I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership. The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected. He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world. “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.
It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself. I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”. I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world. Well connected? I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures. I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.
I left class that day wanting to quit. I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job. When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:
Well connected? He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.
Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.” Isaiah 53:2
Agressive and ambitious? There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on. In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life: “What is the will of the Father?” When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds. When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone. When it led to the cross, he went there.
Wealthy? “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.
There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected. It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.
This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.
The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters. I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on. My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).
Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle. Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t. Some could be models, they’re so striking. Then there are the rest of us. Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.
Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26
For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.
Thirty seven years is a long time, and yesterday my wife and I were able to celebrate that time marker as the length of marriage. This is something that brings us both pride and gratitude, but more gratitude than pride. We realize that we’ve been largely healthy, and at least one of has been employed, the whole time. We have much cause for thanks, because of the lives we’ve been given. Still, 37 years is a big deal and to be both married and still very much in love is, we feel, no accident.
While I’d never presume to write a book about marriage, it may prove helpful to share some of “what’s worked for us…” So here they are: 37 lessons learned in 37 years. Enjoy! And if you find it helpful or think it might help others, share freely!
We’d love to hear what’s worked for you in the comments section. Cheers!
My wife and I recently returned from a beautiful adventure, hiking 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and ending up at our front door! A thousand times, or likely many more than that, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we’ve seen. Even more, though, we were profoundly grateful for the rich privilege of being able to do this, for such a trip means we have means, health, access to God’s wilderness, time, and enough love for each other to still enjoy such adventures after 37 years together! (all 87 pictures from that journey can be seen here if you’re interested!)
To make our trip a one way journey to our house we needed to drive to the trail head last week and walk from there. Then today, we drove back and retrieved the car. This meant that the drive from the trailhead back to our house was spent alone; just me and my itunes! I hit the playlist I’d recently created, but not yet listened to intently, and then we began our drive out. The first twelve miles of this trip was labelled as “not for city cars” and included a stream crossing which, though dry this time of year, was nonetheless a stony minefield for the underbellies of “smallish” cars like my Yaris!
We’re off, and I settle in to playing the game that is avoiding potholes and large stones on forest service roads, it’s not hard work, so I’m able to pay attention to the music I’m hearing. After twelve miles of a wilderness version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I’m overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving to God because every song I heard was ripe with memories of times and places, and ways God met me.
Does music do that to you? Do songs evoke specific memories with such power that you’re nearly transported through time and space to that very time and place when the song became meaningful? Now, though, you’re there with the added benefits of wisdom and perspective that makes you appreciate how richly you’ve been blessed, or how faithfully you’ve been kept.
Remembering how you’ve been blessed, or kept, or guided, is more than a little bit important. Remember the reality of God’s activity in the previous days of our lives is precisely what’s needed to sustain our joy, hope, confidence, and peace when everything appears to be falling apart. God tells us this over and over again as seen here in just a word search of “remember” in Deuteronomy.
In the old days of what we call “Bible Times”, God often had people create signs as a means of remembering; stones in a river; a cord hanging from a window; some roasted lamb and a little flatbread – all these were at times signs intended to evoke memory.
Which brings me back to music, and today’s playlist, with every song evoking memory. As I’m driving along, avoiding potholes, the past comes to life:
It’s 1994 and our little non-profit is making a promotional video for our summer wilderness Bible School. We choose this song as background music for a slide show of climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking in the North Cascades. We choose it because of one certain line in the music which says that we believe what we do because it is “the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”. I believed it then, and believe it still – but between now and then, there have been many moments, days even, when the truth is I don’t have a clue what I believe. I’ve doubted plenty – and yet God has been faithful and I’ve been able, again and again, to return to the rock that is my foundation. I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I veer left and avoid a pothole.
I’m at Seattle Pacific University, helping care for students after a school shooting left one dead, and a whole campus shaken. This is the song sung at the special chapel service. “Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, that the light of Christ may be seen today in our acts of love and our words of faith…” That happened in the ensuing days, so that a newspaper with little sympathy for our faith called “The Stranger” would write: “The evening of the shooting, a 7 p.m. prayer service at SPU’s campus filled to overflowing. Let it be said: This community looks ready to heal itself. There were psalms and songs. The whole room sang along, harmonizing, louder and louder.”
