The first few minutes of this video (or the print version of the article) reveals a trend in the United States whereby a larger and larger percentage of the populace move toward the “religiously unaffiliated” category. The trend is happening across every age demographic, but is particularly pointed among millennials.
In the wake of the survey results, there’s been no shortage of diagnostics offered, and further dicing of the data. Words have spent explaining why: Homosexuality. Science. The creeping effects of secularism. Theological compromise. Bad music. Justice. Bad coffee.
It’s the same song, different verse, that we’ve been hearing now for forty years. It’s mostly finger pointing, and “speck in your brother’s eye” stuff that we’re talking about. Emergent types are looking for a bigger tent as they read Richard Rohr and drink Scotch. The new religious right quote folks fighting for the all important doctrines of election and inerrancy as they gather for coffee and sound their battle cry.
Blah blah blah. About three years ago I grew weary of taking part in these conversations, fearing that I was just another voice in the midst of the myriad of sound and fury. It became clear by talking with close friends who’d quit the church that only those on the inside care about these arguments anyway, that our internal arguments just reinforce the outsider’s view of our irrelevance.
I still feel that way now, only now it’s hard to even listen. The whole thing appears, on the surface anyway, to be an exercise in rearranging the chairs after the boat’s hit the iceberg. “How shall we set the chairs so people will come? Circle? Rows? Small groups of four? Three? Stacked in the corner?” Nobody cares. The dramatic shift toward unaffiliated is because people are moving on. Any plan that claims to offer a ‘way back’ is, in my opinion, misguided.
What is needed though, is for we church leaders to do some serious introspecting about our own hearts. The truth is that it is we leaders of the past two generations, with our priorities and world view, that allowed the ship to hit the iceberg. We should ask about our own health, not in hopes of getting people back into their fold, but in hopes of fixing the leak in the hull, for the good news is that the church isn’t the Titanic—by virtue of Christ’s life, the ship can be healed!
I’m slowly coming to see that a big reason there’s a hole in the hull is because we’ve failed, often catastrophically, to let Jesus be Jesus. Instead we’ve used some sort of fabricated replica of Jesus, some plastic mass-produced thing, that highlights some elements of Jesus that we think will play well in our time and place.
The real Jesus can’t be fabricated by religious efforts. The real Jesus can only grow in us and express life through us to the extent that we are yielded to his rule and reign in our lives. What grows out of that yieldedness won’t be easily brand-able, marketable, or reducible to sound bytes and Twitter posts. But this requires the hard slow work of spiritual formation, and trusting God with results; hardly the stuff of our upwardly mobile, market share, and metrics driven world.
The way of recovery is to realize that, ironically, the pure Jesus is a mixed drink almost every time, usually of two seemingly incompatible ingredients. The cup that is Christ’s life is filled with apparent contradictions, and the only way the real Jesus shows up is if both sides of the contradiction are present. Here are two examples of what I mean:
Leadership as a Servant – The testosterone saturated view of leadership that’s prevailed for the past many decades has not only marginalized and disempowered half the church; it’s created a situation where, behind the veil, domestic violence and spouse abuse occur unchecked. This is because we have a hard time seeing “servant” and “leader” in the same sentence. And yet the reality is that this is the mixture that is the real Jesus. He led by taking a towel and wrapping himself about, serving his followers the way a slave serves. Though he’s a bridegroom and longed for intimacy with his people, and yet refused to force himself on them in the name of headship, so wept at the gates of Jerusalem because they wouldn’t let him in. Every element of his leadership was saturated with submission and servanthood. Wow!
What if marriages worked that way? What if pastors led that way? What if we prayed and confessed that we don’t really understand how to lead and serve at the same time because the hierarchy embedded in our culture is so strong that we can’t see how to do this, apart from divine revelation?
I’d suggest that we leaders start there, and then take next steps by finding some ways to serve our spouses meaningfully, if we’re married, and our team at work too. Do you think this would make marriages in the church healthier? Might churches becomes more joy filled, less fearful? This has been a profound revelation for me lately, both at work and home. I’ll have more to say, perhaps, when I’ve walked the road a bit further. For now, it’s enough to say that I’m tired of the plastic Jesus I’ve fabricated who leads like a tank. We need to find ways to lead by serving.
