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

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 ūüôā 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.

Cheers…

Lessons from the Faithful in Munich…

by , on
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

by , on
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.

For… a plea for beauty

by , on
Dec 8, 2009

Our church staff was looking at this article yesterday, which articulates some data from the Barna research people about how Christians are perceived by those who are not. ¬†I wonder if the real Jesus, not the one conservatives and liberals have fabricated, would be perceived as boring (remember when he walked on water, remember the accusation that he went to the wrong parties, the ones with unreligious people), or judgmental (remember the women caught in adultery who, in accordance with Levitical law should have been stoned, and he found a way to forgive her?), or insensitive to others? ¬†The people who hated him the most were the religious experts – seminary trained, with big Bibles that they used to prove to themselves that Jesus was a heretic worthy of death ¬†(John 5:39, Acts 13:27). ¬†They’re the only people Jesus angered, at least until those people nearly incited a riot in their efforts to get him killed. ¬†Then Rome stepped and helped put him to death.

The normal run of the mill people though? ¬†They seemed drawn to the man, which is baffling because they’re not generally drawn to his body on earth today, the church. ¬†Why is this?

Of course, this could be a huge conversation, because there are many reasons. ¬†But let’s tackle just one: ¬†We’ve become, frankly, rather utilitarian in our approach to relating to God, each other, and the world. ¬†What do I mean? ¬†I mean that we may well have the right ‘WORDS’ about the sin nature of humankind, and our need for reconciliation with God, which has been miraculously provided through the incarnation and death of Jesus (I John 2:1,2). ¬†All of this is good and true, but it’s sort of like a house without any beauty ¬†(see the attached movie). ¬†The ‘gospel’ is good news, not only because it gets us justified… it’s good news because God is reconciling people to Himself and each other, breaking down dividing walls. ¬†If we start breaking down walls too, by reaching across doctrinal divides, not to shoot our brothers but to share and learn from each other, we’ll add the beauty to the message. ¬†The gospel is good news because the entire earth is going to be transformed (Romans 8, Ephesians 1:10,11), and so we can embody a little glimpse of this earth renewal by caring for our environment because God cares for His creation and we’re in His family. ¬†The gospel is good news because, according to Luke 4, people are healed, debts are forgiven, captives are set free. ¬†Unless you want to spiritualize all of that, and turn those things into a tract about getting to heaven, then maybe we ought to be working to set people free who are caught in human trafficking, and feeding the hungry, digging wells and opening clinics. ¬†This stuff is beautiful.

Instead, we’re boycotting Old Navy, not because of unjust labor practices, but because they don’t say “Merry Christmas” in their ads. ¬†This is more than embarassing, it’s angering. ¬†It’s just another exercise in missing the point, and our house continues, to look to the world, like a prison camp filled with boring haters, rather than a welcoming home, the place where the beauty is so inviting we can’t help ourselves… we’re drawn. ¬†This is what the church is supposed to be, and can be. ¬†But only if we start behaving like Jesus. ¬†Until then, we’ll continue to be like the people Jesus struggled with the most: ¬†religious prigs.

Warming up to these ideas yet?

by , on
Dec 7, 2009

With a world conference beginning to address the issue of climate change, I found two interesting reads this morning in the New York Times. ¬†The first is about the conference itself, particularly the cries from the far right about the possibilities of dire economic consequences if we actually take steps to address the issue. ¬†Really? ¬†I was in Germany last week, which is cloudy like Seattle, and farther north, and yet while traveling by train I passed dozens of solar farms, acres of solar panels quietly creating energy without carbon emissions. ¬†At least 30% of the houses seem to have some form of supplemental solar heating. ¬†Cars get 40 miles to the gallon and upward. ¬†Farther north, it’s wind that’s energizing the Netherlands. ¬†Yes, it surely appears that Europe is in the midst of a disaster due to their commitment to be green. ¬†In fact, American companies that are working in solar are considering relocating, not because of labor costs, but because the market for their products is Europe and Asia.

The reality is that we’re in the midst of an economic change in the same fashion that we moved to cars from trains at the beginning of the 20th century. ¬†However, that wasn’t exactly a pure free market was it: ¬†roads, an absolute necessity for cars, came from – tax dollars. ¬†The government intervened and provided infrastructure (surely one of it’s responsibilities). ¬†Why we are afraid of such intervention today?

