“Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.” Exodus 24:1,2
When climbers are headed up to Mt. Rainier through the Camp Muir route, they start in the parking lot of a place called “Paradise” which is the highest point to which one can drive in this beautiful national park. This turns Paradise, at any given moments, into a weird mix of highly skilled mountaineers, beginners who are hoping to make it to the summit, and masses of people who will never leave the paved paths, ever, as long as they live. They’re decked out in L.L. Bean’s newest and best, or REI tech gear, or whatever, slurping ice cream in the parking lot. They’re peering through those coin operated telescopes to get a glimpse of the glacier before snapping a selfie with the imposing massif in the background, and calling it their “outdoor challenge for the year”.
The climbers are in the mix with the masses, but not for long. They get their permit from a little office, use the bathroom, maybe grab one last taste of actual food for a few days, and that’s it, they’re gone, headed up for the summit. When the paved path ends, the tourists turn around, while the rest step onto actual soil, and eventually snow, pressing onward, upward. Even among the climbers, not everyone will continue to the top. Camp Muir, at 10,400’ is the next common drop out point, as the realities of altitude sickness, sunburn, loss of appetite, cold, thirst, nausea, or any other number of factors will lead yet another group to say “far enough”.
Finally, there will be those who leave base camp the next morning with every intention of summiting. They thought they’d prepared well enough, thought that riding their bicycle to work and doing the “7 minute workout” app on their phone twice a week would adequately prepare them for carrying 40 pounds on their back up one and a half vertical miles of snow, rock, and ice, into the thin air above treeline, where rockfall, avalanches, and crevasses hidden in the glaciers present a large menu of ways to die. Somewhere before the summit they say, “this is good enough for me!” and either descend or stay put and wait for their group to go up and then join them on their descent. The herd self selects out of further progress until only the best prepared, most courageous, and most diligent, make it to the top.
When God’s about to give the law to Israel as a centerpiece of establishing the new nation, a similar culling of the herd occurs. God sets a boundary around the mountain and invites only Moses and his key leaders to ascend beyond the parking lot. Then, beyond the high base camp, it’s to be only Moses. Though he takes his successor, named Joshua, with him some distance, there’s no indication that Joshua summits. At the top it’s Moses. Alone with God.
In this story God’s the one who sets the boundaries around the mountain and keeps people away. There are reasons for that, in that time and place, but they don’t apply to us (as I’ll write about in the forthcoming book, of which this post is a part).
We’re living in a time when summiting the pinnacle of intimacy with God is available to everyone because the barriers to the summit were annihilated at the cross. Still, the same Christ who broke down the barriers said that the road to the summit is narrow (ref) and, like Mt. Rainier, there are few who actually find it. There’s a parking lot filled with religion. Jesus stickers and t-shirts are for sale, and lots people looking “a couple dollar’s worth of God”. The parking lot is the Sunday meeting, and there are folks there for the photo ops and real estate contacts. If there’s a little entertainment or even a dose of conviction along the way, so be it. But they’ve not intention of going farther. Others will hit the trail until the pavement ends. Some fewer will keep going a bit further, until there’s more hard stuff than joyful stuff, at which point they turn around, in search of safety, predictability, warmth.
If Christ’s blown up the barriers to the summit, then what’s holding anyone back? The answer can be found by switching metaphors, because a quick glance at Jesus’ parable of the seed and sower explains why “some seeds don’t produce fruit”, which is the same thing, metaphorically, as not reaching the summit. And what are the reasons? O you know; the usual suspects: affliction, worry, the lying seductions of wealth. There are, in other words, lots of reasons to descend to the parking lot of religious carnivals.
“Up” is about the pursuit of intimacy with God, about Christ becoming, in real ways, a friend, companion, lover even, in the daily stuff of living. Getting there, Jesus is saying, doesn’t happen by accident, any more than you wake up one morning having run a marathon, or summiting Rainier. It requires intentionality, prioritizing, and pressing on toward the goal when others stop. It requires shedding stuff, so that by the end, there’s one true pursuit to which all other pursuits give way.
“Right Intentions” is the starting point: the way of fruitful discipleship. Making intimacy with Christ your summit goal will be simple because you need to travel light if you’re going to travel at all. It will be hard because it requires letting go of stuff the majority carry with them daily, stuff like self-medicating when disappointed, and being defined by consumerism and what we own, and feeding on a diet of entertainment rather than creativity. It’s beautiful because the glory of meeting Christ in thin and unpolluted air will ravish you. It’s ugly because you want to quit due to pain, more than once.
Where on this mountain called discipleship, are you headed? If it’s the summit of intimacy, know that it takes more than the right gear. It takes traveling light, endurance, and a hunger for the summit of knowing Christ like a lover. Who’s in? The rest of you? Enjoy the telescopes and ice-cream. I’ll see you later.
O God of the summit invitation
Thank you for inviting us to ascend utterly. Stir in our hearts a discontent for the tourist faith that’s commonplace, where signing a card and signing a song, substitute for radical discipleship. Fill us with a longing for the summit instead, and teach us to travel light, shedding the fears, bitterness, lusts, and attachments that the whole world seems to carry on its collective back this days. When we tire, give us the grace to take next steps, and rest, and celebrate beauty. But may we never, ever turn back short of knowing you fully.
It’s Advent, and that means there are daily reports on the success of our national goal to “shop ’til we drop”. Black Friday’s off a bit from previous years, and the experts declared over the weekend that it was because more people would be shopping online, on “Cyber Monday”. That also came and went, with less than expected results, and so now new theories are being spun, about people waiting for “super deals” closer to Christmas. Whatever. I no longer care—because as a pastor, I have bigger concerns.
That’s because I live in a different world. I live in a world where I know more and more people who are coming out of closet; they’re gay, Christian, and wanting to find the grace and acceptance of Christ in their churches. I live in a world where black people love Jesus but also feel on the outside of things, not because of Ferguson, but because 400 years is a long time to be sub-humanized, bought and sold, denied the chance to vote, and o so much more, and they’re a bit tired of white people just telling them to “get over it” while the distrust continues. I live in a world where women who have gifts of teaching and leadership can use them in lots of places, but still not in some churches. I live in a world where people I know are deeply divided on how the church should respond to all kinds of things, including mental illness, poverty, and gun violence.
