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

Bible Reading’s Boring or Difficult? Try this at any age!

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Feb 9, 2016

“No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves.”  

 

From “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones.

Yesterday, in the church I lead, I spoke on the importance of reading the Bible on a regular basis, fully realizing that this kind of exhortation is sometimes received as well as telling a vegetarian they need to have a steak for supper. For many people the Bible is fraught with difficulties, including:

1. Failed attempts at reading it consistently in the past, due to lack of understanding, which leads to a sense of frustration, which makes the discipline extraordinarily easy to jettison as other priorities crowd it out.

2.  A sense that the Bible creates more questions than answers. “Why did God sanction violence and genocide?” “Why the polygamy?” “Why the crazy rules about underwear?”

3.  Meeting people who know the Bible well but whose actual lives aren’t very pleasant. The Bible, misused, can make you judgmental, arrogant, and less charitable. I know someone with a closet full of notebooks from sermons and knew her Bible backward and forward, but who treated her own daughter with contempt and manipulation.

4.  We don’t know where to start; so we never really start at all.

Can I suggest that all of these understandable reasons for avoiding personal Bible reading are rooted in a misunderstanding of why it’s important to read the Bible?   The Bible has one single purpose, which is to reveal God’s infinitely loving plan for humanity, a plan that ultimately presents Jesus Christ as the star, the key source of hope for each of us personally, for the future of humanity, and for the entire universe!

The fun thing I’ve discovered over the years is that when the Bible’s read through the lens of looking for Jesus, it becomes not just more enjoyable reading, but a means of building an actual relationship of intimacy with Jesus. We begin to see this standard-bearer’s heart for embodying love, servanthood, and generosity throughout the whole Bible. This is no accident, as we discover that in the end, Jesus is in every story in some way. Jesus knew this, as we read here.

We lose sight of this, though, often. We can’t see the forest for the trees, as we get tripped up on questions that we can’t answer, allow ourselves to get led down a side trail of arguments about ethics (whether about divorce, homosexuality, or the place of guns in our world), and soon we’ve lost the big picture and the main point. Questions and ethics matter, but they’re best discovered in the context of the big story.

This is where “The Jesus Storybook Bible” comes in.

It’s the only children’s book I’ve recommended for our teaching team at church, and now, if you’re looking to reinvigorate your devotional life or understand the Bible better, I’m happy to commend it to you too. I have a friend  (we’ll call her Donna)  who struggles with regular Bible reading.   However, reading the “The Jesus Storybook Bible” through the lens of a child has once again renewed her joy of discovery as it’s helped recapture the main story.

She says, “The author has a lovely way of wrapping up each story or event by pointing to Jesus. Rather than being distracted by my questions, I’m simply reminded that it’s not just a book about how God wants me to live my life but, rather, how God loves me enough to orchestrate my rescue. This is pretty exciting (& liberating)!”

Of course, if you have children, the book is a must. But if you’re 20, or 35, or 58, or 78, the book is just as valuable. I can’t think of a person who wouldn’t benefit from reading it.

Lent is coming up very quickly, and a great way to fall in love with Jesus all over again might be by reading through this grand book in preparation for Easter. You’ll be glad you did.

Three Ways Sabbath practice will help you become whole.

by , on
Feb 14, 2015
IMG_7876

“all who are thirsty…”

Yesterday I spent some time in what is slowly becoming a sabbath routine for this season of life.  My wife and I packed a small lunch and some extra clothes in our backpacks and took off for a day of hiking.  In a normal year it would be a ski day, but this is not a normal year.  All the snow is over in Boston, and here where we normally get over 400 inches a year, the ski hills are brown brush; so we hike.

As we hike, we talk about life.  It’s become maybe the best time of the week for sharing, because we have uninterrupted space for needed dialogue, punctuated by periods of silence for reflection, response, or even just enjoyment of the woods.  The conversations always include remembrances of the past and considerations of the future.  The two subjects feed each other by this time in our life together.  We’ve seen 35 years of God’s faithful provision in our lives; seen many decisions we made with finite information which turned out far better than we’d anticipated, precisely because (we believe) God knew ‘the rest of story’ as only God can.

