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?
“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”
I grew up living in “Cat in the Hat”, and by that I mean that rainy days were crazy days spent stuck indoors because of a California “hydrophobia” that led my parents and every other authority figure to say, “you’ll catch a death of a cold if you go out there!” (in that sky spitting a few rain drops at 63 degrees!). The result, for my sister and I, was that Dr. Seuss became a good friend, and the antics of the Cat in the Hat become our reality.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, it turns, had a lot of wisdom. I’ve sat in more than one graduation and listened to someone read “O the Places You’ll Go!”, intimating that life is journey, and that, as cliché as it sounds, the journey is the destination. In fact, I’m finding that the more consistently I seek to interpret my life through lens of being on a journey, the more wisdom I have for the bumps in the road, fog, weariness, great heights that are both challenging and rewarding, hunger, light, and darkness that I find along the way. Abraham was transformed by the journey. So was Moses. So was the Apostle Paul. Why not you? Why not me?
I’m thinking about journey these days for a reason. I have a sabbatical from my work in Seattle coming up this summer, and am planning a gigantic journey. In order to better understand what it means to “walk with God” I’m planning on doing just that: walking with God for about 450-500 miles (somewhere in this neighborhood) I’d originally planned to do this through the Cascade mountains close to my home, but the untimely death of a friend in Austria led to a change of plans, and so now I’ll be hiking through the Alps. This will be a time not only of physical challenge, but of learning Alpine history, the wars fought, the refuges for faith established, the borders challenged, the blend of beauty and terror that made these mountains central to European history. I’ll come to discover how people’s lives were changed forever by their journeys through these mountains. But it will also be, much more, a time of learning at a profound and intimate level as each step, each crossroads, each setback and triumph will be instructive about what it means to walk with God. I hope you’ll join me on the journey as I plan to share what I’m learning, as much as I’m able, right here on this blog, with a diary of the trip and key prep and pics posted here.
Seuss was wise in “O the Places You’ll Go”, but a careful reading reminds me that it’s vital to always read and listen with a sense of discernment. Embedded in this marvelous work, is this single stanza:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You are on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
But can I “steer myself any direction I choose”? Nope. There will be places in the Alps where others, better suited for the terrain than I, will go, and I won’t be able to follow. What’s more, I might plan to go a certain place, thinking it’s within my grasp, only to discover once I get there, that it’s not, that my ankle, or heel, or some other seemingly insignificant body part can derail my whole perfect plan. I’m planning 10-20 kilometers a day. I may end up in a cabin by the sea, writing or playing piano.
This is life, of course. We have plans, and then we have the setbacks that challenge our presumed sense of semi-omnipotence. I thought it would be this, but it’s that. I thought I would be there by now, but I’m still over here, feeling stuck. I tried to steer my direction, tried to stay the course, but never arrived. Still sick. Still alone. Still feeling stuck in my work, or my relationship, or my “walk with God”. Been there? Me too. The truth is that I can’t go wherever I want to go.
The good news is that Seuss is wrong on another count too. You’re not, “on your own” as he says. You have a guide, and your guide has both plans, and contingency plans. Your guide is committed to your destination, but the most important truth to remember along the journey is that your ultimate destination isn’t geographical, relational, physical, or financial. Your destination is to look like Jesus, so that hope and joy, generosity and wisdom, peace and justice, flow through you into a world that’s desperate and thirsty.
And this destination, your guide says, is assured, regardless of seeming setbacks along the way, as long as you stick close to your companion and guide, who is Jesus. You are, I hope, decidedly NOT “on your own”.
You may “know what you know”, but your journey will be best if you also “know what you don’t know” because this is the foundation for a humility that empowers you to check your map, talk with other pilgrims along the way, and most important, follow your guide. He’ll take you places along the way that are not of your choosing. You’ll be upset over this, and in the end you’ll see the value in it. Let your guide be your guide.
Which brings me to the last point. If “You are the one who decides where you’ll go” then all I have to say is “good luck” because “you’re on your own.” The good news, though, is that you don’t need to be on your own. You don’t need to simply look within the chasm of your own broken soul for direction regarding destination and next steps. There is another. Let Christ in. Let Christ decide – about your money, your time, your vocation, your everything. It’s liberating.
The first words out of Abraham’s mouth that are recorded in the Bible are spoken to his wife, when he says, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’ and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please tell them that you are my sister that it may go well with me, and that I may live on account of you.”
