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

After Failure – The next steps matter most. What to avoid and what to do.

by , on
Oct 18, 2014

I’m coming home next week “aware of a million failures”.  There are “church fails” in my city.  “Health care fails” in Texas.  “Personal failures” on the list of summits and huts I didn’t reach, chapters I’ve not yet written, spiritual habits I’ve not yet mastered.  My conversations these past weeks have largely been with people who are deeply aware of both their own failings and the failings of others, and who wonder what to do next.  That’s why I wrote this post. 

Failure isn’t really the main problem in this world.  There are remedies for failures, and often clear steps to take so that in the wake of failure our lives can be stronger, richer, more compassionate, and more honest than they ever might have been without failing at all.

So failure’s not the biggest problem any of us face.  The critical moments are the steps we take immediately after though.  It’s those steps that will become the main determinants of our future.  So here’s a quick and (I hope) practical guide, offering both critical steps to avoid and critical steps to take, after failure.

Steps to Avoid

Denial –  Rock climbing is nice because a fail is always an obvious failure.  It can be valuable and transformative, but it’s always a failure.  Nobody cheers when you fall.  I wish all of life were that easy because perhaps the biggest problem with respect to many failures is that we remain blissfully and intentionally unaware.  We’ve got a temper problem, or control problem, or abuse problem, or a drinking problem, but don’t see it.  In our own minds though, we’re just social drinkers, and have the guts to tell the truth when nobody else will, or to take control of things, or to put people in their place so that things can get done.

Any failure that remains hidden will be repeated over and over again until it becomes a deep part of our character.  This is the first and primary reason we’re a world of addicts and abusers.  If we could ever move beyond the denial stage,  we’d eventually do the beautiful and hard work of transformation, but until we overcome denial, we can’t overcome anything else.  This applies, of course, to persons and institutions.  A relentless commitment to uncovering reality, or “ground truth” as Susan Scott likes to say, is not the solution to anythingbut it’s surely the first step for everything.

Of course, it’s easier to see your failures than mine.  There’s no shortage of critics in this world.  That’s why I love David in the Bible.  His interest was in his own transformation when he prayed that God would search his heart and “reveal any unclean ways”.  Try praying that, and the remedy for failure will begin to work immediately!

Blame – Once I’ve embraced the reality of the situation, it’s vital that I own my part.  If it’s marriage, or church, or the corporate world, I’ll be sorely tempted to deflect my responsibility for the problem by blaming “circumstances beyond my control”.  You know the suspects:  spouse, board, pastor, co-worker, boss.

Of course there are circumstances beyond our control, but our response to those circumstances is entirely ours.  We were free to leave and we stayed, or vice versa.  We were free to respond with grace, but we lashed out.  We were free to find comfort in some redemptive way, but we self-medicated with drugs, or porn, or drink, or shopping instead.  It happened.  Don’t blame the others.

Shame/Cynicism – For lots of Christ followers these twins are the biggest problems.  Though they’re not exactly the same thing, they both have the effect of taking us out of God’s story.  Embrace shame and you’ll say that you’re nothing but rubbish, and that God has nothing for you, and can’t/won’t use the likes of you.  Don’t believe it for two seconds.  A quick overview of the Bible shows us that some of the people most deeply involved in God’s story had also sold family members as slaves, slept with their daughter-in-law, committed adultery and murdered the husband, had a quick temper and rushed to judgement, doubted, had arrogance problems until their catastrophic failure forced confession etc., etc.  O yes.  God can use you.  Whether you stay in the game or go to the bench for a break is God’s prerogative, not yours.  But don’t preemptively bench yourselfyou may never get back in.

Steps to Take

Embrace – This is really the positive flip side of denial.  “Yes” we say, to ourselves if our failure is private, or to the one or ones we’ve hurt if public, “I failedI own it without excuses.”  You drank too much, or ate too much, or look back at your week and see that you didn’t pursue Christ, or exercise, or engage your neighbors in conversation, or whatever it was that you said you’d do and didn’t.

Own it.  In the Bible this is called confession, and we’re told it’s the key to moving forward, both with relationships, and in our own internal freedom.  I needed to do this again this morningand pray it will remain a lifestyle for the rest of my days.

Learn – This principle requires more space than a sub-point in a blog post, but it’s vital.  If you failed to a reach a goal, maybe it’s too big a goal and you need to adjust, or maybe it was just a bad week and you need to start fresh tomorrow.  If it’s some besetting sin like anger, drinking,  cynicism, or unhealthy sex, you need to discover why you go there; what are the triggers that move you, and how can you avoid them?

How can you build your life differently to favor transformation?  Do you need accountability?  Counseling?  A chat with a friend who’ll walk with you in pursuit of your transformation?  Someone to exercise with?  Find your next step and take it.