For example, I was sharing yesterday how profound it was to contemplate that we’d purchased this house in the mountains that had its own apartment, solely with a view of retiring there someday and renting it out as a ski chalet in the meantime, while keeping the small apartment for our own, for skiing, writing, hiking, and such.

Now here we are, living there, with my mom-in-law in the perfect little apartment as life circumstances converged so that it was best for her to move in with us.  Her love of mountains and snow, and our purchase converged to meet a need we didn’t even know would exist when we bought the place.  But God knew, and has provided space.  We tell each other these kinds of stories while we hike, recalling God’s faithfulness in the past.

We speak of the future too; pondering how we can best use the gifts and resources God has given us to live fully into the story God desires to write through us.  We ponder options, and they become matters for prayer.  We speak of our heart’s desires in ways that we don’t during week because the week’s too full of obligations to spend much time pondering deeper longings.  Giving voice to these longings is healthy, appropriate, necessary, if we’re to continue growing.

And of course, we speak of the presentof our own marriage, our children, decisions that need to be made.  We speak of money, car brakes, schedules for the coming week, and of trees, waterfalls, lichen, weather, and rocks.

We share a meal at the top.  We hike out.  We drive home.  Then there’s a meal, and peace, and a sense we’ve connected with God and each other.  We propose to do it again next time.  Sabbath; a gift from God.

Of course, this isn’t always the case.  In many circles, Sabbath is nothing more than a legalistic noose tied around the necks of religious people to prevent them from doing anything the religious elite consider work.  The list varies from generation to generation and place to place, including soccer, shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, wearing false teeth, and lifting anything heavier than two dried figs.  This is just one of many reasons why people rightly hate religion.  Jesus said you could know the worthiness of a person’s teachings and worldview ‘by their fruits’ and if the fruit of Sabbath keep is fear, withdrawal, and judgmentalism, I for one will be at the front of the line to condemn it.

Another group, seeing this legalist nonsense, has done away with the Sabbath completely.  It’s either spiritualized (“Every day is a day of rest in Christ”), or bastardized into simply a “day off” which means a time to knock oneself out with shopping, or obligations with the kids, or find some sort of adrenaline hit so that we can maintain our stress levels until Monday, though because it’s chosen, it’s good stress rather than distress.

Either way is an exercise in missing the point.  Sabbath, when properly practiced as a spiritual discipline, helps create a soil in which several good things can happen.  Here’s what I mean:

A good and consistent Sabbath practice, over time will:

1. Create capacity in our lives – The creation narrative offers a profound revelation that life is intended to be lived in a IMG_7920complimentary manner:  day and night; heaven and earth; sea and dry land; male and female; and yeswork and rest.  God was the prototype of this rhythm, and those who violate it do so at great risk to their own fruitfulness and well  being.  This is because we’re made for a pattern of engagement and withdrawal, and if our Sabbath’s neglect withdrawal, we’ll enter our weekly responsibilities of engagement with even diminishing resources.  The presenting symptoms will be stress related things like sleep troubles, nervousness, fatigue, and/or high anxiety.  When it comes to exercise, we all know that we need to both exercise and rest.  The same’s true with the whole of our lives and the Sabbath is God’s gift to provide for this.

2. Create a context for guidance – My wife and I have made many major life decisions in the context of Sabbaths, because that’s where we make the needed space to ponder God’s faithfulness in the past, and prayerfully give voice to our longings and hopes for the future, so that we can hear God speak and show us next steps.  The worst thing we can do is be reactionary with our lives, both day to day in our obligations and with respect to major life decisions.  It’s far better to be proactive, and this proactivity will come from creating space to pour our hearts out to God and then listen, and then act.

