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:
It’s elemental things like wind, clouds, and fire that God uses to guide people throughout the Bible. “Don’t move unless the flame moves.” “The wind blows. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the spirit.”
Our view of guidance is important, because unless we believe God can still direct our lives, orchestrating encounters, moving us to certain places, then the bottom line is that we’ll go where we damn well please. If we’re tired of the heat, we’ll move north. If we’re tired of poverty, we’ll get another degree. We’ll marry or not, move or not, based on our own motives, goals, internal drives.
But to the extent that we let the wind of the spirit blow, filing the halls of our soul, a different story unfolds (from end to beginning):
8:00 PM – We’re sitting in a tiny chapel, in a dot on the map village named Zell, with 25 other people listening to “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, the pipe organ filling the chapel as we soak in the ambiance of sunflowers on the altar, rustic wooden pews, candlelight, dusk light wafting through the windows. God is speaking to me here, bringing restoration, as I inhale and soak in revelation from every sense.
2:30 PM – We learned of the chapel and the concert because we’d set out walking after checking into our lodging in Oberstaufen (which means “the high village”) tucked in the base of the Alps. We’d wandered down a street and encountered a hall named after Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and this is why I stopped and read the literature posted to the reader board, which included notice of the concert (my German just good enough to figure this out). With map and compass, we discerned that Zell was only about 3k away, and determined to walk there and hear a little organ music. The walk was every bit as glorious as the concert, through fields of freshly mown hay, with hot air balloons in the sky to the west, and contrasting lavish greens from fields and firs.
1:30 PM – We get off the train in Oberstaufen, having never been there before, and find, at the tourist information center, a large touch screen “lodging genie” which enables us to quickly find which inns have rooms. There’s a place within 50 meters of where we’re standing and when we go to inquire, the owner wins our hearts with his smile and gentleness, and we’re finished looking.
1:10 PM – We decide, as a result of conversing with a couple (she from Germany, he from Alabama), to get off the train at Oberstaufen instead of Lindau because the woman tells us that Lindau, being by the vacation destination of Lake Constance will be “very full and very expensive” at this time in August.
12:47 PM – We board the train, this particular one having individual cabins that seat up to six people. As we’re getting on, a man is busily removing his stuff from one cabin to move to another so that his whole party can be together. This leaves a German/American couple alone in a car and we join them. As we begin to discuss where to get off the train in Lindau, she says “Perhaps I can help answer your questions? I live in Lindau.”
11:34 AM – We board a train to our intended destination, Lindau. It will have one change over to a different train that will its station at 12:47PM.
11:00 AM – We disembark from the lift that carries us down from the high country and find our way to the Bahnhoff, where we purchase tickets to Lindau, with the intent of exploring there for a day before visiting friends in Friedrichschaffen.
10:45 AM – Donna passes through the gate to board the lift, carrying my pack, as I intend to run down the mountain. At the last second, for reasons that can only be described as “promptings”, I change my mind and join her. “Wait” I shout, as I too use my ticket to descend via lift instead of jogging down. “Why did you join me?” she asks. “Because I like being with you” is the shortest and easiest answer, though the mystical prompting is there too.
9:00 AM – We’re out the door, heading down and out instead of our planned “up and in” deeper into the Alps to “Bad Kissinger Hutte” (no political jokes please). We’d eaten lunch at this hut the day before after climbing to the top of Aggenstein peak, and were looking forward to spending the night there, but the danger of the hike is obvious to everyone.
6:45 AM – The silence on the windows feels ominous instead of hopeful after a night of listening to pelting rain on the windows of our hut. “Could it be?” the eight of us sharing a room ask as morning dawns. It is. “Snow!” The weather report had predicted this to be a good day, sunny and warm. By breakfast some of the snow is sticking to the tables outside. We know the route to the hut, know that it’s a trail strewn with rocks that will be “slippery when wet”, know that there are sections where it’s so steep that one must use cables to “hang on”, know that the Romanian who speaks English and works at Bad Kissinger Hut but was helping out at the hut we’re staying in will tell us to go down the mountain, as everyone else will also decide to do.
6:00 AM – Howling wind and rain make sounds when a hut is situated on a high Alpine ridge. The whole place shakes a bit. Sleep is fitful in such a space.