In all these matters, the church is divided, but not just divided, deeply fractured, as evidenced by blogs and discussions this past week about Ferguson, World Vision’s challenges earlier this year, and the inflamed language associated with any attempt at a good conversation around the issues of gun violence.
It’s this deeply divided faith world, with its attendant hateful, sarcastic, and derogatory language aimed at the other side, that’s the biggest issue on my plate these days. This is because I serve in a church that has sought to live faithfully for many generations on the basis of this declaration: In Essentials Unity. In Non-Essentials Liberty. In all Things Charity.
Finding unity seems harder and harder these days, because the list of essentials seems to be growing for most people. Real people of faith need to be for gun control or against it; for same-sex marriage, or against it; for the police, or for Michael Brown. And its vital these days that you not just be FOR or AGAINST —but that do so with enough dogma that the true faith of those on the other side is called into question.
This is not only rubbish, but really very alarming to me for several reasons:
1. Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 4:13 says we’ll keep growing “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” which implies (as reinforced here) that we’re not in a state of unity yet. What’s more, that’s apparently OK, because Paul indicated that in this moment, we see through a glass darkly. That means we don’t have perfect knowledge yet, so we’ll need to keep at this; keep dialoguing, growing, learning, praying.
2. Our division into self-referential communities kills our testimony because Jesus says that it’s our unity that is the best evidence that our faith and life in Christ is real. There’s a unity that comes from uniformity of agreement on ALL things, but this is, at best, an ideal to which we aspire, rather than an experience we’ll be able to attain in this fallen world. But there can be a unity that’s willing to say, “Look. We don’t know all the answers about every doctrinal or ethical issue that comes from following Christ. But we do know this much: Jesus is Lord. He’s the hope for this shattered world. He’s the One we’re committed to proclaiming, loving, obeying, and serving.” Living through this lens, World Vision phone workers wouldn’t have been sworn at and been the objects of cruel hate in the wake of their initial decision last spring.
3. Our self-referential communities allow us to prematurely think we have the moral high ground because, in our smaller worlds of Fox News, or MSNBC, or whatever is the denominational equivalent, we’re in an echo chamber where all our reasoning, assumptions, and conclusions are airtight. As long as we stay inside the echo chamber, we’ll be happy, resting in the delusion that our way is, and always will be, the right way.
How can we approach unity?
1. Get out more – meet people different than you. (By the way, one of the very best reasons to travel.)
Our view of things is all good until we actually meet a person with a different view who, just like us, loves Jesus, prays regularly, and desires nothing more than to be a vessel filled with the life of Christ.
Suddenly, we’ve meet the ones we vilified, and have come to see that we have more in common than we’d ever have guessed. We see that we’d made a caricature of those whose view is different than ours, and that “the other,” looking at the world through a different lens, differs with us for reasons that (gasp) make sense. We’re not persuaded, necessarily, to change our view, but having met the other, we find it harder to label them and shoot them.
2. Embrace the humble belief that you’re not yet perfect.
It’s not that we don’t believe in absolute truth. It’s just that we don’t believe that we’ve yet understood it perfectly, communicated it perfectly, received it perfectly, because our understanding of the world is filtered through the lens of not only the Holy Spirit, but our fallen humanity.
A quick view of history reveals that there have been about a thousand blind spots among Christ followers. We’ve wrongly predicted the date of Christ’s return at least 500 times, taught that blacks aren’t human, justified land theft and colonization, barred women from having a voice in the church, taught anti-semitism, persecuted Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Anabaptists, all in Jesus’ name.
I wonder what our blind spots our today? If you say you don’t have any, then I already know your blind spot, before even meeting you: it’s pride and self-righteousness. So let’s relax and enjoy the dialogue, giving each other space to let Christ continue to teach us without doubting the authentic faith of the other who claims Christ as her own.
“Really? How long should we do that….?”
We’re waiting for the cable car that will haul us up to the Douglass Hut, the base from which we’ll be hiking over a couple of passes to another hut. We’re waiting at the base of the lift, gazing skyward. All we can see are two cables disappearing into the clouds. Eventually one of them begins dancing, then the other, and finally, 150′ above us, we see something mysteriously appearing out of the grey, taking form as the cable car. A horn sounds, and soon the car is “parked” and we step in for a ride upward. Everything quickly disappears as we ascend, and then, moments later, we look down, seeing snow on the brush that rushes by 100 plus feet below us. The snow gets thicker as we go higher until, finally, we’re there: The Lunarsee and Douglass Hut, our home for the night.
We exit the car for one of our shorter hikes, going maybe 100 feet to the adjacent entryway of the Douglass Hut, in howling wind, wet snow, and the capacity to see nothing other than what’s exactly in front of us, moment by moment. This is called “white out” and if you’ve been in the mountains during white out, you know it’s never, ever pleasant. You look at the map, and know that there’s a large lake and mountains somewhere near here, but you don’t really know it in the fullest sense yet, because you only know it from the map. We duck inside out of the cold, check in to our rooms, and are quickly in our room in this “summer only” hut, which means that the dorm’s unheated, which means that on this snowy, windy day, every blanket is cherished while we rest, along with our snow hats.
Later in the afternoon we’ll rise and go spend some time in the dining area, enjoying some good food, hot tea, wine, and reading time. The hours pass quickly actually. In spite of the cabin feverish feel of the place, it’s far from empty. There are guests sitting around talking, drawing, reading, playing games. None of them speak English though, so the two of us are a bit in our own world when, as afternoon turns to evening, I hear a stirring and look up.
The fog lifted! Not a lot, but enough to give reality to the lake we’ve seen on the map and at least the bottoms of the surrounding mountains. People are rushing for their boots so that can get outside with their cameras because God only knows how long the fog will keep her skirt lifted for us like this. All attention has turned outside of ourselves the beauty show offered us.
