Tag Archives: decisions

2014: A Better Path by Adjusting Values: more or less

A new year is a blank piece of paper; a chance to stop and consider how to fine tune our investment in the one wild and precious life that we’ve been given.  The “unexamined life is not worth living” is how Socrates put it, and there’s no time riper for examining our lives than now, when the calendar is clean.  Rather than just thinking about goals, though, this article reminds me that it makes sense to think about values.  Here are some values that need adjusting… more or less.

More Intentionality in affirmation and encouragement – I’ve recently become freshly aware of the power encouragement has, both through experiences of giving and receiving it.  Decades ago, in the midst of a depression that came about in the wake of my dad’s death, the person who made the biggest difference in my life did so through encouragement and affirmation.  When I thanked him, he said, “All of us know our inadequacies pretty well – what we need is to be told how much we’re loved, where we’re gifted, where we can shine.”  While the value of truth telling and hard conversations are also important, I’ve recently reawakened to the value of encouragement and plan to fan it into flame this year.

More Openness to the fullness of life – I’ll be teaching from Ecclesiastes this Sunday, and this coming summer for an outdoor course.  This book, more than any in the Bible, invites me to fearlessly live “fully” in every moment.  As one poet writes:

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…”   We live in a hyper-insulated world these days, afraid of all that might go wrong if we venture outside our comfort zones, and the fruit of this is a lowering of the bar, so that for too many the biggest adventure of our lives is a visit to the newest movie, or upgrading our xbox.  We’re too often missing the reality that in Christ, we’re sometimes invited to step outside the boat, or into the river, or give away the last of our loaves and fishes.  What if we said yes, shooting the moon and casting all our hope in the reality that God’s calling us to this next step?  What would happen then?   Abundant life would happen and by that God doesn’t mean material prosperity necessarily, but fulness, vibrancy, wholeness, right in the thick of the beauty and challenges on our plates.

More Companionship because we’re made for community and relationships.  I’ve just finished experiencing an overwhelming outpouring of support in my life from close friends throughout the time of my oldest daughter’s wedding.  They helped make the wedding happen in a thousand practical ways and I was reminded throughout the experience of just how priceless deep friendships are.  I’m looking for ways to continue fanning those flames of relationship in the coming year.

In addition to human companionship, I’m very much looking forward to nurturing companionship with Christ as I spend 40 days hiking through the mountains in order to learn more about what it means to walk with God.  After all, we’re invited to friendship with Jesus, not religious ritual.  I hope to learn more lessons about what that really means through my walking days.

More Creativity – For people with responsibilities like work, marriage, family, keeping the car maintained, keeping the sewer line between the house and street flowing freely, keeping the deck stained, there are seasons when it’s hard to be creativity.  Our longing to write, paint, create music or pottery, or whatever, is eaten alive by our day job and our night job so that we’ve nothing left for creativity.   There’s no sense moaning about it; such seasons simply happen.

On other hand, when one comes up for air, and the creative urges begin demanding they find expression again, it’s important to fan those urges into flames and give the fire some room to grow.  I’m going to do that by making a modest commitment to a word count for writing during each two week period of the coming year.  Rather than some lofty unattainable goal, I’m shooting for something challenging but doable.

More Vegetables – There’s nothing to say here.

Less Late Nights  – Everyone’s at their best at some certain point of the day, and for me it’s that time in the earliest morning hours, around 5:30.  As a result, staying up ’til midnight, weary and uncreative, robs me of my best time.

Less Stuff – We’re slowly working our way through the closets and garage because, like plaque in your arteries, possessions have a nasty way of accumulating and then remaining as nothing more than clutter long after they’ve served their purpose.  “Give it away” I say, and it’s happening, and it’s liberating.

Less Whining – I love that the Bible invites me to pour my heart out to God with honesty, expressing the full range of lament and praise, joy and sorrow.  But there’s one response to reality that God roundly condemns:  grumbling, which is this sort of low level whining amongst ourselves about circumstances, leaders, politics, the weather, jobs, customer service quality of Comcast, Seattle traffic and more.  The Bible says this is more than just a wast of time; it’s destructive sin.  God seems to be saying, “Tell me anything you want about your reaction to life, or your trials or pains or joys.  But don’t whine to one another.  It’s worthless.”