Receive – Receive forgiveness from Christ, and hopefully from others, if others are involved.  It’s vital to believe we’re forgiven because there’ll be a little shadow creature perched on your shoulder telling you that you are your failure, that you’ll never get over it, that you’re worthless rubbish and “why bother”all in an attempt to keep you stuck in your patterns and failure.  Give that voice the finger pleaseany finger you want, as long as the result is that you stand in the truth that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

Continue – I watched a little kid take an epic fall skiing a couple years ago.  I was heading up on the lift and I saw him lose control, fall, slide 150′ down the hill, scraping his face on ice the whole way, and then screaming as he lay there in pain.  I quickly got off the lift and skied down to see if I could help or call ski patrol.  By the time I got there, he was putting his skis on again and within seconds was off again, bombing down the mountain.

I thought to myself, “Learn from this, R.  This is how you fall and fail well.  Whatever else you do, you need to get up and carry on.” 

Please don’t misunderstand this critical last step.  I’m not suggesting that we simply proceed as if nothing’s happened.  Do that and we’ll just fall harder the next time.  There’s a time to leave your job; or your church; or your leadership position, or your abusive relationship.  The steps we’ll need to take in order to be free and really grow often require dramatic changes.

But, and here’s the key, they are changes toward transformation.   Wisdom will be able to identify the steps God has for us.  Leave your position.  Change your church.  File for separation and insist that your spouse get help precisely because you want a loving marriage rather than a shell.  Join a gym.  Find a program that limits your time on social media.  Whatever it is… do it.

Where am I?

by , on
Sep 1, 2014

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(I’m happy to introduce the guest author for this post as my hiking partner, best friend, and one week from today, wife of 35 years! Enjoy Donna Dahlstrom’s thoughts on guidance, reality, and journey.)

I love maps. I’ve loved maps from my earliest recollections of traveling across the country with my family in the back of a camper. There was always a supply of maps we picked up from the gas stations for state after state after state between California and New York. I loved finding where we were on the map and where we were headed before jumping to the next map.

This trip in the Alps has been no different. I’ve loved pouring over the maps, discovering where we are, searching for the next destination and discerning the route to get there. I’ve learned to read the contour lines to determine if the route is going up or down. I’ve learned important German terms to accurately read these particular maps: “joch” is a pass, “hütte” is a hut (usually with delicious food and shelter), “spitze” denotes a summit, “see” is a lake, “alpe” is grazing land for cows, sheep, or goats, and if I’m very lucky, “bahn” is a gondola whisking us over steep ski slopes.

It’s been fun to have these two-dimensional maps become three dimensional as we hike through villages or look out over towns from the mountaintops. What was once nothing more than a name on a map is now a neighborhood with lovely flower boxes outside the windows, an especially cheerful waitress, a helpful information desk worker, a tiny church with a pipe organ, a grand monastery built 700 years ago, an elderly woman who exuded joy through her eyes and sweet smile even while indicating she had no available rooms to offer.

Another thing I’ve learned about maps is that they’re only helpful if you can identify at least one location on the map. Without having a known starting point, it’s challenging to orient your location to anything on the map. It’s possible to make guesses, especially if there is only one mountain or one river on the map but it gets difficult when there are many mountain ranges, many little villages, many roads and rivers from which to choose. Such was the case when we stepped off a train in a town of which we thought we knew the name but could never locate any of the other locations we explored on the map around the town. We discovered the next day that we were actually in a different town entirely! Aha! Now it made sense as we located all the other familiar points on the map near the correct town!

This minor error simply added to the special spontaneity of this particular stop along the train route but we could have run into serious difficulty if we’d been in the high country of the Alps, continuing to venture without knowing where we really were. Stopping to consult the map to be sure you’re on the right path is essential to safety in the high country. When the contour lines on the map are very close together, it means you’re either at the base of a cliff or about to go over one. Knowing your location will help protect you from making a wrong step and guide you to a safer path. We have found it essential to take the time to repeatedly check our locations on the paths we’ve been on while trekking and I can see now the importance of doing the same in everyday life.

Presently, I’m in a change of season in my life. My children have grown up. My vocation has changed. I have a new set of responsibilities before me, some not yet clearly defined. I’m at a crossroads. Time to check my map to determine the correct path. Which one am I on? Which way should I go? What are the trail markers and signs around me telling me? With an ear to God’s voice, whether by people offering advice or inner promptings or scripture verses, I need to be checking my path with God’s map for my life. Am I on the right path? Have I consulted the Mapmaker recently to honestly assess where I am? Walking step by step these past thirty days has impressed upon me the importance of not just wandering aimlessly, but walking informed by God as my guide who wants to show me amazing things along the way, whether it be castles or chocolate factories or gracious guesthouse hosts or majestic ripples of mountain ranges. Listening to His voice is impossible when I’m doing the talking (and planning). Learning to be quiet in order to hear His voice is not easy for me but step by step, I’m a little bit closer than I was thirty days ago.

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

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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.

 

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?