality. When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping. You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world. Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!
2. A sense of call. When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ. When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.
3. A high view of marriage and sexuality. The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better. It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation. They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O. All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.
4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes. Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world). Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.
The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen! Here are a few resources for your consideration.
There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story. Contact us for details. Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.
The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God. You have a calling, a journey yet ahead. Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you. Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.
It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington. I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music. I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me. I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty. It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately. Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane. By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots. We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.
I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined. I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer. “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed. “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything. We belong there.” I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor. Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child. It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state. The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday. When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here. Home.
Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves. My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place, a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!
The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings. But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given. Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others. It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness. “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss. I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.
When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear. The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons. I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me. Wow! And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7. Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence: the gifts will come, are likely here already. Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude. They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.
Yes it’s a broken world. Yes there are clouds on the horizon. Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good. Christ is still here. And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.
When it comes to sexual abuse, and the treatment of women in general:
Words matter. Mr. Trump spoke on the bus about making unwanted sexual advances and literally grabbing women. He spoke to Howard Stern about walking uninvited into dressing rooms at beauty pageants (a word confirmed by beauty pageant participants). He has spoken numerous times throughout his campaign about the appearance of women, objectifying and judging them. “Locker room talk,” he says. He’s “Sorry. But Mister Clinton was worse.” Let’s take a look at two things that have come out from hiding because of his words.
First, his words have exposed the pain of a nation. Men should read just a few of the #NOTokay posts on twitter, as Trump’s words have led to an outpouring of women empowered to share their story. To say he’s exposed something would be an understatement. Women, by the millions, have been victims of unwanted sexual advances. Many don’t have a voice to fight back, don’t know who to trust with their story. As a result, they suffer in silence. I know this because in the wake of his words, I sat in a room and listened to the anger, the hurt, the stories from women.
There’s a culture of sexual abuse in our country, and it must be named, condemned, and stopped. The problem isn’t the past; it’s the present. And the problem in the present isn’t just a presidential candidate; it’s an entire culture.
Men, we should be offering Mr. Trump a stiff reminder that words matter. “By your words you will be justified and by words you will be condemned,” is how Jesus put it. He also said that, “out of the abundance of the heart” the mouth speaks. So when a man calls women pigs and says the things he said to Howard Stern and Billy Bush, and there’s an outcry from women, Mr. Trump shouldn’t be surprised.
There should be an outcry from all of us, as well. This is not just locker room talk, or typical banter, but even if it were, it’s not OK. Words matter, and words that treat women as objects to be used for men’s pleasure are far, far from the heart of the life for which any of us are created, men or women.
Second, Mr. Trump’s words have exposed the depth of sexual victimization, misogyny, and sick patriarchy in our culture. I know this because the other trending hashtag has been #repealthe19th, which is a wish-dream to remove the women’s right to vote. That there’s a group of people who are both Islamaphobic and only want men to vote is a bit of irony. That the group is large enough to gain notice is both sad and angering. Our nation has a long way to go, but it’s better than it was in many ways. Women vote. Anyone can sit anywhere on a bus. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back.
History reminds us that redemption is often born out of the depths of darkness. Rwanda’s genocide becomes fertile soil for a profound reconciliation movement. Germany’s implosion in the wake of WWII becomes a context for the rebuilding of a nation on an entirely different footing, where every person has dignity and worth, and the common good matters.
If we can listen to those hurt by Mr. Trump’s words, if we feel the pain of what’s been going on for generations and let the weight of it sink into our souls, this darkness can be a low point, a wake up call when we say “enough” and begin fighting to make honor, respect, dignity, and empowerment the norm. It needs to happen now. Who’s in?
I started a little vacation about a week ago. The plan was to hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife of nearly 37 years. This kind of space would provide the kind of beauty and clarity needed for me to see far into the future (“Do you have a five year plan?” someone asks me) and so be able to prepare for it. After all, we learn from an early age that life’s about setting goals, envision a future, and then going after it with all the gusto we can muster. This is all well and good, perhaps, if you know exactly what your future is to be, but as one grows older assurances about the future become harder to assess. There are too many wild cards. Health. Money. The shelf life in one’s profession. Needs out there which you might be able to help meet. Your own need for rest. Desires to write. Or travel. Desires to keep doing what you’re doing.
