Tag Archives: discipleship

Fire: Getting it and Keeping it

Since moving to the mountains it seems my wife and I are always thinking about wood and fire.  From the start of fall until at least halfway through spring, we’re hauling wood up from storage and burning it for heat.

Before burning season is over, though, we’re already on the prowl for new wood for the next season.  It must be found, cut into pieces small enough for hauling, hauled, unloaded, cut, split, stacked to dry,.  All this is as good as, maybe better than, a cross fit workout.  Then, once the holzhausens are in the shadows, the wood will be moved  under the house to await its contribution as family warmth while the snow falls.

Meanwhile in the middle of the summer, we light a fire in a marvelous home made bbq, using sticks from the forest, in preparation for a grand 4th of July party at our house.  Primal fire, with friends gathering from the neighborhood to bid goodbye to a dear couple who are moving east after twenty years living at the pass.

Fire in the mountains has a beautiful rhythm, all by itself, but the more I gather, cut, split, stack, haul, and burn wood, the more I find profound meaning in it as well.   My reasons have to do with the ribbon of fire that flows through the Bible.

Worship and fire have always been linked.  From the days of Noah, who offered burnt offerings, to the tabernacle, which provided an altar for burnt offerings, and perpetual light from lit lamps, fire and light were necessary to worship.  The light represented God’s capacity to overcome darkness, a theme that would culminate in Jesus presenting himself as “the light of the world”.

But fire?  It, too, is about hope.  The fire on the altar of burnt offering was a divine gift, having been lit originally by God Himself (Leviticus 9:24). God charged the priests with keeping His fire lit (Leviticus 6:13) and made it clear that fire from any other source was unacceptable (Leviticus 10:1-2).

There’s enough here, in this little section of Leviticus, to see that in a cold world, God invites us to be people exuding the warmth of God’s fire.  Here’s what I mean.

God IS our fire.  God is the source of a holy fire as seen above, but more.  We’re told that during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, God WAS a fire by night, and that the fire was there precisely to offer guidance.  We’re also told that God IS a consuming fire, in two places in the Bible.   Fire brings light, warmth, protection, and yes, fire consumes too.  But be careful.  It’s those of us who are certain God’s going to consume our enemies that are most likely in a for a big surprise; the realization that we who love God have boatloads of stuff in our own lives that need consuming.   When the fire begins to expose and then burn away the lust, greed, self-pity, complacency, rush to violence, and so much more that is in us, then the best answer is: burn baby burn.  Our God is fire.

God’s fire is now ours to keep lit.   The priests of old were charged with keeping the fire lit.  Today its all of us who claim to follow Christ, because he’s called all of us priests!  So fire keeping is a thing for us, a responsibility.  But what does this mean?

We get a hint when we come to see that the Holy Spirit shows up for these people as fire, and falls on them.  This Spirit becomes a vital source of Christ followers, granting them direction, conviction when they’re wandering off the path, a power beyond their human capacity, in words, in the power to heal, in and wisdom.

The hope, it seems, is that such empowered people, lit on fire by God himself, will bring warmth to the world, and point everyone they meet to its source.

So there you have it.  If you claim to follow Christ, you’re invited to tend the inner fire, so that the power, beauty, love, wisdom of Christ will be seen like light in darkness, and felt like warmth in the cold.

But be careful.  Any old fire won’t do.

There are fires of religion, which are nothing more than legalistic performance, whereby the liberty found in Christ is strangled by long lists of forbidden activities and required activities.

There are fires of nationalism, uniting gun laws, low taxes, and a deregulated environment with Jesus, making him out to be American, the tea-party’s finest advocate.  Liberals mustn’t throw stones because, in spite of what the leftist Christians believe, Jesus isn’t the poster child for liberalism either.  Jesus’ kingdom is neither unfettered capitalism, nor social/economic liberalism.  It’s wholly other, embodying peace, generosity, hospitality, courage, love for enemies, pre-emptive forgiveness, and much more.

There are fires of upward mobility and health, but I’m glad Peter, Paul, and Timothy (all suffering at various times with poverty, persecution, and illness) weren’t depending on those fires.  They’d have flamed out.

No, the only real fire, the one with the power to heal and liberate anywhere in the world, won’t be confined by health, economics, politics, or denomination.

This fire wants you as fuel, hence God’s invitation that you be “filled with the Holy Spirit” – and this means allowing your whole self to be offered as fuel, a “living sacrifice” is what God calls it.  The reason it’s living is because of God’s mysterious ways with fire.  God’s fire was, for example, in the burning bush, a fire Moses saw as mystery because though the bush was burning, it was never consumed!

Imagine never being consumed?

I’m convinced we undersell the adventure that awaits us when we follow Christ wholeheartedly.  Then, holding back our money, our time, our politics, our geographical or vocational preferences, we’re making our own fires.  Religious?  Perhaps.  But they literally can’t hold a candle to God’s beautiful fire, the fire that could be, that should be, when a life is lived wholly – with a pre-emptive answer of “yes!” whenever God calls.

