Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next. If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media. For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul. Happy reading, and happy sharing.
Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’ Richard Rohr
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. Bill Gates
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you…. Jesus the Christ
“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time. You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened. You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success. The business grew. You were promoted. The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities. All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing. You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff. Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, Prom night, graduations. It’s not perfect. There are bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days. Life’s filling up. The business is gaining new market share. Investments are doing their job. It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly. Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed. You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more. Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful. That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become, in some measure at least, “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below. You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar. You’re not sure where you are anymore. You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute. The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too. You went, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll. You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living. Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly. There’s your influence to consider, and reputation. You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night. At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position. These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang. “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code. Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter. I thought you were Kristi. Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope. I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.” I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings our food. I’m sitting in rare Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today in the Alps. Paragliding. They found his body early this evening. I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.” After a silent moment Peter says, “I know. I’m sick too.” We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me. I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to. Then I go home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love mourning in darkness.
Hans Peter was the director of a school in the Alps where I teach regularly, and a kindred spirit. We’d skied his mountains together there, snowshoed in mine east of Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst the monuments of Washington DC. We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids; argued theology and commiserated about leadership. We’d walked life together enough that even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff. It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner. The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for a video that needed making. Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed. There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job. The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.
Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing. It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”. But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all. Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself. Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition? What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness. I wondered if I was on the right mountain.
Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table. Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them. I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant. What was wrong with me? As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.
I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring. Like any peak, it came at a cost. Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing. New locations. New leaders. New responsibilities. New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships. The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting. But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year. Success! And emptiness at the same time. Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. Success is like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”. You want it to shine on you too. We call it lots of things, depending on our profession. We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love. Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning. We want our lights to shine. We want significance. I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success. That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy. There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believe that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp. In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year. In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper. We were rural, small, subsistence. There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Kerouac spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings, laughing around the kitchen table. It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people. “Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small. I was wrong of course. Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me. I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger. Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame. In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment. When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.
That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily. This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more. HR task forces. Policy Manuals. Bigger and bigger budgets. Adapt. Grow. Celebrate. Adapt. Grow. Mourn a little bit. Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership. Grow more. Repeat.
People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all. I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy. After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”. I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”. Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth. The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people. Healed. Empowered. Transformed. Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question: “Where does this story end?” and the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room. The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable. “Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity. Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well. But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified. And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading. What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty. When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves. Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long. I knew I needed to move.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters. The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father. Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale. And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements. We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more. Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency. I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic, treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away. The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail. In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days
And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.
You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers. My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages.
“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all” is how Helen Keller put it. She’s was onto something, surely. When Dave Matthews mused about the “Ants Marching” in his masterful music some years ago, it seemed to me he was pondering a sort of inevitable decay into a ritual of breakfast, commute, work, commute, supper, exhaustion, repeat. There are surely forces at work in the systems that are western civilization contributing to this dismal picture. However, I’d suggest that Jesus wants to infuse our normal daily existence with Divine Life so that in the midst of whatever it is we’re doing, the source of wisdom, joy, hope, mercy, justice, generosity, compassion, and service that is Christ bubbles up from deep within. What’s more, this kind of life is available to us every single day, even the mundane ones, the unchosen periods of suffering, the challenges.
I needed to leave my job for three months and trek through the Alps to learn this lesson, and learn I did, and I’m thrilled to share my adventures with you in my new book “The Map is not the Journey: Faith Renewed While Hiking the Alps”. The death of my close friend in a paragliding accident in the Alps came just at a point in my career where I was beginning to question the future. The convergence of these elements led, a year later, to my wife and I doing a 40 day, 400 kilometer trek through the Alps. Beginning in Italy, we went on to experience the Alps in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Lessons learned there, along with all the adventure of it (yes, we did walk into our private room one night to find a couple sleeping in our bed!) are found in this new offering, now available at Amazon and fine booksellers. Each chapter includes a link to photos from the stories of that chapter, in hopes that you’ll experience the trip we took in a small way too.
It’s a book for everyone who’s wondering what’s next, at any age.
It’s for those whose lives have turned out differently than they’d expected.
It’s for those who are tired, and looking a fresh infusion of life in their daily routine.
