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

The quake: shaking our assumptions?

by , on
Jan 15, 2010

David Brooks excellent article about this week’s quake in Haiti is a must read.  Whether you agree with his diagnosis or not, he shines a light on a problem that absolutely must be addressed:   There is no formulaic relationship between $$ aid and economic development/autonomy.  Haiti is the ongoing recipient of immense investments.  By some estimates, they have the highest per capita ration of NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations, like World Vision) in the world.  In spite of this, Haiti has remained locked in poverty, and it is this poverty that prevents the kind of infrastructure (building codes, sewage systems, access to water, hospitals, schools) from developing.  What do I mean?

  • The government is not able to provide the resources to educate the nation’s next generation.
  • The unemployment rate is over 80%.
  • More than half of Haitians live on less than a dollar a day.
  • There are few paved roads, an inadequate supply of potable water, minimal utilities, and depleted forests.
  • About 60% of the population lives in abject poverty.
  • Less than 20% of Haitians age 15 and over can read and write.
  • Fewer than 75% of children attend school.
  • 40% of the Haitian population does not have access to primary health care.
  • The United Nations estimates 6% of Haitians are infected with HIV/AIDS. The highest rate in the Western Hemisphere. An estimated 30,000 people die of AIDS every year.
  • One in twenty Haitians is infected with HIV/AIDS and there are over 150,000 AIDS orphans.
  • When things begin to shake, the underlying social and economic pathologies are revealed, and the devastation is exponentially greater than would be the case, were there adequate infrastructure present.

    So why is it that infrastructure doesn’t develop?  And how can we, who are opening our wallets, invest our dollars in the best way to assure that we not only triage the damage, bury the bodies, and provide acute care to those who need it now, but also begin addressing the systemic issues that have kept Haiti stuck for so long?

    Brooks declares that beginning with the assumptions that all cultures and beliefs are morally equal is the height of folly.  Ideas have consequences, and the tragedy of Haiti isn’t just that there’s poverty, it’s that the poverty is interwoven with deeply held beliefs and practices.  Until these beliefs change, the poverty will remain.  Brooks says it this way:

    In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism….It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

    When WWII ended, the German government sent hundreds of young people who’d been raised in the ethos of the Hitler Youth movement, to Capernwray in England for moral re-education.  International Needs is taking a similar strategy in Romania.  This, it seems, is the path in Haiti offering the greatest light.  But such a strategy swims against the popular current that eschews any challenge to another culture’s world view.

    We’ll take an offering at our church on January 24th for Haiti as part of the important effort to contribute to the acute crisis of the moment.  But it’s vital that all of us with means think long and hard, not about whether to invest, but about how to invest, so that our investment leads to changed lives and changed cultures, not just handouts.

    A case for marriage…

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    Jan 12, 2010

    I’d like to spend a few words building the case for marriage, because this institution, like all institutions (it seems) is increasingly regarded with both suspicion and cynicism by younger generations.   For this reason an increasing number (of both Christ followers and the general populace) are forsaking marriage, choosing instead to simply live together.

    I understand the cynicism, but disagree with conclusion.  The cynicism makes sense because people are looking for something more substantive than some sort of ‘legally binding’ arrangement.  If that’s all a couple has, and they stay together for propriety, or reputation, perhaps even ‘for the children’, then they enflame the notion that marriage is meaningless.  After all, when a couple stands before God and their friends to make a vow, they don’t promise to live together; they promise to love each other through all the seasons life – and let me tell you, the latter is much harder than the former.

    My wife and I have been married thirty years, and I don’t think I’m speaking presumptuously in declaring that we love each other deeply.  We’ve built a storehouse of adventures, laughter, child-raising, and braving challenges together.  Each of these marvelous moments seems to add a brick to the solidarity of our marriage, and each brick makes the notion of walking away from our commitment to love, all the more difficult.

    God knows, though, there are moments when we’ve both wanted to walk away.  Between us, we know all the tricks – stony silence, careless disregard, hurtful words, manipulation, a fear of truth or confrontation that leads to perhaps the worst thing of all: the pleasantness of relational death.   We’ve never strayed very long into any of these arenas, falling in unwittingly, and then crawling out – but we’ve been there, and when one or the other of us is there, the grass suddenly looks greener elsewhere.  After all, we’re both competent and capable individuals, right?

    I’ve a feeling we’re not alone in this.  But, in spite of the fact that our eyes have looked longingly at freedom once in a blue moon (ok, maybe twice), staying in the arena of working on the promises we made has always been the obvious choice.   And because of this, the bricks have continued to accumulate, until we’ve now, not a wall with a marriage contract tacked on to it; but a home of love and gratitude.

