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.
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 have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith – Paul the Apostle
You have need of endurance… Hebrews 10:36
Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way. – Annonymous
When the USA was beating Portugal, at the end of regulation, I said, “please please… let it be only two or three minutes of stoppage time” as a sort of prayer to the soccer gods who I don’t believe in. Then I saw the sign: 5 Minutes. FIVE? NOOOOOOOO!!!
Yes. And as anyone who knows anything about soccer knows, the trouble came in the fifth minute… about 30 seconds into the fifth and final minute, when a brilliant pass and header moved the USA from a new version of “miracle on ice” to a mere tie. We played brilliantly, to almost the very end. Almost, though, is an important word. The difference between almost and actually is found in a single word: endurance.
Just this past weekend, a co-worker finished a marathon, friends celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and another friend presses on in his vital leadership role, right in the midst of a battle with cancer. What all these remarkable people share is a commitment to finishing well, and endurance is a key ingredient for doing that.
Jesus doesn’t congratulate us for starting well, because the truth is that for most of us, starting is exciting. Right now, in preparation for a planned 400 mile hike in the Alps, my wife and I are in the midst of equipment preparation, trying out our shoes, reading maps and books, and all the other things that generate the excitement of anticipation. Engaged couples share that same sense, as do most people in their first week at a new job. New presidents, new locations, new friendships. We’ve all known the thrill of starting.
I’ve started enough things, though, to know that the thrill of starting isn’t sufficient to sustain me for the distance. The times I’ve done some mountaineering, I’ve loved the packing, loved the meal on the way to the parking lot, loved the first 1/2 mile. But shortly after that there’s an ache in my back, and later in the day my thighs or calves, too, are screaming. Did I mention hunger, altitude sickness, sunburn, and the need to build a base camp, boil snow for cooking and drinking water, cook a meal, clean the dishes, and set out equipment for summit day – when all you want to do is sleep or throw up?
Endurance means you keep going when you feel like quitting. In fact that the very definition of endurance; our need for it presupposes that we’ll encounter seasons in any worthwhile endeavor when we’ll need to silence the voice telling us to quit.
What are the qualities that build endurance capacity?
1. A goal. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is always helpful because it is, in a sense the reward. 26.2 miles is a long way, but if you know that’s how far it is, you can steel yourself for the task by training both mentally and physically for it. Marriage? Our goal is a deeper love, a truer knowing, a profound intimacy. Vocation? Our goal is excellence at our craft.
“If only the goal was meaningful” you say. Don’t say that too quickly. Rico Medellin works on an assembly line at a work station where it’s expected that he perform the same exact work over 600 times a day, or once every 43 seconds. Rico’s goal wasn’t to “make it through the day” so that he could go home and a enjoy a few beers. Instead he perfected his craft, reducing his performance time to 28 seconds per unit. Working at peak performance levels is his goal. Day after month after year, and he calls the experience “enthralling”
The good news is that meaningful goals can sustain us and motivate us, and the better news, from every century of history, is that meaningful goals are available to everyone: sick or healthy, free or imprisoned, wealthy or impoverished, single or married. Don’t fall into the trap of making “a change of circumstances” the pre-condition for going after a goal. There’s a reason to excel, a summit to pursue right here, right now.
Do have a goal for your fitness, spiritually, vocationally, relationally, physically?
2. Patience – A favorite recent read says, “The Gradual Progress Principle says that everything has to grow incrementally through its own developmental stages, from less to more or from smaller to larger.” Lincoln fought, not for every freedom for African Americans, but for the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew that change happens best when it happens gradually. Go further back and you find William Wilberforce working tirelessly for decades to abolish the slave trade in England.
You don’t wake up one morning and move from couch potato to marathoner, from stale marriage to deep intimacy, from mediocrity to excellence. But you can wake up each day and, as I like to say, “move the ball the down the field”. I often need to ask the question, “What’s the next step to reach the goal?” and take it, being content to realize the gain might be visible to nobody but me. Still, it’s a step, and as I’m about to learn on my 400 mile hike, every step matters.
Other times, I can simply continue in practices that I know are transformative. Keep making eye contact with my wife at least once a day; run three times a week; continue having coffee with God. With such habits I can rest in the confidence that I’m being transformed step by step. This too requires patience.
What else aids in the development of endurance?
