When my wife and I arrived home Monday night after a 5 day delay in getting there due to “snow on snow” (12 feet, or 4 meters for my Europe friends) as the Christmas carol says, the house was dark because the power had gone out. As a result there’s darkness, and lots of it. This far north on the earth, with this many clouds, our world is dark most of December by nature; without intervention we’re in the dark about 17 hours a day!!
Inside, a few candles dispel the total darkness that would otherwise be ours. Now, into our fourth day of power outage, I’m musing on the powers of darkness and light – and perhaps there’s no better day to muse on this than Christmas Eve…
“The Light Shines in the Darkness” is how the great mystic disciple of Jesus named John put it, “and the darkness did not overpower it…”
That’s the way of it of course. Monday night, near midnight, the power had returned and my wife and I were startled awake by the hum of various motors and the return of lights. I turned the all off and returned to bed, but the relief was short lived; another moment awake in the middle of the night was when I realized we were in the dark again. In this total darkness it’s in you to freeze up, afraid of hitting a wall or running your foot into the edge of something. Every step’s tentative, and this is visceral. It’s deeply embedded in our ancient brains to move tentatively, if at all, when darkness shrouds our world.
Then I light a match, there at 2AM, and then a candle. That’s all it takes to dispel the freeze of tentativeness, instilling in me a confidence to move, to live, to take action. Light dispels more than darkness. It dispels fear, uncertainty, and the kind of disengagement that shrinks our lives.
It’s literal of course, but it’s metaphor too, because John is saying that the meaning of Christmas is that light, in the form of Christ. “In Him was life and the life was the light of humans” which means that in a world of darkness, there’s a light to dispel the kind of fear, disengagement, and uncertainty that leads to the racism, tribalism, and violence that so saturates our world.
When the young man who shot and killed people in a South Carolina prayer meeting appeared in court, he was met by family members of the victims declaring their forgiveness. Light shines in the darkness.
A young man, at cost of his life, shelters three young girls in a different shooting. Light shines in the darkness.
Light doesn’t just show in martyrdom though. It shows up in generosity, words of encouragement, crossing social and racial divides, opening your home, visiting prisoners, and o so much more. Light shows up in powerful beacon-like ways, and tiny acts with no more lumens than a single match. It matters not: light is always light. It always wins.
In a world punctuated by the darkness of violence, war, betrayal, and loss, 2015 has been especially dark on a global scale. I don’t need to pour out details of mass shootings, insane dictators, blatant racism, millions of refugees, and the scourge of human trafficking that courses through the veins of our tired earth like a cancer. You know it all already. This is the face of darkness.
I find it poignant that it’s always at the sites of mass shooting or other great losses that there’s a gathering of candles. It’s almost instinctive in us to light a candle at those spaces such as Paris and San Bernadino where darkness has sought to overtake us. It’s a small way of saying “NO! In the name of God, we won’t let darkness prevail. Light wins!”
For years I’ve had a little poster in my office that says, “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness” and o how we need to hear this word as we enter 2016, when most of what I hear is how bad the world is, and how stupid politicians are, and how stupid people are for voting for politicians. Blah. Blah. Blah. Enough already.
How about being light instead?
We need this word because it’s not a platitude, it’s a powerful reality. Jesus said it this way when he spoke to his followers: “You are the light of the world…let your light shine…!” There’s much more to the text but the essence for this moment of darkness is to realize that you and I have a calling. Having been granted the eternal light that is Christ as our indwelling source of hope, it’s incumbent on us to let that light shine, so that all the hope, mercy, generosity, service, wisdom, grace, and reconciling power that is found in Christ alone will find expression in your life and mine.
Every action that looks like the love, generosity, service, sacrifice, wisdom, forgiveness, and joy that is Jesus, is light! And the thing about light is that it always wins; always dispels the darkness as a hint that, when history’s fully written, we won’t all have been sucked into a black hole. Rather, “there will no longer by any ight; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them…”
One little light, born in a manger, is spreading still, and will overcome all darkness in the end.
So tonight when you light your candle (or join us online if you can’t make it to ours or your own), remember that all the light which fills the dark room comes from one source. We receive it gladly and pass it only until the darkness disappears. This isn’t some cute little service. This is the hope of the world.
