Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

“A different plan” – Three Postures you need when Change Comes Knocking

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Jul 14, 2014
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It was supposed to be the Cascades…

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.

 

From Germany to Seattle – finding hope in the midst of grief

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Jun 6, 2014

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.

Period Five enjoying sunshine at our Literary Picnic on the last day of school.

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)

Life is a Journey: Step by Step

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May 8, 2014

P1040146Our journeys define us:

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:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”  –

That’s what I plan to do in these next months.  Thanks for joining me!

Taking thought for tomorrow – Lessons in making life meaningful from ants and firewood

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Apr 23, 2014

ImageI slept on the sofa last night in the place where I go to study and write sometimes because it was snowing.  Maybe its because I grew up where it never snowed; or because the smell of fir trees remind me of my happiest childhood memories; or because my wife is at her very happiest in a snowstorm.  I don’t know the deep reasons why, but I love snow, so when it’s falling at night I lay on the sofa and turn the lights on outside so I can tilt my head to just to the right a bit and see infinite white flakes falling slowly from the sky.  They represent covering, and hope, and beauty, and the waters of sustaining life when they melt later.

On that same sofa, a tilt of the head to the left and I see the fire, which represents warmth, safety (when confined in the firebox), and a sense of reward.  I say reward because this heat is earned by thinking ahead.

Acquiring wood happens because I sharpened my chain saw chain, felled some trees with a neighbor and cut them into 18 inch long rounds, hauled the rounds, split them, hauled the split wood so it could be stacked in the meager sunlight it needs to dry, hauled it again to the deck just before first snow, and now haul it inside, piece by piece, for burning.  Each peace represents time outside, working for heat, for heart, for health.  The whole thing takes at least six months, and its best if the drying period includes two summers!  The wood I’ll stack this June will burn best in the winter of 2016.

Proverbs 6:6-8 tells us to consider the ant, learn from her ways, and be wise.  The ant, without any supervisor, org chart, performance evaluation, or any other metric holding her feet to the fire of day to day diligence, still does her work.  This, the author tells us, is worth imitating.  What does the ant, and firewood gathering have to teach us about the rest of life?

1.  There should be a big picture.  I should, in other words, have some semblance of an idea what I’m doing here on this planet.  If I’m a parent, then I’m serving, blessing, empowering, and loving, young lives that will, I hope and pray, grow into flourishing adults who love God and people, and are equipped to bless the world.  If I’m a teacher, I’m learning so that I can share, so that others can grow and be transformed.  If I’m an artist, I’m creating so that other can be comforted, or shaken awake from the complacency, and smitten by beauty.  Construction?  Business owner?  Administrator?  Electrician?  Nurse?  We are, each of us, a mix of strengths, gifts, passions and these things, taken together, constitute a call, the answer to the question “Why am I here?”.   It’s fine to wrestle with that, because such wrestling is surely part of every person’s journey, and the questions will, themselves, help solidify the answers.  If you’re in that searching phase, I’d encourage you to listen to a talk I gave years ago entitled, “Yes and No: Finding Your Voice in the World.”  It’s a vodcast, available in the itunes store for free.

2. There should be a knowledge of next steps.  All right.  I know why I’m here, and part of why I’m here is to provide warmth for my home and family (along with bigger callings like leadership, teaching, writing).  If I’m going to live faithfully in any of these areas, there will be next steps to take, each of which will move me closer to the big call.  If the vision if a fire on a cold winter’s night, a next step in the summer is cutting, then splitting, then stacking, then hauling.  Every next step is taken because of the big picture, and knowing those steps and having the skill to take them are essential because without the little next steps, the big picture remains forever just an idea.  I’m convinced that this is where we often fall down.  We want to write a book, or start a company, or move our church toward a vision of health, or run a marathon.  We have a vision!  But vision, without clarity regarding next steps, isn’t really a vision at all, it’s a wish, a fantasy.

