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.
I started a little vacation about a week ago. The plan was to hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife of nearly 37 years. This kind of space would provide the kind of beauty and clarity needed for me to see far into the future (“Do you have a five year plan?” someone asks me) and so be able to prepare for it. After all, we learn from an early age that life’s about setting goals, envision a future, and then going after it with all the gusto we can muster. This is all well and good, perhaps, if you know exactly what your future is to be, but as one grows older assurances about the future become harder to assess. There are too many wild cards. Health. Money. The shelf life in one’s profession. Needs out there which you might be able to help meet. Your own need for rest. Desires to write. Or travel. Desires to keep doing what you’re doing.
The options are dizzying, and unknowable. Still, I thought the space of hiking through the wild would grant clarity; that I’d come home with needed understanding and some goals to pursue, marching orders for the next chapter. Mercifully that whole line of thinking fell off a cliff somewhere below Cathedral Rock on day two of our hike.
Instead, clear as the mountain peaks around me, I was granted the realization that two realities must be in place in order for any of us to move toward the life for which we’re created. What are they?
1. We need right motives for what we’re doing. Proverbs 16:2 says that “people may be pure in their own eyes, but the Lord weights the motives”. This is a stunning statement because we tend to look at a person’s pursuits as indicative of their wisdom, and the quality of their life. Look at the triathlete and you think, “self discipline”. Look at the person who started that non-profit and you think, “idealistic; devoted”. Look at the rich person with a reputation for generosity: “sacrificial”. It’s all very impressive, and certainly extends to people who work in ministry, or speak for a living, or are super committed to raising ‘excellent kids’. Yes. Let’s be a version of human that causes people to take notice, in a positive way.
And therein, my friends, is the problem because pursuits born out of a desire to be well thought of by others will lead us down the wrong path – every time – even when the pursuit seems noble. So will stuff born out of a desire to please others and avoid their judgement. So will stuff born out of a sense of the overwhelming needs we see, for the there are needs all around us and they will never go away. Ministries and philanthropic organizations are littered with broke down lives who could never say “no” because the need was always there, always hungry, always thirsty, always needing more us. So it’s not the thing itself that offers assurance we’re on the right path. It’s far too easy to justify the nobleness of any pursuit in our own eyes, even in the eyes of others.
“…the Lord weighs the motives” means just that. Pursuits born out of greed, or anger, or need for approval, or fear of rejection, or a desire for comfort, or a desire to prove something to someone – all these will, in the end, melt away. The one thing that matters is this: “What is God asking of me in this particular moment?” I think of Jesus in Mark 1. He’d healed some people and cast out demons, taught them, and hung out at a house ’til late into the night. By the next morning, word of his power had spread and whole town as knocking on the door, wanting to be with him. His response: “Time to move on to somewhere else and preach there. For that is what I came for.” This is impressive to me because it tells me that his motive is, as he says elsewhere, simply to do the will of the one who sent him.
How freeing would that be? For starters, it would free you and me from doing anything out of a FOMO, or any other fear. We’d also be liberated from being driven to action by every need we see, which can only, in the end, result on compassion fatigue in a world where racism, global poverty, sexism, oppression, environmental degradation, family breakdown, health crises, mental illness, and o so much more are knocking at our doors. It’s too much for any one to bear. What’s needed, then, is for each of us to know our part and do it, recognizing that along the way some will view us heartless, too liberal, too conservative, too prudent, too foolish, too ambitious, too lazy, and on and on it goes. If we’re in the right space, we’ll be able to sift this stuff and move forward with our true calling, but doing so requires that we have the second reality in our experience as well as the first one.
2. We need to be secure that we are complete in Christ. If the starting point of my life is that I’m already complete, then I’ve nothing to earn, nothing to prove, and nothing to fear. All my actions, when born from the reality of completion and security in Christ, will be nothing more than saying yes to God’s next step. For Elisabeth Elliot, decades ago, it meant moving back to Central America to live among the people who had murdered her husband, in order to share the reality of Christ with them. For another it means retiring early to care for aging parents. For another it means staying in the same job for 50 years. For another it means moving often. One might write and never sell more than a few thousand books, or less even. Another might regularly make the NYT Bestseller list. One’s a millionaire. Another’s living in a camper van.
