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

Fashionable Justice is Dangerous

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May 7, 2014

It’s become fashionable to be socially just.  The evening news covers protests about the horrifically evil kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls.  We call each other to embody the gospel by breaking down walls of social division, and setting captives free, by working for environmental justice and empowering the poor and displaced.  Clean water.  End poverty now.  Buy a shoe, give a show.  There are buttons, campaigns, fundraisers, banquets.  Come on.  All the cool people are in.

It’s high time that the realities of suffering, racism, oppression, and ongoing injustice rose to the top of our collective consciousness.  For much of her history, we who call ourselves “the church” have been guilty of either intentionally crossing to the other side of the road, so as to disengage from these pesky dark realities, or worse, we’ve spiritualized away the suffering by promising a greater afterlife in some bastardized version of karmic justice.  Our passivity has misrepresented the essence of the gospel, and allowed ongoing exploitation of peoples and resources, resulting in mountains of suffering and loss for hundreds of generations.  That these issues are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness in both our culture and many of our churches is a very good thing indeed.

And yet there are at least two lurking dangers in this justice revival:

1. Superficial Solutions inoculate.  “I recycle and ride my bike to work on sunny days.  I bought those cool shoes to help some poor kids.  And last night I went to party where the tips at the bar went to a water project somewhere.”  This kind of thinking becomes the equivalent of thinking we’re equipped to climb Mt. Rainier because we bought an ice axe.  An ice axe is good, but it’s certainly not all you’ll need to get to the top.  The sacrifices, discipline, change in priorities, and even change in world view that will be needed if we’re to be in any way a substantial part of the world’s solutions are for more profound than attending a few cool events and riding our bike to work.  Take our call to justice seriously, and we’ll find ourselves, over time, become involved not only in deep personal lifestyle, but actively working to address systemic issues that are deeply embedded in our world.  Paul the apostle called them “principalities and powers” because they’re animated by forces darker than single individuals.

Our fashionable protests, focused projects, and occasional forays into environmental stewardship or some other cause might do more harm than good if they create a resistance in us to the notion that we might be called to more.  Jesus called people to this principle when he told the pharisees that they “tithed even their spices” but did so as substitute for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  Of course, Jesus tells that crowd that they should have “done the latter without neglecting the former”, which is just another way of saying that an ice axe is vital, but you’ll need more than that to get to the top.

2. Spiritual Realities fade.  What’s not to love about redemptive involvement in the pressing problems of our time in Jesus’ name?  There are a few answers, but the most important one is simply that there are two great commandments and that they’re wed together like an ecosystem, each feeding off the other.  Take one of them out of the equation and the other inevitably suffers.  We made for love, plain and simple – made to love god and love our neighbor as our self.  We’re in a season where love of neighbor is the rising star, and sometimes the light of one outshines the other.  A little look back into history though, and  we’re reminded of a time when it surely looked like people were loving God, at least if candles, hymns, preaching, and bible study were any indication.  But of course they actually weren’t any indication.  They were their own form of inoculation against more robust and truer faith, because in spite of it all, slavery was sanctioned, or racism, or colonialism.  Praying and Bible reading convinced people they’d hit gold, but it was fools gold when it wasn’t coupled with the hard work of crossing social divides to love the neighbor.  Bible reading mattered, and matters for some today too.  It’s just that real transformation will drive us into real relationships in our broken world.

Today’s justice based t-shirts, shoes, water bottles, blogs, missions, non-profits are at risk of becoming the same form of 19th century pietism in reverse.  Convinced we’re in the stream of God’s activity, we lost sight of our own need for transformation, healing, and freedom, so lost have we become in the consuming of justice symbols.  Real longing for justice will do more than paint a sign or wear a bracelet.  It will drive us to prayer, and brokenness, and mourning.  And those things will drive us to intimacy with God.

Do you want whole faith instead of the 2%?  Then you need to recognize the dangers on both sides of the ledge and go deep in your pursuit of intimacy with God, and justice in the world.  That’s a journey worth taking, and it has a name:  abundant life.

This one weird trick will change your life: Slow Down

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Mar 19, 2014

The tree in the backyard is growing, relentlessly, powerfully, and slowly.

Our children are growing, as we do too, slowly; imperceptibly every day.

The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.

Our world, very much alive and changing all the time, is changing slowly.

Slow, it seems, is most natural, most of the time.  And yet we lust for speed.

We look for quick fixes to relationship issues, addictions, fears and anxieties, intimacy with Christ, weight loss, studying for tests, and o so much more.  Hucksters over promise on quick transformation  (six minute abs anyone?), have been doing so for centuries, and succeed because there’s always a market for “instant”.   Lately though, I’ve learned once again, that the way of Christ followers is utterly other than that – it’s SLOW.