Go. Be the light, even as you celebrate the source. Merry Christmas!
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
from Rainier Rilke’s “Book of Hours”
In a few short weeks the church I lead will host a “longest night” service. It’s offered because behind all the glitter and “city sidewalks dressed in holiday style”, there are griefs and losses which are a bit elevated in December, precisely because it’s the month when “joy” seems some sort of expected norm. Because of this, those who don’t feel the joy are left dealing not only with their grief, but with a culturally imposed guilt because of their failure to enter into the joy that oozes through every song, every light, every tree, every cup of hot chocolate.
My parents were married on December 25th during the WWII, and so after my dad’s death, Christmas became an intensely difficult time for my mom and hence, for me too. The second Christmas Eve after dad died, I’d hoped to go to the candlelight service at our church, mostly to be with friends and escape the cloud hanging so heavily on my mom’s broken heart. Her car, though, was parked behind mine, and she was intent on me staying home and waxing the floors with her because her sister and their family, who live a mile away and drop in literally every day, were coming over for the Christmas meal. “It needs to be clean for Christmas” she said wearily. Of course, it wasn’t about the floor really, but I didn’t know that then.
I only knew that waxing the floor on Christmas Eve was, of all the options for the joyous night, somewhere just below the bottom of the list. I wanted to be with happy people, to celebrate, to find a little hope. Mom, though she couldn’t articulate it, wanted me mostly to be with her and since she’d found a reason to stay home, wanted me home too. An argument ensued. She wouldn’t let me leave. Her car was parked behind mine and it was not to be moved. Things got heated, and in a family with Scandinavian roots, known for moderation and civility, the tension and harsh words were some of the worst I can remember. It was a stalemate that wouldn’t be settled until my uncle/pastor came over to mediate around midnight. Thus when most families had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, I had visions of leaving home forever, and my poor mom had longings for her best friend to come back from the dead and restore normalcy.
Merry Christmas indeed.
Moments like that fateful Christmas night are precisely why everyone who walks through valleys of sadness, grief, and loss (which is everyone… or should be everyone) needs to watch “Inside Out”, Pixar’s marvelous movie about emotions. A girl named Riley is at the center of the story. Her emotions are personified and as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco the roles of joy, anger, and sadness all come into play.
Riley needs to deal with loss and grief is she’s ever going to adapt to her new environment, but those emotions are generally swept under the rug along with aging, disabilities, and failures, away from the limelight of what ‘ought to be’. It’s not just Christ followers who have a hard time with loss; apparently its all of us.
Joy is at the helm in Riley’s emotional construct and her “can do” attitude is both vital and annoying. The annoyance arises because “can do” isn’t always true, and until we’re willing to honestly face the losses that are present in lives, we’ll not find the critical next steps needed to move forward.
Sadness is present too inside Riley, but appears initially as a sort of unnecessary burden that she’s forced to carry. Joy’s view is that sadness only weighs Riley down, holds her back, and makes her suffer. Joy finds sadness annoying, and so do we some of the time, if the truth be told. This is because there’s a mythical narrative out there that says the only right way is up, the only worthy outcome is success, the only proper response in life is joy.
To which the Psalmist David, the Wise Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Paul the Apostle, Rainier Rilke, Desmund Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoffer, would all say: “rubbish!” Though some of us might, in the name of authenticity, overdose on grief and sadness, most of us are addicted to joy, or at the least we’re terrified of sorrow.
Inside Out, and the Bible, both remind us that real joy is on the far side of suffering.
Christ’s birth is good news precisely because humanity’s mucked it up so much, each of us contributing mightily to the problem, that we need a savior. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” is good news indeed because God knows without Christ’s coming we’d have flushed ourselves into the sewer of violence, greed and suffering that is too often our world. Instead, there’s hope, healing, and a new trajectory for humanity, made all the sweeter by the knowledge of what we are, would forever be, without him.
There’s the pain of childbirth and the joy of new life, the pain of hunger and loneliness, followed by the feast. War, followed by peace.
Pretending all’s well when it isn’t has a way of numbing our longings for a better life, a better world. Advent, ironically, is an invention to lean into our longings for the wholeness and healing that Christ alone can bring. But giving those longings space in our hearts means giving space in our hearts to grief, and sadness, and loss.
