Why “fear of death tomorrow” prevents “joy of life today”

I’m presently reading a book about the importance of opening oneself to direct encounter with creation, in preparation for a  40 day hike in the Alps this summer.  The author offers some of the best prose I’ve digested in a long time, but more significantly, exposes the frightful momentum in our culture towards a disembodied existence, spending most of our lives shielded by houses and screens from what God teaches us through cold and heat, wet and dry, light and dark, seasons.

David Abram  recalls his childhood of embodied movement, interacting with nature, wild eyed with wonder as he listened to frogs, waded in creeks, and got drunk on looking at the stars.  Then, in high school, he writes about hitting the books:  “The prescription for my eyeglasses  got stronger, while my skin wondered what’d become of the wind that used to explode past my face as I cycled the alleys and narrow woodlands…”  He continues:  “As I reflect on it now, it seems that my skin became less porous, less permeable to the abundant life that surrounds, as my conscious self steadily withdrew its participation from sensuous nature and began to live more in a clutch of heady abstractions.”

Why do we withdraw into walls, into our shells, into our heads?  Abram posits our fear of death leads to creation of sanitized worlds so that we won’t be reminded of  our impermanence.  We’ve worked hard to create an alternate, techno/industrial reality in which we’re shielded from the moment by moment truth that we not only eat food; our bodies are ultimately food for others.  Because this is terrifying to us, we build great systems to both stall death and hide it from our collective consciousness.  He says this so well:  “We cannot abide our vulnerability, our utter dependence upon a world that can eat us”.

Our attempts to avoid the truth, however, have come at a cost on several levels.  Withdrawal from nature cuts us off from a source of revelation that’s healing and life giving in its own right, but more importantly, invites us to lives of gratitude and celebration, ultimately inviting us to Christ himself.

Fear of death keeps us locked up.    Mosquitoes, ticks, bears, lightning, slipping on rocks, fast streams, cold, sunburn, heights.  They’re all a threat.  Why bother when you play Wii, stay indoors, and live to tell about it.   The homeless, financially shipwrecked, mentally ill – these too are perceived as threats to our so called secure lives, and so we stay away.   A bible study’s easier, in the comfort of the like minded.  Thus does the bigger world, which not only heals and delights, but also hurts and terrifies, remain distant from most our daily lives.  We’ve built a fortress and we’re hiding:  from risk and our own suffering and mortality.

This alternative comes at a great price.  Abram writes, “only now do we notice that all our technological utopias and dreams of machine mediated immortality may fire our minds but they cannot feed our bodies.  Indeed, most of our transcendent technological visions remain motivated by a fright of the body and its myriad susceptibilities.”  Or, to quote the bible,   “through fear of death (humanity) has been subject to slavery…”

I love it when people who don’t show signs of having my same faith are saying the exactly what Jesus is saying: Fear of death will kill you early.  You might live longer in terms of days, but surely not in terms of quality, because the reality is that everything worth doing in this life requires risk.

Crossing social divides requires risk, and we make the gospel real and visible when we take this risk because a core message is that the dividing walls are being broken down.

Living generously requires risk, because it means letting go of resources, whether time, energy, money, to be a blessing to others and as an act of worship, instead of storing them away for later or spending them on ourselves.

Getting out so that God can speak to you in creation requires risk, and this too has been a central reality in the lives of people who make the good news visible, from Abraham, to David, to Jesus, to Paul.  Only in very recent history has our world so elevated convenience and safety that we can now live in climate controlled comfort 24/7, bug free, dirt free, and ostensibly risk free.

Recognizing that you are part of a life cycle and that someday you’ll be food, even as today you enjoy food, requires courage, but of course we see that Paul considered dying to be gain, not loss, and so was able to live fully, freely, boldly.

That passage quoted a few lines up, from the book of Hebrews in the Bible, is set in a context which basically offers the remarkably good news that we ca be free from the fear of death, and hence free from  slavery to the Matrix that is our techno/industrial world.

How am I freed from the fear of death?