3. Remind you that you’re not the Messiah – One of the practical purposes of Sabbath practice when Israel was in the wilderness was so that they might learn that God will take care of them, all the time, even when they rest.  The more and better anyone learns this, the more fully and profoundly they come to believe that God sustains God’s work and will do so even when we step away from it.  I’ll be blunt in saying that its our sense of indispensability that often turns us into very ugly peoplecontrolling, demanding, fearful, even manipulative; all in the name of “getting the job done”.  The Sabbath, practiced well, will help you get over yourself, and rest in the reality that our participation in whatever work it is to which God has called us, is a privilege, not a necessity.

Make space please!  For remembering; for considering; for sharing; for praying; for restoring.  If that’s not a habit for you, now’s a good time to begin.

Here’s a resource I’ll recommend to round out and develop this discussion further.

 

Pursuing Peace – to what end?

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Nov 19, 2014

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 beingnot 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 itit 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 outwashing 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!

 

Eternity in our hearts – Leaning into our longings

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Jul 29, 2014

IMG_4676The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.  CS Lewis

Most years, the first or second week of December, I’m in the little town of Schladming, in the Austrian Alps, to teach at a Bible school where countless lives have been transformed as students encounter the powerful cocktail of  global fellowship, creation’s stunning beauty, and teaching rooted in the central truth that Christ is still alive, wanting to express life uniquely through each of us.

Because I get to be here at that time of year, I know Schladming in winter, know the Planai as a ski area, where you’re whisked upwards 1000 meters in a few minutes time to enter a winter playground, a skier’s paradise.  When I go up the mountain, I always do the same thing after exiting the gondola: attach skis, turn left, and make the quick descent down to a different lift, one which will take me up the highest point.  It’s up there that I make a little pilgrimage to the cross, where I’ll often snap a quick picture and offer thanks to God for health of body to be in the center of all this beauty.  On that second lift, there’s a guest house off to the left, always shuttered up, and hard to access by skis apparently, because of the hills around it.

On Saturday we hiked the ski area, following trail #50 through meadows, people’s driveways, cow pastures, and forest trails.  Up.  Up.  Up.  We’ve only a tiny tourist map and no real way of knowing where we’re going, or even where we are, other than the altimeter on my watch, which clicks off the meters of ascent, each number an encouragement amidst the sweat and work of this hike on a humid day.

Minutes turn into hours.  Breaks become a bit longer along the way, and though we’re living life and confident that up is the proper general direction, we’re equal parts “hoping” and “confident” that we’re going to reach our goal.

IMG_4657A few hours into our journey, we stop for a break, at an opening in the forest.  I’m drinking water as I gaze off to the left at a guest house sitting on the crest of a little hill and slowly, I’ve this sense that I’m looking at something familiar.   “How do I know this place?”  I ask, looking intently, reading the inscription across the space between roof and windows.  And then, in an instant, I know.   My mind’s eye connects the scene of this place in snowy winter with the now summer scene in front of me, and I know precisely – precisely, where we are.

“We’re under the lift that will take us to the cross” I tell my wife, smiling, and the joy comes not just from knowing the place, but from knowing that I know.  It comes from the resonance between this experience and something deep inside of me, a memory.   In an instant everything changes.  I know where I am.  I know where I’m going.  I know I’ll get there.  This little place on this vast mountainside, itself a dot in the Alps, feels like home.

Soon we’re at the cross, but that last portion of the trip, with sure bearings and familiarity brought about by seeing something already in my heart made all the difference.   Doubt and uncertainty were vanquished by the reference point, the knowing that I’ve been here before.

When CS Lewis writes of his heart’s longing to find the source of beauty, hope, intimacy, meaning, joy, he echoes “The Preacher” from Ecclesiastes, who says in chapter three that God has placed “eternity in the hearts of people…” which means that there’s something in us that rejoices in the seeing of beauty and recoils in horror over the killing of children in war, or in the womb, or the destruction of marriages, or soil, or cities, through greed and corruption.