Grace and Truth – There are churches that take holiness and transformation seriously, so much so that people are afraid to present their real selves to the community for fear of being viewed as immature, weak, ‘fleshly’, or whatever other derogatory adjective you’d like to choose as the descriptor. The disconnect in these places is between what people present themselves to be, and who they actually are, and it’s this way because there’s no grace.
There are grace churches that essentially have jettisoned truth by saying, “Come as you are. Stay as you are. You’re forgiven; heaven bound. It’s enough.” These places too, are conspicuous in their lack of transformation; still drinking too, or too greedy, or too self-absorbed, after 30 years of participation.
What happens though, when grace and truth are brought together, filling the cup that is our life? For starters, we’ll be free to be authentic with each other and God, knowing that our depths of failure can never diminish the God’s infinite love and acceptance of us. However, we’ll not feel free to stay where we are. We’ll embrace the reality that because God loves us infinitely, he is infinitely committed to our transformation.
These mixtures don’t happen with humans at the helm of the ship. When we’re in control we always drift. Leadership at the cost of servanthood, truth at the cost of grace. You get the picture. And then, boom! There’s a hole in the hull.
It won’t be fixed by fair trade coffee in the foyer, or better lighting. For the church to be the church requires letting the real Jesus show up in all his mysterious contradictions. I can only pray we’ll have courage to move in that direction.
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.
I didn’t even know I’d lost anything. This is a hazard of business maybe. We handle “God stuff” all the time, planning weddings, funerals, details, staffing issues, budgets, parking hassles with neighbors, potentially divisive theological issues bubbling under the surface, meetings, more meetings, and a few more meetings after that. In the midst of all that there are sermons to prepare, preaching to do, young pastors to equip through one-on-one and group meetings. It’s all there, but for any of these elements to have real meaning, they need to be infused with the grace and peace of Christ, as if Christ himself is in the midst of the decision, encounter, transaction, meeting.
Truth be told though, the ocean of details can conspire with my own Type A personality and propensity to get anxious about stuff, and “Poof!”—I’m still doing all the stuff, but Christ and his peace are no longer in my sense of reality, having been displaced by that worst of all things: religious professionalism. The slide into this territory is so subtle you don’t even notice it, because the words don’t change a bit—you still sound as holy as ever to onlookers, and so you actually begin to believe it, approval addict that you are.
Until somebody notices, and calls you out on it.
The Sunday I arrived home from Sabbatical last October, someone in our church approached me and told me I looked “ten years younger” and I hugged her, of course believing that she had the gift of discernment and truth telling! I felt it too, rested, at peace, in love with Christ.
FAST FORWARD to last Sunday.
The same woman approached me and said, “Can I pray for you? You look absolutely spent, and exhausted.” I told her I was fine, but underneath the surface of propriety, the truth was that her words were as accurate then as they were last October, and I knew it; knew that something wasn’t working right; knew that I was running on fumes. In her few pointed but accurate words, she’d ripped the veil off that I’d been wearing so skillfully—that of a religious pro who knows the words, but is, in the moment, experiencing nothing of the reality, knowing instead the companionship of anxiety and hurry, restlessness and frustration. I’d known it, but as long as I could keep all the balls in play in this pinball machine that had become my life, nobody would know how hollow I was. Thank God someone saw, and said, and prayed.
Meditation: After preaching for the 4th time that Sunday, I went home and pulled a book off my shelf I’d not looked at since about 1997. I’d first picked it up when I’d visited a convent for a personal retreat, and poured my heart out to a nun, also the librarian of the convent. She’d recommended it, and I’d read it there, and later bought it. It’s a book about meditation, and I hesitate to share it because so many Christ followers will be afraid of it, in spite of the fact that we’re invited to “pray without ceasing” and “meditate” on God’s word so that it saturates our being.
Anyway, this book recommends sitting quietly and praying The Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm, or the Prayer of St. Francis, slowly, over and over again, for a period of time each morning and evening. I started doing that, immediately that night, and then again in the morning and evening ever since.
I can’t even begin to describe the renewed sense of peace, and awareness of the reality that Christ lives in me, with me, loves me, is for me, has called me to shine as light and given me all I need to do that, will never leave me, and (o so marvelous) has called me to peace.
I’ve known these truths in reality, but lately they’d become words for others more than a central reality in my daily experience. Now, once again, having made a high priority of taking time to prayerfully mediate on God’s truth each morning and evening, I’ve begun to enjoy the reality of Christ’s presence in my actual living.