It’s for those who have set goals that they failed to meet.
It’s for those who want to learn about hut to hut travel in the Alps, or long range hiking.
In short – I hope it’s for a lot of people!
Here’s a little video teaser I made on my iphone.
You can help this book succeed in a few simple ways:
If you think you know people who might like it, share your purchase, or this blog post, on your social media. Thanks!
Reviews on Amazon are always helpful. Thanks!
What some have said who’ve read it:
Denny Rydberg – President Emeritus of Young Life . “For those feeling fatigue after years of faithfully doing the same thing, for those looking for new eyes to see what God is doing and has on his mind, and for those who need a jolt of adventure, this is the book to read.”
Les Parrott, PHD – “If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring. Richard paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation.”
Jim Zorn (former NFL coach and player) – “Richard’s travels aren’t just good stories of adventures. They’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people. Those looking to find transformation in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”
Please share this post if you think others would benefit from the book. Thanks!
NOTE: This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”. I deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post. Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!
August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m. We arrive there feeling strong, whole. Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically. It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut. Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse.
After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut. Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served. If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm.
The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one. The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over.
As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise. Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.”
“High or low?” I ask.
“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction. The trail is on the ridge the whole way.” I smile, nodding. I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”. Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together. I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes. “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning.
I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there. Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete. This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner.
This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills. I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges. My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity. You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash. Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it. Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”. They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.
As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t. As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress. It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread. The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles.
This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit. Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing. There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word. In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death.
For those with experience, this is not intimidating. You simply don’t fall. You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step. For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness. My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge. They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure. On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on.
I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing? This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me. Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face. We must descend it. On the one hand, it’s a ladder. The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much: we can climb down this ladder.
On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent. We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps. Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent. After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise.
So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder. The stakes are high. The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.
It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons. They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope. So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still. There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.
Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially. We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power. We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more. Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.
This is a very small way of living. It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels. The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top. Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before. We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank. By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.
…Except we can’t. As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created. This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management. When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling” It’s sin management. It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy. And worst of all: it’s boring.
In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin. God has a summit for us and it looks like this:
Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31 We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in. This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.
Abundance “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10 This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die. I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing. I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving.
Wholeness “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21 Yes! The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning. The vision is much more positive, more summit like. God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living. The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living. Summits. All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear.
After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure. We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides. It looks daunting, and is. Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”.
Exactly! The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option. I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut. The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck. It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here. No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip. And for this, I’ll be forever grateful.
Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety. We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust. The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain. The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!
The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way. They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets. They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives! They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities. They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so. They rose above the valleys of mediocrity. Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home. But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world. When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential.
Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit? When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits: Fear not – for I am with you!
After a week of meetings in Germany with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship, my wife and I made our way to Schladming for a little bit of rest before I head up to England for a week of speaking at Capernwray Hall. The week is a break in the midst of what has been a very busy time, both at home and on the road.
Because I’m here without obligations or responsibilities, I hadn’t anticipated that the Spring Bible School students would still be here, but as it turns out, today is their last day. What this means is that they’ll spend their morning worshiping, praying, and sharing together the things God has taught them during their time here.
Though I don’t know them at all, Donna and I sneak in the back to listen just a bit and it’s there, in that space, that I remember my time here twenty years ago, in spring school 1995. That spring I spent my free time filling out an application for the role of senior pastor at Bethany Community Church in Seattle because, after speaking there for a week earlier in the spring, I’d been asked to apply for the job, a job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but was certain I didn’t want to miss, if it was God’s will. I remember writing answers to questions, printing the whole thing and faxing it to the church office in Seattle, fairly convinced that my lack of large church experience (I was leading a house church at the time) would disqualify me from consideration anyway.
I was wrong, of course, as I often am when I presume to know the ways and mind of God. By the fall of that same year, Donna and I were packing up our things for a move to Seattle where, on December 1st, we began our five year commitment to the big church of 300 in the big city of Seattle. After a year, 300 had grown to 225. After five years though, we said no to some other opportunities, convinced that there was another chapter for us in Seattle and Bethany.
Five years has become twenty. 225 people have become 3500 people. One location has become six. And all of this represents the faithfulness of God in changing one life at a time, one step at a time. The church in Seattle has changed profoundly.
