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

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.


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.


Stray Dogs and Thanksgiving Invitations…

by , on
Nov 25, 2009

I wake this morning intending to skip rope in the backyard forest, but as I sip my morning coffee, the sunrise is too inviting for such confinement.  I’ll run the stairs at the Aqua Theater while the sky gives me a light show to ease the pain.  As I’m jogging down to the lake, the husky pup is wandering around on the grass by the 358 bus stop and as I jog past, he attaches himself to me like I’m some sort of long lost friend.  I try to shake him off, but it’s no use; he won’t leave.

As we get to the lake, another dog distracts him for a moment and I jog on, thinking I’ve been liberated.  Just as I begin to relax, though, he’s there again, this time sniffing yet another dog on a leash.  The dog’s owner and I team up, and within minutes we’ve identified the husky owner and called them on her cell.  Mission accomplished.

As I run the stairs, my heart is filled with thoughts of attachment and adoption from last night’s movie (see previous post).  “We’re, all of us, like that husky pup” I think to myself.  It seems that, though most of us who’d be reading this kind of blog have a roof, food, and some sort of family, behind the curtain of our sufficiencies there are ways in which we’re isolated: from each other, from meaning, even from ourselves.  In our isolation, we attach ourselves to whatever comes along – the next vacation, the next promotion, the next big thing.  But when the carnival ends, we’re still roaming around, emotionally, spiritually rootless.   Like the husky who’d wandered off, we too are ‘prone to wander’, ‘prone to leave the God we love’, as the hymnist writes.

Ah, but there are calls to come home.  For me these calls come when the sun paints the clouds as it simultaneously lights up the autumn leaves, clinging to their last days on the trees around the lake.  The call comes from laughter, intimacy, beauty, and friendship.  I’ll never forget Barry Mcguir’s testimony.  The rock musician who began with ideals that he hoped would change the world, wandered aimlessly through drug tripping and emptiness.  His call home came from an afternoon on a fishing boat when some dolphins began following the vessel.  He started playing with them and the animals responded to him for miles.  Barry would later write that those dolphins were his invitation home, and so he turned the corner and began heading in a different direction that day, a direction that would ultimately lead him to Christ.

All of this is more than theory for me.  Both my adoption and the early death of my dad have left me feeling like a wanderer more than a few times.  But in my own feelings of drifting, I’ve always come across an invitation to come home to the Good God who calls himself Father.

I’m thankful, this Thanksgiving, for invitations, both those offered to me, and those I’m privileged to offer to others.  Good invitations, you see, are the roadmap home.  Tomorrow I’ll sit with friends, grown children, a wife of 30 years who’s my best friend, and tears will fill my eyes because I believe in every way that all of it, every single gift, comes from the One who is forever calling me home.

Blessed Thanksgiving to you!

Blind Side… good for the mind and soul

by , on
Nov 25, 2009

I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s because I like sports movies.  Maybe it’s because I’m adopted.  Maybe it’s because the subject of class and racial divides is increasingly on my radar these days for many reasons.  Whatever the cause, I knew that, before I left for my teaching trip overseas, I needed to see this movie.  So tonight I did.  Here’s why it’s high on my list:

1. I like that Hollywood portrait a southern Christian Republican family in a positive light.  I’ve grown accustomed to the mockery of that demographic, but not this time.

2. Long after the movie’s ended, I’m still thinking about how actions seem so vastly more important than ideology.  I’ll be blunt in saying that I have a tolerance limit for esoteric discussions about Calvinism and Arminianism, Republicanism and Socialism, er, and Democratics.  And while I vote independent, and believe in election, free-will, and eternal security, I’m proud to say that I have heroes who are Calvinists and heroes who aren’t.  They’re heroes because they lived well – you know, loving their enemies without getting violent, serving the poorest of the poor, giving away millions of dollars, that kind of thing.  That stuff, done is Jesus name, is what matters.    This movie shatters our notions that some ‘party’ has the moral high ground.

