Note: I’m presently offering a short series of the many ways in which our enemy seeks to steal, kill, and destroy the life for which we’re created. At this moment in history, many are at grave risk of losing hope. Here’s help:
If hope is a longing for a better world, then hope is a flag firmly planted in almost every human soul. Sharin Sabestari is an example of a woman whose heart stirred with a deep and hopeful longing. She shares her story of growing up in war torn Iran and going into the mountains on hikes and climbs with her father….
“I remember the sirens blaring and the bombs rumbling in the distance. When we ran under our basement stairs in a blackout, I was too young to understand… (But) I knew that soon Dad and I would be off again to the mountains, where there we no sirens and no bombs, only a world of wonders: porcupine spines and snakeskins to collect, trees to climb, rocks to scramble. The realm of butterflies and streams and wind…” (Alpinist. Vol. 58)
The beauty of creation instills hope, at any age, in any time and place. It’s a hope that we’re not made to live amongst bombs and air raid sirens, terror and war. We’re made for beauty, made for peace, made for fellowship. Sharin learned this in the mountains. For others hope is awakened at the sea, or at sunset while walking through a field, or in a circle of friends around a campfire, or in a concert hall filled with the sounds of Schubert, or Mozart, or U2.
“Deep calls to deep” is how the Bible says it, and there are some of us who believe that beauty and peace are like signed and sealed invitations from God: “Dear Sharin… May you enjoy this gift of the mountains I’ve made, with all their flowing streams, fresh breezes ripe with the scent of pine, and gorgeous views. You’re invited to enjoy more of my gifts and find the rich life I’ve created for you to enjoy. Love, God.”
I’m on solid ground for believing that the first thing we should learn about God is that God’s given good gifts to humans. Romans 2 tells us that “God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance” which is just another way of saying that God’s kindness is an invitation for us to move away from a life without God, to a life with God – as guide, companion, friend, provider, healer, and lover.
If all this intimacy is the fruit of taking a step towards God because of the presence of hope and beauty, it stands to reason that our enemy, who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, would seek to steal hope and beauty. Knowing how this happens will help us fan both hope and beauty into flame in our lives once again, to the end that others will see them and perhaps make a move toward the Source of it all.
Hope is stolen through misdirection. “We’d hoped it would be the war to end all wars.” “We’d hoped Obama would bring hope and change.” “We’d hoped Trump would “drain the swamp”. “We’d hoped our offer, 100k above asking price, would have gotten us a house.” “We’d hoped the medical test would have been negative”.
They all make sense, of course, these hopes we have. We hope for the future to turn out a certain way in countless areas over which we have no control. The problem with all these forms of hope, though, is that they are highly contingent on events outside our control. It’s fine to “hope” and be disappointed. The problem comes when our meaning and identity became so yoked to our vision of the future, that any shortfall undoes us utterly. These are the people “driven to drink, or abuse, or worse” when there’s an affair. These are the people killing themselves when the stock market crashes. These are millions who simply haven’t found a way to cope with the dissonance between how they’d “hoped” life would be, and how its actually turned out. The landscape of humanity is littered with countless tragedies precisely because of unrealized hope, and our response to dashed dreams.
Some chime in at this point, and say, “The answer is simple. Hope for nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.” Perhaps. But neither will you know hope or joy, and the fruit that blossoms in such an arid environment is always depressing. Just ask Ernest Hemingway, or Kurt Cobain. Despair is around us, even among people who “hoped for nothing”.
The better way is to recognize that “hope” isn’t actually a sort of “wishful thinking” that is rooted in a desire for things to be a certain way in our lives. Real hope is solid. The word might even be translated “confident expectation” in the Bible, because it’s rooted in the promises of God.
God is promising a world without war, without cancer, a world of reconciled nations, and justice, a world of matchless beauty, intimacy, deliverance from enslaving addictions and, infusing every breath of our future: joy! I believe history is headed in that direction. This is my confident expectation, my hope. “What makes you so sure?” you might ask?
Two things, at least. First, I believe in the resurrection of Christ, which is a sort of down payment on that hope. It might sound fantastical, but make no mistake, the world is filled with thoughtful people who believe the evidence is on the side of Jesus rising.
Second, Sharin’s experience in the mountains couldn’t help but lead her to long for more of it. It was the place her “hair could be uncovered and roam free.” It was the place of wild horses. It was beauty. It was “as it should be”, and because of this, “hope” was born.
But the longings of her heart won’t be answered by Tehran embracing democracy, or Isis, capitalism or socialism. In the end, every “ism” of this world over-promises and under-delivers. It misplaces hope, seducing us into believing that it is the headwaters of a better world. Every time, the tribe of the disillusioned increases, including when people put their faith in the institution of Christianity.