I’m planning a big long hike this summer, over 400 miles, with over 100,000 feet of elevation gain, and in preparation I’ve been trying to fix some injuries.  My strategy though, of resting until I feel no pain, and then getting back at it with 150 calf raises, and running stairs in a weighted backpack, hasn’t been working.  Every attempted return to activity has sent me limping home, frustrated and angry.  “They say ‘stay active as you age!'” I rant to my wife, “but they don’t tell you that when you try to, you’ll get hurt… every – single – time.”

It was during my most recent period of forced convalescence that I discovered a word I’d not encountered before:  SLOW.  The author suggested that the best thing to do after an injury is to let your jogging pace be bound by two limits:  your heart rate, and your pain.  He suggested running in minimalist shoes so that, if there was something wrong, you’d get feedback from your body earlier rather than later enabling you to adjust or stop, letting your pain be your guide.  He also suggested using a heart rate monitor and staying, relentlessly, at the low end of the aerobic zone for your age.

All right then.  With toe shoes and pulse watch, I set off, striding lightly and slowly.  Quickly, my pulse is out of bounds, so I slow down further still.  I’m on the path by the lake, “running” but not really, more like “jogging”.  No, that’s not right either.  It’s just a cut above a brisk walk, and I feel fragile and weak as all who aren’t walking pass me as if I’m standing still!  I see people from the church I lead and they wave and smile kindly, as I do when I see senior citizens courageously walking the lake.  I’m frustrated because I know that I could run faster.

But recently, running faster hasn’t been good for me, so I stick with the plan, refusing to let my pulse rise above 140.  After 28 minutes, I’m home.  The pace is embarrassingly slow on my little exercise phone app, and I fear someone will find my phone and post the data on facebook.  I ponder deleting it, but determine to run the same route two days later, keeping my heart in the same zone, just to see if my pace would quicken a bit.  It did.  So I did it again, and again, again.

I’m still running, faster every time, and injury free, as I stay in the zone and slowly, slowly, slowly, add distance.  I don’t feel the changes, day to day, workout to workout, but I know they’re happening because of that nifty app on my phone!

Of course, this isn’t ultimately about running, or hiking.  It’s about the true nature of the path to which each of us are called; the path of transformation.  Paul says that we’re called to look towards Christ, soaking in his glory and learning to enjoy intimacy with him.  This in itself is a practice which takes time to develop and countless Christ followers, if honest, would say they have little or no enjoyment of intimacy with Christ as a reality.  One reason for this is because we have this sickly “cost/benefit analysis” mentality whereby we assess the value of our activities solely based on whether they yield immediate fruit.  So we try a little Bible reading, maybe light a candle and read a prayer – but our minds wander.  It’s challenging to meet with Jesus because he’s Mr. Invisible and we’re not sure, at the level of our deepest selves, whether we’re even meeting with anyone.  So, after a little while, we ditch the effort.  Cross-fit’s more measurable, clearly a better investment of our free time.

The problem is that meeting with Jesus is like meeting with anyone.  It takes effort to carve out the time, and no single encounter, any more than a single run, or cross fit workout, is necessarily meaningful or measurable.  Like romance, or practicing the violin, meeting with Jesus is sometimes profound, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. sometimes enchanting.  And just like romance and the violin, it gets better with time.   The ones who quit too soon don’t know what they’re missing.  They think the problem is the practice, or their skill level – but the problem is impatience.  Keep showing up and good things will happen….slowly.

The transformation we’re promised is “from glory to glory” and the language implies that the change is imperceptible because it’s slow.  To the extent that we’re concerned with “how we’re doing” we’ll become mindful of our shortcomings, and then looking to fix them, one at a time, as quickly as possible.  How much better to just keep showing up in the presence of Jesus, learning to enjoy companionship with him, and resting in the belief that, by staying “in the zone” so to speak, good things will happen.

in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:

“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”

Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.  (thanks to Justin Roth of  “The Stone Mind” for this)

Focus on the practice of enjoying fellowship with Jesus, not the expectation that if you read your Bible enough, or pray enough, or are quiet long enough, you’ll make a quantum leap out of addictions, or fears.  You’ll move out alright… but It. Will. Be….. Slowly.  Step by Step.   enjoy the journey.

PS… if you’re interested in practical help with developing habits of pursuing intimacy with Jesus, I’ll be re-releasing my book “O2” for Kindle on Amazon under the title, “Breathing New Life into Faith”   Stay tuned!