And before either the left or the right warm up to any of the proposed health care plans, we’d be wise to consider this material, and much more like it that calls us to address prevention. ¬†If we go down “prevention” road, however, we’ll need to start thinking about so many things: ¬†exercise habits, sleep habits, anti-biotics in food, chemicals in everything. ¬†Far easier, I suppose, to simply try (if you’re on the left) to push everyone into a bigger system that is much the same as what we have now, or (if you’re on the right) let the market take care things.

I’d advocate that we shift our paradigm towards prevention and building healthy lifestyles through education and incentives. But, like climate change, such an enormous paradigm shift would be unthinkable because the cost to drug companies, the insurance industry, and some medical establishments would be too high. ¬†When the day is done, though we all acknowledge change is needed, I’m wondering if we have the will to make the hard choices on any either important issue, health care, or the environment?

Reflections on first leg of the trip…

by , on
Dec 4, 2009

In a few minutes I’ll go to class and complete the studies in Genesis with students here, and then board the train for Augsburg, where I’ll spend the evening with friends before filming tomorrow at Dachau and sites in Munich. ¬†Tomorrow night it’s on to Salzburg for supper with a friend and then Schladming, where I’ll be teaching I Corinthians next week.

The week here has been good with many students from Canada, a few from America, and the rest from places in Europe, Africa, and one student from Egypt. ¬†I wish you could be with me for all these conversations, which range from the persecution of Christians in Egypt by Muslims, to the struggles of pastoring in rural Kenya, where drought and water problems have stretched the capacities of all the people, to the differences in health care systems and taxation between Germany and America. ¬†I spoke with a German student who shared her grandfather’s recollections of fighting in WWII, and a story of how God spared his life during a bombing, reminding me that their were people of faith on both sides. ¬†Last night I had supper with a friend and the whole time I was wishing I’d brought the video recorder with me. ¬†We spoke of Hitler’s addiction to Theosophy, why Germany was vulnerable, and the profound effect Bonhoeffer had on Germany after his death. ¬†We also spoke of the American addiction to success and the dangers of that, as he sees it encroaching on the church in Germany.

This travel, and these kinds of discussions are priceless to me for many reasons. ¬†First, they remind of the gospel’s malleability. ¬†It looks different in Germany, than Kenya, than Amsterdam, than Egypt, than France, than America, and that’s OK. ¬†Second, I’m reminded of the danger we all face, of imposing our style of Christianity, with all our strengths and weaknesses, on other cultures. ¬†It’s important to share the central themes: devotion to Christ, the nature of his work, our calling to allow His life to be born in us and expressed through us – and then let these themes take shape in various cultures.

I worry, though, that our American church is becoming fragmented along some very unhealthy lines, agreeing with some commentors on previous posts that some core doctrines are at risk of compromise by the emergent church. ¬†At the same time, I’m concerned that the more conservative branches of our faith true are holding on the centrality of Christ and adding a bit of Americana to that, as if being pro-free market, and pro-war is somehow inherently Christian. ¬†This is, in my opinion, not only nonsense…. it’s dangerous.

Tomorrow I’ll shoot some footage from Dachau, and in Munich, where a resistance movement to Hitler challenged Germany’s apathy. ¬†I think there are lessons to be learned there… or at least some musings. ¬†I won’t post, probably, until Sunday, because I’ll be travelling.

Cheers… In Christ

The Value of Ecumenism, or at least ‘getting along’

by , on
Dec 1, 2009

The school where I’m teaching this week is in the Bavarian region of Germany, a predominantly Catholic part of the country in contrast to the prevalence of Protestantism in the North. Both Protestant and Catholic claim to follow Jesus and declare without hesitation that “Jesus is Lord”. The meaning of the declaration, though, was sorely tested between the late 1920’s and the end of WWII in 1945, as Hitler rose to power by blending “God Words” with a call to nationalism in order to revive both faith and state. That he rose without substantive resistance in spite of his unabashed disdain for both the God of the Old Testament, and all Jews, is a study in itself, but not the point of this post.

