I started a little vacation about a week ago. The plan was to hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife of nearly 37 years. This kind of space would provide the kind of beauty and clarity needed for me to see far into the future (“Do you have a five year plan?” someone asks me) and so be able to prepare for it. After all, we learn from an early age that life’s about setting goals, envision a future, and then going after it with all the gusto we can muster. This is all well and good, perhaps, if you know exactly what your future is to be, but as one grows older assurances about the future become harder to assess. There are too many wild cards. Health. Money. The shelf life in one’s profession. Needs out there which you might be able to help meet. Your own need for rest. Desires to write. Or travel. Desires to keep doing what you’re doing.
The options are dizzying, and unknowable. Still, I thought the space of hiking through the wild would grant clarity; that I’d come home with needed understanding and some goals to pursue, marching orders for the next chapter. Mercifully that whole line of thinking fell off a cliff somewhere below Cathedral Rock on day two of our hike.
Instead, clear as the mountain peaks around me, I was granted the realization that two realities must be in place in order for any of us to move toward the life for which we’re created. What are they?
1. We need right motives for what we’re doing. Proverbs 16:2 says that “people may be pure in their own eyes, but the Lord weights the motives”. This is a stunning statement because we tend to look at a person’s pursuits as indicative of their wisdom, and the quality of their life. Look at the triathlete and you think, “self discipline”. Look at the person who started that non-profit and you think, “idealistic; devoted”. Look at the rich person with a reputation for generosity: “sacrificial”. It’s all very impressive, and certainly extends to people who work in ministry, or speak for a living, or are super committed to raising ‘excellent kids’. Yes. Let’s be a version of human that causes people to take notice, in a positive way.
And therein, my friends, is the problem because pursuits born out of a desire to be well thought of by others will lead us down the wrong path – every time – even when the pursuit seems noble. So will stuff born out of a desire to please others and avoid their judgement. So will stuff born out of a sense of the overwhelming needs we see, for the there are needs all around us and they will never go away. Ministries and philanthropic organizations are littered with broke down lives who could never say “no” because the need was always there, always hungry, always thirsty, always needing more us. So it’s not the thing itself that offers assurance we’re on the right path. It’s far too easy to justify the nobleness of any pursuit in our own eyes, even in the eyes of others.
“…the Lord weighs the motives” means just that. Pursuits born out of greed, or anger, or need for approval, or fear of rejection, or a desire for comfort, or a desire to prove something to someone – all these will, in the end, melt away. The one thing that matters is this: “What is God asking of me in this particular moment?” I think of Jesus in Mark 1. He’d healed some people and cast out demons, taught them, and hung out at a house ’til late into the night. By the next morning, word of his power had spread and whole town as knocking on the door, wanting to be with him. His response: “Time to move on to somewhere else and preach there. For that is what I came for.” This is impressive to me because it tells me that his motive is, as he says elsewhere, simply to do the will of the one who sent him.
How freeing would that be? For starters, it would free you and me from doing anything out of a FOMO, or any other fear. We’d also be liberated from being driven to action by every need we see, which can only, in the end, result on compassion fatigue in a world where racism, global poverty, sexism, oppression, environmental degradation, family breakdown, health crises, mental illness, and o so much more are knocking at our doors. It’s too much for any one to bear. What’s needed, then, is for each of us to know our part and do it, recognizing that along the way some will view us heartless, too liberal, too conservative, too prudent, too foolish, too ambitious, too lazy, and on and on it goes. If we’re in the right space, we’ll be able to sift this stuff and move forward with our true calling, but doing so requires that we have the second reality in our experience as well as the first one.
2. We need to be secure that we are complete in Christ. If the starting point of my life is that I’m already complete, then I’ve nothing to earn, nothing to prove, and nothing to fear. All my actions, when born from the reality of completion and security in Christ, will be nothing more than saying yes to God’s next step. For Elisabeth Elliot, decades ago, it meant moving back to Central America to live among the people who had murdered her husband, in order to share the reality of Christ with them. For another it means retiring early to care for aging parents. For another it means staying in the same job for 50 years. For another it means moving often. One might write and never sell more than a few thousand books, or less even. Another might regularly make the NYT Bestseller list. One’s a millionaire. Another’s living in a camper van.
Like various flora in the forest, each is fulfilling its calling without the anxiety and compulsion of comparison or fear.
How cool would it be to be secure in the assurance that we’re loved completely, perfectly, infinitely? It would free us to believe that, in Christ, we have a unique role to play in blessing the world, and our one true thing will be to pursue that thing – not out of a desire for fame, or financial security, or to prove to someone how important we are, but simply out of love for the one who has healed us, filled us with life and hope, and given us the chance to participate in blessing a world thirsty for blessing. That’s the life I’m after friends, no matter where it leads.
The good news is that Christ came to fill us with nothing less than his life so that we can enjoy this “confidence of completion”. The bad news is that religion has too often mutated into some sort of performance whereby we’re trying earn approval, from each other, or God, or the church. Sick stuff, really, when you realize the whole point of the gospel was to set us free from that very mindset!!
The hike’s over and the particulars of the five year plan are no less clear. Any anxieties I had about not knowing are gone though. They been blown away by the comforting winds of the Holy Spirit, who has reminded me that I’m complete, already, because of what God has done in Christ. I’m done performing for approval – seeking instead to live a life poured out in obedience to Christ as an act of gratitude for his matchless love.