There’s a greater sense of peace, by the way, when driving, speaking, leading meetings. I’m far from ‘at rest’, but utterly confident I’m on the right road, and can only pray and hope for the same for all who suffer from anxiety, fear, emptiness, boredom—in spite of being full of ‘God words’.
Gratitude: In the wake of this new habit, a sense of profound gratitude and appreciation began growing in my moment by moment living. I’ll be listening to some music and it will remind me of days in the past when I wrote books in a log cabin—simpler days, when I led a smaller church. Rather than looking back wistfully though, my heart these days is filled with profound joy for the memories and privileges of the past. Today is today—and God will give us what we need for it; but one of the things we need is a sense of gratitude for the good gifts in our past.
The other peace of gratitude has to do with a fresh sense of seeing creation and being overwhelmed with joy simply by watching the rain fall from the sky, or seeing the clouds change color in the sunset. Yesterday I spent the day splitting and stacking wood with my wife, and we both commented on how delightful it is that we find joy anytime we can be in the midst of God’s beautiful creation. The cathedral of God’s stunning creation is better than anything for both of us, and we like it that way!
Presence: I’m preaching a bit about this tomorrow, but looking back, I can see how easily I slipped into losing the present moment to either past regrets or (especially) future worries. Somehow, renewal brings with it the capacity to live more in this actual moment. One of the highest forms of generosity you can offer another is the gift of your absolute attention. I’m often terrible at this, but am aware that, to the extent that Christ is given freedom to express life through us, it will present, not in scattered attention, listening with one ear, while our other senses are watching our phones, or our brains are elsewhere in the future, or the other room. Rather, we’ll be all there.
Contentment: Finally, as ridiculous as it sounds, this little film of a skier and his dog reminded me that we’re made for fellowship: with God, with God’s creation, with others. People and creation itself aren’t commodities to be used for our pleasure or purposes—rather, they’re gifts to be cherished, loved, and enjoyed.
If you’re in need of renewal, I hope these principles help you forward. May you know the peace of Christ, not as a theory, but as a reality—before this very day is over.
“Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.” Exodus 24:1,2
When climbers are headed up to Mt. Rainier through the Camp Muir route, they start in the parking lot of a place called “Paradise” which is the highest point to which one can drive in this beautiful national park. This turns Paradise, at any given moments, into a weird mix of highly skilled mountaineers, beginners who are hoping to make it to the summit, and masses of people who will never leave the paved paths, ever, as long as they live. They’re decked out in L.L. Bean’s newest and best, or REI tech gear, or whatever, slurping ice cream in the parking lot. They’re peering through those coin operated telescopes to get a glimpse of the glacier before snapping a selfie with the imposing massif in the background, and calling it their “outdoor challenge for the year”.
The climbers are in the mix with the masses, but not for long. They get their permit from a little office, use the bathroom, maybe grab one last taste of actual food for a few days, and that’s it, they’re gone, headed up for the summit. When the paved path ends, the tourists turn around, while the rest step onto actual soil, and eventually snow, pressing onward, upward. Even among the climbers, not everyone will continue to the top. Camp Muir, at 10,400’ is the next common drop out point, as the realities of altitude sickness, sunburn, loss of appetite, cold, thirst, nausea, or any other number of factors will lead yet another group to say “far enough”.
Finally, there will be those who leave base camp the next morning with every intention of summiting. They thought they’d prepared well enough, thought that riding their bicycle to work and doing the “7 minute workout” app on their phone twice a week would adequately prepare them for carrying 40 pounds on their back up one and a half vertical miles of snow, rock, and ice, into the thin air above treeline, where rockfall, avalanches, and crevasses hidden in the glaciers present a large menu of ways to die. Somewhere before the summit they say, “this is good enough for me!” and either descend or stay put and wait for their group to go up and then join them on their descent. The herd self selects out of further progress until only the best prepared, most courageous, and most diligent, make it to the top.
When God’s about to give the law to Israel as a centerpiece of establishing the new nation, a similar culling of the herd occurs. God sets a boundary around the mountain and invites only Moses and his key leaders to ascend beyond the parking lot. Then, beyond the high base camp, it’s to be only Moses. Though he takes his successor, named Joshua, with him some distance, there’s no indication that Joshua summits. At the top it’s Moses. Alone with God.