Our hope isn’t in any ‘ism’. Our hope is in Christ, and because he is likened to a “solid rock”, we then have a hope that can never be shaken . Having this hope enables us to live as people of courage and integrity, grace and mercy, generosity and peace. We view every foretaste of glory seen in perfect powder, mountain sunrises, and the bracing cold waters of a mountain lake as foretastes of eternity; and we give thanks; and worship. This is as it should be.
If the object of your hope is Christ, the answer is a resounding yes.
All other “hopes” are forgeries, and I’m sorry to say, your real hope’s been stolen. Why not take it back right now?
O Lord Christ –
We thank you for the pains in our hearts that stab with every new discovery of corruption, every new lie from people in power, every new report of another friend dying of cancer. We cry out, and weep, and lament – because at some profound level we know that we’re made for more than this, other than this.
Forgive us for hoping in superficial solutions to the brokenness of our world, and the brokenness of our hearts. May you be our sole source of satisfaction, our only rock and foundation. And, filled with the confidence of your power and plan to heal the world, would you make us people of hope.
“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.
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.
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.
It’s Friday. That’s meant ski day for 90% of the past four months. I hit the web to see what’s opened, what’s groomed, what’s happening. Dismay: four different ski areas within 2 miles of my house – ALL CLOSED!!
All right then. It will be a day to put on the touring skis, which means attaching friction creating skins to the base of the skis and freeing the heel so that you can ski up the mountain. At the top you’ll peel the skins off, lock down the heel, and in a few minutes ski down what it just took you and hour to go up. Some might call it hard work. I call it discipleship – learning to follow Jesus step by step. Here’s why:
There’s a calling
I cast my gaze to the ridge, the goal, some 1300plus feet above, It’s too far. Too steep. Too much. There’s an immediate visceral reaction, dwelling up a dozen or more excuses why this “isn’t a good day” for this. It’s cloudy – there’s no view to bring me joy. It might rain. I slept poorly last night. The snow’s thick, mushy. Not spoken, but the real reasons: it’s stinking hard work to walk uphill in slushy snow with skis on.
So why go? Here’s the crazy thing. I go because as John Muir said,
“the mountains are calling and I MUST go” – good weather or poor; tired or bursting with eagerness; it matters not, because the mountains themselves really are actually calling. I want to be in them, up them, challenged and transformed by their terrain; ravished and refreshed by their beauty. “I must go”
That’s discipleship too. We see, in the distance, a different life: freed from addiction, or fear, or shame. Or maybe we see a different world because Jesus and the prophets pointed to a world of peace, reconciliation, and the end of human trafficking and disease, to name just a few things. We see it out there in the distance, and we want to go there, be there – and with Christ alive in us, it seems we must take the journey!
That’s part of what calling means. And when that voice from higher up the mountain is calling, I pray you’ll go. There’ll be reasons not to, always, as Jesus warned us. Too busy. Too tired. Too tied down. Too preoccupied with the trinkets acquired by wealth. Your favorite team’s playing today. Theres’s always a reason to stay home, but if you listen carefully enough, you hear the voice of calling, and if hear it…don’t hesitate: go!
There’s a disillusionment –
It doesn’t take long to feel the effort of the journey. There’s something in me that want’s to call it quits about 500 meters in and 100 meters up because breathing is labored, legs are feeling heavy, and sweat is leaking out my skin as a means of cooling me, so that when I stop I’m not cool – I’m cold. “Is it worth it?” “I could be at home reading.” “It makes sense that I’m the only one here. Who does this?” “I could turn around now and nobody would be the wiser.”
And so it goes, in our brains, sometime after we’ve begun our pursuit of Christ too. This is because self-denial, though life giving over the long haul, is wearying in the moment. There are disciplines to discipleship, enough so that the words have the same root, and that root includes the reality of some suffering.
We all suffer. But who suffers willingly? Disciples, apparently, because Jesus said that unless we’re willing to deny ourselves, we can’t be disciples.
If we’re going to deny ourselves, then, we need some compelling vision that will allow us to transcend the gravities which pull us down into self indulgence. The vision for my little ski adventure is the thought that at the end of it there will have been both encounters with beauty and a strengthening of heart – both gifts, yes – but earned with the currency of suffering. Imagine that.
For the disciple, the self-denial and suffering produces strength of heart too, but in a different way. We become people whose lives are increasingly characterized by joy, patience, hope, peace, and generosity. We could quit the journey and indulge ourselves, or press on and enjoy this kind of beauty and transformation. That why vision matters so much. Without a reminder of what’s being produced in me, I simply won’t proceed. It’s the vision of transformation that keeps me going.
