Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

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

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Dec 22, 2017

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

 

The Disco Ball of Success, and What to do when You’re Blinded by it

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Dec 2, 2017

Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next.  If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media.  For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul.  Happy reading, and happy sharing.  

Chapter 1:  Accidental Climbers

Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’  Richard Rohr

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.        Bill Gates

Woe unto you when all men speak well of you….                                                      Jesus the Christ

“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom

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

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

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

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

That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll.  You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living.  Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed.  High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly.  There’s your influence to consider, and reputation.  You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.

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

“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”

Three “Sport” guys from England, Austria, and USA – bound together by Christ’s love.

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

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

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

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

After that I collapsed.  There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job.  The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.

Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing.  It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”.   But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all.  Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself.  Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition?   What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness.  I wondered if I was on the right mountain.

Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table.  Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them.  I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant.  What was wrong with me?  As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.

I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring.   Like any peak, it came at a cost.  Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing.  New locations.  New leaders.  New responsibilities.  New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships.  The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting.  But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year.  Success!  And emptiness at the same time.  Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?

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

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

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

Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people.  “Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small.  I was wrong of course.  Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me.  I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger.  Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame.  In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment.  When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.

That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily.  This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more.  HR task forces.  Policy Manuals.  Bigger and bigger budgets.  Adapt.  Grow.  Celebrate.  Adapt.  Grow.  Mourn a little bit.  Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership.  Grow more.  Repeat.

People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all.  I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy.  After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”.  I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”.  Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth.  The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people.  Healed.  Empowered.  Transformed.  Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.

The church I lead celebrates 100 Years.

I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question:  “Where does this story end?”  and the honest answer was that I didn’t know.   This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room.  The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable.  “Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.

Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity.  Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well.  But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified.  And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing.  I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading.  What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty.  When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves.  Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long.  I knew I needed to move.

I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs.   Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.

Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters.  The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father.  Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:

Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale.  And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life. 

We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements.  We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more.  Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency.  I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic,  treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away.  The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail.  In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days

And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.

You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers.  My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages. 

Vicarious vs. Experience: Not Even Close

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Jun 9, 2017

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.

Celebrate Recovery

Homecoming

Pure Desire

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.

The Gifts of Christmas #5 – Shepherd, Provider, Gift Giver

by , on
Dec 24, 2016
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Over 37 years, two stockings have become ten. JOY!

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.

A letter to men:

by , on
Oct 21, 2016

 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?

 

 

Completion as a Starting Point

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Aug 26, 2016

50 miles of the PCT

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.

50 Miles of PCT

 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.

 

“Adventures in Saying Yes” was the best read of the summer because…

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Aug 19, 2016

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!

Seeing and Gratitude: Fuel for the Desert Journey

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Jul 15, 2016

IMG_040410:30 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.

Into the fog of discipleship…step by step

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Apr 18, 2016

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…

Amen.

 

Lessons I’m learning in 2016 #2 – Loving My Neighbors, a mile at a time

by , on
Jan 30, 2016
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5200 vertical = a mile of blessing and transformation

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.