3. Needed Nutrients
4. Focus: Distance and Present
My goal is to address these elements in the next three weeks. I hope you’ll join me for this mini series on endurance because whether it’s a 400 mile hike, a desire to walk faithfully with Christ for decades, a marriage in need of passion, or a calling in need of fulfillment, endurance is a vital ingredient for your journey.
My oldest daughter is a Seattle Pacific Alum and writes from Germany this morning as she ponders the tragic shootings here in Seattle and the empty pages in the books that are the lives of her juniors in high school, encouraging each one to fill the pages with hope. Her words about being grounded hope in the midst of bitter realities are appropriate, not just in Germany, but right here, right now, in Seattle. May peace be upon us as we grieve and hope — here are her thoughts:
As my first period takes the first final of Exam Week, I’m reading news updates from Seattle, where a gunman recently opened fire on the campus of my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Yesterday, I read this letter to my students, promising that while the general discontent of American Literature is an honest response to the real suffering inherent to human life, we have better dreams, rooted in the love of a Creator who cares for us. This seems appropriate this morning, as I consider the broken world in which we live, and mourning with and praying for peace of those who are suffering in my home city, halfway around the world.
My Dear Juniors,
Happy last day of school! I know as well as you that there are a few more hurdles to conquer before we’re officially in Summer World, but as today is the last day of regular classes, it will have to do for a farewell, for now. For some of you, this is a first last day. For others, there have been more than ten, but I win this game, at least in present company. This is my nineteenth last day of school. I don’t expect that you’ll all become teachers, but for those who will, I’ll tell you that even on the nineteenth time, it doesn’t get old. The last day of school is still relaxing, the first one still thrilling, and snow days still a magical treat made of time and ice. It’s a good life I still get to live alongside you.
I used to be jealous of Ernest Hemingway, specifically the version of his life he portrayed in A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his early years in Paris. He described a life of simplicity, a pleasant parade of words, food and sunshine. I wanted that. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I have everything he has, and more. I am richer than Hemingway. Because for him, the picnics on the Seine, the trips to the Alps, the attic in which to write, these things were as good as it got. We’ve been blessed so richly, students, given this time and place in which to learn and grow, yet even when we leave this quiet, emerald valley, the glory doesn’t end. We go on living and learning, growing in peace and joy as we follow Christ down the wildly divergent paths ahead of us.
Coming once again through the brightly whimsical postmodern gates at the end of our (literary studies) journey together, I notice that the path of American Literature has hardly been a happy one. Though I enjoy every book we share, I know that none of them—not one—offers a picture of wholeness, peace or joy. While the Thoreaus of the world are hiding in their cabins, watching even the ants wage war with one another, the Steinbecks are still pestering us with the suspicion that human life is full of trouble and disappointment, that sometimes even the simplest dreams are out of reach.
Of course, we know all this. We know that life is full of both beauty and brokenness. Christ promised us that, while we live in this world, we’ll “have trouble. But take heart!” He continued. “I have overcome the world.” Having come to love and respect you, my students, I wish I could promise smooth roads to success, romantic dreams-come-true for all of you, but at the end of this year of sad and lovely literature, the true triumph is that these aren’t our stories. Though we’ll all encounter setbacks and disappointments, I’m confident that each of your futures, bound up in the unspeakable imagination of our Creator, is better than a house of your own, stronger than rabbits, more realistic than time travel, and more complicated than the most postmodern plot sequence.
Wherever you go, this summer or a year from now, take heart in the knowledge that you bring with you wide eyes to see the world around you, and strong hearts, full of the joy of Christ, with which to serve and love it. I am incredibly proud of the vibrant young people who you are becoming, and eager to see Christ’s work in you.
Peace in Christ,
Kristi Gaster (you can follow her writings here)
I 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?”
I glance at my watch. 15:50. I shut my computer, toss on some shoes and a jacket, and am out the door because so far, all week, I’ve missed the sunsets over the lake. It’s about a half mile down to the park on the waterfront and when I arrive, the suns maybe 15 minutes from dipping below the Alps as it moves west, just now greetings my friends in Seattle as first light of a new day.
