Continuing in a series of looking at ways in which the gifts God wants us to know and enjoy are stolen from us, this entry and the next one will consider how millions have lost their sexual joy and identity, and how all of us are paying a huge price because of it. I welcome your thoughts.
We’re sexual beings, made biologically for reproduction, and emotionally for intimacy. We’re made, by our creator, with sexual longings and appetites, and with the physiological realities that sexual arousal is intended to be pleasurable. There are body parts and nerve endings related to our sexuality that have no other purpose than to be a source of pleasure. Sex is a good gift from our Maker.
Alas, though, it’s a fallen world. As a result, this grand and precious gift has been stolen from us. The enemy of the kind of “life abundant”, which is what Jesus came to bring us, has, for all time, been a master thief in this arena. This theft, which I’d suggest likely has affected 100% of us in various measure at various times, leaves isolation, shame, fear, hatred, and heartache in its wake. Further, the strategies of the thief are many. Here I offer a few “theft strategies” , and with them, some practical steps to take so that sexual identity can return to its intended place in our lives as a powerful gift.
Strategy #1: “Sex as bad” – I put this first because many reading this are Christ followers, and the church has been deplorable in this regard. From the beginning, the early church rightly understood that our sexuality could easily be misused, but the response was to vilify it rather than hold it wisely. Some church fathers forbade sex for any reason other than procreation; others limited the days of the year on which intercourse was allowed; still others advocated castration. At the root of these lies, perpetrated by faith leaders, was the belief that sex is best controlled by killing it. Kill the desire and you solve the problem.
Desire, though, doesn’t die easily, nor should it. Some who manage to attain “purity” do so at the cost of believing in the goodness of sex. Others, who fail, fall into a dung pile of shame – their identity deeply damaged by the guilt heaped on them directly and covertly through an ethic for sex that God never had in mind.
Strategy #2: “Sex as recreation” – At the other end of the spectrum from a fear of sex, is the lie that sex is an appetite just like hunger, and as such, should be honored in a manner similar to our relationship with food. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re horny? There’s an app for that, and a willing partner nearby. It’s a “sex at dawn” mentality, based on the faulty belief that a) we’re nothing more than animals, and b) that the happiest animals were polyamorous. Though “Sex at Dusk” does a marvelous job deconstructing this false edifice with hard science, it’s not sold nearly as many copies as “Sex at Dawn” and appears to be out of print except for the kindle edition. It turns it we’d rather believe the lie.
The fruit of this is that sex in increasingly divorced from any sense of covenant commitment. That might sound appealing, and there are presentations of this lifestyle (such as the classic “Sex in the City”) that make hookup culture appear normal, and relatively risk free.
It’s not. Easy access to commitment-free sex, while superficially appealing to some (perhaps many), more often than not yields the ugly fruits of 1) loss of capacity for real intimacy 2) increased loneliness, which leads to, 3) an increased desire to quench the pain of loneliness, which leads to 4) an increased dependency on another sexual encounter. We call that addiction, and addiction steals huge swaths of your soul, as well as those of your family, friends, and co-workers.
Strategy #3: “Sex as pixels” – Internet pornography, and soon, virtual reality pornography, are creating an alternate universe of sexual pleasure and release ‘on demand’. The effect on the user is a rewiring of the brain in such a way that that began as a “demand” originating from your own will, ultimately becomes a “demand” on your own will creating an arousal addiction. Your brain on porn articulates the destructive consequences of this pathway physiologically and emotionally. Erectile dysfunction is an ever increasing problem among all men, tragically including young men in their 20s.
In addition, all porn users, of all ages, are rewiring their brains so that the scripted fantasies of actors, specifically intended to arouse, become their new “baseline” of what constitutes normal. As a result, arousal in the context of real intimacy (which must, of necessity, be mutual not unilateral, and include self-giving, not just receiving), becomes difficult, sometimes impossible. Thus the spouse of the porn user feels pressured to perform in a certain way, or perhaps doesn’t feel anything at all, because the user has substituted sexual release with pixels for genuine intimacy. The long term effects of either path? Sexual joy is stolen.
NEXT UP: In the next post, I’ll share some solutions to these theft problems. In the meantime, though, consider this read, as a means of re-orienting your brain toward a redemptive view of sexuality: Real Sex offers a way through the minefield, casting a vision of holding one’s sexuality joyfully, in wholeness.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Jesus the Christ
In quietness and confidence is your strength – Isaiah the prophet
God, in infinite wisdom, has given us a credit card for energy. It’s called adrenaline and comes in handy when we need to “rise to the occasion”. Historically it came in handy when a lion was roaming nearby in the savannah. You’d come up over a hill and your eyes would meet. Instantly, your heart rate elevates, glucose is released to give you both clarity and strength, and a whole cocktail of other chemicals and hormones begin coursing through your blood so that you can either “fight” with strength, or “flight” with speed, and have the wisdom to know which to choose.
