The Sacred Art of Unlearning

My granddaughter moved in a few weeks ago.  O yeah – my daughter and son-in-law moved in too, but I’m writing about my granddaughter because I was utterly surprised by her.  I knew she’d be here, but had no idea how much she’d teach me because I’d forgotten about being a child.  We bonded quickly and though I’m aware that I write shielded from the hard 24/7 work of discipline, care, and nurture that is parenting, I’m nonetheless seeing this small child, I believe, through a different lens now than the lens through which I saw my own children decades ago.  Maybe its because I’m at a stage of life where I’m less driven.  Maybe I’m a little softer now.  I don’t know.  I only know that my time with my granddaughter sweeps away some things in me that need sweeping away so that I can once again learn what it means to have ‘faith like a child’.

I hope that by sharing some things I’m learning, you too can enjoy a little refreshment.

Cultivate Curiosity – “What’s that?” is the phrase I’m hearing most these days.  Luci will point at any item in the house and ask.  She knows what she doesn’t know, and strangely, that’s a fundamental precondition for learning and knowing anything.  One of the problems with adulthood in general is that once we’ve developed a capacity to find our way through the maze that is daily living, we’re at risk of functionally becoming “zombies”; not literally of course, but in the sense that we’re falling far short of the kind of humans we’re created to be.  Instead of overflowing with delight, gratitude, and deep engagement in the moment, we’re stuck inside our heads with anxiety, fear, regret, shame, judgements, and obsession with our appetites.

We all need to re-cultivate curiosity, but none need it more than the political and religious fundamentalists of any denomination or party.  Matthew Perry, a journalist and atheist, wrote an article entitled “Africa Needs God” in which he declares that his travels in Africa revealed that, “Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.”

I wish this was true among Christ followers in America, but instead we’re predominantly listening for keywords so that we can put people in bins.  I just read that all democrats are “haters”, just as I read that all republicans are “blind,” (a charge also brought against democrats).  Don’t even get me started about the mudslinging generalizations tossed at churches by churches.  If someone doesn’t use the right word to describe the authority of the Bible or have the wrong view of who gets to be a church member, or a different view of baptism, or the meaning of what happened on the cross, or whatever, they get a label and presto!  You don’t need to learn anything from them anymore.

When did we become only turf defenders, judging those who view the world differently?  When we allowed curiosity to dry up?  Listen!  We have nothing to fear by asking questions, nothing to fear by holding our convictions with an open hand.  This is because Jesus is “the truth” and so if we’re seeking truth, then we’ll find it – eventually.  But seekers of truth operate under the presupposition that they don’t have all the answers, and that even some of the answers they hold might just need a bit of adjusting.

We’re in drought season when it comes to the matter of humble curiosity.  Children can help us unlearn our arrogance and start learning again.

Enjoy Helping –  As I was packing for my speaking trip this past week, Luci was with me so I handed her my tech cords and asked her to put them in my backpack.  She was finished in seconds and asked, “What else goes in your backpack?” And thus began a half hour of my granddaughter helping me pack, and talking about airplanes.

When did we grow up and begin viewing help as a burden, or a privilege we dole out while patting ourselves on the back?  It happened, ironically, to the extent that we became insecure in our identity, because the people who give generously to their last breath are people who know they are full.  They know they’ve received much, and so find it both a privilege and delight to give much.  What’s more, like Luci, people who serve do so as a means of bonding with people.  The task isn’t unimportant, but it’s very secondary to the relationship.  Luci wants (to my utter delight) to be with me!

There’s a delight in relationship that trumps task and this becomes the culture in which service can grow.

Laugh – while we were sitting together watching the World Cup final, Luci brought out a quartet of tiny stuffed animals, all from the Winnie the Pooh collection.  I tossed one at her and it hit her on the head.  She burst into laughter so I threw another, and another, and another, until all four were on the floor.  When she stopped laughing for two seconds she picked them up and tossed them at me.  I caught them and threw them back, not ‘to’ her, but ‘at’ her, and soon she was on the floor laughing more, and more and more.

I don’t think I’d laughed that hard in real life for a quite a while because, you know, adulthood.  Plans.  Goals.  Aches and pains.  Fears and regrets. Investments.  Properties.  Retirement.  Health Insurance.  Politics…and a host of other things that steal our capacity to find joy in the moment.   The serious business of living.

Really?  How about we become like children again and live out from a posture of trust? “Faith like a child” is what Jesus called it, and when we live like that, we’re less worried about the future, less shamed over our past, and as a result, more completely in the moment.