My interest resides in those few who DID resist, because a careful look at the players reveals that they were thrown together from North and South, Catholic and Protestant, united in their conviction that actively standing against the raging tide of darkness was essential. There was of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant Pastor. And behind the scenes, when the training of pastors needed to go underground, the non-institutional ‘seminary’ led by Bonhoeffer was supported and hosted by a rich Prussian Heiress named Ruth Von Kleist. Bonhoeffer would eventually have a profound influence of some Catholics in the south who were part of a small, non-violent resistance movement consisting of young adults called “The White Rose”. In addition, the Catholic community would influence Bonhoeffer, offering him hospitality and fellowship at a monastery during his days in Munich. ¬†Bonhoeffer would write during those days that he was humbled by their magnanimous and generous spirit, which led to his own musings on the need to work hard at recovering the unity of Christ’s body.

Another profound influence for the “White Rose” was the Catholic theologian, Carl Muth. ¬†His publishing work had been destroyed by the Reich, but he continued to write, “in exile” in his small home on the outskirts of Munich, where these young people (made up of both Catholics and Protestants) came to glean from his wisdom, study, and find shelter in the midst of their own storms. ¬†And who most profoundly influenced the Catholic Muth? ¬†Protestant Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

Lessons learned? ¬†I’m increasingly convinced that the true church neither resides within particular institutional walls, nor values much of what passes for theological discourse. ¬† Within the various institutions, there will be those few who are passionate for “doing justice”, “loving mercy”, and “walking humbly with God”. ¬†They’ll also be intent on the pursuit of “love from a pure heart, with a good conscience and a sincere faith”. ¬†I say this because, while Catholics and Protestants in the established church were carrying on the very vital conversations about the nature of transubstantiation, and arguing about the role the human will plays in our salvation, six million Jews, along with thousands of Gypsies, mentally ill, physically deformed, and homosexuals, were mysteriously disappearing from the country, ultimately to be shot, gassed, or burnt in ovens. ¬†Hitler didn’t give a damn about the established church because they collectively cowered under his threats, allowing themselves to be pushed into pietist irrelevance. ¬†It was the others, the ecumenists residing on the margins, who were a threat to his house of cards.

Thank God there were those few who set aside the “morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language…” (I Timothy 6:4), choosing instead to stand for what matters. ¬†Bonhoeffer, Muth, Ruth Von Kleist, Hans and Sophie School are the people I point to as my heroes, and they’re Protestants, and Catholics.

I pray to God that we learn from this because I see similarly destructive ‘in fighting’ unfolding in this age between the neo-Calvinists and the Emergent church. ¬†But when darkness covers the world, I’m confident that there’ll be a few who will stop fighting each other long enough to stand together for what matters, and I pray I’ll be counted among them.

Incarnational…

by , on
Nov 30, 2009

As we move into the advent season, I’m looking out the window of my room, located in southern Germany, across the Bodensee lake to the shores of Switzerland, only a few short miles away. ¬†I’m reading, “The Shame and the Sacrifice” while here in Germany, which is the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, the German pastor who had the chance to remain in America as WWII was beginning, but elected instead to return to his homeland in order to walk with his own people through what he anticipated would be a dark and difficult time.

There’s a profound sense in which Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany becomes a powerful and rich example of the very thing we celebrate at this time year: ¬†“God with us.” ¬†Bonhoeffer’s shepherding instincts led him back into the fires from which he could have so easily excluded himself. ¬†It would be wrong to say that the decision was easy for Dietrich, but once it was made, there was no looking back. ¬†He entered fully into the life of the German people, identifying increasingly with the resistance movement inside Germany, and shepherding people towards fidelity to Christ in the midst of everything collapsing all around him, including the church. ¬† These identifications with truth and life, with mercy and justice, would ultimately cost him his life.

As I sit here on the shores of this lake, I ponder the reality that, at the very time millions were trying to get out – Dietrich was going back in. ¬†It’s this kind of identification with people in their suffering that makes Jesus visible among us, and it’s this that is rare in these days, when Christianity has become a commodity often, more than a community. ¬†Our privatized, customized, and invidualized paths give us all great freedom, but at what cost? ¬†I fear that we swim for the shores of comfort and privacy too often, when what’s needed is identification with one another in community, sharing, rejoicing, and suffering together.