Then it’s over, you’re either safe or dead. Either way, the draw down of energy for the acute crisis stops and (if you’re not dead) recovery begins. You breathe deep, and slowly, your heart rate returns to normal. You sit with your tribe in the fire circle, recounting stories from the day, and then maybe sing a song, before falling asleep amidst the safety of the camp. While you rest, you digest, your recover, your recharge your emergency energy credit card, so that the next time you go out, you’ll be ready again.
Or, you live in the 21st century, where the credit card draw down is, for too many of us, a nearly continuous elevation to the fight or flight response for any number of reasons:
1. The rude awakening with the alarm 2. The 24/7 news cycle, because it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, it’s presented as a crisis of epic proportions. Toss in a measure of guilt or despair for not doing enough about it, or weariness because you are doing enough, marching every weekend. 3. The rent increases, or tax increases. 4. commute challenges and work challenges, encompassing a host of emotions. 5. A virtual world on social media that is, for too many, its own form of porn, offering escape from painful realities, and painting fantasy pictures of a world better than our own. 6. Relational challenges with spouse, children, parents, roommates, friends, ex-friends – or the opposite challenge of 7. Isolation, which was never God’s intention of people 8. Sleep challenges, usually stemming from some combination of spiritual, emotional, and physical reasons. 9. Foods that stress our body because, though tolerable, God didn’t design your body to eat pre-fab food. 10. A perverted notion of faith that leaves one questioning whether they’ve done enough, learned enough, are holy enough – so that there’s a constant nagging that ranges somewhere between shame and inadequacy.
In such a world, overdraws of your stress response credit card become the norm. Still, you need to pay. And you will. it will show up in hypertension, or obesity, heart disease or diabetes, or perhaps any one of a number of other “diseases of civilization”.
When Jesus invites us to learn the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’, what’s he talking about? For one thing, I strongly believe he’s inviting us to a rhythm of engagement and withdrawal, as well as an internal perspective of mindfulness, because these two things, taken together, can create break the cycle of the chronic stress response. Here are some practical steps to take:
1. No screens for two hours prior to bed – In one of my favorite books, I learned that sleep difficulties are a major challenge in the 21st century, and that this matters because the evidence is in: sleep shortage has all kinds of negative effects, the summary of which is described by Robert Stickgold, sleep specialists who builds a compelling case that chronic sleep shortages make us, to quote Stickgold, “sick, fat, and stupid”. One of the major contributors to sleep loss is screen time before bed, because it dampens the production of sleep hormones that would be created if we were, instead, reading a real book via real light, or better yet, doing our stretching, praying, or snuggling, by candlelight.
2. Spend more energy on your sphere of influence than your sphere of concern. Jesus hints at this numerous times, but nowhere more clearly than in Luke 12:25, where he ponders the question: “can any of you make yourself an inch taller by worrying about your height?” Your height is in your sphere of concern, but not your sphere of influence. You can’t change it!! And you can’t change who’s in the White House right now, or the cost of housing, or how your boss will respond to your request for a raise.
The point Jesus is trying to make? He’s calling us to wisely invest most of our energy in things over which we DO have influence, rather than whining about, or worrying about, things over which we don’t have influence. This isn’t a call to passivity or withdrawal. We live in a democracy and all of us have some influence over big things. But we need to invest most of our energies in things over which we have direct control. Am I loving my people? Am I living generously and enjoying intimacy with Christ? Am I standing for actual vulnerable people in my life, not just advocating for an anonymous “people group”? It’s been freeing in my own life to begin with things over which I have control, and move outward from there. Until I learned that lesson, my sphere of concern was paralyzing me with worry, and rendering me ineffective in my sphere of influence.
3. Learn to live in the present – with gratitude. Jesus is our guide here, when he tells us to take no thought for tomorrow. You don’t know how long you’ll live, don’t know how the market will do, don’t know when the next terror attack will be, or what will be tomorrow’s news from the white house. You don’t know. So don’t live in anxiety over what you don’t know.
You do know that today, the days are getting longer. You know that there’s glory and beauty in the face of those you love. You know that you are forgiven, and that One is infinitely and irrevocably for you – and not only you, but for all of humanity, and the planet. You know that, in spite of everything, there’s beauty still in this world, in abundance. You know where history’s headed. You know you have a next step to take, a practical one, that will bring life and hope to the world.
Knowing these things, and rejoicing in them, is enough to stop the adrenaline credit card drain, and bring the rest and peace you need.
NEXT UP: three more practices –
1. Eat real food
2. Get outside
3. Love your friends
When it comes to sexual abuse, and the treatment of women in general:
Words matter. Mr. Trump spoke on the bus about making unwanted sexual advances and literally grabbing women. He spoke to Howard Stern about walking uninvited into dressing rooms at beauty pageants (a word confirmed by beauty pageant participants). He has spoken numerous times throughout his campaign about the appearance of women, objectifying and judging them. “Locker room talk,” he says. He’s “Sorry. But Mister Clinton was worse.” Let’s take a look at two things that have come out from hiding because of his words.