And here in Austria? New facilities. New staff. New leaders. Larger Bible Schools. A sailing ministry in Greece. Yes… God’s been at work here too, and all the outward signs are but the most visible outward displays representing countless changed lives, now scattered throughout the world like so much life giving seed, making Jesus visible. This space has also been a place of change.
All these thoughts are swirling as I run through the mist hanging in the alps this morning. I’m mindful that the church I lead is changing in good ways, as is this school in Austria. New leaders. New locations. Changed lives. It’s good stuff! So I ponder, as the rain falls – “What practices and attitudes help create positive changes?” Though there are many, these ___ seem foundational:
I. Vertical Connection – Jesus said it: “Abide in me and you’ll bear much fruit” Those eight simple words are at the core of the work God wants to do in the world. This is because God’s desire is to express nothing less than the life of Christ through the likes of you and me. When it works, his joy, peace, power, wisdom, love, patience, generosity, forgiveness and hope are poured out through us, watering thirsty souls.
Foundational as this is, it is also the most elusive piece of the puzzle for many. We’re raised to believe that we have what it takes to make a grand difference in the world, and that with enough planning and projects, metrics and media, goals and objectives, we’ll reach the promised land of fulfilled vision, or meaningful work, or perfect children.
Um, no. That’s not going to happen. To the contrary, the story that God will write through any of us will, in the end, declare that it’s those who are mindful of their own thirst and need for the reality of Christ that God will use to express God’s life to the world.
Our thirst for God and for the enjoyment of Christ’s real presence in our lives are the most important realities we can pursue and experience. They’re as vital as air and water, critical resources for the kind of life Jesus invites us to live.
II. Patient Expectation – My techno watch tells me two things while I’m running this morning. First, it confirms the glad news that I’m running at pace that keeps heart happily ticking along between 130 and 140 beats per minutes, sort of a sweet spot for my running. Second, I lean the even better news that I’m travelling faster in this same sweet spot now than I was last summer when I was here. Same heart rate; faster running! How did that happen?
Gradually. In his book about training for alpine adventures, Mark Twight introduces the acronym: TINSTAAFL, which means “There is no such thing as a free lunch” It’s his way of saying that nobody can compress the time it takes to get in shape for a big climb, thinking that a few cross fit sessions where your heart pumps and your muscles ache and you feel like throwing up will never be able to do the job. “Gradualness is the only way aerobic adaptation is gained” is the essence of what he says.
I just focus on staying between 130 and 140. It’s my body, and the magic of health and exercise that make me faster. My own attempt to go faster nearly two years ago resulted in a strained Achilles, the result of which was a total ban on running for about a month. Faster? My attempts at self improvement were in the toilet. It was then that my physical therapist said, “you’re going too fast – keep your pulse under 135” My first days on my urban running path were an exercise in humility. As person after person passed me, I wanted to shout, “I’m faster than this!!” but I kept quiet and kept doing my turtle thing.
Slowly faster. I’m convinced that those who want to look more like Jesus need to find out what it is that Jesus wants us to actually DO, and what he promises to do in response. This is where my II Corinthians 3:16-18 favorite stuff comes in. That’s where I’m told to “behold his glory” and that if I do that, I will be transformed, slowly, yet relentlessly, ‘from glory to glory’ – so that I look more like Jesus. Little by little, hope will evict despair, light will overcome darkness, love will overwhelm hate, and the whole complex thing that is your personality will be infused with a hope, quiet confidence, and joy that I can’t be made in any self improvement program any more than the guys who make potato chips can fabricate, a butterfly.
Our transformation, you see, is divine handiwork. We are his workmanship, we’re told. So we can all just relax bit, drop our program of self-branding and building a following, stop worrying about what the other moms think of our recipes and living rooms, and simply make getting to know Jesus as a friend our chief aim in life. Then he’ll do the changing while we focus on other stuff, just like my body produces whatever it makes so that i run faster now than a year ago, not because I’m trying to run faster, but because I’m showing up more consistently.
No single devotional, or utterance of gratitude to God for a sunrise, or receptivity to what Jesus is saying through that difficult person – none of these things are deal breakers. The sky rarely opens up and pours out fire, or doves. Instead, like mitochondria multiplying in response to the stress of running, little unseen things are happening, just because we keep showing up.