Does this sound unapologetically Christo-centric? I hope so. People may or may not use the language of Christ, but I’m convinced, more than ever, that a world thirsting for peace, meaning, hope, joy, strength, confidence, beauty, intimacy, and Justice, is a world searching of Jesus.
This week I’m living in the forest, in the San Bernadino mountains of California as I speak at a family conference. As I write, the morning sun is bathing the deck and Sugar Pines, along with a form of Cedar, some oak, and Manzanita, live together as an ecosystem, offering life giving space to squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, bear, and countless other life forms.
Scientists are discovering that humans are also profound beneficiaries of the forest. “Forsest Bathing”, which simply means to walk in a forest and pay attention to your surroundings while doing so, has been shown now, in numerous studies, to have profound health benefits. Lower pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rates are just some of the proven benefits. There are some who believe that prescriptions like this will be seen in the not too distant future.
Though the benefits have been easy to see, it’s been more difficult for scientists to understand and quantify the reason behind these benefits. Is there something in the scent, the Eco-system, the earth itself? Is it simply the contrast provided from the concrete jungle in which many of us find ourselves that makes the forest a healing place? These questions remain, but what’s known in the moment is that a “walk in the woods” isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.
Because of numerous experiences in my own life, I wonder if the power of the forest isn’t spiritual, and therefore unquantifiable with the measuring instruments of science. I say this because my past is filled with countless “forest encounters” with God:
1960’s – As a child I would lie in the middle of a circle of redwoods on the California coast, outside grandma’s house, and look up. The trees would all appear to be converging at a single point in the sky, and the punctuation of variegated greens set against a backdrop of sky blue did something to me. This was peace. Yes that’s it – peace.
1976 – It’s winter. I’m in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Unbeknownst to be, the worst two years of my life are about to come to and end, as a new journey, new calling, and new priorities are born. The death of my dad two years prior had sent me into a state of depression and isolation. I was in the mountains for a winter ski retreat, and when the speaker said “knowing God should be the primary pursuit of every one of you in the room” I knew he was talking directly to me. He’d been reading from Jeremiah 9 in the Bible and when his talk was finished I went out in the freezing air and prayed, in the midst of crunching snow under a million stars. I told God that I didn’t know what it meant, but that I wanted to make knowing God the main goal of my life, just as the speaker had invited me to do. This would lead to a change of major, a change of states, and an entirely different trajectory for my life.
1990 – My wife and young family move to a forested acre in the North Cascade mountains of Washington to begin a retreat center. It is there that I begin identifying with the verses about Jesus going “into the mountains alone to pray”. After a busy time of serving guests, I would depart for the high country, hiking up to some ridge, often alone, to pray, read, reflect, restore. These mountains were made for restoration, or so it seemed to me. Beauty seemed to pour through the atmosphere when I was in them. Glaciers and rocks spoke of timelessness, and I’d be reminded that I’m just here visiting, for a short time, that God’s work has been here long before me and will be long after. I’m reminded that God is the rock, a metaphor offering stability in a tenuous world. The vast distances, from the stars of space, and the surrounding peaks, reminded me that I’m small and that, in the grandness of eternity, so our my problems. The beauty of ever changing colors, the scent of the air, the form of trees, the reflections of mountain lakes… All of it together spoke “shalom”, a visible representation of peace for me. I’d come down the mountain restored, having seen something, having prayed, and having received.
And so it’s gone, year after year, until now, when I have my coffee with God in the mornings, in the midst of forest, wether misty or dry, chilled or heated, breathing in not just the words of the text, as I seek to meet Christ, but the air of the forest, which speaks of eternity and passing moments; vast strength and human fragility; and the breath of peace, offered freely to all who will receive. Things happen in the forest because of who the forest is.
The Church as a Forest
The Church, at its best, functions the same way. We pastors think that the our teaching and preaching is the most important thing in the world, but the reality is that people are often persuaded more by the collective presence of Christ and the atmosphere that creates. Maybe at their best, preaching and environment work together, but at the very least, I’ve encountered many people over the decades whose front door to faith sounded similar to these words…
“No Richard, it wasn’t your teaching that convinced me. It was the community. I’ve never seen authentic relationships where people both accepted each other and pushed each other to grow and change. I wanted to be part of that”
“It was the beauty of the people Richard. When I saw that woman in her 60’s caring for her mother and singing songs of worship with her, it stirred something in me.”
“These people who make up the church – they’re building friendships with prisoners, making meals for the homeless, caring for vulnerable children. They give me hope, and I want in…”
On top of this, there’s often the beauty of gathered worship, the beauty of sacred space, the beauty of confession and vulnerability, and the beauty of restored lives.
So without answers, I simply ponder: Is the church an ecosystem, like a forest, which is life giving when it’s properly fed, and rooted, and located in the appropriate place? I’d like to think so.
However, when the church is place of shelter for misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political fanaticism, arrogance, favoritism of the strong and wealthy, or any other number of ugly things, it’s no longer a healing forest. It becomes a place of death, a prison of sorts. Using the letters C-H-U-R-C-H and singing a bit of Hillsong doesn’t make a church the collective expression of Christ. Only real discipleship does that, and the acid test of true discipleship is simple – am I on a path of embodying more of the humility, service, unconditional love, courageous care for the marginalized, and infinite forgiving grace of Christ? Or am I just singing some songs in a building while still closing my hand to poor, calling people who disagree with me idiots, getting angry with every latest political shot fired, all while pursuing my own personal well being above all else?
