95th minute… 50th year… 26th mile. Why Endurance Matters

every minute matters.. especially the last one!!

I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the course.  I have kept the faith – Paul the Apostle

You have need of endurance… Hebrews 10:36

Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way. – Annonymous

When the USA was beating Portugal, at the end of regulation, I said, “please please… let it be only two or three minutes of stoppage time”  as a sort of prayer to the soccer gods who I don’t believe in.  Then I saw the sign:  5 Minutes.  FIVE?   NOOOOOOOO!!!

Yes.  And as anyone who knows anything about soccer knows, the trouble came in the fifth minute… about 30 seconds into the fifth and final minute, when a brilliant pass and header moved the USA from a new version of “miracle on ice” to a mere tie.   We played brilliantly, to almost the very end.  Almost, though, is an important word.  The difference between almost and actually is found in a single word:  endurance.

Just this past weekend, a co-worker finished a marathon, friends celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and another friend presses on in his vital leadership role, right in the midst of a battle with cancer.  What all these remarkable people share is a commitment to finishing well, and endurance is a key ingredient for doing that.

Jesus doesn’t congratulate us for starting well, because the truth is that for most of us, starting is exciting.  Right now, in preparation for a planned 400 mile hike in the Alps, my wife and I are in the midst of equipment preparation, trying out our shoes, reading maps and books, and all the other things that generate the excitement of anticipation.  Engaged couples share that same sense, as do most people in their first week at a new job.  New presidents, new locations, new friendships.  We’ve all known the thrill of starting.

I’ve started enough things, though, to know that the thrill of starting isn’t sufficient to sustain me for the distance.   The times I’ve done some mountaineering, I’ve loved the packing, loved the meal on the way to the parking lot, loved the first 1/2 mile.   But shortly after that there’s an ache in my back, and later in the day my thighs or calves, too, are screaming.  Did I mention hunger, altitude sickness, sunburn, and the need to build a base camp, boil snow for cooking and drinking water, cook a meal, clean the dishes, and set out equipment for summit day – when all you want to do is sleep or throw up?

Endurance means you keep going when you feel like quitting.  In fact that the very definition of endurance; our need for it presupposes that we’ll encounter seasons in any worthwhile endeavor when we’ll need to silence the voice telling us to quit.

What are the qualities that build endurance capacity?

1. A goal.  The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is always helpful because it is, in a sense the reward.  26.2 miles is a long way, but if you know that’s how far it is, you can steel yourself for the task by training both mentally and physically for it.  Marriage?  Our goal is a deeper love, a truer knowing, a profound intimacy.  Vocation?  Our goal is excellence at our craft.

“If only the goal was meaningful” you say.  Don’t say that too quickly.  Rico Medellin works on an assembly line at a work station where it’s expected that he perform the same exact work over 600 times a day, or once every 43 seconds.  Rico’s goal wasn’t to “make it through the day” so that he could go home and a enjoy a few beers.  Instead he perfected his craft, reducing his performance time to 28 seconds per unit.  Working at peak performance levels is his goal.  Day after month after year, and he calls the experience “enthralling”

The good news is that meaningful goals can sustain us and motivate us, and the better news, from every century of history, is that meaningful goals are available to everyone: sick or healthy, free or imprisoned, wealthy or impoverished, single or married.  Don’t fall into the trap of making “a change of circumstances” the pre-condition for going after a goal.  There’s a reason to excel, a summit to pursue right here, right now.

Do have a goal for your fitness, spiritually, vocationally, relationally, physically?

2. Patience – A favorite recent read says, “The Gradual Progress Principle says that everything has to grow incrementally through its own developmental stages, from less to more or from smaller to larger.”  Lincoln fought, not for every freedom for African Americans, but for the Emancipation Proclamation.  He knew that change happens best when it happens gradually.  Go further back and you find William Wilberforce working tirelessly for decades to abolish the slave trade in England.

You don’t wake up one morning and move from couch potato to marathoner, from stale marriage to deep intimacy, from mediocrity to excellence.  But you can wake up each day and, as I like to say, “move the ball the down the field”.    I often need to ask the question,  “What’s the next step to reach the goal?”  and take it, being content to realize the gain might be visible to nobody but me.  Still, it’s a step, and as I’m about to learn on my 400 mile hike, every step matters.

Other times, I can simply continue in practices that I know are transformative.  Keep making eye contact with my wife at least once a day; run three times a week; continue having coffee with God.  With such habits I can rest in the confidence that I’m being transformed step by step.  This too requires patience.

What else aids in the development of endurance?

3.  Needed Nutrients

4. Focus: Distance and Present

5. Joy

6. Adaptation

My goal is to address these elements in the next three weeks.  I hope you’ll join me for this mini series on endurance because whether it’s a 400 mile hike, a desire to walk faithfully with Christ for decades, a marriage in need of passion, or a calling in need of fulfillment, endurance is a vital ingredient for your journey.

 

Stones, Doors, and the vital necessity of remembering

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…

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?”