But especially, it means that we should be on the look out for moments where our hearts will leap because something in us will cry out, in our sensing of justice, beauty, and joy,  “Yes!  This is real life, the way life ought to be.”   It can happen when you see lavish generosity, or Rosa Parks refusing to be corralled into conformity, or a stunning sunset, or a moment of genuine intimacy.  When it happens and something deep inside us is haunted by a joyous sense we’ve been here before, we’re made for this, then we know  we’re on to something.   Keep following and you’ll find home; you’ll find the life for which you are created.

I was in college, depressed, a little disillusioned with my studies in architecture, when I went to ski retreat at a Bible camp and the speaker spoke on Jeremiah 9:23-27 about knowing God, and why that pursuit matters more than anything in the world.

Sitting in the A-frame chapel with 150 other college students, my heart caught fire.  It was as if I’d seen something I’d known before, as if I knew that this pursuit was for me, as if “seeking, and knowing God” would be a sort of “coming home to a place I’d never been before.”  I prayed that night, alone in the snow, because I knew somehow, that this pursuit was where I was meant to be.  That prayer changed my life, my priorities, ultimately my vocation.  It’s changing me still.

Moments like this come more often than we realize; in the quiet hours at sunrise with coffee and the scriptures, sitting under a redwood tree; in listening to Mozart’s Requiem played by the Seattle Symphony after 9-11;  sitting with old friends high in the Austrian Alps, sharing food and speaking of life and loss,  children and love, and the faithfulness of God in the midst of all the change.  It’s those moments when God is speaking, wooing, inviting.

Listen!  Hear the voice inside you that cries out “Yes” when the reality of the moment corresponds to deep longings inside you, the life for which you were created, and invites you deeper into that life. Those are important moments, times to pay attention, for listening at such times is how we find our God, and our calling, and our joy.

 

95th minute… 50th year… 26th mile. Why Endurance Matters

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Jun 24, 2014

every minute matters.. especially the last one!!

I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the course.  I have kept the faith – Paul the Apostle

You have need of endurance… Hebrews 10:36

Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way. – Annonymous

When the USA was beating Portugal, at the end of regulation, I said, “please please… let it be only two or three minutes of stoppage time”  as a sort of prayer to the soccer gods who I don’t believe in.  Then I saw the sign:  5 Minutes.  FIVE?   NOOOOOOOO!!!

Yes.  And as anyone who knows anything about soccer knows, the trouble came in the fifth minute… about 30 seconds into the fifth and final minute, when a brilliant pass and header moved the USA from a new version of “miracle on ice” to a mere tie.   We played brilliantly, to almost the very end.  Almost, though, is an important word.  The difference between almost and actually is found in a single word:  endurance.

Just this past weekend, a co-worker finished a marathon, friends celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and another friend presses on in his vital leadership role, right in the midst of a battle with cancer.  What all these remarkable people share is a commitment to finishing well, and endurance is a key ingredient for doing that.

Jesus doesn’t congratulate us for starting well, because the truth is that for most of us, starting is exciting.  Right now, in preparation for a planned 400 mile hike in the Alps, my wife and I are in the midst of equipment preparation, trying out our shoes, reading maps and books, and all the other things that generate the excitement of anticipation.  Engaged couples share that same sense, as do most people in their first week at a new job.  New presidents, new locations, new friendships.  We’ve all known the thrill of starting.

I’ve started enough things, though, to know that the thrill of starting isn’t sufficient to sustain me for the distance.   The times I’ve done some mountaineering, I’ve loved the packing, loved the meal on the way to the parking lot, loved the first 1/2 mile.   But shortly after that there’s an ache in my back, and later in the day my thighs or calves, too, are screaming.  Did I mention hunger, altitude sickness, sunburn, and the need to build a base camp, boil snow for cooking and drinking water, cook a meal, clean the dishes, and set out equipment for summit day – when all you want to do is sleep or throw up?