One author says “the Christian life hasn’t been tried and found  wanting; it’s been untried at all, and it’s judged because it’s religious imposter turned out so ugly”.

So Lord… light my fire!  All of me.  Consume my garbage, that the diamonds of hope, generosity, joy, and peace might thrive, be lit as everlasting offerings, and bless our cold dark world.

Amen…

The Subtle Seduction of Letting Ourselves be Bent

My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”.  The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy.  Here’s what I mean:

I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors.  Murdering another human is sin.  Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin.  Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so.  It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”

The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.

We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder.  We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness.  We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism.  We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused.  You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty.  It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall.  This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.

This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“.  Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.

II.  a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted.  In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.

The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.

The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.

The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.

The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.

You get the picture.  God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.

This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing.  This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy.  The book doesn’t trash sex.  It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated.  Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin.  Sin is a good thing bent!

III.  Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!   

This is what I love about the new book I’m reading.  It declares:

“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”

To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.

Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.

Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.

Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.

Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.

God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares.  And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.

Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.

Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint

 

 

 

Fear of Falling vs Freedom to Fail: Choose Wisely

fear of falling is more dangerous than falling

I hope you’ve seen the ascendancy of young lives as they move from infant to toddler?  If so then you know they’re bold; unafraid of falling.  In fact, they’re confident they will fall.  They fall, assess, maybe cry a bit, and then get up again.  This confidence continues on, if they’re fortunate, into childhood too.  I was recently riding the ski lift when I saw a boy take a mighty fall as he was speeding down.  Both his skis fell off and he was moving so fast that he literally bounced, before sliding down the hill for another 100′ or so.  He was crying by the time he came to a stop, and an adult skiiing with him quickly caught up after fetching his skis.  It looked serious.  I sped off the lift and headed down to see if I needed to call ski patrol, but by the time I arrived, the boy was laughing, putting on his skis, and asking his dad when they could go on the higher, steeper slopes.  No fear of falling there!

Somewhere on our journey, though, “not falling” begins to take precedent over everything else.  We’re concerned with our reputation, and the consequences of not fitting on, so we begin living on the defensiveness.  Don’t stand out.  Don’t make waves.  Conform.  And above all – don’t fall!  It makes sense to live that way, because non-conformists, risk takers, and those who pursue authenticity more than they pursue approval are often pushed out – of families, workplaces, and churches.

This lust to conform though, is value woven deeply into the fabrics of the community Jesus’ spoke about most harshly:  the Pharisees.  They were the religious experts, perceived as the kind of holiness to which people should aspire, and Jesus tells them (and us) that their fear of falling and their punishment of those who do had missed the mark in many ways:

1. It created a culture where outward conformity was all that was asked of followers.  This culture is alive and well today, as seen in the colossal failures among faith leaders, and the reality that Christ followers statistically approximate the culture at large when it comes to things like addictive behavior, divorce, consumer debt, domestic violence, and more.  In spite of our declaration that we’re made new, we look very old behind the curtain of pious music, big bibles, and arguments about which church is closest to Jesus.

2. It cast out non-conformists like the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who crashed a religious party, and in so doing, were rejecting the people who actually knew Messiah, while they continued to walk in darkness.

3. It created a culture where status and reputation mattered more to them than reality.  In such an environment, any evidence of brokenness or failure is quickly driven underground, where it will never see the light of day, and so never be dealt with.  That’s why Jesus said of this group that, though they cleaned the outside of the cup, the inside remained full of dead bones.

4. It created a vision of faith life that’s far too small.  “Not failing” isn’t the goal – never was.  We’re invited, instead, to live as people of generosity, hope, wisdom, and grace in our world, pouring out the blessings of God on a thirsty planet.

The damage done by a commitment to simply “being a good person” for the sake of one’s reputation, of calling “not falling” the pinnacle of success is huge.  There’s a better way, and it’s shown us by lots of different characters in the Bible.

Abraham is chosen by God, obeys God and leaves his homeland, exercises faith and generosity numerous times, doubts, sleeps with the maid, and lies about the identity of his wife out of fear for his life.

David is called by God to be king, creates poetic worship songs, courageously stands against the giant, sleeps with girl next door (using his own abuse of power to do so), lies to her husband, and ultimately has him killed.

Peter declares that Christ is Messiah, preaches boldly, leaves everything behind to follow Christ, denies Christ, compromises his beliefs at gathering of Jews and Gentiles, boldly preaches the first sermon in early church history (where 3000 are saved), denies Christ, argues about greatness, speaks when he should have shut up, decides to quit the ministry, and ultimately lives with such grace and courage that he dies for his faith, crucified upside down.

Paul?  Courageous and argumentative.  Humble and proud.  Content and coveting.

Jonah? Obedient preacher, and bitter xenophobic nationalist.