In this story God’s the one who sets the boundaries around the mountain and keeps people away. There are reasons for that, in that time and place, but they don’t apply to us (as I’ll write about in the forthcoming book, of which this post is a part).
We’re living in a time when summiting the pinnacle of intimacy with God is available to everyone because the barriers to the summit were annihilated at the cross. Still, the same Christ who broke down the barriers said that the road to the summit is narrow (ref) and, like Mt. Rainier, there are few who actually find it. There’s a parking lot filled with religion. Jesus stickers and t-shirts are for sale, and lots people looking “a couple dollar’s worth of God”. The parking lot is the Sunday meeting, and there are folks there for the photo ops and real estate contacts. If there’s a little entertainment or even a dose of conviction along the way, so be it. But they’ve not intention of going farther. Others will hit the trail until the pavement ends. Some fewer will keep going a bit further, until there’s more hard stuff than joyful stuff, at which point they turn around, in search of safety, predictability, warmth.
If Christ’s blown up the barriers to the summit, then what’s holding anyone back? The answer can be found by switching metaphors, because a quick glance at Jesus’ parable of the seed and sower explains why “some seeds don’t produce fruit”, which is the same thing, metaphorically, as not reaching the summit. And what are the reasons? O you know; the usual suspects: affliction, worry, the lying seductions of wealth. There are, in other words, lots of reasons to descend to the parking lot of religious carnivals.
“Up” is about the pursuit of intimacy with God, about Christ becoming, in real ways, a friend, companion, lover even, in the daily stuff of living. Getting there, Jesus is saying, doesn’t happen by accident, any more than you wake up one morning having run a marathon, or summiting Rainier. It requires intentionality, prioritizing, and pressing on toward the goal when others stop. It requires shedding stuff, so that by the end, there’s one true pursuit to which all other pursuits give way.
“Right Intentions” is the starting point: the way of fruitful discipleship. Making intimacy with Christ your summit goal will be simple because you need to travel light if you’re going to travel at all. It will be hard because it requires letting go of stuff the majority carry with them daily, stuff like self-medicating when disappointed, and being defined by consumerism and what we own, and feeding on a diet of entertainment rather than creativity. It’s beautiful because the glory of meeting Christ in thin and unpolluted air will ravish you. It’s ugly because you want to quit due to pain, more than once.
Where on this mountain called discipleship, are you headed? If it’s the summit of intimacy, know that it takes more than the right gear. It takes traveling light, endurance, and a hunger for the summit of knowing Christ like a lover. Who’s in? The rest of you? Enjoy the telescopes and ice-cream. I’ll see you later.
O God of the summit invitation
Thank you for inviting us to ascend utterly. Stir in our hearts a discontent for the tourist faith that’s commonplace, where signing a card and signing a song, substitute for radical discipleship. Fill us with a longing for the summit instead, and teach us to travel light, shedding the fears, bitterness, lusts, and attachments that the whole world seems to carry on its collective back this days. When we tire, give us the grace to take next steps, and rest, and celebrate beauty. But may we never, ever turn back short of knowing you fully.
Yesterday I spent some time in what is slowly becoming a sabbath routine for this season of life. My wife and I packed a small lunch and some extra clothes in our backpacks and took off for a day of hiking. In a normal year it would be a ski day, but this is not a normal year. All the snow is over in Boston, and here where we normally get over 400 inches a year, the ski hills are brown brush; so we hike.
As we hike, we talk about life. It’s become maybe the best time of the week for sharing, because we have uninterrupted space for needed dialogue, punctuated by periods of silence for reflection, response, or even just enjoyment of the woods. The conversations always include remembrances of the past and considerations of the future. The two subjects feed each other by this time in our life together. We’ve seen 35 years of God’s faithful provision in our lives; seen many decisions we made with finite information which turned out far better than we’d anticipated, precisely because (we believe) God knew ‘the rest of story’ as only God can.
For example, I was sharing yesterday how profound it was to contemplate that we’d purchased this house in the mountains that had its own apartment, solely with a view of retiring there someday and renting it out as a ski chalet in the meantime, while keeping the small apartment for our own, for skiing, writing, hiking, and such.
Now here we are, living there, with my mom-in-law in the perfect little apartment as life circumstances converged so that it was best for her to move in with us. Her love of mountains and snow, and our purchase converged to meet a need we didn’t even know would exist when we bought the place. But God knew, and has provided space. We tell each other these kinds of stories while we hike, recalling God’s faithfulness in the past.