Endurance means you keep going when you feel like quitting.  In fact that the very definition of endurance; our need for it presupposes that we’ll encounter seasons in any worthwhile endeavor when we’ll need to silence the voice telling us to quit.

What are the qualities that build endurance capacity?

1. A goal.  The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is always helpful because it is, in a sense the reward.  26.2 miles is a long way, but if you know that’s how far it is, you can steel yourself for the task by training both mentally and physically for it.  Marriage?  Our goal is a deeper love, a truer knowing, a profound intimacy.  Vocation?  Our goal is excellence at our craft.

“If only the goal was meaningful” you say.  Don’t say that too quickly.  Rico Medellin works on an assembly line at a work station where it’s expected that he perform the same exact work over 600 times a day, or once every 43 seconds.  Rico’s goal wasn’t to “make it through the day” so that he could go home and a enjoy a few beers.  Instead he perfected his craft, reducing his performance time to 28 seconds per unit.  Working at peak performance levels is his goal.  Day after month after year, and he calls the experience “enthralling”

The good news is that meaningful goals can sustain us and motivate us, and the better news, from every century of history, is that meaningful goals are available to everyone: sick or healthy, free or imprisoned, wealthy or impoverished, single or married.  Don’t fall into the trap of making “a change of circumstances” the pre-condition for going after a goal.  There’s a reason to excel, a summit to pursue right here, right now.

Do have a goal for your fitness, spiritually, vocationally, relationally, physically?

2. Patience – A favorite recent read says, “The Gradual Progress Principle says that everything has to grow incrementally through its own developmental stages, from less to more or from smaller to larger.”  Lincoln fought, not for every freedom for African Americans, but for the Emancipation Proclamation.  He knew that change happens best when it happens gradually.  Go further back and you find William Wilberforce working tirelessly for decades to abolish the slave trade in England.

You don’t wake up one morning and move from couch potato to marathoner, from stale marriage to deep intimacy, from mediocrity to excellence.  But you can wake up each day and, as I like to say, “move the ball the down the field”.    I often need to ask the question,  “What’s the next step to reach the goal?”  and take it, being content to realize the gain might be visible to nobody but me.  Still, it’s a step, and as I’m about to learn on my 400 mile hike, every step matters.

Other times, I can simply continue in practices that I know are transformative.  Keep making eye contact with my wife at least once a day; run three times a week; continue having coffee with God.  With such habits I can rest in the confidence that I’m being transformed step by step.  This too requires patience.

What else aids in the development of endurance?

3.  Needed Nutrients

4. Focus: Distance and Present

5. Joy

6. Adaptation

My goal is to address these elements in the next three weeks.  I hope you’ll join me for this mini series on endurance because whether it’s a 400 mile hike, a desire to walk faithfully with Christ for decades, a marriage in need of passion, or a calling in need of fulfillment, endurance is a vital ingredient for your journey.

 

Achilles Heal: Lessons for life and leadership learned from a tendon

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May 27, 2014

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.

 

 

 

 

Musings on Boston Strong and why Beating Fear matters so much.

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Apr 21, 2014

Fear is a net which evil casts over us that we might become ensnared and fall. Those who are afraid have already fallen. D. Bonhoeffer

I went for a tiny little run this morning around the lake by my house, grateful for health, grateful for the remarkable hope I hold for, literally, all of humanity, because of Christ, and grateful for the beauty that attends the newness of the morning.  Running this morning, of course, I’m mindful of the many thousands who’ll be churning out their miles through the streets of Boston today, proud that there are at least two members of my own church who are there.  Boston is the ultimate in marathons, and this year’s is unlike any other because of the tragic events of last year.  This is the year when the runners, the fans, and the city of Boston declare that fear can be vanquished, that lost limbs needn’t stop runners from pressing on, that people in wheelchairs can offer hope to family members of last years victims, that every step is raising money to stand in the gap and support PTSD veterans, and families with children fighting cancer, and more; that runners say, over and over again, that they’re being carried by the spirit of the crowd.  The whole thing is a reclamation project, a way of showing fear the door, slamming it shut, and sending fear on its merry way to hell.