O the Places You’ll Go! The Wisdom of Embracing Life as Journey

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Feb 19, 2014

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”

I grew up living in “Cat in the Hat”, and by that I mean that rainy days were crazy days spent stuck indoors because of a California “hydrophobia” that led my parents and every other authority figure to say, “you’ll catch a death of a cold if you go out there!” (in that sky spitting a few rain drops at 63 degrees!).  The result, for my sister and I, was that Dr. Seuss became a good friend, and the antics of the Cat in the Hat become our reality.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, it turns, had a lot of wisdom.  I’ve sat in more than one graduation and listened to someone read “O the Places You’ll Go!”, intimating that life is journey, and that, as cliché as it sounds, the journey is the destination.  In fact, I’m finding that the more consistently I seek to interpret my life through lens of being on a journey, the more wisdom I have for the bumps in the road, fog, weariness, great heights that are both challenging and rewarding, hunger, light, and darkness that I find along the way.  Abraham was transformed by the journey. So was Moses.  So was the Apostle Paul.  Why not you?  Why not me?

I’m thinking about journey these days for a reason.  I have a sabbatical from my work in Seattle coming up this summer, and am planning a gigantic journey.  In order to better understand what it means to “walk with God” I’m planning on doing just that: walking with God for about 450-500 miles (somewhere in this neighborhood)  I’d originally planned to do this through the Cascade mountains close to my home, but the untimely death of a friend in Austria led to a change of plans, and so now I’ll be hiking through the Alps.  This will be a time not only of physical challenge, but of learning Alpine history, the wars fought, the refuges for faith established, the borders challenged, the blend of beauty and terror that made these mountains central to European history.  I’ll come to discover how people’s lives were changed forever by their journeys through these mountains.  But it will also be, much more, a time of learning at a profound and intimate level as each step, each crossroads, each setback and triumph will be instructive about what it means to walk with God.  I hope you’ll join me on the journey as I plan to share what I’m learning, as much as I’m able, right here on this blog, with a diary of the trip and key prep and pics  posted here.

Seuss was wise in “O the Places You’ll Go”, but a careful reading reminds me that it’s vital to always read and listen with a sense of discernment.  Embedded in this marvelous work, is this single stanza:

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You are on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

Brains? Check.

Feet? Check

But can I “steer myself any direction I choose”? Nope.  There will be places in the Alps where others, better suited for the terrain than I, will go, and I won’t be able to follow.  What’s more, I might plan to go a certain place, thinking it’s within my grasp, only to discover once I get there, that it’s not, that my ankle, or heel, or some other seemingly insignificant body part can derail my whole perfect plan. I’m planning 10-20 kilometers a day.  I may end up in a cabin by the sea, writing or playing piano.

This is life, of course.  We have plans, and then we have the setbacks that challenge our presumed sense of semi-omnipotence.  I thought it would be this, but it’s that.  I thought I would be there by now, but I’m still over here, feeling stuck.  I tried to steer my direction, tried to stay the course, but never arrived.  Still sick.  Still alone.  Still feeling stuck in my work, or my relationship, or my “walk with God”.  Been there?  Me too.  The truth is that I can’t go wherever I want to go.

The good news is that Seuss is wrong on another count too.  You’re not, “on your own” as he says.  You have a guide, and your guide has both plans, and contingency plans.  Your guide is committed to your destination, but the most important truth to remember along the journey is that your ultimate destination isn’t geographical, relational, physical, or financial.  Your destination is to look like Jesus, so that hope and joy, generosity and wisdom, peace and justice, flow through you into a world that’s desperate and thirsty.

And this destination, your guide says, is assured, regardless of seeming setbacks along the way, as long as you stick close to your companion and guide, who is Jesus.  You are, I hope, decidedly NOT “on your own”.

You may “know what you know”, but your journey will be best if you also “know what you don’t know” because this is the foundation for a humility that empowers you to check your map, talk with other pilgrims along the way, and most important, follow your guide.  He’ll take you places along the way that are not of your choosing.  You’ll be upset over this, and in the end you’ll see the value in it.  Let your guide be your guide.

Which brings me to the last point.  If “You are the one who decides where you’ll go” then all I have to say is “good luck” because “you’re on your own.”  The good news, though, is that you don’t need to be on your own.  You don’t need to simply look within the chasm of your own broken soul for direction regarding destination and next steps.  There is another.  Let Christ in.  Let Christ decide – about your money, your time, your vocation, your everything.  It’s liberating.

Real Housewives of Mesopotamia – and what we can learn from them

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Jan 15, 2014

The first words out of Abraham’s mouth that are recorded in the Bible are spoken to his wife, when he says, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’ and they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Please tell them that you are my sister that it may go well with me, and that I may live on account of you.”