“So it’s true” I say to myself, as reality comes into view. There’s a sense of delight and relief to the whole situation, and above all else a sense of “We’re glad we came… in spite of the fog!” By the day after tomorrow, we’ll return here to largely blue skies, and celebrate the full beauty of that which was drawn on a map and described, but unknown to us even as we were in it, because our sight was clouded by fog. “This” I say to myself, “is an important moment.”
It’s important because large swaths of our lives, especially our lives of faith, are lived in the midst of a thick fog of suffering, doubt, failure, war, abuse, hunger, loneliness, cancer, addiction. It’s all swirling around, in our own souls or the experiences of those we love, and we can’t see a blessed thing, because only the cursed things are apparent in the moment. “Where’s God?” we ask ourselves, or we ask where hope is, or joy, or meaning. They’re fair questions in the fog because we were promised a lake and we’re really looking hard, but all we can see is fog.
Yes. This is why they call it faith. We have a map that paints glowing descriptions of both the present (in the midst of challenges and trials) and the future (when all tears are gone), and we’re invited to live, not “as if” it’s all true, but to live fully “because” it’s true, and to live into the true-ness of it in spite of the fog. What does this mean?
1. It’s means I’m deeply loved and fully forgiven, in spite of the fog of failure.
2. It means that I’m complete in Christ and filled with His strength, in spite of the fog of brokenness and weakness
3. It means that all enemies have been reconciled, in spite of the fact that we also see the horrors of war and terror, custom delivered to our inboxes every day
4. It means that a day is coming when weapons will be melted down and used as farm tools, and cancer, loneliness, fear, human trafficking, abuse, and oppression will all be done away with forever. It’s down the road a bit, but it’s coming.
Here’s the mystery of the map and fog in a nutshell: (Hebrews 2:8,9)
“God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we see him….!!
I need to believe the map, and live according to the reality of the map while I wait for the fog to clear. This means living in a posture of thanksgiving for what is true, even when the fog is swirling so thickly that I can neither see or feel it. The result of this posture of heart has led people to joy and peace, even in the midst of the storm.
Two quotes speak to this powerfully:
“Don’t struggle and strive so, my child.
There is no race to complete, no point to prove, no obstacle to conquer for you to win my love.
I have already given it to you.
I loved you before creation drew its first breath.
I dreamed you as I molded Adam from the mud.
I saw you wet from the womb.
And I loved you then.” Desmond Tutu
All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Julian of Norwich
Now it’s our turn… to walk into the fog as people of hope because of what we know is true.
We awoke to perfectly clear skies with stunning views of the Alps in every direction. A blanket of low clouds shrouded Innsbruck and the river valleys. Everyone was up early, per the instructions of our host the night before, and we enjoyed a breakfast of meats, cheeses, good coffee, and an egg. Again, as with yesterday, the tables were graced with candlelight, but the lingering conversations weren’t part of this morning, as everyone was eager to hit the trail.
My sunglasses had disappeared the night before, and this, along with some other things, meant that we were nearly the last people to leave the hut, starting our hiking at 7:45. We immediately caught a ridge, already high above treeline, and began making our way south and up. Up. Up! Up!!
This is the section of the via-Alpina about which we know absolutely nothing, having only the map, but no narrative description due to our change of plans stemming from Italy’s holiday crowds. Had we troubled ourselves to look more intently at the route we would have realized that we were in for a quite challenging day. The trail follows a high ridge up and down, seemingly endlessly, as we capture seven different summits and crosses along the way. But what the map can’t tell you is the extent to which the route demands some basic rock scrambling skills. There are places of extreme exposure, where a slip would mean a fall of a thousand feet. There are places where the “trail” is narrow, and there’s no protection in spite of the exposure. Other places have steel cables to hang onto for extra security, and there was one steel ladder that needed descending. Hang on or you’ll die!
This kind of travel is taxing in every way, both physically and mentally. As a result, we didn’t make good time at all – the first 5.5 kilometers taking a full 5 hours to complete! That wouldn’t be so bad if that were the end of it, but this was a 15k day, which meant that at the end of all the very taxing ascending and descending (7 crosses!!) we still had a 10k to complete, and this second10k took 4.75 hours! The signs said 7.5 and it had taken us 9.75.
That’s a long day, and we arrived absolutely spent. However, there’s more to the story:
On the previous day, hiking up to our hut, we’d met, and passed, two young girls in their late teens. It was clear that one of them was more highly motivated than the other, but both of them were making their way to the hut, without poles, and wearing denim! We became friends with them in the hut that afternoon, Inga and Feli, from near Frankfurt, both 17 years old. The tour was Inga’s idea as she said, “this is something I want to do, something I want to accomplish for myself, and once I do it, nobody will be able to take it away from me.” She’s a young, determined woman, who speaks English well enough to converse with us. Her friend Feli is along, and much quieter, perhaps because of the language barrier, so I don’t know her motivations.
As we began our hike and its level of difficulty became apparent, I wondered whether the girls would make it or turn back. Soon I realized that the danger of the route would be such that nobody would turn back and repeat the difficult risky moves, so Donna suggested that maybe they’d taken a different route. We were slow, and I watched with some dismay as everyone left the hut before us, and even when we began walking, distanced themselves from us because of their speed. We would be the last people to arrive at the next hut. Thankfully we’d made reservations.
As we achieved our first “summit” (a notch really, because there was no cross) we saw a view of a couple of people not far from us. As we pressed on we soon caught up with… Inga and Feli! It would turn out that we would hike the rest of the route with them.
There’s codependency in this world, and then there’s interdependency. Be careful if you use the word ‘codependent’ too much, because while it might be legitimate, it’s also possible that what you label codependent might stem more from a devotion to utter independence than anything else: trust no one, be vulnerable with no one, receive from no one, give help to others sparingly, if at all.
In this instance, all of us helped each other on the route. It was pure joy to watch Donna’s maternal instincts kick in, along with her commitment to being an encourager, as she became both mom and cheerleader for Inga and Feli. “Make sure you’re staying hydrated!” she’d say in one moment, and then “you girls are awesome” in the next.
Inga, on the other hand, was the model of healthy stoicism. She’d see a difficult climbing move that needed to be made, or another summit yet ahead, and sigh deeply. Then, after a moment of silence, she’d simply say: “and yet we must do it” in a German punctuated, matter of fact, accent, that made you actually want to do it. Though we’d have continued anyway because going back on this somewhat treacherous route would have felt like a death sentence, Inga made continuing much more palatable.