3. There needs to be a focus.  If the big picture vision is important enough, then the next steps you need to take rise to the top of the priority pile.  Because fire is vital in winter, it’s more important than rock climbing in the summer.  Because writing is important, it sits above watching playoff basketball on the priority list.  Because I’m a teacher, I’m not a great skier.  Paul tells Timothy that he needs to “fan into flame” the gift he’s been given, which is a way of saying we need to know our big vision, know our next steps, and make taking those steps the most important parts of our days, every single day.  When we try to become twenty things, we’ll become nothing at all.  Recognizing our finiteness is, perhaps, the most liberating truth most of us need to learn.

4. Meet your new friend named Tedium.  Standing on the summit, or wearing the marathon medal, or attending your children’s college graduation, or your own 50th wedding anniversary; these events (or others like them) are the things we want on the highlight reel of our lives, and that’s all well and good.  But that marriage, and those kids graduating are the fruit of thousands of diapers changed, dishes cleaned, little games attended, tiny courtesies extended, bicycles repaired, oils changed, checkbooks balances, debts discussed, taxes payed, wood split, commute endured.  Most of life, it seems, consists of these seemingly mundane events, and yet its how faithfully and fully engaged we live there, in the land of tedium, that determines whether we’ll endure over the long haul.  For me at least, I’m best able to coexist with tedium when I do three things:

1) keep the big picture in mind – I’m not reading “Stop that Ball” for the 563rd time because the plot is so compelling; I’m investing in a life.  I’m not covered with pitch and sweat because I love hauling wood; I’m creating warmth in the winter.  When we tie daily living to the big picture its easier to press forward.

2) practice the art of presence – time flies by when the only thing I’m thinking about is “this piece of wood” or “this paragraph” or “this observational study of the parables” or “this staff meeting”.  I’m convinced that this too is where many of us fall down.  We have the vision.  We know the next steps.  And then we get bored.  While bored, facebook or the email pings, or we just start surfing the net, or dialing into to Colbert or Fox news, depending on your generation and outlook.  The point, though, isn’t the quality of the distraction; the point is that we allowed ourselves to be robbed of the chance to contribute to the bigger story God wants to write, because we didn’t like the step we were needing to take in the moment, so we stopped our progress and threw some time over a cliff.

This summer, when my wife and I hike in the Alps, the route will be filled with steps we don’t want to take, because they’re just another tedious step in a line of a million, or because the next step is terrifying (some routes in the Alps literally have ladders attached to rock faces – more later).  But the steps simply must be taken if we’re to reach our goal.  Learning that discipline of taking next steps because of the big picture isn’t just a hiking thing, or a writing thing, or a fire thing – it’s a life thing.

What’s the hardest part for you:  big picture, knowing next steps, making friends with Tedium?

What resources can you recommend to help others on the journey.

 

 

When “Here” is better than “There”

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Mar 4, 2014

I wake up this morning in Colorado and, as is typical, make my coffee and then go to my ipad where I catch up on the news before reading my Bible.  It’s just getting light as I scan the news, the craziness that is Ukraine.  Last night on the newshour, a professor of Russian studies said, “even if you’re not religious, you should be praying, because if this becomes war, all bets are off.”  Toss in some stuff about Syrian refugees, and I’m mindful that our world is filled with suffering, and though the cup seems overflowing already, still there’s more pouring in, moment by moment, as lives are plunged into war, hunger, poverty, trafficking, disease. 

I read my scriptures for the day, something about nations and kingdoms fighting against each other, and food shortages, and epidemics.  It’s a reality, of course, as the news a few seconds earlier corresponds with Jesus’ timely words. 

Then I turn around, and there’s a sunrise happening that can’t be described, because it’s not just the colors: it’s the cold, it’s the clarity of the air, it’s the silence, it’s the raw beauty, and significantly, it’s the fact that I am here – in this place, and not there, and any of those places I’ve read about this morning.  I’m awestruck, but conflicted at the same time.  photo copy 2

“Why am I here” is the question that haunts me, and at many levels there’s no answer.  There are responses though, and some of them aren’t helpful.