Solomon?  Wisdom exceeding all others on many fronts, and a crazy sort of “polygamy gone wild” with approximately 1000 women victimized by his predatory abuse of power (more on this in my upcoming “Song of Solomon” series)

Every person who is “all in” with respect to walking with God and being fully involved in the story of hope God is writing in the world falls.  Every.  Person.  But in the Bible, the ones who fall, confess, and learn from it get right back up, putting their skis on and seeking higher, steeper slopes, now that they’ve learned a thing or two through falling.  This is the husband caught in porn addiction. This is woman who loses her job.  This is the couple that faced the pain they’d caused in each other’s lives head on, and wept over it.  This is every one of us who say with Paul, “the good I want to do, I don’t do… the bad I don’t want to do, I do.”

All right then.  We’ve fallen.  We’ve named it.  We’ve seen it.  We’ve picked up our stuff and continued on.  That’s the way it should work.  That’s why Martin Luther said,  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.

Paul said it similarly when he wrote that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”  

These saints are both telling us that our fear of failure will squeeze us into a mold of conformity that will rob us of joy, and prevent the kind of growth that always and only comes on the far side of failure.  Since every saint failed, and since failure was the soil in which profound movement toward maturity happened, and since failure made every saint a bit more gracious, patient, and generous – then let your fear of failure die.

I’m annoyed with those who think this means “license to sin”, as all of us are sitting around searching our Bibles for excuses to indulge our destructive appetites.  Rubbish.  If I really wanted to indulge those appetites regularly, I wouldn’t be walking the faith life at all.  You are simply invited to live honestly enough to acknowledge that you’re imperfect, and humble enough to name the rough edges when they appear in the midst of your attempts to walk as a person of hope in this broken world.  Remember, it’s those who pretended they didn’t fail, either through denial or blaming others, that faced swift judgement.  Failure’s not the problem – it’s a reality.  The problem is how we view failure; and the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that we can stop pretending we’re always on the moral high ground and see ourselves on a lifelong journey of transformation instead.

Why don’t we set out to live this way? 

Doing so requires nuanced thinking, and the acknowledgement that our leaders, teachers, parents, pastors – and we ourselves, are all a blend of wisdom and folly.  We’d rather deify and vilify.  We like it black and white; in or out; right or wrong.

Doing so requires a willingness to let go of what other people think because its the people who “shoot for the moon” who also fail mightily sometimes, but they’d have never set out, were it not for the fact that they’d let go of the idol of popularity and reputation.

Doing so requires a belief in the grace of God, a belief that God really is the good dad waiting with the porch light on when we come running home.  Beneath all our songs about amazing grace, though, I fear many of us are still stuck in performance mode, afraid of being struck down the first time we fail.

Infants get this.  So do most children.  And climbers too.  Isn’t it high time the rest of us joined their ranks?

 

Idol Busting and Fire Walking – the power of right habits

“Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up? If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question. If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.””

‭‭Daniel‬ ‭3:14-18‬ ‭CEB‬‬

I know it’s not technically firewalking, but its fire – maybe “fire bathing“?  The point of the story is that there are three men who are so deeply committed to worship their God, and no other, that they’re willing to pay the ultimate price while being mindful, as well, that their God is powerful enough to protect them in the fire.

In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg helps readers see that when we determine in advance what our routine will be when certain cues occur in our lives, our response to those cues become habits.  Cue: stress   Response: nicotine.  Habit: chain-smoking.    Cue: weariness.  Routine: TV.  Habit: wasting your life!     Cue: loneliness. Routine: porn  Habit: arousal addiction (as brilliantly articulated in this book).

Our three fire bathing friends have something significant to teach us about this.  They’ve determined in advance that when the cue is worship, the routine will be to worship their own God, and no other.  It’s become so entrenched in them that they don’t seem to wrestle with it at all.  They’re all in, with no thought of turning back, even at cost of their lives.

The critical question that comes into play here for me at this point in their story is:  “What’s their reward?” It’s an important question because the reality is that we’re built for rewards.  You run (or sit and eat ice cream) for the reward.  You get an education (or stop learning and growing) for the reward.  You do your job with excellence (or choose to scaresly show up) for the reward.  We do what we do, including following Christ – or abandon fidelity to Christ in pursuit of other sources, in order to receive a reward.

Our rewards are the same as these three enjoy:  confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, and power – which are all promised to us in the scriptures as fruits of faithfully looking to Christ as our source.

APPLICATION: 

Our eyes tend to glaze over when we think of idolatry these days, because the word conjures imagery of statues, altars, and visible representations of false gods.  Here in the west, though, our idols are different: less visible, and more seductive.

Our idols anything we look to in our lives as our foundational source for comfort, meaning, direction, security.  Our idols, then, are our ROUTINE RESPONSES in the cue, routine, reward loop, that we look toward as a primary means of coping with a particular state of mind and heart.

“When I’m lonely I visit chat rooms”

“When I’m stressed I drink”

“When I’m frustrated I get angry and blame”

“When I’m _________ I ________”

Especially to the extent that any unhealthy response to a cue becomes a habit – we’re enslaved, and hurtling toward idolatry, if not already there.   Idols overpromise and under-deliver – every time.

