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

The Wind of the Spirit – blowing plans away day by day

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Aug 25, 2014

imageIt’s elemental things like wind, clouds, and fire that God uses to guide people throughout the Bible. “Don’t move unless the flame moves.” “The wind blows. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the spirit.”

Our view of guidance is important, because unless we believe God can still direct our lives, orchestrating encounters, moving us to certain places, then the bottom line is that we’ll go where we damn well please. If we’re tired of the heat, we’ll move north. If we’re tired of poverty, we’ll get another degree. We’ll marry or not, move or not, based on our own motives, goals, internal drives.

But to the extent that we let the wind of the spirit blow, filing the halls of our soul, a different story unfolds (from end to beginning):

8:00 PM – We’re sitting in a tiny chapel, in a dot on the map village named Zell, with 25 other people listening to “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, the pipe organ filling the chapel as we soak in the ambiance of sunflowers on the altar, rustic wooden pews, candlelight, dusk light wafting through the windows. God is speaking to me here, bringing restoration, as I inhale and soak in revelation from every sense.

2:30 PM – We learned of the chapel and the concert because we’d set out walking after checking into our lodging in Oberstaufen (which means “the high village”) tucked in the base of the Alps. We’d wandered down a street and encountered a hall named after Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and this is why I stopped and read the literature posted to the reader board, which included notice of the concert (my German just good enough to figure this out). With map and compass, we discerned that Zell was only about 3k away, and determined to walk there and hear a little organ music. The walk was every bit as glorious as the concert, through fields of freshly mown hay, with hot air balloons in the sky to the west, and contrasting lavish greens from fields and firs.

1:30 PM – We get off the train in Oberstaufen, having never been there before, and find, at the tourist information center, a large touch screen “lodging genie” which enables us to quickly find which inns have rooms. There’s a place within 50 meters of where we’re standing and when we go to inquire, the owner wins our hearts with his smile and gentleness, and we’re finished looking.

1:10 PM – We decide, as a result of conversing with a couple (she from Germany, he from Alabama), to get off the train at Oberstaufen instead of Lindau because the woman tells us that Lindau, being by the vacation destination of Lake Constance will be “very full and very expensive” at this time in August.

12:47 PM – We board the train, this particular one having individual cabins that seat up to six people. As we’re getting on, a man is busily removing his stuff from one cabin to move to another so that his whole party can be together. This leaves a German/American couple alone in a car and we join them. As we begin to discuss where to get off the train in Lindau, she says “Perhaps I can help answer your questions? I live in Lindau.”

11:34 AM – We board a train to our intended destination, Lindau. It will have one change over to a different train that will its station at 12:47PM.

11:00 AM – We disembark from the lift that carries us down from the high country and find our way to the Bahnhoff, where we purchase tickets to Lindau, with the intent of exploring there for a day before visiting friends in Friedrichschaffen.

10:45 AM – Donna passes through the gate to board the lift, carrying my pack, as I intend to run down the mountain. At the last second, for reasons that can only be described as “promptings”, I change my mind and join her. “Wait” I shout, as I too use my ticket to descend via lift instead of jogging down. “Why did you join me?” she asks. “Because I like being with you” is the shortest and easiest answer, though the mystical prompting is there too.

9:00 AM – We’re out the door, heading down and out instead of our planned “up and in” deeper into the Alps to “Bad Kissinger Hutte” (no political jokes please). We’d eaten lunch at this hut the day before after climbing to the top of Aggenstein peak, and were looking forward to spending the night there, but the danger of the hike is obvious to everyone.

image6:45 AM – The silence on the windows feels ominous instead of hopeful after a night of listening to pelting rain on the windows of our hut. “Could it be?” the eight of us sharing a room ask as morning dawns. It is. “Snow!” The weather report had predicted this to be a good day, sunny and warm. By breakfast some of the snow is sticking to the tables outside. We know the route to the hut, know that it’s a trail strewn with rocks that will be “slippery when wet”, know that there are sections where it’s so steep that one must use cables to “hang on”, know that the Romanian who speaks English and works at Bad Kissinger Hut but was helping out at the hut we’re staying in will tell us to go down the mountain, as everyone else will also decide to do.

6:00 AM – Howling wind and rain make sounds when a hut is situated on a high Alpine ridge. The whole place shakes a bit. Sleep is fitful in such a space.

9:30 PM – I fall asleep after taking pictures of the evening lights of Bavaria from the stunning hut. We’re looking forward to being still deeper in the Alps by tomorrow night.

Proverbs 16:9 says “A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.”

One of the great lessons I’m learning on this trip is both the importance and danger of goals. We’re at our best when we can live in the tension between planning, and holding our plans with open hands. We won’t reach our 400 miles in 40 days goal because snow changes plans, and the impossibility of some routes during bad weather changes plans, and the reality that we want to go slow enough to experience the Alps has also changed plans.