9:30 PM – I fall asleep after taking pictures of the evening lights of Bavaria from the stunning hut. We’re looking forward to being still deeper in the Alps by tomorrow night.
Proverbs 16:9 says “A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.”
One of the great lessons I’m learning on this trip is both the importance and danger of goals. We’re at our best when we can live in the tension between planning, and holding our plans with open hands. We won’t reach our 400 miles in 40 days goal because snow changes plans, and the impossibility of some routes during bad weather changes plans, and the reality that we want to go slow enough to experience the Alps has also changed plans.
Yet still, we’re trekking nearly every day, committing each day to Christ at the outset and believing that weather, train schedules, and the people we meet along the way aren’t random encounters— they’re divinely orchestrated encounters intended to lead to “Jesus —the joy of man’s desiring.”
Does this apply to real life as well? Yes. We believe that God is guiding our lives, but this belief, rather than leading to a sense of fear (have I missed God’s will?) and paralysis (I can’t do anything until I’ve heard God’s voice) should lead to a sense of confident rest, assured that God is both speaking to our hearts and orchestrating the daily encounters of our lives. In this paradigm, we’re always on the lookout for the wind of the spirit, holding everything, including our plans, with an open hand. Then, and only then, will life become the adventure God intends it to be.
I spoke with a couple last week who lost their child to cancer at the age of six. As we talked of loss, change and challenge, she reminded me that about 85% of the marriages where a child suffers a disability end in divorce. This, I presume, is because of the tremendous gap between how we thought life would unfold, and how it actually unfolds.
Where’s your gap? Job change, or joblessness? Health challenges? A relationship evaporating before your eyes? Unexpected financial hardships? Whatever the issue, our response is vital to our continued transformation, to our movement in the direction of joy, peace, wholeness.
The notion that we’ll escape these unforeseen changes is fantasy. A quick glance through the Bible reveals otherwise. Abraham left home. Moses went home. David became King, lost the throne because of his son’s coup, and then came back. Let’s not forget the fallout from wars as sons were lost, families torn apart. Job lost everything. Peter changed vocations to follow Christ and was eventually martyred. It’s not just that these people suffered. It’s that they all lived in families that paid the price too. Change comes knocking, and it opens the door whether you want to let it in or not It’s what you do with it that matters (tweet this)
I’ve been thinking about this recently because this upcoming trip to the Alps, as amazing as it will be, wasn’t the original plan. The plan, in less than two weeks, was to head down to southern Oregon and hike the Pacific Crest trail back home, or even further, to the Canadian border, if time permitted.
My friend’s paragliding death in the Alps eventuated in a change of plans, because he directed a Bible School with which I’m closely tied. When the new director called and we chatted last September about the upcoming year, I knew I was to go over and help out. So, two weeks from today, I’ll be teaching the Bible school and hiking with students high into the Alps. My wife will be with me and we’ll separate from the students for a few days before meeting back up after hiking the “Bible smuggler’s Trail” (I’ll post about that later), speaking at graduation, and then beginning our long hike through the Alps.
The plan was solitude – The reality will be otherwise , we’ll find ourselves sleeping in bunkhouses and waiting for showers.
The plan was wilderness – The reality is that the Alps have been civilized for a thousand years, and so we’ll be learning more about the history of World Wars, religious wars, and tribalism, than we will about traveling through the wilds of our unoccupied Cascades.
The plan was to hang food in the trees so that bears can’t get to it. Now we’ll be buying food at each hut, and it will be far better than the freeze dried stuff that would have been reconstituted each night in the wild.
It was going to be this… now it’s that.
It was going to be a life together. Now there’s been infidelity and he/she doesn’t want to rebuild. It was going to be comfortable retirement. Now, after losing everything in the ’07 meltdown, I’ll be working into my 70’s. It was going to be the lush green and mild climates of Seattle. Now I’m living in Phoenix. It was going to be a small, simple, rural ministry. Now it’s urban, and complex, and 3500 people.
Yes, I know the illustration’s weak, because the choice between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Alps is like choosing between Filet Mignon and Copper River Salmon. “All right God… I’ll go to the Alps! Force me!” Suffering? Disappointment? Get real.