Addressing Poverty – one by one by one by one

In the wake of the recent head tax hysteria in Seattle, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mother Teresa’s famous quote about poverty. Answering the question “Which is the poorest nation on earth?” in a very Mother Teresa-like manner, she said, “Yes, yes, yes. I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because,”,she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

This relates to the head tax, and to the liberal dream that money and programs can eventually solve homelessness.  Money, the increasing divide between the rich and poor, the disappearing middle class, and cost of health care are all, as the left  points out, contributing factors to the present and increasing crisis. I, for one, agree.

But the left often seems blind the fact that a strong social network and strong family ties are even more foundational.  When these are in place, individuals in crisis are offered a web into which they might fall, giving their lives a resiliency, emotional strength, and confidence that they are loved. These things, believe me, go a long way in mitigating a myriad of social problems, including homelessness. To believe that addressing all the real problems in the above paragraph without naming the demise of family networks as a scourge is pure folly. The elephant in the room is that we suffer from a depth of relational poverty that isolates, leaving people without the safety net that first and foremost should is the purvue of healthy family systems.

Normalize divorce, encourage endless consumerism in the name of economic growth, steal childhood from young lives by hiring phones and iPads as babysitters, substitute “staying married” for “intimacy,” allow political divides to make family members enemies, toss in a good dose of hypermobility, stay too busy to visit family, raise your children with manipulation to fulfill your unmet ambitions, and presto – you have the recipe for isolation. Isolation is a factor in addictive behavior, which itself becomes an employment factor, and a factor in domestic violence. Can you see the storm arising? The results are people living on the streets who are cut off from family, victims of domestic violence, or opioids, or foreclosure.

You could buy a house for everyone on the streets, but until you address the all the factors that elevate hyper-individualism to the status of an idol, homelessness will continue to mature into an economic pandemic.

The good news is that there’s plenty each of us can do to shine as light in the midst of this dark problem.

1. Recognize the value of family ties. I just returned from speaking at a camp in the coastal redwoods where my grandma was a cook. Every time I’m there, I need to tell the guests to whom I’m speaking that this place is holy ground for me, because when I was a child it was literally the safest place on earth for my young soul. I still have memories of gramdma’s delight as she picked me up, hugged my little four-year-old body and delightedly cried, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here.” The ensuing days as a child where filled with the scent of redwoods and cinnamon rolls, coastal air and bacon. There was laughter, storytelling, rock skipping at the creek, sand castle building in Santa Cruz, and a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Last week, I went and sat outside her still-standing house and could nearly see the ghosts of my whole family, laughing, reading, resting. Heaven on earth.

Her legacy is why I’m so delighted that my oldest daughter, her husband, and my granddaughter are living with us.  I hope and pray that when little Luci is 60, she’ll look back on her time in the fir forest east of Seattle as a safe place, a little heaven on earth. We’ll watch World Cup together, toss a ball, roast hot dogs on a campfire, wade in Coal Creek across the street, maybe even sleep under the stars a night or two.  Hopefully she’ll learn, not by preaching, that people who love God also love people, laugh a lot, are curious, and love the world God has made.

The notion that any program will ever be able to create that is rubbish. Yes, by all means we need to care for the current generation living on the streets and provide both food and compassion. But if we take the long view, we’d be wise to also elevate the value of healthy marriages, of enough time for hugs and freshly cooked food, of family systems where truth and grace and prevail. These, though, are moral issues, solvable only by saying there are things we can value that increase the odds of making families healthier.

2. Name values – and the greatest of these is love. I’ll forever declare that healthy marriages aren’t made by people “staying together” because “the Bible says so.”. Rather, healthy marriages require love, and love requires vulnerability and truth-telling, confession and forgiveness, mutual servanthood, and time, and energy.  I’ll forever declare that sexual intimacy belongs in covenant relationships, that sex isn’t just a form of recreation, that “serial monogamy” is destroying the possibilities of real intimacy, even as evangelical shaming does the same.

This brings me to the next important observation which is that, when our values differ among family members regarding sexuality, money, politics, or any other divisive thing, love needs to win.  You don’t disown your children because they don’t share your view. You don’t spend your meals together endlessly trying to convince the other party. You have the conversation once, or once in a while; never proportionally more than spice to the omellete. Life’s too short for that kind of hostility, and it’s not the way of Jesus.

3. Practice hospitality. The couple in this picture came up to me at the camp where I spoke and told me that they were the “young kids” on staff when my grandma was the cook in the early 60’s.  “We loved your grandma,” he said. “They were hospitable!”  Another old man at the conference told me he was single when he arrived at Mount Hermon and that my grandma had the only TV in the area in the early 60s.  “She invited all the single people over on New Year’s Day for pancakes, the Rose Parade, and the Rose Bowl.” Yes. Food. Sport. And a welcoming home.