The options are dizzying, and unknowable. Still, I thought the space of hiking through the wild would grant clarity; that I’d come home with needed understanding and some goals to pursue, marching orders for the next chapter. Mercifully that whole line of thinking fell off a cliff somewhere below Cathedral Rock on day two of our hike.
Instead, clear as the mountain peaks around me, I was granted the realization that two realities must be in place in order for any of us to move toward the life for which we’re created. What are they?
1. We need right motives for what we’re doing. Proverbs 16:2 says that “people may be pure in their own eyes, but the Lord weights the motives”. This is a stunning statement because we tend to look at a person’s pursuits as indicative of their wisdom, and the quality of their life. Look at the triathlete and you think, “self discipline”. Look at the person who started that non-profit and you think, “idealistic; devoted”. Look at the rich person with a reputation for generosity: “sacrificial”. It’s all very impressive, and certainly extends to people who work in ministry, or speak for a living, or are super committed to raising ‘excellent kids’. Yes. Let’s be a version of human that causes people to take notice, in a positive way.
And therein, my friends, is the problem because pursuits born out of a desire to be well thought of by others will lead us down the wrong path – every time – even when the pursuit seems noble. So will stuff born out of a desire to please others and avoid their judgement. So will stuff born out of a sense of the overwhelming needs we see, for the there are needs all around us and they will never go away. Ministries and philanthropic organizations are littered with broke down lives who could never say “no” because the need was always there, always hungry, always thirsty, always needing more us. So it’s not the thing itself that offers assurance we’re on the right path. It’s far too easy to justify the nobleness of any pursuit in our own eyes, even in the eyes of others.
“…the Lord weighs the motives” means just that. Pursuits born out of greed, or anger, or need for approval, or fear of rejection, or a desire for comfort, or a desire to prove something to someone – all these will, in the end, melt away. The one thing that matters is this: “What is God asking of me in this particular moment?” I think of Jesus in Mark 1. He’d healed some people and cast out demons, taught them, and hung out at a house ’til late into the night. By the next morning, word of his power had spread and whole town as knocking on the door, wanting to be with him. His response: “Time to move on to somewhere else and preach there. For that is what I came for.” This is impressive to me because it tells me that his motive is, as he says elsewhere, simply to do the will of the one who sent him.
How freeing would that be? For starters, it would free you and me from doing anything out of a FOMO, or any other fear. We’d also be liberated from being driven to action by every need we see, which can only, in the end, result on compassion fatigue in a world where racism, global poverty, sexism, oppression, environmental degradation, family breakdown, health crises, mental illness, and o so much more are knocking at our doors. It’s too much for any one to bear. What’s needed, then, is for each of us to know our part and do it, recognizing that along the way some will view us heartless, too liberal, too conservative, too prudent, too foolish, too ambitious, too lazy, and on and on it goes. If we’re in the right space, we’ll be able to sift this stuff and move forward with our true calling, but doing so requires that we have the second reality in our experience as well as the first one.
2. We need to be secure that we are complete in Christ. If the starting point of my life is that I’m already complete, then I’ve nothing to earn, nothing to prove, and nothing to fear. All my actions, when born from the reality of completion and security in Christ, will be nothing more than saying yes to God’s next step. For Elisabeth Elliot, decades ago, it meant moving back to Central America to live among the people who had murdered her husband, in order to share the reality of Christ with them. For another it means retiring early to care for aging parents. For another it means staying in the same job for 50 years. For another it means moving often. One might write and never sell more than a few thousand books, or less even. Another might regularly make the NYT Bestseller list. One’s a millionaire. Another’s living in a camper van.
Like various flora in the forest, each is fulfilling its calling without the anxiety and compulsion of comparison or fear.
How cool would it be to be secure in the assurance that we’re loved completely, perfectly, infinitely? It would free us to believe that, in Christ, we have a unique role to play in blessing the world, and our one true thing will be to pursue that thing – not out of a desire for fame, or financial security, or to prove to someone how important we are, but simply out of love for the one who has healed us, filled us with life and hope, and given us the chance to participate in blessing a world thirsty for blessing. That’s the life I’m after friends, no matter where it leads.
The good news is that Christ came to fill us with nothing less than his life so that we can enjoy this “confidence of completion”. The bad news is that religion has too often mutated into some sort of performance whereby we’re trying earn approval, from each other, or God, or the church. Sick stuff, really, when you realize the whole point of the gospel was to set us free from that very mindset!!
