Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next. If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media. For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul. Happy reading, and happy sharing.
Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’ Richard Rohr
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. Bill Gates
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you…. Jesus the Christ
“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time. You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened. You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success. The business grew. You were promoted. The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities. All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing. You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff. Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, Prom night, graduations. It’s not perfect. There are bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days. Life’s filling up. The business is gaining new market share. Investments are doing their job. It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly. Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed. You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more. Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful. That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become, in some measure at least, “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below. You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar. You’re not sure where you are anymore. You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute. The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too. You went, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll. You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living. Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly. There’s your influence to consider, and reputation. You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night. At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position. These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang. “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code. Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter. I thought you were Kristi. Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope. I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.” I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings our food. I’m sitting in rare Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today in the Alps. Paragliding. They found his body early this evening. I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.” After a silent moment Peter says, “I know. I’m sick too.” We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me. I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to. Then I go home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love mourning in darkness.
Hans Peter was the director of a school in the Alps where I teach regularly, and a kindred spirit. We’d skied his mountains together there, snowshoed in mine east of Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst the monuments of Washington DC. We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids; argued theology and commiserated about leadership. We’d walked life together enough that even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff. It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner. The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for a video that needed making. Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed. There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job. The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.
Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing. It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”. But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all. Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself. Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition? What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness. I wondered if I was on the right mountain.
Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table. Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them. I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant. What was wrong with me? As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.
I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring. Like any peak, it came at a cost. Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing. New locations. New leaders. New responsibilities. New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships. The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting. But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year. Success! And emptiness at the same time. Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. Success is like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”. You want it to shine on you too. We call it lots of things, depending on our profession. We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love. Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning. We want our lights to shine. We want significance. I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success. That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy. There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believe that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp. In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year. In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper. We were rural, small, subsistence. There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Kerouac spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings, laughing around the kitchen table. It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people. “Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small. I was wrong of course. Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me. I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger. Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame. In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment. When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.
That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily. This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more. HR task forces. Policy Manuals. Bigger and bigger budgets. Adapt. Grow. Celebrate. Adapt. Grow. Mourn a little bit. Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership. Grow more. Repeat.
People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all. I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy. After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”. I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”. Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth. The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people. Healed. Empowered. Transformed. Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question: “Where does this story end?” and the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room. The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable. “Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity. Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well. But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified. And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading. What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty. When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves. Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long. I knew I needed to move.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters. The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father. Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale. And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements. We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more. Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency. I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic, treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away. The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail. In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days
And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.
You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers. My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages.
On Sunday November 25th I’ll be speaking at all our Bethany locations on the very important subject of how to turn spiritual disciplines into regular practices in your life so that you’re able to grow in joy, confidence, wisdom, mercy, strength, love, and freedom. I hope you’ll make every effort to attend, and if you can’t I hope you’ll attend online, because this is what ties everything we’ve been discussing this fall together. I believe it’s one of the most important sermons I’ve ever preached, and the material we receive tomorrow will lay the foundation for solid discipleship in our communities for years to come. Here’s what I mean:
Saturday, November 25th, 4PM. I’m on a train in Germany between the small village of Kandern where my daughter teaches, and the established city of Friedrichshafen, where I’ll be teaching this week at Bodenseehof. I have a window seat, and it’s November dark, with clouds burying the Alps in a grey that’s reflected back on Lake Constance. Trees are naked, stripped of all leaves, all color, all life. The whole of the moment cries, “selah”, which means “pause”, “rest”, “pay attention”. I do, and in the moment, breathe deep. Classical music fills my ears, from the like of Josh Groban and Yo Yo Ma. Indescribable.
Aren’t you glad they practiced? These artists have gifts, though the word gift is dangerous. It implies that the skills of a virtuoso simply bubbled up from within until they overflowed, like a jar of kombucha tea that’s been shaken too much. BOOM! Talent awakens and bookings begin. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Everything worth doing requires intention and practice, and while there are various theories about how to practice, and how much to practice, everyone agrees that there are things you must do if you’re going to master a skill.
Christianity isn’t a skill, of course, like playing the cello or singing. But Christianity does, on the other hand, have deliverables, given by Jesus himself. He said: When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father (John 15:8). Fruit has nothing to do with electing republicans, contrary to current conventional evangelical wisdom (after all, you never saw Jesus advocating for a certain party, for the obvious reason that ‘his kingdom is not of this world’. He brings an ethic that transcends all parties, nations, and economic systems – but I digress). Fruit has to do with displaying the character of Jesus, allowing it to flower and blossom so that a supernatural love and joy, peace and hope, wisdom and patience, well up from deep within, arising from nothing less than the resurrected Jesus who’s taken up residence inside us!