By entering eternal life now.  – The future of wholeness, joy, and generosity that God is bringing as the climax of history is already here for all who want it.  Embracing God’s reign now means that death is not a transfer of citizenship so much as a movement home to the fullness and wholeness of that which we now only know in part.

By embracing the reality of mortality.  I was chatting with a friend on Monday who said that his dad, when in his 90’s, skipped a surgery that would have prolonged his life a few months and in the end, his choice was rooted in the belief that life goes on.

By cherishing the gifts of each day for what they are:  foretastes of eternity.   Crossing social divides, loving unconditionally, giving generously, and sleeping under the stars are all cut from the same cloth called “abundant life” and all of its available by entering eternity now.

 

Success, Sabbaticals, Loss, and Heading to the Alps

afterlight(this new blog address reflects my profound belief that our lives are journeys of transformation, and that there’s always a step we can take towards wholeness – my upcoming sabbatical was the catalyst for the change, as you see here…)

If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber.

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 goal.  It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.  You took initial step 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, Little League, Prom night.  It’s not perfect.  There are bumps along the way, but you’re still getting more responsibilities.  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 “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 then comes a moment when you know it’s time to rest and recalibrate.

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 my food.  I’m sitting in the glorious Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today paragliding in the Alps.  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.  Stunning.”  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 going home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love reeling in darkness.

One of my best friends is dead.   We’d skied the Alps together, snowshoed the Cascades east of  Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst monuments of Washington DC.  We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids.  We’d argued theology and commiserated about leadership.   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 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.   It was time for a sabbatical, a break from the normal routine in order to restore.  I knew I needed it.

Sabbaticals are for pastors, what fallow land is for a farm.  God invoked farmers to let the land rest every seven years, as a remembrance that God’s the provider, and as a gift of restoration for both the land and the farmer!  It’s important for the health of everyone: the pastor and the church, the farmer and the land.  It was time.

When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. It’s 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 believing 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 Keroak  spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings around the kitchen table.  It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.

That was nearly twenty years ago.  Between then and now, I’ve been privileged to pastor what I believe to be one of the great churches, in one of the great cities of the world.  Grace infuses our life together as we try to focus more on how Jesus unites us than how lesser issues divide.  There’s joy and laughter, there’s brokenness and healing.  It’s far from perfect.  But I’ve been thrilled and honored to carry the torch for this season.   In order to restore creativity and vision, though, I knew it was time, not for something different, but for a pause.

I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with a sense of refreshment, and  a re-calibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs.

I’ve been intrigued with the notion of pilgrimage for my sabbatical time, trying to learn what it means to walk with God by literally walking… for 40-45 days, through the high Alps.  My intent is to move away for three months:  out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency.  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, putting one foot in front of the other for 400 miles.

Lessons will be learned through preparation and travel about suffering, traveling light, encounter, endurance, beauty, hospitality, and much more.   And while the original thought was to travel the Pacific Crest trail from the Canadian border south into Oregon, or from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Shasta, the death of my Austrian friend left a teaching hole for this summer that I’m qualified to fill, so I’ll teach the last week of their program and then my wife and I will begin in Northern Italy, head up through Austria into Germany, then west before dropping down and finishing our trek in Switzerland with friends.

I’ll post what we’re experiencing and learning here as I’m able, so I hope you’ll join us!

Departure: July 23rd  Return:  October 23rd – Here’s a Sabbatical Video  that will answer more questions.

This one weird trick will change your life: Slow Down

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

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

The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setbacks and Overcoming – The first is assured; the second is optional.

sometimes your world gets shattered

Dream big and work hard for it, because doing so takes you places — not always where you want, but often way farther than you can imagine. – Ranniveig Aamodt

 

 

 

Setbacks come in all shapes and sizes.  They are relational, financial, physical, emotional, spiritual.  They are sometimes enormous, like divorce, and other times “death by a thousand cuts”, occurring so slowly that you wake up years later and find yourself wondering why you’re in a story that so utterly misrepresents your deepest self.

