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

Revival Story… My Loss and Recovery of Love

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Mar 21, 2015

IMG_6668I didn’t even know I’d lost anything.  This is a hazard of business maybe.  We handle “God stuff” all the time, planning weddings, funerals, details, staffing issues, budgets, parking hassles with neighbors, potentially divisive theological issues bubbling under the surface, meetings, more meetings, and a few more meetings after that.  In the midst of all that there are sermons to prepare, preaching to do, young pastors to equip through one-on-one and group meetings.  It’s all there, but for any of these elements to have real meaning, they need to be infused with the grace and peace of Christ, as if Christ himself is in the midst of the decision, encounter, transaction, meeting.

Truth be told though, the ocean of details can conspire with my own Type A personality and propensity to get anxious about stuff, and “Poof!”—I’m still doing all the stuff, but Christ and his peace are no longer in my sense of reality, having been displaced by that worst of all things: religious professionalism.  The slide into this territory is so subtle you don’t even notice it, because the words don’t change a bit—you still sound as holy as ever to onlookers, and so you actually begin to believe it, approval addict that you are.

Until somebody notices, and calls you out on it.

The Sunday I arrived home from Sabbatical last October, someone in our church approached me and told me I looked “ten years younger” and I hugged her, of course believing that she had the gift of discernment and truth telling!  I felt it too, rested, at peace, in love with Christ.

FAST FORWARD to last Sunday. 

The same woman approached me and said, “Can I pray for you?  You look absolutely spent, and exhausted.”  I told her I was fine, but underneath the surface of propriety, the truth was that her words were as accurate then as they were last October, and I knew it; knew that something wasn’t working right; knew that I was running on fumes.  In her few pointed but accurate words, she’d ripped the veil off that I’d been wearing so skillfully—that of a religious pro who knows the words, but is, in the moment, experiencing nothing of the reality, knowing instead the companionship of anxiety and hurry, restlessness and frustration.  I’d known it, but as long as I could keep all the balls in play in this pinball machine that had become my life, nobody would know how hollow I was.  Thank God someone saw, and said, and prayed.

STEPS BACK

Meditation:  After preaching for the 4th time that Sunday, I went home and pulled a book off my shelf I’d not looked at since about 1997.  I’d first picked it up when I’d visited a convent for a personal retreat, and poured my heart out to a nun, also the librarian of the convent.  She’d recommended it, and I’d read it there, and later bought it.  It’s a book about meditation, and I hesitate to share it because so many Christ followers will be afraid of it, in spite of the fact that we’re invited to “pray without ceasing” and “meditate” on God’s word so that it saturates our being.

Anyway, this book recommends sitting quietly and praying The Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm,  or the Prayer of St. Francis, slowly, over and over again, for a period of time each morning and evening.  I started doing that, immediately that night, and then again  in the morning and evening ever since.

I can’t even begin to describe the renewed sense of peace, and awareness of the reality that Christ lives in me, with me, loves me, is for me, has called me to shine as light and given me all I need to do that, will never leave me, and (o so marvelous) has called me to peace.

I’ve known these truths in reality, but lately they’d become words for others more than a central reality in my daily experience.  Now, once again, having made a high priority of taking time to prayerfully mediate on God’s truth each morning and evening, I’ve begun to enjoy the reality of Christ’s presence in my actual living.

There’s a greater sense of peace, by the way, when driving, speaking, leading meetings.  I’m far from ‘at rest’, but utterly confident I’m on the right road, and can only pray and hope for the same for all who suffer from anxiety, fear, emptiness, boredom—in spite of being full of ‘God words’.

Gratitude:  In the wake of this new habit, a sense of profound gratitude and appreciation began growing in my moment by moment living.  I’ll be listening to some music and it will remind me of days in the past when I wrote books in a log cabin—simpler days, when I led a smaller church.  Rather than looking back wistfully though, my heart these days is filled with profound joy for the memories and privileges of the past.  Today is today—and God will give us what we need for it; but one of the things we need is a sense of gratitude for the good gifts in our past.

The other peace of gratitude has to do with a fresh sense of seeing creation and being overwhelmed with joy simply by watching the rain fall from the sky, or seeing the clouds change color in the sunset.  Yesterday I spent the day splitting and stacking wood with my wife, and we both commented on how delightful it is that we find joy anytime we can be in the midst of God’s beautiful creation.  The cathedral of God’s stunning creation is better than anything for both of us, and we like it that way!

Presence:  I’m preaching a bit about this tomorrow, but looking back, I can see how easily I slipped into losing the present moment to either past regrets or (especially) future worries.  Somehow, renewal brings with it the capacity to live more in this actual moment.   One of the highest forms of generosity you can offer another is the gift of your absolute attention.  I’m often terrible at this, but am aware that, to the extent that Christ is given freedom to express life through us, it will present, not in scattered attention, listening with one ear, while our other senses are watching our phones, or our brains are elsewhere in the future, or the other room.  Rather, we’ll be all there.