Less Yes –  All these musing about life change have to do with one single thing.  I’m trying to answer the question of how to make the most of the few precious days we’ve been given on this earth.  The answer, I’m learning, resides in focus.  “Fan your gifts into flame” is what Paul said to Timothy, which is a way of saying that you can’t do everything so once you find your calling, don’t worry about saying no to the many sirens of temptation that will come your way.  Stay committed to your thing… your craft, your marriage, your kids, your writing, whatever.  Give it your best and take of yourself so that you have your best to give.  Living into that requires less yes.

What are you saying more or less to in the coming year?  I welcome your thoughts.

Practical Advice for Maximizing Your University Experience

ImageSchool’s in, and for those of you who read this and are in college, I’d like to offer a word of welcome.  As the pastor of a church with lots of university students in it, one of my favorite Sundays of the year is the one when you arrive, back from your summer experiences, to jump into another formative year of education.  As a pastor, I feel incredibly privileged to share, in a small way, in that formation.  I know that these are some of the most significant years of your life, know that the decisions you make and the values you form during these years will shape you for the rest of your lives, and even beyond that!

The NY Times had a great little read recently called, “Ditch Your Laptop – Dump your Boyfriend” filled with good, practical advice on how to make the most of your college years.  If you’re in college, or know someone who is, I’d recommend reading it.  The article started me thinking about what I’d want to offer students and I came up with a short list.

Since my list is incomplete, I hope some of you will add your own contributions by adding comments to this post. Thanks!  So what you can students do to maximize their college experience:

1. Be curious. This, I’ve discovered, is of huge value in the ‘real world’ after college.  Reading widely and developing your capacity to build bridges between different subjects is one of the things I look for when assessing someone’s leadership potential.  Sure, you’ll need some specialization; but you’ll need more.  You’ll need to capacity to think creatively, solve problems, and build bridges – skills which don’t happen accidentally.

2. Get intimate with God. That’s a tall order, I realize, but I think I’m simply talking about developing some habits that will help you and God become friends, like David and God were friends, or Moses and God.  Jeremiah 9:23-27 is a reminder that “knowing God” is the only thing worth boasting about in this life.  Of course, “knowing” isn’t offered here in some absolute sense because the truth is that we can’t know anyone perfectly and completely – not even God.  But we can establish a trajectory of intimacy, whereby God becomes someone to whom we pour out our heart, in both gratitude and complaint, frustration and longing, rejoicing and praise.

This will require some time apart from others, and maybe a journal.  If this is one of your greatest areas of weakness, I’d recommend this book as great place to start.

3. Do something to serve others. I just finished writing a new book, the thesis of which is that each person is uniquely gifted by God to paint the colors of hope on the canvass of our world.  To find your brush, and learn your strokes, you need to say yes to serving in some way.  You can do this on campus, or in your church.  This will help you swim upstream against the consumerism that is so prevalent in our culture.

Some of you love to serve, but have a hard time sitting still long enough to develop intimacy with God.  For others, you have the opposite problem.  If you’re in search of balance, I’d recommend my book, available through Amazon, or the church I lead.

4. Leave campus.  Get to know your city and people who don’t attend your school.  This broadening of your world has great value.  When I attended college in Seattle, I worked at an I-Hop, and the Seattle Sonics basketball team came in every game day.  I became a huge fan, started going to games, and felt deeply connected to the city because of it, so much so that, sixteen years after graduation, I moved back to pastor a church there.  There’s nothing better than falling in love with your city, and Christ, right in the midst of all that is college life.

What are some other thoughts you’d add, in order to help students maximize their college experience?

Advice to Pastors and Other Christians: leave people alone – sort of.

Cross Fit people are busy with their WOD.  Foodies are working on a new reduction sauce.  Climbers do two finger pullups in prep for their next problem.  Theater people are getting ready for opening night.  Organic gardeners are composting and enriching their soil.  Coffee people are roasting their own.  Beer people brewing their own.  Others are rolling their own.

It’s a diverse world out there.  Gloriously diverse.  Within the walls of the church, however, it’s a different story.  I scroll through facebook and find that “prayer is the key” and “serving the poor” is the center of the gospel.  So is “ending human trafficking” and “bringing all the churches together”.  Buying local?  “Vital!”  Sexual Purity?  “THE defining issue of our day!”  Making sure that any given local church is racially diverse?  “You can’t have a healthy church without it.”  The environment?  Missional Communities?  Healthy marriages?  “The main thing!”all of them are the main thing, the thing everyone needs to focus on.