If Christians could learn that this fruit of changed behavior and countenance, not the proving the resurrection or the age of the earth or the superiority of water baptism, is the whole point of the gospel, we’d all be a lot healthier.
Real health, though, arises in individual believers and faith communities, not when they know the right goal, but when they move toward it. So the vital question for our consideration is this. How do we who are filled with Christ, come to live lives that display Christ in greater measure?
The short answer is this: by developing ancient soul care practices! This is because the right practices will have the effect of allowing the Christ who lives in us to find unique expression in our lives in greater and greater measure as days become weeks become decades. Little by little, Christ is being formed, and growing and bearing fruit. But only if the soil of our hearts is in the right condition – and that soil care is our responsibility.
There are people who’ve said they don’t like the notion of “spiritual disciplines” because they imply, wait for it…. discipline. “I was in a legalistic church back in the day and there’s no way I’m going back to that phony, judgemental structure.” Please don’t! Go forward instead – into the life for which you are created.
You weren’t created for a noose of legalism. Too many faith stories have ended shipwrecked on the rocks of shame imposed by authorities who understood neither grace, nor the reasons people should have spiritual practices.
You weren’t created for the desert of spiritual anarchy either. Many, wary of legalism, have swung on the pendulum, and are now “free” which is code for “doing nothing intentional about growing in my faith”
You were created for “the ancient paths” – practices that can start with alarming ease and be incorporated into your existing routines, but which will, over time, transform you so that:
You enjoy increasing freedom from shame, fear, and addiction.
You enjoy increasing power and purpose.
You enjoy increasing companionship with Christ as your best friend, so that you can worship, while traveling alone on a train in November as you pass through barren fields in southern Germany with immigrants from Morocco to your left and from Somalia behind you.
A friend once said, “the Christian life hasn’t been found tried and wanting – it’s not been found tried at all.” Too many of us got our salvation card punched, (or at least thought we did) by giving assent to some doctrines. But we never grew into the life for which we’re created. The way forward into robust faith reality is found on those ‘ancient paths’. Don’t miss the November 25th sermon, and accompanying literature – live or online.
“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all” is how Helen Keller put it. She’s was onto something, surely. When Dave Matthews mused about the “Ants Marching” in his masterful music some years ago, it seemed to me he was pondering a sort of inevitable decay into a ritual of breakfast, commute, work, commute, supper, exhaustion, repeat. There are surely forces at work in the systems that are western civilization contributing to this dismal picture. However, I’d suggest that Jesus wants to infuse our normal daily existence with Divine Life so that in the midst of whatever it is we’re doing, the source of wisdom, joy, hope, mercy, justice, generosity, compassion, and service that is Christ bubbles up from deep within. What’s more, this kind of life is available to us every single day, even the mundane ones, the unchosen periods of suffering, the challenges.
I needed to leave my job for three months and trek through the Alps to learn this lesson, and learn I did, and I’m thrilled to share my adventures with you in my new book “The Map is not the Journey: Faith Renewed While Hiking the Alps”. The death of my close friend in a paragliding accident in the Alps came just at a point in my career where I was beginning to question the future. The convergence of these elements led, a year later, to my wife and I doing a 40 day, 400 kilometer trek through the Alps. Beginning in Italy, we went on to experience the Alps in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Lessons learned there, along with all the adventure of it (yes, we did walk into our private room one night to find a couple sleeping in our bed!) are found in this new offering, now available at Amazon and fine booksellers. Each chapter includes a link to photos from the stories of that chapter, in hopes that you’ll experience the trip we took in a small way too.
It’s a book for everyone who’s wondering what’s next, at any age.
It’s for those whose lives have turned out differently than they’d expected.
It’s for those who are tired, and looking a fresh infusion of life in their daily routine.
It’s for those who have set goals that they failed to meet.
It’s for those who want to learn about hut to hut travel in the Alps, or long range hiking.
In short – I hope it’s for a lot of people!
Here’s a little video teaser I made on my iphone.
You can help this book succeed in a few simple ways:
If you think you know people who might like it, share your purchase, or this blog post, on your social media. Thanks!
Reviews on Amazon are always helpful. Thanks!
What some have said who’ve read it:
Denny Rydberg – President Emeritus of Young Life . “For those feeling fatigue after years of faithfully doing the same thing, for those looking for new eyes to see what God is doing and has on his mind, and for those who need a jolt of adventure, this is the book to read.”
Les Parrott, PHD – “If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring. Richard paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation.”
Jim Zorn (former NFL coach and player) – “Richard’s travels aren’t just good stories of adventures. They’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people. Those looking to find transformation in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”
Please share this post if you think others would benefit from the book. Thanks!
NOTE: This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”. I deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this 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.