And so begins a mini drama where Abraham’s wife is taken by force because of her beauty and offered to the harem of the highest leader in the land.  It’s an amazing story, and I don’t want to give everything away, because I’ll be preaching on it this coming Sunday here.  One thing worth pondering during the middle of the week, though, is our often shallow, thoughtless, and critical judgement of Abraham, as we gaze down on his fear based decision, convinced that, “we’d do better”.  Maybe you don’t think that way, but I have in the past, and still do sometimes.  But let’s look a little closer…

That he was in a tough spot is beyond a doubt.  What I often hear though, is that Abraham was faithless, and that he ought to have trusted God to protect him.  That’s (for some, perhaps) easy for us to say, 4000 years later, in the midst of seminaries, Bible teachers, stories of God’s faithfulness down through the ages, and the fact that it isn’t really our problem. It’s just that sort of dismissive self-righteousness, that sense of “I’d never do that”, which stunts our growth, often creating an arrogant and ugly misrepresentation of our faith.  So let’s just pause for moment and consider that, of the many reasons Abraham might have doubted God, there’s at least one worth talking about precisely because we still doubt God for the same reason:

Territorial Gods

Remember that when Jehovah spoke to Abraham, the notion of a single God to “rule them all” so to speak, was unheard of.  The prevailing world view was that gods were territorial, and that if you were the god of Canaan, you had power only in Canaan, like being the local sheriff in a small town.  You had power, but only to the boundaries.  After that, there were other gods, and the stories of nation indicated that the gods had learned to steer clear of each other.

When God called Abraham, there are only subtle hints that anything will change.  God tells Abraham that in him (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed, which is a cryptic way of saying something, but not clear enough for Abraham to divine that, while in Egypt this new God of his would be his protectorate there too.

Add to this the fact that Abraham traveled south to Egypt in defiance of God’s explicit command, and you realize that, even if he believed the new God would protect, the fact that Abe went out ‘on his own’ would create questions in his mind about whether God would get him out of the jam.  The net result of this kind of thinking?  Abe felt that, down there, in Egypt, he was on his own. 

“Silly Abraham” we say, as we put down our devotional reading (if we even have such a thing on those “other days” – you know, during the busy M-F routine).  Then we’re online, checking the market.  Our bottom line of course, is ROI (return on investment).  We don’t believe in social venture funds because they’re “fraught with complexities” and rarely do as well as standard investment.  So our money’s distributed among the fortune 500 and the S&P index.  It’s sad that some of these companies are outsourcing to places where labor practices and environmental standards aren’t so stringent, but that’s the market, and we need to be “good stewards”.  God language?  Yes… but most if it comes from a different god than Jehovah.

Later tonight we’ll go out on a date, fully believing that the notion of virginity is an archaic throwback to earlier days because Dan Savage, Sex at Dawn, Sex in the City, and car commercials remind us that sex is for pleasure.  That’s it’s meaning.  Period.  The culture preaching this has a beautiful man, made mostly but not entirely, of straw, that they easily topple, as they point out how many people have been damaged by shame inducing, body demeaning preaching that demands chastity or hell as the only options.  It’s convenient for the culture to have this mostly straw man, but creates a false dichotomy between the gods of pleasure and suffering in a shame filled hell for daring to enjoy your body as the only two option.   The beauty, eroticism, and intense sexual pleasure found within the walls of covenant relationships isn’t really elevated as a realistic option.  Ironically, that’s the very first thing God tried to teach Abraham.  It seems we haven’t learned it yet.

That’s because we too often also believe that God’s are territorial – not geographically, but ideologically.  There’s one God for the my spirit, another for my money, another for my sexuality, another for my patriotism.   But when we move into the land of economics, or (historically at the least, if not today too) colonialism, violence, slavery, nationalism, environmental stewardship, or the primacy of the individual over the community, we’re sort of singing the song of Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is.”  As a result, Indians were given blankest infected with smallpox by Christian settlers.  Slavery was not just sanctioned – it was exalted as sound doctrine from the Bible.  These things happened because people failed to let God’s reign bleed into those areas of their lives.

Please don’t miss the point because of the illustration.  I’m not telling you which stock to buy, or not buy.  I’m suggesting God reigns over economic matters, and sexual matters, eating choices, body care, and whether community is more important than individualism.  We should try to let God be God all week long.

Like Abraham, we function “on our own” outside of the small private realm where Jesus talks about justification by faith.  Maybe it’s time we recognized the reality of Ephesians 1:10-11, which is that Jesus wants the glory of God to saturate every atom of the universe.  Only then will infinite joy and pleasure, perfect justice and peace, reign!

Let Jesus go beyond the boundaries of Sunday in 2014 and get ready for a grand adventure.  Who’s in?

Walter Mitty and the Art of Waking Up

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Jan 4, 2014

There’s a glorious life in each of us that’s waiting to be lived.  It’s the crises we face that will either fan it to flame or kill it.  That, in two sentences, is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”.  Richard Rohr, in a very good book I’m reading, says “The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently.  The new is always be definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push – usually a big one – or we will not go.”  Every story  worth telling, and every life that’s done something worthwhile, has been given such a push.  It comes, usually, in unwelcome wrappings such as the loss of a job, or infidelity, and getting caught up, or caught, in an addiction.  Maybe it’s cancer, the death of a parent, or an accident.  The point is that the push isn’t something we wanted, and yet in this fallen world, the painful push over the edge becomes the very thing that enables us to move to new heights; “abundant life” is the way Jesus spoke of it.