    There are many reasons we chose to stick with the vows, but one of them is pretty simple:  We made a vow – and we made it before God, our friends, and our family.  It carried a weight for us (as I both believe and teach that it should for anyone who makes it), and this weight has always been lurking in the background.  But recall, as we have, that our vow wasn’t a commitment to stay together – it was a commitment to love each other.    Choosing to simply stay together, without comitting to the hard work of learning to love does two things:  1) It displays our obsession with appearances and our desire to please people, both of which lead to the charges of hypocrisy in the Christian community.    2) It helps create the disillusionment that leads young adults to avoid marriage completely, opting instead for ‘authenticity’.  That marriage and authenticity are thus juxtaposed reveals how wrong headed we’ve become.

    The value is found in declaring a commitment to love one another.  Sometimes love might call for consequences, such as temporary separation or intervention.  But always, love is working for the good of the other, and the union, rather than retreating into a cage of selfishness in order to preserve one’s own fragile and wounded ego. But beneath it all, there’s a commitment to love that was public, personal, and had the effect of creating a sense of accountability

    Ironically it’s that sense of accountability that is largely missing in the generation that’s must hungry for authentic intimacy.   Intimacy without accountability is a mirage, and boatloads of heartache and woundedness are waiting for those who try to create it.  Better to keep the accountability ingredient in the mix; and how is that done?

    Simple:  marriage.

    I welcome your thoughts.

    The Roman Road: More than you thought?

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    Jan 9, 2010

    Growing up in the church, I learned that one of the best ways to share the gospel succintly would be take hearers (eager or not, no matter) through what came to be called the “Roman Road”.  In essence, this declaration of the good news find in Christ was, to use a cooking term, a ‘reduction’.  The idea was to boil away the unecassary ingerdients in order to leave the more powerful essence.

    The essence includes about four truths:  1) you are a sinner,  2) the wages of sin is death, 3) God paid the wages through the death of Christ, 4) you can be reconciled to God by accepting this free gift of salvation.

    All these things are true, and very good news indeed.  Increasingly though, I’m convinced that the reductionist model is missing some things that are vital for the gospel, things that, to the extent that they’re missing, contribute to a vast misrepresentation of both the good news and our calling to live it in this time.

    To begin with, Paul calls Jesus, “the Christ”, which is tantamount to calling him “the King”.  This is not only vital news, it’s threatening news whenever any state declares itself to be the highest power.  Caesar is King.  Caesar is Lord.  Right? Isn’t that inherent in declaring one’s allegiance to the state?

    Further, Caesar declared himself to be “the son of God” and his birth was heralded as “good news” (gospel), throughout the empire.  He demanded obedience in the annual event during which citizens of the empire would verbally declare that “Caesar is Lord”.

    When people say the gospel isn’t political, I wonder what they’re smoking.  Declaring allegiance to an ethic and authority other than the state is the ultimate subversive political act.   Paul throws down the gauntlet in the first seven verses of his letter to, of all people, the Romans.  It was a letter to the equivalent of Moscow, or Berlin, or Washington D.C. declaring, at the outset, that there’s a different kingdom underway, a different king.

    Heads of state don’t generally look kindley on such declarations, and Rome was no exception.   Within two decades, Christianity would become the focal point of Rome’s rage, and Christians would become torches for Nero’s parties.

    There’s more.  Paul declares that this higher allegiance isn’t theory or generic.  Rather, he delcares that all followers of Jesus are called to the “obedience of faith”, meaning that they’r called to live differently.

    It’s right here that I wonder about the split between the right and the left among people of faith.  My sense is that all sides, (all of us, in fact, even we who like to think we have no side), are guilty of cherry picking our obedience.  The right gets marital fidelity right, and the call to sexual purity, but somehow thinks hating our enemies and destroying them, and allowing market forces to “raise the living standards for the poor” is the gospel of Jesus.

    The left believes (rightly in my opinion) that God calls us to care for the earth, and find ways to love and care for those who are our enemies, but utterly ignores the more personal calls to higher morality.  Too often, they believe that changing systems will change the world, when the reality is that changes in the world only come about because of changes in the human heart.

    In all of this, it’s also important to remember that Paul never, ever, envisioned the union of political power with the kingdom of God.  Power structures will rise and fall, be allied with the gospel at some points, and run counter – it matters not.  Our calling remains the same:  embody the reign of the king in our communities of faith, and work to actively make that reign visible in our lives, our homes, our cities, and our world.