First, his words have exposed the pain of a nation. Men should read just a few of the #NOTokay posts on twitter, as Trump’s words have led to an outpouring of women empowered to share their story. To say he’s exposed something would be an understatement. Women, by the millions, have been victims of unwanted sexual advances. Many don’t have a voice to fight back, don’t know who to trust with their story. As a result, they suffer in silence. I know this because in the wake of his words, I sat in a room and listened to the anger, the hurt, the stories from women.
There’s a culture of sexual abuse in our country, and it must be named, condemned, and stopped. The problem isn’t the past; it’s the present. And the problem in the present isn’t just a presidential candidate; it’s an entire culture.
Men, we should be offering Mr. Trump a stiff reminder that words matter. “By your words you will be justified and by words you will be condemned,” is how Jesus put it. He also said that, “out of the abundance of the heart” the mouth speaks. So when a man calls women pigs and says the things he said to Howard Stern and Billy Bush, and there’s an outcry from women, Mr. Trump shouldn’t be surprised.
There should be an outcry from all of us, as well. This is not just locker room talk, or typical banter, but even if it were, it’s not OK. Words matter, and words that treat women as objects to be used for men’s pleasure are far, far from the heart of the life for which any of us are created, men or women.
Second, Mr. Trump’s words have exposed the depth of sexual victimization, misogyny, and sick patriarchy in our culture. I know this because the other trending hashtag has been #repealthe19th, which is a wish-dream to remove the women’s right to vote. That there’s a group of people who are both Islamaphobic and only want men to vote is a bit of irony. That the group is large enough to gain notice is both sad and angering. Our nation has a long way to go, but it’s better than it was in many ways. Women vote. Anyone can sit anywhere on a bus. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back.
History reminds us that redemption is often born out of the depths of darkness. Rwanda’s genocide becomes fertile soil for a profound reconciliation movement. Germany’s implosion in the wake of WWII becomes a context for the rebuilding of a nation on an entirely different footing, where every person has dignity and worth, and the common good matters.
If we can listen to those hurt by Mr. Trump’s words, if we feel the pain of what’s been going on for generations and let the weight of it sink into our souls, this darkness can be a low point, a wake up call when we say “enough” and begin fighting to make honor, respect, dignity, and empowerment the norm. It needs to happen now. Who’s in?
This week I’m living in the forest, in the San Bernadino mountains of California as I speak at a family conference. As I write, the morning sun is bathing the deck and Sugar Pines, along with a form of Cedar, some oak, and Manzanita, live together as an ecosystem, offering life giving space to squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, bear, and countless other life forms.
Scientists are discovering that humans are also profound beneficiaries of the forest. “Forsest Bathing”, which simply means to walk in a forest and pay attention to your surroundings while doing so, has been shown now, in numerous studies, to have profound health benefits. Lower pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rates are just some of the proven benefits. There are some who believe that prescriptions like this will be seen in the not too distant future.
Though the benefits have been easy to see, it’s been more difficult for scientists to understand and quantify the reason behind these benefits. Is there something in the scent, the Eco-system, the earth itself? Is it simply the contrast provided from the concrete jungle in which many of us find ourselves that makes the forest a healing place? These questions remain, but what’s known in the moment is that a “walk in the woods” isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.
Because of numerous experiences in my own life, I wonder if the power of the forest isn’t spiritual, and therefore unquantifiable with the measuring instruments of science. I say this because my past is filled with countless “forest encounters” with God:
1960’s – As a child I would lie in the middle of a circle of redwoods on the California coast, outside grandma’s house, and look up. The trees would all appear to be converging at a single point in the sky, and the punctuation of variegated greens set against a backdrop of sky blue did something to me. This was peace. Yes that’s it – peace.
1976 – It’s winter. I’m in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Unbeknownst to be, the worst two years of my life are about to come to and end, as a new journey, new calling, and new priorities are born. The death of my dad two years prior had sent me into a state of depression and isolation. I was in the mountains for a winter ski retreat, and when the speaker said “knowing God should be the primary pursuit of every one of you in the room” I knew he was talking directly to me. He’d been reading from Jeremiah 9 in the Bible and when his talk was finished I went out in the freezing air and prayed, in the midst of crunching snow under a million stars. I told God that I didn’t know what it meant, but that I wanted to make knowing God the main goal of my life, just as the speaker had invited me to do. This would lead to a change of major, a change of states, and an entirely different trajectory for my life.