Contentment:  Finally, as ridiculous as it sounds, this little film of a skier and his dog reminded me that we’re made for fellowship:  with God, with God’s creation, with others.  People and creation itself aren’t commodities to be used for our pleasure or purposes—rather, they’re gifts to be cherished, loved, and enjoyed.

If you’re in need of renewal, I hope these principles help you forward.  May you know the peace of Christ, not as a theory, but as a reality—before this very day is over.

Lessons and Gifts from my Mom at Christmas

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Dec 23, 2014

IMG_7747 A few years ago I sat with my mom and punched “record” on my iPad before I asked her about her childhood on the farm, in the searing heat of the San Joaquin Valley.  She told me that when electric power became available, back in the day, her folks had decided it would only be affordable if they moved the house out to the street in order to save money on the trenching costs.  Imagine that: easier to move the house than dig a trench!  And so, they moved the house; picked it up and moved.  I think it was easier to move houses back then because there was no indoor plumbing, but still…it’s not the kind of thing you do today.

The story exemplifies the spirit of many who lived through the Great Depression and fought a World War in Europe and Asia at the same time, with all that entailed (buying war bonds, food, gas, rubber, rationing, separation, suffering, death).  They came home and built lives, schools, interstate highways, and got on with life.

IMG_7752The way my mom got on with life was to start a  family, but the baby died shortly after childbirth, and nearly cost mom her life.  The ensuing surgery meant she’d never have children, so adoption became the plan.  Enter Susan, in 1952, and me four years later, in 1956.  The convergence of suffering and loss in mom’s life was precisely how I ended up being raised by this woman who died yesterday, and so I’m spending part of today remembering the gifts I’ve been given by her, and the family to which I belonged.  In particular, I’m giving thanks for these three gifts:

Our family had faith –  If you go back in the archives of First Baptist Church in Fresno, you’ll find my dad on the building committee, on the board, on the finance committee.  You’ll find my mom doing something called “circle” where women gathered, apparently in a circle, to work on projects that would somehow support missionaries.  The only time I was ever recused from the Wednesday night programs at church was when the San Francisco Giants were in town to play a spring exhibition game.  Dad had his priorities, and he picked me up from school right after lunch so that we could be there in time to watch Willie Mays take batting practice.

Their faith though, wasn’t really about involvement in all these church activities.  Those were just the fruit of their lives being rooted in Christ.  We prayed as a family, read the Bible together, talked about God as if God were real, because we believed He was.  When Billy Graham came to town in 1962 we were there every night.  I was six, and knew the tug of God on my heart, even then.

This wasn’t “church on Sundayand then swearing, drinking, and raising hell” the rest of the week, behind the religious curtain.  Nope.  This was the real thing.  I saw it, absorbed it, wanted it for myself.

So this Christmas I’ll celebrate having grown up in a family that, for all its flaws, believed they were known and loved by their Creator.  Mom’s biggest joy in life, her primal prayer at some level, was that her kids would know this too.  That we did, and still do, is a testimony to her legacy.

Our faith served –  Mom knew a lot of loss in her life;  the death of an infant; infertility; a good dose of poverty too, and then later, the untimely death of her husband in 1973, and her daughter, my sis, in 1995.

Still, for all that, mom’s paradigm for living seems simple to me in retrospect.  She’d look for a need and meet it.  I don’t even know how I was related to Aunt Josie, who looked terribly old and frail when I was a small child (she was probably in her 50’s), but I remember being annoyed that, after my little league games, we’d need to go visit this woman.  The same thing was true when we visited her sick friends, Bug and Edie, while we were on the coast for holiday.  She always found people with less than her, less energy, less family, less joyand she’d go spend time with them.

When mom was 80 she’d drive over to the rest home where she ultimately lived for ten years, in order the “pick up the old people and take them to church.”  Who does that?  Mom did, apparently.

One way of dealing with loss is to sink into a cycle of bitterness and self pity, but I’ve come to believe that my mom’s faith buoyed her and propelled her outward, with eyes to see needs and a heart to serve.

Though I’m very different than mom in this realm, I can connect the dots too.  When I had a profound encounter with God in 1976, it quickly became apparent that drawing concepts of buildings wasn’t going to be “service enough” for me, that I needed to be with people in some way, helping them discover and live into the grand adventure of knowing God.  For me this led to a life of church leadership, pastoring, and teaching.  Surely though, if you’d asked me where I learned about the possibilities of serving, in spite of loss, in spite of health challenges, in spite of insecurities, in spite of questions, I’d point to my mom and say:  “Blame her… she showed me how…”

Our family laughed – in spite of everything.   Mom was more often the butt of jokes than the initiator (just like my wife, Donna) but she laughed along with the rest of us when dad bought a rubber hot dog and she tossed it into the garbage disposal, where it shot out like a rocket, leaving us all on the floor laughing.  We laughed when a 10-year-old guest was reading a morning devotional passage and when he came to the word “misled” (i.e. “He misled his sister) he paused, having a bit of trouble with pronunciation.  Mom glanced over at the book and said, “MY-ZELD” as in “My Zeld is better than your zeld”)  Dad says, “No.  It’s mis-led” but mom wouldn’t bend, and soon we’re laughing as she tried to justify her mispronunciation, even though we all knew that she knew.