The hike’s over and the particulars of the five year plan are no less clear. Any anxieties I had about not knowing are gone though. They been blown away by the comforting winds of the Holy Spirit, who has reminded me that I’m complete, already, because of what God has done in Christ. I’m done performing for approval – seeking instead to live a life poured out in obedience to Christ as an act of gratitude for his matchless love.
Does this sound unapologetically Christo-centric? I hope so. People may or may not use the language of Christ, but I’m convinced, more than ever, that a world thirsting for peace, meaning, hope, joy, strength, confidence, beauty, intimacy, and Justice, is a world searching of Jesus.
It was just a casual breakfast encounter at a conference where I was speaking last week. He told me about his time in Indonesia. I asked him if he’d read “Speaking of Jesus”, which is one of my favorite books, precisely because the author has a knack for telling people about Jesus as if it’s actually good news, rather than the distorted version of the gospel that implies God’s mad at the whole world. God’s angry at sin and death, friends, and we’re trapped in a matrix of these very elements… but I digress.
The guy from Indonesia then says, “Have you read his newest book?” and when I told him I hadn’t he began to tell me about it. “Something about fear… I can’t quite remember the title. O wait! ‘Adventures in Saying Yes- A Journey from Fear to Fatih’ That’s the title.”
Because I loved the other book I’d read by this author I bought it immediately. I bought it for a second reason too: Almost everyone I know is afraid these days. We’re afraid of the economy imploding if we elect someone untrustworthy for president. There are unemployment fears, terror fears, fears for our children, fears of aging, fears of rejection, fears of dying, fear of conflict, and o so many more fears. Many members of the prayer team at the church I lead tell me that fear and anxiety are the number one issues about which people are asking for prayer. Not shame. Not anger. Not prayers for the health and well being of others. Fear!
I’ll let you know that both books of Carl’s are easy reads; funny at times; brutally honest, and very practical – they will help you express the reality of your faith in Christ (if you have one) in a more natural and honest way. Rather than saying more: here are a few quotes from his “Saying Yes” book:
Stop for a moment and think of all the things that your need for security might actually stop you from doing…
Here’s my definition of fear: Fear is anything that potentially threatens your sense of safety and security.
Most of our fears are ‘potential fears’. What ifs. Yeah buts. Maybes. Then whats. They’re not real. They could be real. But they’re not. Those sorts of fears are dream squashers. They’re not fun. They rob your joy.
Carl decides to basically spend a year saying yes to everything, and as a result, finds himself in some amazing circumstances in the middle east, where he’s a missionary living among and loving Muslims. As a result, the fears that he needs to overcome include things like death threats, encounters with angry Imams, and opportunities to speak hope to groups of Jews and Muslims who hate each other. We’re afraid of losing our high paying jobs. He’s facing the threat of death of he follows through and speaks in this one certain place. Different fears – same principles!
That’s all that I’ll say, but I’ll share one more thing Carl says:
…fear keeps you from selling everything and moving to Lebanon with your young family. It keeps you firmly in the grip of words like ‘responsible’ and the often-used ‘wise’. But Mr. Wisely Responsible never had much fun. he doesn’t go on Hobbit like adventures. He might save money. And he might raise three very responsible and wise children who are very well behaved. But he doesn’t dream, never lives outside the box. To him, life appears quite normal.
But I say, Leap! Dream. Say yes! Set out on an adventure – a risky journey with an uncertain outcome. ...
All this is terribly appropriate as I’m planning on speaking this coming Sunday about the three kinds of people in the Moses story of leading God’s people through the wilderness. The three kinds are born from three different attitudes towards risk.
Looking back people live with a fear of the future that creates in them a bitterness about where they are and a longing for the good old days.
Looking around people decide that they’ve had enough adventures, and that they’ll spend the rest of their days staying safe.
And then there are looking ahead people. They’re…
WAIT! You need to hear the sermon. And you’ll be able to hear it here – on Sunday. But whether you listen or not – read “Saying Yes” – because saying Yes to this read might just change your life and lead to adventures!