We speak of the future too; pondering how we can best use the gifts and resources God has given us to live fully into the story God desires to write through us. We ponder options, and they become matters for prayer. We speak of our heart’s desires in ways that we don’t during week because the week’s too full of obligations to spend much time pondering deeper longings. Giving voice to these longings is healthy, appropriate, necessary, if we’re to continue growing.
And of course, we speak of the present—of our own marriage, our children, decisions that need to be made. We speak of money, car brakes, schedules for the coming week, and of trees, waterfalls, lichen, weather, and rocks.
We share a meal at the top. We hike out. We drive home. Then there’s a meal, and peace, and a sense we’ve connected with God and each other. We propose to do it again next time. Sabbath; a gift from God.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. In many circles, Sabbath is nothing more than a legalistic noose tied around the necks of religious people to prevent them from doing anything the religious elite consider work. The list varies from generation to generation and place to place, including soccer, shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, wearing false teeth, and lifting anything heavier than two dried figs. This is just one of many reasons why people rightly hate religion. Jesus said you could know the worthiness of a person’s teachings and worldview ‘by their fruits’ and if the fruit of Sabbath keep is fear, withdrawal, and judgmentalism, I for one will be at the front of the line to condemn it.
Another group, seeing this legalist nonsense, has done away with the Sabbath completely. It’s either spiritualized (“Every day is a day of rest in Christ”), or bastardized into simply a “day off” which means a time to knock oneself out with shopping, or obligations with the kids, or find some sort of adrenaline hit so that we can maintain our stress levels until Monday, though because it’s chosen, it’s good stress rather than distress.
Either way is an exercise in missing the point. Sabbath, when properly practiced as a spiritual discipline, helps create a soil in which several good things can happen. Here’s what I mean:
A good and consistent Sabbath practice, over time will:
1. Create capacity in our lives – The creation narrative offers a profound revelation that life is intended to be lived in a complimentary manner: day and night; heaven and earth; sea and dry land; male and female; and yes—work and rest. God was the prototype of this rhythm, and those who violate it do so at great risk to their own fruitfulness and well being. This is because we’re made for a pattern of engagement and withdrawal, and if our Sabbath’s neglect withdrawal, we’ll enter our weekly responsibilities of engagement with even diminishing resources. The presenting symptoms will be stress related things like sleep troubles, nervousness, fatigue, and/or high anxiety. When it comes to exercise, we all know that we need to both exercise and rest. The same’s true with the whole of our lives and the Sabbath is God’s gift to provide for this.
2. Create a context for guidance – My wife and I have made many major life decisions in the context of Sabbaths, because that’s where we make the needed space to ponder God’s faithfulness in the past, and prayerfully give voice to our longings and hopes for the future, so that we can hear God speak and show us next steps. The worst thing we can do is be reactionary with our lives, both day to day in our obligations and with respect to major life decisions. It’s far better to be proactive, and this proactivity will come from creating space to pour our hearts out to God and then listen, and then act.
3. Remind you that you’re not the Messiah – One of the practical purposes of Sabbath practice when Israel was in the wilderness was so that they might learn that God will take care of them, all the time, even when they rest. The more and better anyone learns this, the more fully and profoundly they come to believe that God sustains God’s work and will do so even when we step away from it. I’ll be blunt in saying that its our sense of indispensability that often turns us into very ugly people—controlling, demanding, fearful, even manipulative; all in the name of “getting the job done”. The Sabbath, practiced well, will help you get over yourself, and rest in the reality that our participation in whatever work it is to which God has called us, is a privilege, not a necessity.
Make space please! For remembering; for considering; for sharing; for praying; for restoring. If that’s not a habit for you, now’s a good time to begin.
Here’s a resource I’ll recommend to round out and develop this discussion further.
My previous post offered the first two of five essential values for leaders to nurture and develop if they hope to still be living into their calling and sustaining important relationships, “for the long haul.” Giftedness will get you in the door as a leader, and romance will get you started in a relationship, but it’s these five critical qualities that will allow you to stay in the game for decades. In addition to teachability/humility and a rhythm of work and rest, you’ll also need:
#3 To be Rooted and Grounded (A Firm Identity) – Jesus does things that are utterly exasperating to contemporary leaders, like walking away from his ministry in Capernaum when word about him had spread and “the whole city” was looking for him. Who walks away from an opportunity to “expand their platform” or “build their brand” or “capture more market share?” Apparently Jesus does, and this makes no sense to we who are bred in the capitalist mindset that bigger and more is always the highest and best way to go.