There’s a myth out there that our capacity for service, laughter, love, are proportional to the ease of our lives.  So there we go, trying hard to live the good life, by which we mean the life insulated from difficulty.  This insulated life, though, creates fear, walls, anxiety.

Mom and Dad showed me a better way.  They showed me that, regardless of setbacks, we have our faith, our intimate relationship with Christ.  Regardless of our suffering, there are those with less, and we have chances to serve.  Regardless of our losses, we can laugh, and love generously.

I’ll miss you this Christmas Mom, but these are some of the many gifts you’ve shared that are still giving.   Thanks!

Five Values for Sustainable Leadership (pt 2).

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Sep 23, 2014
just to be loved... can it be enough?

just to be loved… can it be enough?

My previous post offered the first two of five essential values for leaders to nurture and develop if they hope to still be living into their calling and sustaining important relationships, “for the long haul.”   Giftedness will get you in the door as a leader, and romance will get you started in a relationship, but it’s these five critical qualities that will allow you to stay in the game for decades.  In addition to teachability/humility and a rhythm of work and rest, you’ll also need:

#3 To be Rooted and Grounded (A Firm Identity) – Jesus does things that are utterly exasperating to contemporary leaders, like walking away from his ministry in Capernaum when word about him had spread and “the whole city” was looking for him.  Who walks away from an opportunity to “expand their platform” or “build their brand” or “capture more market share?”  Apparently Jesus does, and this makes no sense to we who are bred in the capitalist mindset that bigger and more is always the highest and best way to go.

The thing about Jesus though was that he had only one foundational source from which he drew his sense of significance, and that source wasn’t the size or success of his ministry.  It wasn’t the response of the crowds either, because in John 6, Jesus is utterly undisturbed, even when the crowds shrink exponentially because of the harsh reality of his message.  It wasn’t the faithfulness of his disciples, all of whom fled the scene when things got tough.

What keeps Jesus so grounded, so solid, in spite of the ups and downs of popularity in the polls, and in spite of the reality that his closest friends didn’t have a clue what he was about ’til the very end of his post resurrection life?

The answer’s found in John 13:3, where we’re told that Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from the Father and was returning to the Father….  Because of this rootedness, Jesus is able to bend down and wash the feet of those who will betray and abandon him within a few short hours.  It’s this identity with the Father that is the foundation of his life because Jesus knows his place in the universe, knows his relationship with God is secure, knows his destiny.    And…

THAT.

IS.

ENOUGH.

Yes, enough for Jesus, but not us, because we have a gaping hole in our lives that longs to be filled with significance, and so we set off to plant 1,000 churches, or to have a perfect marriage that’s the envy of the world, or raise children who are scholars, athletes, saints, who always eat their organic vegetables and never get cavities.  Or we knock ourselves out to get whatever is, in our own world, the equivalent of a bestseller.  Armed with these goals, we’re convinced that when we reach them, it will be enough.

It won’t.  You’ll need to sustain it if you succeed, and then eventually you’ll need to let go of it because someday you’ll be old and tired.   Then what will be enough?  Or maybe sustaining it won’t be enough at all, because success can be addicting, like eating potato chips.  You won’t be able to stop.  If that’s you, then you’ll be on the tread mill in full swing, and it’s all for God, of course, because we’ve been told how vital it is that we use our gifts, and be a blessing, and make a difference.  The whole message, at its worst, baptizes ambitions born of insecurities and leaves us desperate to succeed.

When success is our goal (marriage success, family success, ministry success, job success, publishing success) then the people in our lives become tools to help us get there.  When that happens, I have a feeling we’ll no longer be washing the feet of our family members, or co-workers, or spouses, or church members  when they fail to agree with us or appreciate us, because we’ll see them as barriers to our success, and our since our success is our identity, “what will we do” if our children rebel, or our church doesn’t grow, or our book doesn’t get published?

Can you see how a wrong definition of success and our desire to “impact the world” is fraught with the potential for burn-out, and even the possibility of becoming a user of people rather than a servant/lover of people?  I hope so, because I can tell you from the driver’s seat that these temptations are real, and the world is filled with stories of power abuse at the hands of those who, with the very highest and noble goals articulated, came to insist that those goals be met at any cost, including the cost of servanthood, humility, and love.