I love finding the image of God and snapshots of the gospel in everyday life, and today its not hard to do.  Fear is both a chief enemy of humanity, and one of Satan’s favorite and most often used tools.  The events of today are rooted in a public groundswell acknowledgement of this, and every runner, every fan, every dollar given in support of causes to serve those on the margins, testify to the reality that fear is an enemy that can be vanquished.

Simply acknowledging this is a huge step, but the good news of the gospel includes several declarations regarding why fear need never shrink our lives.

1. We’re freed from the fear of death, according to this declaration.  I have friends who have stared death in the face for their faith.  Their belief that death isn’t the end of the story enabled them to live with courage and integrity in the face of persecution.  Some of these friends escaped death and others didn’t.  All of them, though, lived with integrity to the very end, believing that death isn’t the end of the story.  Everything many of us celebrated yesterday is rooted in this reality, and if it’s not a reality for us, the fear of death will creep into our lives and create a terrible prudence, shrinking our concerns to the very private and personal, rather than the large outwardly focused hearts of generous service for which we’re created.  I need to live every day intent on doing the right thing, because that matters more than the outcome, even if the outcome is death.

2. We’re freed from ever being alone.  The first time I taught a Bible study, the text was Joshua 1:1-9, and the final declaration of that section shook my world that day I studied in preparation for teaching a small group of high school students in Fresno:  “Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous!  Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  The reason we’re called to courage is because God has promised to be with us, ‘wherever we go’.   I tell people I never fly alone, and they say, “So your wife goes with you on all your teaching trips?”

“No” I say, and when they look at me for more; “Jesus always goes with me – he travels coach too!”  That reality has served me well these past 40 years, because I’ve learned, through the untimely deaths of many friends and family, that our companions for our journey aren’t necessarily always able to with us.  Sometimes they even stop wanting to be with us, as relationships drift apart.  My dad; a favorite associate pastor at the church I lead (cancer); one of my best friends (paragliding accident); another close mountaineering friend (avalanche).  You never know.  One thing I do know, though, is that I’ll never be alone.  That’s why I take coffee with God so seriously, and nurturing the reality of companionship with Christ.  Our fear of being alone sometimes leads us into unhealthy relationships, or shabby substitutes for real intimacy, both of which can suck the joy and hope out of living.  How much better to begin with the reality and confidence of companionship with Christ.

There are a host of other fears from which we’re freed because of the power, beauty, and truth of the gospel, but I simply offer these two in order to prime the pump of your own thinking.  Because God loves us, God hates to see us enslaved to fear – ever.  As runners cross the finish line today, I’m celebrating the image of God in humanity, and realizing once again that the best lives in history were those who gave fear the boot.  As my favorite pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said so well:

It is not only anxious fear that is infectious, but also the calmness and joy with which we encounter what is laid on us. 

O thou Christ;

What a privilege to be reminded this day and every day, that we’re at our best when we do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.  Thank you for the many provisions granted us in you which enable to us to choose courage rather than fear.  Grant that we might hear your voice and, having heard, move with confidence into the future you have for each of us, clinging to you every step of the way and finding the joy and confidence that are ours in you.  This way we will be people of hope in a world still trembling, most days, with fear.   Thank you for the adventure awaiting us as we follow you every step of the way – and thank you for the marathon.

Amen…

 

 

This one weird trick will change your life: Slow Down

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Mar 19, 2014

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

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

The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Christian” – a tired word. May it rest in peace.

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Dec 2, 2013

(in light of some conversations I’ve been having lately, here are some formative, not definitive, thoughts, about the words we use and how they affect our testimony)

When you talk to people and the subject of spirituality or faith comes up, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to use the word Christian in any meaningful way.  Here’s why:

Words, in order to have meaning, need to have boundaries.  The noun Hat can mean a lot of things –  ranging from a baseball hat, to a helmet for football or motorcycle riding, to a lovely hat for some sort of formal event, to an Amish head covering.  But we all know that it isn’t referring to a bottle, or a piece of cake, or a car.  The limits of words make conversation and understanding possible, and though words can have varieties of meanings, the boundaries need to “reasonable” or else the possibility of some real misunderstandings arise exponentially.

This brings me to the word I’m putting on trial:  Christian.  Here’s why:

“I’m not a Christian – I’m a democrat”, implying that Christian and a view of the world that favors higher taxes and bigger government are inherently, de-facto, incompatible.

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I was baptized when I was 8 months old.”

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I grew up in the church.” 

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I prayed the sinners prayer and went forward in church when I was nine” 

“No I don’t want to be a Christian.  Have you heard of the crusades?  Slavery?  The Christians were at the root of all that suffering.” 

“I’ll never be a Christian.  Just look at what Christian Europe did to our (African) continent.” 

You could go back through these comments and try to build a definition of the word Christian based on the answers, and what you’d end up with are six different definitions, but that’s only because I’ve shared six stories with you. I could share thirty, and then you’d have thirty definitions, each one diminishing the meaning of the word rather than clarifying.  The result?  The word has come to mean so many different things that it essential means nothing.

What’s a Christian to do? 

Continuing to use the word in the same way we talk about baseball and perfume, (assuming that everyone who’s listening knows what we mean by it) isn’t wise because we’re identifying ourselves with a word that, in the end, likely misrepresents us to the people who are listening.

If we’re not going to keep using it, there are only two options left: First, we can try to recover the word, offering a fresh definition.  I’ve been a fan of this strategy for a long time, believing that to surrender the meaning of the word to all its false detractors is sort of like raising a white flag and quitting the fight.  Isn’t it better to let everyone in the world know what the word really means by living out its true meaning for everyone to see?

Well, actually, no.  It’s not better at all.  That’s what I’ve come to believe at least.  I’m tired of fighting this battle and saying, “don’t confuse MY Christianity with that yucky stuff over there.  I’m not like that. I’m not like them” because these conversations have led to perhaps the worst definition of “Christian”-   “Christians fight with each other all the time!”  It’s a true statement, and ironic, since the one thing for which Jesus explicitly prayed is that Christ followers would be known by their unity. Instead, we’re known by our capacity to point out, more than any other religion in my opinion, how so many groups wearing the same word  Christian really aren’t – and are worse than us.

“Over here.  We have the real stuff!  We’re the real definition of Christian”  we shout, loud enough so that people already not interested in Jesus are now less interested than ever.

Nope.  I’m finished with that game, because the person not talked about very much in all this shouting is Jesus himself, which is ironic, because in the end, what we’re supposed to be doing is inviting people to follow Jesus.  The name calling, doctrinal fighting, and presumptive claiming of moral high is a game that’s worn me down.  But when all the shouting, and divisions, and pleas for institutional loyalty have died down, what I love is that Jesus is still here in the room with me.

“I’ve been waiting for you man.  Where have you been?”

“O you know.  Out and about, promoting your faith.” I know I look tired, and it’s a little embarrassing because he seems so calm, so centered, almost unconcerned that I’ve been running myself ragged for him.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that” he says, sipping his coffee.  “You’re confusing people.  Don’t promote ‘my faith’.  Why don’t you try just telling people about me?  People are tired.  They’re dealing with shame and failure.  They’re living in the midst of kingdoms that are enslaving them.  I want to bless them, help them, heal them, invite them to rest.  They don’t need religion. They need me.”

“I thought I was telling them about you.”  I say, defensive.  Jesus reminds me that telling people to “go to church” or “become Christians” are phrases so loaded with toxic junk that they do more harm than good.