Still, while a hike in the Alps isn’t, in the least, disappointing (how could it be?), it does require an adjustment, and the postures enabling us to adjust are, in the end, the same, no matter how joy filled or painful our unintended changes:
Availability – When God calls to Abraham in Genesis 22, his answer is “Here I am”, a Hebrew word (Hineni) which implies availability and a willingness to embrace whatever God brings to us. This stands in stark contrast a word Abraham could have used, “I’m here” (Poh) which would have meant: “Tell me what you want me to do and then I’ll decide my answer.”
My wife sometimes says, “Will you do me a favor?” and though the right answer is “Yes”, I often blurt out “What do you want?”, as if to say that I don’t trust you enough to give a preemptive yes, because I’m afraid of what you’ll ask. I wonder how much richer our lives would be if our posture, vis a vis the God who loves us, would be “Hineni” rather than “Poh”?
A phone call from Austria was all it took to set in motion a drastic change of plans. All of us have had far more profound phone calls, from doctors, spouses, parents, that rocked our world. Our willingness to inhale and embrace what’s on our plates rather than railing against the universe can make all the difference between a life of joy and bitterness.
Honesty – There was no mourning or loss over the change of plans, from Pacific Crest to Alps. The same can’t be said for many other changes life brings. The parents of the little girl who died of cancer, the wife of my friend who died paragliding the Alps, the other who lost his business; these are utterly unwelcome changes. They’re a reminder that we leave in a world of dissonance as the chords of beauty, peace, and health, clash with the unwelcome intrusions of disease, loss, war, poverty, injustice. We’re right to mourn, as Job teaches us, or David, or Jesus.
It’s no good pretending that unwelcome change is welcome, no good painting over it with some spiritual language about God being “all good – all the time” God may be all good all the time, but this world is messed up. So weep, for God’s sake, and your own. This is the best way forward.
Acceptance and Gratitude – Acceptance and gratitude were layups for me with this whole “Alps instead of Cascades” plan. In real life, though, change that forces its way through the door, ultimately requires a measure of acceptance if we’re to avoid shriveling up and becoming bitter people in the end. Acceptance is born out of facing the reality that this intrusion is in my life. Eventually, after a spouse dies, or we lose a job, or a house, or certainly with lesser intrusions, we say, “All right then… this is the way of it. Let’s go.” Fail to get there and you’ll spend the rest of your days in regret.
This acceptance, finally, leads to gratitude, not for the unwelcome change, but for the good that can and usually does come out of it. Voices as diverse as Victor Frankl and Jesus Christ have taught us that, in the end, our gratitude is born from the faith that God is well able to bring beauty of ashes, hope out of despair, and a strange divine strength out of the darkest moments in our lives. So we thank God, not for the change, but for what God will do because of it.
I process by writing… and I’m here in Fresno because my mom’s resting, and ready to go home and be with Jesus. Here’s what I’m thinking while she sleeps.
I’m sitting in the dining hall at the retirement center in Fresno, needing to study for Sunday, but finding it hard to do so. Instead I’m thinking about the inevitability of loss, the profound joy of life, and how any attempts to separate the one from the other will always have the affect of making us hollow, shallow caricatures of the people we’re meant to be.
My mom’s asleep in the other room, waking long enough to tell me she’s thirsty, that she loves me, and “why did you have onions for breakfast?” (I didn’t) I show her pictures on my laptop and she smiles, in awe of my children, and mountains, and flowers, with her classic line “my goodness!”, which I’ve heard ten thousand times at least, these 58 years.
I look at the pictures on her bookshelf, of she and dad in their youth – vibrant and hope filled. Maybe like most children, I know my parents story better than any other, in my case even better than my own since I’m adopted. I know she skated on frozen ponds in Colorado when they were stationed there during WWII, that they returned to central California to build a life because that’s where family was, and that’s what you do. They suffered profound loss during those days, and great success and joy too. Dad moved from teacher to principal, to superintendent, but always missed the classroom and the kids as his leadership role grew. There were health issues, losses, struggles; there were vacations at the coast, and Giant games with Willie Mays, Rook games, and going to “The Sound of Music” as a family. Joy and sorrow. Laughter and tears. Life and death. Gain and Loss. That’s what real life is, and the sooner we embrace that reality the better. There is, after all, a time for everything, including loss, want, and saying good-bye.
Our attempts to turn daily life into a highlight reel are offensive to me as I sit here and look at the half-dozen seniors sleeping in their chairs. Real life, I’ve finally learned, is created by stacking normal days, one on top of the other, for decades, and living each of those days as fully as possible, embracing whatever each day brings.