We can and must address acute social problems. But we cannot, and must not, kid ourselves into thinking that money solves the most glaring poverty on the planet – the relational poverty that comes from thinking individualism and more stuff can solve all problems.  One of the best things you and I can do in the wake of our multiple national crises is embody the values that make for strong social networks and strong families.

Leadership Beneath the Surface: Paying attention to the Invisible

There are over 100,000 books in the “leadership” category on Amazon.  If you’re a pastor, there’s an excellent Leadership Network, and a Willow Creek Network, Soma, church planting networks, and potentially a seminar to attend every weekend, not to mention the possibility of filling your twitter stream with inspiration and equipping for the job of leadership.  I’ve been to enough of these events to know two things:

  1. This stuff has value.
  2. This stuff has limited value.

It has value because everyone could use a motivational shot in the arm, a reminder that God has created each of us, whether pastors, stay at home moms & dads, code writers, marketers, health care workers, teachers, artists – we’re all made by God with gifts to contribute to this broken world.  We’re all made for influence.

These leadership tools are valuable too, because influence is never automatic in life.  Influence is the fruit of actions, what leadership people might call tactics.  There’s a change in the voting rights of African Americans because there was a march in Selma, and an uproar, and another march.   Of course, before there are tactics, there needs to be strategy, and strategy is the fruit of vision.  Leadership tools often inspire people to embrace vision, creating what some call BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).  Gaining voting rights for Blacks was, without question, a BHAG.  So was putting a man on the moon.  So was ending slavery.  We’re encouraged, usually, to think big, and we hear from people who do.

And it’s right here that I move into seeing the limited value of much that is our leadership equipping culture in North America.  It’s limited, not because it’s wrong (it often isn’t), but because it’s incomplete.  It’s as if we’re encouraged to think big, see some need, and then follow the blueprint for making it happen:  vision – strategy – tactics – all leading to the promised land of fruit and influence.  Done!

I want to stand up and shout, “Not Done!”  It’s as if our leadership culture teaches framing, siding, electrical, plumbing, roofing, and finish carpentry, as if those things can build a house.  They’ve vital, but unless there’s a solid foundation, these skills are meaningless, and even worse than meaningless.  I say “worse than” because to the extent that we believe they’re the bulk of what we need, we’ll respond to our frustrations by reaching for a more powerful dose of strategy and tactics.  “We need change management”  “We need better metrics”  “We need an alignment strategy”  Yes!  We do!  But not yet….

First we need to know that we’re doing the thing God has wired us to do, in the place God has called us to do it.  Things break down here more often than you’d think.  People have de-facto assumptions that their vision’s the right one, that they’re called to create a certain kind of influence in a certain place.  Maybe.  But not so fast!  When the Bible says “Without a vision the people are scattered” the word vision actually means “declared revelation from God” so we’d be wise to make certain that we’re in the habit of hearing from God on a regular basis.  That word, by the way, isn’t just for pastors.  It’s for all of us who believe that our Designer has made each of us for unique contributions to the world, and our role is to find what that contribution is by hearing from God.

“Yes, but how does one go about hearing from God?”  We hear from God the same way we hear from anyone.  It requires paying attention and listening, and two disciplines that are central to any relationship of intimacy.  I know how my wife wants a box of kindling before I go to work in the city, how she likes wood to be in the house drying before it’s put into the wood stove.  This is her “declared revelation” to me, as I’m in charge of the wood while home.  I only know what she wants by listening.  I only know what God wants, too, by listening.

I write about habits that will help develop intimacy with God here, but let’s dig deeper, because just telling someone to read their Bible and listen for God’s voice isn’t very motivating.  What would inspire a person to open their Bible and read, to journal and pray, to pay attention to what they perceive God is saying to them through creation, and text, and community, and trials?

I’m only motivated to seek God to the extent that I have a good dose of humility coursing through my veins.  We might be tempted to think of humility as a self-bashing exercise, telling ourselves and others just how worthless we are.  In reality, the Bible teaches that humility is simply one’s capacity to have an honest assessment of oneself.  That means you know your strengths, and as I’ll write soon, are learning to play to them.  But it also means that you’re brutally honest about your weaknesses, not just your presenting weaknesses, but the stuff that’s lurking inside you as well, waiting to push you over the proverbial cliff.  I know, for example, that I’m in over my head on the tactics and strategy side of running a giant church.  Some parents know they’re in over their head too, as do some CEO’s.  I also know that, apart from Christ, there are dark places in me that would rise up, leading me down destructive paths rather than life giving ones.