The thing about Jesus though was that he had only one foundational source from which he drew his sense of significance, and that source wasn’t the size or success of his ministry. It wasn’t the response of the crowds either, because in John 6, Jesus is utterly undisturbed, even when the crowds shrink exponentially because of the harsh reality of his message. It wasn’t the faithfulness of his disciples, all of whom fled the scene when things got tough.
What keeps Jesus so grounded, so solid, in spite of the ups and downs of popularity in the polls, and in spite of the reality that his closest friends didn’t have a clue what he was about ’til the very end of his post resurrection life?
The answer’s found in John 13:3, where we’re told that Jesus knew that “the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from the Father and was returning to the Father….“ Because of this rootedness, Jesus is able to bend down and wash the feet of those who will betray and abandon him within a few short hours. It’s this identity with the Father that is the foundation of his life because Jesus knows his place in the universe, knows his relationship with God is secure, knows his destiny. And…
Yes, enough for Jesus, but not us, because we have a gaping hole in our lives that longs to be filled with significance, and so we set off to plant 1,000 churches, or to have a perfect marriage that’s the envy of the world, or raise children who are scholars, athletes, saints, who always eat their organic vegetables and never get cavities. Or we knock ourselves out to get whatever is, in our own world, the equivalent of a bestseller. Armed with these goals, we’re convinced that when we reach them, it will be enough.
It won’t. You’ll need to sustain it if you succeed, and then eventually you’ll need to let go of it because someday you’ll be old and tired. Then what will be enough? Or maybe sustaining it won’t be enough at all, because success can be addicting, like eating potato chips. You won’t be able to stop. If that’s you, then you’ll be on the tread mill in full swing, and it’s all for God, of course, because we’ve been told how vital it is that we use our gifts, and be a blessing, and make a difference. The whole message, at its worst, baptizes ambitions born of insecurities and leaves us desperate to succeed.
When success is our goal (marriage success, family success, ministry success, job success, publishing success) then the people in our lives become tools to help us get there. When that happens, I have a feeling we’ll no longer be washing the feet of our family members, or co-workers, or spouses, or church members when they fail to agree with us or appreciate us, because we’ll see them as barriers to our success, and our since our success is our identity, “what will we do” if our children rebel, or our church doesn’t grow, or our book doesn’t get published?
Can you see how a wrong definition of success and our desire to “impact the world” is fraught with the potential for burn-out, and even the possibility of becoming a user of people rather than a servant/lover of people? I hope so, because I can tell you from the driver’s seat that these temptations are real, and the world is filled with stories of power abuse at the hands of those who, with the very highest and noble goals articulated, came to insist that those goals be met at any cost, including the cost of servanthood, humility, and love.
The way of Jesus is different than this on two fronts:
A) Jesus invites us to union with himself and makes the audacious claim that this will make us profoundly content, regardless of the scope and nature of “impact” we have, or “fruit” we display in our lives. This is why leaders who are in it for the long haul have an identity rooted in what Christ has done for them and is doing for them, rather than in their own accomplishments. People like this don’t need outward success as much because what sustains them is fellowship with Christ and enjoying the gifts of Christ revealed in creation, beauty, good food, meaningful conversation and laughter. These gifts are received with gratitude by those whose life in Christ is their most precious gift.
Paul calls this being “rooted and grounded in love” so that coming to explore and experience the heights and depths of Christ’s love became the greatest joy, even greater than capturing market share!
Ministry, family, marriage, work; all these things are great gifts from God. But none of them are foundational, and to be blunt, none will last. The joy I have in knowing Christ, however, is a different story. He’s with me know in the midst of this oh so busy season in life. He’ll be with me later, when I’m sitting on a bench, too tired to run, or run a ministry. And he’ll be with me at my last breath. Why would I want to build on any other foundation?
B) Jesus invites us to leave the scope and nature of the fruit he produces in our lives with him. I’ll confess that it’s easy to get excited when I get published, easy to get discouraged when sales don’t match my hopes. Church life? Parenting? Marriage? Health? Money? In every area, we can get overly high or low based on whether reality matches our expectations.
How about, instead, we let go of our expectations, and simply rest in the confidence that Christ will express life through us in his way, his time, in the places of his choosing? That would lead to security. And rest. And peace.