 

 

 

 

Real Housewives of Mesopotamia – and what we can learn from them

The first words out of Abraham’s mouth that are recorded in the Bible are spoken to his wife, when he says, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’ and they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Please tell them that you are my sister that it may go well with me, and that I may live on account of you.”

And so begins a mini drama where Abraham’s wife is taken by force because of her beauty and offered to the harem of the highest leader in the land.  It’s an amazing story, and I don’t want to give everything away, because I’ll be preaching on it this coming Sunday here.  One thing worth pondering during the middle of the week, though, is our often shallow, thoughtless, and critical judgement of Abraham, as we gaze down on his fear based decision, convinced that, “we’d do better”.  Maybe you don’t think that way, but I have in the past, and still do sometimes.  But let’s look a little closer…

That he was in a tough spot is beyond a doubt.  What I often hear though, is that Abraham was faithless, and that he ought to have trusted God to protect him.  That’s (for some, perhaps) easy for us to say, 4000 years later, in the midst of seminaries, Bible teachers, stories of God’s faithfulness down through the ages, and the fact that it isn’t really our problem. It’s just that sort of dismissive self-righteousness, that sense of “I’d never do that”, which stunts our growth, often creating an arrogant and ugly misrepresentation of our faith.  So let’s just pause for moment and consider that, of the many reasons Abraham might have doubted God, there’s at least one worth talking about precisely because we still doubt God for the same reason:

Territorial Gods

Remember that when Jehovah spoke to Abraham, the notion of a single God to “rule them all” so to speak, was unheard of.  The prevailing world view was that gods were territorial, and that if you were the god of Canaan, you had power only in Canaan, like being the local sheriff in a small town.  You had power, but only to the boundaries.  After that, there were other gods, and the stories of nation indicated that the gods had learned to steer clear of each other.

When God called Abraham, there are only subtle hints that anything will change.  God tells Abraham that in him (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed, which is a cryptic way of saying something, but not clear enough for Abraham to divine that, while in Egypt this new God of his would be his protectorate there too.

Add to this the fact that Abraham traveled south to Egypt in defiance of God’s explicit command, and you realize that, even if he believed the new God would protect, the fact that Abe went out ‘on his own’ would create questions in his mind about whether God would get him out of the jam.  The net result of this kind of thinking?  Abe felt that, down there, in Egypt, he was on his own. 

“Silly Abraham” we say, as we put down our devotional reading (if we even have such a thing on those “other days” – you know, during the busy M-F routine).  Then we’re online, checking the market.  Our bottom line of course, is ROI (return on investment).  We don’t believe in social venture funds because they’re “fraught with complexities” and rarely do as well as standard investment.  So our money’s distributed among the fortune 500 and the S&P index.  It’s sad that some of these companies are outsourcing to places where labor practices and environmental standards aren’t so stringent, but that’s the market, and we need to be “good stewards”.  God language?  Yes… but most if it comes from a different god than Jehovah.

Later tonight we’ll go out on a date, fully believing that the notion of virginity is an archaic throwback to earlier days because Dan Savage, Sex at Dawn, Sex in the City, and car commercials remind us that sex is for pleasure.  That’s it’s meaning.  Period.  The culture preaching this has a beautiful man, made mostly but not entirely, of straw, that they easily topple, as they point out how many people have been damaged by shame inducing, body demeaning preaching that demands chastity or hell as the only options.  It’s convenient for the culture to have this mostly straw man, but creates a false dichotomy between the gods of pleasure and suffering in a shame filled hell for daring to enjoy your body as the only two option.   The beauty, eroticism, and intense sexual pleasure found within the walls of covenant relationships isn’t really elevated as a realistic option.  Ironically, that’s the very first thing God tried to teach Abraham.  It seems we haven’t learned it yet.

That’s because we too often also believe that God’s are territorial – not geographically, but ideologically.  There’s one God for the my spirit, another for my money, another for my sexuality, another for my patriotism.   But when we move into the land of economics, or (historically at the least, if not today too) colonialism, violence, slavery, nationalism, environmental stewardship, or the primacy of the individual over the community, we’re sort of singing the song of Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is.”  As a result, Indians were given blankest infected with smallpox by Christian settlers.  Slavery was not just sanctioned – it was exalted as sound doctrine from the Bible.  These things happened because people failed to let God’s reign bleed into those areas of their lives.

Please don’t miss the point because of the illustration.  I’m not telling you which stock to buy, or not buy.  I’m suggesting God reigns over economic matters, and sexual matters, eating choices, body care, and whether community is more important than individualism.  We should try to let God be God all week long.

Like Abraham, we function “on our own” outside of the small private realm where Jesus talks about justification by faith.  Maybe it’s time we recognized the reality of Ephesians 1:10-11, which is that Jesus wants the glory of God to saturate every atom of the universe.  Only then will infinite joy and pleasure, perfect justice and peace, reign!

Let Jesus go beyond the boundaries of Sunday in 2014 and get ready for a grand adventure.  Who’s in?