In contrast, whenever I choose cues that contribute to my fundamental identity as a child of God, or to my calling – the rewards of confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, are ignited and I’m strengthened to walk through fires – surely most of which are metaphorical, while believing that if I’m meant to walk through literal fires, the power will be granted.

TRY THIS: 

Consider an unhealthy cue, response, reward pattern in your life and change both the response the reward.  Do you believe that, over time at least, the right response will lead to the fourfold reward of confidence, courage, peace, and freeedom?  Then determine the right response to the cue, the response of faithfulness that will bring the reward:  

When I’m lonely I will call a friend to encourage, be encouraged, or both.

When I’m stressed, I will exercise and give thanks for my body

When I’m frustrated at work, I will pray for the wisdom and strength to be a person of peace, grace, and truth – and by faith thank God that I’m becoming such… little by little.

You get the picture.  Changing our habits of response to life’s cues isn’t just what the book The Power of Habit is all about – it’s what Christ followers call discipleship.

 

 

You Can’t Live on Adrenaline Forever – A call to rest

12699122_f520 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Jesus the Christ 

In quietness and confidence is your strength – Isaiah the prophet

God, in infinite wisdom, has given us a credit card for energy.  It’s called adrenaline and comes in handy when we need to “rise to the occasion”.  Historically it came in handy when a lion was roaming nearby in the savannah.  You’d come up over a hill and your eyes would meet. Instantly, your heart rate elevates, glucose is released to give you both clarity and strength, and a whole cocktail of other chemicals and hormones begin coursing through your blood so that you can either “fight” with strength, or “flight” with speed, and have the wisdom to know which to choose.

Then it’s over, you’re either safe or dead.  Either way, the draw down of energy for the acute crisis stops and (if you’re not dead) recovery begins.  You breathe deep, and slowly, your heart rate returns to normal.  You sit with your tribe in the fire circle, recounting stories from the day, and then maybe sing a song, before falling asleep amidst the safety of the camp.  While you rest, you digest, your recover, your recharge your emergency energy credit card, so that the next time you go out, you’ll be ready again.

Or, you live in the 21st century, where the credit card draw down is, for too many of us, a nearly continuous elevation to the fight or flight response for any number of reasons:

1. The rude awakening with the alarm  2. The 24/7 news cycle, because it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, it’s presented as a crisis of epic proportions.  Toss in a measure of guilt or despair for not doing enough about it, or weariness because you are doing enough, marching every weekend.  3. The rent increases, or tax increases.  4. commute challenges and work challenges, encompassing a host of emotions.  5. A virtual world on social media that is, for too many, its own form of porn, offering escape from painful realities, and painting fantasy pictures of a world better than our own. 6. Relational challenges with spouse, children, parents, roommates, friends, ex-friends – or the opposite challenge of 7. Isolation, which was never God’s intention of people 8. Sleep challenges, usually stemming from some combination of spiritual, emotional, and physical reasons.  9. Foods that stress our body because, though tolerable, God didn’t design your body to eat pre-fab food.  10. A perverted notion of faith that leaves one questioning whether they’ve done enough, learned enough, are holy enough – so that there’s a constant nagging that ranges somewhere between shame and inadequacy.

In such a world, overdraws of your stress response credit card become the norm.  Still, you need to pay.  And you will.  it will show up in hypertension, or obesity, heart disease or diabetes, or perhaps any one of a number of other “diseases of civilization”.

When Jesus invites us to learn the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’, what’s he talking about?  For one thing, I strongly believe he’s inviting us to a rhythm of engagement and withdrawal, as well as an internal perspective of mindfulness, because these two things, taken together, can create break the cycle of the chronic stress response.  Here are some practical steps to take:

1. No screens for two hours prior to bedIn one of my favorite books, I learned that sleep difficulties are a major challenge in the 21st century, and that this matters because the evidence is in:  sleep shortage has all kinds of negative effects, the summary of which is described by Robert Stickgold, sleep specialists who builds a compelling case that chronic sleep shortages make us, to quote Stickgold, “sick, fat, and stupid”.   One of the major contributors to sleep loss is screen time before bed, because it dampens the production of sleep hormones that would be created if we were, instead, reading a real book via real light, or better yet, doing our stretching, praying, or snuggling, by candlelight.

2. Spend more energy on your sphere of influence than your sphere of concern.   Jesus hints at this numerous times, but nowhere more clearly than in Luke 12:25, where he ponders the question:  “can any of you make yourself an inch taller by worrying about your height?”  Your height is in your sphere of concern, but not your sphere of influence.  You can’t change it!!  And you can’t change who’s in the White House right now, or the cost of housing, or how your boss will respond to your request for a raise.