How can we who are charged with leadership both exemplify and nurture this spirit of incarnation, of being ‘with’ one another?

Defining our faith by the gear…

by , on
Nov 29, 2009

climber or poser?

As I travelled from Munich to Friedrichschaffen on the train yesterday, I felt a little out of place because the truth of the matter is that I wear my outdoor recreation clothes for everything, including traveling on trains in Europe. ¬†But Europeans don’t do this. ¬†I don’t think I saw any clothing on any of my fellow train travelers labelled “North Face”, or “Patagonia”, or “Mountain Hardwear”, other than the American (who, it turns out, was at Cal Poly the same year as me, but I digress). ¬†It’s not that the people of Bavaria don’t do sport, they do – at least as much as Seattlelites and probably more. ¬†They do, however, save their recreational gear for, well, recreation.

As a result, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that if you see someone wearing a ski jacket, or sweats, or some sort of wicking 1/4 zip mock turtleneck micro-fiber thing, they are probably just starting or finishing some outing whereby they’ll be sweating and need this clothing for actual protection. ¬†The clothes speak of the person’s identity as athlete much more here than at home, where some people who wear Patagonia never venture any farther than their refrigerator for adventure, and where the walk to the car is the longest hike they’ve had in months, years maybe.

In Seattle, you see, we like to look the part. ¬†I sometimes wonder if we even begin to believe that wearing the clothing will somehow make us more athletic, simply by virtue of the wearing. ¬† I know I’ve been guilty of inhaling an extra piece of cake simply because I own climbing gear and am sitting on the sofa reading about people who do high caloric sports. ¬†It’s silly, of course, but I’ll bet I’m not along. ¬†What’s worse, I’m convinced that’s what some of us are doing with our faith. ¬†Let me explain:

For an increasing number of Christians, in our polarized Evangelical community(s), it seems that certain issues have become the spiritual equivalent of wearing brand name outdoor gear. ¬†Wear your Calvinism (or your non-Calvinism) by making sure that you can articulate it, defend it, and beat up relentlessly on those who view it differently. ¬†Do the same thing with your soteriology, and your pneumatology, and your ecclesiology, and all your other “ologies” so that you have the right Bible, know the right verses, and believe the right things. ¬†There, now you look like Jesus.

Except, uh, pardon me but… you don’t; at least not necessarily. ¬†You might look like Jesus, but I promise you that it won’t be because you have the right clothing, which means having all those ologies refined and articulated to the point of being ‘doubt proof’, and ‘bomb-proof’. ¬†In fact, the real proof of your faith won’t reside in your ability (or mine) to defend whatever it is that we say we believe, but rather to actually live it.

This is where things get really tricky, because the reality (and this is why I like this word picture), is that there are people Patogonia Pentecostals, North Face Free Church types, and Mountain Hardwear High Church Anglicans all seeking the summit. ¬†The last time I climbed Rainier I watched a couple of guys make it to the summit and back carrying flannel sleeping bags and wearing Levi’s. ¬†Not advised, surely, but they got there, while the buff, cross-fit hardened, tanned and trained guy from Sweden throw up on his down parka and 12,000′ and needed to get down to thicker air.

You just never know do you. ¬†I think Jesus hinted at that right here. ¬†I think this is why I’m more interested in whether someone wearing a label is actually loving their neighbor, or ignoring them; if they’re confessing their sins to someone or hiding them from everyone, even themselves; if they’re serving those on the margins with compassion, or hiding in a Christian subculture. ¬†The truth of the matter, of course, is that there’s people with good gear summiting, and people with good gear never getting off their butts and doing a blessed thing, other than arguing about whether Patagonia is better than North Face.

I offer these words of challenge to myself as well as the readers because I have my own outdoor gear that often convinces me I’m a Christ follower, when I’m really just wearing the uniform. ¬† Next week, in the ski town where I’m teaching, my “Mountain Hardwear” prima-loft jacket might lead people to think I’m just about to hit the slopes, until they know I’m an American. ¬†Then they’ll know that all my jacket means is that, like reciting the Apostle’s creed, I’ve got the label. ¬†The proof however, will be in the skiing, or the living – and maybe if we were doing more of that, there’d be fewer arguments about who’s label will get them higher, faster.

Cheers…