As 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.
On 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.
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.
Fear 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!
(This will take a few minutes to read, and maybe create more questions than answers. So at the outset, please know: I believe in just war – I believe in the right of governments to carry the sword in order curb evil as seen in Romans 13. And, I believe in that the path of the cross is our calling as Christ followers. May God give us wisdom)
Of course it happened again. We all knew it was just a matter of time before another bomb went off, this time in Belgium. The explosion and shrapnel, though, is never, never the end of the story. Rather it’s a beginning. It sets off another round of fear, profiling, stereotyping, and hatred. It becomes the soil in which the human heart is tempted or incited to match violence with violence. It mobilizes armies, entrenches already held ideologies, and loads lives down with anxiety over the future. Fear of neighbors. Fear of burkas. Fear of travel. And worse than fear; hate. And worse than hate; the threat of violence in retaliation. And worse than the threat of violence; actual violence.
It’s nothing new. And further, it’s nothing new to note that it’s all being done in God’s name by both sides. Giving a soldier a Bible though, or a suicide bomber the Koran doesn’t sanctify the cause, and there’s no better time to be reminded of this than Holy Week because while wounded people are treated in hospitals, while victim’s families mourn, millions will spend time this week pondering the path of Jesus walking to the cross. That cross, and then one who went there, still speaks and lives today, imploring us to follow him on a different path than the one that matches violence for violence, fear for fear, hate for hate.
As Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem on the last week of his life, his poignant cry is telling. We read that “…he saw the city and wept over it saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!…” And then he entered the city, spoke truth to power, was arrested, unjustly tried, forgave his accusers, and died.
Why did he say that? Evangelicals might have been happier if he’d said, “If you had known the prayer to pray so that you can get to heaven when you die…” Or, “If you had known the right sexual ethic or aligned with the right (or further right) political party.” Or, “If only you had armed yourselves and exercised your 2nd amendment rights.” Don’t misunderstand, please. Prayer, sexual ethics, and one’s views on gun control matter. But Jesus wept because the people who studied, defended, and sought to protect the ancient texts, never knew the things which make for peace:
They never understood, not really, that monotheism is, at the core, about peace. The God of the Bible was distressed in the early parts of Genesis because of the violence which had filled the earth, and monotheism began in the midst of polytheistic world views characterized by violence, tribalism, and slavery. In such cultures, religion was the mask used to cover the pursuit of power for the few at the cost of oppression for the many. So it has always been. So it is to this day.
But the God of Abraham, who by the way, is the God at the headwaters of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, posits an entirely different path. Jonathan Sacks, in his marvelous and timely book, “Not in God’s Name” writes:
Not all at once but ultimately it made extraordinary claims. It said that every human being, regardless of color, culture, class or creed, was in the image and likeness of God. The supreme power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless. (According to this God)….A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Life is sacred. Murder is both a crime and a sin. Between people there should be a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love. Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. Though he lived differently from his neighbours, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God –‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.
Things turned out differently of course. Judaism became marked by a terrible superiority complex of self righteousness. Christianity quickly became wedded with state power, and we’re still bearing the ugly fruits of violent colonialism, crusades, and violence carried out in Jesus’ name. And Islam mutated too, presenting itself as overflowing with hate and a lust to destroy, as seen yet again in Belgium this week. Boom!
Jesus words are haunting. “if you’d known the things which make for peace…” Though we hate what happened this week, and in Paris, and in Istanbul, and in Egypt, and in Syria, I wonder: Do I know the things which make for peace? Or have I baptized my lust for comfort and control in Bible words, and continued to wander in the deep ditch that is violence done in God’s name, matching hate for hate, threat for threat, bomb for bomb?
The answer comes as I walk with Jesus to the cross this Holy Week, and perhaps in light of all that’s happening, this Holy Week is the most important week of our lives. When I walk with Jesus with a goal, not just of feeling bad about how much he suffered FOR me, but rather, through the lens of seeing him as the prototype of what it means to be a person of peace, I’m struck with some profound and radical realities:
I learn that retaliation isn’t God’s way. Peter pulls out a sword and is ready to take on the army, but after cutting off a guy’s ear, Jesus heals him (the very soldier who’s come to arrest him) and tells Peter to put away the sword, reminding him that the one “who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Sure, if you want to get all pragmatic about it, the fact is that if someone’s dead, they’re no longer a threat to you. But their family? Their tribe? Their government? All of them will make sure that, by god, “you will pay.” All the way back in Genesis 4, a man named Lamech boasts, “I have killed a man for wounding me…and a boy for striking me” and goes on to say that if anyone tries to extract retaliation he’ll pay them back 77x greater! Yes. This is our world.