And so begins a mini drama where Abraham’s wife is taken by force because of her beauty and offered to the harem of the highest leader in the land. It’s an amazing story, and I don’t want to give everything away, because I’ll be preaching on it this coming Sunday here. One thing worth pondering during the middle of the week, though, is our often shallow, thoughtless, and critical judgement of Abraham, as we gaze down on his fear based decision, convinced that, “we’d do better”. Maybe you don’t think that way, but I have in the past, and still do sometimes. But let’s look a little closer…
That he was in a tough spot is beyond a doubt. What I often hear though, is that Abraham was faithless, and that he ought to have trusted God to protect him. That’s (for some, perhaps) easy for us to say, 4000 years later, in the midst of seminaries, Bible teachers, stories of God’s faithfulness down through the ages, and the fact that it isn’t really our problem. It’s just that sort of dismissive self-righteousness, that sense of “I’d never do that”, which stunts our growth, often creating an arrogant and ugly misrepresentation of our faith. So let’s just pause for moment and consider that, of the many reasons Abraham might have doubted God, there’s at least one worth talking about precisely because we still doubt God for the same reason:
Remember that when Jehovah spoke to Abraham, the notion of a single God to “rule them all” so to speak, was unheard of. The prevailing world view was that gods were territorial, and that if you were the god of Canaan, you had power only in Canaan, like being the local sheriff in a small town. You had power, but only to the boundaries. After that, there were other gods, and the stories of nation indicated that the gods had learned to steer clear of each other.
When God called Abraham, there are only subtle hints that anything will change. God tells Abraham that in him (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed, which is a cryptic way of saying something, but not clear enough for Abraham to divine that, while in Egypt this new God of his would be his protectorate there too.
Add to this the fact that Abraham traveled south to Egypt in defiance of God’s explicit command, and you realize that, even if he believed the new God would protect, the fact that Abe went out ‘on his own’ would create questions in his mind about whether God would get him out of the jam. The net result of this kind of thinking? Abe felt that, down there, in Egypt, he was on his own.
“Silly Abraham” we say, as we put down our devotional reading (if we even have such a thing on those “other days” – you know, during the busy M-F routine). Then we’re online, checking the market. Our bottom line of course, is ROI (return on investment). We don’t believe in social venture funds because they’re “fraught with complexities” and rarely do as well as standard investment. So our money’s distributed among the fortune 500 and the S&P index. It’s sad that some of these companies are outsourcing to places where labor practices and environmental standards aren’t so stringent, but that’s the market, and we need to be “good stewards”. God language? Yes… but most if it comes from a different god than Jehovah.
Later tonight we’ll go out on a date, fully believing that the notion of virginity is an archaic throwback to earlier days because Dan Savage, Sex at Dawn, Sex in the City, and car commercials remind us that sex is for pleasure. That’s it’s meaning. Period. The culture preaching this has a beautiful man, made mostly but not entirely, of straw, that they easily topple, as they point out how many people have been damaged by shame inducing, body demeaning preaching that demands chastity or hell as the only options. It’s convenient for the culture to have this mostly straw man, but creates a false dichotomy between the gods of pleasure and suffering in a shame filled hell for daring to enjoy your body as the only two option. The beauty, eroticism, and intense sexual pleasure found within the walls of covenant relationships isn’t really elevated as a realistic option. Ironically, that’s the very first thing God tried to teach Abraham. It seems we haven’t learned it yet.
That’s because we too often also believe that God’s are territorial – not geographically, but ideologically. There’s one God for the my spirit, another for my money, another for my sexuality, another for my patriotism. But when we move into the land of economics, or (historically at the least, if not today too) colonialism, violence, slavery, nationalism, environmental stewardship, or the primacy of the individual over the community, we’re sort of singing the song of Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is.” As a result, Indians were given blankest infected with smallpox by Christian settlers. Slavery was not just sanctioned – it was exalted as sound doctrine from the Bible. These things happened because people failed to let God’s reign bleed into those areas of their lives.
Please don’t miss the point because of the illustration. I’m not telling you which stock to buy, or not buy. I’m suggesting God reigns over economic matters, and sexual matters, eating choices, body care, and whether community is more important than individualism. We should try to let God be God all week long.
Like Abraham, we function “on our own” outside of the small private realm where Jesus talks about justification by faith. Maybe it’s time we recognized the reality of Ephesians 1:10-11, which is that Jesus wants the glory of God to saturate every atom of the universe. Only then will infinite joy and pleasure, perfect justice and peace, reign!
Let Jesus go beyond the boundaries of Sunday in 2014 and get ready for a grand adventure. Who’s in?
My friend who recently died in Austria was more than a friend. He was a mentor to each my children. Kristi Dahlstrom’s reflections on living amidst danger without fear, learned in the Alps, are worth reading; absorbing; sharing.
…Because teachers also have teachers. One of my favorite teachers, Hans Peter Royer of Tauernhof Bible School in Austria, lost his life last weekend in a paragliding accident. Remembering this great man and leader, the following memory from Upward Bound 2011 comes first to mind as I thank God for his life and ministry.