I was wondering if I had anything to contribute to this little thrown together foursome, until we encountered a brief snowfield across which we needed to traverse. This was a high stakes 30 meters, for a mis-step would have led to a rapid, out of control snow descent to waiting rocks below.
These girls knew nothing of this and had no poles, so I, being out front in the moment, surrendered one of my poles to Feli, and explained snow traverse to the girls. “Put the weight on your heel” I said, showing them by example in case language failed, “and plant your pole too” The girls nodded, and Feli took her first step without event, but by her third, landing on her toes first, she’d begun to slip and used her pole to prevent failing, swearing in German as I’d come to recognize these days on the trail. The rest of her steps were perfect and she and Inga both crossed the snow without event.
We became friends with the girls along the final 10k, and it was there that Donna learned that Feli, too, had a sense of stoicism about her, as she revealed that someone had taken the wrong boots this morning, so that she was wearing her brand of boot, but in the wrong size! That might not sound like a big deal, but you try achieving seven summits in one day with shoes that 1 size too large!
When we finally arrived, we enjoyed a meal with these two, and exchanged email before they left for their next journey while we stayed an extra night at this hut to recover.
I have blisters. Donna has a bit of pain in her joints. We not sure we’ll have all the stuff it takes to do the long days of the via-Alpina if there are too many of them like this “seven summits” day, but the huts, and trails, and the mutual interdependency are all rich blessings that make the blisters worth it – step by step.
I spoke with a couple last week who lost their child to cancer at the age of six. As we talked of loss, change and challenge, she reminded me that about 85% of the marriages where a child suffers a disability end in divorce. This, I presume, is because of the tremendous gap between how we thought life would unfold, and how it actually unfolds.
Where’s your gap? Job change, or joblessness? Health challenges? A relationship evaporating before your eyes? Unexpected financial hardships? Whatever the issue, our response is vital to our continued transformation, to our movement in the direction of joy, peace, wholeness.
The notion that we’ll escape these unforeseen changes is fantasy. A quick glance through the Bible reveals otherwise. Abraham left home. Moses went home. David became King, lost the throne because of his son’s coup, and then came back. Let’s not forget the fallout from wars as sons were lost, families torn apart. Job lost everything. Peter changed vocations to follow Christ and was eventually martyred. It’s not just that these people suffered. It’s that they all lived in families that paid the price too. Change comes knocking, and it opens the door whether you want to let it in or not It’s what you do with it that matters (tweet this)
I’ve been thinking about this recently because this upcoming trip to the Alps, as amazing as it will be, wasn’t the original plan. The plan, in less than two weeks, was to head down to southern Oregon and hike the Pacific Crest trail back home, or even further, to the Canadian border, if time permitted.
My friend’s paragliding death in the Alps eventuated in a change of plans, because he directed a Bible School with which I’m closely tied. When the new director called and we chatted last September about the upcoming year, I knew I was to go over and help out. So, two weeks from today, I’ll be teaching the Bible school and hiking with students high into the Alps. My wife will be with me and we’ll separate from the students for a few days before meeting back up after hiking the “Bible smuggler’s Trail” (I’ll post about that later), speaking at graduation, and then beginning our long hike through the Alps.
The plan was solitude – The reality will be otherwise , we’ll find ourselves sleeping in bunkhouses and waiting for showers.
The plan was wilderness – The reality is that the Alps have been civilized for a thousand years, and so we’ll be learning more about the history of World Wars, religious wars, and tribalism, than we will about traveling through the wilds of our unoccupied Cascades.
The plan was to hang food in the trees so that bears can’t get to it. Now we’ll be buying food at each hut, and it will be far better than the freeze dried stuff that would have been reconstituted each night in the wild.
It was going to be this… now it’s that.
It was going to be a life together. Now there’s been infidelity and he/she doesn’t want to rebuild. It was going to be comfortable retirement. Now, after losing everything in the ’07 meltdown, I’ll be working into my 70’s. It was going to be the lush green and mild climates of Seattle. Now I’m living in Phoenix. It was going to be a small, simple, rural ministry. Now it’s urban, and complex, and 3500 people.
Yes, I know the illustration’s weak, because the choice between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Alps is like choosing between Filet Mignon and Copper River Salmon. “All right God… I’ll go to the Alps! Force me!” Suffering? Disappointment? Get real.
Still, while a hike in the Alps isn’t, in the least, disappointing (how could it be?), it does require an adjustment, and the postures enabling us to adjust are, in the end, the same, no matter how joy filled or painful our unintended changes:
Availability – When God calls to Abraham in Genesis 22, his answer is “Here I am”, a Hebrew word (Hineni) which implies availability and a willingness to embrace whatever God brings to us. This stands in stark contrast a word Abraham could have used, “I’m here” (Poh) which would have meant: “Tell me what you want me to do and then I’ll decide my answer.”
My wife sometimes says, “Will you do me a favor?” and though the right answer is “Yes”, I often blurt out “What do you want?”, as if to say that I don’t trust you enough to give a preemptive yes, because I’m afraid of what you’ll ask. I wonder how much richer our lives would be if our posture, vis a vis the God who loves us, would be “Hineni” rather than “Poh”?
A phone call from Austria was all it took to set in motion a drastic change of plans. All of us have had far more profound phone calls, from doctors, spouses, parents, that rocked our world. Our willingness to inhale and embrace what’s on our plates rather than railing against the universe can make all the difference between a life of joy and bitterness.
Honesty – There was no mourning or loss over the change of plans, from Pacific Crest to Alps. The same can’t be said for many other changes life brings. The parents of the little girl who died of cancer, the wife of my friend who died paragliding the Alps, the other who lost his business; these are utterly unwelcome changes. They’re a reminder that we leave in a world of dissonance as the chords of beauty, peace, and health, clash with the unwelcome intrusions of disease, loss, war, poverty, injustice. We’re right to mourn, as Job teaches us, or David, or Jesus.