No. This is never. Ever. The way of the cross. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
I learn that forgiveness IS God’s way. Later, after Jesus has been beaten, spit on, humiliated, and nailed to a cross, a crowd is mocking him. Jesus’ response is to pray, asking God to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Wow. If I’m going to walk with Jesus, rather than just appropriating him for my own political ends, I’m going to need to lay down my weapons, lay down my life, and pray for my enemies. I’m going to need to learn how to forgive the very people who aren’t even aware they’re wrong. As Jesus warned the disciples, “an hour is coming when people will think they are doing God’s will by killing you.” That hour is here.
Those who did that to Christ were forgiven. Without confession. Without acknowledgement of guilt. Read it here. Forgiven. In a world where bitterness is the norm, and prevailing ‘wisdom’ teaches us that a scorched earth policy will eventually solve the problem, this notion of forgiving is hard to swallow, and surely leads to more questions than answers. I know because I have the questions too. It seems nonsensical and too idealistic.
But the one answer it does lead to is this: those who have the courage to forgive will break the cycle of retaliation and hatred. They’ll break it rather than escalate it, and those are the only options, friend. Either the cycle of retaliation is broken, or it’s escalated. Will I be part of the problem or part of the solution?
I learn that fear must be overcome. The way of the cross is exactly the opposite of the way of upward mobility, or comfort, or expansion, or matching violence for violence. It’s the way of fidelity to God’s vision for peace, by being peace in the midst of a violent world.
If you think that path was easy for Jesus, consider his sweating drops of blood in the garden on the last night before crucifixion and his prayer that if there were any other way to bring peace, would God please offer a way out, because this way resides far from our instincts for self-preservation! In the end though, those instincts went to the cross too, because the way of peace is the way of losing one’s life to find it, the way of turning the other cheek, the way of letting God make things right through God’s means and timetable rather than taking things into our own hands.
Bombs go off and we’re afraid, especially in proportion to their proximity. But in this global village, every bomb is a cause for fear, a cause for retreating into our cocoon of tribalism or racism or religious retaliation.
It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said “It is better to be feared than to be loved”: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. (Jonathan Sacks)
Yes, and it was Jesus who said, “he who seeks to save his life will lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake, will keep it.” If you think that doesn’t require courage, just ask:
Now it’s our turn, and in the midst of all the political rhetoric inciting violence and hate, my prayer is that you and I will have the courage to walk the way of the cross. That’s what makes this week so special this year. It’s not just for me. It’s my path too. To make it on this path, though, I’ll need to take both fear and retaliation out of my pack, and exchange them for an eagerness to forgive and love. It’s the way of Jesus, and his load is the right one.
I pray I’ll have the courage to go there.
When my wife and I arrived home Monday night after a 5 day delay in getting there due to “snow on snow” (12 feet, or 4 meters for my Europe friends) as the Christmas carol says, the house was dark because the power had gone out. As a result there’s darkness, and lots of it. This far north on the earth, with this many clouds, our world is dark most of December by nature; without intervention we’re in the dark about 17 hours a day!!
Inside, a few candles dispel the total darkness that would otherwise be ours. Now, into our fourth day of power outage, I’m musing on the powers of darkness and light – and perhaps there’s no better day to muse on this than Christmas Eve…
“The Light Shines in the Darkness” is how the great mystic disciple of Jesus named John put it, “and the darkness did not overpower it…”
That’s the way of it of course. Monday night, near midnight, the power had returned and my wife and I were startled awake by the hum of various motors and the return of lights. I turned the all off and returned to bed, but the relief was short lived; another moment awake in the middle of the night was when I realized we were in the dark again. In this total darkness it’s in you to freeze up, afraid of hitting a wall or running your foot into the edge of something. Every step’s tentative, and this is visceral. It’s deeply embedded in our ancient brains to move tentatively, if at all, when darkness shrouds our world.
Then I light a match, there at 2AM, and then a candle. That’s all it takes to dispel the freeze of tentativeness, instilling in me a confidence to move, to live, to take action. Light dispels more than darkness. It dispels fear, uncertainty, and the kind of disengagement that shrinks our lives.
It’s literal of course, but it’s metaphor too, because John is saying that the meaning of Christmas is that light, in the form of Christ. “In Him was life and the life was the light of humans” which means that in a world of darkness, there’s a light to dispel the kind of fear, disengagement, and uncertainty that leads to the racism, tribalism, and violence that so saturates our world.
When the young man who shot and killed people in a South Carolina prayer meeting appeared in court, he was met by family members of the victims declaring their forgiveness. Light shines in the darkness.
A young man, at cost of his life, shelters three young girls in a different shooting. Light shines in the darkness.