Humility, once embraced, is at risk of being “treated” in one of two ways:

  1. “Yes.  You are a disaster waiting to happen.  Better to get out now before the damage is done.”  As a result, lots of people are sitting on the sidelines, not serving, not risking, not leading, as they’re called to do, because they’ve listened to the lie that they need to be worthy  before getting into God’s game.
  2. “No problem.  Another ‘upper story’ seminar can fix you.  You just need to learn how to articulate your strategy with more passion, or diversify your tactics, or manage change.  In other words, we can solve your inadequacy problem with better ‘above ground’ skills.

Nope.  Your inadequacy isn’t a problem to be solved.  Rather, it’s a gift intended to lead you to a life of intimacy with your Guide.  When I don’t know the mountain, I stick with the Guide.  And here’s the reality folks:  Whatever it is that’s staring you in the face in the moment – you don’t know the mountain.  So you need the Guide!

“Thanks for that Richard, but I’m OK.  My business is doing well.  My kids are healthy, 4.0, starring on their soccer team, and 1st chair musicians.  To quote the favorite phrase of culture these days, ‘I’ve got this’.

Fine.  If you want to continue living in fantasyland for a little while longer, go ahead.  The reality though, is that every one of us will eventually find ourselves in the land of brokenness, and that’s precisely where all the good stuff starts.  Brokenness, the existential awareness of our failures and inadequacies, is exactly what leads to humility, which leads to intimacy, which leads to the revelation that takes you above ground, and eventually, to the land of influence.

My dad’s death.  My terrible year one in an urban church.  My melancholy.  My fear of rejection born from adoption… these are all part of my brokenness, yes.  But they’re also gifts – the bedrock out from which intimacy with God is born.

My complaint with American leadership culture is that it minimizes brokenness, or even vilifies it.  In my view, it’s a gift.  One author says it this way:  “…so we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say.  And that does not mean reading about falling, as you are doing here.  We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide!” Yes indeed.  So let’s start teaching and learning the foundational principles of Underground Leadership, in hopes that each of us will find the life for which God has created us.

 

 

 

Steal, Kill, and Destroy – stealing our unity

“Every time the Christian church divided or separated, each group lost one half of the Gospel message…”  Richard Rohr

I understand that the literalists will have a problem with Rohr’s statement, but the point is essentially accurate:  Our divisions are mostly losses, not gains.  Since Jesus made unity a climactic request in his final prayer,  taking steps toward reconciliation, unity, and love for all people, is perhaps one of the most important things we can be doing.  Here are some recent thoughts toward that end:

Here’s a manifesto on unity.    I spoke it the week after Charlottesville in the church I lead.   We’d set up the sermon series far ahead of time, having no idea that the racial divide of America, already a gaping wound that’s been festering for centuries, would become even deeper.   In case you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, here are the talking points:

  1. Jesus’ last prayer on earth was that those who claim to follow him would display visible unity.  He said that visible unity of groups that would otherwise be at odds would become evidence the gospel is real, because it would be unique.  The subsequent 2000 years have, of course, proven him right.  We humans divide into all manner of category:  insider vs. outsider.    Jews and Neo-Nazis.  Blacks and KKK.  Property owners and “serfs” (back in the feudal days), or “homeless people” today.   Saved & Unsaved (in spite of the fact that Jesus explicitly warned us not to play at being the “salvation police” in these words).   Educated and Illiterate.  Young and old.   The result is always the same too.  Our divisions testify that we would rather be tribal than reconciling.  In spite of John Lennon imagining otherwise, we can’t seem to acquire the unity we desire.   Jesus knew that our world is longing for visible displays of dividing walls being broken down, and that when those displays are evident, not just on placards and in marches, but in actual relationships, such unity testifies of a deep spiritual reality at the source.
  2. Visible unity requires truth.  Real unity isn’t some sort of “anything goes”, mindless tolerance.  For any community to be a community, there must be values that mark the community as distinct.  We don’t like this in our highly individualized culture, but it’s true.  If a community stands for peace, then violence becomes ‘abnormal’.  If a community stands for generosity, then closing one’s heart to the needs of the world is unacceptable.   If a community stands for sexuality as an expression of love, then rape, pedophilia, and other sexual power plays are out of bounds. Stand for the truth that every person is made in the image of God, and vilifying any person based on their skin color, sexual orientation, or economic status is out of bounds.
  3. Truth, though, requires an atmosphere of love if it is to thrive.  Air dropping into someone’s life because you see “sin” and “confronting them” is hardly the “speaking the truth in love” that Paul had in mind.  Real telling of truth requires a whole package of things.  When you’re going to ‘say the hard word to someone’, if you’re not willing to also say:  “you are made in the image of God and God’s desires for your life are infinitely more beautiful than you can imagine”, and “I’m committed to walking with you, into the valley of darkness, through it, and into the light”, then don’t bother saying anything.  Lacking a culture of love or a commitment to fostering it, you’re not telling the truth at all – you’re just fault-finding.
  4. Love, though, because it’s love, will always seek truth.   We won’t always know truth, not in a ‘bombproof’ sort of way, the way we know the sky is blue.  But we’ll always seek truth.  That means a real loving community will, at times,  be wrestling with differing views, generously speaking, listening, praying, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith…”  In the meantime,  there will be situations where there are points of disagreement and enough humility to realize that we don’t KNOW (the way we know, for example, that pedophilia is wrong, or that putting a burning cross in someone’s yard, or affirming neo-nazis, or shooting police just because they’re police, are wrong).  When that happens, we’re to seek truth “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love”