The way of Jesus is different than this on two fronts:

A)  Jesus invites us to union with himself and makes the audacious claim that this will make us profoundly content, regardless of the scope and nature of “impact” we have, or “fruit” we display in our lives.  This is why leaders who are in it for the long haul have an identity rooted in what Christ has done for them and is doing for them, rather than in their own accomplishments.  People like this don’t need outward success as much because what sustains them is fellowship with Christ and enjoying the gifts of Christ revealed in creation, beauty, good food, meaningful conversation and laughter.  These gifts are received with gratitude by those whose life in Christ is their most precious gift.

Paul calls this being “rooted and grounded in love” so that coming to explore and experience the heights and depths of Christ’s love became the greatest joy, even greater than capturing market share!

Ministry, family, marriage, work; all these things are great gifts from God.  But none of them are foundational, and to be blunt, none will last.  The joy I have in knowing Christ, however, is a different story.  He’s with me know in the midst of this oh so busy season in life.  He’ll be with me later, when I’m sitting on a bench, too tired to run, or run a ministry.  And he’ll be with me at my last breath.  Why would I want to build on any other foundation?

God is in the mist

yes… just to be loved is enough.

B)  Jesus invites us to leave the scope and nature of the fruit he produces in our lives with him.  I’ll confess that it’s easy to get excited when I get published, easy to get discouraged when sales don’t match my hopes.  Church life?  Parenting?  Marriage?  Health?  Money?  In every area, we can get overly high or low based on whether reality matches our expectations.

How about, instead, we let go of our expectations, and simply rest in the confidence that Christ will express life through us in his way, his time, in the places of his choosing?  That would lead to security.  And rest.  And peace.

Next up…

#4 Patience but Relentless Pursuit

#5 Adaptation

 

 

 

 

35 thoughts on marriage, after 35 years

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Sep 8, 2014

Today I’ll get on a bus with my wife and travel from Freiberg, Germany to Munich and then a train from there to Schladming, Austria, on this, our 35th wedding anniversary.  Now that we’ve reached this milestone, I think we’re most grateful, not that we’re still married, but that we still love each other, likely more than ever before (and this after hiking together for the past 35 days).  This has me thinking about how this has happened, and so I offer these marriage observations.  It’s less advice, than observations about our marriage, but if these 35 thoughts help anyone else, we’ll both be thrilled.

1. I had a short list of qualities I was looking for in a spouse:

2.  Sense of humorsomeone who would make me laugh,

3. Someone who would give me the freedom to fail,

4. Someone who would be willing to live anywhere in the world.

5.  All three qualities have been vitalizing, sustaining, and life-giving in our marriage.

6.  For much of our marriage we sought approval from each other for purchases over $20, and this served us well.

7.  We’ve paid off our credit cards completely each month, and this too has served us well.

8.  The shared values of thrift, coupled with the discipline of generosity which has included giving to church have helped limit financial tensions.

9.  We’ve needed to learn about our own family of origin issues, because we brought those into the marriage, and they created problems at times.  But marriage has been a lab to expose those issues and that’s been good, though hard.

10.  We’ve made major decisions about the future by praying for guidance and then deciding together what God was saying to us.  None of this, “I’m the man and so you’ll do what I say” kind of thinking.

11.  Both of us have felt a profound sense of responsibility for the family unit, though we each contribute(d) to it in profoundly different ways.  It’s a bit like climbing belayer, climber, both matter to the success of the mission, and both know that if either fails to pay attention, it’ll be costly to everyone.

12.  We light a candle at meals as often as possible.  This seems to help create an atmosphere for conversation.

13.  Our shared love of the outdoors has served us well as a common passion.

14.  We don’t do devotions well together.  We never have.  This is because we like very different reading material.

15.  There were years when I tried to make my wife like the same reading material as I liked.

16. This lead to the sad revelation that I was trying to turn her into a version of me.

17.  I’ve since learned that we’re happier, and it’s better, if she’s  becoming the best version of her, not me.

18.  Our tastes in movies are largely different.

19.  Sex has gotten better over the years, as we’ve learned how to serve each other and communicate our desires.

20.  Grace and forgiveness are two of the most vital ingredients that have sustained our relationship.  I’ve failed, told her, and she’s forgiven.  And she’s done the same.  I can’t stress this enough.

21.  We didn’t date very long before I proposed.  I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone, but I think many people today wait too long to make a commitment because they’re “shopping for a spouse” as a sort of commodity that will help them with their own goals.  This is bad at so many levels that I’ll need to write about it in a different post.

22.  My wife has gifts of serving others, and I have gifts of teaching and leading.  Knowing this has helped us accept and liberate each other to focus on what we do best, while still seeking to grow in areas where we’re not as strong.

23. I traveled extensively while our children were young, and this would have been impossible if my wife didn’t believe in my calling.

24. I went through seminary while my wife worked full timeagain impossible without her belief in my calling.

25.  Her vast investment in me is just one of a hundred things that makes the notion of my ever being unfaithful impossible to imagine without getting sick to my stomach.

26.  Because she doesn’t thrive in the morning, I find the time I need for intimacy with God by rising early.

27.  We’ve prayed together often, but the most memorable prayers have come after hours of hard conversations, late at night.  These prayers were cries from the heart.