The views are stunning. Swans, ducks, geese, and a sky painted gloriously by the interplay of ever changing light and clouds make for spectacular, memorable artistry. But I’m equally intrigued by the people all around me. Over there a German couple holding hands, whose grandparents would have war stories to tell. There’s a man walking, slowly, who looks to be over 70. He would have been a child when this beautiful city was so heavily bombed in WWII. Today, this little plot of soil is a place of peace and beauty, a photo op for sunsets and, on a clear day, a stunning view of the Alps. A place for wind surfing.
But of course it wasn’t always so. I wonder what thoughts must have unfolded in the minds of people on this beach 70 years ago as they looked across the water to the mountains of Switzerland? Those dark days in Germany’s history were preceded by other dark days in the 1920’s and 30’s, days of want and deprivation. It was into that vortex of economic crisis that a leader rose up promising brighter days, a leader whose power and darkness would enshroud all of Europe in a dark cloud for a season.
During the those days, I wonder how many stood here and looked across the Alps, longing to be free from the scourge of war, and loss, and genocide? Getting there wasn’t possible, even though it was visible, just over there, just beyond reach. The darkness of war, the scourge and brutality of evil rulers – all of it was on full display then. But now there’s peace, and beauty, and couples holding hands.
What I find remarkable are the ways in which Germany has flowered these past 70 years after her defeat. The first Chancellor of Germany after the war put structures in place to assure less blind nationalism, less violence, and significantly, more economic equity. The “social market economy” was born at this time, and this article explains that it… “led to the eventual development of the Social Market Economy as a viable socio-political and economic alternative between the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and the collectivist planned economy not as a compromise, but as a combination of seemingly conflicting objectives namely greater state provision for social security and the preservation of individual freedom” The country is by no means perfect, but make no mistake – this nation that was so humbled throughout the first half of the last century learned from their mistakes and, to this day, display a marvelous blend of discipline and charity that comes about through hard work, thrift, and a collective commitment to the well being of everyone, evidenced in social services and taxation that would rile the sensibilities of the American political right. Even now, they, the most successful economy in all of Europe, continue to call their overspending European counterparts to both raise taxes and cut spending – a strategy that, while perfectly reasonable, offends both the American left and right.
I think about the transformation of Rwanda that’s occurred in the wake of the genocide. The transformation of Iceland in the wake of their own economic meltdown. The changed lives of friends who’ve been stricken with cancer and recovered with an entirely different set of priorities, or of those who finally stood up and said, “I’m an alcoholic” who have been to depths and back, raised up to a fuller life than ever before.
As I look around this peaceful setting, I realize that the glory of the gospel, and the glory of God’s goodness in the world is that beauty can come right out the ash heap of our own arrogance and failure; that if we’re willing to learn from them, the mistakes of our past can make us wiser, more beautiful, more generous, and more fruitful than ever we’d have been had we remained prim, and proper – looking good outwardly, but in reality filled with our own foolish presumptions and self-aggrandized priorities. This, of course, requires humility, and therein lies the problem.
To fix social or personal ailments always demands beginning with the notion that we are, at the least, part of the problem. Our choices, our history, our values – something’s broken. When was the last time you heard the Tea Party admit that they’re part of the problem, or BP, or Monsanto, or the Democrats. All I hear is blame, and the notion that the problem is wholly over there in “those greedy idiots” is, itself, the biggest problem of all. We can all see the flaws in the other’s ideas and policies with 2020 clarity. It’s the log in our own eye, we can’t seem to handle. And logs in eyes aren’t very good things to have when you’re in the drivers seat. That’s why I’m praying for humility… at any price… for me, and all the rest of us too in the developed world.
The best children’s book series, in my opinion, is the “If you give…” series. I like it because it speaks to the realities of cause and affect, and the importance of what Peter would call the “day of visitation”, but does so in a way that children and even adults can understand. Each book begins with someone giving an animal something edible, and then this simple act leads to another act, and another act, and another act, until the day is filled with nothing that was originally anticipated. This is the way of it for mice, and pigs, and the plural of moose.
Who knew that giving a moose a muffin, or giving a mouse a cookie, or giving a pig a pancake, could lead to such a flurry of activity? But there’s more in play here than just children’s entertainment because in truth, much that is significant in our lives comes about because we took what we thought in the moment was going to be an insignificant step:
It was just supposed to be an elective class, but as a result of it she changed her major from drama to global development, spent a summer in Rwanda, and now works for a company focused on global health initiatives. If you give a mouse a cookie….