Some are so good at speaking the truth that they’ve become the doctrinal and moral police for the world, presumptuously claiming the moral high ground and judging all those “down there” who don’t see things precisely like them.

Others are so good at tolerance that they’ve stopped caring about the pursuit of truth, and are passively endorsing unfettered greed, individualism, and various forms of sexual debauchery, all in the name of unity.  Such unity, though, is worthless in the end because salt will lose its saltiness, and when the time comes to shelter Jews during the holocaust, or take a stand against abortion, or sex with pixels, they’ll remain silent in their attempt to preserve unity.

Nope – too much tolerance or too much moral policing will steal our unity, one way or the other.  It’s time for something different.  Time for truth and love, interwoven so tightly that you can’t tell one from the other.

We live in perilous times, because our social isolation and disintegration of family have created a longing to belong.  This is fertile soil for crazy tribes, including those wearing religious clothes of all faiths and denominations.  Seeking to embody real community, real truth and real love for all people is a lot of work.  But it’s our calling if we claim to follow Jesus.

 

38 thoughts on Marriage after 38 years.

 My wife and I celebrated 38 years of married life yesterday.  Here are 38 thoughts on what’s contributed to our marriage not just surviving, but thriving.  Enjoy, and please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section.  Thanks to all of you who’ve walked with us over various sections of our path!  
still smiling after 38 years of journeying together

1.  we had specific reasons for marrying each other, and through times of difficulty, it’s helped to remember those

2. truth-telling occurs best in an environment bathed in affirmation and encouragement
3. your spouse can’t possibly meet every need in your life.  Enjoy a broad reach of friendships without idolizing them, all the while affirming the strengths of your spouse.
4. having common passions (in our case, the outdoors and the mountains) makes life together very enjoyable.
5. apologizing when you make mistakes, as soon as you’re aware that you’ve made them, is by far the best path to maintain intimacy.  Denial and justification is poison.
6. forgiving when the other apologizes is equally important
7. we both have our bad days, and hard seasons.  Don’t panic when your spouse descends into a valley.  Walk there with them and commit to walking through the valley with them, and out of it.
8. it’s important to create a secure environment where truth-telling and saying the hard thing can occur
9. truth-telling can only happen if the other party knows, at some deep level, that you’re committed to their wholeness and well being, and not just venting frustration.
10. truth-telling also happens best when the one saying the hard word has a sense that it’s safe to do so – but this safety takes time to foster.
11. celebrate and leverage the differences between you
12. she’s practical, he’s idealistic
12. she’s a doer, he’s a contemplative
13. she fixes things that break, he writes.
14. simple, affectionate touch matters – nurture it
15. good sex matters too – it can be a barometer of other areas, so keep investing in it
16. while apart, try to touch base every day
17. never grow tired of saying or hearing the words, “I love you”
18. approaching intimacy with God differently is fine – don’t impose your particular spiritual habits on your spouse
19. help each other discover the spiritual gifts you both have – affirm, celebrate, and use them.  They’ll bring you great joy, and bless others.
20.  know what your spouse longs for from you in order to feel loved. A good resource for this can be found here.
21. cook together and eat romantic meals at home
22. if you’re laughing together on an almost daily basis, that’s a good sign.
23.  you can’t affirm what you appreciate about the other person too often – recognize the profound value of encouragement and offer it regularly.
24. say “please” and “thank you”
25.  nothing will unfold exactly as planned, so as life happens, if you don’t have a spirit of adaptability, it will be trouble.
26. while the children are still in the house, make certain you’re investing in the marriage, not just the children.  After the kids move out, the marriage will still be there, stronger than ever if you do.  And remember this simple formula: happy marriage=happy children
27. in an age of cynicism regarding marriage, remember that your very act of committing to a covenant is culturally subversive, swimming upstream against prevailing currents.  Celebrate that, and recognize the importance of it.
28. if she’s better at fixing electrical outlets, don’t be threatened by that.
29. backpacking together seals the marriage.  When you’re in a tiny tent and it’s raining hard for eighteen straight hours with the wind blowing so that the tent fabric is in your face, you’re bonded for life.
30. recognize the many blessings God has given you as a couple, whatever they are.  Count them.  Be grateful for them.  Celebrate them.   See them as gifts, not entitlements.
31. recognize that the blessings you have are given so that you can bless others.  Talk together about how you’re doing that, and going to do that.
32. don’t cling to certain seasons of life – embrace each new season as a new context for learning, growing, and growing closer.
33. if neither of you have “cards and gifts” as love languages, then count yourselves fortunate.  You don’t need to buy each other cards and gifts!!
34.  learn Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
35. remember that you won’t always be facing the same season at the same time – so be patient with one another, and give each other grace to walk through seasons at your own pace.
36. Even if you’re better at fixing broken stuff, remember to affirm the myriad of ways HE enriches your daily life, talks you into activities you would never do on your own, and cooks delicious food for you.
37.  now that she’s a ranger, remember to always obey her while you’re in the forest
38.  don’t forget that you now live in the forest.  So…..
Happy Anniversary

