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

Into the fog of discipleship…step by step

It’s Friday.  That’s meant ski day for 90% of the past four months.  I hit the web to see what’s opened, what’s groomed, what’s happening.  Dismay:  four different ski areas within 2 miles of my house – ALL CLOSED!!

All right then.  It will be a day to put on the touring skis, which means attaching friction creating skins to the base of the skis and freeing the heel so that you can ski up the mountain.  At the top you’ll peel the skins off, lock down the heel, and in a few minutes ski down what it just took you and hour to go up.  Some might call it hard work.  I call it discipleship – learning to follow Jesus step by step.  Here’s why:  

There’s a calling

I cast my gaze to the ridge, the goal, some 1300plus feet above,  It’s too far.  Too steep.  Too much.  There’s an immediate visceral reaction, dwelling up a dozen or more excuses why this “isn’t a good day” for this.  It’s cloudy – there’s no view to bring me joy.  It might rain.  I slept poorly last night.  The snow’s thick, mushy.  Not spoken, but the real reasons:  it’s stinking hard work to walk uphill in slushy snow with skis on.  

So why go?  Here’s the crazy thing.  I go because as John Muir said,
“the mountains are calling and I MUST go” – good weather or poor; tired or bursting with eagerness; it matters not, because the mountains themselves really are actually calling.  I want to be in them, up them, challenged and transformed by their terrain; ravished and refreshed by their beauty.  “I must go”

That’s discipleship too.  We see, in the distance, a different life: freed from addiction, or fear, or shame.  Or maybe we see a different world because Jesus and the prophets pointed to a world of peace, reconciliation, and the end of human trafficking and disease, to name just a few things.  We see it out there in the distance, and we want to go there, be there – and with Christ alive in us, it seems we must take the journey! 

That’s part of what calling means.  And when that voice from higher up the mountain is calling, I pray you’ll go.  There’ll be reasons not to, always, as Jesus warned us.   Too busy.  Too tired.  Too tied down.  Too preoccupied with the trinkets acquired by wealth.  Your favorite team’s playing today.  Theres’s always a reason to stay home, but if you listen carefully enough, you hear the voice of calling, and if hear it…don’t hesitate:  go!

There’s a disillusionment – 

It doesn’t take long to feel the effort of the journey.  There’s something in me that want’s to call it quits about 500 meters in and 100 meters up because breathing is labored, legs are feeling heavy, and sweat is leaking out my skin as a means of cooling me, so that when I stop I’m not cool – I’m cold.  “Is it worth it?”  “I could be at home reading.”  “It makes sense that I’m the only one here.  Who does this?” “I could turn around now and nobody would be the wiser.”

And so it goes, in our brains, sometime after we’ve begun our pursuit of Christ too.  This is because self-denial, though life giving over the long haul, is wearying in the moment.  There are disciplines to discipleship, enough so that the words have the same root, and that root includes the reality of some suffering.

We all suffer.  But who suffers willingly?  Disciples, apparently, because Jesus said that unless we’re willing to deny ourselves, we can’t be disciples.  

If we’re going to deny ourselves, then, we need some compelling vision that will allow us to transcend the gravities which pull us down into self indulgence.  The vision for my little ski adventure is the thought that at the end of it there will have been both encounters with beauty and a strengthening of heart – both gifts, yes – but earned with the currency of suffering.  Imagine that.

For the disciple, the self-denial and suffering produces strength of heart too, but in a different way.  We become people whose lives are increasingly characterized by joy, patience, hope, peace, and generosity.  We could quit the journey and indulge ourselves, or press on and enjoy this kind of beauty and transformation.  That why vision matters so much.  Without a reminder of what’s being produced in me, I simply won’t proceed.  It’s the vision of transformation that keeps me going.

There’s a mindfulness – 

Moving up steep snow on skis is an acquired skill, and the steeper the snow, the steeper the learning curve.  As the initial gradual slope steepens, I’ve no longer any time to think about how painful it is, or whether I want to quit or continue.  At its steepest the journey requires total focus:  “slide ski upward – shift all body weight to directly above the binding, so as to mitigate risk of sliding backwards – fight the intuitive notion to lean into the mountain, committing to stay upright instead.  Repeat”  

My favorite hobbies have historically been skiing, rock climbing and fishing because these three disciplines require a total focus, and the total focus has a marvelous way of silencing the chatter of the mind.  Such silence is life giving, wisdom imparting, and maturing.

We don’t do it well, if we’re honest.  We’re easily distracted by our phones, our tunes, and our screens.  And if that isn’t bad enough, when all three are absent, our mind has tricky ways of creating its own chatter, and the price is costly as seen in this excellent book.

Jesus hits on this when he tells us to “take no thought for tomorrow.”  It’s his way of inviting us to be fully present.  Here.  Now.  A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said it this way:  “When you are overwhelmed and your mind it talking too much, you need to calm down and simply do the next thing.”  Indeed.  It’s not just a question of getting stuff done, it’s a question of growing wise because wisdom is, at the core, related to our capacity to be “all there” wherever we are, and this is a skill that’s disappearing.  I’m not on my cell phone when I need to focus on putting all my body weight above my ski on a 32 degree slope.  I’m all in.  I’m invited, indeed called, to be “all in” most of the time:  conversations made up of real listening and presence, reading, prayer, sharing a meal with friends.  We’re at our best and look most like Jesus when we’re doing one thing at a time.

There’s joy – 

Step by step (hence the name of this blog) I ascend upward.  Step by step in real life means another diaper, another meal, another encouraging word to a co-worker, or a confession, or a moment of hospitality with a neighbor.  Like ski touring, no single step seems significant, but every single step matters.  This is because our lives aren’t, in reality, highlight reels of profound moments, but a ten thousand regular steps followed by a summit moment.

When I arrive at the top on this Friday, there’s nothing to see.

Fog’s set in, and everything is white other than trees right in front of me.  Still, I know it’s been worth it.  And there’ll be a different skill set, and a different joy on the way down.

Sometimes, too, your best efforts to follow Jesus won’t result in a highlight reel moment.  And then you’ll move on.  It’s fine.  You know you’ve taken the steps, followed the call, done the right thing.  That’s discipleship and the more you do it, the more you know you’ll do it again tomorrow, because there’ll be another calling, and you’ll say yes because its become who you are!

O Lord of the mountains and valleys.  

Grant that we might first have ears to hear your call – in the cry of child, a neighbor, a refugee.  Give us grace, I pray, not only to hear, but go, and endurance to continue when we feel like quitting.  Thank you for the gift and discipline of mindful presence, and the circumstances that help us develop it.  May we celebrate those times rather than dread them.  And above all, thank you for standing on the mountain with your disciples so that we’re able, here and now, to have a glimpse of the summit that’s worth it all – Your reign made visible in our lives and world.  Give us eyes to see it.  Every single day.

In your great name we pray…

Amen.

 

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