“I am thinking we’ll go look for Edelweiss,” Hans Peter says as we sit down at the table on the sunny terrace of Hofpürgelhutte. “Want to come?”
Nat and I, with trays of schiwasser and warm apfelstrudel, raise our eyebrows. We’ve finished with climbing for the day, and the students are scattered around the yard, sleeping or reading or playing on the slackline until supper in a few hours. As instructors, we haven’t climbed much today, instead spending most of the morning and afternoon on the lookout for distracted belayers and nervous first-time climbers among our thirty-five Upward Bound students. Though it’s been a safe and successful day, full of personal firsts for many, at the end of it we’re not exactly exhausted.
“Yes. When?” Nat replies without hesitating. (“This is one of those things,” Nat says to me later. “Those things you don’t ask questions about. He says, ‘Let’s go pick Edelweiss,’ and you just go.”)
“We leave soon. Five minutes,” Hans Peter replies. Nat and I abandon our treats on the balcony, retie our hiking boots but take nothing with us, as we’ve been told. As usual, Hans Peter sets a businesslike pace up the steep path, which veers to the left of our climbing garden and traverses a grassy slope up to a ridge.
“There,” he points. “Up there in those rocks is where we’re going. That’s where the Edelweiss is.”
Edelweiss-picking is typically the pursuit of young men, who climb to the cliffs on which the fuzzy white flowers cling, bent on bringing back impressive offerings to woo fair maidens. Austrian girls are apparently not impressed with mere roses; the flower’s worth increases dramatically with the risk taken to procure it. What we—two single women—are going to do with our Edelweiss once we find it is far from our thoughts as we trot behind Hans Peter up the path. This is a worthy quest, a rare Austrian adventure, and we were excited to seize it.
Further on, we meet the other three Upward Bound instructors, who’d set off with similar intentions, and they fall in with us. Hans Peter leads us to the left and up, towards an outcropping of rock perched on the green hillside. We can just see a small crevice, like a lazy yawn in a pointed face, where the sought-after flowers supposedly grow, and our quest arches that way.
I’d moved to Europe a year before, away from my own family and mountains in the Pacific Northwest, to teach English at Black Forest Academy. But here in Austria, at my summer job as an Upward Bound instructor, I find something familiar. Here again, I daily met the challenge of following someone up a steep path, confident that at the top there’d be a reminder that every breath, every step, every stone on these ancient mountains was evidence of the everlasting love our Creator has for us.
We reach the cave of Edelweiss just an hour before dinner, the late afternoon sun slanting golden in our eyes as Hans Peter instructs us to take “just one flower” and hold it in our teeth, so as not to crush it while we descend. Two years later, I’d give it to my fiancé, but without a recipient in mind just then I pressed it between Ecclesiastes 3 and 4. “A time for everything” on one side—my favorite lecture of Hans Peter’s, which still echoes back from the summer I was seventeen, myself an Upward Bound student—and “two are better than one” on the other, a passage I’ll hear read at my own wedding in December.
We spend a few minutes at the top, the panorama of sun-drenched Austrian and Italian Alps spread below us like a wrinkled green blanket. Buried far back in the cave, there’s a metal box with a guestbook in it, which we sign proudly, savoring the moment together before we head down for supper. We move more slowly on the way down, making sure of every step. Our leader tells us to grab handfuls of grass as we walk along, to anchor us to the hill in case we slip.
“This is dangerous,” Hans Peter comments matter-of-factly, peering down at the rock-strewn slope that ends, some twenty meters below, in the top of a cliff. “Really hold on here. With both hands, to the grass. It doesn’t look dangerous, but it is. Stay close, and hold on.”
The part of me that was once afraid of heights was numbed two decades ago by another mountain climber, my own father, but I believe Hans Peter’s warning. I know it’s dangerous, know that a hasty step could lead to a long fall. Our steps, then, are measured and slow, just behind those of our leader.
But, aware of the danger, I’m still not afraid. Because with Hans Peter, as with my dad all those years ago, it never mattered whether a place was safe or dangerous. Who I’m following makes all the difference.
Reflecting today on Hans Peter’s life and ministry, this memory stands apart from all the lectures and lessons he taught me, of which there were many. Because this—following confidently the Creator of mountain, air and stone—is how Hans Peter lived, and how he taught us to live. Aware of danger but not controlled by fear, knowing that ultimately our safety lies in the love of Jesus, who keeps writing our story every day we follow Him, this story that doesn’t end in death, but goes on into eternity.
And even through the sadness of losing him, I’m thankful for this teacher, whose life and words have rippled across continents and generations, and thankful for the God who promises that there are more glorious days ahead than this one I remember fondly, and that this goodbye–early as it is–is just for now