Vicarious vs. Experience: Not Even Close

There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem.  “Come back!  Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!”  It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story.  She strong, lovely, confident.  And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd.  Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back.  Why?  “So that we may admire you!”

They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives.  This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate.  Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option.  Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal.  The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta.  There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity.  The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction.  Much of this is cataloged here.

Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science.  The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago.  You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world.  What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same.  He/she wants “different”.  If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.

What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention.  Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required?  You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills.  But why not play a video game instead?  Alone.  With no risk of rejection or failure.

In a word: safety.  Is this alternate world real? No.  Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No.  Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel?  No.  But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.

What’s the way forward?

1. A strong core.  If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality.  When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping.  You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world.  Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!

2. A sense of call.  When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ.  When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.

3. A high view of marriage and sexuality.  The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better.  It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation.  They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O.  All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.

4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes.  Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world).  Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.

The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen!  Here are a few resources for your consideration.

Celebrate Recovery

Homecoming

Pure Desire

There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story.   Contact us for details.  Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.

The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God.  You have a calling, a journey yet ahead.  Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you.  Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.

Video

37 Years married and Still Enjoying Eros: Here’s How

Preaching the Song of Solomon this spring has reminded me of a few critical truths that are mostly lost among Christ followers.  In our fear of abusing the gifts of sexuality God has given humankind, we’ve unwittingly taught that our sexuality is a liability to be scorned and controlled, rather than a gift to be celebrated.  The Bible tells us otherwise:

  1. God affirms eros.
  2. Healthy eros requires a cocktail of practices on a regular basis, including affirmation, invitation, respecting each other’s boundaries, and a commitment to serving the other.
  3. These ingredients aren’t possible in casual hook-ups, let alone pornographic stimulation via a fabricated fantasy world.
  4. There’s a book in the Bible about sexual love, because God affirms it.  There’s only one book in the Bible about sexual love because it is a part of life, but isn’t the whole of it.

This past Sunday’s teaching, “Eros Affirmed” might provide some insight into what I’m talking about.  Steep a pot of tea, a carafe of French Press, or a glass of “something”, and have a look and listen – and maybe consider sharing with someone who’d benefit from it.  One woman told me on Sunday she’s planning on sharing it with a few folks who’d benefit from it.

(audio or video)

http://churchbcc.sermon.net/main/main/20940294

I welcome your thoughts!

Idol Busting and Fire Walking – the power of right habits

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

‭‭Daniel‬ ‭3:14-18‬ ‭CEB‬‬

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

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

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

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

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

APPLICATION: 

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

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

“When I’m lonely I visit chat rooms”

“When I’m stressed I drink”

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

“When I’m _________ I ________”

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

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

TRY THIS: 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A letter to men:

 When it comes to sexual abuse, and the treatment of women in general:

Words matter. Mr. Trump spoke on the bus about making unwanted sexual advances and literally grabbing women. He spoke to Howard Stern about walking uninvited into dressing rooms at beauty pageants (a word confirmed by beauty pageant participants). He has spoken numerous times throughout his campaign about the appearance of women, objectifying and judging them.  “Locker room talk,” he says. He’s “Sorry. But Mister Clinton was worse.” Let’s take a look at two things that have come out from hiding because of his words.