1990 – My wife and young family move to a forested acre in the North Cascade mountains of Washington to begin a retreat center. It is there that I begin identifying with the verses about Jesus going “into the mountains alone to pray”. After a busy time of serving guests, I would depart for the high country, hiking up to some ridge, often alone, to pray, read, reflect, restore. These mountains were made for restoration, or so it seemed to me. Beauty seemed to pour through the atmosphere when I was in them. Glaciers and rocks spoke of timelessness, and I’d be reminded that I’m just here visiting, for a short time, that God’s work has been here long before me and will be long after. I’m reminded that God is the rock, a metaphor offering stability in a tenuous world. The vast distances, from the stars of space, and the surrounding peaks, reminded me that I’m small and that, in the grandness of eternity, so our my problems. The beauty of ever changing colors, the scent of the air, the form of trees, the reflections of mountain lakes… All of it together spoke “shalom”, a visible representation of peace for me. I’d come down the mountain restored, having seen something, having prayed, and having received.
And so it’s gone, year after year, until now, when I have my coffee with God in the mornings, in the midst of forest, wether misty or dry, chilled or heated, breathing in not just the words of the text, as I seek to meet Christ, but the air of the forest, which speaks of eternity and passing moments; vast strength and human fragility; and the breath of peace, offered freely to all who will receive. Things happen in the forest because of who the forest is.
The Church as a Forest
The Church, at its best, functions the same way. We pastors think that the our teaching and preaching is the most important thing in the world, but the reality is that people are often persuaded more by the collective presence of Christ and the atmosphere that creates. Maybe at their best, preaching and environment work together, but at the very least, I’ve encountered many people over the decades whose front door to faith sounded similar to these words…
“No Richard, it wasn’t your teaching that convinced me. It was the community. I’ve never seen authentic relationships where people both accepted each other and pushed each other to grow and change. I wanted to be part of that”
“It was the beauty of the people Richard. When I saw that woman in her 60’s caring for her mother and singing songs of worship with her, it stirred something in me.”
“These people who make up the church – they’re building friendships with prisoners, making meals for the homeless, caring for vulnerable children. They give me hope, and I want in…”
On top of this, there’s often the beauty of gathered worship, the beauty of sacred space, the beauty of confession and vulnerability, and the beauty of restored lives.
So without answers, I simply ponder: Is the church an ecosystem, like a forest, which is life giving when it’s properly fed, and rooted, and located in the appropriate place? I’d like to think so.
However, when the church is place of shelter for misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political fanaticism, arrogance, favoritism of the strong and wealthy, or any other number of ugly things, it’s no longer a healing forest. It becomes a place of death, a prison of sorts. Using the letters C-H-U-R-C-H and singing a bit of Hillsong doesn’t make a church the collective expression of Christ. Only real discipleship does that, and the acid test of true discipleship is simple – am I on a path of embodying more of the humility, service, unconditional love, courageous care for the marginalized, and infinite forgiving grace of Christ? Or am I just singing some songs in a building while still closing my hand to poor, calling people who disagree with me idiots, getting angry with every latest political shot fired, all while pursuing my own personal well being above all else?
Forest, prison, or place of death – how do people experience life in the church?
For the church to be a place filled with the kind of life that God has in mind, some things need to be true for us that are also true for the forest:
1. We need to be an ecosystem. Christ’s vision for the church is that each person within it shares their unique contributions to for the well being of the community. Paul the apostle unpacks this vision and explains that when it works properly, when people experience various aspects of Christ’s beauty and love through various encounters within the community, they will sense the reality of Christ’s presence. This is paramount, because our desire is that people be given the freedom to choose or reject Christ himself, not the kind of caricatures of Christ that misrepresent him by portraying hate rather than love, law rather than grace, performance rather than receiving freely from a posture of brokenness. So we seek, increasingly as a church, to represent the heart of Christ with greater clarity.
2. We need a vision for beauty. My greatest moments of shalom (profound peace) have happened in either the beauty of the wilderness or the gathered community in worship. In the latter cases, it has been the gathered body of Christ, the church, declaring something of God’s character, through worship (Yes…singing matters more than we realize), or acts of service, or prayers of praise or confession, or simply through the power of Christ’s presence so evident in the gathering.
3. We need to believe that, in spite of our imperfections, God will be revealed through our life together. Let’s say that we, as a community, have a passion for mercy, Justice, and love (as I write about here in this book). Let’s see we long for the fruit of the spirit to prevail, in our lives, and our life together. To the extent that these things are true, we’re properly calibrated, heading in the right direction. We can rest, knowing we’re becoming a life giving forest. Of course, there’ll be the need for continual repentance and re-calibration along the way, because we’re not yet the healing, life giving force that we’re fully capable of becoming. But we’re getting there, and that’s enough for us to confidently believe God will use us. (“Abide in me, and you’ll bear much fruit”) is how Jesus said it.
All of this is looks very different than a community arguing about esoteric doctrines and implying that those who don’t believe exactly as our church does are lost and condemned. There are different kinds of forests. Catholics belong to forests. So do Pentecostals, and Baptists, and Presbyterians. No. None of us will agree with everything in every forest. But that’s no reason to start a forest fire. As Paul said, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed. In this I will rejoice.”