    This is what I’ll be talking about tomorrow.  I welcome your thoughts.

    10 for 10

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    Jan 5, 2010

    Resolutions, hopes, musings, prayers?  I really don’t know what these are.  But there are ten of them for the new year, offered in no particular order:

    1. Exercise – I’m bummed that I’m starting the new year with a couple of injuries that are making my exercise routine more challenging.  I remember reading the biography of an Italian climber once who, when interviewed at the age of 87 said, “I still try to do something challenging for my body every day.”  That’s my mantra at the beginning of 2010 as well: challenge the body daily somehow.

    2. Socialize – The deadline for my next book is May 1st, and I’m aware of my tendency to sort of jump into the ocean of ideas and hide in the safety of my own head rather than be involved in relationships.  I’m intent on doing a better job of developing and maintaining relationships with friends, neighbors, and co-workers, during writing season.

    3. Encouragement – I was privileged in 2009 to re-connect with some friends from architecture school who were, and still are, gifted encouragers.  They reminded my how important this gift is, and I’m intent on developing some little habits in order to more be encouraging.

    4. Service – Our church is doing this Rule of Life thing (if you’ve read my book, you know about it), and this year one of our focal points will be service.  This is a big and challenging deal for me.  When I was in Austria recently, a man ten years older than me got up at 3:30 in the morning to drive someone to airport and then spent the day teaching ski instructors on the slopes while I… slept in, read, did e-mails, took a nap, and tried to write.  I was convicted by his action, and the actions of many others, that serving has increasingly become a blind spot in my world, and that if I’d listen more closely to the Holy Spirit, I’d do the dishes more often.

    5. Generosity – Stewarding the wealth of health, family, home, and material abundance is a tremendous privilege and responsibility.  I’m mindful that I could share more freely and am praying for Jesus to show me the way.

    6. Simplicity – I’m tossing stuff I haven’t used, and have it as a goal this year to go through my files (after me) which have become clogged with needles papers, articles, ideas… there will be a fire in the mountains this spring.

    7. Mission – As our church moves towards the establishment of new services, campuses, and satellites, it’s on my heart that we also begin to find a way to focus, with greater intentionality, on our own backyard – serving in the North Seattle area creatively and building platforms for relationships there.

    8. Teaching – I’ve a men’s retreat this spring and two family conferences this summer.  I’m praying that God will use me in these venues, and that I’ll ‘devote myself to these things’ as Paul exhorted Timothy to do.  I fear becoming stagnant, redundant, meaningless, as I grow older, and am praying for the capacity to still be used by God, knowing that ‘being used’ is simply the byproduct of my own relationship with Jesus.

    9. Beauty – Whether it’s the beauty of creation, poetry, good coffee, architecture, photography, intimacy or…anything else, I pray that I’ll both appreciate beauty and contribute to the beauty of my little part of the world, for it is in beauty and suffering, as Simone Weill wrote, that we see God most clearly.  On a practical level, I think this means we need to address the front yard.

    10. Contentment – The pursuit of “more” is bothersome to me these days, and I nearly didn’t write this entry because of the risk that it implies a sense of ambition and drivenness that, in reality, simply isn’t in me.  Instead, I’m a fan of Ecclesiastes 5:18 – it might even be my ‘verse of the year’, if I were ambitious enough to have one:

    Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that it is good to eat, drink, and enjoy work under the sun during the short life God has given us, and to accept your lot in life.  And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it.  To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life – this is indeed a gift from God.

    All right then – welcome to 2010

    Going backwards in the New Year

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    Jan 2, 2010

    Years ago a read a little book called, “The Torch of the Testimony”, and after traveling as a tourist during this past trip in Europe, I’m committed to re-reading it in 2010.  It’s a church history book filled with biases and lacking footnotes and documentation, so from a scholarly perspective, the material would be a waste of time.

    The thesis of the book, however, is both true and sorely needed in our day.  Kennedy asserts that, throughout the history of the church, there have always been those who have stood outside the institutional systems of Christianity, eschewing the Protestant/Catholic wars that ravaged Europe (and this blog recently, as well), opting instead for more primitive expressions of the faith; organic expressions of Christ’s life whose sole agenda was to be the presence of the resurrected Jesus in this world.  The Waldenses, John Huss, and the radical reformers are among the groups mentioned.

    As Kennedy says so well, “The history of the working of the Spirit of God is not the history of any organization, and what usually goes by the name ‘Church History’ is only too often a sorry tale of bigoted quarrels and selfish intrigue. Yet the history of the two, the spiritual movement, and the earthly institution, are sometimes so closely intermingled that it is impossible to give an account of one without referring to the other.”

