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.
1. we had specific reasons for marrying each other, and through times of difficulty, it’s helped to remember those
I tell you not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. Matthew 6:29
It’s wildflower season in the mountains, and they’re everywhere. Mountain daisies made their first appearance down in the coastal foothills in late May. They’re long gone down below, and up here, after a few weeks of full glory, it’s clear that their glory days are already past.
Full flowering glory.
The Bible says that we’re just like flowers; here today, gone tomorrow. Far from depressing, I find that pondering the brevity of life is encouraging. It grants perspective, and fosters a cherishing of each moment as precious, each breath a gift.
I run the trail early in the morning and as I pass the wildflowers, ponder the power and poignancy of this millennia-old rhythm. Far from depressing, the truths apparent in the brief but spectacular wildflower cycle mirror critical truths of our lives precisely.
1. Life happens when we draw on resources. The wild daisies are in full force on the ski trail up to Thunderbird lodge, a trail that appears to be nothing but dry stone this summer in which we’ve had not a single day of significant rain in over two months. You’d think dry stones wouldn’t produce flowers, yet there they are. They find the water somehow, enough to thrive.
“What’s needed for thriving?” I ponder. I remember Jesus’ invitation, that time when he stood in the middle of a crowded courtyard and shouted, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.” It was a rhetorical question of course because, God knows, all of them, and us too, are thirsty. Not just for h2o, though that matters, but for meaning, hope, intimacy, peace, justice, enough. The outlandish promise is that those who come to Christ, wherever they are in the world, will be granted a capacity to blossom and bless. Some have blossomed as martyrs, others through radical generosity, still others through waking in valleys of poverty and injustice. The promise isn’t ease. It’s that God can use every single circumstance of every single life to pour blessing, somehow, into our world – if we’ll drink from the well that is Christ.
2. Life is a rhythm of flourishing and disappearing. The Indian Paintbrush, so abundant just a week ago are gone; so gone that to look at the hillside you’d never even realized they existed. This is the way of all living things. In fact the Bible explicitly says our lives are like flowers of the field; here and flourishing one day, gone the next, and “it’s place knows it no more”, which is a way of saying that eventually, even if you have a plaque or statue somewhere, the world is no longer yours. Like the flowers, we’ll be gone and forgotten.
Don’t forget the first part of that same passage though. We’re invited to “flourish like the flower of the field”. Over the course of the summer I realize that the flourishing of various plants come in waves. Daisy. Paintbrush. Foxglove. Bear Grass. They come, flourish, and disappear. “Pay attention Richard!” I say as I stop and soak in the landscape, which will never again be exactly this. I think of those who flourished and are no more. My dad as WWII soldier, teacher, principal, superintendent. My mentor as WWII soldier, evangelist, preacher, leader. My mom as wife, parent, teacher, volunteer, caregiver. My grandmother as baker, hostess, lover of her grandchildren. My sister as musician, mom, wife, sister, friend to so many that, at her funeral, dozens claimed her as their “best friend”.
They all flourished! They invested the preciousness of the single life each were given in ways that made a difference in the lives of others so that, in the same way that particular daisy might be gone, a daisy well-lived will carry on through generations of fruitfulness. That’s what flourishing means. As a result, my dad’s flourishing means a son who’s serving and leading. My mentor’s flourishing means there are over twenty Bible Schools around the world proclaiming Christ as life. My sister’s flourishing means the grandchildren she never met are learning to live as a blessing in the world because of her.
Yes, our time is short. Yes, we’ll disappear. Yes, we can continue to make a difference after we’re gone, and we’ll do that by flourishing while we’re here.
3. Life is short. Savor, don’t squander. A lifelong climber in Yosemite, Royal Robbins wrote this to his daughter during his end of life battle with cancer: “I mean to live this year as if it were my last (may God grant that it won’t be so), and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away, (much less days!) in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones…”
He echoes the Psalmist who reminds us that we have 70 years, maybe 80 or more if we’re fortunate, and then our days are gone, like the early season daisies. This stark observation, undeniable in spite of omega-3’s, cross-fit, stress management, and jogging, is followed immediately by a prayer. “Teach us, Lord, to number our days”. In other words, “don’t let me fritter away even a single second. Let me live with eyes wide open to all you’re saying to me – in the beauty and ugliness, the darkness and light, the joys and sorrows, the companionship and solitude. Let me absorb it all and live well, “flourishing” during those brief days I’m granted.