It’s no good pretending that unwelcome change is welcome, no good painting over it with some spiritual language about God being “all good – all the time” God may be all good all the time, but this world is messed up. So weep, for God’s sake, and your own. This is the best way forward.
Acceptance and Gratitude – Acceptance and gratitude were layups for me with this whole “Alps instead of Cascades” plan. In real life, though, change that forces its way through the door, ultimately requires a measure of acceptance if we’re to avoid shriveling up and becoming bitter people in the end. Acceptance is born out of facing the reality that this intrusion is in my life. Eventually, after a spouse dies, or we lose a job, or a house, or certainly with lesser intrusions, we say, “All right then… this is the way of it. Let’s go.” Fail to get there and you’ll spend the rest of your days in regret.
This acceptance, finally, leads to gratitude, not for the unwelcome change, but for the good that can and usually does come out of it. Voices as diverse as Victor Frankl and Jesus Christ have taught us that, in the end, our gratitude is born from the faith that God is well able to bring beauty of ashes, hope out of despair, and a strange divine strength out of the darkest moments in our lives. So we thank God, not for the change, but for what God will do because of it.
My oldest daughter is a Seattle Pacific Alum and writes from Germany this morning as she ponders the tragic shootings here in Seattle and the empty pages in the books that are the lives of her juniors in high school, encouraging each one to fill the pages with hope. Her words about being grounded hope in the midst of bitter realities are appropriate, not just in Germany, but right here, right now, in Seattle. May peace be upon us as we grieve and hope — here are her thoughts:
As my first period takes the first final of Exam Week, I’m reading news updates from Seattle, where a gunman recently opened fire on the campus of my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Yesterday, I read this letter to my students, promising that while the general discontent of American Literature is an honest response to the real suffering inherent to human life, we have better dreams, rooted in the love of a Creator who cares for us. This seems appropriate this morning, as I consider the broken world in which we live, and mourning with and praying for peace of those who are suffering in my home city, halfway around the world.
My Dear Juniors,
Happy last day of school! I know as well as you that there are a few more hurdles to conquer before we’re officially in Summer World, but as today is the last day of regular classes, it will have to do for a farewell, for now. For some of you, this is a first last day. For others, there have been more than ten, but I win this game, at least in present company. This is my nineteenth last day of school. I don’t expect that you’ll all become teachers, but for those who will, I’ll tell you that even on the nineteenth time, it doesn’t get old. The last day of school is still relaxing, the first one still thrilling, and snow days still a magical treat made of time and ice. It’s a good life I still get to live alongside you.
I used to be jealous of Ernest Hemingway, specifically the version of his life he portrayed in A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his early years in Paris. He described a life of simplicity, a pleasant parade of words, food and sunshine. I wanted that. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I have everything he has, and more. I am richer than Hemingway. Because for him, the picnics on the Seine, the trips to the Alps, the attic in which to write, these things were as good as it got. We’ve been blessed so richly, students, given this time and place in which to learn and grow, yet even when we leave this quiet, emerald valley, the glory doesn’t end. We go on living and learning, growing in peace and joy as we follow Christ down the wildly divergent paths ahead of us.
Coming once again through the brightly whimsical postmodern gates at the end of our (literary studies) journey together, I notice that the path of American Literature has hardly been a happy one. Though I enjoy every book we share, I know that none of them—not one—offers a picture of wholeness, peace or joy. While the Thoreaus of the world are hiding in their cabins, watching even the ants wage war with one another, the Steinbecks are still pestering us with the suspicion that human life is full of trouble and disappointment, that sometimes even the simplest dreams are out of reach.
Of course, we know all this. We know that life is full of both beauty and brokenness. Christ promised us that, while we live in this world, we’ll “have trouble. But take heart!” He continued. “I have overcome the world.” Having come to love and respect you, my students, I wish I could promise smooth roads to success, romantic dreams-come-true for all of you, but at the end of this year of sad and lovely literature, the true triumph is that these aren’t our stories. Though we’ll all encounter setbacks and disappointments, I’m confident that each of your futures, bound up in the unspeakable imagination of our Creator, is better than a house of your own, stronger than rabbits, more realistic than time travel, and more complicated than the most postmodern plot sequence.
Wherever you go, this summer or a year from now, take heart in the knowledge that you bring with you wide eyes to see the world around you, and strong hearts, full of the joy of Christ, with which to serve and love it. I am incredibly proud of the vibrant young people who you are becoming, and eager to see Christ’s work in you.
Peace in Christ,
Kristi Gaster (you can follow her writings here)
I’m presently reading a book about the importance of opening oneself to direct encounter with creation, in preparation for a 40 day hike in the Alps this summer. The author offers some of the best prose I’ve digested in a long time, but more significantly, exposes the frightful momentum in our culture towards a disembodied existence, spending most of our lives shielded by houses and screens from what God teaches us through cold and heat, wet and dry, light and dark, seasons.
David Abram recalls his childhood of embodied movement, interacting with nature, wild eyed with wonder as he listened to frogs, waded in creeks, and got drunk on looking at the stars. Then, in high school, he writes about hitting the books: “The prescription for my eyeglasses got stronger, while my skin wondered what’d become of the wind that used to explode past my face as I cycled the alleys and narrow woodlands…” He continues: “As I reflect on it now, it seems that my skin became less porous, less permeable to the abundant life that surrounds, as my conscious self steadily withdrew its participation from sensuous nature and began to live more in a clutch of heady abstractions.”
Why do we withdraw into walls, into our shells, into our heads? Abram posits our fear of death leads to creation of sanitized worlds so that we won’t be reminded of our impermanence. We’ve worked hard to create an alternate, techno/industrial reality in which we’re shielded from the moment by moment truth that we not only eat food; our bodies are ultimately food for others. Because this is terrifying to us, we build great systems to both stall death and hide it from our collective consciousness. He says this so well: “We cannot abide our vulnerability, our utter dependence upon a world that can eat us”.
Our attempts to avoid the truth, however, have come at a cost on several levels. Withdrawal from nature cuts us off from a source of revelation that’s healing and life giving in its own right, but more importantly, invites us to lives of gratitude and celebration, ultimately inviting us to Christ himself.