For Walter Mitty, masterfully played by Ben Stiller, the push comes in the form of a missing film negative.  He’s the “negatives accounts manager” for Life magazine.  The last issue’s about to be published, and the company’s just been bought out so that downsizing decisions are being made at the very time a negative’s gone missing.  This becomes Walter’s “push”.  His safe, familiar world is no longer sustainable, which is what happens to everyone eventually, in spite of our best efforts to keep the wolves of change at bay by building financial and emotional fortresses around our lives.  Still, they find their way in, and the crux of our lives has everything to do with how we respond to the unwelcome intrusions of change.  How Walter responds is the crux of the story.

Aside from the stunning cinematography (which makes the movie worth the big screen investment), 3 other things offered poignant revelations of the human condition:

The Reality of Ambivalence – There’s a scene when Walter needs to decide whether to hitch a ride on a helicopter, at the onset of a storm, piloted by a guy who’s drunk too much.  None of us would say yes under normal circumstances, but these aren’t normal circumstances.  Walter realizes that he’s at a crossroads and though the risk of going is high, the certainty of not going is that he’ll fail in his quest.  As a result, an internal war ensues inside his own soul between courage and fear, vision and safety, yes and no.

If you think this is just the stuff of movies, think again.  Though the stakes aren’t always as visible and dramatic, all of us are fighting these internal wars every day.  Just on the way to the movie I had an internal debate about whether or not to have a hard conversation with my wife about a struggle I was facing.  “Stay silent.  It’s your first night out together in a long time.  Just enjoy it.” vs. “You’re playing a game, being dishonest, if you don’t bring this stuff into the light.  Speak!”  Back and forth, almost in rhythm with the windshield wipers.  The voice we listen to in such moments might rightly be safety sometimes, but not always, and if we stop listening and only choose safety we’ll miss transformation.

This, of course, was the problem with Israel when they failed to enter the promise land under Moses’ leadership.  They’d become so schooled in choosing safety that when the chance was given for them to move into their destiny they said no, preferring the assurance of risk free living in the desert to the chance at abundance.

The Beauty of Friendship – As Walter fights these battles between courage and fear, engagement and withdrawal, it becomes clear that a critical factor in his choices is the influence of a friend.  All of us need people at times who believe in us, or our calling, more fiercely than we believe it ourselves.   Such people, such voices, are a gift from God when they appear with encouragement, giving us the strength to continue, or take the next step.  That’s why I’m increasingly convinced that encouragement is an important value we’d all do well to nurture in our lives, particularly we who’ve received lots of it.

The hints of Christ in Sean –  Who invites us, though circumstances, to come to himself?  Who teaches us to see the world beauty in the midst of brokenness, to exalt servanthood over the trinkets of upward mobility, to take time for celebration, relationship, and really seeing?  The answer’s Christ, of course, for we who believe.  All those qualities, and more, are seen in Sean, the photographer whose lost negative is at the root of Walter’s quest and transformation.  Jesus was always building bridges between himself and the world around him, and we’d be wise to look for such bridges too.  They exist because artists are seeking to shake us awake and see things that are true about the human condition, and the truth is that all of us are in need of Someone who will help us see ourselves and the world with greater clarity, and who will be both the object of our seeking and our companion on the journey.  That we’re in need of such a Someone is a point in this film;  that the final answer to such a quest will be found in Christ is, I believe, the grand story of the Bible.  Sometimes, though, you need to go to the movies to be reminded of what you already know.

Remembrance stones in a climbing wall….

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Dec 10, 2013

IMG_2959What do these stones mean to you? – Joshua 4:6

Early 1990’s:  The first time I saw the climbing wall it was located at the ski area adjacent to Tauernhof, the bible school where I teach in Austria.  Students (and a few of us teachers) would use it during the semester, perfecting our skills as we talked of life, faith, beauty.  I climbed on it once during autumn, when some sheep were coming down from the high country, across the hills of the ski slope.  Those sheep, their fear of me, and their confidence of the voice of their own shepherd, made this verse come alive for me.

1994:  Same wall, different year.  I climbed with a young man named Harry on the wall and we shared great fellowship and conversation as we negotiated holds, practiced technique, and spoke of God, Christ, leadership, and eternity.  The next weekend, Harry would climb with a student, and fell to his untimely death.  Every year, it seemed, the wall become a deeper and deeper repository of truths learned, fellowship enjoyed, loss suffered.  And then the wall disappeared….