Eight days ago I was privileged to be in the room when my oldest daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, a beautiful healthy girl. I’m not sure any event has ever baptized my soul with more joy. The realities of sorrow in the night and joy coming in the morning were literally true that day – and yet the first moment I left the room after her birth, my heart was pierced with a longing that my dad, my mom, my sister, aren’t here to share the joy.
Sorrow and Joy. Longing and fulfillment. Suffering and Glory. This is our world friends. May the presence of Christ give us the courage to walk every single step with courage and grace.
Spoiler alert. If you don’t know what happens to Jesus after his crucifixion, I’m going to share the punchline in this blog.
“Peace be to you” says Jesus, standing in the midst of the disciples, in a room with a locked door where he’s suddenly appeared without it opening! Their stunned silence is understandable. After all, Jesus, the one upon whom they’d pinned their hopes, the one for whom they’d left everything, the one who they’d betrayed and denied, the one from whom they’d just fled as he hung on a cross, was dead. Not, “as good as dead”—actually dead, and with that death, so died their hopes and dreams.
All this makes Jesus’ next line even funnier to me, when he responds to their stunned silence with “why are you troubled?” as if they should have seen this whole narrative coming from day one, since he’d talked about his death and resurrection explicitly a few times and implicitly dozens of times. Still, somehow they missed it, and so Jesus’ words are much needed in the moment there in that room where it was slowly dawning on them that the whole course of history, not to mention their own lives, was about to change.
“Peace” and “Don’t be troubled” are his words to these anxious, troubled people, and they are just as significantly, words for us too, here and now in our troubles and anxieties.
Iran? Isis? Nigeria? Syria? Yemen? Black lives that matter? Policemen that are dead? Denominations that are in turmoil?
State rights? Individual rights? Health care? Your rights? Wall Street’s rights? Workers rights? Your relationships with children, parents, spouse?
“My God, what are we doing to each other?” is the only prayer some people know how to pray these days, and it’s really nothing more than a prayer for peace, because underneath it is the profound realization that things are broken and breaking, falling faster and harder than we’ve seen before.
Jesus, though, doesn’t bust out of tomb riding a white horse, raising hell, killing his enemies, and setting up shop as the newest savior, like Alexander the Great would, or V. Lenin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or even George Washington, or some power hungry pope, or Luther or Calvin. Instead he appears in a room with his closest friends, folk who’ve doubted, denied him, and functioned as largely clueless, fickle devotees, and offers his peace to them.
This revolution, unlike all others in history, unfolds from the inside out, beginning with the transformation of human hearts from anxious, fearful, and angry—to this state of peace. Wow! Are you interested in that offer? Me too.
I’m not able to fix this broken world, but I can become a person of peace in the midst of it all, and that will make a difference, not only in me, but in those I touch. Thankfully there are steps we can take to become people of peace, right here and now. I share the first step here, and next steps this coming weekend:
Step One: Peace is, first of all, a person. “He himself is our peace” is what Paul says, and he goes on to talk about how the reality of Christ in one’s life will lead to the breaking down of dividing walls, because by his very nature, Christ’s heart is for reconciliation and shalom (peace) among people. If Christ lives in me, the tidal movement of my life will be toward unifying not dividing.
“Really?” says the thoughtful person who knows a bit of church history. “What about Rwanda, or the Christian settler’s treatment of American Indians, or slavery, or culture wars that push people to the margins of society, or doctrinal wars that so fracture the church and fill it with hurtful words that people on the outside want nothing to do with her? What about the 30 year war in Europe, or the Protestant’s treatment of the radical reformers, or… I could go on for a thousand words, but you get the point.
To say that God’s people are people of peace is absurd.
Ah, but Jesus knew that there was a profound difference between being religious and being people of peace. The former draw lines and rely heavily on exclusionary and dualistic language: in/out, saved/lost, right/wrong, civilized/savage, black/white and the way this plays out often gets ugly and violent. This was the way the disciples had been brought up. It’s the usual way for most of us, religious or not. That’s why Jesus’ disciples wanted to reign fire down on that village where people weren’t believing. It’s why they were so excited on Palm Sunday, as they believed that finally Jesus was going to exercise his divine right to bear arms, destroy the Roman violence machine by violence, and finally win this simmering war.