    Normally, my annual time in Europe is primarily devoted to teaching (and a day or two of skiing).  But this past trip included vacation time with the family.  Touring castles and cathedrals allowed me to see first hand the effects of these bigoted ecclesiastical quarrels and some of the misery that inflicted.  When faith is coupled with the pursuit of political power, military might, and the expansion of one’s ‘interests’, be they Protestant or Catholic, history tells us that what ensues will invariably be violent, ugly, and contentious, all in the name of Christ.

    But always, in the midst of the institutional Christian insanity, there have been little bastions of greater light.  Of course, history also tells us that these bastions of light, as they grew, faced their own trials and challenges.  Success, we come to see, is dangerous. Still, the groups of which I’m thinking were convinced that if they were going to be a testimony of Christ, they’d need to release their institutional ambitions, leaving their preservation and growth to God.

    As Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in prison while the war against Germany raged, he began envisioning what would be necessary for Christianity to survive in post-war Germany.  In letters written from prison, he envisioned churches that were cut free from state, and even pondered the end of denominationalism, believing that autonomy and locality of churches loosely tied together through fellowship rather than formal ties, would ultimately create a healthier testimony of Christ than institutional interests could ever hope to achieve.

    As the church I lead grows larger, Bonhoeffer’s observations and contemplations are helpful.  We’re in an age and culture where the franchise is a very real possibility for growing churches.   But before spreading our non-denominational logo, we’d be wise to, at the very least, pause and listen to the words of Bonhoeffer:

    “The clergy should live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.  She must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men, but helping and serving them.  She must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.  And in particular, our own church will have to take a strong line with the blasphemies of hubris, power worship, envy and humbug, for these are the roots of evil.  She will have to speak of moderation, purity, confidence, loyalty, steadfastness, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.”

    Nothing could be truer… or more timely, at the start of a new decade.

    Merry Christmas….

    by , on
    Dec 21, 2009

    Merry Christmas from Austria… I’ll be on holiday until New Year’s Eve. In the meantime, here’s a gift I’ve shared with my family as a way of saying: God has blessed me beyond all I could ask, hope, imagine.

    May you know Christ’s life as your hope, peace, and joy throughout the new year.

    See you in 2010

    Rest and Wounds

    by , on
    Dec 16, 2009

    After falling last Thursday on the ski slope in Austria, I could barely move. My fall was a mere 150 meters of skiing above the gondola, which I needed to enter in order to get down the mountain, for only the top half is presently up and running. It was getting dark, and every turn made my insides feel as if they were being pulled apart, so much so that I briefly considered sitting on the snow and waiting for help to come.

    As the nature of my injury became clear, I did what I’m prone to with everything: research. I visited countless internet sites to discern the finer points of distinction between three possible injuries. What was troubling me was that fact that only one of these three was ‘self healing’. I agonized over this, because I’m one of those people who like to know what’s going on, whether it’s good or bad. Unfortunately, though, my twenty minutes of internet medical training left me ill equipped for an accurate self-diagnosis.

    By Monday afternoon, I’d decided that I needed to speak with someone who had more knowledge about these injuries than me. Fortunately, there’s a ‘ski injury specialist’ whose office is within walking distance of the school. He treats members of the Austrian national ski team, so I suspected he might have seen an injury or two in his time. What’s more, he speaks English. That settled it. I made an appointment for Tuesday morning, and was in the examining room by 9AM. (that the whole thing cost me less, by paying straight cash, than it would have cost me out of pocket with my current insurance is another story… for another time).

    He looked, poked, assessed range of motion. I explained the injury. “It is not the serious kind” he said. “It will heal on it’s on.” Relief, immediately becomes a question: “How long until it heals?”

    “You will know” he says.

    “How?” I ask.

    “It will stop hurting.”

    “But right now I can’t even do a sit-up” I say.

    “Your body is telling you to not do sit-ups then. The pain is there for a reason.” And then he said this: “All healing requires pain.”

    I walked home, both gladdened by the diagnosis, and pondering that last statement: “all healing requires pain.” I thought of the painful revelations I’ve tried to avoid facing in my life, revelations about hurt, loss, rejection. Try though I have (and still do, at times) to silence the pain, it rises to the surface, revealing my own need for grace and transformation. But facing the pain, and letting the pain do it’s healing work, is as much a necessity for the soul as the body.

    Jesus faced the pain of loss in the garden, and it worked towards both his perfection and our healing.