Then one day, we open our eyes and realize that, in spite of ourselves, the years have given us more joy, more contentment, and more grace, than we’d every have hoped, surely more than we deserve. When that happens we’ll not only thank God for the work God has done, we’ll realize it happened in spite of ourselves, while we were living.
O Lord Christ…
You promise to change us, starting with the gift of rest, if we’ll just relax and learn of you. But we’re religionists, busy, striving, making ourselves holy for you, or effective for you, or at least less guilty in hopes you won’t destroy. Forgive us Lord, for the image we’ve made of you is an idol, and our souls are parched because of it. Staring now, we pray, may you be our pursuit, our joy, our companion. Teach us this, so that we’ll keep seeking you… and then we’ll simply thank you that, without a lot of perception on our part, the deepest changes of our soul needs will ripen. We’ll wake up some day, see the changes, and give thanks.
When Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem just before his crucifixion he wept and said regarding the people he loved, “if you knew the things which make for peace…” but they didn’t. And we don’t either much of the time.
We know the Bible, the words on scroll, know it like the back of our hands. But the Bible doesn’t bring peace. Neither does institutional religion, your 401(k), a great alarm system, life insurance, or enough guns in your house or your government to obliterate every enemy. Have these things or don’t have them; that’s your call—but know that they’re not what brings peace.
Peace, we saw last time, is a person. But there’s a bit more to it than that, because we can sit around and read or argue about Jesus all day without enjoying peace. Some of the most religious people I know, in fact, are some of the most anxious, fearful, argumentative people anywhere.
This is because we all have the need to move beyond some disembodied concept of Jesus into the reality of a mind, heart, and body progressively renewed, liberated, healed, and transformed by the actual presence of the living Christ. This is what happened to peace people in the Bible, like the woman at the well, and the other one caught in adultery and then freed from the religious talking heads who were ready to kill her. I don’t need a religious system; I need Christ, the Prince of Peace, changing both the way I view the world and changing me.
Here are more steps forward for those wrestling with anxiety, body image issues, fear of rejection, fear of the future, debilitating anger towards some ‘other’, or a sense of shame with its attendant fear of being discovered:
Believe by faith that Christ is with you. We’re not talking about trying to conjure up mystical feelings here. We’re talking about affirming in prayer (whether written or spoken) your belief, by faith, that Christ is with you, living in you, filling you with all he is, so that you might become all you’re created to be. “Thank you that you live in me” is a great place to start. This gratitude doesn’t answer every question about evolution, sexual morality, or the causes of human suffering in the world, but the good news is that it doesn’t need to. If you think waiting ’til you have the world figured out is a precondition for faith or peace, you’ll wait forever to start living outside your head, and doubts, and questions. If you need help with this, you might consider 02: Breathing New Life into Faith as a resource.
Take comfort in Christ’s presence. When we were climbing a klettersteig in Austria last summer, a good friend became frightened, then she froze up, afraid to take the next move. Not only is fear unpleasant; it consumes energy, and quickly her muscles were weakening, further contributing to anxiety, further weakening her body in a downward spiral. That’s when my mountain guide friend moved to be with her, gave her some encouraging words, and roped her in, tying her directly to himself and assuring her that, even if she fell, she’d be safe.
That, apparently, was all she needed, and soon she was back on the move, confidently climbing the rest of the way to the top. The assurance of someone who knew the ropes and knew the way was enough. It was a beautiful picture of Christ who promised to be “with us always, even to the end of the age”. To the extent that we believe this, the comfort and strength of it become realities. This isn’t magic; it’s the reality that we find comfort in the strength of the other; parent, mountain guide, protector. My hope is that you’d be able to discover this aspect of Christ as real, for without it we live as if we’re on our own, like sheep without a shepherd.
Take comfort in the end of the story – We’re in the middle of the story right now, and there are traffic jams and bad medical news, breakups and our own moral failings. We’re a thick soup of faith and doubt, glory and loss. Bad news breaks in and our fragile peace evaporates. This push and shove of doubt and faith, success and failure, horrific evil presenting itself in the world, with infinite love in the midst; all of it can be a bit much at times. We see both sides, perhaps, but grow tired of evil triumphing o so much of the time. How can we know peace in a world where hell seems to win so often?