First, his words have exposed the pain of a nation. Men should read just a few of the #NOTokay posts on twitter, as Trump’s words have led to an outpouring of women empowered to share their story. To say he’s exposed something would be an understatement. Women, by the millions, have been victims of unwanted sexual advances. Many don’t have a voice to fight back, don’t know who to trust with their story. As a result, they suffer in silence. I know this because in the wake of his words, I sat in a room and listened to the anger, the hurt, the stories from women.

There’s a culture of sexual abuse in our country, and it must be named, condemned, and stopped. The problem isn’t the past; it’s the present. And the problem in the present isn’t just a presidential candidate; it’s an entire culture.

Men, we should be offering Mr. Trump a stiff reminder that words matter. “By your words you will be justified and by words you will be condemned,” is how Jesus put it. He also said that, “out of the abundance of the heart” the mouth speaks. So when a man calls women pigs and says the things he said to Howard Stern and Billy Bush, and there’s an outcry from women, Mr. Trump shouldn’t be surprised.

There should be an outcry from all of us, as well. This is not just locker room talk, or typical banter, but even if it were, it’s not OK. Words matter, and words that treat women as objects to be used for men’s pleasure are far, far from the heart of the life for which any of us are created, men or women.

Second, Mr. Trump’s words have exposed the depth of sexual victimization, misogyny, and sick patriarchy in our culture. I know this because the other trending hashtag has been #repealthe19th, which is a wish-dream to remove the women’s right to vote. That there’s a group of people who are both Islamaphobic and only want men to vote is a bit of irony. That the group is large enough to gain notice is both sad and angering. Our nation has a long way to go, but it’s better than it was in many ways. Women vote. Anyone can sit anywhere on a bus. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back.

History reminds us that redemption is often born out of the depths of darkness.  Rwanda’s genocide becomes fertile soil for a profound reconciliation movement.  Germany’s implosion in the wake of WWII becomes a context for the rebuilding of a nation on an entirely different footing, where every person has dignity and worth, and the common good matters.

If we can listen to those hurt by Mr. Trump’s words, if we feel the pain of what’s been going on for generations and let the weight of it sink into our souls, this darkness can be a low point, a wake up call when we say “enough” and begin fighting to make honor, respect, dignity, and empowerment the norm.  It needs to happen now.  Who’s in?

 

 

Marriage: 37 Lessons from 37 Years of Experience

still smiling after 37 years of journeying together
still smiling after 37 years of journeying together

Thirty seven years is a long time, and yesterday my wife and I were able to celebrate that time marker as the length of marriage.  This is something that brings us both pride and gratitude, but more gratitude than  pride.  We realize that we’ve been largely healthy, and at least one of has been employed, the whole time.  We have much cause for thanks, because of the lives we’ve been given.  Still, 37 years is a big deal and to be both married and still very much in love is, we feel, no accident.  

While I’d never presume to write a book about marriage, it may prove helpful to share some of “what’s worked for us…”  So here they are:  37 lessons learned in 37 years.  Enjoy!  And if you find it helpful or think it might help others, share freely!  