Forest, prison, or place of death – how do people experience life in the church?
For the church to be a place filled with the kind of life that God has in mind, some things need to be true for us that are also true for the forest:
1. We need to be an ecosystem. Christ’s vision for the church is that each person within it shares their unique contributions to for the well being of the community. Paul the apostle unpacks this vision and explains that when it works properly, when people experience various aspects of Christ’s beauty and love through various encounters within the community, they will sense the reality of Christ’s presence. This is paramount, because our desire is that people be given the freedom to choose or reject Christ himself, not the kind of caricatures of Christ that misrepresent him by portraying hate rather than love, law rather than grace, performance rather than receiving freely from a posture of brokenness. So we seek, increasingly as a church, to represent the heart of Christ with greater clarity.
2. We need a vision for beauty. My greatest moments of shalom (profound peace) have happened in either the beauty of the wilderness or the gathered community in worship. In the latter cases, it has been the gathered body of Christ, the church, declaring something of God’s character, through worship (Yes…singing matters more than we realize), or acts of service, or prayers of praise or confession, or simply through the power of Christ’s presence so evident in the gathering.
3. We need to believe that, in spite of our imperfections, God will be revealed through our life together. Let’s say that we, as a community, have a passion for mercy, Justice, and love (as I write about here in this book). Let’s see we long for the fruit of the spirit to prevail, in our lives, and our life together. To the extent that these things are true, we’re properly calibrated, heading in the right direction. We can rest, knowing we’re becoming a life giving forest. Of course, there’ll be the need for continual repentance and re-calibration along the way, because we’re not yet the healing, life giving force that we’re fully capable of becoming. But we’re getting there, and that’s enough for us to confidently believe God will use us. (“Abide in me, and you’ll bear much fruit”) is how Jesus said it.
All of this is looks very different than a community arguing about esoteric doctrines and implying that those who don’t believe exactly as our church does are lost and condemned. There are different kinds of forests. Catholics belong to forests. So do Pentecostals, and Baptists, and Presbyterians. No. None of us will agree with everything in every forest. But that’s no reason to start a forest fire. As Paul said, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed. In this I will rejoice.”
When Both Books Speak:
Just two nights ago, I was privileged to serve community to the gathered body of Christ at a family camp. We met in a lovely forest, around a campfire, praying with various people and listening and folks shared what God had been saying to them through the week. Then we finished our time together by singing “How Great Thou Art” an old hymn that includes a verse about walking through the forest and hearing the voice of God speak through the the beauty of creation. We finished singing, as the forest’s movement from light to darkness came to completion, ending with infinite stars hanging in the sky, and silence, save the crickets carrying on. Life. Beauty. Breath. Healing.
YES. Not only receiving all this, but being all this for one another and our world – this is our calling.
NOTE: This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”. I deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post. Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!
August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m. We arrive there feeling strong, whole. Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically. It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut. Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse.
After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut. Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served. If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm.
The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one. The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over.
As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise. Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.”
“High or low?” I ask.
“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction. The trail is on the ridge the whole way.” I smile, nodding. I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”. Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together. I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes. “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning.
I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there. Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete. This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner.
This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills. I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges. My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity. You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash. Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it. Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”. They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.
As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t. As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress. It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread. The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles.
This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit. Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing. There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word. In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death.
For those with experience, this is not intimidating. You simply don’t fall. You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step. For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness. My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge. They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure. On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on.
I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing? This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me. Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face. We must descend it. On the one hand, it’s a ladder. The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much: we can climb down this ladder.
On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent. We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps. Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent. After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise.
So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder. The stakes are high. The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.
It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons. They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope. So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still. There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.
Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially. We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power. We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more. Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.
This is a very small way of living. It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels. The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top. Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before. We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank. By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.
…Except we can’t. As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created. This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management. When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling” It’s sin management. It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy. And worst of all: it’s boring.
In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin. God has a summit for us and it looks like this:
Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31 We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in. This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.
Abundance “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10 This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die. I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing. I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving.
Wholeness “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21 Yes! The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning. The vision is much more positive, more summit like. God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living. The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living. Summits. All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear.
After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure. We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides. It looks daunting, and is. Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”.
Exactly! The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option. I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut. The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck. It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here. No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip. And for this, I’ll be forever grateful.
Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety. We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust. The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain. The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!
The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way. They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets. They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives! They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities. They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so. They rose above the valleys of mediocrity. Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home. But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world. When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential.
Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit? When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits: Fear not – for I am with you!
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”
It’s Friday. That’s meant ski day for 90% of the past four months. I hit the web to see what’s opened, what’s groomed, what’s happening. Dismay: four different ski areas within 2 miles of my house – ALL CLOSED!!
