“Stay a little longer” my friend Martin invited from Austria over FaceTime last August as I was planning my teaching trip for December. “We’re dedicating the new building the weekend after you finish teaching. So you should stay for that.” And so it was this past Sunday, (12.9.18) sitting in a marvelous new building, I was eking out enough understanding of German to not only celebrate the great new work there, but to recommit to my own work and calling in a fresh way.
I was reminded, both in the dedication sermon and the interactions with guests, that the work of God in a locale is bigger by far than any individual. Lacking this understanding, too many leaders develop Messiah complexes and make the work about them. Others hang on desperately to their titles and positions out of personal fear of letting go. Still others leave too soon out of odd ambitions, fear of conflict, or just plain laziness. All these options are toxic, both to the work and to the individuals clinging to, or fighting for, titles.
I’ve been visiting this Bible school as a teacher since 1995, invited by the principal at that time, named Phil Peters. Years later, Phil left, and Martin Buchsteiner took his place. Then, in August of 2013, the Director of Tauernhof, my good friend Hans Peter, died in a paragliding accident. His death came 25 years after the founding director, Gernot Kunzelmann died in a paragliding accident in 1988. Gernot began Tauernhof 22 years earlier in a facility that began as an orphanage more than five decades before. After Hans Peter’s death, Martin became the Director, and David Hines, a bi-lingual German who was studying at Gordon Seminary in the states, became the new principal of the Bible School.
What a joy to hear a sermon reminding us that the torch of leadership is only carried by any of us as individuals for a season and is then passed to a new generation. Gernot to Hans Peter to Martin. Phil to Martin to David. The torch passes and new generations carry on the work. The power of this was multiplied for me as I was able to share conversations with family members from each of these leaders. Garnot’s wife Gertraud was in attendance, as was Hans Peter’s son, and of course, Martin, Phil, and David (all three Principals of the Bible School during the decades I’ve taught there).
With each leader, there’s been a beautiful carrying of the timeless torch, the message of Christ as life, embodied in both the teaching and the life of the community. But there’s also been unique contributions from each leader, so that the whole is a reflection, like a prism, of the unique colors of Christ brought by each one.
I left the dedication ceremony and skied alone for a couple of hours, weighing what I’d heard, seen, conversed about. So many Decembers in this space, and a few spring, summer, and fall weeks as well. I’ve seen the changes – staffing changes, facility changes, senior leadership changes. But at the top of the climbing wall that sits at the back of the property there’s a banner which reads, “Jesus Christ. The same yesterday, today, and forever.” So leaders come and go, but the essence, the declaration of Christ in a way that moves people toward body/soul/spirit wholeness, goes on – bigger than any single leader. This, of course, is as it should be; must be if the work really belongs to God. I exhale, and rest, finding peace in the reminder that I don’t dare hold on to any role for a day longer than I should out of fear or pride (nor a day shorter out of laziness, or conflict aversion for that matter!) Rather, you and I are called to carry the torch of Christ into various spaces that are the contexts God has given us, and to be all in, all there, for those seasons God gives us, confident that whatever we build that has the mark of Christ will not have been a waste of days.
As I exit the gondola at the top of the ski hill, the valley rains that were my companion when I boarded the lift have turned to snow, the first real snowfall of the year. “Ah yes” I say to myself. “Another season has come, faithfully, finally, to the mountain. Thanks be to God.”
I came off the mountain and settled in front of my computer to listen to a live stream of the church I lead. I was privileged to watch one of our most recently hired pastors preach, and as I listened, I thought to myself, “yes God…your work will be fine for many years to come.” Strangely, in the act of letting go and trusting God with the future, I felt a sense of refreshment in my own work, and vision for the future – because vision can only fill empty hands!
O Lord Christ
Thank you for the timeless nature of your work in the world, bigger than any of us.
Thank you for the privilege of carrying the torch and using our gifts for a season to bless and serve.
Forgive us for any decisions we make about the future that are rooted in greed, or fear, or pride, or laziness.
Teach us to number our days and pour ourselves out fully in them, knowing that joy will be our gift.
Teach us to say goodbye at the right time, neither too early nor too late, but only in response to You.