It’s also why Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying “if only you’d known the things that make for peace” —but they didn’t. They knew dualistic thinking. They knew how to win by making the other guy lose. They knew about the peace of Rome, which was a peace rooted in fear and violence. They wanted the peace of Rome to become the peace of Israel, still rooted in fear, but with the shoe on the other foot.
Jesus would have none of it. He’s into breaking down dividing walls and bringing people together. He’s into serving, even his enemies. He’s into going the second mile, and truth telling, but truth telling bathed in love and a commitment as far as possible, to redeeming the relationship. He’s so into peace, that when his disciple Peter cut a soldier’s ear off, rather than teaching Peter better swordsmanship, he tells him to put the sword away, and heals the guy’s ear. He even makes it clear that overcoming violence with violence is not a great idea.
He wins the peace, breaks down the walls, defeats the forces of evil with the most revolutionary weapon known to humanity—infinite love. “While we were still enemies… Christ died.”
You want peace? It starts by yoking yourself with the Prince of Peace. But be careful, You’ll find yourself going to parties with people you didn’t think you’d like, visiting seniors who are lonely, and sharing a drink with someone whose theology is, by your standards at least, “off”. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to bless those around with little thought of whether they’re ‘worthy’, agree with you, or even like you. Your fear will be melting away like a spring thaw. Love will blossom. And the tomb that held your bitterness, rancor, and pride, especially your religious pride—well you’ll wake up one Sunday spring morning and find it: empty.
Peace. Don’t let your hearts be troubled.
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life (and) learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Jesus the Christ – Matthew 11
I’m sitting here on my weekly day of Sabbath, staring out the window at fir trees laden with wet, dripping life down onto the soil and melting snow below. There are candles; a fire in the wood stove and choral Christmas carols fill the room. Warmth. Good coffee. Beauty. Shalom.
I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t it be good to sit here bathed in this kind of peace and beauty the rest of my life?” until I remember Jesus’ words a little bit later, after that bit about the “unforced rhythms of grace.” Jesus had taken the disciples on a little wilderness therapy outing, up to a high mountain where he transcended earthly dimensions and his disciples were able to see him in his pure unfiltered glory.
Jesus’ friend Peter likes this location, this revelation of glory, this peace, this mountaintop, enough to blurt out, “It’s good for us to be here Jesus, so just say the word, and we’ll start building. We’ll make some places for you and your buddies, and then we can just stay up here—because to be blunt, I don’t know if you know this or not Jesus, but we like this peace, this beauty, this joy. Preferred future: staying right here!”
The version of the story is that Jesus goes down. The disciples follow. Shortly after that there’ll be the week from hell, where Jesus goes from universal popularity to the whole world’s object of pure hatred scorn. He’ll be executed. The disciples will scatter, and wrestle with their doubts, disillusionment, and fallibility.
After that there’ll be a resurrection and things will get better. Later still, a powerful success. Then some arrests, and fighting, and martyrdom, with success and joy mysteriously interwoven into the thick fabric of trials.
Success. Joy. Peace.
Failure. Loss. Suffering.
The rhythms of unforced grace.
Embrace the reality that a life with Christ will overflow with everything, and by everything I mean there are times we’ll be drunk on joy and other times sorrow and suffering will take our breath away. We’ll have Sabbaths, if we’re fortunate, and days of laughter and beauty in the forest, or at the beach, and meals with good wine and laughter.
But we can’t stay on that mountaintop because there’s poverty, and homelessness, abuse of power and abuse of spouses. There are a million children who are refugees, and people of great wealth who have the freedom to travel the world, but are trapped in a prison of upward mobility. Beheadings. Injustice. Racism. Cancer. Ebola.
We need to get down off the mountain and into the thickness of this dark world. It’s not just that we’re called to be there as light, though God knows we are, and it feels more and more like high crime to me when the church becomes a gathering whose sole goal is the emotional and spiritual well-being of its congregants. The reality is that we need to get down off the mountain because nobody is ever shaped well by pure sabbath and shalom, not in this life at least. “The testing of your faith produces endurance,” is how James writes it, and Peter says, “Even though now, for a little while, you’re beset by various trials…” and Jesus himself says, “In this world you will have tribulation.”