Faith, Sight, and Cairnes on trails: Examining the “historical” Jesus in the bestseller: “Zealot”

ImageReza Aslan has written “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”.  I’ve read much of it and will have finished it by Monday night so that I can chat intelligently about it at The Kindlings Muse (Seattle folk: Hale’s Brewery, 7-8:30, register here).  I don’t want to spoil the upcoming event, so the focus of this post isn’t the book.  Instead, the author’s foundational statements are a launching pad for a single consideration:  what if there’s a gap between the Jesus we think we know, and the actual historical Jesus.

At the outset, Aslan shares his testimony of becoming a Christian, and then his predictable college deconstruction of his faith, as he writes,  “the more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unblievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.”  He goes on to write, “No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.”

Aslan’s attempt to unearth the real Jesus and deconstruct the evangelical Jesus is fraught with huge faith leaps, contradictions, and assumptions in my opinion – but I’ll save that critique for Monday night.  In spite of my disagreements with him though, the author has provoked a valuable conversation about the limits of knowing, the role of faith, and way we choose how to live.

The Limits of Knowing –

Aslan makes the claim that we can’t know history accurately, but that it doesn’t matter, because “The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age”  It’s not rocket science to counter with the observation that history is, by nature, not observable.  Nobody alive today observed Lincoln’s assassination.  History is the testimony of eyewitnesses and, like criminal cases today, its ours to consider the weight of evidence, the credibility of the authors, and decide whether to believe or not.

The certainty of our conclusions, though, gets thinner as history gets older.  It’s become trendy to get all postmodern with respect to ancient history and say, “we simply don’t know”, to which I would reply, no, you don’t KNOW, with all caps and a big bold font.  But you can still know enough to take a step.  In fact, you must take step, because even your failure to take a step is, itself, a step, a declaration that you know enough to know that you can’t know enough to take a step.

We are hemmed in, all of us, to the necessity of taking steps, even when we don’t know with certainty, and that’s OK.  “We walk by faith, not by sight”

The Role of Faith

The strength of post-modernity, though, is the acknowledgement that everyone walks by faith – believer, agnostic, atheist alike.  We walk by faith, because we’re making choices about things that are eternal and invisible.  These things require a different means of choosing than the choice we make when we drive from Seattle to Portland.  The map tells us that we head south on I-5.  We do it.  We get there.  It’s verifiable immediately.  History isn’t.  Neither is the afterlife.

So, we need more faith when deciding what we’ll believe about Christ, than we do when considering whether i-5 south will get a person from Seattle to Portland.

It’s ironic to me, then, that at a time when the world is finally beginning to acknowledge that there are limits to knowing, and that much in our lives requires faith, there are Christians declaring that they can “prove” the resurrection, or the worldwide flood.  They come out with mounds of evidence, all but saying that believing in the historicity of the whole bible doesn’t require any faith at all.  This is rubbish.  We’re better off acknowledging that faith leaps aren’t blind, but are based on some evidence.  We take into account the trustworthiness of the testimony, the strength of the evidence and then, KNOWING WE DON’T KNOW, take a step.  That step is called faith.  To imply that such a step isn’t needed because we can “prove” history is not only foolish, its unbiblical.

How we choose to live.

ImageIt’s one thing to hop on the interstate, map in hand, and head to some city.  It’s another thing entirely to hike, leave the trail, and negotiate the backcountry with nothing more than the narrative from a book of Cascade Scrambles, and a sketchy map copied from the same.  In such a setting, especially when negotiating scree fields that have no hint of a trail or boot path, you’ll tune your senses to look for signs.  On scree fields, those signs will be cairns, little stacks of rocks that are intended to point the way.  They’re placed by others who’ve gone before you and are trying to help by pointing the way.   You pass a cairn and then you stop and look carefully for the next one.  Each movement towards a cairn is an act of faith, a belief that there weren’t hikers there before you who had something to gain by misleading you.  Could there be such hikers, with misleading cairns?  Of course.  That’s why its called faith.  But you trust, you go, you continue one, looking carefully, walking carefully, and over time you become more and more certain, because of your sense of direction, that the placers of the cairns were telling the truth.

The gospels and early church history are cairns for me.  Do I know that Jesus rose from the dead in the same way I know that I’m typing this on a mac computer?  Nope.  But I believer, and my belief isn’t a shot in the dark.  I’m following the cairns, markers placed on the trail of history by those who clearly had nothing to gain, humanly speaking, by their testimony.  Peter?  Crucified upside down.  James?  Beheaded.  Thomas?  Possibly boiled in hot oil.  The martyrdom of the disciples and the early church is well attested history by credible sources, and they died believing Jesus to be who he said he was – Messiah, Savior, King.  I’ll put my faith dollar there, gladly.

Another set of cairns for me happen to be the saints of history.  Even if none of its true, I’d rather live like Bonhoeffer, or Sophie Scholl, or Dorothy Day, or MLK, or Paul Brand, then settle into a smaller story of either fearfully ‘safe’ living, or a Hemingway like pursuit of ‘adventure for adventure’s sake’.  The narcissism of adventurers and suburbanite conformists are, in the end, still narcissists.  I’d rather live for something larger than myself, so that when Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life – lived to the full – to point of overflowing” I say, by faith in the thousands of cairns dotting the historical landscape, “I’m in!  Sign me up”  –