All right then. It will be a day to put on the touring skis, which means attaching friction creating skins to the base of the skis and freeing the heel so that you can ski up the mountain. At the top you’ll peel the skins off, lock down the heel, and in a few minutes ski down what it just took you and hour to go up. Some might call it hard work. I call it discipleship – learning to follow Jesus step by step. Here’s why:
There’s a calling
I cast my gaze to the ridge, the goal, some 1300plus feet above, It’s too far. Too steep. Too much. There’s an immediate visceral reaction, dwelling up a dozen or more excuses why this “isn’t a good day” for this. It’s cloudy – there’s no view to bring me joy. It might rain. I slept poorly last night. The snow’s thick, mushy. Not spoken, but the real reasons: it’s stinking hard work to walk uphill in slushy snow with skis on.
So why go? Here’s the crazy thing. I go because as John Muir said,
“the mountains are calling and I MUST go” – good weather or poor; tired or bursting with eagerness; it matters not, because the mountains themselves really are actually calling. I want to be in them, up them, challenged and transformed by their terrain; ravished and refreshed by their beauty. “I must go”
That’s discipleship too. We see, in the distance, a different life: freed from addiction, or fear, or shame. Or maybe we see a different world because Jesus and the prophets pointed to a world of peace, reconciliation, and the end of human trafficking and disease, to name just a few things. We see it out there in the distance, and we want to go there, be there – and with Christ alive in us, it seems we must take the journey!
That’s part of what calling means. And when that voice from higher up the mountain is calling, I pray you’ll go. There’ll be reasons not to, always, as Jesus warned us. Too busy. Too tired. Too tied down. Too preoccupied with the trinkets acquired by wealth. Your favorite team’s playing today. Theres’s always a reason to stay home, but if you listen carefully enough, you hear the voice of calling, and if hear it…don’t hesitate: go!
There’s a disillusionment –
It doesn’t take long to feel the effort of the journey. There’s something in me that want’s to call it quits about 500 meters in and 100 meters up because breathing is labored, legs are feeling heavy, and sweat is leaking out my skin as a means of cooling me, so that when I stop I’m not cool – I’m cold. “Is it worth it?” “I could be at home reading.” “It makes sense that I’m the only one here. Who does this?” “I could turn around now and nobody would be the wiser.”
And so it goes, in our brains, sometime after we’ve begun our pursuit of Christ too. This is because self-denial, though life giving over the long haul, is wearying in the moment. There are disciplines to discipleship, enough so that the words have the same root, and that root includes the reality of some suffering.
We all suffer. But who suffers willingly? Disciples, apparently, because Jesus said that unless we’re willing to deny ourselves, we can’t be disciples.
If we’re going to deny ourselves, then, we need some compelling vision that will allow us to transcend the gravities which pull us down into self indulgence. The vision for my little ski adventure is the thought that at the end of it there will have been both encounters with beauty and a strengthening of heart – both gifts, yes – but earned with the currency of suffering. Imagine that.
For the disciple, the self-denial and suffering produces strength of heart too, but in a different way. We become people whose lives are increasingly characterized by joy, patience, hope, peace, and generosity. We could quit the journey and indulge ourselves, or press on and enjoy this kind of beauty and transformation. That why vision matters so much. Without a reminder of what’s being produced in me, I simply won’t proceed. It’s the vision of transformation that keeps me going.
There’s a mindfulness –
Moving up steep snow on skis is an acquired skill, and the steeper the snow, the steeper the learning curve. As the initial gradual slope steepens, I’ve no longer any time to think about how painful it is, or whether I want to quit or continue. At its steepest the journey requires total focus: “slide ski upward – shift all body weight to directly above the binding, so as to mitigate risk of sliding backwards – fight the intuitive notion to lean into the mountain, committing to stay upright instead. Repeat”
My favorite hobbies have historically been skiing, rock climbing and fishing because these three disciplines require a total focus, and the total focus has a marvelous way of silencing the chatter of the mind. Such silence is life giving, wisdom imparting, and maturing.
We don’t do it well, if we’re honest. We’re easily distracted by our phones, our tunes, and our screens. And if that isn’t bad enough, when all three are absent, our mind has tricky ways of creating its own chatter, and the price is costly as seen in this excellent book.
Jesus hits on this when he tells us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” It’s his way of inviting us to be fully present. Here. Now. A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said it this way: “When you are overwhelmed and your mind it talking too much, you need to calm down and simply do the next thing.” Indeed. It’s not just a question of getting stuff done, it’s a question of growing wise because wisdom is, at the core, related to our capacity to be “all there” wherever we are, and this is a skill that’s disappearing. I’m not on my cell phone when I need to focus on putting all my body weight above my ski on a 32 degree slope. I’m all in. I’m invited, indeed called, to be “all in” most of the time: conversations made up of real listening and presence, reading, prayer, sharing a meal with friends. We’re at our best and look most like Jesus when we’re doing one thing at a time.
There’s joy –
Step by step (hence the name of this blog) I ascend upward. Step by step in real life means another diaper, another meal, another encouraging word to a co-worker, or a confession, or a moment of hospitality with a neighbor. Like ski touring, no single step seems significant, but every single step matters. This is because our lives aren’t, in reality, highlight reels of profound moments, but a ten thousand regular steps followed by a summit moment.
When I arrive at the top on this Friday, there’s nothing to see.
Fog’s set in, and everything is white other than trees right in front of me. Still, I know it’s been worth it. And there’ll be a different skill set, and a different joy on the way down.