This is the sense I get sometimes from Christians.  We become advocates, not for inviting people into God’s story, but for inviting people into our chapter of God’s story.  We smile condescendingly when someone says they work for Boeing, because we’ve read Wendell Berry and know that the economic machinery of our time is enslaving us all, or the opposite, as the person who works for the man views the idealist as immature.  We’re passionate about Africa, and meet someone who’s leading a Bible study for business people downtown and we think, “someday they’ll get it”  Or we’re a stay at home mom, and wonder how anyone couldn’t be, and still be a good parent.  Or we killed our TV a long time ago, and are certain everyone should.  In the world, my thing is my thing.  I don’t sanctify climbing, skiing, backpacking, and impose it on everyone.  And others don’t impose their passions on me.

Ah, but this is church, this is the Christian life, this is the place where there are answers, right ways to live, singularly absolute priorities.  I’ve found them, and when everyone’s matured, they will too.   There’s word for this:

Arrogance. 

There’s an antidote for this.

We need to get over ourselves.  How?

Recognize different gifts and callings:

All through the Bible the message is the same – humans are gloriously unique, with gifts and callings and passions that blend to make singularly marvelous expressions of God’s image.  This is further enhanced when one comes to Christ, because each person is given unique gifts.  This can be enhanced even more when Christ followers gather together, because what they’ll be, at their healthiest, is a unique blend of gifts, passions, and callings which, taken together, will offer a unique expression of Christ’s life.

Pastors spoil this, though, when they deem themselves to be the head of the church, declaring that “My church will be about diversity”, or “We will be the environmental church” or “We will be the church famous for all night prayer”.  Though this is called vision casting in some circles, I’d argue that it’s vision killing.  Make the environment your “big thing” and people passionate about prayer or racial reconciliation will feel marginalized.  Make social justice your central identity, and you run the risk of pushing people trying to reach the business world for Christ off the field.

The pastor’s job isn’t to make the church about their thing.  The pastor’s job is know his/her flock well enough to know the unique gifts and callings present within, and then fan those gifts into flame so that people will be able to use their gifts for their calling, rather than trying to use gifts they don’t have to fulfill a calling they don’t have, but have been told is their church’s vision.  After all, I Corinthians 12 says that God has given everyone a gift, a unique way of contributing to the story God is writing in the world.  It’s the job of the pastor to equip people to find their gifts, and help them find ways of using those gifts.  When this works, the church that arises isn’t the result of the pastor’s passions – or at the least, the only the pastors passions.  It will be an expression of the uniqueness of that gathering of Christ followers.  In our case it means there’s a homeless shelter, a community meal, a 12 step program, a meal bringing the generations of our church together, a prayer meeting, a wilderness ministry, a team presently in Africa, and more.  These things arise from gifts within the body more than the passions of the leader.  The leader is called, in other words, to serve the church, not the other way around.

This principle though, applies to more than pastors.  I’m of the conviction that we need to give each other space to grow and be transformed by Jesus, recognizing that God is shaping each of us in God’s own timetable.  For some people, the sexual ethic changes first.  For others it’s economics, or social justice, or the environment.  We see our own areas of transformation with 2020 vision and can’t imagine why everyone isn’t on board, praying, or fasting, or giving all their stuff away.  We’re also blind to our areas of resistance and stagnation.

Rather than imposing our transformation priorities and timetable on others, we’d do well to heed Jesus words about not judging.  Instead, why not approach each person has possibly having something to teach us so that we can, over time, gain insight into our own ongoing weaknesses?  Why not set out “looking for Jesus” in each and every person, following Paul’s advice to no longer consider any person “according the flesh”.  If we do this, more conversations will be delightful, more relationships will be redemptive, and the unique expressions of Christ found in various individuals and churches will be more celebrated, rather than judged because they’re “not like us”.  Judgement, especially with respect to how God is maturing another or how another is serving Christ, is not mine to give.  Learning IS mine to receive.  Are you with me?