The song reminds me that God has yoked my heart with Seattle, and the university students that study there. I’d hear the song just about one year later in England, and the song would remind there that I need to be faithful to my calling, to not shrink back from the hard thing. I’m grateful for the reminders of these moments today as I inhale the scent of pine mixed with dust from this dry road.
The song is seared in my memory because I heard it for the first time after spending a fall in New England with my wife to celebrate our anniversary. We were growing older and knew it. Friends were dying, and parents. Life was moving on, and after walking through stunning colors and cheering on the Red Sox game six playoff victory over the Yankees at the Cheers Bar in Boston, we were heading home on i-95, listening to these words:
I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life
Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…
Indeed. I’m reminded, every time I hear it, that life’s passing by quickly and every day – even the hard ones and boring ones, are a gift.
There are too many more to do this for each song, so I’ll leave you with “Shattered” by Trading Yesterday
Here’s the part, in the chorus, that is deeply meaningful to me:
And I’ve lost who I am, and I can’t understand
Why my heart is so broken, rejecting your love
Without, love gone wrong; lifeless words carry on
But I know, all I know’s that the end’s beginning
Who I am from the start, take me home to my heart
Let me go and I will run, I will not be silent
All this time spent in vain; wasted years wasted gain
All is lost but hope remains and this war’s not over
I love this because it speaks to me of a time – no, of many times, when I’ve chosen the low road of fear, of cynicism, or pride, or worse; times when I’ve chosen death and indeed, I’ve lost who I am. When I pay the price, I know that the end’s the beginning, because I know that at the bottom I’ll come to my senses and return to life and reality.
And the beauty of it, of course, is the promise though “all is lost, hope remains” because “There’s a light, there’s a sun taking all these shattered ones to the place we belong, and his love will conquer all.”
I think of specific times, recently, when I’ve lost who I am, and yet his love has conquered. It happens over and over again, friends, because the good news is nothing, if it’s not a story of being able to come home after running away!
There are half a dozen other songs representing significant moments – after the death of a friend, after the completion of a book, a winter ski tour with my wife, a brother in-law’s battle with cancer. Music and memory – for me they’re seared together beautifully, and this makes playlists – this one anyway – a sort of “memorial stone”. As I listen, I’m encouraged because I remember God’s been with me through good times and bad, through beauty and pain, and will be with me today, and tomorrow too, come what may!
What songs evoke worship and gratitude for you? And if not songs, what evokes your memories of gratitude? Smells? Food? Places?
But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free? The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies. So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ. They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.
He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
A freedom tied to obedience
These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute. As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.” Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”. The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom. There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.
What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong. If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?
Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love. We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny. This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.
I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers. They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.
A freedom tied to external revelation
One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed. “If you want to own a gun, own a gun. If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion. If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.” What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone. Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being. What if you want my wife? Or my children? Or my stuff?
So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”
Ah, but there’s the problem. One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone. Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server. But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.
The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage. Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul. “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you” Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom. Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.
Simple right? We’re all free. Yes, free. And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom. How’s this working for us? Not so well, I’d argue.
What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke. Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing. My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps. Freedom? Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway. That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.
Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable. Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.
In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more. But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.
The Illusion of Freedom
When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children. We have never been anyone’s slaves…” In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?” I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome. Before that it was Greece. Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire. Before that it was Babylon. Before that it was Assyria. Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.
We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.
But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need. This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”. And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough. Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority. That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.
“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”
There were times, not so long ago, when mourning was the first response to tragedy. This is appropriate. When 9.11 happened, there was a global coming together that simply grieved the catastrophic loss, acknowledging, before any rush to response or solution, that the world is not meant to be this way. Waves of grief and anger over “the way it is” rise up in the human heart when tragedy happens.
Or should, at least. In Ezekiel 18:32 God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” In John 11, Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and wept tears of grief, because death is an intrusion in our fallen world – a source of profound loss, sorrow, and separation.