Jesus took comfort in the end of story. He spoke of the sufferings of this world as birth pains which would eventually give way to full healing. There are powerful moments in film that capture this well, like reunion scenes in the Lord of the Rings and the Pianist.
God pulls the curtain back on history and shows us a future banquet where there’s great food, peace, and “death swallowed up for all time”. Every disease is healed, both emotional and physical. Every war over. Good food and wine speak of matchless beauty and abundance.
The audacious claim of God is that this is where history is heading. Believe it or don’t, but without a hope along these lines, I’d be finished. My world would shrink into the pursuit of trivial pleasures which I’m sure would eventually become addictions and destroy me. That’s not how everyone would cope, but its how I would. Bold faith in a better story—that’s what keeps me going.
Thank God there’s a different ending saturated with hope and healing, and a companion whose presence brings wisdom, strength, comfort, a new start in the wake of every failure, and bursts of joy and gratitude that seem to come out of nowhere. This whole package, I believe, is called peace—and it’s available for those who are willing to learn the reality of Christ’s presence.
Religion is over-rated. Peace that blossoms out of intimacy with Christ, though, is a different story entirely.
I’m happy to offer a repost today of something offered earlier this summer during my sabbatical because it seems so very appropriate during the holidays, when sometimes the tension between beauty and brokenness is so great we’re afraid we’ll snap. Here are some observations about that tension and living in it. Enjoy!
We’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world. During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey. These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter. For these reasons, we pray, and pay attention—step by step.
These prayers, though, are also very provincial. They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family. We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).
High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep. Yes. This was round one.
We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assault, in a different direction. We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in St. Louis. Bombing in Iraq? Ukraine? Syria? Fires still burning. Refugees. And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. My God. Is this the same world?
Yes. The same world indeed. What are we to make of the disparity between candle lit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in a place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?
My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see. I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price. There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment. The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a cost—vulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial. That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.
But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college. I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings, for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child, for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.
All I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering. Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened. Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasy—whether that takes the form of porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.
Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear. He knew, as Simone Weil also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our Creator. “There’s a time for everything,” is how the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.
For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days. We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold. We pray, we’ll be safe. We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people. But, the Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us cry out once again, “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger for Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.
“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. ” Rilke
In two weeks I’ll be home, preparing to meet people in the church I lead who I haven’t seen in nearly three months. Their priceless gift of a sabbatical has blessed me with a rare opportunity for extended time away from church life, American culture, and the day-to-day responsibilities of my job. As a result, I’ll return restored spiritually and emotionally, refreshed and stronger physically (up to around 500k in hiking, running mileage now), and challenged.
I’m challenged because these three months have been a concentrated time away from teaching, studying, and writing, three activities I enjoy and look forward to doing again when I return. As much as I enjoy them though, I’ve come to see them as dangerous because America’s about education, and among American cities, Seattle’s all the more about education, and among Seattle churches, the church I lead, filled with university students and professors is even all the more about education. We’re educated. Highly.
All this education has upsides of course, but this trip has made me aware of the downside. That’s because I’ve met lots people with little formal education who in spite of their “lack” have poured generosity, service, hospitality, and joy, from their cups to ours, over and over again. Whether it’s been food, hospitality, the gift of sunglasses at a hut when mine had been stolen, directions offered when uncertain of the way to go, a much needed ride from strangers, or bus drivers signalling ahead to another bus so that it wait would for us, so that we’d make our train connection, we’ve seen people with large hearts, who allowed themselves to be inconvenienced in order to care for us.
Remember that story in the Bible about the guy who gets robbed and beaten up? Jesus uses it to draw a distinction between the educated religious leaders who, in spite of their eloquent sermons and theological precision, frankly didn’t give a damn about the wounded victim, even though they knew Hebrew. Then there was the Samaritan. He’s the one who, for the purposes of this story, is, (are you ready for this?): Blue Collar. He never went to college, earns below the median wage, and is having a hard time affording the new mandated health care. He doesn’t enjoy reading C.S. Lewis much and doesn’t even know who N.T. Wright is. He can’t tell the difference between a Neo-Calvinist, and a Rob Bell devotee because frankly, he’s too tired at the end of the day to read all the blogs and add his own comments. Besides, he doesn’t really care.