And we will rest in trusting You with the future of the work, knowing it was Yours all along.
Did you watch the funeral of President George H.W. Bush? If so, you saw the importance of named values on full display. From Jon Meacham’s stirring eulogy, to his son’s warm remembrances of him as both mentor and father, the entire event was testimony to a life well lived. Raised in privilege, President Bush recognized the gospel truth that “to whom much is given, much is required” and so lived his life as a courageous servant leader.
The sad reality, though, is that the testimonies offered that day also served as a grave reminder that courage, servanthood, generosity, and civility, are in short supply these days. It is this way because the avalanche of cultural input conspires to enflame individualism, consumerism, pettiness, a sense of personal inadequacy, and victim mentalities. All of these shrink our world down to survival mode, which is far cry from the abundant life Christ came to give, and the “rivers of living water” that should be flowing through us to bring water to the desert that is the 21st century.
The way forward, according to Paul, is that we be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”, because without such intentional swimming upstream, we’ll be swept into the vast cultural chasm of mediocrity and narcissism that is so evident everywhere. I find that the creation of a personal mission statement provides a huge step toward such intentionality. I wrote about why this matters here, and how knowing your gifts is a critical part of the process here.
More than gifts are needed though. Hitler had gifts of eloquence. Countless leaders have gifts of charisma to motivate, and the political savvy to build coalitions of disparate parties in order to gain power. Gifts, by themselves, are amoral. In order to live the life for which we’re created, we need to commit to investing our gifts in ways that build up and contribute to God’s mission in the world. Needless to say, this isn’t the only way gifts can be used. Our gifts can be in the pursuit of power and pleasure as easily as in pursuit of the common good, actually easier! What’s worse, we can whitewash our ignoble pursuits with noble causes and edifying vision. This happens in church work, politics, and the non-profit world too often, as we all know. It’s at the root of the current climate of institutional mistrust and cynicism, and is why I often hear, “I try to follow Jesus, but the church? No thanks…” and then they share their story of feeling used.
What’s the most important thing we can do to assure that our gifts and mission work towards uplifting, rather than destructive ends? Spend time mining and articulating our values. Here’s why:
Values answer the question: “to what end”?
Why am I running, or sitting on the sofa? Why am I reading and meditating, or calling people and planning events? Why do I give money away, or keep it? Why do I turn the TV off, or leave it on? The thing is, in any given situation, either answer could be right. Decisions between this and that must be based on values, because my values will steer my ship to the desired harbor and bring balance to my life. Otherwise, I might run a marathon, but have children I don’t know, or be culturally literate, but spiritually unable to offer people good food, or “successful” outwardly, but inwardly, as Jesus said of some successful people in his day, “full of dead man’s bones”.
Values offer course corrections
There are times when I withdraw into family life and my gifts of writing and teaching start rusting. I need to get back in the game! There are times when I live a fear based life and close my heart and pocketbook too readily. I need my courage value to guide me back to being a voice of hope. There are times when I try to pretend I’m better than I am, but valuing brokenness enables me to look in the mirror and pursue ongoing transformation. Deeply held values become a sort of navigation system for life, enabling shifts as the winds change, so that we reach the desired goal.
Embedded Values build Character
We all have values, but the sad truth is that without intentionality, we will passively adopt the values of prevailing culture. We likely won’t name them, but they’ll be ours nonetheless: Consumerism, Individualism, Material Security, Pain Avoidance. Our values will define our choices, and our choices will define our lives. Without intentionality, these cultural values will prevail and one day we’ll wake up and wonder where the time went, and why haven’t we accomplished much? The answer will be that we accomplished exactly what our values determined we should accomplish. The problem was simply that we didn’t choose our values wisely .
As I open my “to do list” every day, I read my values. As I do this more and more often these values become more deeply embedded in me, moving from page, to mind, to heart. Over time, this infects decision make – not perfectly, but in some measure. The result, I hope, is that we choose wisely, and so steward our one wild and precious life better, for having taken the time to intentionally name our values.