These days though, there’s no time for mourning. The blood wasn’t dry on the floor before this tragedy was politicized. Islamaphobia. Homophobia. Gun Control. ISIS. Immigration policy. NRA. Ban on assault weapons. Blame Obama. Mock Trump, or praise him. Why mourn, when you can blame, or use the event to justify your worldview?
Here’s an observation friends: this is sick
Our rush to judgement is a cultural disease, the natural fruit of our increasing inability to listen, think, and learn a bit before talking. I was in Austria when Sandy Hook occurred and the first things I read in social media had to do with blaming the NRA, or declaring preemptively that “the gun control liberals will use this to steal our guns”. Heated rhetoric, even before the children were buried. An alligator steals a child from a theme park, and before his body has even been found, people are lecturing the parents about “responsible parenting”. The biggest mass shooting in American history happens and before there’s a single funeral, Muslims are blamed. Immigration debates fill the air. Christians are blamed. Guns are blamed. And those blamed respond with a whiplash of defensiveness.
Lost in all of it is the time honored tradition, in nearly every culture in the world, to “mourn first – thoroughly – and then respond” The cost of this loss will be huge, is already huge – because what’s happened is that all of us are now constantly at war, with each other. Constantly on the defensive, or to avoid that, on the pre-emptive offense.
Job’s friends may not have assessed Job’s problems accurately, but at least they had the decency to mourn with him a little bit before offering their misguided solutions. The same was true 15 years ago, when America, even the world, stopped for a week or so, and mourned. We were all angry. We were all learning new things about terror and waking up to the realization that our world had changed forever. But we held our tongues.
The Bible is a rich pool of lament for many reasons, one of which is that it allows the dissonance between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be to ferment in our spirits and souls. Such fermentation, born of compassion for victims of suffering and loss, strengthens our longings for the beauty of Christ’s reign to break into our world with full force. It’s only out from those deep longings, ripened in mourning, that the best wisdom of next steps will be born.
Last week was too busy for mourning for me. I was in meetings overseas from morning to night, and squeezing church work and sermon prep into the little margins. I barely saw the headlines, and then quickly saw the polarizing comments, coming from everywhere. Really! Everywhere. The weight of what happened didn’t hit me until yesterday, when I had some time to finally digest the event while sitting in the Frankfurt airport waiting to come home.
Today then, is a day of mourning for me – for one thing. The victims. Young lives were cut down too soon and while death is always tragic, it’s always the more so when the lives are young, still looking forward to most of their days.
Yes, the church must participate in robust and civil discourse about sexual ethics, gun control, gun rights, immigration, Islam, and more. Those are different topics for different days. But not today. Today I mourn…which begins with empathy, and compassion, which simply means, “to suffer with”. For God’s sake, and your own, learn compassion before anything else.
Again violence has taken young lives.
Again people woke in the morning not knowing their hours were numbered.
Again families of victims are faced with an unanticipated hole in their lives, with many parents facing the most difficult grief of all, the death of their own children. Of all the things that “aren’t supposed to happen”, this is near the top of the list.
Let your tears run down like a river day and night
As the beginning of the night watches
Pour out your heart like water
Before the presence of the Lord;
Life up your hands to Him
For the life of your little ones… Lamentations 2
There’s a place I hide the last of my German chocolate, breaking off tiny squares at a time since I likely won’t be heading to that part of the world again until November. It’s tucked away, and I went there today for a bite of comfort because, surprising as this might sound, I’m in the midst of a stress bout, even though I’m a pastor.
The stress is about some frustrations regarding Christians fighting each other. It’s about questions regarding the future because even though they say 50 is the new 40, 60 isn’t the new anything; it’s just old. It has me thinking about the future, and that very line of thinking gives birth to about ten more questions so that by the time I’m done thinking so much, I need chocolate more than anything, and I run to my drawer of comfort.