The point Jesus is trying to make?  He’s calling us to wisely invest most of our energy in things over which we DO have influence, rather than whining about, or worrying about, things over which we don’t have influence.  This isn’t a call to passivity or withdrawal.  We live in a democracy and all of us have some influence over big things.  But we need to invest most of our energies in things over which we have direct control.  Am I loving my people?  Am I living generously and enjoying intimacy with Christ?  Am I standing for actual vulnerable people in my life, not just advocating for an anonymous “people group”?   It’s been freeing in my own life to begin with things over which I have control, and move outward from there.  Until I learned that lesson, my sphere of concern was paralyzing me with worry, and rendering me ineffective in my sphere of influence.

3. Learn to live in the present – with gratitude.    Jesus is our guide here, when he tells us to take no thought for tomorrow.  You don’t know how long you’ll live, don’t know how the market will do, don’t know when the next terror attack will be, or what will be tomorrow’s news from the white house.  You don’t know.  So don’t live in anxiety over what you don’t know.

You do know that today, the days are getting longer.  You know that there’s glory and beauty in the face of those you love.  You know that you are forgiven, and that One is infinitely and irrevocably for you – and not only you, but for all of humanity, and the planet.  You know that, in spite of everything, there’s beauty still in this world, in abundance.  You know where history’s headed.  You know you have a next step to take, a practical one, that will bring life and hope to the world.

Knowing these things, and rejoicing in them, is enough to stop the adrenaline credit card drain, and bring the rest and peace you need.

NEXT UP:  three more practices –

1. Eat real food

2. Get outside

3. Love your friends

 

 

 

The Gifts of Christmas #3: His humble circumstances free us

I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership.  The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected.  He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world.  “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.

It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself.  I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”.  I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world.  Well connected?  I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures.  I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.

I left class that day wanting to quit.  I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job.  When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:

Well connected?  He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.

Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.”  Isaiah 53:2

Agressive and ambitious?  There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on.  In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life:  “What is the will of the Father?”  When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds.  When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone.  When it led to the cross, he went there.

Wealthy?  “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.

There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected.  It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.

This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.

The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters.  I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on.  My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).

Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle.  Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t.  Some could be models, they’re so striking.  Then there are the rest of us.  Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.

Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26

For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.

 

Completion as a Starting Point

50 miles of the PCT

I started a little vacation about a week ago.  The plan was to hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife of nearly 37 years.  This kind of space would provide the kind of beauty and clarity needed for me to see far into the future (“Do you have a five year plan?” someone asks me) and so be able to prepare for it.  After all, we learn from an early age that life’s about setting goals, envision a future, and then going after it with all the gusto we can muster.  This is all well and good, perhaps, if you know exactly what your future is to be, but as one grows older assurances about the future become harder to assess.  There are too many wild cards.  Health.  Money.  The shelf life in one’s profession.  Needs out there which you might be able to help meet.  Your own need for rest.  Desires to write.  Or travel.  Desires to keep doing what you’re doing.

The options are dizzying, and unknowable.  Still, I thought the space of hiking through the wild would grant clarity; that I’d come home with needed understanding and some goals to pursue, marching orders for the next chapter.  Mercifully that whole line of thinking fell off a cliff somewhere below Cathedral Rock on day two of our hike.

Instead, clear as the mountain peaks around me, I was granted the realization that two realities must be in place in order for any of us to move toward the life for which we’re created.  What are they?

1. We need right motives for what we’re doing.  Proverbs 16:2 says that “people may be pure in their own eyes, but the Lord weights the motives”.  This is a stunning statement because we tend to look at a person’s pursuits as indicative of their wisdom, and the quality of their life.  Look at the triathlete and you think, “self discipline”.  Look at the person who started that non-profit and you think, “idealistic; devoted”.  Look at the rich person with a reputation for generosity:  “sacrificial”.  It’s all very impressive, and certainly extends to people who work in ministry, or speak for a living, or are super committed to raising ‘excellent kids’.  Yes.  Let’s be a version of human that causes people to take notice, in a positive way.

And therein, my friends, is the problem because pursuits born out of a desire to be well thought of by others will lead us down the wrong path – every time – even when the pursuit seems noble.  So will stuff born out of a desire to please others and avoid their judgement.  So will stuff born out of a sense of the overwhelming needs we see, for the there are needs all around us and they will never go away.  Ministries and philanthropic organizations are littered with broke down lives who could never say “no” because the need was always there, always hungry, always thirsty, always needing more us.  So it’s not the thing itself that offers assurance we’re on the right path.  It’s far too easy to justify the nobleness of any pursuit in our own eyes, even in the eyes of others.

“…the Lord weighs the motives” means just that.  Pursuits born out of greed, or anger, or need for approval, or fear of rejection, or a desire for comfort, or a desire to prove something to someone – all these will, in the end, melt away.  The one thing that matters is this:  “What is God asking of me in this particular moment?” I think of Jesus in Mark 1.  He’d healed some people and cast out demons, taught them, and hung out at a house ’til late into the night.  By the next morning, word of his power had spread and whole town as knocking on the door, wanting to be with him.  His response:  “Time to move on to somewhere else and preach there. For that is what I came for.”  This is impressive to me because it tells me that his motive is, as he says elsewhere, simply to do the will of the one who sent him.