There’s a mindfulness –
Moving up steep snow on skis is an acquired skill, and the steeper the snow, the steeper the learning curve. As the initial gradual slope steepens, I’ve no longer any time to think about how painful it is, or whether I want to quit or continue. At its steepest the journey requires total focus: “slide ski upward – shift all body weight to directly above the binding, so as to mitigate risk of sliding backwards – fight the intuitive notion to lean into the mountain, committing to stay upright instead. Repeat”
My favorite hobbies have historically been skiing, rock climbing and fishing because these three disciplines require a total focus, and the total focus has a marvelous way of silencing the chatter of the mind. Such silence is life giving, wisdom imparting, and maturing.
We don’t do it well, if we’re honest. We’re easily distracted by our phones, our tunes, and our screens. And if that isn’t bad enough, when all three are absent, our mind has tricky ways of creating its own chatter, and the price is costly as seen in this excellent book.
Jesus hits on this when he tells us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” It’s his way of inviting us to be fully present. Here. Now. A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said it this way: “When you are overwhelmed and your mind it talking too much, you need to calm down and simply do the next thing.” Indeed. It’s not just a question of getting stuff done, it’s a question of growing wise because wisdom is, at the core, related to our capacity to be “all there” wherever we are, and this is a skill that’s disappearing. I’m not on my cell phone when I need to focus on putting all my body weight above my ski on a 32 degree slope. I’m all in. I’m invited, indeed called, to be “all in” most of the time: conversations made up of real listening and presence, reading, prayer, sharing a meal with friends. We’re at our best and look most like Jesus when we’re doing one thing at a time.
There’s joy –
Step by step (hence the name of this blog) I ascend upward. Step by step in real life means another diaper, another meal, another encouraging word to a co-worker, or a confession, or a moment of hospitality with a neighbor. Like ski touring, no single step seems significant, but every single step matters. This is because our lives aren’t, in reality, highlight reels of profound moments, but a ten thousand regular steps followed by a summit moment.
When I arrive at the top on this Friday, there’s nothing to see.
Fog’s set in, and everything is white other than trees right in front of me. Still, I know it’s been worth it. And there’ll be a different skill set, and a different joy on the way down.
Sometimes, too, your best efforts to follow Jesus won’t result in a highlight reel moment. And then you’ll move on. It’s fine. You know you’ve taken the steps, followed the call, done the right thing. That’s discipleship and the more you do it, the more you know you’ll do it again tomorrow, because there’ll be another calling, and you’ll say yes because its become who you are!
O Lord of the mountains and valleys.
Grant that we might first have ears to hear your call – in the cry of child, a neighbor, a refugee. Give us grace, I pray, not only to hear, but go, and endurance to continue when we feel like quitting. Thank you for the gift and discipline of mindful presence, and the circumstances that help us develop it. May we celebrate those times rather than dread them. And above all, thank you for standing on the mountain with your disciples so that we’re able, here and now, to have a glimpse of the summit that’s worth it all – Your reign made visible in our lives and world. Give us eyes to see it. Every single day.
In your great name we pray…
Leadership, which is code for parenting, teaching, working with anyone as a catalyst to get things accomplished, requires the development and nurture of several key qualities which I hope to look at in the coming few weeks. This, the first in a series, is about developing “reserve capacity”, because without it, our leadership will crash in a crisis every time! The exhausted parent will lash at the kids, or totally withdraw. The “at wits end” boss will throw a tantrum creating a loss of trust that might take months to recover. The overwhelmed teacher, will turn to something unhealthy to keep going, over caffeinating, over drinking, over eating, over something. Then, in two years, they’re gone, having lost sight of their calling because of a failure to have reserve capacity.
What is reserve capacity and how is it developed? Read on:
“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5) The imagery is obvious. Here’s a guy running with other men, which represents you and I living our lives on normal days, when there’s no significant or memorable challenges. These days, like good officiating in football, are memorable for their forgetfulness. A round of meetings, or taxi service for the kids. Cooking, cleaning, jogging, maybe some ethnic food at home. All in all though, nothing special. We all have these days, but don’t all pull these days off with the same amount of peace and grace.
Jeremiah’s saying that when the normal days wear you out, that’s a sign of trouble; a way of saying that if you don’t change the way you think, or live, or cope, there’ll be trouble further down the road. If you’re exhausted by normal, says Jeremiah, “What are you going to do when all hell breaks loose?” It’s a good question but rhetorical, because Jeremiah doesn’t want you to stroke your chin and think for a moment before saying, “Who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see won’t we!” No. Jeremiah’s saying that if “normal” is hard, hard will mean meltdown.
So now, while things are normal, you need to live differently. You need to develop “reserve capacity”. The term comes from a health guy I like who posits that it’s loss of ‘organ reserve’ that inevitably leads to death, even for the healthiest of us. When we’re young we have reserves. We can eat 2 large pizzas, climb a mountain on Saturday night, and preach Sunday, not thinking a thing of it. Aging though, diminishes lung, liver, muscle, joint, heart, capacity and with less reserve—less capacity to absorb the stresses means less reserve. With less reserve, the extra challenges lead to breakdown.