#4 Patience but Relentless Pursuit
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:
I’ve been overwhelmed by beauty these past 35 days or so in the Alps. Sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and lightning, wildflowers and waterfalls, ruggedly terrifying mountain peaks and lush river valleys. It’s been beautiful; but expected. I came here looking for this kind of revelation and, other than the predominance of clouds that have hidden the night sky stars, I’ve not been disappointed.
Less anticipated, though, was the extent to which the aesthetics of Alpine hospitality would so bless us. Little things, like a welcome sign on the door of our room in a hut, or Alpine wildflowers on the table at supper, matchless care given to clean windows and floors; even the flower boxes gracing the sides of chalet balconies, all these things have said, in their own way, “we care about those who are with us—even if they’re just passing through.” This commitment to spatial beauty has become such a norm because of the culture, that wherever it was lacking, things felt sterile, as if we, the guests, were a bother, not worth the time.
Finally though, and most important, I’ve discovered a different kind of beauty that’s robust and life giving. It came as a surprise though, sneaking up on me on Sunday afternoon. Donna and I had come out of the high country and were staying in a wonderful hotel in a small village that we’d accidentally stumbled upon. We’d stashed our stuff, arriving mid-afternoon, and made our way to a little food festival in the plaza, where a stage was set up and a band was singing a mix of German folk tunes and old American songs from the 60’s.
It was here on this plaza on a Sunday afternoon that I heard the famous song: “What a Wonderful World.” Donna and I had just been pondering what it would have been like to be in this plaza 70 years earlier, in 1944, how different than the joviality of this Sunday afternoon. Just then, I heard “What a Wonderful World,” that song made famous by Louie Armstrong. The lyrics matched the day, as I heard:
I see friends shaking hands.
Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying,
“I love you.”
I hear babies cry,
I watch them grow,
They’ll learn much more,
Than I’ll ever know.
And I think to myself….”what a wonderful world.”
The sight of elderly folk walking hand in hand, small children playing, an older man in a wheel chair, and a developmentally disabled child, all making their way through this plaza with joy, all the beloved of someone, was beautiful enough that I was undone by it. These are the people who were declared “a burden to the state” in a previous era. In the end, though, the beauty of compassion won. Thanks be to God.
This has largely been the way of it during these past five weeks: in the high country we see the fit, the strong, the capable (that they’re made up of all ages, including the elderly, is an observation for another post). They’re up where the air is thin, often pouring over maps, and considering how they’ll use their strength to reach the next hut, or a summit or two. They are the beauty of health and vigor.
In the valleys, though, we encounter those unable to go higher, limited in their pursuits by illness, weakness, disability. However, and I can’t stress this enough, the beauty present in the midst of this weakness has been a greater revelation to me than the beauty found in strength. This is because the weakness and vulnerability that I’ve seen has been met with kindness, service, and the dignifying power of profound love. All of this is the more powerful if, while seeing it unfold before my eyes, I’m reading of the days when these very people were gathered up and “put away.”
Thank God for those who say “No!” to such thinking, for the Mother Teresas of the world, and Pope Francis, and those who volunteer in shelters and medical clinics, and those committed to being the presence of Christ precisely by loving and serving those most in need of love.
These are important things to ponder, because we live in a world that, increasingly, worships at the altar of a narrowly defined view of beauty, a view having to do with strength, youth, and “capacity”, whether intellectual, financial, social, or physical. I can’t stress how dangerous, and ultimately ugly, this path is. How do we avoid it?
1. Recognize the beauty of vulnerability. It’s a soil in which powerful love will grow.
2. Recognize the beauty of brokenness and confession.
3. Recognize the beauty of service and hospitality, and begin making both a priority—especially toward those who can’t repay.
4. Quit walking to the other side of the road when you encounter need, weakness, brokenness. Jump in and love instead.
All of this requires, not just a new set of eyes, but an openness to disruption, and that requires space in our lives, and that requires trimming the excess obligations, and that requires… alignment with God’s priorities.
Our world increasingly views those who can’t pay their way as a bother. Imagine the power of light in the midst of such darkness when compassion, love, and service take root again. Whatever it looks like, I know this much: it will be beautiful.
I’ve loved talking to folks in their twenties about the peaks they’re going after, but never did I imagine that the greater joy would come from chatting with elderly folks sitting on a bench, and yet that’s been the way of it, because it’s beauty I’m finding there that contains within itself the essence of the gospel.