Light doesn’t just show in martyrdom though. It shows up in generosity, words of encouragement, crossing social and racial divides, opening your home, visiting prisoners, and o so much more. Light shows up in powerful beacon-like ways, and tiny acts with no more lumens than a single match. It matters not: light is always light. It always wins.
In a world punctuated by the darkness of violence, war, betrayal, and loss, 2015 has been especially dark on a global scale. I don’t need to pour out details of mass shootings, insane dictators, blatant racism, millions of refugees, and the scourge of human trafficking that courses through the veins of our tired earth like a cancer. You know it all already. This is the face of darkness.
I find it poignant that it’s always at the sites of mass shooting or other great losses that there’s a gathering of candles. It’s almost instinctive in us to light a candle at those spaces such as Paris and San Bernadino where darkness has sought to overtake us. It’s a small way of saying “NO! In the name of God, we won’t let darkness prevail. Light wins!”
For years I’ve had a little poster in my office that says, “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness” and o how we need to hear this word as we enter 2016, when most of what I hear is how bad the world is, and how stupid politicians are, and how stupid people are for voting for politicians. Blah. Blah. Blah. Enough already.
How about being light instead?
We need this word because it’s not a platitude, it’s a powerful reality. Jesus said it this way when he spoke to his followers: “You are the light of the world…let your light shine…!” There’s much more to the text but the essence for this moment of darkness is to realize that you and I have a calling. Having been granted the eternal light that is Christ as our indwelling source of hope, it’s incumbent on us to let that light shine, so that all the hope, mercy, generosity, service, wisdom, grace, and reconciling power that is found in Christ alone will find expression in your life and mine.
Every action that looks like the love, generosity, service, sacrifice, wisdom, forgiveness, and joy that is Jesus, is light! And the thing about light is that it always wins; always dispels the darkness as a hint that, when history’s fully written, we won’t all have been sucked into a black hole. Rather, “there will no longer by any ight; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them…”
One little light, born in a manger, is spreading still, and will overcome all darkness in the end.
So tonight when you light your candle (or join us online if you can’t make it to ours or your own), remember that all the light which fills the dark room comes from one source. We receive it gladly and pass it only until the darkness disappears. This isn’t some cute little service. This is the hope of the world.
Go. Be the light, even as you celebrate the source. Merry Christmas!
Behind the holiday lights, both here in Europe and back home in the USA, the waves of unhappy news just keep coming. Colorado Springs. Beirut. Paris. Mumbai. San Bernadino – death dealing violence has become so common its hardly news anymore.
In such times, the events themselves are never the only stressors. There are reactions to the events, or the proposed reactions by politicians and wanna-be presidents that cause reaction too, and then, because we’re all connected, there are our responses to each other’s responses. Gun control or conceal and carry? Religious profiling or open borders? Boots on the ground? Drones in the air? Leave them alone?
These are our debates, and as we’re having them, they usually aren’t pretty. The uncivil dialogue creates yet another stress, as we become ‘houses divided’ even in communities of Christ followers. How good people land on such profoundly different sides on these conversations is a topic for another day. For this day though, I’d suggest that the most important thing Christ followers can do as they seek to form their own convictions on these matters is to make certain that our convictions are formed by things we know with a great deal of clarity from our Bibles. Jesus hasn’t ruled directly whether a ban on assault weapons is a good or bad idea. He didn’t go into detail on what Rome’s immigration policy should be in the 1st century But he wasn’t silent either. Jesus taught us stuff, and it’s the stuff we know that should be our starting point in framing our ethics:
What DO we know?
1. We shouldn’t be motivated by fear
The west is bathed in fear right now, and the fear is giving birth to all kinds of unhealthy responses, ranging from pre-emptive violence against immigrants to amassing weapons and ammo to protect ourselves and our stuff, to blanket condemnations of entire people groups.
It’s important to see that throughout the Bible, if the motive behind our actions is fear, our actions are likely wrong. When the Lord speaks to Joseph about the unexpected pregnancy of his fiance, God tells him to ‘fear not’, and this means he must overcome the natural fear of social consequences and fear of what other people think. The same message to “fear not” comes to Mary, and then later to the shepherds. Everyone is called to simply “do the right thing” and then trust that the consequences of such actions will be in God’s hands.
The problem with fear is that it leads to reactionary responses and often escalates cycles of violence needlessly, and this is the reason we should make certain we’ve slain the fear in our hearts before choosing our course of action, or even making our vote. Fear’s a seductive mistress, often bathed in the rhetoric of patriotism and/or faith, but when stripped to core, it’s still just fear.
2. We’re called to be people of justice
While it’s true that embodying the character of Jesus means turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and laying down our lives for one another, it’s also true that Jesus has a heart for the unjustly oppressed, the downtrodden, and victims of violence whether in Paris or in Syria.