All this stuff down there below the summit is shaping us for the better, or can at least. That’s because in the wisdom of the way God has created the world, it’s not just the beauty and rest that brings healing and transformation, but the suffering and loss too. The enemy of our souls can throw everything at us, but our glorious hope is that no matter the stuff, though we may have scars, even the scars will become part of the beauty in our lives.
How do we open ourselves up to both deep beauty and deep suffering?
1. Actively seek both engagement and withdrawal. Jesus is a good model for us here, as you’ll find him alone in the wilderness a fair bit, as well as in the thick of things in the city, confronting religious hypocrisy and control, casting out demons, gifting people with forgiveness, healing, restoration, and teaching too.
This rhythm is best sought by paying attention to the way God made the world, with that day of rest each week, and that continual rhythm of sunrise and sunset inviting us to both work and rest. You need all of it if you’re going to be fully in God’s story, and continuing your journey of transformation.
2. Don’t shy away from the edges. A favorite book of mine posits that if you’re afraid of great suffering and as a result, build walls around your soul so you don’t see beheadings, don’t give a damn about ongoing racism, poverty, or a million child refugees, you’ll also become numb to great joy on the other side of the spectrum. The result will be a bland middle, whereby we not only don’t let the news of our city and world affect us, but we also fail to pay attention to the profound beauty of art, music, and creation that could have filled us with the confidence and strength of Christ to continue shining as light in the midst of darkness.
Don’t let yourself settle for the middle—unmoved by Van Gogh, or Rainier, or human touch—resistant to hard or painful truth and conversations; avoiding solidarity with the suffering of our planet. The middle ground knows little suffering and little beauty. The boredom, though, is soul killing.
Better to be on the lookout, always, for the inbreaking of beauty, whether art, music, generosity, creation’s glory, or intimacy. To go there, though, requires a willingness, too, to come down off the mountain and enter into the thick of suffering, loss, sickness, death, injustice, and hard conversations.
Rainer Rilke puts it this way:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
All right then – let’s go.
In two weeks I’ll be home, preparing to meet people in the church I lead who I haven’t seen in nearly three months. Their priceless gift of a sabbatical has blessed me with a rare opportunity for extended time away from church life, American culture, and the day-to-day responsibilities of my job. As a result, I’ll return restored spiritually and emotionally, refreshed and stronger physically (up to around 500k in hiking, running mileage now), and challenged.
I’m challenged because these three months have been a concentrated time away from teaching, studying, and writing, three activities I enjoy and look forward to doing again when I return. As much as I enjoy them though, I’ve come to see them as dangerous because America’s about education, and among American cities, Seattle’s all the more about education, and among Seattle churches, the church I lead, filled with university students and professors is even all the more about education. We’re educated. Highly.
All this education has upsides of course, but this trip has made me aware of the downside. That’s because I’ve met lots people with little formal education who in spite of their “lack” have poured generosity, service, hospitality, and joy, from their cups to ours, over and over again. Whether it’s been food, hospitality, the gift of sunglasses at a hut when mine had been stolen, directions offered when uncertain of the way to go, a much needed ride from strangers, or bus drivers signalling ahead to another bus so that it wait would for us, so that we’d make our train connection, we’ve seen people with large hearts, who allowed themselves to be inconvenienced in order to care for us.
Remember that story in the Bible about the guy who gets robbed and beaten up? Jesus uses it to draw a distinction between the educated religious leaders who, in spite of their eloquent sermons and theological precision, frankly didn’t give a damn about the wounded victim, even though they knew Hebrew. Then there was the Samaritan. He’s the one who, for the purposes of this story, is, (are you ready for this?): Blue Collar. He never went to college, earns below the median wage, and is having a hard time affording the new mandated health care. He doesn’t enjoy reading C.S. Lewis much and doesn’t even know who N.T. Wright is. He can’t tell the difference between a Neo-Calvinist, and a Rob Bell devotee because frankly, he’s too tired at the end of the day to read all the blogs and add his own comments. Besides, he doesn’t really care.
He works. He comes home and cares for all the things that need to be cared for in life—shopping, cooking, maintenance, friendships. You’re not even sure where he stands on most issues because in small group he doesn’t say much. He prays. He’s not perfect, God knows. He’s got issues, but he’s working on them. In the meantime though, until he’s perfect, his greatest joy isn’t found in talking about faith. It’s found in living it—“boots on the ground” as the saying goes.