How freeing would that be?  For starters, it would free you and me from doing anything out of a FOMO, or any other fear.  We’d also be liberated from being driven to action by every need we see, which can only, in the end, result on compassion fatigue in a world where racism, global poverty, sexism, oppression, environmental degradation, family breakdown, health crises, mental illness, and o so much more are knocking at our doors.  It’s too much for any one to bear.  What’s needed, then, is for each of us to know our part and do it, recognizing that along the way some will view us heartless, too liberal, too conservative, too prudent, too foolish, too ambitious, too lazy, and on and on it goes.  If we’re in the right space, we’ll be able to sift this stuff and move forward with our true calling, but doing so requires that we have the second reality in our experience as well as the first one.

2. We need to be secure that we are complete in Christ.  If the starting point of my life is that I’m already complete, then I’ve nothing to earn, nothing to prove, and nothing to fear.  All my actions, when born from the reality of completion and security in Christ, will be nothing more than saying yes to God’s next step.  For Elisabeth Elliot, decades ago, it meant moving back to Central America to live among the people who had murdered her husband, in order to share the reality of Christ with them.  For another it means retiring early to care for aging parents.  For another it means staying in the same job for 50 years.  For another it means moving often.  One might write and never sell more than a few thousand books, or less even.  Another might regularly make the NYT Bestseller list.  One’s a millionaire.  Another’s living in a camper van.

50 Miles of PCT

 Like various flora in the forest, each is fulfilling its calling without the anxiety and compulsion of comparison or fear.

How cool would it be to be secure in the assurance that we’re loved completely, perfectly, infinitely?  It would free us to believe that, in Christ, we have a unique role to play in blessing the world, and our one true thing will be to pursue that thing – not out of a desire for fame, or financial security, or to prove to someone how important we are, but simply out of love for the one who has healed us, filled us with life and hope, and given us the chance to participate in blessing a world thirsty for blessing.  That’s the life I’m after friends, no matter where it leads.

The good news is that Christ came to fill us with nothing less than his life so that we can enjoy this “confidence of completion”.  The bad news is that religion has too often mutated into some sort of performance whereby we’re trying earn approval, from each other, or God, or the church.  Sick stuff, really, when you realize the whole point of the gospel was to set us free from that very mindset!!

The hike’s over and the particulars of the five year plan are no less clear.  Any anxieties I had about not knowing are gone though.  They been blown away by the comforting winds of the Holy Spirit, who has reminded me that I’m complete, already, because of what God has done in Christ.  I’m done performing for approval – seeking instead to live a life poured out in obedience to Christ as an act of gratitude for his matchless love.

Does this sound unapologetically Christo-centric?  I hope so.  People may or may not use the language of Christ, but I’m convinced, more than ever, that a world thirsting for peace, meaning, hope, joy, strength, confidence, beauty, intimacy, and Justice, is a world searching of Jesus.

 

Forest Bathing as a Vision for the Church

malala-lake-sabbath_28178040973_oThis week I’m living in the forest, in the San Bernadino mountains of California as I speak at a family conference.  As I write, the morning sun is bathing the deck and Sugar Pines, along with a form of Cedar, some oak, and Manzanita, live together as an ecosystem, offering life giving space to squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, bear, and countless other life forms.

Scientists are discovering that humans are also profound beneficiaries of the forest.  “Forsest Bathing”, which simply means to walk in a forest and pay attention to your surroundings while doing so, has been shown now, in numerous studies, to have profound health benefits.  Lower pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rates are just some of the proven benefits.  There are some who believe that prescriptions like this will be seen in the not too distant future.

Though the benefits have been easy to see, it’s been more difficult for scientists to understand and quantify the reason behind these benefits.  Is there something in the scent, the Eco-system, the earth itself?  Is it simply the contrast provided from the concrete jungle in which many of us find ourselves that makes the forest a healing place?  These questions remain, but what’s known in the moment is that a “walk in the woods” isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.

Because of numerous experiences in my own life, I wonder if the power of the forest isn’t spiritual, and therefore unquantifiable with the measuring instruments of science.  I say this because my past is filled with countless “forest encounters” with God:

1960’s – As a child I would lie in the middle of a circle of redwoods on the California coast, outside grandma’s house, and look up.  The trees would all appear to be converging at a single point in the sky, and the punctuation of variegated greens set against a backdrop of sky blue did something to me.  This was peace.  Yes that’s it –  peace.

1976 – It’s winter.  I’m in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Unbeknownst to be, the worst two years of my life are about to come to and end, as a new journey, new calling, and new priorities are born.  The death of my dad two years prior had sent me into a state of depression and isolation.  I was in the mountains for a winter ski retreat, and when the speaker said “knowing God should be the primary pursuit of every one of you in the room” I knew he was talking directly to me.  He’d been reading from Jeremiah 9 in the Bible and when his talk was finished I went out in the freezing air and prayed, in the midst of crunching snow under a million stars.  I told God that I didn’t know what it meant, but that I wanted to make knowing God the main goal of my life, just as the speaker had invited me to do.  This would lead to a change of major, a change of states, and an entirely different trajectory for my life.