When my pacifist friends tell me that Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, I wholeheartedly agree. What makes our world tricky is the question of how I’m to respond when the lives of others are at stake; my children, my wife, my Muslim or Christian neighbor, innocents celebrating a birthday in a Paris cafe, or gathering for a work party in Santa Monica, the teenage girl sexually enslaved in Asia or Los Angeles due to greed – what should Jesus do here? Maybe more than tweets and prayers.
What does the Lord require of us? Do justice! And then he leaves it to us to figure out what that means. The thing he makes clear is that the justice for which we’re to work is that of others first, more than justice for ourselves.
3. We’re called to be people of mercy
There’s a story in Genesis about Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and God tells Abraham that he will spare an entire city that’s filled with unjust people for the sake of 10 who are righteous.
It seems our conversations these days have become the exact opposite of that. We’re willing to vilify, label, and exclude an entire religious group because of the risk that some few among them might be zealots intent on doing harm. We’ll judge the whole because of the risk of a part being hurtful. Is this mercy?
4. Words matter
Jesus said that by our words we’ll be justified and by our words we’ll be condemned, and then the Apostle Paul followed up on this by twice calling us to watch our language. When we lose civility in our conversations, we also lose credibility. This isn’t to say we should be anything less than honest, forthright, and courageous in what we say. It simply means that the way we say things matters as much as what we say.
Here at the end of this post, I’ve not addressed ethical and political specifics. It’s not because these don’t matter. However before there are ethics, there are motives and priorities which shape those ethics. And now, more than ever, is a time when we need the wisdom of Christ at the core, at the level of motives and priorities.
The Prince of Peace has come. God with us! But more, he’s calling us come to each other in exactly the same way he came to us. May we search our hearts and motives this Advent, to the end that the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands will have their origin in Christ himself.
The Overconfidence of Darkness
“And in His name all oppression shall cease…” These were the lyrics coming from the speakers yesterday afternoon when I discovered there’d been a tragedy in Paris—six actually, or seven—leaving over 100 dead and over 300 injured in a city known for love, civility, fine wine, and late walks along the Seine. If you’ve been there you know the beauty, which only serves to heighten the ugliness, as we’re reminded once again that whatever Jesus meant by “it is finished,” from our chair we pray to God that this isn’t the end of the story, because if the future is nothing but violence and hate, rising and falling according to unanticipated tides, then this is a sorry place to be, at best. All oppression hasn’t ceased. Far from it, in fact. And in moments like these, some walk away from faith entirely, convinced the joke’s been on them all along and that the whole is nothing more than a Darwinian struggle for survival, as we eat our own species to make a statement.
Others, often in God’s name, get mad, certain if we can match violence with violence, and add just a little bit more firepower on our side, that “light will win”. While there’s a place for “the sword” as a means to curb evil, that place belongs to the state, and so I’ll leave it to John Kerry and powerful people from around the world to find a way forward on this front, praying for them and their plans, because God knows there’s zero moral high ground for this, or what happened the day before in Beirut. Pray for those charged with response, not cynically as a partisan, but simply and prayerfully, knowing they carry the weight of watching the West fall apart as much as anyone.
But there’s still another way to look at this, and it’s through the lens of history, realizing that this is yet another instance of evil and darkness overplaying their hand. When it says in Ecclesiastes 3 that God has placed “eternity in our hearts,” I believe this is precisely the kind of situation to which the wise philosopher speaks. Sometimes the evil, the blood of innocence, and the unabashed violence, reach a tipping point where the world rises up and says, “enough.” It happened in Germany in the 40’s, Uganda and Cambodia in the 70’s, Eastern Europe in the late 80’s, and Rwanda in the 90’s. We’re slow, tragically slow, to collectively intervene when blatant violence and injustice lay waste to a people. But eventually something happens. The collective sickening is just too much, and there’s some sort of tipping point reached.
That’s because evil doesn’t know when to quit, doesn’t know or believe that humankind has a limit to its capacity for tolerating unabashed hate, violence, and death. Now, in many of the places named above, there’s a collective commitment to justice, generosity, truth-telling and confession as a foundation for real healing, and lasting peace. Could this be the event that creates our tipping point? That’s my prayer, more than anything, because the reality is that until the vastness of humanity rises up collectively and cries “enough!”, the sorry cycle will continue. Paris, an in-your-face declaration that terrors so common in the Middle East are pouring across all borders. There’s nowhere to hide. Maybe, God help us, this will wake us up to the right questions, the right prayers, and the right collective actions, so that we’ll look back and add Paris to a long list of tipping points that turned things around. Pray with me that it will be so.