Today I’ll get on a bus with my wife and travel from Freiberg, Germany to Munich and then a train from there to Schladming, Austria, on this, our 35th wedding anniversary. Now that we’ve reached this milestone, I think we’re most grateful, not that we’re still married, but that we still love each other, likely more than ever before (and this after hiking together for the past 35 days). This has me thinking about how this has happened, and so I offer these marriage observations. It’s less advice, than observations about our marriage, but if these 35 thoughts help anyone else, we’ll both be thrilled.
1. I had a short list of qualities I was looking for in a spouse:
2. Sense of humor—someone who would make me laugh,
3. Someone who would give me the freedom to fail,
4. Someone who would be willing to live anywhere in the world.
5. All three qualities have been vitalizing, sustaining, and life-giving in our marriage.
6. For much of our marriage we sought approval from each other for purchases over $20, and this served us well.
7. We’ve paid off our credit cards completely each month, and this too has served us well.
8. The shared values of thrift, coupled with the discipline of generosity which has included giving to church have helped limit financial tensions.
9. We’ve needed to learn about our own family of origin issues, because we brought those into the marriage, and they created problems at times. But marriage has been a lab to expose those issues and that’s been good, though hard.
10. We’ve made major decisions about the future by praying for guidance and then deciding together what God was saying to us. None of this, “I’m the man and so you’ll do what I say” kind of thinking.
11. Both of us have felt a profound sense of responsibility for the family unit, though we each contribute(d) to it in profoundly different ways. It’s a bit like climbing —belayer, climber, both matter to the success of the mission, and both know that if either fails to pay attention, it’ll be costly to everyone.
12. We light a candle at meals as often as possible. This seems to help create an atmosphere for conversation.
13. Our shared love of the outdoors has served us well as a common passion.
14. We don’t do devotions well together. We never have. This is because we like very different reading material.
15. There were years when I tried to make my wife like the same reading material as I liked.
16. This lead to the sad revelation that I was trying to turn her into a version of me.
17. I’ve since learned that we’re happier, and it’s better, if she’s becoming the best version of her, not me.
18. Our tastes in movies are largely different.
19. Sex has gotten better over the years, as we’ve learned how to serve each other and communicate our desires.
20. Grace and forgiveness are two of the most vital ingredients that have sustained our relationship. I’ve failed, told her, and she’s forgiven. And she’s done the same. I can’t stress this enough.
21. We didn’t date very long before I proposed. I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone, but I think many people today wait too long to make a commitment because they’re “shopping for a spouse” as a sort of commodity that will help them with their own goals. This is bad at so many levels that I’ll need to write about it in a different post.
22. My wife has gifts of serving others, and I have gifts of teaching and leading. Knowing this has helped us accept and liberate each other to focus on what we do best, while still seeking to grow in areas where we’re not as strong.
23. I traveled extensively while our children were young, and this would have been impossible if my wife didn’t believe in my calling.
24. I went through seminary while my wife worked full time—again impossible without her belief in my calling.
25. Her vast investment in me is just one of a hundred things that makes the notion of my ever being unfaithful impossible to imagine without getting sick to my stomach.
26. Because she doesn’t thrive in the morning, I find the time I need for intimacy with God by rising early.
27. We’ve prayed together often, but the most memorable prayers have come after hours of hard conversations, late at night. These prayers were cries from the heart.
28. We’re good enough cooks that we’d usually rather stay home and cook a great meal than eat out.
29. When we’ve argued, 99.6% of the time we’ve ended with both of us feeling heard by the other and valued by the other. This has been priceless.
30. Donna lets me invest in skiing because “it’s cheaper than therapy.”
31. We started, and ran, a non-profit together. This was hard work, that we loved, and was very good for our marriage.
32. When we had children, we mostly brought them into our lives of faith, outdoor activities, and the non-profit we ran.
33. I’ve decided that “staying married” is setting the bar too low; that nurturing love and intimacy are worthier goals.
34. As we’ve grown older, we’ve grown more comfortable with ourselves as individuals, and this has, ironically, strengthened our life as a couple.
35. Donna’s personality is one of the greatest assets to my ministry and calling, but long after I’m done with my profession, I hope and pray she’s still around to make me laugh and give me the freedom to fail—anywhere in the world.
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.