28.  We’re good enough cooks that we’d usually rather stay home and cook a great meal than eat out.

29.  When we’ve argued, 99.6% of the time we’ve ended with both of us feeling heard by the other and valued by the other.  This has been priceless.

30.  Donna lets me invest in skiing because “it’s cheaper than therapy.”

31.  We started, and ran, a non-profit together.  This was hard work, that we loved, and was very good for our marriage.

32.  When we had children, we mostly brought them into our lives of faith, outdoor activities, and the non-profit we ran.

33.  I’ve decided that “staying married” is setting the bar too low; that nurturing love and intimacy are worthier goals.

34.  As we’ve grown older, we’ve grown more comfortable with ourselves as individuals, and this has, ironically, strengthened our life as a couple.

35.  Donna’s personality is one of the greatest assets to my ministry and calling, but long after I’m done with my profession, I hope and pray she’s still around to make me laugh and give me the freedom to failanywhere in the world.

Coming off the mountain: Ebola, Suicide, and Terror

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Aug 12, 2014

imageWe’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world.  During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey.  These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter.   For these reasons, we pray, and pay attentionstep by step.

These prayers, though, are also very provincial.  They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family.  We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).

High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep.  Yes. This was round one.

We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assualt, in a different direction.  We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in  St. Louis.  Bombing in Iraq?  Ukraine?  Syria?  Fires still burning.  Refugees.  And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide.  My God.  Is this the same world?

Yes.  The same world indeed.  What are we to make of the disparity between candlelit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?

My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price.  There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment.  The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a costvulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial.  That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.

But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college.  I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings; for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child; for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all, but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.

imageAll I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering.  Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened.  Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasywhether that takes the form of  porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.

Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear.  He knew, as Simone Weil also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our creator.  “There’s a time for everything” as the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.

For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days.  We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold.  We pray, we’ll be safe.  We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people.  But, The Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us to cry out once again:  “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final. ”   Rilke

 

 

 

Obscurity has its privileges. Answers to feelings of insignificance.

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Jul 17, 2014

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

Fashionable Justice is Dangerous

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May 7, 2014

It’s become fashionable to be socially just.  The evening news covers protests about the horrifically evil kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls.  We call each other to embody the gospel by breaking down walls of social division, and setting captives free, by working for environmental justice and empowering the poor and displaced.  Clean water.  End poverty now.  Buy a shoe, give a show.  There are buttons, campaigns, fundraisers, banquets.  Come on.  All the cool people are in.

It’s high time that the realities of suffering, racism, oppression, and ongoing injustice rose to the top of our collective consciousness.  For much of her history, we who call ourselves “the church” have been guilty of either intentionally crossing to the other side of the road, so as to disengage from these pesky dark realities, or worse, we’ve spiritualized away the suffering by promising a greater afterlife in some bastardized version of karmic justice.  Our passivity has misrepresented the essence of the gospel, and allowed ongoing exploitation of peoples and resources, resulting in mountains of suffering and loss for hundreds of generations.  That these issues are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness in both our culture and many of our churches is a very good thing indeed.

And yet there are at least two lurking dangers in this justice revival:

1. Superficial Solutions inoculate.  “I recycle and ride my bike to work on sunny days.  I bought those cool shoes to help some poor kids.  And last night I went to party where the tips at the bar went to a water project somewhere.”  This kind of thinking becomes the equivalent of thinking we’re equipped to climb Mt. Rainier because we bought an ice axe.  An ice axe is good, but it’s certainly not all you’ll need to get to the top.  The sacrifices, discipline, change in priorities, and even change in world view that will be needed if we’re to be in any way a substantial part of the world’s solutions are for more profound than attending a few cool events and riding our bike to work.  Take our call to justice seriously, and we’ll find ourselves, over time, become involved not only in deep personal lifestyle, but actively working to address systemic issues that are deeply embedded in our world.  Paul the apostle called them “principalities and powers” because they’re animated by forces darker than single individuals.

Our fashionable protests, focused projects, and occasional forays into environmental stewardship or some other cause might do more harm than good if they create a resistance in us to the notion that we might be called to more.  Jesus called people to this principle when he told the pharisees that they “tithed even their spices” but did so as substitute for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  Of course, Jesus tells that crowd that they should have “done the latter without neglecting the former”, which is just another way of saying that an ice axe is vital, but you’ll need more than that to get to the top.