The Power of a Dead Fly
Along with the Christmas music, I was reading Ecclesiastes for my sermon tomorrow at the church I lead. It’s in chapter 10 that I read, “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink,” and in the same way, “a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.” Indeed. A failed art student from Vienna becomes possessed with his vision of a pure race, and two decades later millions are dead, some for no other reason than being Jewish, or Communist, or gay. A Czarist apathy regarding the wholesale poverty of the Russian people combines with Lenin’s vision of workers’ rights, and suddenly there’s a totalitarian regime, complete with thought police and gulags and bread lines.
In every instance where a little foolishness has become a weapon of mass destruction, that foolishness has always presented disguised as wisdom, and confidence. People want significance, vision, and to be on the winning team, and so dead flies who shout they’re right in their own circus act of certitude become followable. Wisdom demands that two words of caution be offered here:
1. Mind your own perfume, which is another way of saying “be careful how you walk,” because you can take a million steps correctly, but it’s that one extra drink, or lingering touch, or decision to text, or that need you have to get the last word in every time that will, someday, do you in. There are, in reality, no unimportant moments behind the wheel, or at the supper table with people you love, anymore than there are unimportant anchors to set when climbing. It’s not a call to anxiety; just a call to sober awareness that wisdom means recognizing the potential value OR destruction of every decision. When life’s seen through that lens, we’re more likely to pray about everything, and when that happens, more likely too, to enjoy the peace of God. Lots of people are pointing out dead flies “out there,” but each of us responsible for our own scent. Start there.
2. Don’t be a fool in this coming election season. Confidence isn’t the same thing as wisdom, and shouting that something is true doesn’t make it so. If ever there was a time when we need wisdom among the upcoming lot of elected officials, it’s now. A dead fly in 2016 would be a terrible mistake.
O Lord Christ…
Even as we pray for Paris, France, and the international coalition forming to address the scourge of terror saturating our planet, we pray too for our own hearts. Grant that we might rest in the confidence that, indeed, darkness overplays its hand every time. We pray for an awakening hunger for peace across the globe, so that we might have the collective courage needed. We pray too, for our own perfume, mindful that the scent that is our lives and those of our families and churches, are the thing that matters most in the moment. Grant that we might be so filled with your life that, indeed, it is joy, courage, hope, peace, and longings for justice, that become our scent. Amen.
After a week of meetings in Germany with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship, my wife and I made our way to Schladming for a little bit of rest before I head up to England for a week of speaking at Capernwray Hall. The week is a break in the midst of what has been a very busy time, both at home and on the road.
Because I’m here without obligations or responsibilities, I hadn’t anticipated that the Spring Bible School students would still be here, but as it turns out, today is their last day. What this means is that they’ll spend their morning worshiping, praying, and sharing together the things God has taught them during their time here.
Though I don’t know them at all, Donna and I sneak in the back to listen just a bit and it’s there, in that space, that I remember my time here twenty years ago, in spring school 1995. That spring I spent my free time filling out an application for the role of senior pastor at Bethany Community Church in Seattle because, after speaking there for a week earlier in the spring, I’d been asked to apply for the job, a job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but was certain I didn’t want to miss, if it was God’s will. I remember writing answers to questions, printing the whole thing and faxing it to the church office in Seattle, fairly convinced that my lack of large church experience (I was leading a house church at the time) would disqualify me from consideration anyway.
I was wrong, of course, as I often am when I presume to know the ways and mind of God. By the fall of that same year, Donna and I were packing up our things for a move to Seattle where, on December 1st, we began our five year commitment to the big church of 300 in the big city of Seattle. After a year, 300 had grown to 225. After five years though, we said no to some other opportunities, convinced that there was another chapter for us in Seattle and Bethany.
Five years has become twenty. 225 people have become 3500 people. One location has become six. And all of this represents the faithfulness of God in changing one life at a time, one step at a time. The church in Seattle has changed profoundly.
And here in Austria? New facilities. New staff. New leaders. Larger Bible Schools. A sailing ministry in Greece. Yes… God’s been at work here too, and all the outward signs are but the most visible outward displays representing countless changed lives, now scattered throughout the world like so much life giving seed, making Jesus visible. This space has also been a place of change.
All these thoughts are swirling as I run through the mist hanging in the alps this morning. I’m mindful that the church I lead is changing in good ways, as is this school in Austria. New leaders. New locations. Changed lives. It’s good stuff! So I ponder, as the rain falls – “What practices and attitudes help create positive changes?” Though there are many, these ___ seem foundational:
I. Vertical Connection – Jesus said it: “Abide in me and you’ll bear much fruit” Those eight simple words are at the core of the work God wants to do in the world. This is because God’s desire is to express nothing less than the life of Christ through the likes of you and me. When it works, his joy, peace, power, wisdom, love, patience, generosity, forgiveness and hope are poured out through us, watering thirsty souls.