Yet still, we’re trekking nearly every day, committing each day to Christ at the outset and believing that weather, train schedules, and the people we meet along the way aren’t random encounters they’re divinely orchestrated encounters intended to lead to “Jesus the joy of man’s desiring.”

Does this apply to real life as well? Yes. We believe that God is guiding our lives, but this belief, rather than leading to a sense of fear (have I missed God’s will?) and paralysis (I can’t do anything until I’ve heard God’s voice) should lead to a sense of confident rest, assured that God is both speaking to our hearts and orchestrating the daily encounters of our lives. In this paradigm, we’re always on the lookout for the wind of the spirit, holding everything, including our plans, with an open hand. Then, and only then, will life become the adventure God intends it to be.

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

by , on
Jul 14, 2014
IMG_4578

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.

 

Stones, Doors, and the vital necessity of remembering

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Jun 10, 2014

Today’s “door picture” will remind us of my wife’s 13 years of faithful service at Seattle Pacific University.

Where, in the wake of tragedy and loss, do we find the strength to press on as people of hope?  The answer is in remembering… and stones, or diplomas, or pictures, or even  a door, can help.

There’s a front door in our house, of course.  Without much thought at all it became the place where pictures were taken on those monumental days:  IMG_0380first days of school – graduations – proms – our youngest heading out the door to dance and sing in a musical.  For 19 years this door has been the equivalent of the stones about which we read in Joshua.  When Israel miraculously crosses the Jordan river, they’re told to make a pile of stones, told that these stones will become the reminder of God’s faithfulness, and so they should take a peek at them every once in a while, because there will be days, weeks, months, when memories will be our most precious asset in carrying us forward.

What a year it’s been!  Santa Barbara, and SPU, and Las Vegas, and friendly fire, and NSA, and politcal polarization, and corporate corruption;  daily news coupled with personal loss create a deadly cocktail in which many of us are at risk of losing hope.   And if hope dies, we’ve nothing to build on, nothing to offer, no reason to continue.  Our worlds will shrink to purely private pursuits of pleasure, prosperity, security.  When that happens, it matters not if we go to church, read our Bibles, or play at religion.  We’re dead already, even while we live.  I’ve seen it often.

IMG_0926The way to avoid this is to collect a few remembrance stones, and put them in a book somewhere, or a door, so you can look at them once in a while, and remind yourself of one big thing:

How God has been faithful – You graduated; or got the job; or moved from single to married, or renting to owning, or brought a life into your home through birth, or adoption, or foster care.  You finished a marathon, or summited Mt. Rainier.   The days these things happen aren’t “just another Tuesday”, they’re significant because they represent either the completion of something, or the start of something else, or usually both at the same time.

It’s important to periodically celebrate, and remind ourselves how far we’ve come by looking at our remembering stones and recalling what we’ve done.  As Paul reminds us, the lives we enjoy are the fruit of God’s faithfulness, because they’re built on the raw material of God’s gifts:  health, education, opportunity, intimacy, adventure?  Think of anything that brings you joy, and then ask yourself where the raw materials of that experience came from?  God’s the source, always, of “every good and perfect gift” as the scriptures remind us.  My diploma, my coffee, the mountains I love, the family that saturates with me joy – none of them are mine because of me.  They’re gifts.  So fifteen years from now, when I look at this picture by our “door of remembrance” as my wife goes out the door to finish her 13 years of working at Seattle Pacific University, I’ll say “Thanks be to God, who provided for our family every step of the way.”   And, “Thanks be to God for a wife who has been willing, over and over again, to set aside her personal goals in pursuit of family goals – she’s been the greatest gift of all.”  

IMG_1245This past summer I stood beside an ampi-theater in what was once the moat of Edinburgh castle.  This picture from there is a form of remembrance stone, because the last time I stood in that spot was 41 years earlier as an awkard 16 year old who, because he could play drums well, was invited to travel in Europe with his high school’s concert band.  Now I’m back in that same spot, this time, enjoying a brief holiday before heading off to be with my theological family and speak at the gathered community of leaders in the Torchbearer Missionary Fellowship in England.  I stood there thinking about the past 41 years and how, in spite of loss, and bad choices, and failure, and doubt, and melancholy – God has been faithful to me.  Wow!  Just the act of remembering became a reminder that I, we, rest entirely in the faithfulness of God, and this is liberating.

Similarly, all our events:  graduations, weddings, children, next steps,  will matter more, I hope, twenty years from now than they do today, because they become reminders of a gift God gave you, and by then there’ll be more gifts too.  Instead of saying, “Wow.  I’m awesome.  Look what I’ve done” your stones of remembering will give you a profound humility that will make yours a life of gratitude, not grumbling; worship, not boasting.  I could wish nothing more for any of you.