Setbacks come for all kinds of reasons.  They’re the result of our own bad choices, or the wrong actions of others, or both.  They’re caused by the market (that’s me), or the weather, or political turmoil, or a cell that randomly decides to multiply out of control.  They’re the result of ice on the road (that’s me), or a drunk driver, or a hidden chunk of ice and ski binding that doesn’t release (that’s me), or a salesperson who lied to you.

One thing’s certain though: Setbacks happen.  Moses came to the point where he’d rather die than continue embracing his role as leader of a whining nomadic tribe.  He wasn’t where he wanted to be.  Jeremiah complained that God tricked him when God called him to be a prophet and now that things had turned out as they had, he was reconsidering.  Peter thought he was strong enough to stand in solidarity with Christ but when he say Jesus’ eyes after his denial, he ran away weeping.  Paul preaches and suddenly finds himself in a random dungeon, chained to the wall.

The question of the day then is “What principles can help me respond well when setbacks happen?”

1. Always get up –  Failure is rarely our biggest problem.  It’s how we respond to failure that sinks us.  If the failure’s the result of our own bad choices, it’s easy to relive the moment or the decision that led to our predicament, over and over again.  “Why didn’t I…?”  If it’s the result of another person’s wrong actions, bitterness comes knocking.  “If only…”  as we replay the boneheaded or evil actions of the other.  Random stuff that falls on us, like tornadoes, or cancer, are maybe hardest of all because there’s nothing, no one to blame.

Whatever the cause the, though best response is always the same.  “All right then.  This is where I’m at.  What’s the next step?”  That’s the remarkable story of Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, whose climbing partner, thinking Joe to be dead, cut the rope, sending him into a crevasse with an already shattered leg.  That’s the story of David after committing adultery and murder.  Every story of transformation and climbing out of the hole that is our setback starts with a profound acknowledgement of reality, a belief that transformation is not only possible, but our calling, and a commitment to take step after step, for ten thousand steps if necessary, as we seek to move into a different place.  Self-pity, after about 20 seconds, is a waste of time, and needs to be seen for the enemy it is.

2. You are not your circumstances – When Norwegian climber Ranniveig Aamodt fell, she was damaged beyond recognition: “I had three compression fractures in my back from L2 – L4. I had broken my pelvis, both my talus bones (the main weight bearing bones in the ankle), as well as numerous small bones in my feet. The ligaments in my ankles were stretched and torn and had ripped small pieces of bone off the bones they were attached to. My right elbow was broken into many small pieces and my triceps tendon was torn halfway off. I’d also smashed up my front teeth.”
Her accident shattered her identity as well, and in the end she needed to say, “I realized that I had to distinguish between who I am, and what I do: I’m not a climber. Climbing is something I do. Even if I lost climbing, I would still be me.”  Setbacks happen precisely because they create a dissonance between we think we are, and what reality presents in the moment.  I thought I’d be married.  I thought I’d be rich.  I thought I’d be healthy.  I thought I was a climber.

Her recognition that she is not her climbing became a critical foundation upon which she would rebuild her life and, ironically, climb again.  All of us have images of who we think we are and some of those images need to die, not so that we can become less, but so that we can become whole.  This is because it’s vital to be passionate about our goals and pursuits, but always with an open hand, allowing God to shape them in ways we wouldn’t have anticipated or chosen.  Jesus reminded Peter, after his failure, that in the end he’d be taken places he didn’t want to go, but that this wouldn’t make him less, it would make him more.

 

3. You are not your limitations – The notion of holding our goals with an open hand, though, is dangerous.  It becomes, at times, a license to embrace our limitations and wounds, cherishing them to the point where they come to define us.  When we find ourselves making peace with our setbacks and sort of “moving in and setting up furniture” we need to shout, “Noooooooo!” and fight back.  That’s the biggest value I find in Ranniveig’s story (a little long, but worth it).  The word “overcome” and “overcomer” runs throughout the New Testament because God is trying to tell us that it’s our move, that we have next steps to take, that we are not our failures, that we can overcome.