2. Spiritual Realities fade.  What’s not to love about redemptive involvement in the pressing problems of our time in Jesus’ name?  There are a few answers, but the most important one is simply that there are two great commandments and that they’re wed together like an ecosystem, each feeding off the other.  Take one of them out of the equation and the other inevitably suffers.  We made for love, plain and simple – made to love god and love our neighbor as our self.  We’re in a season where love of neighbor is the rising star, and sometimes the light of one outshines the other.  A little look back into history though, and  we’re reminded of a time when it surely looked like people were loving God, at least if candles, hymns, preaching, and bible study were any indication.  But of course they actually weren’t any indication.  They were their own form of inoculation against more robust and truer faith, because in spite of it all, slavery was sanctioned, or racism, or colonialism.  Praying and Bible reading convinced people they’d hit gold, but it was fools gold when it wasn’t coupled with the hard work of crossing social divides to love the neighbor.  Bible reading mattered, and matters for some today too.  It’s just that real transformation will drive us into real relationships in our broken world.

Today’s justice based t-shirts, shoes, water bottles, blogs, missions, non-profits are at risk of becoming the same form of 19th century pietism in reverse.  Convinced we’re in the stream of God’s activity, we lost sight of our own need for transformation, healing, and freedom, so lost have we become in the consuming of justice symbols.  Real longing for justice will do more than paint a sign or wear a bracelet.  It will drive us to prayer, and brokenness, and mourning.  And those things will drive us to intimacy with God.

Do you want whole faith instead of the 2%?  Then you need to recognize the dangers on both sides of the ledge and go deep in your pursuit of intimacy with God, and justice in the world.  That’s a journey worth taking, and it has a name:  abundant life.

This one weird trick will change your life: Slow Down

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Mar 19, 2014

The tree in the backyard is growing, relentlessly, powerfully, and slowly.

Our children are growing, as we do too, slowly; imperceptibly every day.

The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.

Our world, very much alive and changing all the time, is changing slowly.

Slow, it seems, is most natural, most of the time.  And yet we lust for speed.

We look for quick fixes to relationship issues, addictions, fears and anxieties, intimacy with Christ, weight loss, studying for tests, and o so much more.  Hucksters over promise on quick transformation  (six minute abs anyone?), have been doing so for centuries, and succeed because there’s always a market for “instant”.   Lately though, I’ve learned once again, that the way of Christ followers is utterly other than that – it’s SLOW.

I’m planning a big long hike this summer, over 400 miles, with over 100,000 feet of elevation gain, and in preparation I’ve been trying to fix some injuries.  My strategy though, of resting until I feel no pain, and then getting back at it with 150 calf raises, and running stairs in a weighted backpack, hasn’t been working.  Every attempted return to activity has sent me limping home, frustrated and angry.  “They say ‘stay active as you age!'” I rant to my wife, “but they don’t tell you that when you try to, you’ll get hurt… every – single – time.”

It was during my most recent period of forced convalescence that I discovered a word I’d not encountered before:  SLOW.  The author suggested that the best thing to do after an injury is to let your jogging pace be bound by two limits:  your heart rate, and your pain.  He suggested running in minimalist shoes so that, if there was something wrong, you’d get feedback from your body earlier rather than later enabling you to adjust or stop, letting your pain be your guide.  He also suggested using a heart rate monitor and staying, relentlessly, at the low end of the aerobic zone for your age.

All right then.  With toe shoes and pulse watch, I set off, striding lightly and slowly.  Quickly, my pulse is out of bounds, so I slow down further still.  I’m on the path by the lake, “running” but not really, more like “jogging”.  No, that’s not right either.  It’s just a cut above a brisk walk, and I feel fragile and weak as all who aren’t walking pass me as if I’m standing still!  I see people from the church I lead and they wave and smile kindly, as I do when I see senior citizens courageously walking the lake.  I’m frustrated because I know that I could run faster.

But recently, running faster hasn’t been good for me, so I stick with the plan, refusing to let my pulse rise above 140.  After 28 minutes, I’m home.  The pace is embarrassingly slow on my little exercise phone app, and I fear someone will find my phone and post the data on facebook.  I ponder deleting it, but determine to run the same route two days later, keeping my heart in the same zone, just to see if my pace would quicken a bit.  It did.  So I did it again, and again, again.

I’m still running, faster every time, and injury free, as I stay in the zone and slowly, slowly, slowly, add distance.  I don’t feel the changes, day to day, workout to workout, but I know they’re happening because of that nifty app on my phone!

Of course, this isn’t ultimately about running, or hiking.  It’s about the true nature of the path to which each of us are called; the path of transformation.  Paul says that we’re called to look towards Christ, soaking in his glory and learning to enjoy intimacy with him.  This in itself is a practice which takes time to develop and countless Christ followers, if honest, would say they have little or no enjoyment of intimacy with Christ as a reality.  One reason for this is because we have this sickly “cost/benefit analysis” mentality whereby we assess the value of our activities solely based on whether they yield immediate fruit.  So we try a little Bible reading, maybe light a candle and read a prayer – but our minds wander.  It’s challenging to meet with Jesus because he’s Mr. Invisible and we’re not sure, at the level of our deepest selves, whether we’re even meeting with anyone.  So, after a little while, we ditch the effort.  Cross-fit’s more measurable, clearly a better investment of our free time.