“I think that’s why Paul said that he was determined to know nothing more than Christ crucified.  It might even be what Bonhoeffer meant when we referred to religionless Christianity.  But even those words are too loaded.  Just love people like I do.  And tell people about me.  Good things will happen.” 

It’s advent.  “Messiah” is playing on my computer, reminding me that the whole arc of history is, in the end, not about Christianity at all.  It’s about one person who changes everything, ultimately saturating the universe with glory and beauty, bringing hope and healing to all.  I pray that my eyes, this advent, will be looking for him all the time, talking about him freely, and giving him the freedom to do what he does best through the likes of me; love, serve, bless, and impart hope.

Yes.  I’m burying the word Christian… if it rises from the dead, so be it.  But may it never rise unless it represents the pure unadulterated glory of the risen Christ.  Amen?

These are my thoughts… still forming.  I welcome yours!

The Most Important Thing You can do for your Transformation

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Oct 31, 2013

I’m planning on coming back to the previous post about “the end of sex as we know it” because it addresses an important trend in our culture.  But a convergence of conversations and activities have conspired to point today’s post in an entirely different direction: If there were one single habit you could develop in your life that would become so foundational that it would provide catalyst for transformation in every other area, would you be interested?  If so, read on.

I thought the notion of coffee with God was unique to me, but this little devotional (it’s nine minutes that might just change your life utterly) reminds me that an older, wiser pastor also uses the term.  The pastor shares the story of a man whose life was completely transformed as the result of developing the habit of meeting with Jesus every day.  If need help making this commitment and getting started, consider this:

Failure to enjoy coffee with God is almost never a shortage of time – it’s a matter of priorities.  Of course it might be fair to say that I don’t make the time because the time’s never been meaningful, but don’t say you don’t have time.  Do you have time to brush your teeth?  Work out?  Eat? Sleep?  We make time for stuff that matters – so maybe the question should be, “How can I make this time matter more?” 

Create a consistent space and time.  It’s helpful to view your time meeting with God as a genuine encounter with a living being.  Setting a space for it to happen helps.  The video referenced earlier is about a man who began meeting God daily in a rocking chair.  The story will, perhaps, motivate you to name some space and begin meeting God there because you’ll hear the man’s story from the prime of his career until the end of his days.  Think what might happen to you if you develop habits of intimacy with Jesus for the next 40 years!

Read the Bible.  If it helps to have someone help you with the meaning, consider this book.  If you want some directed prayer as well, consider this book.  There are dozens of reading programs on your computer that will send you some portions of the Bible every day.  It’s like getting an e-mail from God!  You can’t meet with God unless you’re willing to read your Bible, which is revelation vital for our transformation.  Here we are, all of us striving for better relationships, better careers, to overcome bad habits, and more – and all the while, the council of God awaits.   We’d be wise to start the habit of listening.

Don’t get frustrated by setbacks.  So you’re reading and it gets boring; or you sleep in; or your habit slips a bit.  Don’t worry about it. It’s a relationship and any relationship hits dry spots and rough patches.  We need to just hit reset, and get back in our chair.

Keep a journal.  This might be optional, but I like it because this is where I write prayers, concerns, thoughts.  It’s where I wrestle with what God is revealing and ask God questions.  It’s priceless from my perspective, because it’s my response, and my response is what makes it a real relationship.

The video (did I suggest you watch it?) tells the story what happens to someone when they develop this habit.

Here we are, talking about national debt, spying, schisms in the faith, self-improvement programs, body image issues, sexism, racism, money, power.  We’re worried, scattered, often afraid, often driven – wondering what’s around the corner, what’s next.  I know, from first hand experience, that the scattering of concerns, the anxiety, and the striving that so often marks our lives, fall away like leaves on October, when we develop this habit.

I’m praying as I publish this – that people will do more than read.  I’m praying new habits of intimacy with Jesus will form because it’s this, in the end, that is all we need.