He works. He comes home and cares for all the things that need to be cared for in life—shopping, cooking, maintenance, friendships. You’re not even sure where he stands on most issues because in small group he doesn’t say much. He prays. He’s not perfect, God knows. He’s got issues, but he’s working on them. In the meantime though, until he’s perfect, his greatest joy isn’t found in talking about faith. It’s found in living it—“boots on the ground” as the saying goes.
When there’s a need in the shelter though, he volunteers.
When there’s a homeless person outside TJ’s he often makes the time to engage in conversation.
When there’s a neighbor in the hosptial, he’s there with meals, and laughter, and maybe even an awkward prayer.
He’s as generous with his limited money as he is with his time. He doesn’t know where he stands on the issues of homosexuality and gun control, but he’s had dinner with the newly married gay couple on his block, and the NRA guy whose Jeep has a bumper sticker with something about his “cold dead hand.”
Who is this guy? Never went to seminary. Falls asleep in most Bible studies. Wakes up immediately when someone needs a helping hand.
The point Jesus is making in Luke 10:36 is that this (along with loving God) is the point of the Christian life. And in that story, the protagonist is a Samaritan for God’s sake; a compromising half-breed who “anyone with a Bible degree would know is an outsider because his belief system takes him to the wrong mountain, and my pastor, who has a PHD (or is “super funny and edgy”) says that such people are…” blah blah blah.
Talk on if you must, o educated one. I’m tired.
Tired of doctrine being more important than living.
Tired of words being more important than actions.
Tired of writing about life as a substitute for living it.
Tired of Sunday being viewed as the peak experience of faith rather than Monday, or especially, Tuesdays.
Tired of hype and zeal on the surface, and pride and greed at the core.
Tired of ministry professionals like me thinking they have all the answers for “the little people.”
I don’t know all the ways that I’ve changed as a result of being on sabbatical. But I know this much: in the days to come, my criteria for personal health and spiritual maturity will have more to do with how I know and treat my neighbors, friends, co-workers, and those in need around me, than the size of my church, the “impact” of my sermons, or the hits on my website.
I know this because I’ve been pierced by the degree to which I’ve often lived alone, inside my head these past years, as slowly, I confused right thinking, and speaking/writing about right thinking, with spiritual maturity.
I suspect I’m not alone, because look at what Phil Yancey has to say in his upcoming book:
We’re good, it seems, at talking about Jesus—who he was, what he taught and stood for, how he died, how he rose, why it matters, and what people should do about it. I’m just suspicious (and so are lots of other people apparently) that I, maybe even we, have elevated our words as the real proving ground of maturity. When we do that, huge blind spots will remain and we’ll think we’re fine, when we’re really far from the life Jesus has for us.
It’s a dilemma for me. This is because words still matter. We grow in response to revelation and my calling and gifts have to do with teaching God’s revelation so others can respond. So we all need words in our lives, and I need to study words, teach words, write words.
And yet, I need and want to make room in my life for actually putting those words into practice with real neighbors, and co-workers, and friends, and family. How does it all fit together?
That’s the question I bring home with me, but this much I know—if something’s gotta give, it won’t be the living of it any more—that’s become a higher priority. Pray that I’ll live it. New adventures await, as I learn to be a Samaritan… who’s in?
They’re brothers, these two guys in their late sixties/early seventies. They’re on the deck of the first Alpine hut we stayed in, and it’s morning, about 7:15 actually. I’m out there to enjoy the view and take a few pictures, while these two are about to hoist their packs and head out for a long day of hiking to the next hut. They’re strong. They’re vibrant. They’re optimistic. They’re healthy. And they’re “old.”
They are the first of an endless stream of encounters my wife and I will have with people older than us who are also stronger than us, or at least as strong—well able to carry 20 pounds on their backs for 10-15k day after day, at elevations ranging from 3,000-7,000 feet. Their presence on the trail has shaken me in the best of ways. By example they’ve said: “Yes Richard… it’s possible to stay healthy for many years to come.”