Like various flora in the forest, each is fulfilling its calling without the anxiety and compulsion of comparison or fear.
How cool would it be to be secure in the assurance that we’re loved completely, perfectly, infinitely? It would free us to believe that, in Christ, we have a unique role to play in blessing the world, and our one true thing will be to pursue that thing – not out of a desire for fame, or financial security, or to prove to someone how important we are, but simply out of love for the one who has healed us, filled us with life and hope, and given us the chance to participate in blessing a world thirsty for blessing. That’s the life I’m after friends, no matter where it leads.
The good news is that Christ came to fill us with nothing less than his life so that we can enjoy this “confidence of completion”. The bad news is that religion has too often mutated into some sort of performance whereby we’re trying earn approval, from each other, or God, or the church. Sick stuff, really, when you realize the whole point of the gospel was to set us free from that very mindset!!
The hike’s over and the particulars of the five year plan are no less clear. Any anxieties I had about not knowing are gone though. They been blown away by the comforting winds of the Holy Spirit, who has reminded me that I’m complete, already, because of what God has done in Christ. I’m done performing for approval – seeking instead to live a life poured out in obedience to Christ as an act of gratitude for his matchless love.
Does this sound unapologetically Christo-centric? I hope so. People may or may not use the language of Christ, but I’m convinced, more than ever, that a world thirsting for peace, meaning, hope, joy, strength, confidence, beauty, intimacy, and Justice, is a world searching of Jesus.
It’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…
“What is that in your hand?” God
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” The Preacher in Ecclesiastes
I’m sure you’ve been there. You want something to be different in your life. Maybe it’s a vocational success you’re after, or a new house, a remodel, a spouse, (a remodel of a spouse? nope), a successful and meaningful retirement. Or you want things to be different in the world because the racism, injustice, human trafficking, environmental destruction, or whatever it is for you, just incenses you so much that you’re “mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.”
It seems that all of us, at times, are on the hunt for the “next big thing” in our lives. I have a friend in his twenties about to move overseas; a friend in his thirties about to make a major job change; and a friend in his seventies who’s trying to figure out what to do with the time he has left. All of them are looking for the next big thing.
This last guy, the older one, taught me a great lesson when we met recently. I’d seen him a few days earlier and he said, “we need to catch a coffee” and, with a grin on his face, “I’ve found the answer to the question of what to do with the rest of my time!!”
We met in my office recently, late in the afternoon, and he walked in with a gleam in his eye. He’s always been upbeat, as long as I’ve known him, but this was different. This was a gleam of settledness, contentment, purpose, calling. “Well,” I asked, “what’d you find?” He pulls a sheet of lined paper out of his pocket and holds it up in front of me. It’s filled, or nearly so, with names.
“See this?” he says. “These are the ‘kids’ I’m meeting with. All of them are in their twenties and thirties. I’m meeting them for coffee, walking the lake with them, having them over to my house. Whatever it takes. I’m investing in young kids!” He’s giddy with joy as he tells me about the newest name on the list; how they met, what they’re doing together.
I’m happy for him, of course, and curious. He has a contentment and enthusiasm that’s a refreshing contrast to the common “striving” mindset and posture that so many of us have so much of the time. I ask him how he came to the discovery of this calling.
He smiles and says, “I was already doing it! That’s what’s so funny!” He goes on to tell me that this new chapter isn’t as much new, as it is going deeper into what he’s already doing, what’s already been bringing joy to him and life to the young adults with whom he meets. “It was there all the time,” he said, and this got me thinking about calling, contentment, and ambition. Here’s what his story can teach us all:
1. If we don’t start where we are, we’ll never move successfully. You know the story from Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation about the weird unemployed uncle who’s living in a trailer? Fat, unshaven, and with all the emotional intelligence of some “real housewife” on TV, he’s “holding out for a management position.” He’s waiting for something better is another way of saying it, but whether you’re waiting for something better, or going after something better, the message is the same:
Don’t neglect “what’s in your hand” because according to this story, it’s what’s in your hand today that God will use to direct you to God’s preferred future for your tomorrow. One of the greatest forms of temptation many of us face, is the mirage like opportunity that’s “out there” somewhere. Its existence entices and, like the new wool sweater, we’re sure we’ll be more fulfilled if we can get there. So we go after it, with gusto, and sometimes with the side effect of neglecting what’s in our hand.