When there’s a need in the shelter though, he volunteers.
When there’s a homeless person outside TJ’s he often makes the time to engage in conversation.
When there’s a neighbor in the hosptial, he’s there with meals, and laughter, and maybe even an awkward prayer.
He’s as generous with his limited money as he is with his time. He doesn’t know where he stands on the issues of homosexuality and gun control, but he’s had dinner with the newly married gay couple on his block, and the NRA guy whose Jeep has a bumper sticker with something about his “cold dead hand.”
Who is this guy? Never went to seminary. Falls asleep in most Bible studies. Wakes up immediately when someone needs a helping hand.
The point Jesus is making in Luke 10:36 is that this (along with loving God) is the point of the Christian life. And in that story, the protagonist is a Samaritan for God’s sake; a compromising half-breed who “anyone with a Bible degree would know is an outsider because his belief system takes him to the wrong mountain, and my pastor, who has a PHD (or is “super funny and edgy”) says that such people are…” blah blah blah.
Talk on if you must, o educated one. I’m tired.
Tired of doctrine being more important than living.
Tired of words being more important than actions.
Tired of writing about life as a substitute for living it.
Tired of Sunday being viewed as the peak experience of faith rather than Monday, or especially, Tuesdays.
Tired of hype and zeal on the surface, and pride and greed at the core.
Tired of ministry professionals like me thinking they have all the answers for “the little people.”
I don’t know all the ways that I’ve changed as a result of being on sabbatical. But I know this much: in the days to come, my criteria for personal health and spiritual maturity will have more to do with how I know and treat my neighbors, friends, co-workers, and those in need around me, than the size of my church, the “impact” of my sermons, or the hits on my website.
I know this because I’ve been pierced by the degree to which I’ve often lived alone, inside my head these past years, as slowly, I confused right thinking, and speaking/writing about right thinking, with spiritual maturity.
I suspect I’m not alone, because look at what Phil Yancey has to say in his upcoming book:
We’re good, it seems, at talking about Jesus—who he was, what he taught and stood for, how he died, how he rose, why it matters, and what people should do about it. I’m just suspicious (and so are lots of other people apparently) that I, maybe even we, have elevated our words as the real proving ground of maturity. When we do that, huge blind spots will remain and we’ll think we’re fine, when we’re really far from the life Jesus has for us.
It’s a dilemma for me. This is because words still matter. We grow in response to revelation and my calling and gifts have to do with teaching God’s revelation so others can respond. So we all need words in our lives, and I need to study words, teach words, write words.
And yet, I need and want to make room in my life for actually putting those words into practice with real neighbors, and co-workers, and friends, and family. How does it all fit together?
That’s the question I bring home with me, but this much I know—if something’s gotta give, it won’t be the living of it any more—that’s become a higher priority. Pray that I’ll live it. New adventures await, as I learn to be a Samaritan… who’s in?
It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together. I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.
Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for its beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.
The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles. We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.
It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun. We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met. Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on steps until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journey—step by step.
I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life. I think about how much this mirrors real life, how it’s so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected. I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows. I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.
We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge. The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.
As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening. It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces. Donna’s there first, and she signs the book. The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find. When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.
We’ve stood under many these past weeks. Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights. Other moments, bone weary and sore. This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful: for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others. We can barely pray—mostly it’s tears of joy.
We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut. Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about World Cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare. There’s laughter, stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.
I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc.) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way. The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.
I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.
For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut:
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.
It’s become fashionable to be socially just. The evening news covers protests about the horrifically evil kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls. We call each other to embody the gospel by breaking down walls of social division, and setting captives free, by working for environmental justice and empowering the poor and displaced. Clean water. End poverty now. Buy a shoe, give a show. There are buttons, campaigns, fundraisers, banquets. Come on. All the cool people are in.