Sometimes, too, your best efforts to follow Jesus won’t result in a highlight reel moment. And then you’ll move on. It’s fine. You know you’ve taken the steps, followed the call, done the right thing. That’s discipleship and the more you do it, the more you know you’ll do it again tomorrow, because there’ll be another calling, and you’ll say yes because its become who you are!
O Lord of the mountains and valleys.
Grant that we might first have ears to hear your call – in the cry of child, a neighbor, a refugee. Give us grace, I pray, not only to hear, but go, and endurance to continue when we feel like quitting. Thank you for the gift and discipline of mindful presence, and the circumstances that help us develop it. May we celebrate those times rather than dread them. And above all, thank you for standing on the mountain with your disciples so that we’re able, here and now, to have a glimpse of the summit that’s worth it all – Your reign made visible in our lives and world. Give us eyes to see it. Every single day.
In your great name we pray…
Behind the holiday lights, both here in Europe and back home in the USA, the waves of unhappy news just keep coming. Colorado Springs. Beirut. Paris. Mumbai. San Bernadino – death dealing violence has become so common its hardly news anymore.
In such times, the events themselves are never the only stressors. There are reactions to the events, or the proposed reactions by politicians and wanna-be presidents that cause reaction too, and then, because we’re all connected, there are our responses to each other’s responses. Gun control or conceal and carry? Religious profiling or open borders? Boots on the ground? Drones in the air? Leave them alone?
These are our debates, and as we’re having them, they usually aren’t pretty. The uncivil dialogue creates yet another stress, as we become ‘houses divided’ even in communities of Christ followers. How good people land on such profoundly different sides on these conversations is a topic for another day. For this day though, I’d suggest that the most important thing Christ followers can do as they seek to form their own convictions on these matters is to make certain that our convictions are formed by things we know with a great deal of clarity from our Bibles. Jesus hasn’t ruled directly whether a ban on assault weapons is a good or bad idea. He didn’t go into detail on what Rome’s immigration policy should be in the 1st century But he wasn’t silent either. Jesus taught us stuff, and it’s the stuff we know that should be our starting point in framing our ethics:
What DO we know?
1. We shouldn’t be motivated by fear
The west is bathed in fear right now, and the fear is giving birth to all kinds of unhealthy responses, ranging from pre-emptive violence against immigrants to amassing weapons and ammo to protect ourselves and our stuff, to blanket condemnations of entire people groups.
It’s important to see that throughout the Bible, if the motive behind our actions is fear, our actions are likely wrong. When the Lord speaks to Joseph about the unexpected pregnancy of his fiance, God tells him to ‘fear not’, and this means he must overcome the natural fear of social consequences and fear of what other people think. The same message to “fear not” comes to Mary, and then later to the shepherds. Everyone is called to simply “do the right thing” and then trust that the consequences of such actions will be in God’s hands.
The problem with fear is that it leads to reactionary responses and often escalates cycles of violence needlessly, and this is the reason we should make certain we’ve slain the fear in our hearts before choosing our course of action, or even making our vote. Fear’s a seductive mistress, often bathed in the rhetoric of patriotism and/or faith, but when stripped to core, it’s still just fear.
2. We’re called to be people of justice
While it’s true that embodying the character of Jesus means turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and laying down our lives for one another, it’s also true that Jesus has a heart for the unjustly oppressed, the downtrodden, and victims of violence whether in Paris or in Syria.
When my pacifist friends tell me that Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, I wholeheartedly agree. What makes our world tricky is the question of how I’m to respond when the lives of others are at stake; my children, my wife, my Muslim or Christian neighbor, innocents celebrating a birthday in a Paris cafe, or gathering for a work party in Santa Monica, the teenage girl sexually enslaved in Asia or Los Angeles due to greed – what should Jesus do here? Maybe more than tweets and prayers.
What does the Lord require of us? Do justice! And then he leaves it to us to figure out what that means. The thing he makes clear is that the justice for which we’re to work is that of others first, more than justice for ourselves.
3. We’re called to be people of mercy
There’s a story in Genesis about Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and God tells Abraham that he will spare an entire city that’s filled with unjust people for the sake of 10 who are righteous.
It seems our conversations these days have become the exact opposite of that. We’re willing to vilify, label, and exclude an entire religious group because of the risk that some few among them might be zealots intent on doing harm. We’ll judge the whole because of the risk of a part being hurtful. Is this mercy?
4. Words matter
Jesus said that by our words we’ll be justified and by our words we’ll be condemned, and then the Apostle Paul followed up on this by twice calling us to watch our language. When we lose civility in our conversations, we also lose credibility. This isn’t to say we should be anything less than honest, forthright, and courageous in what we say. It simply means that the way we say things matters as much as what we say.
Here at the end of this post, I’ve not addressed ethical and political specifics. It’s not because these don’t matter. However before there are ethics, there are motives and priorities which shape those ethics. And now, more than ever, is a time when we need the wisdom of Christ at the core, at the level of motives and priorities.
The Prince of Peace has come. God with us! But more, he’s calling us come to each other in exactly the same way he came to us. May we search our hearts and motives this Advent, to the end that the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands will have their origin in Christ himself.
The latest shooting is over. Very soon it will fade like invisible ink, further hardening our collective consciousness against a despicable form of violence against innocence.