The problem is that meeting with Jesus is like meeting with anyone.  It takes effort to carve out the time, and no single encounter, any more than a single run, or cross fit workout, is necessarily meaningful or measurable.  Like romance, or practicing the violin, meeting with Jesus is sometimes profound, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. sometimes enchanting.  And just like romance and the violin, it gets better with time.   The ones who quit too soon don’t know what they’re missing.  They think the problem is the practice, or their skill level – but the problem is impatience.  Keep showing up and good things will happen….slowly.

The transformation we’re promised is “from glory to glory” and the language implies that the change is imperceptible because it’s slow.  To the extent that we’re concerned with “how we’re doing” we’ll become mindful of our shortcomings, and then looking to fix them, one at a time, as quickly as possible.  How much better to just keep showing up in the presence of Jesus, learning to enjoy companionship with him, and resting in the belief that, by staying “in the zone” so to speak, good things will happen.

in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:

“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”

Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.  (thanks to Justin Roth of  “The Stone Mind” for this)

Focus on the practice of enjoying fellowship with Jesus, not the expectation that if you read your Bible enough, or pray enough, or are quiet long enough, you’ll make a quantum leap out of addictions, or fears.  You’ll move out alright… but It. Will. Be….. Slowly.  Step by Step.   enjoy the journey.

PS… if you’re interested in practical help with developing habits of pursuing intimacy with Jesus, I’ll be re-releasing my book “O2” for Kindle on Amazon under the title, “Breathing New Life into Faith”   Stay tuned!

2014: A Better Path by Adjusting Values: more or less

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Jan 3, 2014

A new year is a blank piece of paper; a chance to stop and consider how to fine tune our investment in the one wild and precious life that we’ve been given.  The “unexamined life is not worth living” is how Socrates put it, and there’s no time riper for examining our lives than now, when the calendar is clean.  Rather than just thinking about goals, though, this article reminds me that it makes sense to think about values.  Here are some values that need adjusting… more or less.

More Intentionality in affirmation and encouragement – I’ve recently become freshly aware of the power encouragement has, both through experiences of giving and receiving it.  Decades ago, in the midst of a depression that came about in the wake of my dad’s death, the person who made the biggest difference in my life did so through encouragement and affirmation.  When I thanked him, he said, “All of us know our inadequacies pretty well – what we need is to be told how much we’re loved, where we’re gifted, where we can shine.”  While the value of truth telling and hard conversations are also important, I’ve recently reawakened to the value of encouragement and plan to fan it into flame this year.

More Openness to the fullness of life – I’ll be teaching from Ecclesiastes this Sunday, and this coming summer for an outdoor course.  This book, more than any in the Bible, invites me to fearlessly live “fully” in every moment.  As one poet writes:

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…”   We live in a hyper-insulated world these days, afraid of all that might go wrong if we venture outside our comfort zones, and the fruit of this is a lowering of the bar, so that for too many the biggest adventure of our lives is a visit to the newest movie, or upgrading our xbox.  We’re too often missing the reality that in Christ, we’re sometimes invited to step outside the boat, or into the river, or give away the last of our loaves and fishes.  What if we said yes, shooting the moon and casting all our hope in the reality that God’s calling us to this next step?  What would happen then?   Abundant life would happen and by that God doesn’t mean material prosperity necessarily, but fulness, vibrancy, wholeness, right in the thick of the beauty and challenges on our plates.

More Companionship because we’re made for community and relationships.  I’ve just finished experiencing an overwhelming outpouring of support in my life from close friends throughout the time of my oldest daughter’s wedding.  They helped make the wedding happen in a thousand practical ways and I was reminded throughout the experience of just how priceless deep friendships are.  I’m looking for ways to continue fanning those flames of relationship in the coming year.

In addition to human companionship, I’m very much looking forward to nurturing companionship with Christ as I spend 40 days hiking through the mountains in order to learn more about what it means to walk with God.  After all, we’re invited to friendship with Jesus, not religious ritual.  I hope to learn more lessons about what that really means through my walking days.

More Creativity – For people with responsibilities like work, marriage, family, keeping the car maintained, keeping the sewer line between the house and street flowing freely, keeping the deck stained, there are seasons when it’s hard to be creativity.  Our longing to write, paint, create music or pottery, or whatever, is eaten alive by our day job and our night job so that we’ve nothing left for creativity.   There’s no sense moaning about it; such seasons simply happen.

On other hand, when one comes up for air, and the creative urges begin demanding they find expression again, it’s important to fan those urges into flames and give the fire some room to grow.  I’m going to do that by making a modest commitment to a word count for writing during each two week period of the coming year.  Rather than some lofty unattainable goal, I’m shooting for something challenging but doable.

More Vegetables – There’s nothing to say here.

Less Late Nights  – Everyone’s at their best at some certain point of the day, and for me it’s that time in the earliest morning hours, around 5:30.  As a result, staying up ’til midnight, weary and uncreative, robs me of my best time.