It’s high time that the realities of suffering, racism, oppression, and ongoing injustice rose to the top of our collective consciousness. For much of her history, we who call ourselves “the church” have been guilty of either intentionally crossing to the other side of the road, so as to disengage from these pesky dark realities, or worse, we’ve spiritualized away the suffering by promising a greater afterlife in some bastardized version of karmic justice. Our passivity has misrepresented the essence of the gospel, and allowed ongoing exploitation of peoples and resources, resulting in mountains of suffering and loss for hundreds of generations. That these issues are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness in both our culture and many of our churches is a very good thing indeed.
And yet there are at least two lurking dangers in this justice revival:
1. Superficial Solutions inoculate. “I recycle and ride my bike to work on sunny days. I bought those cool shoes to help some poor kids. And last night I went to party where the tips at the bar went to a water project somewhere.” This kind of thinking becomes the equivalent of thinking we’re equipped to climb Mt. Rainier because we bought an ice axe. An ice axe is good, but it’s certainly not all you’ll need to get to the top. The sacrifices, discipline, change in priorities, and even change in world view that will be needed if we’re to be in any way a substantial part of the world’s solutions are for more profound than attending a few cool events and riding our bike to work. Take our call to justice seriously, and we’ll find ourselves, over time, become involved not only in deep personal lifestyle, but actively working to address systemic issues that are deeply embedded in our world. Paul the apostle called them “principalities and powers” because they’re animated by forces darker than single individuals.
Our fashionable protests, focused projects, and occasional forays into environmental stewardship or some other cause might do more harm than good if they create a resistance in us to the notion that we might be called to more. Jesus called people to this principle when he told the pharisees that they “tithed even their spices” but did so as substitute for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Of course, Jesus tells that crowd that they should have “done the latter without neglecting the former”, which is just another way of saying that an ice axe is vital, but you’ll need more than that to get to the top.
2. Spiritual Realities fade. What’s not to love about redemptive involvement in the pressing problems of our time in Jesus’ name? There are a few answers, but the most important one is simply that there are two great commandments and that they’re wed together like an ecosystem, each feeding off the other. Take one of them out of the equation and the other inevitably suffers. We made for love, plain and simple – made to love god and love our neighbor as our self. We’re in a season where love of neighbor is the rising star, and sometimes the light of one outshines the other. A little look back into history though, and we’re reminded of a time when it surely looked like people were loving God, at least if candles, hymns, preaching, and bible study were any indication. But of course they actually weren’t any indication. They were their own form of inoculation against more robust and truer faith, because in spite of it all, slavery was sanctioned, or racism, or colonialism. Praying and Bible reading convinced people they’d hit gold, but it was fools gold when it wasn’t coupled with the hard work of crossing social divides to love the neighbor. Bible reading mattered, and matters for some today too. It’s just that real transformation will drive us into real relationships in our broken world.
Today’s justice based t-shirts, shoes, water bottles, blogs, missions, non-profits are at risk of becoming the same form of 19th century pietism in reverse. Convinced we’re in the stream of God’s activity, we lost sight of our own need for transformation, healing, and freedom, so lost have we become in the consuming of justice symbols. Real longing for justice will do more than paint a sign or wear a bracelet. It will drive us to prayer, and brokenness, and mourning. And those things will drive us to intimacy with God.
Do you want whole faith instead of the 2%? Then you need to recognize the dangers on both sides of the ledge and go deep in your pursuit of intimacy with God, and justice in the world. That’s a journey worth taking, and it has a name: abundant life.
When the angel announced good news of great joy for all people, the angel opened the door for a feisty conversation about who’s in and who’s out of God’s family. That conversation has been fueled by arrogance and fear, and given birth to violence and hatred, as religious wars and posturing in things likes Crusades, colonialism, and genocide, have all been carried out by people with great big Bibles.
So let’s take a moment and consider what, perhaps the angel meant by the phrase “for all people”, based on what the Bible says.
Here’s the thing:
For all people… wow! Merry Christmas.
Early 1990’s: The first time I saw the climbing wall it was located at the ski area adjacent to Tauernhof, the bible school where I teach in Austria. Students (and a few of us teachers) would use it during the semester, perfecting our skills as we talked of life, faith, beauty. I climbed on it once during autumn, when some sheep were coming down from the high country, across the hills of the ski slope. Those sheep, their fear of me, and their confidence of the voice of their own shepherd, made this verse come alive for me.