The point for Ranniveig isn’t to get back to climbing again.  It’s to overcome the incredible pull of complacency, pain, and self-pity that will not only prevent climbing again, but prevent any sort of meaningful life.  We need to find our next steps, recognize that there’ll be a piece of us that doesn’t want to take them, and then take them anyway.  She writes:

I decided to accept the condition I was in, think positive, and face what as ahead. This triggered a kind of power. “Bring it on,” I thought. “I will do everything I can to make the best of this situation.”

4. You are not your fear.  The most insidious thing about setbacks is that as we begin to recover, we’re sorely tempted to spend the rest of our days avoiding the possibility of ever reverting to that pain again.  Of course, when we do that, the pain begins to define us.  Again:  “Nooooooo!”

Our friend writes about it this way:  my physiotherapist asked me to jump 40 centimeters up onto a squishy foam pad. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and the idea of jumping with my bad ankles was terrifying. But I had to make a choice. So in action and attitude, I jumped. I still remember his words: If you don’t do this, you’ll try to find ways around your limitations. But to know your true limits, you have to get in over your head, and more often than not, you’ll realize your limits are greater than you thought.

We need to step back in:  to relationships, on the slopes, in the gym, in our walk with God, whatever it is.  And yes, we’ll be afraid.  That’s why it’s called “overcoming”

What’s your limitation?  What’s your fear?  What’s your next step?

 

 

 

The Seahawks: Finding Christ in Football Culture

My friend Matthew Kaemingk is a theologian and a sports fan. His guest post today shows us how these two worlds intersect if we’re looking for Christ in culture. You can find more of his writings at Christ and Cascadia.  Enjoy!  

“If we would know ourselves, [as] the ancient Temple at Delphi advises, the study of sports in all its connections to the rest of art and life would seem to be an ideal quest for understanding of self and the world.” Simon Kuper, athletic anthropologist

I am a rabid fan of the Seattle Seahawks. I am also a Christian theologian. It appears that Christ & Cascadia might just be the only “place” where I can bring these two disparate aspects of my life together.

When I claim to be a “rabid fan,” I mean what I say. Consider the following evidence of my semi-neurotic devotion. While studying theology in Amsterdam I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night to watch Seahawk games (pre and post-game shows as well). I regularly frequent no less than four Seahawk blogs (Hawkblogger, Field Gulls, Seahawks Draft Blog, and Seahawks Addicts). I have engaged in more than one extended debate with friends and family over who should start at the left offensive guard position.

Being active in the worlds of Christian theology and American football I have always felt a subtle pressure to keep these interests separate. My fellow theologians do not usually welcome extended discussions of football. Many find the game violent, stupid, frivolous, un-cultured, un-Christian, and/or corrupt. Likewise Seahawk bloggers typically maintain strict “no religion” restrictions on their discussion boards (as if discussing religion would endanger the genteel and civilized dialogue of a sports blog).

What follows is a series of “propositions” on the connections between my faith and Seahawk football. In this first section I reflect on the coaching and drafting philosophy of Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. In the second section, coming out soon, I will reflect theologically on the fan culture of the Seattle Seahawks (the 12th man). If the Seahawks continue to win in the playoffs, I might just write a third section.

In the following propositions my words of praise for football, the Seahawks, and Pete Carroll may at times seem effusive. My apologies. I am fully aware of the many valid criticisms that have been leveled against all three. My argument here is not that Seahawk football is perfect or divine (far from it). Nor am I arguing that Christians should skip or move Sunday worship to watch it. My argument is that Seahawk football is theologically interesting. What does that mean? Read on.

Proposition #1 – Pete Carrol and a Theology of Fun

nfl_g_pcarrol1_sy_576
“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” G.K. Chesterton

“I’ve got to find a way to make it into the game that they love.” Pete Carroll

“Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice, It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally, but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity…” G.K. Chesterton

“[I]f we’re not having a good time doing it, then I’m screwing it up.” Pete Carroll

G.K. Chesterton is known as one of Christendom’s most playful theologians. A gifted philosopher, novelist, debater, and columnist, Chesterton never took himself too seriously. If there was such a thing, Chesterton most certainly had the spiritual gift of levity. Chesterton argues again and again that human beings were not made to take themselves so seriously. He argues that “Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness.”