Guilt isn’t helpful.  We’re here, in wealth and, relative to most of the world, peace and safety. There are hard working, honest people throughout the world who are victims of oppression and injustice, so the causal sense that we’re here instead of there because we’re better must be evicted from our thoughts.  Equally wrong, though, is a sense of paralyzing guilt, a sense that we, for some reason ought to be there and not here.

Fear isn’t helpful.  Our collective narcissism is evident when the questions and comments of journalists extend no further than how the events over there affect our “self interest here”  It can be strangely dis empowering to watch various parts of the world collapse around us, filling us with anxiety about whether we’ll be next, and how we should arm ourselves for protection.  But no, over and over again, Jesus tells us that he’s warned us about these things precisely so that we ‘will not fear’, which is the message that heralded Christ’s birth, and rings throughout his ministry for our benefit and well being.  We need to give fear a swift quick.

Isolation isn’t helpful.  “Not my problem” we see, as we change the channel to some rerun, or go out for a run, or pour another glass of Merlot.  It’s far too easy to believe that the stuff that over there is outside the sphere of our influence and should therefore be outside the sphere of our concern.  This, as we’ll see, misses that mark.  I’m surprised at how many people no longer digest the news because it’s simply “too depressing”.

To the extent that we allow these mindsets to carry the day, our worlds will shrink down into petty preoccupations with our own personal survival, or crippling depression and anxiety.  One need only read the Bonhoeffer story or this favorite diary read from WWII to realize how tempting these options are.  Gratefully, there’s a better way:

Instead of guilt, gratitude.  Every sip of cold water, every good night kiss, every moment of this very precious life.  It’s vital to recognize that our culture is well beyond the boundaries of comfort, having become guilty of lavish excess, and surely guilty of increasing injustice too.  Gratitude though, is for the fact that there no bombs on the roadside, that people gather in public places to express their views, mostly without fear of reprisal, that there’s food on the table and the possibility of friendship, love, education.  It’s far from perfect, but there’s much for which we can be grateful.  This is a starting point to living here well.

Instead of fear, hope.  It might sound shallow and cheap to offer hope from the scriptures for those living and dying in the midst of suffering, but what other hope is there?  Nations will rise and fall.  Justice will ebb and flow.  People will die in the crossfire, and the friendly fire, and the forest fire.  And those of us who escape these ravages?  We’ll die too, and it will always be inconvenient, and seem wrong.

This tired script, though, is coming to and end.  History is headed towards a new script, where every molecule is shot through with the glory of King Jesus.  You know, the one who loved lepers, and women of the night, who told stories that hinted his kingdom would be utterly other – a place where the lame, blind, oppressed, broken, would not only find healing, but a place at the table with the king – a place where all war, and cancer, and rape, and genocide, and AIDS, and tribal divisions will vanish in the flames of a just judgement, leaving nothing but healing and joy in its wake.  MARANATHA… it can’t come soon enough.

But until it does, it’s our calling to live as people of hope.  If the sun’s not yet fully up, we are, nonetheless, called to be the Colors of Hope – the sunrise foretelling a better world.  This isn’t about a short term mission trip; this is about a total overhaul of our values so that our daily lives embody, in increasing measure, the very hope of which Jesus spoke.  That way, Jesus is no longer a theory – he’s a living king, and our lives reflect his reign.  That’s the best response I can think of to the nightly news.

Instead of Isolation, Prayer.  We feel helpless, watching the news like that. We’re not.  We can pray, believing that God intervenes in history in response to the prayers of God’s people.  Years ago, a dear friend whose husband was a British Major in WWII showed me the program from a prayer service held in London after the war.  In it, there were quotes from Churchill, Roosevelt, and other spiritual and national leaders, calling the nations to prayer.  There were even specific prayers offered, having to do with weather.  History tells us (I believe) that God intervened.  Prayer matters.