Foundational as this is, it is also the most elusive piece of the puzzle for many. We’re raised to believe that we have what it takes to make a grand difference in the world, and that with enough planning and projects, metrics and media, goals and objectives, we’ll reach the promised land of fulfilled vision, or meaningful work, or perfect children.
Um, no. That’s not going to happen. To the contrary, the story that God will write through any of us will, in the end, declare that it’s those who are mindful of their own thirst and need for the reality of Christ that God will use to express God’s life to the world.
Our thirst for God and for the enjoyment of Christ’s real presence in our lives are the most important realities we can pursue and experience. They’re as vital as air and water, critical resources for the kind of life Jesus invites us to live.
II. Patient Expectation – My techno watch tells me two things while I’m running this morning. First, it confirms the glad news that I’m running at pace that keeps heart happily ticking along between 130 and 140 beats per minutes, sort of a sweet spot for my running. Second, I lean the even better news that I’m travelling faster in this same sweet spot now than I was last summer when I was here. Same heart rate; faster running! How did that happen?
Gradually. In his book about training for alpine adventures, Mark Twight introduces the acronym: TINSTAAFL, which means “There is no such thing as a free lunch” It’s his way of saying that nobody can compress the time it takes to get in shape for a big climb, thinking that a few cross fit sessions where your heart pumps and your muscles ache and you feel like throwing up will never be able to do the job. “Gradualness is the only way aerobic adaptation is gained” is the essence of what he says.
I just focus on staying between 130 and 140. It’s my body, and the magic of health and exercise that make me faster. My own attempt to go faster nearly two years ago resulted in a strained Achilles, the result of which was a total ban on running for about a month. Faster? My attempts at self improvement were in the toilet. It was then that my physical therapist said, “you’re going too fast – keep your pulse under 135” My first days on my urban running path were an exercise in humility. As person after person passed me, I wanted to shout, “I’m faster than this!!” but I kept quiet and kept doing my turtle thing.
Slowly faster. I’m convinced that those who want to look more like Jesus need to find out what it is that Jesus wants us to actually DO, and what he promises to do in response. This is where my II Corinthians 3:16-18 favorite stuff comes in. That’s where I’m told to “behold his glory” and that if I do that, I will be transformed, slowly, yet relentlessly, ‘from glory to glory’ – so that I look more like Jesus. Little by little, hope will evict despair, light will overcome darkness, love will overwhelm hate, and the whole complex thing that is your personality will be infused with a hope, quiet confidence, and joy that I can’t be made in any self improvement program any more than the guys who make potato chips can fabricate, a butterfly.
Our transformation, you see, is divine handiwork. We are his workmanship, we’re told. So we can all just relax bit, drop our program of self-branding and building a following, stop worrying about what the other moms think of our recipes and living rooms, and simply make getting to know Jesus as a friend our chief aim in life. Then he’ll do the changing while we focus on other stuff, just like my body produces whatever it makes so that i run faster now than a year ago, not because I’m trying to run faster, but because I’m showing up more consistently.
No single devotional, or utterance of gratitude to God for a sunrise, or receptivity to what Jesus is saying through that difficult person – none of these things are deal breakers. The sky rarely opens up and pours out fire, or doves. Instead, like mitochondria multiplying in response to the stress of running, little unseen things are happening, just because we keep showing up.
Then one day, we open our eyes and realize that, in spite of ourselves, the years have given us more joy, more contentment, and more grace, than we’d every have hoped, surely more than we deserve. When that happens we’ll not only thank God for the work God has done, we’ll realize it happened in spite of ourselves, while we were living.
O Lord Christ…
You promise to change us, starting with the gift of rest, if we’ll just relax and learn of you. But we’re religionists, busy, striving, making ourselves holy for you, or effective for you, or at least less guilty in hopes you won’t destroy. Forgive us Lord, for the image we’ve made of you is an idol, and our souls are parched because of it. Staring now, we pray, may you be our pursuit, our joy, our companion. Teach us this, so that we’ll keep seeking you… and then we’ll simply thank you that, without a lot of perception on our part, the deepest changes of our soul needs will ripen. We’ll wake up some day, see the changes, and give thanks.
It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together. I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.
Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for its beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.
The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles. We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.
It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun. We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met. Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on steps until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journey—step by step.
I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life. I think about how much this mirrors real life, how it’s so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected. I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows. I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.
We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge. The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.
As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening. It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces. Donna’s there first, and she signs the book. The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find. When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.
We’ve stood under many these past weeks. Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights. Other moments, bone weary and sore. This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful: for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others. We can barely pray—mostly it’s tears of joy.
We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut. Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about World Cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare. There’s laughter, stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.
I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc.) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way. The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.
I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.
For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut: