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

Marriage: Away it goes

by , on
Oct 24, 2009
30 years and counting

30 years and counting

It’s an amazing time in history. On the one hand, we’re seeing movement on the part of same-sex couples to have the right to marry, while on the other hand, we see the heterosexual world increasingly treating “marriage” with callous disregard. It’s this latter point that stood out to me while watching “Away We Go” recently. In case you’ve not seen it, I’ll shamelessly cut and post the synopsis from here:

Mid-thirtysomethings Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant are a loving couple. Burt has always wanted to marry Verona, but Verona resists, not seeing the point of the institution. Regardless, they are having a baby together, despite questioning their potential parenting abilities. They are happy that they made the decision to move close to Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander, as they want to share the experience with the baby’s grandparents. Verona’s own parents died over ten years earlier, a situation about which she doesn’t like to discuss. In Verona’s sixth month, she and Burt learn that Jerry and Gloria are moving to Antwerpen, Belgium the month before the baby is due, just because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do. Burt and Verona don’t understand what they see as Jerry and Gloria’s selfishness in putting this move above spending time with their impending granddaughter. Being mobile people, Burt and Verona decide to move. As they want to share their new family experience with people that they love, they decide to take a trans-continental trip to meet with old friends and relatives. Most of them are married with children of their own, and Burt and Verona want to see where they would like to live and with whom they want to share the experience.

It’s a touching movie, at times both funny and heartbreaking.  One senses the challenges of being rootless in every sense; geographically, vocationally, and spiritually.  We call this rootlessness liberty in our culture, but outsiders don’t necessarily see it as a gift, and this film shows why.  But that’s another topic for another post.  A sub-plot in the movie is Burt’s continued desire to marry Verona, and her continued refusal.  She’s suspicious, perhaps even cynical, regarding the notion that the institution of marriage has any value.

She’s not alone.  Five years ago Harvard Magazine published this thoughtful article that both exposes our culture’s growing antipathy towards marriage, and explains some of the reasons for the shift.  It’s a good read,but long, and includes ‘birth control’, ‘women entering the work force’, and ‘the failures of their parents’ as all contributing factors.  Who needs the paper anyway?  Will the paper enhance love?

While I understand the rationale here, I find all of this disturbing because I’m a huge fan of marriage.  I’m a fan personally, because I’ve had the privilege of being married now for the past 30 years and can say that, at least in our case, the harvest comes, more and more, as the years pile up.  What I mean by that is that the earlier years had challenges that required of both of us skills that we didn’t yet possess.  By God’s grace and wisdom (and I mean that literally) we were able to learn the skills without destroying each other or permanently withdrawing into our respective corners.  Now, there are still challenges, but we’ve greater skills, and hence greater truth telling, and grace giving, capacity.  In other words:  Life is Good.

I can’t know how it would have played out were it not for the covenant piece, but I do know that there were times when I said to myself:  “I made a vow” and that was, at the very least, a piece of what kept me, not only married, but engaged in the process of learning to love.  I think many people diminish the vow, thinking that it only means sharing a bed, or if not that, at least a house and kids.  We promise much more, actually.  We promise to love and to cherish, come hell or highwater, come cancer or dimentia.  It’s a promise that, if we really take it seriously, I believe turns us towards Christ, asking Him to give us what we don’t have, in order to be the kind of people we promised to be.

We won’t do this perfectly.

Many days we won’t do it well.  Some days we won’t do it at all.  But still, we’ve taken a vow, and the vow becomes a reference point.   That reference point has been a gift for me more than once!  I’m not just glad I live with Donna.  I’m glad I’m married to her.  I think this might have been at least part of what God had in mind when he spoke of leaving home and clinging to one’s partner, in the sense that you’ve closed the back door.  Yes, there’s grace for failed marriages, but should the failures become rationale for throwing away the possibility of covenant?  I don’t think so.

So please help me understand why marriage has fallen on hard times.  Do you think we should be working hard to renew it?  Why or Why not?  If so, how?

The Bible as an Idol

by , on
Oct 20, 2009
The Bible:  Maybe the most dangerous idol?

The Bible: Maybe the most dangerous idol?

In Exodus 20, the very first of God’s ten commandments is His declaration that we must “have no other gods”, and right on the heels of that, we’re warned against “graven images”, which is a warning against fabricating gods out from our own creativity as representations of the true God.  God warns against this, of course, because He knows that our attempts to represent God will always, mis-represent Him, as we can do none other than make God in our own image.   If you’d like an example of this ‘re-shaping of God’, you don’t need to go to a new age bookstore, though you can find it there.  Just jump over and check out the Conservative Bible Project, where God’s character and truth is being reshaped according in the image of American political conservatism.  Idols, it turns out, can thrive on the left AND the right.

The project appears to have been born out of a legitimate concern that political correctness has, over the past years, created a push towards rewriting the Bible, by adding gender inclusive language.  Conservatives have responded with their own rewrite, which goes back to the original gender based pronouns, but excludes disputed passages, removes “any and all socialist language”, and “celebrates the free-market parables”.  They also intend to “identify pro-liberal terms used in existing Bible translations, such as “government”, and suggest more accurate substitutes”.  This new version also declares it’s intent to “Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms” whenever possible, in order to combat the liberal biases that come about when a more literal translation is offered.”

I’ll begin by observing that the left messes with the clear meaning of the Bible all the time, so in critiquing this new project, I’m not advocating that some other ideology has the “pure way”.  This project, however, is fraught with flaws that make it perhaps even more dangerous than the errors on the left.  What kind of flaws?

1. Political and Economic Conservatism isn’t “God’s favorite way”.  I say this because when people declare openly their intent to celebrate free-market parables (supposedly, like the talents), and villify the term ‘government’, their obvious intent is to shape the Bible into some sort of capitalist, free-market manifesto, as if Jesus would celebrate the opening of franchises, and the unrestricted growth of big business.

This is nonsense.  The Bible does contain free market parables, perhaps to the dismay of the left.  But the government God invented for Israel defies the modern economic categories we’ve created.  There’s land ownership (capitalist), but there’s mandated care for the poor (socialist).  There’s banking, in that there’s the possibility of loans and interest.  But there’s also an ‘every fifty year’ reversal of fortunes that would have had the effect of preventing the disappearance of the middle class, as well providing for liberation of slaves, a concept which any pure capitalist might well regard as wealth redistribution, or what Libertarians would call “theft”.  Did I mention the health code that “big government God” imposed on Israel?  Provisions were made for dealing with the outbreak of plagues, the disposal of human waste, the disposal of dead bodies, and more.  How families and farms dealt with these things were imposed on them as law.

2. God’s “Good Leaders” defy Conservative Values.  We’re prone, all of us Americans are, to throw people out of leadership after a moral failing.  God, though, obviously isn’t American, because he stuck with Abraham when he slept with maid; stuck with David when he used his power to seduce and sleep with his neighbor’s wife.  Sure, the left ignores God’s calls to sexual purity, and sometimes presses interpretations to the breaking point in order to justify sexual libertarianism when God clearly has ethics and high standards about this stuff.  The Bible is also clear in pointing out the dramatic consequences of our sexual failures, on heart, soul, family, body, even nation.  But it also seems that God is more patient with people’s moral frailty than most people are.  That’s why, even though Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery will be removed from this new Bible, the truth that God is patient with sexual failure will remain.

3. Who is shaping Who? God is supposed to shape us and He uses the Bible to do it. I’ve a firm conviction that when we let it speak plainly as the living Word, it will cut us to core – all of us.  The left, for example, will be offended by the consequences of sexual libertarianism, and reality that we’ll ‘always have the poor with us’.  They won’t like that Jesus sided with the woman spilling the perfume on his feet, because they’ll agree with Judas that the money could be given to poor.  The right will be offended too, by the passages I’ve articulated above, and more.

After we’ve wrestled with the meaning of scripture on an issue, and come to an understanding that challenges our current beliefs or practices we have a couple of options.  We can either:  1) change our ways of thinking and living. That’s called repentance.  2) reframe the text to mean something that fits into our current beliefs and lifestyle without requiring anything of us.  That’s called idolatry.

When all my interpretations of the God’s Word must pass through the grid of my conservatism, or liberalism, or Calvinism, or the worldview of my pastor, I’d better be concerned, because I’ve become an idol worshipper, and I’ve made a god in my image, out of my own interpretation of a book called, “The Holy Bible”.  That might be the most dangerous idol of all.

Your thoughts?

Are we there yet? Sojourners and Shalom

by , on
Oct 16, 2009

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

How do you find music you like? Here’s one way it happens for me…

I purchased a compilation CD recently because I’d heard one song on it, on the radio, that I wanted to savor, and because the proceeds from the CD go to preserving the forests of our beautiful Cascade mountains. Neither reason would have been good enough alone, but together, I caved and bought the CD.