 

Postcard from Fresno…

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Jun 3, 2014

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?”

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

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?

Advice to Pastors and Other Christians: leave people alone – sort of.

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Sep 18, 2013

Cross Fit people are busy with their WOD.  Foodies are working on a new reduction sauce.  Climbers do two finger pullups in prep for their next problem.  Theater people are getting ready for opening night.  Organic gardeners are composting and enriching their soil.  Coffee people are roasting their own.  Beer people brewing their own.  Others are rolling their own.

It’s a diverse world out there.  Gloriously diverse.  Within the walls of the church, however, it’s a different story.  I scroll through facebook and find that “prayer is the key” and “serving the poor” is the center of the gospel.  So is “ending human trafficking” and “bringing all the churches together”.  Buying local?  “Vital!”  Sexual Purity?  “THE defining issue of our day!”  Making sure that any given local church is racially diverse?  “You can’t have a healthy church without it.”  The environment?  Missional Communities?  Healthy marriages?  “The main thing!”all of them are the main thing, the thing everyone needs to focus on.

This is the sense I get sometimes from Christians.  We become advocates, not for inviting people into God’s story, but for inviting people into our chapter of God’s story.  We smile condescendingly when someone says they work for Boeing, because we’ve read Wendell Berry and know that the economic machinery of our time is enslaving us all, or the opposite, as the person who works for the man views the idealist as immature.  We’re passionate about Africa, and meet someone who’s leading a Bible study for business people downtown and we think, “someday they’ll get it”  Or we’re a stay at home mom, and wonder how anyone couldn’t be, and still be a good parent.  Or we killed our TV a long time ago, and are certain everyone should.  In the world, my thing is my thing.  I don’t sanctify climbing, skiing, backpacking, and impose it on everyone.  And others don’t impose their passions on me.

Ah, but this is church, this is the Christian life, this is the place where there are answers, right ways to live, singularly absolute priorities.  I’ve found them, and when everyone’s matured, they will too.   There’s word for this:

Arrogance. 

There’s an antidote for this.

We need to get over ourselves.  How?

Recognize different gifts and callings:

All through the Bible the message is the same – humans are gloriously unique, with gifts and callings and passions that blend to make singularly marvelous expressions of God’s image.  This is further enhanced when one comes to Christ, because each person is given unique gifts.  This can be enhanced even more when Christ followers gather together, because what they’ll be, at their healthiest, is a unique blend of gifts, passions, and callings which, taken together, will offer a unique expression of Christ’s life.

Pastors spoil this, though, when they deem themselves to be the head of the church, declaring that “My church will be about diversity”, or “We will be the environmental church” or “We will be the church famous for all night prayer”.  Though this is called vision casting in some circles, I’d argue that it’s vision killing.  Make the environment your “big thing” and people passionate about prayer or racial reconciliation will feel marginalized.  Make social justice your central identity, and you run the risk of pushing people trying to reach the business world for Christ off the field.

The pastor’s job isn’t to make the church about their thing.  The pastor’s job is know his/her flock well enough to know the unique gifts and callings present within, and then fan those gifts into flame so that people will be able to use their gifts for their calling, rather than trying to use gifts they don’t have to fulfill a calling they don’t have, but have been told is their church’s vision.  After all, I Corinthians 12 says that God has given everyone a gift, a unique way of contributing to the story God is writing in the world.  It’s the job of the pastor to equip people to find their gifts, and help them find ways of using those gifts.  When this works, the church that arises isn’t the result of the pastor’s passions – or at the least, the only the pastors passions.  It will be an expression of the uniqueness of that gathering of Christ followers.  In our case it means there’s a homeless shelter, a community meal, a 12 step program, a meal bringing the generations of our church together, a prayer meeting, a wilderness ministry, a team presently in Africa, and more.  These things arise from gifts within the body more than the passions of the leader.  The leader is called, in other words, to serve the church, not the other way around.

This principle though, applies to more than pastors.  I’m of the conviction that we need to give each other space to grow and be transformed by Jesus, recognizing that God is shaping each of us in God’s own timetable.  For some people, the sexual ethic changes first.  For others it’s economics, or social justice, or the environment.  We see our own areas of transformation with 2020 vision and can’t imagine why everyone isn’t on board, praying, or fasting, or giving all their stuff away.  We’re also blind to our areas of resistance and stagnation.

Rather than imposing our transformation priorities and timetable on others, we’d do well to heed Jesus words about not judging.  Instead, why not approach each person has possibly having something to teach us so that we can, over time, gain insight into our own ongoing weaknesses?  Why not set out “looking for Jesus” in each and every person, following Paul’s advice to no longer consider any person “according the flesh”.  If we do this, more conversations will be delightful, more relationships will be redemptive, and the unique expressions of Christ found in various individuals and churches will be more celebrated, rather than judged because they’re “not like us”.  Judgement, especially with respect to how God is maturing another or how another is serving Christ, is not mine to give.  Learning IS mine to receive.  Are you with me?