This time, though, sort of like the Narnian wardrobe thing, I reached for the chocolate in the dark and grabbed a small Bible by mistake instead, it being about the same size as a large Milka bar. I hadn’t touched the cover for over a year, likely, except to move it when I moved this desk for the year. It was my dad’s. As soon as I touched it, though, I thought about my upcoming sermon this weekend about authenticity and said to myself, “Toss it into the bag. Maybe it’s a sermon illustration.”
Then I drove down the mountain, all the while thinking about the many things in my life presently which feel out of control, or at the least, outside of my direct personal control. Lack of control and uncertainty about the future are things I don’t like, and what I like even less is that the answers are often found in only one place: patiently waiting. I’ll quickly confess I’m terrible at this, so much so that when these seasons of uncertainty happen, as they happen to all of us, the stress and anxiety I say are so easily banished in Christ somehow move in and take up space in room that is my soul. Then I think too much – about the o so many things I can’t control, and I often get even more anxious, and then anxious about being anxious. Some of you understand.
i arrive in Seattle and drag my bags into my little place down here, anxious, stressed, feeling overwhelmed. I’m sure many of you know these feelings. Then before I head to a meeting I unpack and there it is, now in the full light of day. My dad’s Bible. I stop and open it because, no surprise, I didn’t read mine this morning in my present state of worry. When I open it though, it falls not to scripture text, but to the inscription from his sister, my aunt, written on dad’s birthday in 1933:
“Happy Birthday Romaine…
May you enjoy many happy hours in the meditation and visitation with our heavenly Father thru this volume of letters He has written to you.
May you never forget that Phil. 4:6,7 as well as countless other wonderful promises will always remain true no matter what happens.
That passage she referenced? Well I thumbed through the Bible and it was the only passage Dad had underlined:
“Be careful for nothing (or another translation writes: “don’t worry about anything”), but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus”
“Remember” my aunt wrote, speaking to me from the grave this afternoon, “that Phil 4:6,7 will always remain true no matter what happens”
She wrote those words to my dad in 1933. Yes. No matter what happens:
World War II happened, and countless bouts of pneumonia for dad.
After marrying the delightful prize that was my mom, an early life threatening miscarriage happened. It led to a surgery that put an end to hopes of children. That why they adopted, and where I came into the story, why I’m here writing, rather than somewhere else…
Annual bouts with the flu happened. They would so weaken dad’s lungs that after 40 he could no longer visit the mountains he loved, and his basketball and track days of active sport were gone for good.
Health challenges happened all the time. They would get worse as he got older, and he’d come home and sit with an oxygen tank for a little rejuvenation. Annual stays in the hospital for the flu became commonplace.
Work loads grew as he moved from teacher to principal to superintendent, leading to too much, leading to an early retirement.
The flu shot in October of 1973 happened. It was too much, and became full blown flu, and then pneumonia, and the end.
When my aunt wrote that God’s peace could be dad’s “no matter what happens”, she had no idea what she was talking about.
But she was right. And as I read Phil 4:6,7 today, 83 years after my aunt wrote the inscription, I remember how, in the midst of all that I’ve related above (and there’s much more… too personal), Dad knew peace.
He never complained about not being able to play basketball with me. Instead he’d get high on Oxygen, come outside and play a game of HORSE, and then go re-oxygenate as if he’d climbed Everest. At the time I thought he loved basketball. I now know he loved me. He’d crack jokes about his limitations, and to keep us all smiling, put fake hot dogs in the refrigerator, laughing uproariously when mom tried to put them down the garbage disposal and they shot out like rockets. He went to some of my concerts when I was in high school, and made sure that I was able to go to Europe with the band, even though we couldn’t afford it. “We’ll find a way” he said. And he did.
The man was so very short on self pity, because he was so very full of the peace and love of Christ in spite of the fact that life was, to say the least, not what he expected.
By now there are tears as I write this. They’re tears of gratitude that I have someone to look to as an example as i grow older and also face my own uncertainties, and limitations, and disappointments. They’re tears of gratitude for my aunt who lived her faith and knew her own disappointments, including the early loss of her husband to cancer, and her subsequent years spent ministering to single mothers. Through it all for her too: the peace of Christ. And the tears are the cry of my heart, asking the the God of all peace would be my source of peace right in the midst of the storm that is now, and whatever will be the storms that are tomorrow.