When Both Books Speak:
Just two nights ago, I was privileged to serve community to the gathered body of Christ at a family camp. We met in a lovely forest, around a campfire, praying with various people and listening and folks shared what God had been saying to them through the week. Then we finished our time together by singing “How Great Thou Art” an old hymn that includes a verse about walking through the forest and hearing the voice of God speak through the the beauty of creation. We finished singing, as the forest’s movement from light to darkness came to completion, ending with infinite stars hanging in the sky, and silence, save the crickets carrying on. Life. Beauty. Breath. Healing.
YES. Not only receiving all this, but being all this for one another and our world – this is our calling.
Leadership, which is code for parenting, teaching, working with anyone as a catalyst to get things accomplished, requires the development and nurture of several key qualities which I hope to look at in the coming few weeks. This, the first in a series, is about developing “reserve capacity”, because without it, our leadership will crash in a crisis every time! The exhausted parent will lash at the kids, or totally withdraw. The “at wits end” boss will throw a tantrum creating a loss of trust that might take months to recover. The overwhelmed teacher, will turn to something unhealthy to keep going, over caffeinating, over drinking, over eating, over something. Then, in two years, they’re gone, having lost sight of their calling because of a failure to have reserve capacity.
What is reserve capacity and how is it developed? Read on:
“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5) The imagery is obvious. Here’s a guy running with other men, which represents you and I living our lives on normal days, when there’s no significant or memorable challenges. These days, like good officiating in football, are memorable for their forgetfulness. A round of meetings, or taxi service for the kids. Cooking, cleaning, jogging, maybe some ethnic food at home. All in all though, nothing special. We all have these days, but don’t all pull these days off with the same amount of peace and grace.
Jeremiah’s saying that when the normal days wear you out, that’s a sign of trouble; a way of saying that if you don’t change the way you think, or live, or cope, there’ll be trouble further down the road. If you’re exhausted by normal, says Jeremiah, “What are you going to do when all hell breaks loose?” It’s a good question but rhetorical, because Jeremiah doesn’t want you to stroke your chin and think for a moment before saying, “Who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see won’t we!” No. Jeremiah’s saying that if “normal” is hard, hard will mean meltdown.
So now, while things are normal, you need to live differently. You need to develop “reserve capacity”. The term comes from a health guy I like who posits that it’s loss of ‘organ reserve’ that inevitably leads to death, even for the healthiest of us. When we’re young we have reserves. We can eat 2 large pizzas, climb a mountain on Saturday night, and preach Sunday, not thinking a thing of it. Aging though, diminishes lung, liver, muscle, joint, heart, capacity and with less reserve—less capacity to absorb the stresses means less reserve. With less reserve, the extra challenges lead to breakdown.
In other words, when it’s time to race the horses, how do you think you’ll do, if the everyday “normal” of your life is exhausting? You need to develop reserve capacity. How do you do that?
1. Kill the energy suckers. We live inside our heads a lot, and when things are going smoothly, the brain is prone to welcome some toxic ghosts who’ll settle in and ruin your day, not with what is, but with what might be and what was. Your worry and fear about tomorrow is sucking you dry. All those ‘what ifs’ can steal your reserve at every level; body, soul, spirit. You’ll feel it in your pulse, blood pressure, sleep habits, sense of well being and joy; all of these will be compromised when you let the ghosts settle in and poison your mind with worries.
I find that breathing deeply and praying while doing so, receiving the peace of Christ in faithful gratitude, is terribly effective in evicting the ghosts. Try it sometime!
2. Manage the adrenaline – Question: “What’s Jesus doing sleeping in the boat when there’s a big storm happening?” Answer: “He’s showing us how to not panic” and this is good because adrenaline is a hormone in your body that’s there to give you extra strength in short bursts. It’s for that time when there’s an automobile accident, but not for all the time spent in traffic. It’s for the moment in rock climbing when you’re making a crux move, but not for the whole approach hike. It is, in other words, for David when he meets Goliath, but not for your next staff meeting.
We’d do well to de-escalate the stakes in most of our daily experiences so that we don’t send a bunch of adrenaline into our bodies, because the truth is we’ll need that kind of strength, focus, awareness later—best to save it for then.
When I feel the surge of adrenaline coming on, my best response is to breathe deep, look around, practice a little gratitude as I see a tree in bloom, or remember that I even own a car and that’s why I’m stuck in traffic. The little change of perspective sends adrenaline back to it’s cave, reserved for another more appropriate time.
3. Remember the end. The intent of terror is to fill you with fear because fear will paralyze you, draining you of your reserves, and preventing you from fulfilling your calling. A little perspective, though, can help. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “do not say, ‘why is it that the former days were better than these?’ for it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.” Don’t fret, in other words, about how bad things have become. It changes nothing with respect to your calling to be light, and salt, and joy, and hope. Get on with it.