Sometimes in the early 2000’s: When I asked Hans Peter, the director of the bible school about the wall,  he told me of the ski area’s expansion plans, and how that necessitated it’s removal.  “But we’re getting it” he said.  “We’re going to put it on the Bible School property.”

2012:  The wall is in place on the Torchbearer property and Hans Peter points shows it to me.  The rabbit, which was the mascot of the ski area attached to the wall before, was replaced with:  Jesus Christus, plus three German words I don’t recognize.  “It will be there for everyone to see – so that people will know that everything we do here, all the skiing, climbing, hiking, food, fellowship- is about Jesus.”

Image 7Sunday, December 8, 2013.   Hans Peter, previous Bible School director, is gone, killed in a paragliding accident this past August.  His teaching gifts and strong leadership of Tauernhauf were evidenced in both the breadth and depth of ministry from this relatively small center.  His death meant the loss of a friend, mentor, and leader to many, including me.  I’m privileged to be in Schladming today because my friend Martin is being “confirmed” in his new role as director.

The moments are bittersweet, joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning, all woven together as leaders from the larger Torchbearer community, along with students from this year’s Bible school, the whole Torchbearer staff, and lots of other local town leaders, friends, and family, gathered to literally lay hands Martin Image 10and pray for him as he steps into the role of director.  An old friend sat by me and translated every word of the service.  There were songs, readings, a bit of a biography of Martin, and then key leaders layed hands on his head and prayed for him, one by one.  I know some of these leaders with whom I’ve shared ministry for two decades now.   I know we’re older; we feel it, we look it.  We’ve seen a lot.  Change is happening all around us, and its rarely easy.

Then it was Martin’s turn to speak….

What does one say in such a time as this, when the occasion of your anointing comes in the wake of a beloved leaders death?  Martin reads this for us from the book of Hebrews:   Jesus Christ:  The same yesterday, today, forever.  He reminds us all, gathered here to affirm him, but gathered in a shadow of grief as well, that everything changes; leaders, ministries, plans, our own bodies, our children, everything.  “But”, Martin reminds us, “Jesus Christ remains the same: yesterday, today, forever.”

In world where many Christians have their own publicity machinery, heroes, media strategies, and branding consultants, Martin’s word reminds me that all of us who are called to lead anything are entrusted with leadership but for a season.  Our goal isn’t to get more people to read our stuff, or listen to us, or amass followers – and most certainly our goal isn’t to create an aura of indispensability, as if we’ve the corner on the truth market.  Our goal, simply, is to point people to Jesus, precisely because he alone never changes:

He was there for you when you walked away from him.  He’ll be there for you when you return.

He was a source of wisdom when you didn’t think you needed it.  He’ll be wisdom when you know you do.

He was a source of comfort when you turned to alcohol instead.  He’ll be a source of comfort when you turn to him

He was your provision when you thought he wasn’t.  He’ll be your provision when you know he is.

He loves you when you don’t believe he does.  He’ll love you when accept his love.

He’s all you need in seasons of grace and peace.

He’ll be all you need when all hell breaks loose – when there’s cancer in the family, when your fried dies in an accident, when you lose your job.

He’ll change lives  at this bible school when Hans Peter Royer is the leader.  He’ll change lives when Martin Buchsteiner is the leader

IMG_2913What a good word for me when, at times, I feel overly weary due to my own foolishness and wrong sense of my own importance.  His speech is followed by hilarious gifts given to him, ranging from an umbrella, to Red Bull, to Schnaps.  And then his wife gives a marvelous word, and we sing a final song, and it’s over.

The meeting ends and after hugs with friends we migrate back to the school for a meal.  I walk over to the climbing wall though, and it’s there, at the top, right below the exalted and highest “Jesus Christus” that I see the words:  gestern heute immer.  My very poor German’s good enough to know that the wall, which has been in the midst of all the IMG_2921changes in this little part of the world, now reads:

Jesus Christ:  Yesterday, Today, and Forever.

Yes…this is the most important truth in my life, and the wall has become a memory stone for, a continual reminder that, though everything changes in life, Christ remains the same.

Embodiment Part One: Getting out of our heads and off of our phones.

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Oct 22, 2013

Image 6AM – The alarm goes off and it needs to, even for morning people at this time of year.  Autumn in northern latitudes means every day the sun sleeps in a little longer, the morning air’s a little colder, and the bed’s a little more inviting.  “Why get up and suffer in the dark?” I ask myself, when I can stay wrapped in a cocoon of safety and comfort.