By now, unless the shooting is personal, we Americans know the drill quite well. Our president will stand up and talk about the need for a change in gun policy. The president of the NRA will get up and talk about the 2nd ammendment, and mental health. The press and internet will explode with arguments and stats, and mentions of Australia and Honduras. The left and right will talk loudly, with lots of inflammatory language, but neither side will do much listening. There will be news clips about the victims, the shooter, his mental health (it’s almost always a male), and his family (in this case his mother was a gun rights advocate who kept a loaded AR 15 and AK 47 in her house. There’ll be stirring pictures of the memorial service, and a nod to some heroic figure who put themselves in harm’s way.
Then, after a week, everyone will get back to living their lives as if nothing happened. Then it will happen again. And again. And again. This one appears like it will be #298 on the list once it’s updated; more than one a day, in the most civilized nation in the world.
All this is tragedy enough. But the bigger tragedy, in my opinion, is the peace we’ve made with this ongoing scar and tragedy, so visible to the rest of the world, and yet becoming an increasingly evident blind spot in our collective national consciousness. We seem to “get over it” in short order, so that this will become just one more thing to which we adapt. Like late term abortion, food policies that are killing both people and the land, childhood obesity, and homelessness, human trafficking, and mass shootings are quickly becoming the new normal.
According Walter Brueggeman, the prophetic role during the time of the Old Testament was to awaken hope for something different. This was important than, as now, because dysfunction had become the new normal. Without such hope, we accept our new normal, and then we retreat into tiny survivalist mentalities whereby our personal safety, long life, and well being become paramount. Of course we all know what Jesus had to say about that kind of mind set right?
I don’t have solutions. I know the challenge of putting the genie back in the bottle, even if our country wanted things to change. I understand a belief in self defense and defense of family. I understand the rhetoric for both sides, and have been around this discussion long enough now to know that there’s no simple way forward. The right and left and mostly preaching to echo chambers. But most of all, I understand that the violence is systemic, and the status quo isn’t changing a thing.
For the love of God (and I choose the words, not as a saying, but intentionally because they mean something) I have a suggestion: Can we please pray that the trend line of becoming numb to this kind of violence ends, and that we’re shaken awake to the tragedy this is? I say this because mourning is the soil out from which a vision for change will someday occur.
There’s much that’s right with our nation, and against the backdrop of Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine, and dozens of other locales, our challenge pales. Still, this is our challenge, and it’s important that, as was prayed decades ago by the founder of World Vision, that “our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God”
Can we at least start there?
Have you ever had this experience? You look back at yourself after some moments on the far side of an argument, or the far side of dipping your toe into the waters of an addiction from which you thought you were free. Not only do you not like what you see, but you think to yourself, “I don’t know who that person is, but it’s not me. I don’t throw things at my spouse, or swear and hit the wall, or gaze at porn, or get drink just because I’m sad…” or whatever it is that you did just 24 hours earlier.
But now here you are, seated and in your right mind, wondering how it happened that you were a different person yesterday.
The answer’s simple: identity theft. You became, for a period, someone other than who you are, or at the very least, who you’re meant to be. When we do this (and all of us do it from time to time, though our failures vary in degrees of both privacy and social acceptability), we step right into Romans 7 in the Bible. Paul the Apostle shares this struggle when he writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He articulates the universal struggle that there’s a gap between our actions and our ideals. We want purity, but struggle with lust; want humility, but are prone to arrogance; want contentment, and yet are driven by insatiable appetites. Paul ends his diatribe about this struggle with the timeless question: “who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s a great question, and unless there’s an answer, we’ll continue to feel ourselves hijacked by ourselves the rest of our lives.
But there is, thank God, an answer. “The Victory” Paul says, “comes through Christ.” Yes friends, life in Christ is that practical. It’s God’s intention that each of us move inexorably toward the life for which we were created, which is a life of joy, peace, wisdom, hope, generosity, justice, and strength. Here’s why identity theft is so damning and thus why identity in Christ is so important.
I. In Christ, you’ve become a new person. – This is what we’re told, and what it means is that Jesus, mysteriously but nonetheless actually, is joined with our human spirits to give us a new essence, a new identity. This changes everything, because it means that Christ now resides in me, so that all of his joy, hope, and power, are available to find expression through me in unique ways. But more than just available – the reality is that I’m called to be the presence of Christ in my daily living. This is my identity: a light bearer, bringing hope, healing, and joy to the world.
II. Though new, the “old files” are still embedded. I still hear ghosts, sitting in the shadows, telling me, not that I’m a light bearer, but a loser – telling me I’m unloved because my parents abused me, or that I’m unworthy, because a past failure caused a life implosion, or that life’s unbearable without a hit from sex, or drugs, or alcohol. All of this is what Paul calls, “the old man” which is a euphemism meaning “this is who you once were” – Once you self comforted via compulsive drinking, or one night stands. Once you dealt with conflict through rage, or seething bitterness. Those “old files” are still there on the computer that is your soul, just waiting to be opened.
III. The Liar’s Specialty – Diverting You from Your Identity. Satan delights in opening the old files. You take a look at them, and if you believe them, you’re stuffed. That’s because your belief empowers them and they rise up and change your behavior. “I’m unloved, or unlovable, or unappreciated” becomes, “so life’s not worth living”, or “so I’ll prove I’m worthy” or “so why not have another drink?” Soon you’re living in ways that contradict your own identity, if only temporarily. Then you wake up and say, “what happened?” and you realize that your identity has been hijacked.