It won’t happen accidentally though, so I asked some of the “wise and wonderful” seniors I met on the trail what kept them in Gore-Tex and polar-fleece, what kept them moving into their late years. Their answers, coupled with a careful reading of this book prior to my departure, have revealed four ideas that will give us a good shot at remaining healthy and active for a long time.
1. A good theology of the body – You know this already, but it’s important to be reminded that we’re not disembodied spirits, that the bodies we’ve been given are marvelous wonders, and that it’s our calling and privilege to take care of our bodies, because they’re the visible expression of who we are.
2. A new vision for normal – Prior to the start of the trip, we envisioned ourselves sitting around in these huts with people between twenty and fifty. They were there, but there were scores on either end of that, both the very young and the very old. Their presence served to create a different vision of what normal is, or can be. It can be normal, at nearly any age, to walk or jog several miles a day—often with a pack on that effectively adds exponential work to your exercise. It can be normal to eat fresh, well prepared food, rather than chemicals mixed together and microwaved. It can be normal to respond to stress by getting adequate rest, some outdoor exercise, and by spending time with good friends.
I know that this new normal isn’t always possible. There’s cancer and other unwanted intrusions, and some people are living in refugee camps, while others are working three jobs just to be able to afford health insurance. But for many of us, these exceptions don’t apply. For most of us, we have the capacity to stay healthy and active, and I’m increasingly convinced that such lifestyle commitments will make us more effective in everything else we do in our roles as teachers, health care professionals, spouses, parents, students, pastors, neighbors, and friends.
I challenge us to rethink our view of normal, because our culture faces an obesity crisis that stems from a slow decay of health habits
with respect to food and exercise. What’s worse, we’re teaching the rest of the world to follow us. It’s time for a fresh vision. One fellow traveler on our Alps journey was a 70 year old named Klaus. He’d been out hiking for 30 days and was nearing the end of his trek when we meet him in a hut and shared a meal. It was cold outside. I was tired, in spite of the fact that I’d done 1/3 the distance as him today. We’d just had supper together and he was absolutely effervescent with joy over his hike that day on dicey ridge, conquering seven summits, all over 6,000′ elevation in 15k of distance and eight hours of hiking. He was wild eyed as he spoke of the challenges and beauty. When he finished supper he went outside, and came back, knowing that I too enjoyed photography, and he said, “You must photo the sunset! Fantastisch!!” I didn’t want to go out, but I did because of his enthusiasm, his lust for life. Klaus became my new inspiration for a new normal that night.
3. A good aerobic base – The book I referenced earlier taught me about “building an aerobic base.” I thought I knew about this base, but no. It turns out that I, like most of America, was actually not doing aerobic exercise when I was out jogging, because I was going too fast. The whole thing’s rather complex, so I’ll spare the details because you can read them starting here.
The bottom line is that if we’re going to be active for the rest of our lives, we’ll need to start moving, at the right speed, most days of the week, for at least an hour. Most “walkers” need to speed up a bit. Most “joggers” need to slow down. On our recent hikes, we’ve encountered cross country ski teams from Russia, Italy, Sweden, and Norway. All of them are doing the same thing. They’re building their aerobic base through lots of long, slow, distance.
When I started exercising this way, just before leaving for Europe, I was appalled at how slow I was running around Green Lake, as I tried to keep my pulse rate in the treasured “aerobic zone.” Not any more. These days I’m cherishing the good vibes that come from a long slow jog, or a hike uphill, because at the end I feel great, and I know I’m building an even stronger base for the future, know that I’ll come home energized for the day, rather than drained.
“We hike together every year for a week, and because of this, most of us walk nearly every day to stay in shape for this one week adventure together,” is what I heard from a group of 70 year-olds.
“‘Use it or lose it’ is, I believe, how you say it in America, no?” said another woman, part of a group on a trail that included climbing a half dozen ladders and crossing a couple high suspension bridges.
All these testimonials from the wise and wonderful seniors we encountered elevate consistency as a high priority. Our bodies produce everything needed for an active lifestyle as long as we stay active. Stop moving though, and everything changes fast.