Of course we’re not necessarily called to spend all of every day in prayer, interceding for each nation and activity.  That would take us out of the game. Instead, we’re invited to live lives that are permeable enough to let God in, to let God break out heart over some specific thing, whether its Sudan, Congo, Crimea/Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, homelessness, sexual slavery, or something else in the seemingly endless list of brokenness.  Maybe all you can do is pray over the thing that breaks your heart.  But prayer’s a big deal, or so we say we believe.  And of course, we could all pray this a little bit more, since Jesus taught us to do so:

May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen?  Amen!

I welcome your thoughts.

Setbacks and Overcoming – The first is assured; the second is optional.

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Feb 26, 2014

sometimes your world gets shattered

Dream big and work hard for it, because doing so takes you places — not always where you want, but often way farther than you can imagine. – Ranniveig Aamodt

 

 

 

Setbacks come in all shapes and sizes.  They are relational, financial, physical, emotional, spiritual.  They are sometimes enormous, like divorce, and other times “death by a thousand cuts”, occurring so slowly that you wake up years later and find yourself wondering why you’re in a story that so utterly misrepresents your deepest self.

Setbacks come for all kinds of reasons.  They’re the result of our own bad choices, or the wrong actions of others, or both.  They’re caused by the market (that’s me), or the weather, or political turmoil, or a cell that randomly decides to multiply out of control.  They’re the result of ice on the road (that’s me), or a drunk driver, or a hidden chunk of ice and ski binding that doesn’t release (that’s me), or a salesperson who lied to you.

One thing’s certain though: Setbacks happen.  Moses came to the point where he’d rather die than continue embracing his role as leader of a whining nomadic tribe.  He wasn’t where he wanted to be.  Jeremiah complained that God tricked him when God called him to be a prophet and now that things had turned out as they had, he was reconsidering.  Peter thought he was strong enough to stand in solidarity with Christ but when he say Jesus’ eyes after his denial, he ran away weeping.  Paul preaches and suddenly finds himself in a random dungeon, chained to the wall.

The question of the day then is “What principles can help me respond well when setbacks happen?”

1. Always get up –  Failure is rarely our biggest problem.  It’s how we respond to failure that sinks us.  If the failure’s the result of our own bad choices, it’s easy to relive the moment or the decision that led to our predicament, over and over again.  “Why didn’t I…?”  If it’s the result of another person’s wrong actions, bitterness comes knocking.  “If only…”  as we replay the boneheaded or evil actions of the other.  Random stuff that falls on us, like tornadoes, or cancer, are maybe hardest of all because there’s nothing, no one to blame.

Whatever the cause the, though best response is always the same.  “All right then.  This is where I’m at.  What’s the next step?”  That’s the remarkable story of Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, whose climbing partner, thinking Joe to be dead, cut the rope, sending him into a crevasse with an already shattered leg.  That’s the story of David after committing adultery and murder.  Every story of transformation and climbing out of the hole that is our setback starts with a profound acknowledgement of reality, a belief that transformation is not only possible, but our calling, and a commitment to take step after step, for ten thousand steps if necessary, as we seek to move into a different place.  Self-pity, after about 20 seconds, is a waste of time, and needs to be seen for the enemy it is.

2. You are not your circumstances – When Norwegian climber Ranniveig Aamodt fell, she was damaged beyond recognition: “I had three compression fractures in my back from L2 – L4. I had broken my pelvis, both my talus bones (the main weight bearing bones in the ankle), as well as numerous small bones in my feet. The ligaments in my ankles were stretched and torn and had ripped small pieces of bone off the bones they were attached to. My right elbow was broken into many small pieces and my triceps tendon was torn halfway off. I’d also smashed up my front teeth.”
Her accident shattered her identity as well, and in the end she needed to say, “I realized that I had to distinguish between who I am, and what I do: I’m not a climber. Climbing is something I do. Even if I lost climbing, I would still be me.”  Setbacks happen precisely because they create a dissonance between we think we are, and what reality presents in the moment.  I thought I’d be married.  I thought I’d be rich.  I thought I’d be healthy.  I thought I was a climber.