Fear of death keeps us locked up. Mosquitoes, ticks, bears, lightning, slipping on rocks, fast streams, cold, sunburn, heights. They’re all a threat. Why bother when you play Wii, stay indoors, and live to tell about it. The homeless, financially shipwrecked, mentally ill – these too are perceived as threats to our so called secure lives, and so we stay away. A bible study’s easier, in the comfort of the like minded. Thus does the bigger world, which not only heals and delights, but also hurts and terrifies, remain distant from most our daily lives. We’ve built a fortress and we’re hiding: from risk and our own suffering and mortality.
This alternative comes at a great price. Abram writes, “only now do we notice that all our technological utopias and dreams of machine mediated immortality may fire our minds but they cannot feed our bodies. Indeed, most of our transcendent technological visions remain motivated by a fright of the body and its myriad susceptibilities.” Or, to quote the bible, “through fear of death (humanity) has been subject to slavery…”
I love it when people who don’t show signs of having my same faith are saying the exactly what Jesus is saying: Fear of death will kill you early. You might live longer in terms of days, but surely not in terms of quality, because the reality is that everything worth doing in this life requires risk.
Crossing social divides requires risk, and we make the gospel real and visible when we take this risk because a core message is that the dividing walls are being broken down.
Living generously requires risk, because it means letting go of resources, whether time, energy, money, to be a blessing to others and as an act of worship, instead of storing them away for later or spending them on ourselves.
Getting out so that God can speak to you in creation requires risk, and this too has been a central reality in the lives of people who make the good news visible, from Abraham, to David, to Jesus, to Paul. Only in very recent history has our world so elevated convenience and safety that we can now live in climate controlled comfort 24/7, bug free, dirt free, and ostensibly risk free.
Recognizing that you are part of a life cycle and that someday you’ll be food, even as today you enjoy food, requires courage, but of course we see that Paul considered dying to be gain, not loss, and so was able to live fully, freely, boldly.
That passage quoted a few lines up, from the book of Hebrews in the Bible, is set in a context which basically offers the remarkably good news that we ca be free from the fear of death, and hence free from slavery to the Matrix that is our techno/industrial world.
How am I freed from the fear of death?
By entering eternal life now. – The future of wholeness, joy, and generosity that God is bringing as the climax of history is already here for all who want it. Embracing God’s reign now means that death is not a transfer of citizenship so much as a movement home to the fullness and wholeness of that which we now only know in part.
By embracing the reality of mortality. I was chatting with a friend on Monday who said that his dad, when in his 90’s, skipped a surgery that would have prolonged his life a few months and in the end, his choice was rooted in the belief that life goes on.
By cherishing the gifts of each day for what they are: foretastes of eternity. Crossing social divides, loving unconditionally, giving generously, and sleeping under the stars are all cut from the same cloth called “abundant life” and all of its available by entering eternity now.
I slept on the sofa last night in the place where I go to study and write sometimes because it was snowing. Maybe its because I grew up where it never snowed; or because the smell of fir trees remind me of my happiest childhood memories; or because my wife is at her very happiest in a snowstorm. I don’t know the deep reasons why, but I love snow, so when it’s falling at night I lay on the sofa and turn the lights on outside so I can tilt my head to just to the right a bit and see infinite white flakes falling slowly from the sky. They represent covering, and hope, and beauty, and the waters of sustaining life when they melt later.
On that same sofa, a tilt of the head to the left and I see the fire, which represents warmth, safety (when confined in the firebox), and a sense of reward. I say reward because this heat is earned by thinking ahead.
Acquiring wood happens because I sharpened my chain saw chain, felled some trees with a neighbor and cut them into 18 inch long rounds, hauled the rounds, split them, hauled the split wood so it could be stacked in the meager sunlight it needs to dry, hauled it again to the deck just before first snow, and now haul it inside, piece by piece, for burning. Each peace represents time outside, working for heat, for heart, for health. The whole thing takes at least six months, and its best if the drying period includes two summers! The wood I’ll stack this June will burn best in the winter of 2016.
Proverbs 6:6-8 tells us to consider the ant, learn from her ways, and be wise. The ant, without any supervisor, org chart, performance evaluation, or any other metric holding her feet to the fire of day to day diligence, still does her work. This, the author tells us, is worth imitating. What does the ant, and firewood gathering have to teach us about the rest of life?
1. There should be a big picture. I should, in other words, have some semblance of an idea what I’m doing here on this planet. If I’m a parent, then I’m serving, blessing, empowering, and loving, young lives that will, I hope and pray, grow into flourishing adults who love God and people, and are equipped to bless the world. If I’m a teacher, I’m learning so that I can share, so that others can grow and be transformed. If I’m an artist, I’m creating so that other can be comforted, or shaken awake from the complacency, and smitten by beauty. Construction? Business owner? Administrator? Electrician? Nurse? We are, each of us, a mix of strengths, gifts, passions and these things, taken together, constitute a call, the answer to the question “Why am I here?”. It’s fine to wrestle with that, because such wrestling is surely part of every person’s journey, and the questions will, themselves, help solidify the answers. If you’re in that searching phase, I’d encourage you to listen to a talk I gave years ago entitled, “Yes and No: Finding Your Voice in the World.” It’s a vodcast, available in the itunes store for free.
2. There should be a knowledge of next steps. All right. I know why I’m here, and part of why I’m here is to provide warmth for my home and family (along with bigger callings like leadership, teaching, writing). If I’m going to live faithfully in any of these areas, there will be next steps to take, each of which will move me closer to the big call. If the vision if a fire on a cold winter’s night, a next step in the summer is cutting, then splitting, then stacking, then hauling. Every next step is taken because of the big picture, and knowing those steps and having the skill to take them are essential because without the little next steps, the big picture remains forever just an idea. I’m convinced that this is where we often fall down. We want to write a book, or start a company, or move our church toward a vision of health, or run a marathon. We have a vision! But vision, without clarity regarding next steps, isn’t really a vision at all, it’s a wish, a fantasy.