IV. The Way Forward – Looking at Jesus’ temptations at the hands of “the liar” in the wilderness, we can see that Satan’s key strategy has always been to divert us from our truest identity. He says to “the Son of God”…. “IF you are the son of God, make these stones become bread” as a means of getting Jesus to move into a distorted identity. Jesus’ answer? “I’m more than just a material person, so though I’m hungry just now, I’ll not let my life be defined by the pursuit of bread. That’s not my identity.”
Wow! When I’m hungry, it’s overwhelmingly easy to think that my life is about getting bread. When I’m lonely, it’s about companionship. When I’m feeling neglected or overlooked, it’s often about proving myself. When I’m in pain, it’s about self comforting.
It’s easy, in other words, to allow our identity to be hijacked by the whims of various trials that are blowing through. Allow ourselves to be hijacked though, and we’ll “act out”, only to look back, on the far side of our failure, and ask, “Who was that?”
The answer: That was in imposter. Send him/her back to the tombs because though the files are still on the hard drive of your emotions, they’re corrupt, and corrupting. You have a new identity: in Christ. And that changes everything.
Here’s a helpful list of verses about your identity in Christ. When you read something here and it doesn’t seem true, or feel true, you’ve met your battleground.
I’ll be speaking on the Temptation of Christ at Bethany Community Church on Sunday, August 2nd. Tune in for a live stream of our worship here.
One of the reasons I love living in the mountains is because the weather changes dramatically, almost all the time. Waking up in the morning is a bit like unwrapping a fresh present each day whose content is utterly unknown. Will it be like a warm cup of coffee enhanced with the light of a thousand candles and the fragrance of fresh blossoms, or ice, wind, and darkness, stark in its beauty, but hard to handle nonetheless, especially in April.
It turned dark late this past Friday afternoon, and the mixed snow and rain turned to just snow, pure and white, cold in her beauty, relentless in her covering of every fresh blossom of spring. We watched with a bit of anxiety as the fresh blossoms in the hanging baskets were blanketed in signs of winter, and sat by the window with our relatives from California, watching winter fall from the sky on April 24th.
Saturday morning when we woke everything was under a white blanket as we gathered with our neighbors for our morning walk. Halfway through the walk, I left them for a run, and by the time I returned, heading east toward my street, there was a blazing sunrise, back lighting the trees like we were in a studio somewhere, only better.
I stopped, overwhelmed by the beauty of it, but not for long, as I finished my run, got my camera and returned, shooting a dozen pictures before the bacon was even in the pan. Why? Two reasons:
1. Snow in spring is reminder of how the story ends, and this gives me hope.
There’s enough news of brokenness these days to make our heads spin. Yemen. Isis. Baltimore. Nepal. Syria and poisonous gas. Maybe some can just shut it all out by turning up the baseball game or chatting about their latest investments or a vacation plans to Europe, but I can’t. Day after day, the avalanche of suffering and death, most of it inflicted on humanity by humanity, leaves me reeling, wondering if these storms won’t in the end, carry the day, the way snow around here usually wins by Thanksgiving, covering everything and hiding all signs of life until sometime around high school graduations. I wonder if peace will ever happen, if oppression will ever end.
The same thing happens personally sometimes. There are setbacks. We break promises made to ourselves, or are suddenly wallowing in the deep freeze of broken relationships, when only a few days earlier we were basking the warmth of the Holy Spirit’s gentle turning of our hearts toward God in some area. We feel as divided as fresh blossoms blanketed in ice and we wonder. “Who are we really? And who are we becoming?”
The good news of the Gospel is that we, along with the whole cosmos, are heading toward an end when everything will be shot through with the glory of God. All wars will be over. All relationships will be reconciled. All diseases will be healed. Every tear will be dried up.
We know this because Easter is like a fresh blossom in spring, “the first fruits of the resurrection” we’re told. That means the snows of suffering we see these days whether in Yemen or in our own hearts, are winter’s last gasp. New Life is inexorably growing and will continue its miraculous and healing work until all things are made new.
If I didn’t believe that, I’d quit my job, never watch the news again, and confine myself to the pure pursuit of pleasure. Why not, if winter wins in the end? But of course, winter doesn’t win… so Paul, with promise of eternal spring in mind, reminds us to get on with making springtime visible: “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord…” This is what gives me hope, what gets me up in the morning, what gives me a love for my calling.
2. Snow in spring is a reminder that there’ll be storms until the sun reigns completely.
When we walk with our neighbors during these crazy spring snow storms, nobody’s afraid that we’re going to miss summer. In spite of the thick white everywhere, there’s a quiet confidence in the inevitability of the sun’s power, and this confidence sucks all power out of the storm. The fear is gone.
You’ve had faith setbacks, relationship setbacks, financial hardships, health challenges. We all have, in varying measure. And yet, the reality is that these things aren’t the biggest challenge most of the time. Most of the time the big challenge is our reaction to these things, and all the drama we bring to the situation. It’s as if we’re worried that April snow is going to kill God’s love for us, or that this setback will spell the end of our marriage, or this unimaginable loss means there is no God at all.
The truth of the matter, though, is that these are April snow storms. In spite of the thorough victory acheived at the cross and resurrection, we’re told explicitly that “we do not yet see all things subject to him” which is God’s way of saying that it snows in April, May, even in July and August if you live in the high country of vibrant faith.