Walking Carefully: The Context changes the focus

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Sep 3, 2013

Image“Be careful how you walk” is what Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and a Labor Day weekend filled with walking of every sort makes the corollary truth clear too:  Different terrain calls for different ways of walking.  This is vitally important because people like Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Martin Luther, or perhaps Gandalf, were all people with the ability to adapt their walk to the terrain.  Jesus?  The ultimate in wisdom walkers, as he alternately overturns tables and turns the other cheek, speaks to the masses, and knows when a single women touched him.  Here are two skills needed for walking well:

FOCUS ON THE END:  Slacklining is the art of walking a short distance on a thin line stretched between two trees.  Learning how to do this requires a willingness to fail, to fall over and over again, because nobody – nobody – gets it right at the beginning.  As a result, who excel at this must be willing to risk and fall.  They realize that learning something new means repetition and failure and adjustment.  I’m in the early stages of learning this skill and at the beginning I count five steps without falling as a win.  Later it will be six.  Later it will be 150.  But I won’t get to 150 without a willingness to fall often, and this is true in life as well.  Refuse to risk or fall?  You’ll never achieve the life for which you are created.

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The more significant observation though, is that you learn this skill by disciplining yourself to focus off in the in distance, fixing your eyes on your desired goal.  This helps your balance, gives you a sense of calm, and stabilizes your steps.  Look down at the line at your feet and you will fall every time!

We need this same capacity to focus in the distance in our daily living, because without knowing the goal, we’ll become dragged down, discouraged, and easily distracted by the thousands of things that make up our daily lives.  Commuting, laundry, shopping, cooking, cleaning, work, church life, date night, be amazing parents, pay your bills, climb your career ladder, invest wisely, care for your body, manage your stress, and don’t forget to love your neighbor.

It’s all a bit much at times, this ‘to do list’ that is life.  What’s helpful when overwhelmed is to look way out in the distance and see a world without war, every disease healed, every relationship reconciled, all evil cast away forever.  We’ll all be sitting at a great banquet, the likes of which our finest moments of celebration in this life can only hint at – and it will be overwhelming joy, and beauty, and peace.  This is not only where our world is headed; this is also intended to be the vision that governs our daily pursuits, so that everything that is our life is about embodying the hope of this marvelous future.

When Christ followers lose sight of this end, they’ve lost the ‘why’ of their lives, and without the why, the balancing act becomes impossible and we fall off.  I need to burn the vision of Christ’s completed reign into my head because without this hope, I’m just religious, or just running a church, something sickening like that.  We’re made for hope, and our SOURCE for hope is at the end of the line – the end of the story:  ‘behold, I’m making all things new’

FOCUS ON YOUR FEET:  Part of my weekend was spent traversing a mountain scattered with boulders and scree.  If, in such a setting, my eyes are turned anywhere other than directly down to see where I’ll place my foot next, the results will be catastrophe:  twisted ankle, or broken something, will mean there’s no way up or down without outside rescue help.  Toss in a bit of rain and some hypothermia, or a fog that cancels the search and the game’s over.  It’s because of this that the field demands we not look to the distance at all, but simply to the very next step.  Place your feet, check your traction of it’s wet.  Stand and transfer weight.  Repeat.

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Most of life is like this scree field.  It’s all well and good to know that a new kingdom is waiting at the end of history, but if the toilets are dirty and we don’t change the oil in our car, it doesn’t mean much.  To live well means to look at what God has given us today and seek to do it, whatever it is, in way that displays the peace, joy, and wisdom of Christ.  That’s why there’s no sacred/secular divide – only a sacred/profane divide, and things become profane when we fail to show up, fully present to our daily lives.

A lot happened to Abraham while he was walking towards his destination and waiting for his wife to conceive.  It’s tempting to think that those days were less important than the ones at the end of the story, but they’re not.  They ARE the story.  All along the way the faith, doubt, success, failure, confession, praise, prayer, laughter, war, peace, hospitality, that constituted Abraham’s were all central to the story.  An unhealthy fixation on the final chapter of God’s story will lead to disengagement with the only chapter we have the chance to live in today, which is the present.   Step by step, most of our lives are spent doing the little things that, taken together, make for a real life.  In other words:  clean toilets, commutes, and block parties matter – so whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.

A clear vision for  the future and a commitment to being totally present in the million steps of daily living is exactly what’s needed if we’re to enjoy the fruitful and abundant life for which we’re created.

Dreamers need to get grounded in taking clear next steps.  Practical people need to gaze into the distance and remember the why of it all.  Future and Present are vital.  Which is your greatest challenge?