3. There needs to be a focus. If the big picture vision is important enough, then the next steps you need to take rise to the top of the priority pile. Because fire is vital in winter, it’s more important than rock climbing in the summer. Because writing is important, it sits above watching playoff basketball on the priority list. Because I’m a teacher, I’m not a great skier. Paul tells Timothy that he needs to “fan into flame” the gift he’s been given, which is a way of saying we need to know our big vision, know our next steps, and make taking those steps the most important parts of our days, every single day. When we try to become twenty things, we’ll become nothing at all. Recognizing our finiteness is, perhaps, the most liberating truth most of us need to learn.
4. Meet your new friend named Tedium. Standing on the summit, or wearing the marathon medal, or attending your children’s college graduation, or your own 50th wedding anniversary; these events (or others like them) are the things we want on the highlight reel of our lives, and that’s all well and good. But that marriage, and those kids graduating are the fruit of thousands of diapers changed, dishes cleaned, little games attended, tiny courtesies extended, bicycles repaired, oils changed, checkbooks balances, debts discussed, taxes payed, wood split, commute endured. Most of life, it seems, consists of these seemingly mundane events, and yet its how faithfully and fully engaged we live there, in the land of tedium, that determines whether we’ll endure over the long haul. For me at least, I’m best able to coexist with tedium when I do three things:
1) keep the big picture in mind – I’m not reading “Stop that Ball” for the 563rd time because the plot is so compelling; I’m investing in a life. I’m not covered with pitch and sweat because I love hauling wood; I’m creating warmth in the winter. When we tie daily living to the big picture its easier to press forward.
2) practice the art of presence – time flies by when the only thing I’m thinking about is “this piece of wood” or “this paragraph” or “this observational study of the parables” or “this staff meeting”. I’m convinced that this too is where many of us fall down. We have the vision. We know the next steps. And then we get bored. While bored, facebook or the email pings, or we just start surfing the net, or dialing into to Colbert or Fox news, depending on your generation and outlook. The point, though, isn’t the quality of the distraction; the point is that we allowed ourselves to be robbed of the chance to contribute to the bigger story God wants to write, because we didn’t like the step we were needing to take in the moment, so we stopped our progress and threw some time over a cliff.
This summer, when my wife and I hike in the Alps, the route will be filled with steps we don’t want to take, because they’re just another tedious step in a line of a million, or because the next step is terrifying (some routes in the Alps literally have ladders attached to rock faces – more later). But the steps simply must be taken if we’re to reach our goal. Learning that discipline of taking next steps because of the big picture isn’t just a hiking thing, or a writing thing, or a fire thing – it’s a life thing.
What’s the hardest part for you: big picture, knowing next steps, making friends with Tedium?
What resources can you recommend to help others on the journey.
Fear is a net which evil casts over us that we might become ensnared and fall. Those who are afraid have already fallen. D. Bonhoeffer
I went for a tiny little run this morning around the lake by my house, grateful for health, grateful for the remarkable hope I hold for, literally, all of humanity, because of Christ, and grateful for the beauty that attends the newness of the morning. Running this morning, of course, I’m mindful of the many thousands who’ll be churning out their miles through the streets of Boston today, proud that there are at least two members of my own church who are there. Boston is the ultimate in marathons, and this year’s is unlike any other because of the tragic events of last year. This is the year when the runners, the fans, and the city of Boston declare that fear can be vanquished, that lost limbs needn’t stop runners from pressing on, that people in wheelchairs can offer hope to family members of last years victims, that every step is raising money to stand in the gap and support PTSD veterans, and families with children fighting cancer, and more; that runners say, over and over again, that they’re being carried by the spirit of the crowd. The whole thing is a reclamation project, a way of showing fear the door, slamming it shut, and sending fear on its merry way to hell.
I love finding the image of God and snapshots of the gospel in everyday life, and today its not hard to do. Fear is both a chief enemy of humanity, and one of Satan’s favorite and most often used tools. The events of today are rooted in a public groundswell acknowledgement of this, and every runner, every fan, every dollar given in support of causes to serve those on the margins, testify to the reality that fear is an enemy that can be vanquished.
Simply acknowledging this is a huge step, but the good news of the gospel includes several declarations regarding why fear need never shrink our lives.
1. We’re freed from the fear of death, according to this declaration. I have friends who have stared death in the face for their faith. Their belief that death isn’t the end of the story enabled them to live with courage and integrity in the face of persecution. Some of these friends escaped death and others didn’t. All of them, though, lived with integrity to the very end, believing that death isn’t the end of the story. Everything many of us celebrated yesterday is rooted in this reality, and if it’s not a reality for us, the fear of death will creep into our lives and create a terrible prudence, shrinking our concerns to the very private and personal, rather than the large outwardly focused hearts of generous service for which we’re created. I need to live every day intent on doing the right thing, because that matters more than the outcome, even if the outcome is death.
2. We’re freed from ever being alone. The first time I taught a Bible study, the text was Joshua 1:1-9, and the final declaration of that section shook my world that day I studied in preparation for teaching a small group of high school students in Fresno: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” The reason we’re called to courage is because God has promised to be with us, ‘wherever we go’. I tell people I never fly alone, and they say, “So your wife goes with you on all your teaching trips?”
“No” I say, and when they look at me for more; “Jesus always goes with me – he travels coach too!” That reality has served me well these past 40 years, because I’ve learned, through the untimely deaths of many friends and family, that our companions for our journey aren’t necessarily always able to with us. Sometimes they even stop wanting to be with us, as relationships drift apart. My dad; a favorite associate pastor at the church I lead (cancer); one of my best friends (paragliding accident); another close mountaineering friend (avalanche). You never know. One thing I do know, though, is that I’ll never be alone. That’s why I take coffee with God so seriously, and nurturing the reality of companionship with Christ. Our fear of being alone sometimes leads us into unhealthy relationships, or shabby substitutes for real intimacy, both of which can suck the joy and hope out of living. How much better to begin with the reality and confidence of companionship with Christ.
There are a host of other fears from which we’re freed because of the power, beauty, and truth of the gospel, but I simply offer these two in order to prime the pump of your own thinking. Because God loves us, God hates to see us enslaved to fear – ever. As runners cross the finish line today, I’m celebrating the image of God in humanity, and realizing once again that the best lives in history were those who gave fear the boot. As my favorite pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said so well:
It is not only anxious fear that is infectious, but also the calmness and joy with which we encounter what is laid on us.