You’ll be cold alright. The ice will inflame your heart with a longing for God’s divine fire. As a result, precisely because of the storm, you’ll know facets of God’s character you’d never have otherwise seen, and grow in confidence that God’s trajectory is assured, that we are, indeed, moving “from glory to glory”.
Is it snowing in your life just now? Know that underneath it all, the strong juice of Christ’s resurrection life is working its relentless purposes toward peace, beauty, hope, and joy.
O Lord of all seasons
We thank you for the inevitability of spring, for the hope found in the cycles of renewal that reminds us of where history is heading. Grant that we might be people of hope in spite of the storms that blast us, knowing that through it all, your life is filling us, changing us, and making us fruitful.
When Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem just before his crucifixion he wept and said regarding the people he loved, “if you knew the things which make for peace…” but they didn’t. And we don’t either much of the time.
We know the Bible, the words on scroll, know it like the back of our hands. But the Bible doesn’t bring peace. Neither does institutional religion, your 401(k), a great alarm system, life insurance, or enough guns in your house or your government to obliterate every enemy. Have these things or don’t have them; that’s your call—but know that they’re not what brings peace.
Peace, we saw last time, is a person. But there’s a bit more to it than that, because we can sit around and read or argue about Jesus all day without enjoying peace. Some of the most religious people I know, in fact, are some of the most anxious, fearful, argumentative people anywhere.
This is because we all have the need to move beyond some disembodied concept of Jesus into the reality of a mind, heart, and body progressively renewed, liberated, healed, and transformed by the actual presence of the living Christ. This is what happened to peace people in the Bible, like the woman at the well, and the other one caught in adultery and then freed from the religious talking heads who were ready to kill her. I don’t need a religious system; I need Christ, the Prince of Peace, changing both the way I view the world and changing me.
Here are more steps forward for those wrestling with anxiety, body image issues, fear of rejection, fear of the future, debilitating anger towards some ‘other’, or a sense of shame with its attendant fear of being discovered:
Believe by faith that Christ is with you. We’re not talking about trying to conjure up mystical feelings here. We’re talking about affirming in prayer (whether written or spoken) your belief, by faith, that Christ is with you, living in you, filling you with all he is, so that you might become all you’re created to be. “Thank you that you live in me” is a great place to start. This gratitude doesn’t answer every question about evolution, sexual morality, or the causes of human suffering in the world, but the good news is that it doesn’t need to. If you think waiting ’til you have the world figured out is a precondition for faith or peace, you’ll wait forever to start living outside your head, and doubts, and questions. If you need help with this, you might consider 02: Breathing New Life into Faith as a resource.
Take comfort in Christ’s presence. When we were climbing a klettersteig in Austria last summer, a good friend became frightened, then she froze up, afraid to take the next move. Not only is fear unpleasant; it consumes energy, and quickly her muscles were weakening, further contributing to anxiety, further weakening her body in a downward spiral. That’s when my mountain guide friend moved to be with her, gave her some encouraging words, and roped her in, tying her directly to himself and assuring her that, even if she fell, she’d be safe.
That, apparently, was all she needed, and soon she was back on the move, confidently climbing the rest of the way to the top. The assurance of someone who knew the ropes and knew the way was enough. It was a beautiful picture of Christ who promised to be “with us always, even to the end of the age”. To the extent that we believe this, the comfort and strength of it become realities. This isn’t magic; it’s the reality that we find comfort in the strength of the other; parent, mountain guide, protector. My hope is that you’d be able to discover this aspect of Christ as real, for without it we live as if we’re on our own, like sheep without a shepherd.
Take comfort in the end of the story – We’re in the middle of the story right now, and there are traffic jams and bad medical news, breakups and our own moral failings. We’re a thick soup of faith and doubt, glory and loss. Bad news breaks in and our fragile peace evaporates. This push and shove of doubt and faith, success and failure, horrific evil presenting itself in the world, with infinite love in the midst; all of it can be a bit much at times. We see both sides, perhaps, but grow tired of evil triumphing o so much of the time. How can we know peace in a world where hell seems to win so often?
Jesus took comfort in the end of story. He spoke of the sufferings of this world as birth pains which would eventually give way to full healing. There are powerful moments in film that capture this well, like reunion scenes in the Lord of the Rings and the Pianist.
God pulls the curtain back on history and shows us a future banquet where there’s great food, peace, and “death swallowed up for all time”. Every disease is healed, both emotional and physical. Every war over. Good food and wine speak of matchless beauty and abundance.
The audacious claim of God is that this is where history is heading. Believe it or don’t, but without a hope along these lines, I’d be finished. My world would shrink into the pursuit of trivial pleasures which I’m sure would eventually become addictions and destroy me. That’s not how everyone would cope, but its how I would. Bold faith in a better story—that’s what keeps me going.
Thank God there’s a different ending saturated with hope and healing, and a companion whose presence brings wisdom, strength, comfort, a new start in the wake of every failure, and bursts of joy and gratitude that seem to come out of nowhere. This whole package, I believe, is called peace—and it’s available for those who are willing to learn the reality of Christ’s presence.
Religion is over-rated. Peace that blossoms out of intimacy with Christ, though, is a different story entirely.