The difficult truth that few seem interested in hearing these days is that the stuff we receive in our social media feeds is overwhelmingly not convincing anyone to change their minds about anything. Minds were mostly made up, one way or the other, about the supreme court nominee, long before the hearing on Thursday, and as a result, everything that has happened since only served to confirm predisposed biases.
It can be tempting in such an environment to think that shouting louder or editing our writing or footage better will somehow persuade. I doubt it. We’re living, overwhelmingly, in tribal, self-referential echo chambers. I’ve never seen a more divided time, and I’m not alone in my assessment. After the exhausting work of trying to either persuade, or at the least, point people to ‘third way’ alternatives that are neither (for example) “Do away with ICE” nor “Summarily Evict” young people who have grown up in America” – it’s tempting to simply give up. I mean, when shouting louder doesn’t work, or posting more doesn’t work, what’s left?
“Fan into flame the gift that God has given you…” which means that you and I have each been wired uniquely by our creator to bless and serve this broken world. If perfecting and using our gifts is the road we’ve been called to travel, the truth of the matter is that there are about a million seductive side roads along the way. You can be tempted to pursue success instead of using your gifts, because success can soothe your insecurities. You can be tempted to persuade people who, in all likelihood won’t be persuaded by you, precisely because they’re already deeply entrenched, and your attempts are born out of rage, or pride that you’re enlightened, or some other dark place. When the shouting’s done, nobody’s convinced. You can be tempted to invest your time in self medicating your fears, frustrations, and sorrows. You give a finger to the world and say, “A curse on all of you… I’m redefining my life as the consumption of good coffee, good wine, and the pursuit of good ski conditions.” And just like that, you forfeit the life for which you’re created.
There’s a better way forward:
You’re blessed to be a blessing. This means that you are still here, breathing and eating, enjoying beauty and feeling pain, because God wants you to be a blessing in some way. Writing. Woodwork. Hospitality with the neighbors. Mentoring someone younger than you. Teaching. Healing. So get on with it… as you’re exhorted to do here and here.
This implies that you’ve come to discover how God has made you; what your unique capacities are. Many spend the precious commodity of time on the earth never intentionally even asking the question: What unique contributions does God want me to make to this world? Just asking the question is a good starting point. As I began asking this question years ago, I realized that my best strengths are almost always related to creating. I studied architecture because I like creating space. I studied music composition because I like creating a collection of sounds. And now, almost every day, I create – usually using words that become books, or sermons, or classes.
Stay in the Zone. A favorite book of mine called “Flow” talks about how 100% focus on what we’re called to do leads to a beautiful space, where time almost stands still and we’re no longer anxious about things “out there”, whether that be the leaky pipes, or the state of politics in America. While we’re at our task(s) we’re all in – and we’re intentional about getting all in every day because we have some short term goals that keep us going back to the drawing board, or wood shop, or library, or writing software, or the homeless shelter where we serve, or medical clinic, or courtroom. We know our craft, our calling, and are committed to it regardless of the noise and villifying and arguing that’s going on out there — we’re not scattered.
This is liberating friends. Some people have shared that they’re disappointed I don’t write as much these days about politics or divisive social and theological issues. I don’t write as much because ironically, while such posts easily generate four or five times more readers, they persuade almost nobody, and leave acidic and hateful words in the comments section from people who seem to enjoy nothing more than calling those who disagree with them ‘idiots’. This isn’t helping anyone, so I’ve drastically reduced such posts.
Instead, my commitment to you is to help you shine as the light God has created you to be, and I’ll leave the shouting to others. This isn’t intended to lead to withdrawal or silence – but engagement – it’s just that engagement that comes out from a commitment to use our gifts, build up and encourage others will be the best foundation for changing the world.
The to-do list is a document somewhere in the cloud, and every time I open it, this shows up:
MISSION STATEMENT: RD uses his gifts of teaching, catalytic vision, and leadership to serve and bless people by inviting them to wholeness, and demonstrating through both teaching and living, how Christ changes everything: spirit, soul, body – intimacy, family, friendships, values, ethics, relationship with neighbors, posture vis a vis culture – priorities as a citizen, global citizen, and citizen of a heavenly kingdom – and hope regarding the future. He offers clear steps for people to take in their journey of transformation and invites people to those next steps
This is my mission statement and I’m of the opinion that everyone needs one for two important reasons:
1. Jesus had one. In one of Jesus’ earliest public appearances, he opened Isaiah and read this: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisonersand recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Then he closed the scroll and told everyone in the room that this scripture was being fulfilled right before their very eyes, because Jesus was the “me” to whom this text was referring. He knew that the charge in Isaiah was his, that this was why he came to earth.