So for lent? I’ll be reading from Dad’s little Bible every day – and I might even buy a fake hot dog.
January 18th was my 60th birthday and it was more than just a great day. It was an awakening. The day unfolded differently than I’d anticipated. Early rising, intense exercise, and solitude were the anticipated words of the day because these are things that, for most of my life, I’ve assumed to be life giving and energizing. They’re the things I usually choose, or have been prone to choose.
I don’t know if it’s the 60 thing, or some other winds of change blowing through the soul these days, but this birthday unfolded completely differently, so the last post, this post, and the next one are devoted to the three things I did differently on my birthday, each of which has changes for the better.
After sleeping in, we soon received texts from the neighbors who were putting together a neighborhood ski day. My wife, ever the lover of getting together and connecting, was all in. I wasn’t so sure. A year ago, when I realized my birthday was going to land on a holiday, I’d secretly declared a goal to myself that I’d ski 60′ vertical feet on my birthday, as a sort of feeble attempt to mock the inevitability of aging. “Take that!” I’d shout after 8 solid hours of hard skiing. Aging would smile condescendingly, knowing that the house always wins. But whatever…that was my plan.
The neighbors have children, and skiing with children wasn’t on my radar. Neither, for that matter, was skiing with grown up neighbors. It would be slower. It would be conversational. It would be limiting. I’ve always, at the least, been as comfortable with a day skiing alone as I’ve been skiing with friends. There are a dozen reasons for that, all beyond the scope of this post.
Suffice it say that when Donna suggested we ski with the neighbors, my response was, predictably, “I’ll do a run with you guys. But then I’m leaving. I need a good workout today.”
Yes. That’s right Richard. Use exercise as an excuse for isolation. It’s worked well before because it sounds so self-disciplined, so good, so pure.
We arrive and are quickly in line with the neighbors, and as fate would have it, I ended up with my neighbor Paul’s daughters: Elizabeth and Georgia. I’d been in rooms with them, at neighborhood parties before, and down at the end of street in the summers when we neighbors play pickle-ball, but I didn’t know them, not really, for the simple reason I’d never made the effort.
Turns out the loss was all mine. We started skiing together and these girls ski fearlessly, joyfully, with a childhood delight that made skiing with them some sort of shalom, by which I mean a window into peace, wholeness, and hospitality. They’d cut into the trees, take little jumps, go literally anywhere I suggested, even as I’d follow them on routes previously unknown to me.
Then there were the rides up on the lifts, learning about who likes math, and who likes swimming, and horses, and about life on a few acres outside Tacoma, and what they do at the cabin when they’re not skiing (checkers, sledding, “hangin’ out”…)
Their dad helped Donna and redesign the space under our deck so that it could become a decent wood storage space. He’s a sort of renaissance man – teacher, inventor, pilot, woodworker – and delightful role model as both dad and husband. I’d had a few conversations with him over the months, but the girls, never.
Until today. By the end of the day, I’d only skied 5200 vertical feet, instead of my normal 20,000, and my ridiculous goal of 60k. But I’d never, in recent memory, enjoyed skiing more. The family would come over later that evening, with other neighbors, for some cookies and milk, a little birthday celebration, and I learned that they actually enjoyed skiing with me, which way maybe the best gift of my 60th birthday. It was a wake up call, a discovery…or at the least, rediscovery.
In this year of my 60th birthday, as I think about what I need to prioritize if I’m going to continue enjoying the life God has for me, a morning of skiing with the neighbor girls taught me a vital lesson:
We’re made for relationships and community. I’d read a great book recently about habits that help make us healthy, entitled, “The Primal Connection” documents that social isolation dramatically depresses one’s immune system, and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease, concluding that a lack of social connectedness is the health equivalent of smoking a pack a day, or drinking excessively. Wow! Apparently when God says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” God’s talking about something that’s good for you, both life giving and enjoyable!
Of course most of you know this, but there are two groups who are vulnerable.