Coach Pete Carroll recognizes the central importance of play to the flourishing of the human person. His football practices regularly feature hip hop music, practical jokes, comedians, weird games and quirky competitions. While most football coaches are known for yelling and negative reinforcement, Carroll is known for a positive and playful approach to the game of football.

His players are, of course, well aware that Carroll expects high effort, competition, and intense focus on the practice field. That said, Carroll places a high importance on finding and cultivating players who genuinely love the game of football. Carroll is always cognizant of the ultimate reason why his players started playing the game in the first place—play.

Whether he recognizes the divine source of playfulness or not, Pete Carroll is the leader of 53 young men who were created in the image of a playful God. Carroll has tapped into the created human need for play.
“You watch [coach Carroll] for any length of time during the season, and you realize the thing you see him do more than anything else is throwing the football. He throws it before practice. He throws it after practice… He throws it around during meetings. You suspect, before he goes to sleep at night, he sits up in bed tossing a football in the air.” Steve Bischeff, Carroll biographer

“…for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” G.K. Chesterton

Proposition # 2 Pete Carroll and a Theology of Creative Competition.

“Competition to me is not about beating your opponent. It is about doing your best; it is about striving to reach your potential.” Pete Carroll

“Competition” is a bad word in some circles, but I am convinced that a certain kind of competition can be a way of fulfilling God’s creating purposes. Here is an interesting question, for example: Might Adam and Eve have played chess in their unfallen condition? I like to think that it would have been a good way to spend some of their time in the Garden. As human creatures whose chief aim it was to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, I think they could have competed in a way that pleased their Maker. Playing chess would have been a way of matching wits, of accepting the mutual challenge to devise winning strategies. As unfallen persons, they would not want to humiliate each other–instead they would want to use the abilities of the other person as a challenge to cultivate their own capacity for problem-solving.” Richard Mouw, theologian.

Kam “Bam-Bam” Chancellor is a 6’3 230 pound strong safety who has always loved to smack opposing receivers in the chest. That said, “Bam-Bam” was not always adept at actually covering wide receivers down the field. But Pete Carroll saw potential in the hard-hitting Virginia Tech safety and over the course of two years Carroll brought that potency out and developed him into what can only be described as the central “death-backer” in Seattle’s infamous “legion of boom.”

The theologian Richard Mouw argues that God actively plants in creation (and in all people) certain potencies, gifts, and talents. These gifts, like seeds, lie dormant waiting for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve to cultivate, grow, and develop them. God did not want humanity to simply nap in the garden and suck on its fruits. God wanted the garden (and its inhabitants) to grow, unfold, develop, learn, and flourish. According to Mouw, “God likes it when people cultivate the sorts of capacities and abilities that he has invested in the creation.”

Whether Pete Carroll knows it or not, whenever he nurtures a quarterback that is “too short,” a corner that is “too tall,” a defensive end that is “too slow,” or successfully switches a lineman from defense to offense he is cultivating divinely-given gifts that have been planted in players by the God of the universe.

On Sunday mornings Christians gather to purposefully worship and glorify their Creator through prayer and song.

On Sunday afternoons (whether they recognize it or not) the Seattle Seahawks gather to glorify their Creator through the competitive development of the gifts God has given them.