I think about my mom canning peaches in the later summer heat, and my grandpa putting grapes on trays in the oppressive sun to dry them to raisins because Methodists don’t drink wine, and then coming in and making poetry at night in a house without air conditioning. Oil changes. Diaper changes. House Payments. Holidays. My dad tossing fake vomit on the sidewalk at a party when I was about 7 and my mom thinking I was lying when I told her felt fine, sending me to my room where I watched as she tried to rinse it off the sidewalk and it slid, in tact, into the garden, while Dad fell over laughing; A rubber hot dog in the fridge that mom tossed into the garbage disposal because it looked funky, and then hearing her scream as it shot out when she turned the disposal on with dad, again doubled over in laughter; Skipping evening church, once a year, to watch “The Wizard of Oz” on TV. The epic excitement of the same when we finally got (last on our block) a color TV. Weddings. Funerals. BBQ spare ribs in the backyard summer heat. H-O-R-S-E with dad after school. It all adds up to what can be a remarkable life, if we’ll but learn that it’s less about what we’re doing, and more about the attitude with which we’re doing it. Lives of faith, I’m discovering, can be rich even in poverty. Vibrant even in the midst of health challenges. Lush even in the desert. I know. I watched this kind of normal, in this slightly “out of the way” town, for decades.
I just preached this past Sunday on the importance of making the most of “the time we’ve been given” and I’m sitting here realizing that I lived in a family that, for all flaws, sought precisely that. I’m just now reading Ecclesiastes and am reminded that it’s only in jumping into the deep end of both joy and sorrow, responsibility and goofing off, life and death, that we find the treasure called abundant life. That’s why Rilke said:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Keep going, no matter what. No sensation is too far out. Let nothing separate you from me….the land which they call ‘life’ is near. You will recognize it by it’s serious demands. Give me your hand!”
Or, to quote the preacher from Ecclesiastes: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” – Today, my hand finds itself in the hand of my mom and she squeezes and says, “why did you have onions for breakfast?”
Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise. She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died. Achilles: the place of vulnerability.
The Achilles story is appropriate because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes. Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there. Rest. Repeat. Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear. “Why is this not healing?”
Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine, let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.
Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy. How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical? Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine. Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.
1. Daily is best – Physical Therapists prescribe exercises. “Three sets of 20 on this one. Two sets of 10 on that.” Etc. Etc. These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult. You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired. And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.
But here’s the key. You need to do them! Every day. I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well. Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.
I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t. When I’m motivated, and when I’m not. This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God. There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.
The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine. So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts. They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed. It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.
Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.
2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed. “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”. He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.
So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free. Slow. But pain free. The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties. “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years. The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”
I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other. After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way. One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture. Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.
This too has application for the rest of life. You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health. Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame. It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success. Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable. Both are temporary illusions. The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel. The bad days are as important as the good.
Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ. This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.
3. Ego is a setback – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow. I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!” or worse, to speed up. What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me. The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me. I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.
Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life. It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom. Enough! When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read. It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.
Take away: When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.
The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer. More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.
(this new blog address reflects my profound belief that our lives are journeys of transformation, and that there’s always a step we can take towards wholeness – my upcoming sabbatical was the catalyst for the change, as you see here…)
If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber.
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time. You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your goal. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened. You took initial step into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success. The business grew. You were promoted. The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities. All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing. You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff. Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, Little League, Prom night. It’s not perfect. There are bumps along the way, but you’re still getting more responsibilities. The business is gaining new market share. Investments are doing their job. It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly. Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed. You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more. Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful. That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below. You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar. You’re not sure where you are anymore. You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute. The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too. You went, almost without questioning. And then comes a moment when you know it’s time to rest and recalibrate.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night. At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position. These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang. “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code. Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter. I thought you were Kristi. Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope. I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.” I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings my food. I’m sitting in the glorious Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today paragliding in the Alps. They found his body early this evening. I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.” After a silent moment Peter says, “I know. Stunning.” We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me. I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to. Then I go going home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love reeling in darkness.
One of my best friends is dead. We’d skied the Alps together, snowshoed the Cascades east of Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst monuments of Washington DC. We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids. We’d argued theology and commiserated about leadership. Even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff. It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner. The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for video that needed making. Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed. There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job. It was time for a sabbatical, a break from the normal routine in order to restore. I knew I needed it.