It’s best if each of us knows ‘why we’ve come to earth’ because such a knowing gives us clarity and purpose each and every day. Clarity and purpose are not only vital to our mental and physical health, but they alleviate the frustration of ultimately looking back on our lives and wondering if we’ve invested them well. If we both know our mission, and take the time to visit it regularly, there’s a sort of ‘sifting’ that happens, so that we spend increasingly less time doing things that don’t contribute to our mission.
This might sound like a mission statement will lead to a joyless life of pure self denial, but nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that when we’re living into our prayerfully crafted and wisely created mission statement, we will be living in ways that align with who we actually are, rather than who we perhaps want to be. For example, I’d love to be my neighbor sometimes because he has tremendous abilities with power tools and practical problem solving when it comes to matters of property. However, there have been a few times when I’ve tried to become him by fixing my own car, or solving an electrical problem in the house. Oops! The only thing I become good at when I try to be him is impatience and @#$%^. I now know that I’m not wired for wiring. I’m wired for writing. So, other than simpler projects which I can pull off easily with a ‘for dummies’ guidebook, I’m leaving repairs and remodels to the folks who can do it. I’ll stick with words, thank you very much.
As a result, because I’m doing more activities that contribute to my mission, I’m more fulfilled!
2. A mission statement prevents mission drift. Every morning when I create my to-do list and look at past projects that are either done or due soon, I’m subconsciously weighing these activities against my mission statement. This helps me not only stay true to my calling; it helps me continually understand my calling better. As a result of this little daily process, I’m gaining a clearer picture of what I’ll hope to be doing with my time when, someday, I’m no longer leading a large urban church. My mission statement helps me narrow the broad array of choices, and focus – both on a daily basis, and when asking big life questions.
Before running off to make a mission statement, there are two caveats:
Caveat #1: Your mission statement must be more important than other things. Some people have mission statements, but they’re actually just window dressing to cover up their truest motivations, which are about wealth, power, fame, living in a certain nice place, being super healthy, or enjoying sensual pleasures as much as possible. It’s not that we shouldn’t care at all about such things; it’s just that when such things become central in our lives, they become terribly destructive. So you performed well in the cross-fit gym. Is that really why you were born? So you have spectacular sex four nights a week, or retire with multiple millions in the bank at 36, or buy a Tuscan Villa. Are these your core reasons for existence? I hope not. Our mission statement has to do with living into our perceived truest identity, and I’ll write more about that in my next post. For now the important thing to see is that we’re to be driven by our identity, not our desires. If I were driven solely by desires, I’d be the guy with a great villa in Tuscany and millions in the bank.
It’s better though, to be driven by the calling and identity that God has given us, which brings me to the second caveat…
Caveat #2: We don’t create our mission statement out of thin air. We discern it! At a level, this is a lifelong process of answering this question carefully: What do I do that brings me joy, and is affirmed by other people?
A deliberate, careful, and prayerful consideration of this question will likely yield a few answers, and embedded in those answers will be the seeds of your mission statement.
This is so valuable and practical for me that I hope you’ll walk with me through the process and create your own. It’s because of this mission statement that I say “yes” to coffee with God, still say “yes” to leading the church I lead, say “yes” or “no” to hospitality and speaking invitations on various occasions, and easily say “no” to various options for use of my time or money.
Does anyone else out there have a mission statement they’d like to share?
Do you have questions about crafting your mission statement?
If “yes”, please respond in the comments section and it will help craft this series. Thanks!
As happens every September, there’s a feeling of newness in the air. It’s not just the crisp morning air and footballs flying, it’s a returning from the unusual syncopations of summer activities to the more rhythmic routine of autumn. I’ve returned from vacation this year particularly refreshed and focused, and for particular reasons. I’ve watched with growing concern as America has become increasingly polarized politically, so much that our fragmentation is becoming, more than either party’s ideology, the biggest present threat to our future.