10:30 PM. Wednesday July 12th. I’m wide awake and my wife has long ago drifted off. It’s not supposed to be a contest, but somehow when she falls asleep first I feel cheated, and on my worst days that feeling can send me spiraling down a ridiculous hole of self pity, made all the deeper this week by the global context of violence, fear, and racism that seem to be spreading like a pandemic virus without a cure.
I decide that awake and watching the completion of the ESPY’s, ESPN’s annual sports awards show is as good as awake and simmering with frustration in bed. I wrap myself in blankets and settle in just in time for the award for courage, given this year to Craig Sager, a sportscaster for TNT, who has terminal leukemia, but who has lived his life abundantly, courageously, and joyfully through the midst of wrenching treatments. He has, as much as possible, continued to work, laugh, love, and do his job with both grace and gratitude. You can see his story and acceptance speech here. It’s a twenty minute investment of time, but I’d suggest a much better investment of time than Pokeman-Go, political conventions, or some of my sermons. Enjoy – and I’ll see you in twenty minutes, or if you want the essence, try this.
By the end I’m wiping tears from my eyes and when the speech is over I turn the TV off and pray. I confess how prone I’ve been lately to living small – confess that I’ve been worried about the future, sad about growing older, overwhelmed by feeling that there’s too much to do, even though it isn’t true. Craig’s story puts things in perspective, but not in a “you think you have it bad – just look at that guy with cancer” sort of way.
Instead, Craig reminds me of the very thing I’ve been studying earlier in the day in preparation for preaching Sunday. He reminds me that gratitude is a choice, utterly unrelated to circumstances. I’d said the very same thing to some of my staff last week in a meeting, but applying the words I speak? Now that’s a different, and harder task. Craig’s little speech brought his own choice to bless others and stay in the game into stark relief, not with my outer persona, but with my inner attitude. Anxiety displaces peace. Complaining wins another round, crushing gratitude. Cynicism carries the day over encouragement.
As I ponder this and listen to Craig’s speech again this morning, I come to discover that the difference between this sportscaster and this preacher is that sportscaster has, right in the midst of terminal cancer, developed what I call “the Art of Seeing” and this art is the main ingredient of gratitude. A favorite author of mine writes in “A Listening Heart” that the path to God starts at the gates of perception. How much splendor of life is wasted on us because we go through life half blind, half deaf, with all our senses throttled and numbed by habituation. He goes on to challenge me. Will I wake up and begin paying attention to the daily wonders and miracles which, if I but see them, will naturally lead to joy and gratitude? Or will I continue to take the thousand miracles a day for granted – walking through life as one of those of whom Jesus speaks, “having eyes but not seeing – ears but not hearing?”
In prayer, I tell my friend Jesus that I choose the latter. I ask for fresh eyes to see the miracles of life all around me, and soon fall asleep.
Thursday, July 13th. Everything is different today even though nothing’s changed. Two neighbors help my wife haul some logs from a neighbor’s house to ours, while I study for my sermon. When they’re finished, I invite them in for good coffee and tell them the story of my little Italian coffee making machine. I give thanks for these new friends, unknown to me just a few years ago but now woven into the fabric of my life as sources of joy, laughter, and support. During my next break from studies I split wood and instead of the common theme all summer of cursing my aging body, I’m grateful for the ability to do it at all, grateful for the smell of the sap, grateful that this wood, gathered in the heat of summer, will become the heat of winter while snows fall outside. Grateful for my wife who sets the pieces I split and stacks the wood; that she finds more joy in the forest than I do gives me joy. Grateful for the scent of the air, and the little forest aviary nearby, where both birds and squirrels gather for a meal. My whole body is smiling and yes, my shoulder hurts; I have a cold; I’m getting old and the wood splitting stuff is more challenging than ever. Yes, I’ll watch the news tonight and violent deaths again. In France. Gratitude doesn’t alleviate pain. Rather, it fills the cup that is our life so that, right in the midst of the pain, we’re able to be people of hope – like Craig.
In “A Listening Heart”, David Rast says, “Every night I note in a pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been consciously grateful. Do you think it’s difficult to find a new reason for gratitude every day? Not just one, but three, four, five, pop into my mind some evenings…”
Seeing the gifts raining down on our lives every day and making enough space to express gratitude is, for me, the front range lesson I’m learning. It’s what I most need to practice, and I suspect I’m not alone. Everywhere I look people are afraid, angry, and anxious.