Her recognition that she is not her climbing became a critical foundation upon which she would rebuild her life and, ironically, climb again.  All of us have images of who we think we are and some of those images need to die, not so that we can become less, but so that we can become whole.  This is because it’s vital to be passionate about our goals and pursuits, but always with an open hand, allowing God to shape them in ways we wouldn’t have anticipated or chosen.  Jesus reminded Peter, after his failure, that in the end he’d be taken places he didn’t want to go, but that this wouldn’t make him less, it would make him more.

 

3. You are not your limitations – The notion of holding our goals with an open hand, though, is dangerous.  It becomes, at times, a license to embrace our limitations and wounds, cherishing them to the point where they come to define us.  When we find ourselves making peace with our setbacks and sort of “moving in and setting up furniture” we need to shout, “Noooooooo!” and fight back.  That’s the biggest value I find in Ranniveig’s story (a little long, but worth it).  The word “overcome” and “overcomer” runs throughout the New Testament because God is trying to tell us that it’s our move, that we have next steps to take, that we are not our failures, that we can overcome.

The point for Ranniveig isn’t to get back to climbing again.  It’s to overcome the incredible pull of complacency, pain, and self-pity that will not only prevent climbing again, but prevent any sort of meaningful life.  We need to find our next steps, recognize that there’ll be a piece of us that doesn’t want to take them, and then take them anyway.  She writes:

I decided to accept the condition I was in, think positive, and face what as ahead. This triggered a kind of power. “Bring it on,” I thought. “I will do everything I can to make the best of this situation.”

4. You are not your fear.  The most insidious thing about setbacks is that as we begin to recover, we’re sorely tempted to spend the rest of our days avoiding the possibility of ever reverting to that pain again.  Of course, when we do that, the pain begins to define us.  Again:  “Nooooooo!”

Our friend writes about it this way:  my physiotherapist asked me to jump 40 centimeters up onto a squishy foam pad. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and the idea of jumping with my bad ankles was terrifying. But I had to make a choice. So in action and attitude, I jumped. I still remember his words: If you don’t do this, you’ll try to find ways around your limitations. But to know your true limits, you have to get in over your head, and more often than not, you’ll realize your limits are greater than you thought.

We need to step back in:  to relationships, on the slopes, in the gym, in our walk with God, whatever it is.  And yes, we’ll be afraid.  That’s why it’s called “overcoming”

What’s your limitation?  What’s your fear?  What’s your next step?

 

 

 

O the Places You’ll Go! The Wisdom of Embracing Life as Journey

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Feb 19, 2014

“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…”

Brains? Check.

Feet? Check

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.

2014: A Better Path by Adjusting Values: more or less

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Jan 3, 2014

A new year is a blank piece of paper; a chance to stop and consider how to fine tune our investment in the one wild and precious life that we’ve been given.  The “unexamined life is not worth living” is how Socrates put it, and there’s no time riper for examining our lives than now, when the calendar is clean.  Rather than just thinking about goals, though, this article reminds me that it makes sense to think about values.  Here are some values that need adjusting… more or less.

More Intentionality in affirmation and encouragement – I’ve recently become freshly aware of the power encouragement has, both through experiences of giving and receiving it.  Decades ago, in the midst of a depression that came about in the wake of my dad’s death, the person who made the biggest difference in my life did so through encouragement and affirmation.  When I thanked him, he said, “All of us know our inadequacies pretty well – what we need is to be told how much we’re loved, where we’re gifted, where we can shine.”  While the value of truth telling and hard conversations are also important, I’ve recently reawakened to the value of encouragement and plan to fan it into flame this year.