What’s more, it helps me immensely to have a strong faith and belief regarding the trajectory of history. I believe that the end of the story has all disease healed, all wars ended, all evil vanquished, and everything in the universe saturated with the beauty of Christ. That’s how our good friend could say: “All’s well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
People who actually believe that live well, serve well, sleep well. And when the horses show up they’ll say: “Bring it on! I’m ready.”
I’ve not been writing the past few weeks because a nasty little virus took up residency in my lungs, robbing my sleep, turning the act of preaching into a Herculean effort, and leaving me feeling like a limp rag doll most of the time.
As a result, I’ve had time to think, and the convergence zone of some teaching I’m doing for staff at the church I lead, and my reading has directed me toward pondering both the need for peace in our lives and the purpose of peace.
The need for peace
We live in a world where personal peace is becoming as scarce as clean water. The evidence is everywhere: sleep loss, increased chronic disease health crises, such as heart issues and diabetes, and unhealthy addiction to drugs and alcohol. There are a myriad of reasons for our collective erosion of shalom, but analysis of the why can come later, because the Apostle Paul, and Jesus Christ both offer a clear prescription which, if taken, will move us toward a beautiful sense of peace and well being—not instantly, but surely, inevitably.
Rest gives us peace.
Jesus invites all who are weary to “come unto him,” learn from him, make his priorities ours, because his plans for us surely include the reality of finding “rest for our souls”. Wow! That’s a hefty promise in age of hyper-connectivity, hypertension, isolation, and a sinking pessimism due to politics, pollution, and terror, and the feeling sometimes that our whole civilization is just hanging on by a thread. Still, it’s a promise, so I need to learn how to seek Christ and find real rest in him. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my posts under the category “coffee with God”.
Paul ups the ante when he tells us to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer… let your requests be made known to God,” and this is followed with the spectacular promise that God’s peace will become a sort of wall, protecting our hearts. I believe this literally means a greater capacity to overcome the stress of daily living, and this will even mean, in most instances, greater physical and emotional strength.
Peace gives us strength
Paul implies as much in Romans 8:11 where we read about the spirit of God, fully operational in a human, gives “life to our mortal bodies”. Picture Jesus, at rest and asleep in the storm at sea; or Paul cracking jokes at his trial, or singing in prison. Who does this stuff? People who are strong because they are at peace.
The relationship between stress and physiological decay is well documented, and the pursuit of peace is a multi-billion dollar industry, with everything from yoga to pharmaceutical companies in the game. We all want peace and rest because we know that it’s a key to well-being.
Strength gives us…. ??
So, peace gives us rest and freedom from anxiety, and freedom from anxiety makes us stronger, but why? To what end? This, I believe, is one of the critical junctures where the gospel makes a radical departure from the entire “peace and rest” industry.
Paul’s exhortation that we “be strong in the Lord” here, and the command to be strong found here, are closely linked with a clear purpose. We’re not strong so that we can live robust and healthy self-centered lives, as consumers of culture and recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, we’re always, always, “blessed to be a blessing” as God both promised and called Abraham, and God reiterated to Moses, and Christ charged the disciples, and as the early church demonstrated in so very many ways, including the strength of serving the weakest and most vulnerable, and the strength of martyrdom.
I have known friends, both Christian and Hindu, along with practitioners of Yoga and various forms of meditation, whose goal is vibrant health and peace. This might sound appealing but make no mistake about it—it misses the point utterly because in the end such singular pursuits of health are nothing more than dressed up narcissism.
Jesus made it clear that he’s writing a story of hope in this dark and broken world, and toward that end he’s building a team of light bearers, those who will go into the darkness exuding hospitality, healing, joy, forgiveness, justice, capacity for restoration, and more. So when you have your quiet time, or do your exercise routine, or buy that slab of grass fed beef, or expensive wheat not tainted with roundup, it’s all for a purpose. Christ is calling you to a life poured out—washing feet, serving, and “doing good and sharing”. Anything less is narcissism.
This surely isn’t a call to asceticism. It’s rather, a call to recognize God’s healing us and strengthening us, to the extent God is, for a purpose, and if we receive the healing but don’t engage in our calling of blessing serving, whether in business, or with our neighbors, or on the slopes and rock faces, we’re still missing the point. That’s because the point is a vast family of people living out of resurrection power, day after day.
Are you strong these days, or even pursuing strength? Pursue Christ instead, recognizing that he is the source of the strength anyway, and that the strength he gives us is toward a purpose, and that purpose is to be poured out.
Let the adventure begin!
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?
I’ve been overwhelmed by beauty these past 35 days or so in the Alps. Sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and lightning, wildflowers and waterfalls, ruggedly terrifying mountain peaks and lush river valleys. It’s been beautiful; but expected. I came here looking for this kind of revelation and, other than the predominance of clouds that have hidden the night sky stars, I’ve not been disappointed.