Embodiment is the answer.  I’m old enough to know that if I don’t get up and do something with my body before the day gets on, I won’t do anything physical.  I have a desk job, which means that I live most of my best hours sitting in a chair, often communicating in a virtual world with pixels, bytes, and other relatively recent inventions.  An e-mail here – a facebook post there – a text message.  A step up from this is reading a real book, and I’ll do some of that too, if it’s a good day.  O so much of my life, though, is lived necessarily inside my head and the affect for me, and probably you too, is not good.  Like fluorescent lights, the disembodied life in the realm of ideas and virtual relationships has a subtle but damaging long term affect on our lives.  Wendell Berry, who still writes on a typewriter, has been declaring this for decades, like a prophet before his time.  Some of us are beginning to believe he’s onto something, including Phillip Zimbardo from Stanford, and Bill Plotkin, who is spending his life helping people get out of their heads.

What helps me get out of my head is exercising, outside, in whatever weather happens to be there.  It’s only by showing up consistently, darkness and light, rain and shine, that I’ll be able to learn from all the revelation God is offering me through creation.  Afternoons don’t work for me.  I’m spent.  So I force myself out, and after coffee with God, I’m soon running the stairs at the Greenlake Aqua Theater, which is the remnant of a place where everyone from Led Zeppelin to Bob Hope performed back in the day.  Now it’s just stairs, for sitting, or mostly, for crazy people who like to run up them early in the morning.

There’s nobody on the stairs this morning, but that’s unusual, because this is a great place to get your heart pumping.  I always regret getting out of bed to come here and I’m always excited to run them once I arrive.  My goal is to dash up them 14 times and I usually enjoy the first four of five sets.  After that, suffering joins the party and I’m faced with the constant realization that I don’t need to do this.  I’m alone so there’s no reputation to preserve.  There’s enough suffering in the world already, so why I am inflict more by doing this?  I always ponder quitting before 14.  I usually make my goal.  Today though, I’m flooded with inspiration, right in the midst of my suffering.

The value of the stairs, I realize, is that it’s a school of sorts, preparing me for the rest of my day and the rest of my life.  “How so?” you ask.  Here’s how:

1. It builds endurance.  There’s little in life worth doing that doesn’t require consistent showing up, even when you don’t feel like it.  Marriage is that way.  So is the priceless work of developing intimacy with Jesus.  So is developing whatever craft or calling belongs to you, or starting a business, or learning to ski better, or improving your communication skills, or leadership skills, or pottery skills…or any skills.  If you can’t break through and keep going when you feel like quitting, you’ll get stuck halfway up the mountain or halfway in your marriage.  It won’t be pretty.  Every time I run stairs I want to quit.  That’s a good thing because I’m not just exercising my legs and lungs, I’m exercising my will.

2. It builds capacity.  God spoke to the prophet Jeremiah once when he was discouraged, and God’s word seemed harsh on the surface of things.  Jeremiah was complaining about how hard life had become for he and his people, but instead of sympathy, God offers this word:  “If you’ve run with the footmen, and they’ve tired you out, how will you run with the horses?”  From this, I learn that I need to have not just “enough in my tank” for what I think life will throw at me, but hopefully, extra capacity, so that I’m able to serve, or give, or go the extra mile, or do what needs to be done – precisely by developing habits that create capacity.  We’d all do well to ask ourselves how we’re building extra capacity – body, soul, spirit – and if we’ve no answers, we’d do well to take a step towards building some.

3. It teaches you to look for joy in the midst of pain.   When the heart’s up to 170 and every breath feel inadequate, and I’m only on round 10 of 14, the best way for to me avoid the thought of quitting is to look for some beauty and soak it in.  It’s always there somehow – the silhouette of a runner, a flock of geese, a heron, a falling yellow leaf, eventually the sunrise itself.  I don’t know why this happens, but the beauty helps me continue because I think that at some primal level beauty is the continual reminder that life is still worth living.  Our disembodied virtual worlds can only offer imitations or at best representations of real beauty.  We need to get out and touch, taste, see if the transforming power of beauty is to bath our souls in life giving ways.

4. Bacon.  You think I’m kidding.  Consider Hebrews 11, which is the reminder that Moses endured all the suffering of his calling because he was looking “to his reward”.  After the stairs, four slices, with eggs covered in sun dried tomatoes and sprinkled with Romano cheese, an orange on the side.  After the hard marriage talk, or a few of them; genuine intimacy and revealing.  After the hard thing, the reward.  The principle extends all the way to grave, as Paul declares that the greatest reward of all is Christ himself.  My friend Hans Peter, who died this summer in an accident, said once that dying will be like “a kid running home to papa after his first day of school”.  Our willingness to do the right thing, even though the right thing often means delayed gratification or suffering, is the price of our transformation.  The reward?  Our transformation.

Why wouldn’t we?