In other words, when it’s time to race the horses, how do you think you’ll do, if the everyday “normal” of your life is exhausting? You need to develop reserve capacity. How do you do that?
1. Kill the energy suckers. We live inside our heads a lot, and when things are going smoothly, the brain is prone to welcome some toxic ghosts who’ll settle in and ruin your day, not with what is, but with what might be and what was. Your worry and fear about tomorrow is sucking you dry. All those ‘what ifs’ can steal your reserve at every level; body, soul, spirit. You’ll feel it in your pulse, blood pressure, sleep habits, sense of well being and joy; all of these will be compromised when you let the ghosts settle in and poison your mind with worries.
I find that breathing deeply and praying while doing so, receiving the peace of Christ in faithful gratitude, is terribly effective in evicting the ghosts. Try it sometime!
2. Manage the adrenaline – Question: “What’s Jesus doing sleeping in the boat when there’s a big storm happening?” Answer: “He’s showing us how to not panic” and this is good because adrenaline is a hormone in your body that’s there to give you extra strength in short bursts. It’s for that time when there’s an automobile accident, but not for all the time spent in traffic. It’s for the moment in rock climbing when you’re making a crux move, but not for the whole approach hike. It is, in other words, for David when he meets Goliath, but not for your next staff meeting.
We’d do well to de-escalate the stakes in most of our daily experiences so that we don’t send a bunch of adrenaline into our bodies, because the truth is we’ll need that kind of strength, focus, awareness later—best to save it for then.
When I feel the surge of adrenaline coming on, my best response is to breathe deep, look around, practice a little gratitude as I see a tree in bloom, or remember that I even own a car and that’s why I’m stuck in traffic. The little change of perspective sends adrenaline back to it’s cave, reserved for another more appropriate time.
3. Remember the end. The intent of terror is to fill you with fear because fear will paralyze you, draining you of your reserves, and preventing you from fulfilling your calling. A little perspective, though, can help. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “do not say, ‘why is it that the former days were better than these?’ for it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.” Don’t fret, in other words, about how bad things have become. It changes nothing with respect to your calling to be light, and salt, and joy, and hope. Get on with it.
What’s more, it helps me immensely to have a strong faith and belief regarding the trajectory of history. I believe that the end of the story has all disease healed, all wars ended, all evil vanquished, and everything in the universe saturated with the beauty of Christ. That’s how our good friend could say: “All’s well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
People who actually believe that live well, serve well, sleep well. And when the horses show up they’ll say: “Bring it on! I’m ready.”
I’m coming home next week “aware of a million failures”. There are “church fails” in my city. “Health care fails” in Texas. “Personal failures” on the list of summits and huts I didn’t reach, chapters I’ve not yet written, spiritual habits I’ve not yet mastered. My conversations these past weeks have largely been with people who are deeply aware of both their own failings and the failings of others, and who wonder what to do next. That’s why I wrote this post.
Failure isn’t really the main problem in this world. There are remedies for failures, and often clear steps to take so that in the wake of failure our lives can be stronger, richer, more compassionate, and more honest than they ever might have been without failing at all.
So failure’s not the biggest problem any of us face. The critical moments are the steps we take immediately after though. It’s those steps that will become the main determinants of our future. So here’s a quick and (I hope) practical guide, offering both critical steps to avoid and critical steps to take, after failure.
Steps to Avoid
Denial – Rock climbing is nice because a fail is always an obvious failure. It can be valuable and transformative, but it’s always a failure. Nobody cheers when you fall. I wish all of life were that easy because perhaps the biggest problem with respect to many failures is that we remain blissfully and intentionally unaware. We’ve got a temper problem, or control problem, or abuse problem, or a drinking problem, but don’t see it. In our own minds though, we’re just social drinkers, and have the guts to tell the truth when nobody else will, or to take control of things, or to put people in their place so that things can get done.
Any failure that remains hidden will be repeated over and over again until it becomes a deep part of our character. This is the first and primary reason we’re a world of addicts and abusers. If we could ever move beyond the denial stage, we’d eventually do the beautiful and hard work of transformation, but until we overcome denial, we can’t overcome anything else. This applies, of course, to persons and institutions. A relentless commitment to uncovering reality, or “ground truth” as Susan Scott likes to say, is not the solution to anything—but it’s surely the first step for everything.
Of course, it’s easier to see your failures than mine. There’s no shortage of critics in this world. That’s why I love David in the Bible. His interest was in his own transformation when he prayed that God would search his heart and “reveal any unclean ways”. Try praying that, and the remedy for failure will begin to work immediately!