1994: Same wall, different year. I climbed with a young man named Harry on the wall and we shared great fellowship and conversation as we negotiated holds, practiced technique, and spoke of God, Christ, leadership, and eternity. The next weekend, Harry would climb with a student, and fell to his untimely death. Every year, it seemed, the wall become a deeper and deeper repository of truths learned, fellowship enjoyed, loss suffered. And then the wall disappeared….
Sometimes in the early 2000’s: When I asked Hans Peter, the director of the bible school about the wall, he told me of the ski area’s expansion plans, and how that necessitated it’s removal. “But we’re getting it” he said. “We’re going to put it on the Bible School property.”
2012: The wall is in place on the Torchbearer property and Hans Peter points shows it to me. The rabbit, which was the mascot of the ski area attached to the wall before, was replaced with: Jesus Christus, plus three German words I don’t recognize. “It will be there for everyone to see – so that people will know that everything we do here, all the skiing, climbing, hiking, food, fellowship- is about Jesus.”
Sunday, December 8, 2013. Hans Peter, previous Bible School director, is gone, killed in a paragliding accident this past August. His teaching gifts and strong leadership of Tauernhauf were evidenced in both the breadth and depth of ministry from this relatively small center. His death meant the loss of a friend, mentor, and leader to many, including me. I’m privileged to be in Schladming today because my friend Martin is being “confirmed” in his new role as director.
The moments are bittersweet, joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning, all woven together as leaders from the larger Torchbearer community, along with students from this year’s Bible school, the whole Torchbearer staff, and lots of other local town leaders, friends, and family, gathered to literally lay hands Martin and pray for him as he steps into the role of director. An old friend sat by me and translated every word of the service. There were songs, readings, a bit of a biography of Martin, and then key leaders layed hands on his head and prayed for him, one by one. I know some of these leaders with whom I’ve shared ministry for two decades now. I know we’re older; we feel it, we look it. We’ve seen a lot. Change is happening all around us, and its rarely easy.
Then it was Martin’s turn to speak….
What does one say in such a time as this, when the occasion of your anointing comes in the wake of a beloved leaders death? Martin reads this for us from the book of Hebrews: Jesus Christ: The same yesterday, today, forever. He reminds us all, gathered here to affirm him, but gathered in a shadow of grief as well, that everything changes; leaders, ministries, plans, our own bodies, our children, everything. “But”, Martin reminds us, “Jesus Christ remains the same: yesterday, today, forever.”
In world where many Christians have their own publicity machinery, heroes, media strategies, and branding consultants, Martin’s word reminds me that all of us who are called to lead anything are entrusted with leadership but for a season. Our goal isn’t to get more people to read our stuff, or listen to us, or amass followers – and most certainly our goal isn’t to create an aura of indispensability, as if we’ve the corner on the truth market. Our goal, simply, is to point people to Jesus, precisely because he alone never changes:
He was there for you when you walked away from him. He’ll be there for you when you return.
He was a source of wisdom when you didn’t think you needed it. He’ll be wisdom when you know you do.
He was a source of comfort when you turned to alcohol instead. He’ll be a source of comfort when you turn to him
He was your provision when you thought he wasn’t. He’ll be your provision when you know he is.
He loves you when you don’t believe he does. He’ll love you when accept his love.
He’s all you need in seasons of grace and peace.
He’ll be all you need when all hell breaks loose – when there’s cancer in the family, when your fried dies in an accident, when you lose your job.
He’ll change lives at this bible school when Hans Peter Royer is the leader. He’ll change lives when Martin Buchsteiner is the leader
What a good word for me when, at times, I feel overly weary due to my own foolishness and wrong sense of my own importance. His speech is followed by hilarious gifts given to him, ranging from an umbrella, to Red Bull, to Schnaps. And then his wife gives a marvelous word, and we sing a final song, and it’s over.
The meeting ends and after hugs with friends we migrate back to the school for a meal. I walk over to the climbing wall though, and it’s there, at the top, right below the exalted and highest “Jesus Christus” that I see the words: gestern heute immer. My very poor German’s good enough to know that the wall, which has been in the midst of all the changes in this little part of the world, now reads:
Jesus Christ: Yesterday, Today, and Forever.
Yes…this is the most important truth in my life, and the wall has become a memory stone for, a continual reminder that, though everything changes in life, Christ remains the same.