More Openness to the fullness of life – I’ll be teaching from Ecclesiastes this Sunday, and this coming summer for an outdoor course.  This book, more than any in the Bible, invites me to fearlessly live “fully” in every moment.  As one poet writes:

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…”   We live in a hyper-insulated world these days, afraid of all that might go wrong if we venture outside our comfort zones, and the fruit of this is a lowering of the bar, so that for too many the biggest adventure of our lives is a visit to the newest movie, or upgrading our xbox.  We’re too often missing the reality that in Christ, we’re sometimes invited to step outside the boat, or into the river, or give away the last of our loaves and fishes.  What if we said yes, shooting the moon and casting all our hope in the reality that God’s calling us to this next step?  What would happen then?   Abundant life would happen and by that God doesn’t mean material prosperity necessarily, but fulness, vibrancy, wholeness, right in the thick of the beauty and challenges on our plates.

More Companionship because we’re made for community and relationships.  I’ve just finished experiencing an overwhelming outpouring of support in my life from close friends throughout the time of my oldest daughter’s wedding.  They helped make the wedding happen in a thousand practical ways and I was reminded throughout the experience of just how priceless deep friendships are.  I’m looking for ways to continue fanning those flames of relationship in the coming year.

In addition to human companionship, I’m very much looking forward to nurturing companionship with Christ as I spend 40 days hiking through the mountains in order to learn more about what it means to walk with God.  After all, we’re invited to friendship with Jesus, not religious ritual.  I hope to learn more lessons about what that really means through my walking days.

More Creativity – For people with responsibilities like work, marriage, family, keeping the car maintained, keeping the sewer line between the house and street flowing freely, keeping the deck stained, there are seasons when it’s hard to be creativity.  Our longing to write, paint, create music or pottery, or whatever, is eaten alive by our day job and our night job so that we’ve nothing left for creativity.   There’s no sense moaning about it; such seasons simply happen.

On other hand, when one comes up for air, and the creative urges begin demanding they find expression again, it’s important to fan those urges into flames and give the fire some room to grow.  I’m going to do that by making a modest commitment to a word count for writing during each two week period of the coming year.  Rather than some lofty unattainable goal, I’m shooting for something challenging but doable.

More Vegetables – There’s nothing to say here.

Less Late Nights  – Everyone’s at their best at some certain point of the day, and for me it’s that time in the earliest morning hours, around 5:30.  As a result, staying up ’til midnight, weary and uncreative, robs me of my best time.

Less Stuff – We’re slowly working our way through the closets and garage because, like plaque in your arteries, possessions have a nasty way of accumulating and then remaining as nothing more than clutter long after they’ve served their purpose.  “Give it away” I say, and it’s happening, and it’s liberating.

Less Whining – I love that the Bible invites me to pour my heart out to God with honesty, expressing the full range of lament and praise, joy and sorrow.  But there’s one response to reality that God roundly condemns:  grumbling, which is this sort of low level whining amongst ourselves about circumstances, leaders, politics, the weather, jobs, customer service quality of Comcast, Seattle traffic and more.  The Bible says this is more than just a wast of time; it’s destructive sin.  God seems to be saying, “Tell me anything you want about your reaction to life, or your trials or pains or joys.  But don’t whine to one another.  It’s worthless.”

Less Yes –  All these musing about life change have to do with one single thing.  I’m trying to answer the question of how to make the most of the few precious days we’ve been given on this earth.  The answer, I’m learning, resides in focus.  “Fan your gifts into flame” is what Paul said to Timothy, which is a way of saying that you can’t do everything so once you find your calling, don’t worry about saying no to the many sirens of temptation that will come your way.  Stay committed to your thing… your craft, your marriage, your kids, your writing, whatever.  Give it your best and take of yourself so that you have your best to give.  Living into that requires less yes.

What are you saying more or less to in the coming year?  I welcome your thoughts.

Remembrance stones in a climbing wall….