The “Body. Soul. Spirit.” logo you see on clothes I wear comes from the school where I’m presently teaching in Austria. They take all this stuff seriously, and yesterday the students were out playing soccer or volleyball or ultimate, or jogging or hiking or climbing. The goal though isn’t twelve weeks of this—it’s a lifestyle change we hope will last. Same with Bible reading. Same with prayer. Same with fellowship: consistency, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is the goal for every area of our lives—body, soul, and spirit.
How are yours?
It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together. I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.
Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for its beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.
The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles. We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.
It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun. We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met. Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on steps until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journey—step by step.
I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life. I think about how much this mirrors real life, how it’s so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected. I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows. I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.
We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge. The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.
As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening. It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces. Donna’s there first, and she signs the book. The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find. When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.
We’ve stood under many these past weeks. Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights. Other moments, bone weary and sore. This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful: for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others. We can barely pray—mostly it’s tears of joy.
We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut. Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about World Cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare. There’s laughter, stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.
I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc.) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way. The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.
I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.
For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut:
(I’m happy to introduce the guest author for this post as my hiking partner, best friend, and one week from today, wife of 35 years! Enjoy Donna Dahlstrom’s thoughts on guidance, reality, and journey.)
I love maps. I’ve loved maps from my earliest recollections of traveling across the country with my family in the back of a camper. There was always a supply of maps we picked up from the gas stations for state after state after state between California and New York. I loved finding where we were on the map and where we were headed before jumping to the next map.
This trip in the Alps has been no different. I’ve loved pouring over the maps, discovering where we are, searching for the next destination and discerning the route to get there. I’ve learned to read the contour lines to determine if the route is going up or down. I’ve learned important German terms to accurately read these particular maps: “joch” is a pass, “hütte” is a hut (usually with delicious food and shelter), “spitze” denotes a summit, “see” is a lake, “alpe” is grazing land for cows, sheep, or goats, and if I’m very lucky, “bahn” is a gondola whisking us over steep ski slopes.
It’s been fun to have these two-dimensional maps become three dimensional as we hike through villages or look out over towns from the mountaintops. What was once nothing more than a name on a map is now a neighborhood with lovely flower boxes outside the windows, an especially cheerful waitress, a helpful information desk worker, a tiny church with a pipe organ, a grand monastery built 700 years ago, an elderly woman who exuded joy through her eyes and sweet smile even while indicating she had no available rooms to offer.
Another thing I’ve learned about maps is that they’re only helpful if you can identify at least one location on the map. Without having a known starting point, it’s challenging to orient your location to anything on the map. It’s possible to make guesses, especially if there is only one mountain or one river on the map but it gets difficult when there are many mountain ranges, many little villages, many roads and rivers from which to choose. Such was the case when we stepped off a train in a town of which we thought we knew the name but could never locate any of the other locations we explored on the map around the town. We discovered the next day that we were actually in a different town entirely! Aha! Now it made sense as we located all the other familiar points on the map near the correct town!
This minor error simply added to the special spontaneity of this particular stop along the train route but we could have run into serious difficulty if we’d been in the high country of the Alps, continuing to venture without knowing where we really were. Stopping to consult the map to be sure you’re on the right path is essential to safety in the high country. When the contour lines on the map are very close together, it means you’re either at the base of a cliff or about to go over one. Knowing your location will help protect you from making a wrong step and guide you to a safer path. We have found it essential to take the time to repeatedly check our locations on the paths we’ve been on while trekking and I can see now the importance of doing the same in everyday life.
Presently, I’m in a change of season in my life. My children have grown up. My vocation has changed. I have a new set of responsibilities before me, some not yet clearly defined. I’m at a crossroads. Time to check my map to determine the correct path. Which one am I on? Which way should I go? What are the trail markers and signs around me telling me? With an ear to God’s voice, whether by people offering advice or inner promptings or scripture verses, I need to be checking my path with God’s map for my life. Am I on the right path? Have I consulted the Mapmaker recently to honestly assess where I am? Walking step by step these past thirty days has impressed upon me the importance of not just wandering aimlessly, but walking informed by God as my guide who wants to show me amazing things along the way, whether it be castles or chocolate factories or gracious guesthouse hosts or majestic ripples of mountain ranges. Listening to His voice is impossible when I’m doing the talking (and planning). Learning to be quiet in order to hear His voice is not easy for me but step by step, I’m a little bit closer than I was thirty days ago.