But before there’s a solution to the world’s problems, there’s a desperate need for us to become better people. And that begins with paying attention, and seeing, and gratitude.
Are you in? I am. Let’s travel the road together.
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…
January 18th was my 60th birthday and it was more than just a great day. It was an awakening. The day unfolded differently than I’d anticipated. Early rising, intense exercise, and solitude were the anticipated words of the day because these are things that, for most of my life, I’ve assumed to be life giving and energizing. They’re the things I usually choose, or have been prone to choose.
I don’t know if it’s the 60 thing, or some other winds of change blowing through the soul these days, but this birthday unfolded completely differently, so the last post, this post, and the next one are devoted to the three things I did differently on my birthday, each of which has changes for the better.
After sleeping in, we soon received texts from the neighbors who were putting together a neighborhood ski day. My wife, ever the lover of getting together and connecting, was all in. I wasn’t so sure. A year ago, when I realized my birthday was going to land on a holiday, I’d secretly declared a goal to myself that I’d ski 60′ vertical feet on my birthday, as a sort of feeble attempt to mock the inevitability of aging. “Take that!” I’d shout after 8 solid hours of hard skiing. Aging would smile condescendingly, knowing that the house always wins. But whatever…that was my plan.
The neighbors have children, and skiing with children wasn’t on my radar. Neither, for that matter, was skiing with grown up neighbors. It would be slower. It would be conversational. It would be limiting. I’ve always, at the least, been as comfortable with a day skiing alone as I’ve been skiing with friends. There are a dozen reasons for that, all beyond the scope of this post.
Suffice it say that when Donna suggested we ski with the neighbors, my response was, predictably, “I’ll do a run with you guys. But then I’m leaving. I need a good workout today.”
Yes. That’s right Richard. Use exercise as an excuse for isolation. It’s worked well before because it sounds so self-disciplined, so good, so pure.
We arrive and are quickly in line with the neighbors, and as fate would have it, I ended up with my neighbor Paul’s daughters: Elizabeth and Georgia. I’d been in rooms with them, at neighborhood parties before, and down at the end of street in the summers when we neighbors play pickle-ball, but I didn’t know them, not really, for the simple reason I’d never made the effort.
Turns out the loss was all mine. We started skiing together and these girls ski fearlessly, joyfully, with a childhood delight that made skiing with them some sort of shalom, by which I mean a window into peace, wholeness, and hospitality. They’d cut into the trees, take little jumps, go literally anywhere I suggested, even as I’d follow them on routes previously unknown to me.
Then there were the rides up on the lifts, learning about who likes math, and who likes swimming, and horses, and about life on a few acres outside Tacoma, and what they do at the cabin when they’re not skiing (checkers, sledding, “hangin’ out”…)
Their dad helped Donna and redesign the space under our deck so that it could become a decent wood storage space. He’s a sort of renaissance man – teacher, inventor, pilot, woodworker – and delightful role model as both dad and husband. I’d had a few conversations with him over the months, but the girls, never.
Until today. By the end of the day, I’d only skied 5200 vertical feet, instead of my normal 20,000, and my ridiculous goal of 60k. But I’d never, in recent memory, enjoyed skiing more. The family would come over later that evening, with other neighbors, for some cookies and milk, a little birthday celebration, and I learned that they actually enjoyed skiing with me, which way maybe the best gift of my 60th birthday. It was a wake up call, a discovery…or at the least, rediscovery.
In this year of my 60th birthday, as I think about what I need to prioritize if I’m going to continue enjoying the life God has for me, a morning of skiing with the neighbor girls taught me a vital lesson:
We’re made for relationships and community. I’d read a great book recently about habits that help make us healthy, entitled, “The Primal Connection” documents that social isolation dramatically depresses one’s immune system, and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease, concluding that a lack of social connectedness is the health equivalent of smoking a pack a day, or drinking excessively. Wow! Apparently when God says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” God’s talking about something that’s good for you, both life giving and enjoyable!
Of course most of you know this, but there are two groups who are vulnerable.
First Group at Risk : There are some of us who write, study, teach, and live inside our heads creating ideas and interacting with ideas – so much so that this cerebral world becomes more important than flesh and blood. I’ll confess to you that this world sometimes feels safer than the messiness of relationship, so I’ve sometimes chosen isolation far too readily. I’m repenting now…and regretting what I’ve missed.