First Group at Risk : There are some of us who write, study, teach, and live inside our heads creating ideas and interacting with ideas – so much so that this cerebral world becomes more important than flesh and blood. I’ll confess to you that this world sometimes feels safer than the messiness of relationship, so I’ve sometimes chosen isolation far too readily. I’m repenting now…and regretting what I’ve missed.
Second Group at Risk: The rest of you. You’re the ones who are better and texting than talking. Better at facebook than face to face. Better at virtual reality than real reality. You’re on the bus not talking to people. You’re in bed not talking with your spouse. You’re eating in front of a screen. You’re failing to understand that eye contact, activities together, and actual contact face to face and heart to heart is the life for which you’re created. You’ve traded that richness in for a fake world, a highlight reel that’s void of vulnerability, authenticity, and human touch.
That birthday gift of skiing with neighbors was more than just fun. It rocked my world, calling me to repent of isolation, especially my isolation painted over with the thin spiritual veneer of solitude, or commitments to health. Posh. I’m praying I’ll spend the rest of my days investing much more intentionally in loving my neighbors, blessing and serving, being in the thick of the laughter, shared burdens, and shared joys that comes from being part of a tribe.
Thanks Georgia and Elizabeth. Best. Birthday. Ever.
Monday was my 60th birthday and it was more than just a great day. It was an awakening. The day unfolded differently than I’d anticipated. Early rising, intense exercise, and solitude were the anticipated words of the day because these are things that, for most of my life, I’ve assumed to be life giving and energizing. They’re the things I usually choose, or have been prone to choose.
I don’t know if it’s the 60 thing, or some other winds of change blowing through the soul these days, but this birthday unfolded completely differently, so this post and the next two are devoted to the three things I did differently on my birthday, things I’ve now elevated to goals for 2016.
First Thing: Instead of early rising, sleep. My wife and I walk with the neighbors most mornings at 7am, and I try to fit in coffee, Bible reading, and meditation prior to the walk, which means a 6am wake up call, or even earlier. But on Monday the alarm went off and I didn’t want to get out of bed. Then some dialogue started happening in my head as I lay there listening to my wife’s deep, rhythmic breathing.
Me: “You should get up. That’s what productive people do. You know those verses about the ant and the sluggard in Proverbs right? ‘A little sleep, a little slumber… and poverty will come upon you!…’
Other Me “Yeah I know, but it’s my birthday. It would be fun to try and sleep in, to try being a relaxed type B person for a day, maybe even type C”
Me: “That’s a slippery slope you’re on there. Today it’s your birthday. Tomorrow it’s too cold. Then it’s a habit. Then you’re fat, and broke, and dead. If that’s what you want… sleep in”
Other Me: “Can you shut up just for a day, please? I’m tired of intensity, tired of being driven, especially by you and your insecure compulsions. Lighten up.”
Me: “I will not lighten up. Vigilance is how things happen, good things, productive things, necessary… necess… nvdlese….nsssz
Other Me: “zzzzzzzzzz”
And that was that. I didn’t wake until my wife returned from walking with the neighbors! This is a small victory for sleep, and it’s actually a good thing. In a recent favorite read, Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-being I learned that one of the best things we can do for our creativity, productivity, and health of both soul and body, is to get 8-9 hours of sleep a night. This is very different than the way I’ve thought, which is, “think how much more writing, exercise, thinking, working, and living you can do if you get up early?”
In point of fact, our sleep-less-ness is tied to our beating back the night through electricity. I know this because we were without power for four days during the Christmas season, and this meant that around 3 in the afternoon we’d sense the darkness coming on, and make sure our candles were at the ready. They were great to sustain conversation, but not good enough for reading. Plus, we’d powered down our media except for acute events, such as texts from work or daily checking of email.
People said to me, “Get a generator” but I said back, “Nope. These days, hard as they’ve been, have opened my eyes to the possibility of rest.” That’s because we’d go to bed long before nine on most nights. “A long winter’s nap” as they say; and I woke refreshed.