Dousing the flames of hypocrisy: The Big Value of Small Ideas

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Sep 25, 2013

The world has turned on big ideas, of course.  Lincoln ended slavery in America.  MLK gave birth to civil rights.  Martin Luther brought the Reformation.  Plato.  Augustine.  Hitler.  Pol Pot.  Lenin. Marx.  Like the ideas or don’t; they’ve changed the course of the world.

And there are lots of other ideas as well, tens of thousands of “medium ideas” that have been shaping forces in still significant ways:  Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers.  Bill Hybels and the ‘seeker friendly church’.  Bill Gates and software.  Steve Jobs.  Google.  Facebook.  Henry Ford and the automobile.  Human flight.  Eisenhower’s national highway project, Earth Day, and countless others at global, national, and local levels that have been impactful for better worse, ranging from multi-level marketing scams and schemes to remarkable non-profits whose intent it is to change the world, like International Justice Mission.

The thing all big ideas share in common is the notion of inviting others to step into a story “bigger than their own ‘small’ story”.  Christianity in the macro sense, and local churches in the micro sense do this too, as they (we) should, because our founder, Jesus, had the biggest idea of all – the idea that the eternal reign of hope, beauty, justice, and peace is inevitable, so let’s get on with living into it now – becoming the presence of God’s good reign through our daily living as we bring hope to the hopeless in Jesus’ name.  This is, of course, good and right and important.  And yet….

I sometimes wonder if we’re not putting the cart before the horse, or even trying to bring mobility to the cart without even having the horse.  There’s a huge risk out there among people who are living for big ideas.  You find it in Taliban fundamentalists whose computers are filled with porn and Catholic priests who’ve been guilty of pedophilia.  You find it in health foodists who covertly eat McNuggets, and environmentalists who speak inconvenient truths while residing in enormous, energy sucking homes.  It’s the Marxist who dines on caviar while the masses stand in line for a loaf of bread.  It’s the hawks who talk about duty and sacrifice, while pulling strings to exempt their own children from military service.   What’s going on?

Big ideas become a danger fuel at times, feeding these wrong fires:

Hypocrisy is so common among idealists as to nearly be expected these days.  Any of us can become convinced that our commitment to the big idea is all we need to live well, which of course is, to put it mildly, a pile of dung.   It will always be true that the very first thing we need to do in order to live well is:  live well.  Beyond that, the 2nd thing we need to is live well, and the 3rd, and 4th, and it really never ends, because when it does, our success with the big idea will create a mindset that exempts us from the very thing our big idea is about.  It’s no good.  Life’s too short to be that misaligned.

Vicarious righteousness is a shade different than hypocrisy, and applies when we think that by contributing to big ideas, with some money, or maybe even some time, we’re suddenly deeply identified with that big idea.  I give a few hundred bucks to some cause such as International Justice Mission and, presto, I’m part of the solution!  Yes.  But…  if I continue buying cotton T-shirts at 3 for $10 down there at Wal-Mart, I’m still part of the problem, and probably a bigger part of the problem than the solution.   If a preach about environmental stewardship and justice (and I have), ride my bike to work (and I often do) and then gorge myself on McDonald’s junk (yes… I have), I’m still part of the problem.

Distraction is the third fire wrongly fueled by our big ideas and causes because our love of big ideas can easily overwhelm our much needed commitment to personal integrity.   In a word, we’re too busy and preoccupied with changing the world to ever change the sheets on the bed, or cook healthy food, or enjoy a walk in the forest.  In the end, our lives become hopeless shells of what they could and should be, having been consumed by our need to do something great.

All these fires can be doused by one simple change:  I must make sure that aligning my actual life with my values is the first, and highest pursuit of my life.  If I’m trying to align with the big idea that is Christianity, that means taking Jesus’ teaching about loving others, simplifying my life, living generously, practicing hospitality, and crossing social divides must become values expressed in my daily living, not just my checkbook or my church’s teaching.  It’s one thing to talk about giving stuff away.  It’s another thing entirely to actually do it.

The problem with small ideas, especially for visionaries, is that they don’t bring a big adrenalin hit.  There’s no big thrill is making my bed, or taking the time to cook a healthy meal about which nobody will ever read, or inviting a few people over to enjoy a glass of wine and some good conversation.  It can all seem so unimportant in the light of world hunger, vast injustice, Syria, terror, and corporate greed.  There’s no time for such low level living!  There are wars to fight!

Yes.  But first… pray.  First…get enough sleep.  First… begin to live the kind of life that represents what you say you believe in.  First… relax and rest in the arms of Christ.  After all, that is, more than anything, what he wants to offer you.  Out from that soil of integrity, your calling and involvement with big ideas will come – but now in God’s scale, freed from your Messiah complex, and at rest with the notion that if you’re going to play a part in any big idea, you’ll do it better because you’ve learned to give attention to the small ideas that make up daily living.

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

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Sep 18, 2013

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?