  1. We’ve always made big decisions entirely together.  Why would we move, buy or sell a car, change jobs, or practice radical hospitality, if only one party thought it was a good idea?
  2. Candles at supper have been the default for the 37 years.  We’re at our best when the TV is off and we’re eating together, sharing, talking, and listening.
  3. Our devotional lives are very different, and though it took over a decade for me to realize it…that’s OK.
  4. Our circadian rhythms are also different, and while I’m still convinced God’s desire is for all humans to rise early, I’ll confess I enjoy the quiet house before 7.
  5. We’ve learned to fan each other’s strengths into flame.  She’s better at details, organizing, and maintaining.  I’m better at vision, words, writing, teaching.  We’re done trying to change the other in these realms, now seeing them as assets.
  6. We enjoyed our children when they were small, and still do now that they’re all adults and married. 
  7. Though we enjoy our children, they’ve never defined us fully.  The whole time we’ve been married we realized that we’d been a couple before we had children, and would still be a couple (short of death), after they left home.
  8. Donna’s heart of compassion for others is a quality I celebrate, and I’m in awe of it on a regular basis. 
  9. Her compassion makes me a better pastor and teacher.  I know this, and so any accolades that come my way for my work, I share with her so she knows the important role she plays in my world outside the home.
  10. Donna has her own chain saw.   You have no idea how important this is unless you burn wood as your primary heat source. 
  11. We both love cutting wood, and I love splitting, while she loves stacking.  It’s as if we’re made for each other.
  12. We are both terribly easily pleased.  Sunsets, simple meals, good coffee or tea, the smell of the forest, and the sound of birds bring us as much joy as a night at a fancy restaurant, or a concert or sporting event. 
  13. We’ve learned that we’re aging (in spite of fish oil and eating occasional vegetables) and have adapted.  In fact, I’d say “adaptation to life’s changing seasons” has been one of the most important reasons we’re still wildly in love.  We gave up the illusion of control a long time ago.
  14. We’ve worked at our sex life to make sure it’s still enjoyable and life giving to both of us.  This requires conversation, total transparency, a bit of trial and error, and a sense of humor.  That is all.  
  15. She wants a cat and I don’t.  I want a big dog, like a Malamute or Husky, and she doesn’t.  So we’re happily pet free.
  16. Our shared love of the mountains, evident from the day we met, has been a good glue.  We get outside together often, and always have.  It’s a context where real sharing occurs.
  17. I’ve appreciated Donna’s quickness to forgive.  “The freedom to fail” was one of the three things I was looking for in a spouse.  She’s given me that and the result has been a profound transparency that I now realize is too rare among married couples.
  18. She’s not picky about music and I am.  This has worked out well for me and, I can only assume, for her too. 
  19. Early on we sought approval from each other for any expenses over $20.  The amount’s gone up.  The principle remains – no money is “mine” or “hers”.  It’s ours. 
  20. We’ve paid our credit cards on time every month, which means we’ve bought less than we’ve made.   
  21. We’ve given our money away – both to our church and other organizations.  We’ve done this regularly, even when we were making “not so much”. 
  22. Beyond our economic compatibility is the unanticipated gift that I’ve never felt pressured to “earn up” in order to achieve a lifestyle.  Only now, looking through the rear view mirror, can I see what a blessing this was, and still is. 
  23. We are both strong as individuals.  This has been important because throughout our marriage there have been seasons where we’ve been able to offer less of ourselves to each other.  Travel for work, young children, and aging parents, all come to mind.  I tell young couples that one of the best things they can do to prepare for marriage is develop a strong sense of personal identity, so that they’re not making incessant demands on their spouse to fill some gaping hole in their life. 
  24. To really know what the other person wants in a given situation we sometimes jokingly say, “What would you do right now if I weren’t here… If I were dead?”  “Well if you were dead, I’d have steak, mushrooms, and a spinach salad.  Then I’d go for a walk and listen to the birds.”  Done.  Evening planned, or decision made, according to the desires of one or the other of us. 
  25. Each of us believe that marriage requires a million tiny little positive investments, and that each positive investment will eventually yield rich dividends.  As a result, a neck rub, a clean kitchen, a meal prepared while the other rests after a hard day, are things we enjoy doing for each other.  We’ve recognized that the joy isn’t just in the moment, but that there will be joy later because of these tiny acts of kindness.
  26. We don’t watch much TV at all.
  27. When we argue, the win isn’t that one of us is right and one is wrong.  The win is that we both feel heard and honored by the time we’re done. 
  28. We both believe that God brought us together, and brings every couple together, in order to create a new union that will bless the world uniquely.  Because of this we have a sense of calling to be a blessing to others, and though we debate what that means and looks like, we are truly seeking to live into that calling.
  29. We are both able to say the hard thing to the other and know it will eventually be received. 
  30. We laugh nearly every single day and this seems, to me, to be a sign that we’re still having fun, and she’s still the one!
  31. We share some deep commitments to a body/soul/spirit theology that means we take exercise, food, stress managements, and sleep seriously, just as we take prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, and service seriously.
  32. We share some recreation, in particular hiking and downhill skiing. 
  33. Sharing recreation requires that we appreciate each other’s personalities.  I go fast and push for more.  She slows down to savor.  It’s a dance and we do it well enough that we genuinely enjoy our shared loves. 
  34. Traveling together has not only expanded our world, but increased our intimacy.  We’ve seen things in other parts of the world that have challenged our ways of thinking, and that we’ve seen them together has been helpful.
  35. We know each other’s love languages.  Hers is “words of affirmation” and mine is “time spent together”.  Knowing this and serving each other in these ways is huge.
  36. Christ is the foundation of our marriage in the sense that our completion in Christ is the well from which we’re able to draw so that we can serve and bless each other freely.
  37. Forgiveness.  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”. Ephesians 5:32

We’d love to hear what’s worked for you in the comments section.  Cheers!