Sleeping in set the stage for a great birthday, and since then I’ve been shooting for 8 hours of sleep. Truth be told, I’m landing between 6 1/2 and 7 1/2, but still, it’s progress. It’s counter-intuitive, because there’s a part of me that’s driven. But as I lean into this call to rest, I find myself aligning to the rhythm of restoration that’s woven into all of creation, and the restoration that comes through the gift of sleep means more creativity, more capacity to be present, and just a general sense that life is closer to God’s shalom than it ever is when I’m anxious about staying in bed too long.
Welcome 60! Thank you for banishing my fear of sleep, and finally giving me the courage to believe I’m not lazy. Good night now… see you in 8 (OK, 7) hours!”
When my wife and I arrived home Monday night after a 5 day delay in getting there due to “snow on snow” (12 feet, or 4 meters for my Europe friends) as the Christmas carol says, the house was dark because the power had gone out. As a result there’s darkness, and lots of it. This far north on the earth, with this many clouds, our world is dark most of December by nature; without intervention we’re in the dark about 17 hours a day!!
Inside, a few candles dispel the total darkness that would otherwise be ours. Now, into our fourth day of power outage, I’m musing on the powers of darkness and light – and perhaps there’s no better day to muse on this than Christmas Eve…
“The Light Shines in the Darkness” is how the great mystic disciple of Jesus named John put it, “and the darkness did not overpower it…”
That’s the way of it of course. Monday night, near midnight, the power had returned and my wife and I were startled awake by the hum of various motors and the return of lights. I turned the all off and returned to bed, but the relief was short lived; another moment awake in the middle of the night was when I realized we were in the dark again. In this total darkness it’s in you to freeze up, afraid of hitting a wall or running your foot into the edge of something. Every step’s tentative, and this is visceral. It’s deeply embedded in our ancient brains to move tentatively, if at all, when darkness shrouds our world.
Then I light a match, there at 2AM, and then a candle. That’s all it takes to dispel the freeze of tentativeness, instilling in me a confidence to move, to live, to take action. Light dispels more than darkness. It dispels fear, uncertainty, and the kind of disengagement that shrinks our lives.
It’s literal of course, but it’s metaphor too, because John is saying that the meaning of Christmas is that light, in the form of Christ. “In Him was life and the life was the light of humans” which means that in a world of darkness, there’s a light to dispel the kind of fear, disengagement, and uncertainty that leads to the racism, tribalism, and violence that so saturates our world.
When the young man who shot and killed people in a South Carolina prayer meeting appeared in court, he was met by family members of the victims declaring their forgiveness. Light shines in the darkness.
A young man, at cost of his life, shelters three young girls in a different shooting. Light shines in the darkness.
Light doesn’t just show in martyrdom though. It shows up in generosity, words of encouragement, crossing social and racial divides, opening your home, visiting prisoners, and o so much more. Light shows up in powerful beacon-like ways, and tiny acts with no more lumens than a single match. It matters not: light is always light. It always wins.
In a world punctuated by the darkness of violence, war, betrayal, and loss, 2015 has been especially dark on a global scale. I don’t need to pour out details of mass shootings, insane dictators, blatant racism, millions of refugees, and the scourge of human trafficking that courses through the veins of our tired earth like a cancer. You know it all already. This is the face of darkness.
I find it poignant that it’s always at the sites of mass shooting or other great losses that there’s a gathering of candles. It’s almost instinctive in us to light a candle at those spaces such as Paris and San Bernadino where darkness has sought to overtake us. It’s a small way of saying “NO! In the name of God, we won’t let darkness prevail. Light wins!”
For years I’ve had a little poster in my office that says, “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness” and o how we need to hear this word as we enter 2016, when most of what I hear is how bad the world is, and how stupid politicians are, and how stupid people are for voting for politicians. Blah. Blah. Blah. Enough already.
How about being light instead?
We need this word because it’s not a platitude, it’s a powerful reality. Jesus said it this way when he spoke to his followers: “You are the light of the world…let your light shine…!” There’s much more to the text but the essence for this moment of darkness is to realize that you and I have a calling. Having been granted the eternal light that is Christ as our indwelling source of hope, it’s incumbent on us to let that light shine, so that all the hope, mercy, generosity, service, wisdom, grace, and reconciling power that is found in Christ alone will find expression in your life and mine.