Second Group at Risk: The rest of you. You’re the ones who are better and texting than talking. Better at facebook than face to face. Better at virtual reality than real reality. You’re on the bus not talking to people. You’re in bed not talking with your spouse. You’re eating in front of a screen. You’re failing to understand that eye contact, activities together, and actual contact face to face and heart to heart is the life for which you’re created. You’ve traded that richness in for a fake world, a highlight reel that’s void of vulnerability, authenticity, and human touch.
That birthday gift of skiing with neighbors was more than just fun. It rocked my world, calling me to repent of isolation, especially my isolation painted over with the thin spiritual veneer of solitude, or commitments to health. Posh. I’m praying I’ll spend the rest of my days investing much more intentionally in loving my neighbors, blessing and serving, being in the thick of the laughter, shared burdens, and shared joys that comes from being part of a tribe.
Thanks Georgia and Elizabeth. Best. Birthday. Ever.
Monday was my 60th birthday and it was more than just a great day. It was an awakening. The day unfolded differently than I’d anticipated. Early rising, intense exercise, and solitude were the anticipated words of the day because these are things that, for most of my life, I’ve assumed to be life giving and energizing. They’re the things I usually choose, or have been prone to choose.
I don’t know if it’s the 60 thing, or some other winds of change blowing through the soul these days, but this birthday unfolded completely differently, so this post and the next two are devoted to the three things I did differently on my birthday, things I’ve now elevated to goals for 2016.
First Thing: Instead of early rising, sleep. My wife and I walk with the neighbors most mornings at 7am, and I try to fit in coffee, Bible reading, and meditation prior to the walk, which means a 6am wake up call, or even earlier. But on Monday the alarm went off and I didn’t want to get out of bed. Then some dialogue started happening in my head as I lay there listening to my wife’s deep, rhythmic breathing.
Me: “You should get up. That’s what productive people do. You know those verses about the ant and the sluggard in Proverbs right? ‘A little sleep, a little slumber… and poverty will come upon you!…’
Other Me “Yeah I know, but it’s my birthday. It would be fun to try and sleep in, to try being a relaxed type B person for a day, maybe even type C”
Me: “That’s a slippery slope you’re on there. Today it’s your birthday. Tomorrow it’s too cold. Then it’s a habit. Then you’re fat, and broke, and dead. If that’s what you want… sleep in”
Other Me: “Can you shut up just for a day, please? I’m tired of intensity, tired of being driven, especially by you and your insecure compulsions. Lighten up.”
Me: “I will not lighten up. Vigilance is how things happen, good things, productive things, necessary… necess… nvdlese….nsssz
Other Me: “zzzzzzzzzz”
And that was that. I didn’t wake until my wife returned from walking with the neighbors! This is a small victory for sleep, and it’s actually a good thing. In a recent favorite read, Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-being I learned that one of the best things we can do for our creativity, productivity, and health of both soul and body, is to get 8-9 hours of sleep a night. This is very different than the way I’ve thought, which is, “think how much more writing, exercise, thinking, working, and living you can do if you get up early?”
In point of fact, our sleep-less-ness is tied to our beating back the night through electricity. I know this because we were without power for four days during the Christmas season, and this meant that around 3 in the afternoon we’d sense the darkness coming on, and make sure our candles were at the ready. They were great to sustain conversation, but not good enough for reading. Plus, we’d powered down our media except for acute events, such as texts from work or daily checking of email.
People said to me, “Get a generator” but I said back, “Nope. These days, hard as they’ve been, have opened my eyes to the possibility of rest.” That’s because we’d go to bed long before nine on most nights. “A long winter’s nap” as they say; and I woke refreshed.
Sleeping in set the stage for a great birthday, and since then I’ve been shooting for 8 hours of sleep. Truth be told, I’m landing between 6 1/2 and 7 1/2, but still, it’s progress. It’s counter-intuitive, because there’s a part of me that’s driven. But as I lean into this call to rest, I find myself aligning to the rhythm of restoration that’s woven into all of creation, and the restoration that comes through the gift of sleep means more creativity, more capacity to be present, and just a general sense that life is closer to God’s shalom than it ever is when I’m anxious about staying in bed too long.
Welcome 60! Thank you for banishing my fear of sleep, and finally giving me the courage to believe I’m not lazy. Good night now… see you in 8 (OK, 7) hours!”