Walking Carefully: The Context changes the focus

Image“Be careful how you walk” is what Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and a Labor Day weekend filled with walking of every sort makes the corollary truth clear too:  Different terrain calls for different ways of walking.  This is vitally important because people like Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Martin Luther, or perhaps Gandalf, were all people with the ability to adapt their walk to the terrain.  Jesus?  The ultimate in wisdom walkers, as he alternately overturns tables and turns the other cheek, speaks to the masses, and knows when a single women touched him.  Here are two skills needed for walking well:

FOCUS ON THE END:  Slacklining is the art of walking a short distance on a thin line stretched between two trees.  Learning how to do this requires a willingness to fail, to fall over and over again, because nobody – nobody – gets it right at the beginning.  As a result, who excel at this must be willing to risk and fall.  They realize that learning something new means repetition and failure and adjustment.  I’m in the early stages of learning this skill and at the beginning I count five steps without falling as a win.  Later it will be six.  Later it will be 150.  But I won’t get to 150 without a willingness to fall often, and this is true in life as well.  Refuse to risk or fall?  You’ll never achieve the life for which you are created.

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The more significant observation though, is that you learn this skill by disciplining yourself to focus off in the in distance, fixing your eyes on your desired goal.  This helps your balance, gives you a sense of calm, and stabilizes your steps.  Look down at the line at your feet and you will fall every time!

We need this same capacity to focus in the distance in our daily living, because without knowing the goal, we’ll become dragged down, discouraged, and easily distracted by the thousands of things that make up our daily lives.  Commuting, laundry, shopping, cooking, cleaning, work, church life, date night, be amazing parents, pay your bills, climb your career ladder, invest wisely, care for your body, manage your stress, and don’t forget to love your neighbor.

It’s all a bit much at times, this ‘to do list’ that is life.  What’s helpful when overwhelmed is to look way out in the distance and see a world without war, every disease healed, every relationship reconciled, all evil cast away forever.  We’ll all be sitting at a great banquet, the likes of which our finest moments of celebration in this life can only hint at – and it will be overwhelming joy, and beauty, and peace.  This is not only where our world is headed; this is also intended to be the vision that governs our daily pursuits, so that everything that is our life is about embodying the hope of this marvelous future.

When Christ followers lose sight of this end, they’ve lost the ‘why’ of their lives, and without the why, the balancing act becomes impossible and we fall off.  I need to burn the vision of Christ’s completed reign into my head because without this hope, I’m just religious, or just running a church, something sickening like that.  We’re made for hope, and our SOURCE for hope is at the end of the line – the end of the story:  ‘behold, I’m making all things new’

FOCUS ON YOUR FEET:  Part of my weekend was spent traversing a mountain scattered with boulders and scree.  If, in such a setting, my eyes are turned anywhere other than directly down to see where I’ll place my foot next, the results will be catastrophe:  twisted ankle, or broken something, will mean there’s no way up or down without outside rescue help.  Toss in a bit of rain and some hypothermia, or a fog that cancels the search and the game’s over.  It’s because of this that the field demands we not look to the distance at all, but simply to the very next step.  Place your feet, check your traction of it’s wet.  Stand and transfer weight.  Repeat.

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Most of life is like this scree field.  It’s all well and good to know that a new kingdom is waiting at the end of history, but if the toilets are dirty and we don’t change the oil in our car, it doesn’t mean much.  To live well means to look at what God has given us today and seek to do it, whatever it is, in way that displays the peace, joy, and wisdom of Christ.  That’s why there’s no sacred/secular divide – only a sacred/profane divide, and things become profane when we fail to show up, fully present to our daily lives.

A lot happened to Abraham while he was walking towards his destination and waiting for his wife to conceive.  It’s tempting to think that those days were less important than the ones at the end of the story, but they’re not.  They ARE the story.  All along the way the faith, doubt, success, failure, confession, praise, prayer, laughter, war, peace, hospitality, that constituted Abraham’s were all central to the story.  An unhealthy fixation on the final chapter of God’s story will lead to disengagement with the only chapter we have the chance to live in today, which is the present.   Step by step, most of our lives are spent doing the little things that, taken together, make for a real life.  In other words:  clean toilets, commutes, and block parties matter – so whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.

A clear vision for  the future and a commitment to being totally present in the million steps of daily living is exactly what’s needed if we’re to enjoy the fruitful and abundant life for which we’re created.

Dreamers need to get grounded in taking clear next steps.  Practical people need to gaze into the distance and remember the why of it all.  Future and Present are vital.  Which is your greatest challenge?