Sabbaticals are for pastors, what fallow land is for a farm. God invoked farmers to let the land rest every seven years, as a remembrance that God’s the provider, and as a gift of restoration for both the land and the farmer! It’s important for the health of everyone: the pastor and the church, the farmer and the land. It was time.
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. It’s like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”. You want it to shine on you too. We call it lots of things, depending on our profession. We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love. Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning. We want our lights to shine. We want significance. I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success. That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy. There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believing that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp. In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year. In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper. We were rural, small, subsistence. There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Keroak spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings around the kitchen table. It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
That was nearly twenty years ago. Between then and now, I’ve been privileged to pastor what I believe to be one of the great churches, in one of the great cities of the world. Grace infuses our life together as we try to focus more on how Jesus unites us than how lesser issues divide. There’s joy and laughter, there’s brokenness and healing. It’s far from perfect. But I’ve been thrilled and honored to carry the torch for this season. In order to restore creativity and vision, though, I knew it was time, not for something different, but for a pause.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with a sense of refreshment, and a re-calibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs.
I’ve been intrigued with the notion of pilgrimage for my sabbatical time, trying to learn what it means to walk with God by literally walking… for 40-45 days, through the high Alps. My intent is to move away for three months: out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency. The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, putting one foot in front of the other for 400 miles.
Lessons will be learned through preparation and travel about suffering, traveling light, encounter, endurance, beauty, hospitality, and much more. And while the original thought was to travel the Pacific Crest trail from the Canadian border south into Oregon, or from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Shasta, the death of my Austrian friend left a teaching hole for this summer that I’m qualified to fill, so I’ll teach the last week of their program and then my wife and I will begin in Northern Italy, head up through Austria into Germany, then west before dropping down and finishing our trek in Switzerland with friends.
I’ll post what we’re experiencing and learning here as I’m able, so I hope you’ll join us!
Departure: July 23rd Return: October 23rd – Here’s a Sabbatical Video that will answer more questions.
There’s a hearing. It comes to us in dreams, or songs, or after a conversation in the corner booth of a Tuesday night with the one we love, or maybe at a graveside or in a hospital, or in the wake of infidelity. However it comes to us, we hear the voice calling, beckoning.
There’s a wrestling with what we’ve heard. Was it the wine, or divinity? The weakness that I’m easily dissatisfied, or the strength that I’m willing to risk it all, to shoot the moon, in pursuit of a better story? Discerning between the Siren calls of temptation and the tug of the divine; having the courage to say yes, or no.
There’s a response. Sometimes the response includes the creating of lists, naming the possible rewards and losses should we undertake the journey. We pray. We consult. We listen to our dreams, more intently than ever. Then we go. Or stay. Whichever way we decide, it will make all the difference.
There’s a preparation. If we’re going, there’ll be things to do, so that already, before we step outside the house, our priorities have changed. We’re reading up instead of watching TV, saving and buying what we’ll need. Getting in shape so that we can handle it. Learning skills, and finding our lives pruned, and richer for the less that it’s become.
There’s a leaving. At some point, after we’re prepped and packed, there’s nothing left to do except walk out the front door, and whether it’s for a weekend getaway, or for last time, or for God only knows how long in between, this moment, this nano second of turning away from the familiar, is vital necessity, for though we’re told we can have it all, I know now that this is rubbish; know now that I can’t live in the new and hold on to yesterday.
Click. The door is closed. The Journey begins.
Our journeys define our lives because the best lives have movement of some sort – physical or spiritual, geographical or emotional, as we walk through valleys of doubt and grief, ascend peaks of prosperity and health, know the warmth of intimacy, the fog of isolation. Through all of it, learning to navigate, take a step, move or stay put, and knowing when to do the one or the other, all this will change us forever. In these coming days, I’ll be writing here mostly about the journey that is, or can be, each of our lives, told through lens of lessons learned as my wife and I prepare for, embark upon, and experience, our journey of a lifetime: 40 days of hiking in the Alps.
The themes of call, guidance, discernment, decision-making, preparation, focus, endurance, storms, carrying weight simplicity, encounter, beauty, fear, hope, rest, will fill the pages, just as they fill our lives. And each post about the journey will be stored here. So here we go.