Blame – Once I’ve embraced the reality of the situation, it’s vital that I own my part. If it’s marriage, or church, or the corporate world, I’ll be sorely tempted to deflect my responsibility for the problem by blaming “circumstances beyond my control”. You know the suspects: spouse, board, pastor, co-worker, boss.
Of course there are circumstances beyond our control, but our response to those circumstances is entirely ours. We were free to leave and we stayed, or vice versa. We were free to respond with grace, but we lashed out. We were free to find comfort in some redemptive way, but we self-medicated with drugs, or porn, or drink, or shopping instead. It happened. Don’t blame the others.
Shame/Cynicism – For lots of Christ followers these twins are the biggest problems. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, they both have the effect of taking us out of God’s story. Embrace shame and you’ll say that you’re nothing but rubbish, and that God has nothing for you, and can’t/won’t use the likes of you. Don’t believe it for two seconds. A quick overview of the Bible shows us that some of the people most deeply involved in God’s story had also sold family members as slaves, slept with their daughter-in-law, committed adultery and murdered the husband, had a quick temper and rushed to judgement, doubted, had arrogance problems until their catastrophic failure forced confession etc., etc. O yes. God can use you. Whether you stay in the game or go to the bench for a break is God’s prerogative, not yours. But don’t preemptively bench yourself—you may never get back in.
Steps to Take
Embrace – This is really the positive flip side of denial. “Yes” we say, to ourselves if our failure is private, or to the one or ones we’ve hurt if public, “I failed—I own it without excuses.” You drank too much, or ate too much, or look back at your week and see that you didn’t pursue Christ, or exercise, or engage your neighbors in conversation, or whatever it was that you said you’d do and didn’t.
Own it. In the Bible this is called confession, and we’re told it’s the key to moving forward, both with relationships, and in our own internal freedom. I needed to do this again this morning—and pray it will remain a lifestyle for the rest of my days.
Learn – This principle requires more space than a sub-point in a blog post, but it’s vital. If you failed to a reach a goal, maybe it’s too big a goal and you need to adjust, or maybe it was just a bad week and you need to start fresh tomorrow. If it’s some besetting sin like anger, drinking, cynicism, or unhealthy sex, you need to discover why you go there; what are the triggers that move you, and how can you avoid them?
How can you build your life differently to favor transformation? Do you need accountability? Counseling? A chat with a friend who’ll walk with you in pursuit of your transformation? Someone to exercise with? Find your next step and take it.
Receive – Receive forgiveness from Christ, and hopefully from others, if others are involved. It’s vital to believe we’re forgiven because there’ll be a little shadow creature perched on your shoulder telling you that you are your failure, that you’ll never get over it, that you’re worthless rubbish and “why bother”—all in an attempt to keep you stuck in your patterns and failure. Give that voice the finger please—any finger you want, as long as the result is that you stand in the truth that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
Continue – I watched a little kid take an epic fall skiing a couple years ago. I was heading up on the lift and I saw him lose control, fall, slide 150′ down the hill, scraping his face on ice the whole way, and then screaming as he lay there in pain. I quickly got off the lift and skied down to see if I could help or call ski patrol. By the time I got there, he was putting his skis on again and within seconds was off again, bombing down the mountain.
I thought to myself, “Learn from this, R. This is how you fall and fail well. Whatever else you do, you need to get up and carry on.”
Please don’t misunderstand this critical last step. I’m not suggesting that we simply proceed as if nothing’s happened. Do that and we’ll just fall harder the next time. There’s a time to leave your job; or your church; or your leadership position, or your abusive relationship. The steps we’ll need to take in order to be free and really grow often require dramatic changes.
But, and here’s the key, they are changes toward transformation. Wisdom will be able to identify the steps God has for us. Leave your position. Change your church. File for separation and insist that your spouse get help precisely because you want a loving marriage rather than a shell. Join a gym. Find a program that limits your time on social media. Whatever it is… do it.
They’re brothers, these two guys in their late sixties/early seventies. They’re on the deck of the first Alpine hut we stayed in, and it’s morning, about 7:15 actually. I’m out there to enjoy the view and take a few pictures, while these two are about to hoist their packs and head out for a long day of hiking to the next hut. They’re strong. They’re vibrant. They’re optimistic. They’re healthy. And they’re “old.”
They are the first of an endless stream of encounters my wife and I will have with people older than us who are also stronger than us, or at least as strong—well able to carry 20 pounds on their backs for 10-15k day after day, at elevations ranging from 3,000-7,000 feet. Their presence on the trail has shaken me in the best of ways. By example they’ve said: “Yes Richard… it’s possible to stay healthy for many years to come.”
It won’t happen accidentally though, so I asked some of the “wise and wonderful” seniors I met on the trail what kept them in Gore-Tex and polar-fleece, what kept them moving into their late years. Their answers, coupled with a careful reading of this book prior to my departure, have revealed four ideas that will give us a good shot at remaining healthy and active for a long time.