I’m presently working on two books and leading a large church in Seattle, along with needing to prepare for speaking at some upcoming things. At the time I met with my friend though, I was determined to get a magazine article published. I’d started writing it, and was researching the query letter when we met and the meeting was like a bucket of ice water, snapping me back to reality:
“Get a grip man! You already have a life. Do what’s in your hand now, with a whole heart, and joy. Quit looking over the fence, because where you go tomorrow is my responsibility, not yours.”
2. There’s a time for tossing projects in the trash.
Thank God. It’s a good word, and I suspect, not just for me. Discontent, at its worst, is a paralyzing mindset that strips our joy, inviting us to believe the lie that what God’s given us to do today isn’t worth doing, so instead we’d better spend our time creating a different tomorrow. Goals have value, surely, but they’re dangerous too, and just for this reason: they can make us neglect today in our pursuit of tomorrow.
I’ve literally thrown the query letter and article in my little virtual trash can on my computer, and taken out the trash. It was liberating! I’m back in the groove, focusing on what’s already on my plate: the church I lead, the writing on which I’m already working, the teaching for which I’m preparing, and the fantastic family with whom I’ll spend a glorious Christmas.
Sometimes we need to toss what we think are ambitions in the trash because they’re not ambitions; they’re temptations and distractions from the present. What have you let go of lately, or need to let go of, so that you can focus on what God’s already given you?
It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together. I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.
Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for its beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.
The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles. We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.
It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun. We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met. Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on steps until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journey—step by step.
I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life. I think about how much this mirrors real life, how it’s so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected. I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows. I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.
We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge. The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.
As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening. It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces. Donna’s there first, and she signs the book. The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find. When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.
We’ve stood under many these past weeks. Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights. Other moments, bone weary and sore. This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful: for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others. We can barely pray—mostly it’s tears of joy.
We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut. Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about World Cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare. There’s laughter, stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.
I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc.) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way. The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.
I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.
For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut:
It’s elemental things like wind, clouds, and fire that God uses to guide people throughout the Bible. “Don’t move unless the flame moves.” “The wind blows. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the spirit.”
Our view of guidance is important, because unless we believe God can still direct our lives, orchestrating encounters, moving us to certain places, then the bottom line is that we’ll go where we damn well please. If we’re tired of the heat, we’ll move north. If we’re tired of poverty, we’ll get another degree. We’ll marry or not, move or not, based on our own motives, goals, internal drives.
But to the extent that we let the wind of the spirit blow, filing the halls of our soul, a different story unfolds (from end to beginning):
8:00 PM – We’re sitting in a tiny chapel, in a dot on the map village named Zell, with 25 other people listening to “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, the pipe organ filling the chapel as we soak in the ambiance of sunflowers on the altar, rustic wooden pews, candlelight, dusk light wafting through the windows. God is speaking to me here, bringing restoration, as I inhale and soak in revelation from every sense.
2:30 PM – We learned of the chapel and the concert because we’d set out walking after checking into our lodging in Oberstaufen (which means “the high village”) tucked in the base of the Alps. We’d wandered down a street and encountered a hall named after Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and this is why I stopped and read the literature posted to the reader board, which included notice of the concert (my German just good enough to figure this out). With map and compass, we discerned that Zell was only about 3k away, and determined to walk there and hear a little organ music. The walk was every bit as glorious as the concert, through fields of freshly mown hay, with hot air balloons in the sky to the west, and contrasting lavish greens from fields and firs.
1:30 PM – We get off the train in Oberstaufen, having never been there before, and find, at the tourist information center, a large touch screen “lodging genie” which enables us to quickly find which inns have rooms. There’s a place within 50 meters of where we’re standing and when we go to inquire, the owner wins our hearts with his smile and gentleness, and we’re finished looking.
1:10 PM – We decide, as a result of conversing with a couple (she from Germany, he from Alabama), to get off the train at Oberstaufen instead of Lindau because the woman tells us that Lindau, being by the vacation destination of Lake Constance will be “very full and very expensive” at this time in August.