Every action that looks like the love, generosity, service, sacrifice, wisdom, forgiveness, and joy that is Jesus, is light! And the thing about light is that it always wins; always dispels the darkness as a hint that, when history’s fully written, we won’t all have been sucked into a black hole. Rather, “there will no longer by any ight; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them…”
One little light, born in a manger, is spreading still, and will overcome all darkness in the end.
So tonight when you light your candle (or join us online if you can’t make it to ours or your own), remember that all the light which fills the dark room comes from one source. We receive it gladly and pass it only until the darkness disappears. This isn’t some cute little service. This is the hope of the world.
Go. Be the light, even as you celebrate the source. Merry Christmas!
After morning coffee, I start the car and turn the defrost on, high and hot. It’s 23 degrees and a sheet of ice covers the windows. By the time I’ve gathered my things and loaded the car it’s warm and ready for the drive down to catch up with my daughter, son-in-law, and wife, who left at 3:30 AM when my pregnant daughter’s contractions could no longer be ignored. For reasons I can’t put into words, I need to be there when my first grandchild comes into the world.
There’s snow on the ground, the trees, the peaks, lit by the rising sun behind to create a riot of color. The drought and fires, so recent as a reality here, are long gone as first the rains washed all fear of inferno away and now the snow’s made all things new. Beauty is all around me, and by the time I get my phone connected to my music system for the 30 minute drive to the hospital, I’m overwhelmed by the glory of creation, shouting to me that indeed, all things will be made new if we wait long enough. When the music begins… Pandora has randomly chosen Handel’s “Messiah”. “Hallelujah!” Of course… how could it be anything else.
I’m driving yes, but really, it’s worship. This is because I’m mindful that, of all the months in my life, the one that needs to be made new more than any other is November. Long ago, my dad died suddenly in late October, and the chasm of loss was huge. We were watching the world series together on Tuesday and by Saturday morning he was gone. Baseball, and October, would never be the same.
…Until the the birth of my first child. Kristi came into the world on October 13th. We had to fly off San Juan island in a thunder storm to bring her into the world, and when we did, October was reborn. Taking away. Giving. Gain. Loss. Birth. Death. All are real. But when the giving and life happens, the beauty and joy of it cover like so much fresh rain and snow. Now October’s my favorite month.
But November, and Thanksgiving, have been muted in my life since clear back in 1995 when I got a call while teaching in Montana, that my sister had died suddenly of a heart attack. There were only two of us; Sue. Me. That is all. Gone at 42? We were just starting to be adult friends, just starting to talk about our childhood, not just the good memories, but the hard stuff too. My God. Why should someone sing your praises at a Thanksgiving service one night and be dead the next morning? Why should three nephews and a niece be motherless? Why?
And Thanksgiving’s been muted ever since, a constant reminder of loss rather than blessing, with the result that even though gratitude is supposed to be the order of the day, it’s always been muted at best.
But Hallelujah! “He has poured down for you the rain as before... (and) I will make up to you for the years the locust has eaten” There’ll be rain and laughter. The sorrows and loss of yesterday will be covered like so much snow on the brown, thirsty peaks. “Sorrow’s in the night, but Joy comes in the morning”
As I write these words in the hospital where my dear Luci has come into our beautiful world. November is redeemed, a reminder that when the grand story of our world is finished, all things will be made new.
And that is why I hope, and rejoice.
O Lord Christ
This month, as Paris, Beirut, and Mali remind us that senseless death is still woven into the fabric of our world, I pray that you would grant us eyes to see what is new. New rain. New seasons. New friends. New life. New snow.
And seeing, give us the courage and grace to rejoice without reservation, for these are the signs of what is, right here and now, and what ought to be, and what, we hope and pray and believe, will be, ultimately, for the whole universe.
We await a cosmos saturated with joy. May the foretaste you give us now not only be a cause for joy in itself; may it also be our confidence for the future.