The church hasn’t been immune to this polarizing. We’ve mirrored the culture’s political tribal hatred, enough so that it’s increasingly rare to find people of differing political parties willing to worship together, let alone dialogue about their differences. We then add theological layers to the debate, elevating particular ethical issues to the status of litmus tests for fellowship, while knowing full well that there are good people who love Christ and hold to a high view of scripture who hold the opposite view. But for too many, that fact is of no consequence as they withdraw from fellowship because of “those people”.
Toss in a healthy dose of #METOO, courtesy of a NY Times article regarding a well known evangelical church, and an ever expanding sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and I find myself, on my worst days, wanting to pull out completely. John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go…”. I hear them calling too but there are two phrases, each different than Muir’s, that keep me coming to work, day after day, as I soon enter what will be my 24th year of ministry in the same place.
1. The mountains are calling and I want to go… Of course I do. My wife and I enjoyed our first dates on hikes and snowshoeing. The mountains are reminders for us of so much that is true and life giving: our smallness in the light of eternity – God’s grandiose generosity and immense creativity – glimpses, in the majesty of mountains, abundance of waters, beauty of wildlife, silence of a starry night, of life as it should be: glorious, peaceful, interdependent, thriving. Yes, I’ll keep getting out: for morning runs, sabbath hikes, photography meditation walks, ski tours, and more. I need to read God’s other book, the book of creation, as much as I need to read the Bible. Maybe you do too.
But it’s also true that….
2. My sphere of influence is calling, and Imust go. Sphere of influence is a little phrase I picked up decades ago in one of the best books I’ve ever read. The author spoke of our sphere of concern, things about which we care, but are outside our control. We care about politics, climate change, health care, increasing urban density in Seattle, the lazy employee on our team at work, the senior management that are incompetent, etc. But many of these things, for most of us, are well outside our authority to fix. Of course for some of them we can vote on, and perhaps if we’re motivated, we can and should organize as well, or do something more dramatic. But what we shouldn’t do at all is spend time worrying, complaining, lamenting, gossiping, grumbling, whining, posting social media grenades, or being vexed, if it’s a matter outside our direct sphere of influence. If we do we’ll be paralyzed, overcome with worry, and ultimately feel like disempowered victims. Does that sound familiar to you? Increasingly, the Victim card is the most popularly played card in the game of life. But it’s often misguided and disempowering.
It’s far better for me to focus on my sphere of influence. I’ve developed a personal mission statement, which I’ll share in the next blog post. My goals come out of this statement, and my to do list, at my best, comes out of these goals. That way, no matter what’s going on in Syria or Washington DC, I needn’t succumb to the anxiety, fear, anger, and hand wringing that is the soil out from which our current cultural crises are being born. Instead, I can follow the advice of Paul when he prayed that his friends would “live a life worthy of God’s calling…”.
My commitment to you:
I have a goal this fall of using this blog as a means of encouraging you to define, refine, and excel in your calling. I’ll write about finding your gifts, writing your own mission statement, and developing a set of core values by which to live. YOU CAN HELP in this process by engaging with the material, subscribing (see below), and sharing the posts you like with your friends.
I’m asking you to share the material because my hope and prayer is that more and more people will step away from the negative and cynical culture wars, disempowering victim mentalities, and disengaged cynicism, and instead live fully into their callings to be people of hope in this very difficult time. Will you join me on the journey?
O Lord Christ…
With each headline we sense a vast machine at work, destroying some things we hold dear, no matter our party, even as those operating the machinery do so in the name of preservation. Forgive our fears, our cynicism, our anger – all of which have blinded us to the seminal truth that each of us have a place in this world: gifts to use; neighbors and children and enemies to love; our own souls to nurture toward wholeness; joy to impart. May we get on with it, each of us, in our spheres of influence, doing whatever our hands find to do, with all our might. And we’ll thank you for the joy, and privilege, and adventure of it – in Jesus name.
More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century.
The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day… life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal.