Behind the holiday lights, both here in Europe and back home in the USA, the waves of unhappy news just keep coming. Colorado Springs. Beirut. Paris. Mumbai. San Bernadino – death dealing violence has become so common its hardly news anymore.
In such times, the events themselves are never the only stressors. There are reactions to the events, or the proposed reactions by politicians and wanna-be presidents that cause reaction too, and then, because we’re all connected, there are our responses to each other’s responses. Gun control or conceal and carry? Religious profiling or open borders? Boots on the ground? Drones in the air? Leave them alone?
These are our debates, and as we’re having them, they usually aren’t pretty. The uncivil dialogue creates yet another stress, as we become ‘houses divided’ even in communities of Christ followers. How good people land on such profoundly different sides on these conversations is a topic for another day. For this day though, I’d suggest that the most important thing Christ followers can do as they seek to form their own convictions on these matters is to make certain that our convictions are formed by things we know with a great deal of clarity from our Bibles. Jesus hasn’t ruled directly whether a ban on assault weapons is a good or bad idea. He didn’t go into detail on what Rome’s immigration policy should be in the 1st century But he wasn’t silent either. Jesus taught us stuff, and it’s the stuff we know that should be our starting point in framing our ethics:
What DO we know?
1. We shouldn’t be motivated by fear
The west is bathed in fear right now, and the fear is giving birth to all kinds of unhealthy responses, ranging from pre-emptive violence against immigrants to amassing weapons and ammo to protect ourselves and our stuff, to blanket condemnations of entire people groups.
It’s important to see that throughout the Bible, if the motive behind our actions is fear, our actions are likely wrong. When the Lord speaks to Joseph about the unexpected pregnancy of his fiance, God tells him to ‘fear not’, and this means he must overcome the natural fear of social consequences and fear of what other people think. The same message to “fear not” comes to Mary, and then later to the shepherds. Everyone is called to simply “do the right thing” and then trust that the consequences of such actions will be in God’s hands.
The problem with fear is that it leads to reactionary responses and often escalates cycles of violence needlessly, and this is the reason we should make certain we’ve slain the fear in our hearts before choosing our course of action, or even making our vote. Fear’s a seductive mistress, often bathed in the rhetoric of patriotism and/or faith, but when stripped to core, it’s still just fear.
2. We’re called to be people of justice
While it’s true that embodying the character of Jesus means turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and laying down our lives for one another, it’s also true that Jesus has a heart for the unjustly oppressed, the downtrodden, and victims of violence whether in Paris or in Syria.
When my pacifist friends tell me that Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, I wholeheartedly agree. What makes our world tricky is the question of how I’m to respond when the lives of others are at stake; my children, my wife, my Muslim or Christian neighbor, innocents celebrating a birthday in a Paris cafe, or gathering for a work party in Santa Monica, the teenage girl sexually enslaved in Asia or Los Angeles due to greed – what should Jesus do here? Maybe more than tweets and prayers.
What does the Lord require of us? Do justice! And then he leaves it to us to figure out what that means. The thing he makes clear is that the justice for which we’re to work is that of others first, more than justice for ourselves.
3. We’re called to be people of mercy
There’s a story in Genesis about Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and God tells Abraham that he will spare an entire city that’s filled with unjust people for the sake of 10 who are righteous.
It seems our conversations these days have become the exact opposite of that. We’re willing to vilify, label, and exclude an entire religious group because of the risk that some few among them might be zealots intent on doing harm. We’ll judge the whole because of the risk of a part being hurtful. Is this mercy?
4. Words matter
Jesus said that by our words we’ll be justified and by our words we’ll be condemned, and then the Apostle Paul followed up on this by twice calling us to watch our language. When we lose civility in our conversations, we also lose credibility. This isn’t to say we should be anything less than honest, forthright, and courageous in what we say. It simply means that the way we say things matters as much as what we say.
Here at the end of this post, I’ve not addressed ethical and political specifics. It’s not because these don’t matter. However before there are ethics, there are motives and priorities which shape those ethics. And now, more than ever, is a time when we need the wisdom of Christ at the core, at the level of motives and priorities.
The Prince of Peace has come. God with us! But more, he’s calling us come to each other in exactly the same way he came to us. May we search our hearts and motives this Advent, to the end that the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands will have their origin in Christ himself.