Though I bought it because of this, I loved both the lyrics and music of Ingrid Michaeleson in this song, so I visited her web site, and bought more of her music. Three nights ago, alone, I sat and listened, over and over again, to her offering titled, “Are we there yet?” I thought of those I know facing cancer, infidelity, foreclosure, aloneness, and so much more. Ingrid takes the trite little things we’ve said all our lives, like “Home is where the heart is” and “Every cloud has a silver lining” and turns them on their head to reveal the reality of our incompleteness. I listened to it eight times in a row, sitting in candlelight as the rain fell, and pondered the tension in which all of us must leave, between the shalom (peace and wholeness) of God, and the reality that we’re sojourners.

Are we there yet? Nope….not even close. Hebrews 11 tells us that nobody’s ever there, not in this life, not even among people of faith. There’s always, it seems, an ache. Even, as I’ve written elsewhere, in our moments that come closest to perfection, there’s an awareness of how fleeting they are. The perfect powder melts. The perfect moment of intimacy fades.  Stuff happens.  “Are we there yet?”… I don’t think so.

And yet, it’s also true that somehow, mysteriously, in the midst of our not yet being there, a peace is available to us that is beyond our capacity to grasp. This peace, in its fullest expression, has its roots in God’s notion of “shalom” which encompasses the deep satisfaction that comes from everything being just right. And there’s a sense in which this shalom is available to us right now, not in full measure surely, but available nonetheless.

I believe that it’s available because, in Christ, we’re granted to possibility of looking at the world through different eyes, childlike, wide-eyed with wonder over the simplest things, be they the remarkable shades of green that come after the rain, or the subtle tastes of a good red wine. A friend who is battling cancer has this sense of ‘sojourner’ right now as she does battle with the disease in her body, AND at the same time, she experiences profound peace and joy because her daughter in law is carrying her first grand daughter. There it is: sojourner and shalom.

Unless we have the eyes of Christ, the sojourner piece will devastate us and we’ll become, frankly, dark people who either numb ourselves through addictive escapes, or pour our own darkness into the world, or both.

Thanks Ingrid, for a song that captures the reality of our sojourning so powerfully. And thanks be to God that in the reality of our brokenness, shalom awaits.

This is what I’m talking about…

by , on
Oct 13, 2009
Obama wins the prize...but why

Obama wins the prize...but why

“God has placed eternity in the hearts of men…”  is one of those mysterious verses in the Bible that is best explained through illustration, by pointing at something and saying, “that’s what it means”.  Now that Obama’s been awarded a the Nobel Peace Prize before actually doing much of anything substantive to contribute to world peace, I think we have an example of Ecclesiastes 3:11.

Don’t go all “Rush” on me, and scream about liberal conspiracies.  Your tirade will cause you to miss something valuable.

Don’t whine, either, about how Obama deserves this award, and how his presence at the table as someone who tries negotiating before bombs is enough of a cause for him to triumph over these candidates. He doesn’t, and it isn’t.

If we step back though, and take a deep breath, we might realize that Obama was granted this award, not for anything he’s done, but for what his style represents.  Rightly or wrongly, the committee was impressed with the removal of the defense shield, and his willingness to engage in dialogue with enemies with whom the previous administration refused to converse.  Did you get that?  They were impressed that he was reducing weapons and talking with his enemies.

Why be impressed with that?  I’d suggest that the committee was impressed with that because our hearts long for the kind of world that will exist when Christ reigns.  He will say, “come let us reason together”, and when justice rules perfectly, He’s promised that we’ll melt our weapons down and turn them into tools of agriculture.  Hmmm… Christ’s reign looks like what again? Reason and dialogue, and a reduction of weapons.  No wonder people like Obama.  I’m not defending O’s political strategy, nor challenging it.  I am saying that people like reducing weapons and talking for a reason, and the reason is because God put it in their hearts to like it – we’re made for peace and dialogue.

Oh, and there’s a giant warning here too.  Humanity’s greatest failures have come whenever people have promised the fruits of the kingdom without the reign of the True King.  History has shown that there’s only One who will be able to bring this about.  Like or don’t like O’s strategy.  But don’t confuse it for the kingdom – to do so would be disastrous.