1990 – My wife and young family move to a forested acre in the North Cascade mountains of Washington to begin a retreat center.  It is there that I begin identifying with the verses about Jesus going “into the mountains alone to pray”.  After a busy time of serving guests, I would depart for the high country, hiking up to some ridge, often alone, to pray, read, reflect, restore.  These mountains were made for restoration, or so it seemed to me.  Beauty seemed to pour through the atmosphere when I was in them.  Glaciers and rocks spoke of timelessness, and I’d be reminded that I’m just here visiting, for a short time, that God’s work has been here long before me and will be long after.  I’m reminded that God is the rock, a metaphor offering stability in a tenuous world.  The vast distances, from the stars of space, and the surrounding peaks, reminded me that I’m small and that, in the grandness of eternity, so our my problems.  The beauty of ever changing colors, the scent of the air, the form of trees, the reflections of mountain lakes… All of it together spoke “shalom”, a visible representation of peace for me.  I’d come down the mountain restored, having seen something, having prayed, and having received.

And so it’s gone, year after year, until now, when I have my coffee with God in the mornings, in the midst of forest, wether misty or dry, chilled or heated, breathing in not just the words of the text, as I seek to meet Christ, but the air of the forest, which speaks of eternity and passing moments; vast strength and human fragility; and the breath of peace, offered freely to all who will receive.  Things happen in the forest because of who the forest is.

The Church as a Forest 

The Church, at its best, functions the same way.  We pastors think that the our teaching and preaching is the most important thing in the world, but the reality is that people are often persuaded more by the collective presence of Christ and the atmosphere that creates.  Maybe at their best, preaching and environment work together, but at the very least, I’ve encountered many people over the decades whose front door to faith sounded similar to these words…

“No Richard, it wasn’t your teaching that convinced me.  It was the community.  I’ve never seen authentic relationships where people both accepted each other and pushed each other to grow and change.  I wanted to be part of that”  

“It was the beauty of the people Richard.  When I saw that woman in her 60’s caring for her mother and singing songs of worship with her, it stirred something in me.” 

“These people who make up the church – they’re building friendships with prisoners, making meals for the homeless, caring for vulnerable children.  They give me hope, and I want in…” 

On top of this, there’s often the beauty of gathered worship, the beauty of sacred space, the beauty of confession and vulnerability, and the beauty of restored lives.

So without answers, I simply ponder:  Is the church an ecosystem, like a forest, which is life giving when it’s properly fed, and rooted, and located in the appropriate place?  I’d like to think so.  

However, when the church is place of shelter for misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political fanaticism, arrogance, favoritism of the strong and wealthy, or any other number of ugly things, it’s no longer a healing forest.  It becomes a place of death, a prison of sorts.  Using the letters C-H-U-R-C-H and singing a bit of Hillsong doesn’t make a church the collective expression of Christ.  Only real discipleship does that, and the acid test of true discipleship is simple – am I on a path of embodying more of the humility, service, unconditional love, courageous care for the marginalized, and infinite forgiving grace of Christ?  Or am I just singing some songs in a building while still closing my hand to poor, calling people who disagree with me idiots, getting angry with every latest political shot fired, all while pursuing my own personal well being above all else?

Forest, prison, or place of death – how do people experience life in the church?

For the church to be a place filled with the kind of life that God has in mind, some things need to be true for us that are also true for the forest:

1. We need to be an ecosystem.  Christ’s vision for the church is that each person within it shares their unique contributions to for the well being of the community.  Paul the apostle unpacks this vision and explains that when it works properly, when people experience various aspects of Christ’s beauty and love through various encounters within the community, they will sense the reality of Christ’s presence.  This is paramount, because our desire is that people be given the freedom to choose or reject Christ himself, not the kind of caricatures of Christ that misrepresent him by portraying hate rather than love, law rather than grace, performance rather than receiving freely from a posture of brokenness.  So we seek, increasingly as a church, to represent the heart of Christ with greater clarity.

2. We need a vision for beauty.  My greatest moments of shalom (profound peace) have happened in either the beauty of the wilderness or the gathered community in worship.  In the latter cases, it has been the gathered body of Christ, the church, declaring something of God’s character, through worship (Yes…singing matters more than we realize), or acts of service, or prayers of praise or confession, or simply through the power of Christ’s presence so evident in the gathering.

3. We need to believe that, in spite of our imperfections, God will be revealed through our life together.  Let’s say that we, as a community, have a passion for mercy, Justice, and love (as I write about here in this book).  Let’s see we long for the fruit of the spirit to prevail, in our lives, and our life together.  To the extent that these things are true, we’re properly calibrated, heading in the right direction.  We can rest, knowing we’re becoming a life giving forest.  Of course, there’ll be the need for continual repentance and re-calibration along the way, because we’re not yet the healing, life giving force that we’re fully capable of becoming.  But we’re getting there, and that’s enough for us to confidently believe God will use us.  (“Abide in me, and you’ll bear much fruit”) is how Jesus said it.