3. I’m reminded that our calling to reach across the chasm of social and racial divides is a central theme in the outworking of the gospel, and I left the the theater thinking about what this means in my life.

4. It’s about the power of family and, for those of us privileged to be adopted into strong families, a reminder that we’ve been the recipients of a special kind of love.

I hope you’ll take a few hours and invest them in this movie over the weekend.  I’m guessing it might be a bit more thought provoking than Twilight, but I’ll miss that one, so I could be wrong.

Winter Song

by , on
Nov 24, 2009

In case you liked yesterday’s video…

Children’s Rights… everywhere except here

by , on
Nov 20, 2009

Remember that I’m musing here, not preaching. The purpose of this blog, at least some of the time, is simply to incite discussion. That’s surely the case this time….

I’m driving up the writing cabin to work on my book project, listening to NPR as I park on the interstate during the end of rush hour. It’s here, about 30 miles north of Seattle, that I learn that November 19 is the 20th anniversary of “Convention on the Rights of the Child”, which is a UN declaration that seeks to hold nations accountable for providing fundamental rights to children. Child slavery, sexual exploitation, access to education, are a few of the named elements.

I didn’t even know about this Convention until I heard this piece. “Every nation in the UN has signed on” I hear. Then, before I have a chance to feel good, the commentator adds: “except two.” Then, while I’m wondering what kind of nations could possibly say no, I hear this: “The United States and Somalia are the only nations that have refused to ratify the convention.”

This morning, I decide to do a little research, and discover the following:

1. We’re in the company of a nation with one of the worst human rights records on the planets. That’s the fact. In my opinion, that we’re standing alone with Somalia should, at the very least, cause a little humble introspection. Maybe we should reconsider our position.

2. I discover that the US helped write the language for the charter, so isn’t necessarily opposed to the principles. Instead, there seems to be questions about whether the US would be sacrificing it’s sovereignty by allowing itself to be held accountable to other nations. My response: Isn’t this true of any treaty, signed at any time, with any nation? I know we sign other treaties, and certainly expect other nations to bow to our will (have you heard of our insistence that Iran release its nuclear waste? It’s in the news and their response is that this demand threatens their sovereignty). Do we expect others to sacrifice their sovereignty for the common good while we’re unwilling to do so? The sovereignty issue seems to me to be a ruse, though I’m open to further light.

3. Then I read this: Ratification of the UNCRC by the United States would require the U.S. governments to appear before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, a panel of child rights experts from around the world, every 5 years to explain their implementation of such issues as universal health insurance for all American children, currently a human right in all other western industrialized nation (Wikipedia). “Hmmm” I say to myself. “It appears that today’s news about health care has collided with a twenty year old refusal to ratify this treaty. Of course we can’t ratify it. If we did, we’d need to obey it. If we obeyed it, we’d need to make sure every child has access to health care. And that, as we’ve all come to learn, is something that lots of Americans don’t want.  Of course we’d never say it that way – we’d talk about how our system’s the best in the world, praise free markets, and point out our government’s failure to deliver mail without losing money.  But blow away the smoke and people opposed to public health care are forced to this:  if a child has no coverage, parents should need to choose between bankruptcy and care, if that’s even an option.  For many, of course, they just won’t go… until they go to emergency room with pneumonia – and by then it will be too late.  Deaths of children due to lack of health insurance number around 17000 a year according to conservative US News and World Report.

We Christians love protecting life in the womb. But as soon as you’re born, you’re on your own, or so it seems from my chair, as I observe the pro-life position. I’m pro-life myself, but happen to believe that it extends a bit further than a child’s day of birth, happen to believe, with the UN charter, that this child, who did nothing to inherit his/her parents wise or foolish choices, ought to have a chance to live by having education, water, and yes… even health care.

“Socialism!!” The cry is in my ears before I’ve even finished typing, let alone posting. So we, and our good friends in Somalia, refuse to sign the treaty, to which I say this:

“Happy Birthday Children’s Rights. I’m glad most of the world gets it. I hope someday we will too.”