“The Glory of God is humanity fully alive” – St Irenaeus

Proposition #3 – Pete Carroll and a Theology of Community and Individuality

“We have an approach to help each guy be the very best he can possibly be. We’ll take a very precise look at each guy and find out their uniqueness and discover what they bring that’s special, then fit it into our football team.” Pete Carroll

The Church “is not a collective where the individual is of no importance… in the life of the Christian community each individual is indispensable to that of the whole.” Karl Barth, theologian

The Seattle Seahawks are “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.”
• A 6-4 cornerback whose knees seem to bend in all four directions;
• A monstrosity of a man who looks out of place at defensive end;
• A linebacker whose arms and legs are so long it seems he might never get himself underneath a blocker;
• An offensive guard who was playing defensive tackle this time last year … in college;
• Oh, and a quarterback who makes Doug Flutie look like an NBA center.” Dave Wyman, Seahawks reporter

Whether or not Pete Carroll is a Christian is immaterial, Carroll understands something very important about what it means to be human and what it means to be a member of a flourishing community.

Strong communities require a diverse cast of characters, gifts, and abilities. Coach Carroll takes unique talents and rare gifts and creatively appropriates those gifts towards the flourishing of the team. The NFL is full of athletic potential. What makes Carroll successful is his ability to move players from a state of unique potential to a state of unique production. According to Carroll, “We’re looking for unique qualities that separate players from other players,” Carroll said. “And then we try to accentuate that weakness and make them special.”

Dave Wyman is right. The Seattle Seahawks might be the “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.” Pete Carroll has indeed assembled an odd and motley crew of characters. He is adept at finding talents that are either unrecognized or underappreciated by other teams. The key to his success, however, has not simply been his ability to find unique talents but to bring those unique characters together into a common community with a common vision and a common purpose.

As has been discussed a number of times in Christ & Cascadia, developing deep Christian community in the Pacific Northwest can be extremely difficult. Cascadia is a culture of deep individualism. Cascadians consider themselves unique, special, and autonomous individuals. They are extremely wary of thick communities that might stifle their individual freedom, gifts, and desires. Cascadians look at the Christian church as a place where their liberty, creativity, and individuality will be threatened.

Cascadians are tragic victims of the false modern dichotomy of individuality and community. Cascadians readily accept the false choice and opt for a lonely individuality.

While there are important differences and caveats to be made, the Seattle Seahawks offer an excellent example of overcoming this modern dichotomy. Their team is made up of unique individuals who can only flourish when they are brought together.

Dave Wyman calls the Seahawks an “Island of Misfit Toys.” Is there a better name for the church? Are we not, after all, a motley collection of weird, gifted, and broken cast-offs called to a higher common purpose?

The dogma of “deep individualism” found in the Pacific Northwest claims that human beings can only be their “true selves” when they are “free” from communal restraint. Pete Carroll and the apostle Paul demonstrate that the opposite is true. We can only become our “true selves” in community.
“This whole [Seahawk] experiment may work and it may not. Either way, I admire it. It’s not safe. It’s not what everyone else is doing. It’s bold, ballsy, and iconoclastic… But if it works out the way I think it will, you may see teams scouring the country for big, lanky corners, converting mediocre defensive tackles to offensive guard and throwing out the rulebook on quarterbacks under 6-feet tall” Dave Wyman, Seahawks Reporter

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 12

Enjoy the Game!!

Recovering the Body before its completely dead.

A little while ago I posted a piece about “the end of sex” as we know it, referencing an article about the dramatically diminishing sex lives of Japanese young people, as the joy of human contact is displaced by virtual realities, work demands, and the discovery that commitment free recreational sex is a mirage, as even popular movies tell us here.

Stepping back from the particulars of sexuality, its easy to see the trend line pointing all of us towards lives that are increasingly removed from physical realities.  Food comes from boxes.  Comfort comes from climate controlled indoor boxes called buildings.  Entertainment comes from boxes.  Sexual release comes from boxes.  It’s possible to live such a ridiculously insulated existence that we need never leave home again.

“That’s ridiculous!”  I can hear you saying it.  But when was the last time you ate food straight from a garden?  Walked barefoot?  Spent time outside in the rain? Slept under the stars? When was the last time you were hungry, or cold, or thirsty?  When was the last time you hugged you spouse or parent or child, not in a formal way, but in a lingering way, indicating of your deep affection for the other?  When was the last time you looked into your lover’s eyes deeply enough to see their soul, and allow yours to be seen too?