Less anticipated, though, was the extent to which the aesthetics of Alpine hospitality would so bless us. Little things, like a welcome sign on the door of our room in a hut, or Alpine wildflowers on the table at supper, matchless care given to clean windows and floors; even the flower boxes gracing the sides of chalet balconies, all these things have said, in their own way, “we care about those who are with us—even if they’re just passing through.” This commitment to spatial beauty has become such a norm because of the culture, that wherever it was lacking, things felt sterile, as if we, the guests, were a bother, not worth the time.
Finally though, and most important, I’ve discovered a different kind of beauty that’s robust and life giving. It came as a surprise though, sneaking up on me on Sunday afternoon. Donna and I had come out of the high country and were staying in a wonderful hotel in a small village that we’d accidentally stumbled upon. We’d stashed our stuff, arriving mid-afternoon, and made our way to a little food festival in the plaza, where a stage was set up and a band was singing a mix of German folk tunes and old American songs from the 60’s.
It was here on this plaza on a Sunday afternoon that I heard the famous song: “What a Wonderful World.” Donna and I had just been pondering what it would have been like to be in this plaza 70 years earlier, in 1944, how different than the joviality of this Sunday afternoon. Just then, I heard “What a Wonderful World,” that song made famous by Louie Armstrong. The lyrics matched the day, as I heard:
I see friends shaking hands.
Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying,
“I love you.”
I hear babies cry,
I watch them grow,
They’ll learn much more,
Than I’ll ever know.
And I think to myself….”what a wonderful world.”
The sight of elderly folk walking hand in hand, small children playing, an older man in a wheel chair, and a developmentally disabled child, all making their way through this plaza with joy, all the beloved of someone, was beautiful enough that I was undone by it. These are the people who were declared “a burden to the state” in a previous era. In the end, though, the beauty of compassion won. Thanks be to God.
This has largely been the way of it during these past five weeks: in the high country we see the fit, the strong, the capable (that they’re made up of all ages, including the elderly, is an observation for another post). They’re up where the air is thin, often pouring over maps, and considering how they’ll use their strength to reach the next hut, or a summit or two. They are the beauty of health and vigor.
In the valleys, though, we encounter those unable to go higher, limited in their pursuits by illness, weakness, disability. However, and I can’t stress this enough, the beauty present in the midst of this weakness has been a greater revelation to me than the beauty found in strength. This is because the weakness and vulnerability that I’ve seen has been met with kindness, service, and the dignifying power of profound love. All of this is the more powerful if, while seeing it unfold before my eyes, I’m reading of the days when these very people were gathered up and “put away.”
Thank God for those who say “No!” to such thinking, for the Mother Teresas of the world, and Pope Francis, and those who volunteer in shelters and medical clinics, and those committed to being the presence of Christ precisely by loving and serving those most in need of love.
These are important things to ponder, because we live in a world that, increasingly, worships at the altar of a narrowly defined view of beauty, a view having to do with strength, youth, and “capacity”, whether intellectual, financial, social, or physical. I can’t stress how dangerous, and ultimately ugly, this path is. How do we avoid it?
1. Recognize the beauty of vulnerability. It’s a soil in which powerful love will grow.
2. Recognize the beauty of brokenness and confession.
3. Recognize the beauty of service and hospitality, and begin making both a priority—especially toward those who can’t repay.
4. Quit walking to the other side of the road when you encounter need, weakness, brokenness. Jump in and love instead.
All of this requires, not just a new set of eyes, but an openness to disruption, and that requires space in our lives, and that requires trimming the excess obligations, and that requires… alignment with God’s priorities.
Our world increasingly views those who can’t pay their way as a bother. Imagine the power of light in the midst of such darkness when compassion, love, and service take root again. Whatever it looks like, I know this much: it will be beautiful.
I’ve loved talking to folks in their twenties about the peaks they’re going after, but never did I imagine that the greater joy would come from chatting with elderly folks sitting on a bench, and yet that’s been the way of it, because it’s beauty I’m finding there that contains within itself the essence of the gospel.
I went for a hike this past weekend in preparation for our upcoming plan: 40 days/400 miles of trekking in the Alps. The big hike is now just about 3 weeks and a few days away, so these last times in our own Cascade mountains are important, as we check equipment, feel the weight of our packs to decide what we absolutely need and what’s expendable, and of course, train our bodies.
The training of the body of is vital for people like us, who have spent most of our waking hours during adulthood sitting in chairs. Just over one year ago, my wife and I decided to tackle Mt. St. Helens in April. We thought we were in decent shape for the hike because my wife did some circuit training a couple days a week and I did a little bit of jump roping, sit ups, and a few pull ups on a climbing wall two days a week and had skied a good amount during the previous winter.