A favorite author of mine says:
“Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.” –
That’s what I plan to do in these next months. Thanks for joining me!
“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”
I grew up living in “Cat in the Hat”, and by that I mean that rainy days were crazy days spent stuck indoors because of a California “hydrophobia” that led my parents and every other authority figure to say, “you’ll catch a death of a cold if you go out there!” (in that sky spitting a few rain drops at 63 degrees!). The result, for my sister and I, was that Dr. Seuss became a good friend, and the antics of the Cat in the Hat become our reality.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, it turns, had a lot of wisdom. I’ve sat in more than one graduation and listened to someone read “O the Places You’ll Go!”, intimating that life is journey, and that, as cliché as it sounds, the journey is the destination. In fact, I’m finding that the more consistently I seek to interpret my life through lens of being on a journey, the more wisdom I have for the bumps in the road, fog, weariness, great heights that are both challenging and rewarding, hunger, light, and darkness that I find along the way. Abraham was transformed by the journey. So was Moses. So was the Apostle Paul. Why not you? Why not me?
I’m thinking about journey these days for a reason. I have a sabbatical from my work in Seattle coming up this summer, and am planning a gigantic journey. In order to better understand what it means to “walk with God” I’m planning on doing just that: walking with God for about 450-500 miles (somewhere in this neighborhood) I’d originally planned to do this through the Cascade mountains close to my home, but the untimely death of a friend in Austria led to a change of plans, and so now I’ll be hiking through the Alps. This will be a time not only of physical challenge, but of learning Alpine history, the wars fought, the refuges for faith established, the borders challenged, the blend of beauty and terror that made these mountains central to European history. I’ll come to discover how people’s lives were changed forever by their journeys through these mountains. But it will also be, much more, a time of learning at a profound and intimate level as each step, each crossroads, each setback and triumph will be instructive about what it means to walk with God. I hope you’ll join me on the journey as I plan to share what I’m learning, as much as I’m able, right here on this blog, with a diary of the trip and key prep and pics posted here.
Seuss was wise in “O the Places You’ll Go”, but a careful reading reminds me that it’s vital to always read and listen with a sense of discernment. Embedded in this marvelous work, is this single stanza:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You are on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
But can I “steer myself any direction I choose”? Nope. There will be places in the Alps where others, better suited for the terrain than I, will go, and I won’t be able to follow. What’s more, I might plan to go a certain place, thinking it’s within my grasp, only to discover once I get there, that it’s not, that my ankle, or heel, or some other seemingly insignificant body part can derail my whole perfect plan. I’m planning 10-20 kilometers a day. I may end up in a cabin by the sea, writing or playing piano.
This is life, of course. We have plans, and then we have the setbacks that challenge our presumed sense of semi-omnipotence. I thought it would be this, but it’s that. I thought I would be there by now, but I’m still over here, feeling stuck. I tried to steer my direction, tried to stay the course, but never arrived. Still sick. Still alone. Still feeling stuck in my work, or my relationship, or my “walk with God”. Been there? Me too. The truth is that I can’t go wherever I want to go.
The good news is that Seuss is wrong on another count too. You’re not, “on your own” as he says. You have a guide, and your guide has both plans, and contingency plans. Your guide is committed to your destination, but the most important truth to remember along the journey is that your ultimate destination isn’t geographical, relational, physical, or financial. Your destination is to look like Jesus, so that hope and joy, generosity and wisdom, peace and justice, flow through you into a world that’s desperate and thirsty.
And this destination, your guide says, is assured, regardless of seeming setbacks along the way, as long as you stick close to your companion and guide, who is Jesus. You are, I hope, decidedly NOT “on your own”.
You may “know what you know”, but your journey will be best if you also “know what you don’t know” because this is the foundation for a humility that empowers you to check your map, talk with other pilgrims along the way, and most important, follow your guide. He’ll take you places along the way that are not of your choosing. You’ll be upset over this, and in the end you’ll see the value in it. Let your guide be your guide.
Which brings me to the last point. If “You are the one who decides where you’ll go” then all I have to say is “good luck” because “you’re on your own.” The good news, though, is that you don’t need to be on your own. You don’t need to simply look within the chasm of your own broken soul for direction regarding destination and next steps. There is another. Let Christ in. Let Christ decide – about your money, your time, your vocation, your everything. It’s liberating.