1. A good theology of the body – You know this already, but it’s important to be reminded that we’re not disembodied spirits, that the bodies we’ve been given are marvelous wonders, and that it’s our calling and privilege to take care of our bodies, because they’re the visible expression of who we are.
2. A new vision for normal – Prior to the start of the trip, we envisioned ourselves sitting around in these huts with people between twenty and fifty. They were there, but there were scores on either end of that, both the very young and the very old. Their presence served to create a different vision of what normal is, or can be. It can be normal, at nearly any age, to walk or jog several miles a day—often with a pack on that effectively adds exponential work to your exercise. It can be normal to eat fresh, well prepared food, rather than chemicals mixed together and microwaved. It can be normal to respond to stress by getting adequate rest, some outdoor exercise, and by spending time with good friends.
I know that this new normal isn’t always possible. There’s cancer and other unwanted intrusions, and some people are living in refugee camps, while others are working three jobs just to be able to afford health insurance. But for many of us, these exceptions don’t apply. For most of us, we have the capacity to stay healthy and active, and I’m increasingly convinced that such lifestyle commitments will make us more effective in everything else we do in our roles as teachers, health care professionals, spouses, parents, students, pastors, neighbors, and friends.
I challenge us to rethink our view of normal, because our culture faces an obesity crisis that stems from a slow decay of health habits
with respect to food and exercise. What’s worse, we’re teaching the rest of the world to follow us. It’s time for a fresh vision. One fellow traveler on our Alps journey was a 70 year old named Klaus. He’d been out hiking for 30 days and was nearing the end of his trek when we meet him in a hut and shared a meal. It was cold outside. I was tired, in spite of the fact that I’d done 1/3 the distance as him today. We’d just had supper together and he was absolutely effervescent with joy over his hike that day on dicey ridge, conquering seven summits, all over 6,000′ elevation in 15k of distance and eight hours of hiking. He was wild eyed as he spoke of the challenges and beauty. When he finished supper he went outside, and came back, knowing that I too enjoyed photography, and he said, “You must photo the sunset! Fantastisch!!” I didn’t want to go out, but I did because of his enthusiasm, his lust for life. Klaus became my new inspiration for a new normal that night.
3. A good aerobic base – The book I referenced earlier taught me about “building an aerobic base.” I thought I knew about this base, but no. It turns out that I, like most of America, was actually not doing aerobic exercise when I was out jogging, because I was going too fast. The whole thing’s rather complex, so I’ll spare the details because you can read them starting here.
The bottom line is that if we’re going to be active for the rest of our lives, we’ll need to start moving, at the right speed, most days of the week, for at least an hour. Most “walkers” need to speed up a bit. Most “joggers” need to slow down. On our recent hikes, we’ve encountered cross country ski teams from Russia, Italy, Sweden, and Norway. All of them are doing the same thing. They’re building their aerobic base through lots of long, slow, distance.
When I started exercising this way, just before leaving for Europe, I was appalled at how slow I was running around Green Lake, as I tried to keep my pulse rate in the treasured “aerobic zone.” Not any more. These days I’m cherishing the good vibes that come from a long slow jog, or a hike uphill, because at the end I feel great, and I know I’m building an even stronger base for the future, know that I’ll come home energized for the day, rather than drained.
“We hike together every year for a week, and because of this, most of us walk nearly every day to stay in shape for this one week adventure together,” is what I heard from a group of 70 year-olds.
“‘Use it or lose it’ is, I believe, how you say it in America, no?” said another woman, part of a group on a trail that included climbing a half dozen ladders and crossing a couple high suspension bridges.
All these testimonials from the wise and wonderful seniors we encountered elevate consistency as a high priority. Our bodies produce everything needed for an active lifestyle as long as we stay active. Stop moving though, and everything changes fast.
The “Body. Soul. Spirit.” logo you see on clothes I wear comes from the school where I’m presently teaching in Austria. They take all this stuff seriously, and yesterday the students were out playing soccer or volleyball or ultimate, or jogging or hiking or climbing. The goal though isn’t twelve weeks of this—it’s a lifestyle change we hope will last. Same with Bible reading. Same with prayer. Same with fellowship: consistency, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is the goal for every area of our lives—body, soul, and spirit.
How are yours?
My predecessor at the church I lead in Seattle served that community for 38 years. The farmers in these high Alps have held the same land, stewarding the soil and shepherding the flocks entrusted to them, for generations. Fred Beckey is still climbing in his 90’s, in the mountains he’s been exploring since 1936. And yes, there are healthy marriages where spouses are still in love, having been faithful to each other in every way for over half a century.
In a world where leaders often burn out, melt down, get bored, or create some sort of credibility gap that forfeits them from leadership, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to be the kind of person whose life is characterized by longevity and sustainability rather than crisis and frequent change.