12:47 PM – We board the train, this particular one having individual cabins that seat up to six people. As we’re getting on, a man is busily removing his stuff from one cabin to move to another so that his whole party can be together. This leaves a German/American couple alone in a car and we join them. As we begin to discuss where to get off the train in Lindau, she says “Perhaps I can help answer your questions? I live in Lindau.”
11:34 AM – We board a train to our intended destination, Lindau. It will have one change over to a different train that will its station at 12:47PM.
11:00 AM – We disembark from the lift that carries us down from the high country and find our way to the Bahnhoff, where we purchase tickets to Lindau, with the intent of exploring there for a day before visiting friends in Friedrichschaffen.
10:45 AM – Donna passes through the gate to board the lift, carrying my pack, as I intend to run down the mountain. At the last second, for reasons that can only be described as “promptings”, I change my mind and join her. “Wait” I shout, as I too use my ticket to descend via lift instead of jogging down. “Why did you join me?” she asks. “Because I like being with you” is the shortest and easiest answer, though the mystical prompting is there too.
9:00 AM – We’re out the door, heading down and out instead of our planned “up and in” deeper into the Alps to “Bad Kissinger Hutte” (no political jokes please). We’d eaten lunch at this hut the day before after climbing to the top of Aggenstein peak, and were looking forward to spending the night there, but the danger of the hike is obvious to everyone.
6:45 AM – The silence on the windows feels ominous instead of hopeful after a night of listening to pelting rain on the windows of our hut. “Could it be?” the eight of us sharing a room ask as morning dawns. It is. “Snow!” The weather report had predicted this to be a good day, sunny and warm. By breakfast some of the snow is sticking to the tables outside. We know the route to the hut, know that it’s a trail strewn with rocks that will be “slippery when wet”, know that there are sections where it’s so steep that one must use cables to “hang on”, know that the Romanian who speaks English and works at Bad Kissinger Hut but was helping out at the hut we’re staying in will tell us to go down the mountain, as everyone else will also decide to do.
6:00 AM – Howling wind and rain make sounds when a hut is situated on a high Alpine ridge. The whole place shakes a bit. Sleep is fitful in such a space.
9:30 PM – I fall asleep after taking pictures of the evening lights of Bavaria from the stunning hut. We’re looking forward to being still deeper in the Alps by tomorrow night.
Proverbs 16:9 says “A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.”
One of the great lessons I’m learning on this trip is both the importance and danger of goals. We’re at our best when we can live in the tension between planning, and holding our plans with open hands. We won’t reach our 400 miles in 40 days goal because snow changes plans, and the impossibility of some routes during bad weather changes plans, and the reality that we want to go slow enough to experience the Alps has also changed plans.
Yet still, we’re trekking nearly every day, committing each day to Christ at the outset and believing that weather, train schedules, and the people we meet along the way aren’t random encounters— they’re divinely orchestrated encounters intended to lead to “Jesus —the joy of man’s desiring.”
Does this apply to real life as well? Yes. We believe that God is guiding our lives, but this belief, rather than leading to a sense of fear (have I missed God’s will?) and paralysis (I can’t do anything until I’ve heard God’s voice) should lead to a sense of confident rest, assured that God is both speaking to our hearts and orchestrating the daily encounters of our lives. In this paradigm, we’re always on the lookout for the wind of the spirit, holding everything, including our plans, with an open hand. Then, and only then, will life become the adventure God intends it to be.
Most years, the first or second week of December, I’m in the little town of Schladming, in the Austrian Alps, to teach at a Bible school where countless lives have been transformed as students encounter the powerful cocktail of global fellowship, creation’s stunning beauty, and teaching rooted in the central truth that Christ is still alive, wanting to express life uniquely through each of us.
Because I get to be here at that time of year, I know Schladming in winter, know the Planai as a ski area, where you’re whisked upwards 1000 meters in a few minutes time to enter a winter playground, a skier’s paradise. When I go up the mountain, I always do the same thing after exiting the gondola: attach skis, turn left, and make the quick descent down to a different lift, one which will take me up the highest point. It’s up there that I make a little pilgrimage to the cross, where I’ll often snap a quick picture and offer thanks to God for health of body to be in the center of all this beauty. On that second lift, there’s a guest house off to the left, always shuttered up, and hard to access by skis apparently, because of the hills around it.