    Helmut Theilicke, the German theologian (I won’t tell you which denomination 🙂 said, “the problem with the church in the West is an inadequate view of suffering.” I might say that there are many other problems as well; inadequate Christology, consumerism, idolatry of wealth and materialism. But Helmut’s right in saying that we have inadequate view of suffering, because we’re trained from the earliest age to build a pain free life.

    We learn that every time we’re told that there’s a new drug available for your malady. We learn that when we self medicate away the pain of our isolation. We learn that when we make choices based on self-preservation rather than integrity.

    The gift of pain is the shaking and alterations it brings to our lives, precisely so that we might be healed from whatever it is that is robbing us from wholeness. I feel better today, but still can’t do a sit up, so I’m forcing myself to stay of the slopes. Pain is the teacher and the lesson is simple: relax and let go of your demands to master the hill. You’ve a different plan now… but it will still be good.


    Lessons from the Faithful in Munich…

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    Dec 14, 2009

    In case you weren’t at Bethany Community Church yesterday (and even if you were), I thought you’d enjoy this little production, created by roaming around Munich in search of learning more about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose.

    Many people ask about the fruit of their work.  I can offer two stories, and with each, a word of hope from the Scriptures.  First, when the news of the White Rose reached America, the allies printed the leaflets by the tens of thousands and air-dropped them over the German cities, doing what, in their wildest expectations, none of the white rose would have imagined while they were living.  Jesus said it this way:  “Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains by itself, alone.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  These lives bore fruit, precisely because they were willing to die.  And of course, the thing of it is this:  Jesus is asking all of us to lay down our lives, and ways both large and small, for His purposes.  We must learn to make His will our only agenda, which means we must also learn to listen for His voice and be quick to follow Him.  In this way, we will find ourselves swept into the destiny God has for us.

    The second principle is related to the first.  I will surely never go down the road of laying down my life unless there’s something far more important than ‘my life’ in my worldview.  Of course, those who follow Jesus know that, whatever their life might entail during these days on earth, their life on earth isn’t the end of it all.  They have more.  One women wrote this, regarding the tremendous sacrifice of the White Rose students:  ‘You can live without owning anything.  But you can’t live without having something ahead of you, ahead of you in the sense of something inside you.  You can’t live without hope.

    Of course, there is nothing greater in which we can invest our lives than imparting the beauty of Christ’s reign into the very real world of this day, blessing people in the name of Christ, and inviting people to both be reconciled to God and join in the work of manifesting His kingdom.  Hans and Sophie were exemplary and inspiring to me, not only because of their courage, but because their courage came wrapped in lives well lived.  Clearly enjoying good food, the mountains, poetry, and good conversation, they nonetheless held the courage of their convictions in such a way that they were willing to lay everything on the line for the sake of their call.  It cost them their lives, but their testimony lives on.

    “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us…lay aside our weights of sin, fix our eyes on Jesus, and run our race.”  May we too be joy filled people who love God, love others, and stand firm!!

    Cheers… from Austria

    touching graduation night in Austria… and I love my job

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    Dec 12, 2009

    Last night, the students who’d come together twelve weeks ago to begin their Bible School experience, brought it to completion with a graduation supper, and a closing service, honoring both the students and the staff who, together, were the body of Christ in this beautiful part of the world for the past months.  I do the last week of teaching because my lectures are on I Corinthians, which is about what it means to be a church, an appropriate topic for just before students leave.

    The week was refreshing both because of the students hunger for the word, and because of the conspicuous absence of the fighting between the emergent church and neo-Calvinists.  On Sunday the 20th, I’ll share a video about the history of the Protestant church in this village, along with God’s movement of ecumenism between Protestants and Catholics.   I must say, the absence of rancor between Catholics and Protestants over here is humbling.  Both groups recognize that, within their organizational ranks there are both believers and unbelievers, realizing that institutional loyalty, or loyalty to doctrines beyond the sufficiency and centrality of Christ, are entirely secondary.   I wonder if we have anything to learn from this?

    These students will scatter, back into churches of many flavors, in many parts of the world.   They won’t bring rancor over issues of sovereignty and total depravity.  They won’t consider themselves emergent.  They just love Jesus, and are trying to love others too.  This, of course, is the point isn’t it?

    Anyway, I love my job – shepherding a tremendous flock in Seattle, and declaring Christ to the next generation as I travel and teach several weeks a year.  I thank the Lord for both worlds, as I’m increasingly convinced that each enhances the other in profound ways.

    Cheers!  And students… congrats.  You blessed me more than you can know this past week.