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Dec 10, 2013

IMG_2959What do these stones mean to you? – Joshua 4:6

Early 1990’s:  The first time I saw the climbing wall it was located at the ski area adjacent to Tauernhof, the bible school where I teach in Austria.  Students (and a few of us teachers) would use it during the semester, perfecting our skills as we talked of life, faith, beauty.  I climbed on it once during autumn, when some sheep were coming down from the high country, across the hills of the ski slope.  Those sheep, their fear of me, and their confidence of the voice of their own shepherd, made this verse come alive for me.

1994:  Same wall, different year.  I climbed with a young man named Harry on the wall and we shared great fellowship and conversation as we negotiated holds, practiced technique, and spoke of God, Christ, leadership, and eternity.  The next weekend, Harry would climb with a student, and fell to his untimely death.  Every year, it seemed, the wall become a deeper and deeper repository of truths learned, fellowship enjoyed, loss suffered.  And then the wall disappeared….

Sometimes in the early 2000’s: When I asked Hans Peter, the director of the bible school about the wall,  he told me of the ski area’s expansion plans, and how that necessitated it’s removal.  “But we’re getting it” he said.  “We’re going to put it on the Bible School property.”

2012:  The wall is in place on the Torchbearer property and Hans Peter points shows it to me.  The rabbit, which was the mascot of the ski area attached to the wall before, was replaced with:  Jesus Christus, plus three German words I don’t recognize.  “It will be there for everyone to see – so that people will know that everything we do here, all the skiing, climbing, hiking, food, fellowship- is about Jesus.”

Image 7Sunday, December 8, 2013.   Hans Peter, previous Bible School director, is gone, killed in a paragliding accident this past August.  His teaching gifts and strong leadership of Tauernhauf were evidenced in both the breadth and depth of ministry from this relatively small center.  His death meant the loss of a friend, mentor, and leader to many, including me.  I’m privileged to be in Schladming today because my friend Martin is being “confirmed” in his new role as director.

The moments are bittersweet, joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning, all woven together as leaders from the larger Torchbearer community, along with students from this year’s Bible school, the whole Torchbearer staff, and lots of other local town leaders, friends, and family, gathered to literally lay hands Martin Image 10and pray for him as he steps into the role of director.  An old friend sat by me and translated every word of the service.  There were songs, readings, a bit of a biography of Martin, and then key leaders layed hands on his head and prayed for him, one by one.  I know some of these leaders with whom I’ve shared ministry for two decades now.   I know we’re older; we feel it, we look it.  We’ve seen a lot.  Change is happening all around us, and its rarely easy.

Then it was Martin’s turn to speak….

What does one say in such a time as this, when the occasion of your anointing comes in the wake of a beloved leaders death?  Martin reads this for us from the book of Hebrews:   Jesus Christ:  The same yesterday, today, forever.  He reminds us all, gathered here to affirm him, but gathered in a shadow of grief as well, that everything changes; leaders, ministries, plans, our own bodies, our children, everything.  “But”, Martin reminds us, “Jesus Christ remains the same: yesterday, today, forever.”

In world where many Christians have their own publicity machinery, heroes, media strategies, and branding consultants, Martin’s word reminds me that all of us who are called to lead anything are entrusted with leadership but for a season.  Our goal isn’t to get more people to read our stuff, or listen to us, or amass followers – and most certainly our goal isn’t to create an aura of indispensability, as if we’ve the corner on the truth market.  Our goal, simply, is to point people to Jesus, precisely because he alone never changes:

He was there for you when you walked away from him.  He’ll be there for you when you return.

He was a source of wisdom when you didn’t think you needed it.  He’ll be wisdom when you know you do.

He was a source of comfort when you turned to alcohol instead.  He’ll be a source of comfort when you turn to him

He was your provision when you thought he wasn’t.  He’ll be your provision when you know he is.

He loves you when you don’t believe he does.  He’ll love you when accept his love.

He’s all you need in seasons of grace and peace.

He’ll be all you need when all hell breaks loose – when there’s cancer in the family, when your fried dies in an accident, when you lose your job.