As I return to Seattle, soon to begin my 19th year in ministry at the same church, and begin my 25th year of teaching with Torchbearers this week, it’s become clear to me that there are some (at least five) non-negotiable values anyone interested in “being in it for the long haul” should assess, develop, and fan into flame. I don’t offer these from some high point of arrival, but I do offer them as priorities that I’m trying to continually build into my life so that I’ll be able to use the gifts God’s given me for many more years. The values?
1. Teachability/Humility – This is the most important thing of all, because pride seems to be, as C.S. Lewis says, “the greatest sin” due to the reality that it shuts us off from receiving much needed truth so that we might continue to grow. When we refuse to let other people speak hard truth into our lives, we’ve essentially sealed ourselves off from the food we need to keep our spirits alive. After all, revelation doesn’t come from merely locking ourselves in a room and praying. It comes from other people, whom God uses to challenge us, encourage us, and expose us so that we can grow.
If my spouse says I have an anger problem, the next ten seconds are the clearest revelation of my truest character. If my friends or co-workers try and show me an issue and I refuse to see it; if my boss confronts me repeatedly on a performance issue and I become repeatedly defensive, then my days are numbered, no matter how many other well developed skills I have in my tool kit. Teachability is the one ingredient I, you, everyone, must have, if we’ll keep growing our whole lives.
David was undone by the prophet’s exposure of the lust, deception, and abuse of power he thought he’d hidden so well. There was no self-justification, no mitigating circumstances, nothing but pure confession as you can read in Psalm 51. Saul on the other hand self-justifies, denies, blames others and circumstances for his issues.
All of us are either becoming more like Saul or more like David every single day, and we’d be wise to ask ourselves which way we’re moving because history is littered with highly gifted people whose gifts ended up on the sidelines precisely because they built walls around themselves and became “untouchable,” “unconfrontable,” “unteachable”. Great gifts without humility and teachability can create a dangerous cocktail.
2. Rhythm of Work and Rest – I hope to write more about this soon, but for now I’ll note that we’d arrive “bone weary” at the various huts during our days of trekking. Just this past Friday, I felt spent after our 3000′ ascent to the hut. My legs ached, and the muscles around my shoulders were nearly yelling at me for carrying a heavy load on my back yet again, as I’d been doing so often the previous 40 days. I took my pack off even before arriving, leaving it on a bench outside the hut. I couldn’t imagine hiking another step.
Some soup. A nap. We wake, and I can’t even believe I’m saying, “let’s go for a hike before dinner” to my wife, who’s as ready to go as I am. We ascend a summit, and enjoy some holy moments on our last night in the high Alps. Without the rest, we’d not have made it, or enjoyed it. With it, the miracle of restoration happened, physically and emotionally.
Are you finding a rhythm to your day that provides enough sleep and food and fresh air and exercise? If not, don’t speak of “burn out” until you address the imbalance because you might just need a nap and a cup of soup.
How about your week? Is there a day with less adrenaline, or are your weekends as packed as your week? You can live that way for a while; just know it’s not sustainable. You’re wired for rest.
Sabbatical years, and years of Jubilee were intended by God because the entire universe runs on principles that God will bring restoration when space is provided for rest; when people rest, when the land rests, good things happen.
Sure, there are seasons of intensity and periods on our trek when we did a few consecutive long days. But it’s unsustainable. If we’re going to to go the distance, we’ll need to take sleep, Sabbath and extended periods of real rest seriously.
There are three more principles, equally important, and I’ll share them later this week:
3. Rooted and Grounded: A Firm Identity
4. Patience, but Relentless Pursuit
History’s filled with gifted people who refused to deal with the glaring dysfunction because they thought their giftedness would see them through. It won’t. Others neglected vital rest, thinking their devotion to the work required the sacrifice of their emotional, physical, spiritual health. It doesn’t.
Marriages, churches, athletes, students, leaders, farmers, all need more than mere gifts, exciting plans, and adrenaline induced zeal. They need values that will lead to sustained fruitfulness. Here’s hoping each of us take these values seriously.
I welcome your thoughts.
Fiercely Interdependent –
We awoke to perfectly clear skies with stunning views of the Alps in every direction. A blanket of low clouds shrouded Innsbruck and the river valleys. Everyone was up early, per the instructions of our host the night before, and we enjoyed a breakfast of meats, cheeses, good coffee, and an egg. Again, as with yesterday, the tables were graced with candlelight, but the lingering conversations weren’t part of this morning, as everyone was eager to hit the trail.
My sunglasses had disappeared the night before, and this, along with some other things, meant that we were nearly the last people to leave the hut, starting our hiking at 7:45. We immediately caught a ridge, already high above treeline, and began making our way south and up. Up. Up! Up!!