On Saturday we hiked the ski area, following trail #50 through meadows, people’s driveways, cow pastures, and forest trails. Up. Up. Up. We’ve only a tiny tourist map and no real way of knowing where we’re going, or even where we are, other than the altimeter on my watch, which clicks off the meters of ascent, each number an encouragement amidst the sweat and work of this hike on a humid day.
Minutes turn into hours. Breaks become a bit longer along the way, and though we’re living life and confident that up is the proper general direction, we’re equal parts “hoping” and “confident” that we’re going to reach our goal.
A few hours into our journey, we stop for a break, at an opening in the forest. I’m drinking water as I gaze off to the left at a guest house sitting on the crest of a little hill and slowly, I’ve this sense that I’m looking at something familiar. “How do I know this place?” I ask, looking intently, reading the inscription across the space between roof and windows. And then, in an instant, I know. My mind’s eye connects the scene of this place in snowy winter with the now summer scene in front of me, and I know precisely – precisely, where we are.
“We’re under the lift that will take us to the cross” I tell my wife, smiling, and the joy comes not just from knowing the place, but from knowing that I know. It comes from the resonance between this experience and something deep inside of me, a memory. In an instant everything changes. I know where I am. I know where I’m going. I know I’ll get there. This little place on this vast mountainside, itself a dot in the Alps, feels like home.
Soon we’re at the cross, but that last portion of the trip, with sure bearings and familiarity brought about by seeing something already in my heart made all the difference. Doubt and uncertainty were vanquished by the reference point, the knowing that I’ve been here before.
When CS Lewis writes of his heart’s longing to find the source of beauty, hope, intimacy, meaning, joy, he echoes “The Preacher” from Ecclesiastes, who says in chapter three that God has placed “eternity in the hearts of people…” which means that there’s something in us that rejoices in the seeing of beauty and recoils in horror over the killing of children in war, or in the womb, or the destruction of marriages, or soil, or cities, through greed and corruption.
But especially, it means that we should be on the look out for moments where our hearts will leap because something in us will cry out, in our sensing of justice, beauty, and joy, “Yes! This is real life, the way life ought to be.” It can happen when you see lavish generosity, or Rosa Parks refusing to be corralled into conformity, or a stunning sunset, or a moment of genuine intimacy. When it happens and something deep inside us is haunted by a joyous sense we’ve been here before, we’re made for this, then we know we’re on to something. Keep following and you’ll find home; you’ll find the life for which you are created.
I was in college, depressed, a little disillusioned with my studies in architecture, when I went to ski retreat at a Bible camp and the speaker spoke on Jeremiah 9:23-27 about knowing God, and why that pursuit matters more than anything in the world.
Sitting in the A-frame chapel with 150 other college students, my heart caught fire. It was as if I’d seen something I’d known before, as if I knew that this pursuit was for me, as if “seeking, and knowing God” would be a sort of “coming home to a place I’d never been before.” I prayed that night, alone in the snow, because I knew somehow, that this pursuit was where I was meant to be. That prayer changed my life, my priorities, ultimately my vocation. It’s changing me still.
Moments like this come more often than we realize; in the quiet hours at sunrise with coffee and the scriptures, sitting under a redwood tree; in listening to Mozart’s Requiem played by the Seattle Symphony after 9-11; sitting with old friends high in the Austrian Alps, sharing food and speaking of life and loss, children and love, and the faithfulness of God in the midst of all the change. It’s those moments when God is speaking, wooing, inviting.
Listen! Hear the voice inside you that cries out “Yes” when the reality of the moment corresponds to deep longings inside you, the life for which you were created, and invites you deeper into that life. Those are important moments, times to pay attention, for listening at such times is how we find our God, and our calling, and our joy.
In just a few short days, my wife and I will be off to Europe where we’ll trek through the Alps, fully expecting to find the fingerprints of God in both creations beauty and power, and in the fingerprints of history. Carl Muth’s faithfulness in obscurity is an example of the latter, and a reminder the big, loud, high profile stuff, isn’t necessarily the best. Obscurity has it’s privileges! ….
In the Bavarian countryside, during the days of WWII, there was a small house, surrounded by a flourishing garden. Carl Muth lived in this house. Born in the 2nd half of the 19th century, Muth became a leading Cahtolic theologian, publishing a journal of Catholic Existential Theology for many years, until the work was censored and ultimately shut down by Hitler.