O thou Christ;
What a privilege to be reminded this day and every day, that we’re at our best when we do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Thank you for the many provisions granted us in you which enable to us to choose courage rather than fear. Grant that we might hear your voice and, having heard, move with confidence into the future you have for each of us, clinging to you every step of the way and finding the joy and confidence that are ours in you. This way we will be people of hope in a world still trembling, most days, with fear. Thank you for the adventure awaiting us as we follow you every step of the way – and thank you for the marathon.
I wake up this morning in Colorado and, as is typical, make my coffee and then go to my ipad where I catch up on the news before reading my Bible. It’s just getting light as I scan the news, the craziness that is Ukraine. Last night on the newshour, a professor of Russian studies said, “even if you’re not religious, you should be praying, because if this becomes war, all bets are off.” Toss in some stuff about Syrian refugees, and I’m mindful that our world is filled with suffering, and though the cup seems overflowing already, still there’s more pouring in, moment by moment, as lives are plunged into war, hunger, poverty, trafficking, disease.
I read my scriptures for the day, something about nations and kingdoms fighting against each other, and food shortages, and epidemics. It’s a reality, of course, as the news a few seconds earlier corresponds with Jesus’ timely words.
Then I turn around, and there’s a sunrise happening that can’t be described, because it’s not just the colors: it’s the cold, it’s the clarity of the air, it’s the silence, it’s the raw beauty, and significantly, it’s the fact that I am here – in this place, and not there, and any of those places I’ve read about this morning. I’m awestruck, but conflicted at the same time.
“Why am I here” is the question that haunts me, and at many levels there’s no answer. There are responses though, and some of them aren’t helpful.
Guilt isn’t helpful. We’re here, in wealth and, relative to most of the world, peace and safety. There are hard working, honest people throughout the world who are victims of oppression and injustice, so the causal sense that we’re here instead of there because we’re better must be evicted from our thoughts. Equally wrong, though, is a sense of paralyzing guilt, a sense that we, for some reason ought to be there and not here.
Fear isn’t helpful. Our collective narcissism is evident when the questions and comments of journalists extend no further than how the events over there affect our “self interest here” It can be strangely dis empowering to watch various parts of the world collapse around us, filling us with anxiety about whether we’ll be next, and how we should arm ourselves for protection. But no, over and over again, Jesus tells us that he’s warned us about these things precisely so that we ‘will not fear’, which is the message that heralded Christ’s birth, and rings throughout his ministry for our benefit and well being. We need to give fear a swift quick.
Isolation isn’t helpful. “Not my problem” we see, as we change the channel to some rerun, or go out for a run, or pour another glass of Merlot. It’s far too easy to believe that the stuff that over there is outside the sphere of our influence and should therefore be outside the sphere of our concern. This, as we’ll see, misses that mark. I’m surprised at how many people no longer digest the news because it’s simply “too depressing”.
To the extent that we allow these mindsets to carry the day, our worlds will shrink down into petty preoccupations with our own personal survival, or crippling depression and anxiety. One need only read the Bonhoeffer story or this favorite diary read from WWII to realize how tempting these options are. Gratefully, there’s a better way:
Instead of guilt, gratitude. Every sip of cold water, every good night kiss, every moment of this very precious life. It’s vital to recognize that our culture is well beyond the boundaries of comfort, having become guilty of lavish excess, and surely guilty of increasing injustice too. Gratitude though, is for the fact that there no bombs on the roadside, that people gather in public places to express their views, mostly without fear of reprisal, that there’s food on the table and the possibility of friendship, love, education. It’s far from perfect, but there’s much for which we can be grateful. This is a starting point to living here well.
Instead of fear, hope. It might sound shallow and cheap to offer hope from the scriptures for those living and dying in the midst of suffering, but what other hope is there? Nations will rise and fall. Justice will ebb and flow. People will die in the crossfire, and the friendly fire, and the forest fire. And those of us who escape these ravages? We’ll die too, and it will always be inconvenient, and seem wrong.
This tired script, though, is coming to and end. History is headed towards a new script, where every molecule is shot through with the glory of King Jesus. You know, the one who loved lepers, and women of the night, who told stories that hinted his kingdom would be utterly other – a place where the lame, blind, oppressed, broken, would not only find healing, but a place at the table with the king – a place where all war, and cancer, and rape, and genocide, and AIDS, and tribal divisions will vanish in the flames of a just judgement, leaving nothing but healing and joy in its wake. MARANATHA… it can’t come soon enough.
But until it does, it’s our calling to live as people of hope. If the sun’s not yet fully up, we are, nonetheless, called to be the Colors of Hope – the sunrise foretelling a better world. This isn’t about a short term mission trip; this is about a total overhaul of our values so that our daily lives embody, in increasing measure, the very hope of which Jesus spoke. That way, Jesus is no longer a theory – he’s a living king, and our lives reflect his reign. That’s the best response I can think of to the nightly news.
Instead of Isolation, Prayer. We feel helpless, watching the news like that. We’re not. We can pray, believing that God intervenes in history in response to the prayers of God’s people. Years ago, a dear friend whose husband was a British Major in WWII showed me the program from a prayer service held in London after the war. In it, there were quotes from Churchill, Roosevelt, and other spiritual and national leaders, calling the nations to prayer. There were even specific prayers offered, having to do with weather. History tells us (I believe) that God intervened. Prayer matters.
Of course we’re not necessarily called to spend all of every day in prayer, interceding for each nation and activity. That would take us out of the game. Instead, we’re invited to live lives that are permeable enough to let God in, to let God break out heart over some specific thing, whether its Sudan, Congo, Crimea/Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, homelessness, sexual slavery, or something else in the seemingly endless list of brokenness. Maybe all you can do is pray over the thing that breaks your heart. But prayer’s a big deal, or so we say we believe. And of course, we could all pray this a little bit more, since Jesus taught us to do so:
May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen? Amen!
I welcome your thoughts.