Less Stuff – We’re slowly working our way through the closets and garage because, like plaque in your arteries, possessions have a nasty way of accumulating and then remaining as nothing more than clutter long after they’ve served their purpose.  “Give it away” I say, and it’s happening, and it’s liberating.

Less Whining – I love that the Bible invites me to pour my heart out to God with honesty, expressing the full range of lament and praise, joy and sorrow.  But there’s one response to reality that God roundly condemns:  grumbling, which is this sort of low level whining amongst ourselves about circumstances, leaders, politics, the weather, jobs, customer service quality of Comcast, Seattle traffic and more.  The Bible says this is more than just a wast of time; it’s destructive sin.  God seems to be saying, “Tell me anything you want about your reaction to life, or your trials or pains or joys.  But don’t whine to one another.  It’s worthless.”

Less Yes –  All these musing about life change have to do with one single thing.  I’m trying to answer the question of how to make the most of the few precious days we’ve been given on this earth.  The answer, I’m learning, resides in focus.  “Fan your gifts into flame” is what Paul said to Timothy, which is a way of saying that you can’t do everything so once you find your calling, don’t worry about saying no to the many sirens of temptation that will come your way.  Stay committed to your thing… your craft, your marriage, your kids, your writing, whatever.  Give it your best and take of yourself so that you have your best to give.  Living into that requires less yes.

What are you saying more or less to in the coming year?  I welcome your thoughts.

“For All People…” Why the Radical Inclusiveness of Christmas matters.

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Dec 18, 2013

When the angel announced good news of great joy for all people, the angel opened the door for a feisty conversation about who’s in and who’s out of God’s family.  That conversation has been fueled by arrogance and fear, and given birth to violence and hatred, as religious wars and posturing in things likes Crusades, colonialism, and genocide, have all been carried out by people with great big Bibles.

So let’s take a moment and consider what, perhaps the angel meant by the phrase “for all people”, based on what the Bible says.

Here’s the thing:

  1. Jesus is the only door.  – That’s what Jesus himself says here, and so this is a repudiation of any sort of bland universalism which dismisses the central role of Christ in the restorative narrative of history.
  2. God has applied the work of Christ to those who don’t know Christ’s name but have faith in what God has revealed.  – We learn this from the entire Old Testament narrative, believing of course, that Abraham is in God’s family, and Moses, and the children of Israel who put the blood of animals on their doors and, we read, were drinking from Christ without knowing his name!
  3. God’s historically been more generous regarding salvation than God’s people have been.  This was part of what made Jesus’ message so scandalous.  His first evangelists were chosen from the lowest social class.  The 2nd evangelist was, from the perspective of insider religionists, a hated Samaritan, living with a man after five failed marriages.  Jesus speaks of outsiders dining at the kingdom table with insiders being cast out.  Jesus first speech spoke of the inclusiveness of his kingdom plans and nearly got him killed.  If God’s been more generous than religious experts, and I’m a religious expert, at the very least I need the humility to acknowledge that maybe I too am at risk of being pre-emptively judgmental, and asking God to spare me from that ugly sin.
  4. Since I know Christ and love Christ, I’ll preach Christ and invite people to Christ – I think Jesus is fantastic.  His ethics are stunningly beautiful, resonating with the deepest longings of the human heart, even though there are big and small parts of us that recoil at them too, or try to explain them away.  His companionship is more intimate than the most intimate lover, in that he lives within all who’ll let him. This has provided me with a source of joy, strength, hope, wisdom, that is wholly from him.  To the extent that I’ve drawn on that companionship and those resources, I’ve never regretted it.  And finally, the kingdom he’s creating is where I’m pinning all my hopes for the future.  With every report from Syria, every school shooting, every report of human trafficking or oppression, remind me that the only hope is this new king and his marvelous power to bring life where there’s only death.  This is glorious, and why I do what I do.
  5. There’ll be surprises.  I’m convinced that every person’s formula of “what’s required” for salvation will be wrong.  There’ll be people, we know from this passage, who did great stuff, but didn’t pursue intimacy with Christ.  There’ll be others who are invited in precisely because they did good stuff and in so doing blessed and served Jesus, as we learn here.  Some will never have heard the name Jesus and be at the table.  Others will have preached the Bible their whole lives, perhaps, and miss it.  There are markers, and a clear invitation for all of us to know Christ, be reconciled to God, and follow Jesus daily.  But if you try to figure it out with total precision who’s in and out, you’re on a fools errand, and you’ll be wrong, whatever your conclusion.  So relax.
  6. I won’t try to save anyone.  I’ll simply point people to Christ as the greatest hope for this tired and broken world, and invite people into God’s story, starting today, right where they’re at.  Hopefully, along the way, I’ll look and behave a little bit like the Jesus who lives in me, so that some generosity, hope, mercy, truth telling, joy, healing, come about.  That will be good.

For all people… wow!    Merry Christmas.