Hans Scholl found his way to Muth’s tiny house, having heard of this man who was now living in relative obscurity as the war was unfolding. It was here, at Muth’s house that Hans found both a mentor, and the theological underpinnings to carry out the subversive work of the White Rose, work which would eventually cost Scholl his life, but whose ‘subversive’ literature would be air dropped across Germany by the Allies helping to free Germany from Hitler’s grip.
Two things stand out about Muth. The first is his relationship with a younger generation. We read, “Muth’s magic was not only his philosophical sweep of knowledge or his deep hatred for National Socialsim, but his youthful, amost playful snesne of ethical and metaphysical exploration. He not only listened to young people, he wanted to live and share their experiences.” I love his posture towards emergent generations, maybe because I identify with it. I don’t know why it is that to this day, I’m drawn to interact with, enjoy, and learn from, people in the late teens to early 30’s. For whatever reason, though, I’m grateful for the privilege of investing in the next generation. Muth did that by being not only teacher, but student, eager to learn from the thoughts and perspectives of those who are younger, even as they’re eager to learn from him.
The second quality I notice is his call to courage in the face of darkness. Again we read, “In a universe where all values have been shattered, where religions and histories and literatures and social structures have lost their meaning, man has to stand up again, accept his condition, accept that he is alone and has no protection, and proceed to create his own world, his own values, his own decisions, his own actions – and be willing at all times to pay the consequences.”
These are powerful words, calling people to stand courageously in a world adrift in every way. Hans and Sophie Scholl heeded Muth’s words and paid with their blood. Sophie took the words to heart, and every testimony said that she remained calm, steadfast, courageous to the very end. Hans shouted, “long live freedom” loud enough for his voice to be heard beyond the walls of his Munich prison, just before the blade fell, severing his head.
One of Sohpie’s last letters was sent to Carl Muth, expressing her deep gratitude for his friendship, and admiration for his life.
A man’s ministry of publishing and parish work is shut down and he’s left with nothing but tending his garden and getting by as he can. Then, a young man enters his home, his life, and soon his house is bursting with conversations and idea which would become part of the soil in which, in a world gone mad, sanity would once again be born.
In world where churches obsess about size, writers look for platform, and business and trying to capture market share, someone needs to shout, “FAME IS OVER-RATED!” at the top of their lungs.
Fame is over-rated. Muth isn’t exactly a household name, like Beyonce, or Russel Wilson. But his seeds of faithfulness, sown in obscurity, took root in the lives of a new generation, whose literature shook Germany and the world. They got martyrdom, and fame. But who was the man behind the curtrain? Carl Muth – quietly investing in a few young people who would shake the world. I think that’s the calling that belongs to all of us. I hope I can be that faithful.
Teach us Lord, to let go of our addiction to influence, knowing that in the end, it’s scope isn’t ours to create anyway. Rather, grant that we’ll be faithful to live well, serve faithfully, and love deeply, those people and endeavors you allow into our lives, and let us rest in that, rejoicing along the way in the simplicities of beauty, fellowship, and intimacy with you. Amen
Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise. She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died. Achilles: the place of vulnerability.
The Achilles story is appropriate because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes. Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there. Rest. Repeat. Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear. “Why is this not healing?”
Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine, let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.
Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy. How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical? Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine. Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.
1. Daily is best – Physical Therapists prescribe exercises. “Three sets of 20 on this one. Two sets of 10 on that.” Etc. Etc. These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult. You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired. And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.
But here’s the key. You need to do them! Every day. I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well. Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.
I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t. When I’m motivated, and when I’m not. This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God. There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.
The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine. So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts. They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed. It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.
Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.
2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed. “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”. He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.
So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free. Slow. But pain free. The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties. “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years. The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”
I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other. After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way. One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture. Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.
This too has application for the rest of life. You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health. Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame. It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success. Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable. Both are temporary illusions. The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel. The bad days are as important as the good.
Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ. This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.
3. Ego is a setback – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow. I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!” or worse, to speed up. What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me. The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me. I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.
Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life. It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom. Enough! When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read. It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.
Take away: When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.
The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer. More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.