Dancing the Sabbath in 6/7 time

by , on
Aug 8, 2009

I’m privileged to teach in Europe every year for a week or two. Europe, you know, is what the Republican party is afraid we’re becoming if we let everybody have access to health care. It’s the “post Christian” culture that so many are afraid we’ll become if we don’t vote properly. I’m not certain what “becoming like Europe means”… I know it means that we’ll spend less on health care per capita while our mortality rates will drop and our longevity rates will rise. I know it means that church bells will ring at the beginning, middle, and end of each day, along with each hour. I know it means that public schools will celebrate “prayer day” where they learn about prayer in history, and spend time actually praying. I know it means that there’ll be less access to AK47s and other rapid assault rifles for common citizens, and that the rates for homocides will be lower, as will the rate of incarceration. I know it means a barista won’t lose their home because they need open heart surgery. I know all this… I just fail to see what everyone’s frightened about.

However, rather than tackle the whole “socialist, church bells, prayer day, gun control” culture, I’d like to just talk about the Sabbath, which is practiced far better in Europe than it is here. Our culture is open for business 24/7. As a result, we’ve collectively lost our sense of rhythm, and this has serious consequences:

1. Because shops are open 7 days a week, we buy! This piece of our culture has the effect of enabling our propensity to wear ourselves out. In contrast, only activities that enhance leisure and relationship building (cafes, ski areas) are open on Sundays in the places I travel in Europe.

2. Because we buy, we do stuff, and the stuff we do often has the effect of displacing the leisure of eating a meal, slowly, with good friends, good wine, good conversation. Instead we’re painting the fence, or cleaning the house, or whatever.

3. These things we do, combined with our love of TV, are effecting our relational capacity. A friend from Europe visited some college students here in the states and found their capacity for lingering conversation lacking, as they preferred, instead to play wii or watch movies.

Of course these are generalizations. Of course there are exceptions. Still, I’d argue that we need to learn from our European friends, how to dance to the rhythm of 6/7 time. Work hard six days a week, and then spend a day investing in rest, restoration, recovery, relationship, recreation, receiving all of it as the gift God intended.

We surely have different vestiges of our Christian heritage more prominent in our culture than our European friends have, but we both have these ‘hangovers’ from the Reformation (good hangovers… if ever there could be such a thing). It’s high time we acknowledged that, maybe they’re onto something with this Sabbath thing, and we learn from them. We might not be able to change the culture at large, but surely we can march to a different drummer ourselves can’t we?

Have friends over for a meal
Sleep in
Worship
Play music with companions
Do something with your spouse: take a bath together, go for a hike, read aloud o each other

In short, make one day different, a day when you quit fighting the battle for survival, and simply enjoy the relationships, food, creation, health, that God has placed on your plate right now. Here’s a book that might help get you started… and good Sabbath to you.

questions…bridges…life

by , on
Aug 8, 2009

Welcome…

After blogging for years over at blogspot (where you can find all the old stuff about movies, sexuality, politics, faith, doubt, Iran, Iraq, money, sleep, books, mountains, coffee… it’s all there if you nose around long enough), I’m moving over here to a different site, in hopes of focusing my thoughts and creativity a bit, trimming my efforts down to address three things:

1. Questions – I’m a pastor, and so I get real questions all the time.  “Why are we on the brink of bankruptcy after all these years of faithfully serving God?”  “Where the hell was God when my husband ran over our three year old daughter?”  “What’s wrong with a little oral sex among friends?”  “How can I make Bible reading less boring?”  “Why am I so bothered by Christian’s snappy answers?”  “How do I know that I’m believing truth and not somebody’s fable?” and many more.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, or even most of the answers, because if there’s anything I despise, it’s arrogance born of premature conclusions.  But I do have thoughts, because I’m equally suspicious of the postmodern notion that we’re awash in an epistemological storm that is sinking all convictions.  I don’t buy it.    As a result,  I have thoughts, and probably more questions, and some arrows to point the enquirer in what I hope is good direction.

At other times, I’ll post because I have questions and I’m looking for your input.  Thanks, in advance, for your help.

Bridges… I think it was Thomas Merton who talked about having a Bible in one hand, and the Chicago Times in another.   He saw the task of the priest as that of mediator, standing between the two worlds.  I love that task, because I love this world and the God who made it.   This world’s food, art, music, politic, ethic, economic system(s), recreation, relational angst, and everything else, seems to provide insights and windows into the God who so often appears to be invisibly present, right in the midst of it all.  I like to build bridges between this God and the beautiful yet broken world this God made.

Life… There are issues and observations, too many to mention, that just seem to come up in daily living.  I’ll write about them if it appears that they might be helpful in some small way.  The topics could range wildly, from coffee and cooking, to sexuality and sunsets.  I think God cares about all of it, wants all of it shot through with His glory, and it interested in showing us the way there.

Welcome.  I hope you’ll join me often.