When David encourages us to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, he’s inviting us to allow revelation of God’s character to come to us through our senses, to allow ourselves to be shaped not only by revelation from the scriptures, but from taste, touch, smell, beauty, pleasure, pain.  IN world that’s increasingly becoming virtual, urban, and disembodied, Christ followers have a chance to display an alternative: life lived fully, unmediated through pixels.

This, though, will be challenging because since the beginning, Christ followers have struggled with integration.  The gospel and letters of John, along with Colossians, address our tendency to split the universe into spirit and matter, a view that comes from Plato, not Jesus.  We’ve gone there though, for reasons beyond the scope of this little piece.  The results have not been pretty, as sexual phobias drive desire underground, misreadings about “love not the world” lead to neglect of the environment, and “set your mind on heavenly things” has come only to mean “read your Bible more”.  It’s time to come home to the good news that God has made us to be whole people.  It’s time to come home to our bodies.  Here are some ways:

1. View body care as a faith issue – Phrases about the spirit “giving life to our mortal bodies” and our bodies being “temples” ought to shake us out of our gnostic slumber long enough to help us see that exercising, eating real food, getting enough sleep, and maybe taking our shoes off once in a while aren’t evidence of self indulgent narcissism, but rather stewardship.  There are lots of places to go if you need motivation or inspiration.  I go here.

2. Embrace our identities as sexual beings – This is where we’re afraid to go, afraid even to talk about it because we think that any body positive, or sex positive messaging will lead to promiscuity and addiction.  That’s like saying that we shouldn’t take about food for fear of obesity or anorexia.  In fact, it’s the phobic taboo nature of the topic that leads countless men and women to struggle with their sexuality alone, underground.  Thus this fundamental part of their identity, this gift from God is only spoken of in hushed tones, when it ought to be an integral part of our lives and teaching.   I’m presently collecting resources to share in this area and will devote an entire post to a list soon.

3. Unplug. – You’ve got to turn it off.  Phone.  Pad.  Computer.  Music.  You’ve got to listen to the silence, or to the nuances in the voice and body language of the one to whom you’re speaking.  You’ve got to pay attention, tasting the food you’re eating, the smell of coffee just before it touches your lips, the new trees growing out of an old stump, the sensation of cold when you walk barefoot in November.  This kind of “tasting and seeing” is ultimately a tasting and seeing that the Lord is good, or can be, if we’ll but start with the realization that God is speaking – all the time, through all God’s made.  Reduce your focus to a screen, though, and you’ll miss it.

5. Get outside. Garden.  Hike.  Gaze at the Milky Way.  Go for a run.  Climb a mountain.  Walk to work.  Do whatever it takes so that you can come to see and believe that you’re part of something much bigger, that God’s providing for you through the water cycle, seasons, and the interconnectedness of all life.

6. Read your Bible.  I just wrote about Coffee with God, and the necessity of meeting Christ in the Bible.  Why?  This is your map, offering interpretation for all the beauty and pain, and desire and fulfillment, loss and hunger, feasting and celebration, intimacy and distancing that you’ll experience when you live an embodied life.  This is vital because in the end these very bodies we’re living in will decay.  But if we let them, they’ll inform, sanctify, and fortify all that we are, not just in time but in eternity.

You think our world is thirsty for this?  I do, as seen here:

Revelation, a Visual Poem. from sebastien montaz-rosset on Vimeo.

The End of Sex as we know it – and what to do about it (embodiment pt 2)

“Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex.” 

So begins an article about the continuing loss of interest in sex among young people in Japan.  The government even has a name for it:  Celibacy syndrome.  It’s examined at length in this article.   Though a loss of interest in sex might be every fundamentalist preacher’s dream, a closer look at the “why” behind it should terrify us all, for its rooted in several dysfunctions that are the byproduct of an increasingly techno/material worldview that has little time for, or interest in, physical or spiritual realities.   Here’s what I mean:

1. Work Life is consuming real life – Here’s an example from the article:  Tomita has a job she loves in the human resources department of a French-owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work. “A boyfriend proposed to me three years ago. I turned him down when I realized I cared more about my job. After that, I lost interest in dating. It became awkward when the question of the future came up.”  Careers take time in Japan, and they take time in the USA too.   A fruit of this value structure is that there’s less energy, both physical and emotional, for the pursuit of intimacy.  Still, it might be worth it if intimacy and union was something worth pursuing.  But it’s not, because of the second problem.