This is the section of the via-Alpina about which we know absolutely nothing, having only the map, but no narrative description due to our change of plans stemming from italy’s holiday crowds. Had we troubled ourselves to look more intently at the route we would have realized that we were in for a quite challenging day. The trail follows a high ridge up and down, seemingly endlessly, as we capture seven different summits and crosses along the way. But what the map can’t tell you is the extent to which the route demands some basic rock scrambling skills. There are places of extreme exposure, where a slip would mean a fall of a thousand feet. There are places where the “trail” is narrow, and there’s no protection in spite of the exposure. Other places have steel cables to hang onto for extra security, and there was one steel ladder that needed descending. Hang on or you’ll die!
This kind of travel is taxing in every way, both physically and mentally. As a result, we didn’t make good time at all – the first 5.5 kilometers taking a full 5 hours to complete! That wouldn’t be so bad if that were the end of it, but this was a 15k day, which meant that at the end of all the very taxing ascending and descending (7 crosses!!) we still had a 10k to complete, and this second10k took 4.75 hours! The signs said 7.5 and it had taken us 9.75.
That’s a long day, and we arrived absolutely spent. However, there’s more to the story:
On the previous day, hiking up to our hut, we’d met, and passed, two young girls in their late teens. It was clear that one of them was more highly motivated than the other, but both of them were making their way to the hut, without poles, and wearing denim! We became friends with them in the hut that afternoon, Inga and Feli, from near Frankfurt, both 17 years old. The tour was Inga’s idea as she said, “this is something I want to do, something I want to accomplish for myself, and once I do it, nobody will be able to take it away from me.” She’s a young, determined woman, who speaks English easily well enough to converse with us. Her friend Feli is along, and much quieter, perhaps because of the language barrier, so I don’t know her motivations.
As we began our hike and its level of difficulty became apparent, I wondered whether the girls would make it or turn back. Soon I realized that the danger of the route would be such that nobody would turn back and repeat the difficult risky moves, so Donna suggested that maybe they’d taken a different route. We were slow, and I watched with some dismay as everyone left the hut before us, and even when we began walking, distanced themselves from us because of their speed. We would be the last people to arrive at the next hut. Thankfully we’d made reservations.
As we achieved our first “summit” (a notch really, because there was no cross) we saw a view of a couple of people not far from us. As we pressed on we soon caught up with… Inga and Feli! It would turn out that we would hike the rest of the route with them.
There’s codependency in this world, and then there’s interdependency. Be careful if you use the word ‘codependent’ too much, because while it might be legitimate, it’s also possible that what you label codependent might stem more from a devotion to utter independence than anything else: trust no one, be vulnerable with no one, receive from no one, give help to others sparingly, if at all.
In this instance, all of us helped each other on the route. It was pure joy to watch Donna’s maternal instincts kick in, along with her commitment to being an encourager, as she became both mom and cheerleader for Inga and Feli. “Make sure you’re staying hydrated!” she’d say in one moment, and then “you girls are awesome” in the next.
Inga, on the other hand, was the model of healthy stoicism. She’d see a difficult climbing move that needed to be made, or another summit yet ahead, and sigh deeply. Then, after a moment of silence, she’d simply say: “and yet we must do it” in a German punctuated, matter of fact, accent, that made you actually want to do it. Though we’d have continued anyway because going back on this somewhat treacherous route would have felt like a death sentence, Inga made continuing much more palatable.
I was wondering if I had anything to contribute to this little thrown together foursome, until we encountered a brief snowfield across which we needed to traverse. This was a high stakes 30 meters, for a mis-step would have led to a rapid, out of control snow descent to waiting rocks below.
These girls knew nothing of this and had no poles, so I, being out front in the moment, surrendered one of my poles to Feli, and explained snow traverse to the girls. “Put the weight on your heel” I said, showing them by example in case language failed, “and plant your pole too” The girls nodded, and Feli took her first step without event, but by her third, landing on her toes first, she’d begun to slip and used her pole to prevent failing, swearing in German as I’d come to recognize these days on the trail. The rest of her steps were perfect and she and Inga both crossed the snow without event.
We became friends with the girls along the final 10k, and it was there that Donna learned that Feli, too, had a sense of stoicism about her, as she revealed that someone had taken the wrong boots this morning, so that she was wearing her brand of boot, but in the wrong size! That might not sound like a big deal, but you try achieving seven summits in one day with shoes that 1 size too large!
When we finally arrived, we enjoyed a meal with these two, and exchanged email before they left for their next journey while we stayed an extra night at this hut to recover.
I have blisters. Donna has a bit of pain in her joints. We not sure we’ll have all the stuff it takes to do the long days of the via-Alpina if there are too many of them like this “seven summits” day, but the huts, and trails, and the mutual interdependency are all rich blessings that make the blisters worth it – step by step.
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
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.