We really thought we were in shape for it but the mountain didn’t care, and we turned back about 600 vertical feet from the summit, tired, cold, spent. It was humbling, which I hope has led to some enlightenment. Since then, I’ve learned a bit about the science of exercise, about mitochondria, and ATP, Cytochrome-C, and why muscles contract.
Here’s the bottom line for people planning long hikes. The best training for you won’t be brief bursts of intensity, like a 20 minute cross fit workout. A book specifically written to people hiking and climbing in the mountains reminds us that “the longer you can subject your muscles to a mostly aerobic stress (that’s the easier stress, like walking fast or jogging slowly) the better…”
This is because by subjecting your body to this stress, it will rise to the occasion and adapt, literally changing its own constitution so that you’ll be better able to manage the same stress the next time. Or, to put it another way:
Adaptation = Stress + Rest (Recovery).
This insight was revolutionary to me, and I’ve been prepping for the long hike by taking longer, slower, runs, and long hikes, always wearing a heart monitor to make sure I don’t go too fast because my tendency is not to do much of anything slowly. It’s during these long, slow, hikes, that I begin pondering how these very same principles of endurance apply to relationships, vocation, calling, and so much more in life.
In world of disposable relationships, countless job changes, hypermobility, and a kaleidoscope of “next big things” awaiting our very short attention spans, the best lives will still follow Eugene Peterson’s path of “A long obedience in the same direction”.
We’ll get up, morning after morning, with the same spouse (or the same empty bed because of our calling/gift of singleness), make our coffee, maybe read and pray, use our vocational skills, invest in the same relationships, encourage people, serve, practice generosity, eat real food, maybe even exercise. We’ll do these simple things – over and over again.
It’s the sameness of this that causes people to bail out, because we like new. We like sprints, and high intensity training, and the adrenaline rush of the start up, and church plant, and new relationship. There’s nothing wrong with new, of course, because starting needs to happen. But hear this: There will be countless days that seem to be nothing more than just another step that was o so similar to yesterday’s step. Same coffee. Same boss. Same friends. Same city. Same. And you want to drop out and find a new race, or new trail, or new job, or new spouse.
Not so fast friend! It’s when you feel like quitting that you are building transformative capacity by staying, (tweet this) and living, fully present and alive the moment that is so painfully “the same”. Most folks can rise to the occasion and nail the job interview, or the first date, or the part of the climb that’s all about shopping for new equipment. The challenge comes down the road, when you are risk of what you call “stagnation.” Maybe. But maybe you’re at risk of transformation, as you move into the deep waters of learning to be fully present with the o so familiar – so present that it becomes delightfully new. The principles of the exercise formula, I’m learning, apply to every area of life:
Adaptation = Stress + Rest
Stress – The stress created by endurance training isn’t sudden and acute. It builds slowly through the weariness that is a byproduct of sameness. Whether you’re at 13000 feet on Mt. Rainier, or on day 1300 of the same job, or day 300 of cooking chicken fajitas for your friends or family, “you have need of endurance”. You gain endurance by learning to be fully present with this step, this day on the job, this chicken fajita. That’s called maturity, and learning it will make you wise.
Rest – There’s a rhythm of work and rest in God’s design for us and we mess with this to our own detriment. Gone are the days when I can survive on pure adrenalin, running meetings, writing and studying, counseling and leading all week, and then cramming a taxing climb in on Fri/Sat only to return and preach four times on Sunday. Without rest, exercise is toxic to the body, a recipe for injury. With rest, it transforms us into people of strength. The same holds true for all the other areas of life.
By virtue of the blessings we’ve been given, many of us have a capacity to be people of strength in this world, with enough resources of joy, or hope, or even money, to be blessing for others around us. But our strength comes from adaptation, and the formula for adaptation never changes:
Adaptation = Stress + Rest There’s no need to mess with the formula, because it’s the way the world works! Accept the stress, embrace the rest, grow strong, be a blessing. Enjoy!
Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise. She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died. Achilles: the place of vulnerability.
The Achilles story is appropriate because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes. Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there. Rest. Repeat. Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear. “Why is this not healing?”
Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine, let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.
Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy. How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical? Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine. Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.
1. Daily is best – Physical Therapists prescribe exercises. “Three sets of 20 on this one. Two sets of 10 on that.” Etc. Etc. These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult. You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired. And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.
But here’s the key. You need to do them! Every day. I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well. Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.
I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t. When I’m motivated, and when I’m not. This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God. There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.
The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine. So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts. They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed. It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.
Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.
2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed. “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”. He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.
So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free. Slow. But pain free. The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties. “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years. The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”
I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other. After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way. One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture. Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.
This too has application for the rest of life. You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health. Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame. It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success. Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable. Both are temporary illusions. The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel. The bad days are as important as the good.
Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ. This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.
3. Ego is a setback – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow. I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!” or worse, to speed up. What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me. The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me. I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.
Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life. It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom. Enough! When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read. It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.
Take away: When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.
The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer. More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.