All of this is looks very different than a community arguing about esoteric doctrines and implying that those who don’t believe exactly as our church does are lost and condemned.  There are different kinds of forests.  Catholics belong to forests.  So do Pentecostals, and Baptists, and Presbyterians.  No.  None of us will agree with everything in every forest.  But that’s no reason to start a forest fire.  As Paul said, “What then?  Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed.  In this I will rejoice.”

When Both Books Speak: 

Just two nights ago, I was privileged to serve community to the gathered body of Christ at a family camp.  We met in a lovely forest, around a campfire, praying with various people and listening and folks shared what God had been saying to them through the week.  Then we finished our time together by singing “How Great Thou Art” an old hymn that includes a verse about walking through the forest and hearing the voice of God speak through the the beauty of creation.  We finished singing, as the forest’s movement from light to darkness came to completion, ending with infinite stars hanging in the sky, and silence, save the crickets carrying on.  Life.  Beauty.  Breath.  Healing.

YES.  Not only receiving all this, but being all this for one another and our world – this is our calling.

 

 

Beating Fear with Seven Words for Seven Summits

NOTE: I’m presently completing a book recalling various adventures of the trek through the Alps my wife and I enjoyed for 40 days in the summer of 2014.  I’m happy to share a few draft excerpts here in hopes of hearing your feedback – so thanks in advance.  This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”.  I’ll deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post, and the equally deadly danger of familiarity in my next post.   Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!

August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m.  We arrive there feeling strong, whole.  Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically.  It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut.  Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse. 

After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut.  Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served.  If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm. 

The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one.  The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over. 

As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise.  Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.” 

“High or low?” I ask. 

“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction.  The trail is on the ridge the whole way.”  I smile, nodding.  I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”.  Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together.  I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes.  “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning. 

I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there.  Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete.  This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner. 

This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills.  I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges.  My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity.  You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash.  Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it.  Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”.    They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.

alps 2As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t.  As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress.  It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread.  The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles. 

This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit.  Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing.  There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word.  In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death. 

For those with experience, this is not intimidating.  You simply don’t fall.  You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step.  For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness.  My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge.  They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure.  On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on. 

I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing?  This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me.  Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face.  We must descend it.  On the one hand, it’s a ladder.  The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much:  we can climb down this ladder. 

alps 3On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent.  We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps.  Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent.  After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise. 

So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder.  The stakes are high.  The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.

It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons.  They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope.  So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still.  There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.

Fear:

Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially.  We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power.  We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more.  Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.

This is a very small way of living.  It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels.  The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top.  Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before.  We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank.  By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.

…Except we can’t.  As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created.  This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management.   When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling”  It’s sin management.  It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy.  And worst of all: it’s boring.

In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin.  God has a summit for us and it looks like this:

Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31  We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in.  This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.

Abundance  “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10  This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die.  I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing.  I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving. 

Wholeness  “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21   Yes!  The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning.  The vision is much more positive, more summit like.  God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living.  The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living.  Summits.  All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear. 

After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure.  We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides.  It looks daunting, and is.  Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”. 

Exactly!  The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option.  I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut.  The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck.  It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here.  No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip.   And for this, I’ll be forever grateful. 

alps 4Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety.  We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust.  The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain.  The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!

The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way.  They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets.  They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives!  They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities.  They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so.  They rose above the valleys of mediocrity.  Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home.  But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world.  When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential. 

Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit?   When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits:  Fear not – for I am with you!

Mythical Freedom and Real Freedom

What_does_freedom_really_mean.jpgYesterday we celebrated freedom here in America.

But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free?  The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies.  So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ.  They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.

He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

A freedom tied to obedience

These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute.  As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.”  Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”.  The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom.  There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.

What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong.  If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?

Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love.  We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny.  This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.

I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers.  They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.

A freedom tied to external revelation 

One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed.  “If you want to own a gun, own a gun.  If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion.  If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.”  What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone.  Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being.  What if you want my wife?  Or my children?  Or my stuff?

So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”

Ah, but there’s the problem.  One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone.  Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine  rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server.  But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.

The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage.  Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul.  “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you”  Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom.  Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.

Simple right? We’re all free.  Yes, free.  And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom.  How’s this working for us?  Not so well, I’d argue.

What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke.  Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing.  My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps.  Freedom?  Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway.  That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.

Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable.  Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.

In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more.  But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.

The Illusion of Freedom 

When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children.  We have never been anyone’s slaves…”  In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?”  I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome.  Before that it was Greece.  Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire.  Before that it was Babylon.  Before that it was Assyria.  Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.

We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.

But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need.  This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”.  And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough.  Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority.  That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.

“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”