It was just supposed to be a concert, but Mozart’s Requiem pierced his soul, pouring water on parched parts of it that had dried up due to disillusionment, growing up as he did in a strange blend of Jesus talk, racism, and obsessive social propriety. He wept as listened and tasted again for the first time the reality and goodness of God. This revival would lead to a different vocation that would take him around the world and help him give voice to people doing remarkable yet unsung things in Jesus’ name. If you give a moose a muffin….
It was, for me, just a weekend in the snow, in search of powder and in hopes of connecting with a cute blonde. The words of the speaker at this ski conference, though, were spoken only for me, it seemed, and before the weekend was over, I’d taken a major step in my life which eventually lead to a change of major, a change of college, which of course, would lead to my marrying a different person, and ultimately becoming a pastor, a writer, and a resident of what is, to me, the most beautiful city in the world. If you give a pig a pancake….
We decide to get the wood floors in our house refinished. We move the piano out of the room. We decide the room looks cleaner, nicer, without a baby grand. I envision how nice it would be to own an electronic keyboard and once again write music the way I did when I was young. We start thinking about the meaning of simplifying our lives, and downsizing. Just thinking about this makes me realize how insanely wealthy on the global wealth scale, and how this creates real responsibilities. I read a book on the subject of simplifying. We begin envisioning living lighter and, though getting there will mean more work rather than less, at least in the short term, we decide that this is part of our calling and start walking down a new and life changing path.
Someone watches a documentary on the global exploitation of women. They only go there because they were flipping channels out of boredom. Whatever. Their eyes are opened, and they’ll never be the same, as they take steps to make the world better reflect the justice and freedom that God has in mind for us all. Soon they’re deep in a story much larger than flipping channels and waiting for the new season of Modern Family.
I call these muffins, and cookies, and pancakes, and concerts, and floor refinishings, and documentaries, ‘catalyst moments’. Here’s what all of us would be wise to remember about catalyst moments:
1. You don’t come looking for them; they come looking for you. Theologically, this is what is called the ‘day of visitation’, and we diminish ourselves if we think that the visitation requires a burning bush, and an angel. Visitations happen all the time – on hikes, in concert halls, in pubs, staring at newly finished floors, staff meetings, staying overnight in a homeless shelter, taking a class, listening to a person describe their deep pain or joy – there are lots of moments of visitation.
2. Our lives are richer if we’re paying attention. One of the challenges many of us face is that religion often blinds us to moments of visitation. The religionists of Jesus day picked apart His healing of a man born blind – “Why did this Jesus heal on the Sabbath?” “How did he heal?” “Are you really the man born blind, or a body double to trick us?” They parsed and pontificated, but they never saw. I’m convinced many Christians never hear what God is trying to say. Some of them are too busy to listen, their minds constantly running 100 miles per hour, so that they never see the sunrise, or hear the Mozart or Mumford. Right at the critical moment of intimacy, when his spouse has exposed her soul and his, the cell phone rings. “THANK GOD” he thinks, as he answers and avoids yet again the single most important conversation of his life. Visitation averted.
We need to wake up and pay attention, because visitation usually comes when we’re not looking, and if we’re either intentionally avoiding God encounters, or are just too busy, we’ll miss them over and over again.
3. Our lives are richer still if we respond. If we hope to walk in God’s better story for our lives, it will be best for us if, in our encounters, we respond. If God’s asking you to confess your sin to someone, do it. If God’s asking you to take a class, or visit an orphanage in Romania, or volunteer for a medical clinic, or invite someone over, don’t ignore the prompts. Sure, check things a bit to make sure you’re hearing from God, rather than just reacting to heartburn or lack of sleep, but when you know God’s speaking to you respond.
Robert Frost makes it sound like there’s a single fork in the road – one moment for Moses, or Jonah, or you, or me. Without even trying hard I can think of about five hundred vital, life shaping moments, including: a Sonic game in 1978, watching “The Mission” in a theater in Friday Harbor, a night climbing in Stone Gardens, a hike to Snow Lake, responding to an e-mail from an acquisitions editor, and choosing to go to Los Angeles for seminary even though everything in us wanted to be in the Pacific Northwest. All these forks in the road have made all the difference.
How do you attune your heart to listen for God’s voice throughout your day and week?