He’ll change lives  at this bible school when Hans Peter Royer is the leader.  He’ll change lives when Martin Buchsteiner is the leader

IMG_2913What a good word for me when, at times, I feel overly weary due to my own foolishness and wrong sense of my own importance.  His speech is followed by hilarious gifts given to him, ranging from an umbrella, to Red Bull, to Schnaps.  And then his wife gives a marvelous word, and we sing a final song, and it’s over.

The meeting ends and after hugs with friends we migrate back to the school for a meal.  I walk over to the climbing wall though, and it’s there, at the top, right below the exalted and highest “Jesus Christus” that I see the words:  gestern heute immer.  My very poor German’s good enough to know that the wall, which has been in the midst of all the IMG_2921changes in this little part of the world, now reads:

Jesus Christ:  Yesterday, Today, and Forever.

Yes…this is the most important truth in my life, and the wall has become a memory stone for, a continual reminder that, though everything changes in life, Christ remains the same.

Practical Advice for Maximizing Your University Experience

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Oct 1, 2013

ImageSchool’s in, and for those of you who read this and are in college, I’d like to offer a word of welcome.  As the pastor of a church with lots of university students in it, one of my favorite Sundays of the year is the one when you arrive, back from your summer experiences, to jump into another formative year of education.  As a pastor, I feel incredibly privileged to share, in a small way, in that formation.  I know that these are some of the most significant years of your life, know that the decisions you make and the values you form during these years will shape you for the rest of your lives, and even beyond that!

The NY Times had a great little read recently called, “Ditch Your Laptop – Dump your Boyfriend” filled with good, practical advice on how to make the most of your college years.  If you’re in college, or know someone who is, I’d recommend reading it.  The article started me thinking about what I’d want to offer students and I came up with a short list.

Since my list is incomplete, I hope some of you will add your own contributions by adding comments to this post. Thanks!  So what you can students do to maximize their college experience:

1. Be curious. This, I’ve discovered, is of huge value in the ‘real world’ after college.  Reading widely and developing your capacity to build bridges between different subjects is one of the things I look for when assessing someone’s leadership potential.  Sure, you’ll need some specialization; but you’ll need more.  You’ll need to capacity to think creatively, solve problems, and build bridges – skills which don’t happen accidentally.

2. Get intimate with God. That’s a tall order, I realize, but I think I’m simply talking about developing some habits that will help you and God become friends, like David and God were friends, or Moses and God.  Jeremiah 9:23-27 is a reminder that “knowing God” is the only thing worth boasting about in this life.  Of course, “knowing” isn’t offered here in some absolute sense because the truth is that we can’t know anyone perfectly and completely – not even God.  But we can establish a trajectory of intimacy, whereby God becomes someone to whom we pour out our heart, in both gratitude and complaint, frustration and longing, rejoicing and praise.

This will require some time apart from others, and maybe a journal.  If this is one of your greatest areas of weakness, I’d recommend this book as great place to start.

3. Do something to serve others. I just finished writing a new book, the thesis of which is that each person is uniquely gifted by God to paint the colors of hope on the canvass of our world.  To find your brush, and learn your strokes, you need to say yes to serving in some way.  You can do this on campus, or in your church.  This will help you swim upstream against the consumerism that is so prevalent in our culture.

Some of you love to serve, but have a hard time sitting still long enough to develop intimacy with God.  For others, you have the opposite problem.  If you’re in search of balance, I’d recommend my book, available through Amazon, or the church I lead.

4. Leave campus.  Get to know your city and people who don’t attend your school.  This broadening of your world has great value.  When I attended college in Seattle, I worked at an I-Hop, and the Seattle Sonics basketball team came in every game day.  I became a huge fan, started going to games, and felt deeply connected to the city because of it, so much so that, sixteen years after graduation, I moved back to pastor a church there.  There’s nothing better than falling in love with your city, and Christ, right in the midst of all that is college life.

What are some other thoughts you’d add, in order to help students maximize their college experience?