In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world – all quotes by Nicholas D. Kristof from “Half the Sky”
One of the challenges that the church faces is that it has often been, rightly, accused of being part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to elevating the identity, calling, authority, strength, and leadership of women in the world. Women have been censored, marginalized, shut out from positions of spiritual leadership, treated as property, burned as witches, tortured and killed as heretics , and abused.
I, for one, would like the church I lead to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. This is why we’re presently in a series on “Called by God: Women of the Bible”. In this series my intent is to show how God has called women to frontline visible ministries as prophetesses, Apostles, judges, leaders in civil disobedience, teachers, and more. I’ll also be offering, both on this blog and on our church website, some further discussion about critical questions related to the subject of women in the Bible. I hope you’ll subscribe and join us for the discussion.
I’ve been in church settings where men have walked out when a woman opened the Bible and began to teach or preach. I grew up in a church where women had very confined roles, none of which had to do with teaching or decision making authority. I’m part of a generation that, for the most part, embraced the culturally defined gender roles of “Fiddler on the Roof”. None of this strident patriarchy was fabricated out of thin air. The views come from a certain way of reading the Bible. The reading creates the culture. The culture reinforces the prevailing reading, which deepens the culture still further. And so it goes.
Here’s what can change that:
1. Consider a fresh reading of the Bible. It’s vital to recognize the danger of “cherry picking” certain passages and building entire ethical constructs out of them. My own movement away from strong patriarchy began with the realization that not everything in the Bible that God proscribes applies for all time. We don’t continue executing disobedient children, for example. Women are no longer viewed as property as they so clearly were under Old Testament Law.
Ethics change because God’s revelation is ripening, ultimately to find its fullest blossoming in the person of Christ. In Jesus’ narrative, a woman becomes the first evangelist. Another becomes exemplary of what it means to love God. Two more are the first eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. Paul the apostle doesn’t miss a beat in his continuing liberation of women as he speaks of a female Apostle, and of “when” women prophesy in the gathered faith community. I know there are questions about particular texts that seem to indicate confinement to certain roles, and I’ll deal with these in forthcoming material. For now know this: Christ’s example liberates women from previously constrained roles. Paul, if somewhat covertly, continues to develop that same trajectory. So should we.
2. Recognize the difference between Biblical mandate and culture norms. Many women have grown up in a culture of unequal pay, in churches that silenced them, and in homes where the word ‘submission’ was unilaterally imposed on women by men, but never applied to men (as the Bible declares it should be). These women have a weight of cultural baggage to overcome. When Paul says that believers are to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds” this is a classic example of what he’s talking about. Transformation comes from recognizing cultural mores and swimming upstream against them. Men can help women do that by recognizing that they have unique callings
My wife’s perspective is that it’s difficult for a woman to find her true voice because there’s been a historical cultural weight of expectations that have kept women on a clearly defined and constricting path. She says, “Men have often thought of women as fish in a channel. Men have tried to help women get from point A to point B by ‘helping them’, which is tantamount to straightening the stream or building fish ladders. The intention is good, but still too confining. The problem is that women are actually birds, and we can get to God’s appointed destiny of our calling by making our own prayerful decisions, finding our own path with our own unique giftedness as women.”
3. Find your gifts and use them. In the end, one of the reasons I believe women are called to any position in the church is because the last thing I’d ever want to do is censor someone from using gifts that God has given them. In Romans 12, we read that some are called to, variously, give, serve, teach, and lead. Far be it from me to prevent someone from using a certain gift because of their gender! All of us must work at understanding our strengths and how God has created us, and as we do this we’ll find those endeavors which a) bring us great joy b) we’re naturally good at and c) are affirmed by others because others are blessed by our doing them. Those endeavors are where we must focus our time.
How many women, though, have been unable to do that because of the cultural and spiritual forces of patriarchy which shut them out?
It can be otherwise, and it often begins with deconstructing the notion that women have confined roles. They’re not fish in a stream. They’re birds, with a world of heights available to them. It’s time to fly.
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 story – Light 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.
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…”
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 ofSeattle, 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, andI 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 Kerouacspent 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.
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.
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.