2. Intimacy Cynicism.  Every post-boomer generation seems to have an increasingly cynical view of marriage.  There are lots of reasons for this but perhaps the biggest one is the appalling lack of accessible healthy marriage examples.  Boomers marriages have failed more than previous generations.  Further, among those that didn’t fail, many simply lowered the bar, particularly in religious circles, so that a successful marriage was defined as “not divorce”.   I remember an older couple at church telling a young woman that the key to a successful marriage was to realize “there’s no back door – no escape – no leaving – no quitting”  I watched the hope drain out of her face and after he left she said, “That’s why I doubt I’ll ever marry.  I want intimacy, not a roommate to be stuck with the rest of my life.”

Of course, if I’m skeptical about marrying, or skeptical my marriage will last, then my own financial security becomes paramount “just in case”, and then the notion that either of us can contribute to the household in some way other than through a career evaporates.  We each need our jobs, not out of a sense of calling, joy, or creativity, but as a trump card for our own survival.  In such a setting, cynicism about the possibility of intimacy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for many because you don’t have the hope and trust necessary to enter into the risk of commitment.  “Marriage?  Too risky.”  I hear iterations of this regularly.

3. The Dusk of Commitment Free Sex – From the article:  Tomita sometimes has one-night stands with men she meets in bars, but she says sex is not a priority, either. “I often get asked out by married men in the office who want an affair. They assume I’m desperate because I’m single.” She grimaces, then shrugs. “Mendokusai.”Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered”. It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia

There are a growing number of young people who are beginning to experience the reality articulated in sources as wide ranging as the Bible and “No Strings Attached”:  Sex has emotional consequences and costs.  The notion that sex can be rewarding as “just sex” is increasingly seen through the lens of real experiences as myth.  Sex is devalued.  Intimacy is divorced from sex, or intimacy is birthed as an unanticipated expectation.  And so, Mendokusai – not the worth the trouble.  Or, as I’ve heard it said in Italian: Non vale il pene – not worth the penis

4. A disembodied existence.  Our virtual world of social media, phones, TV, video games, and easy access to porn, creates an entire alternative, unreal world, a world which is consuming more and more time among the generations.  Phillip Zimbardo speaks of this through the lens of American culture in his e-book, “The Demise of Guys”, cataloging many factors for the social, sexual, and intimacy dysfunction of men.  The church, sadly, has been part of the problem too, not by encouraging social media and porn, but by ignoring enjoyment of, commitment to, and care for the body.  Unfortunate understanding of our faith have exalted disembodied spiritual existence as a sort of “Christian nirvana” when in reality the Bible is filled with great food, wine, sex, thirst, hunger, sweat, blood, sunrises, mountains, rivers and streams, and everything else that invite us to be spiritual people in our bodies.

The therapist in Japan says, cites one man in his early 30s, a virgin, who can’t get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers. “I use therapies, such as yoga and hypnosis, to relax him and help him to understand the way that real human bodies work.”

If we who follow Christ shrug this off as “someone else’s problem” we’re blind both to our own sickness, and to the opportunity given us as a voice of hope and transformation.  Christ followers must show the way forward by living out their faith in the flesh, which requires the risk of intimacy, the enjoyment and discipline of the body, and aliveness of the senses, and the embodiment of genuinely grace filled intimacy and sexuality, with all its vulnerability and courage.  We can’t be light in this world without these commitments.

PS – since I’m out of words, and out of time, I’ll post thoughts regarding helpful steps for each of these four issues on Friday or next Monday.  If you subscribe, you’ll be sure not to miss it! (just hit the “sign me up” button to the right)