I look around, amazed that in all the vastness of time and space, this time, this space, are ours. We’re alive! Breathing, loving, learning, failing, weeping, serving and being served. Grant that when we sink into a mindset of squandering, allowing our lives to be reduced to bitterness, we will cease! Let us hear your voice calling us back to the fullness of life, that not another moment may be wasted.
I mean to live this year as if it were my last, and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones. I have been full of good intentions. Watch and see what happens when action takes the place of intention. – Royal Robbins 1935-2017
The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. – Jesus the Christ
The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates
A week ago I finished watching a Frasier rerun one evening on Amazon Prime. It was free. My evening was free. It was funny. I was a little down for reasons that aren’t relevant to my point. I watched. I laughed. I finished. I waited for the next one.
Though I knew it was the last show, the finale, it didn’t really strike me with full force until I saw that the next episode up was Season One, Episode One. I’d watched all eleven seasons over the course of the winter and spring. In horror, I turned the TV off and calculated, roughly, how many hours I’d squandered. I’d allowed what could have been, in moderation and under control, a fun little diversion to steal a week’s worth of precious hours from my life. That’s a week of conversation, or writing, or learning German, or stargazing, or reading great books, or nurturing relationships with friends and family.
Poof! They’re gone, those precious hours, and with them, all that might have been. The moment was my own version of that time when an alcoholic wakes up and sees empty bottles strewn everywhere, or the food addict surveys the empty Ben & Jerry’s cartons scattered about the room. These are what I call “mirror moments”, those times when we’re able to see ourselves clearly, and the seeing reveals something we don’t like.
Mirror moments needn’t be bad. Indeed, they’re actually precious gifts, because they offer us a chance at recalibrating. For that to happen, I simply need to pause, ponder, learn, and respond. Here’s what happened when I did that:
Pause and Ponder. After shutting the TV off, I sit and consider what I’ve unwittingly done, how I’ve chosen to consume rather than create, how it became a habit over the dark winter months, and then continued on as the snows melted and spring turned to summer. I remember that poignant word from Jesus: “the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy”, and begin to ponder the many ways this is true in our culture, in families, and in each of our individual lives. Suddenly I see it; see the insidious strategy of my soul’s enemy, and how his thefts occur in the dark, so subtly that I don’t even know they’ve happened until a bucket of cold water wakes me up.
Learn. “This is not who I want to be. This is not how I want to spend the precious gift of time that is my life. This ends. Now.” Jesus goes on, in the subsequent word after talking about theft and murder, to declare that he came to this earth for exactly the opposite reasons, that we might live our lives in the fullest way possible. I know that making such a promise a reality in my life will require continual adjustments to priorities, continual willingness to change and be stretched.
The next morning I’m reading a eulogy of a famous climber who just died after a long battle with illness. His letter to his daughter, wherein he says that he doesn’t want to fritter “seconds, minutes, or hours away in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones” is simultaneously convicting and inspiring, likely the best sermon I’ve heard in a while, all wrapped in that single half-sentence.
In my journal I write a list of the many pieces of our lives that are destroyed, stolen, or killed. The list is long and I decide that it would be good to write about the many ways robust life is being stolen from us. I purpose, then and there, to return to my calling, my part of God’s story. “I will use the gifts God has give me, will continue to perfect them, all with the goal of blessing and serving others.”
Respond. None of the seeing, pausing, pondering, or learning matter if I don’t respond. So I resurrect an old “500 words a day” habit I had once, some years ago when life was less complex, and determine that, yes, this is part of my calling, part of who I am. The days of letting precious time be stolen are over. It’s time to get back to living.
NOTE: I’m planning on writing a bit more about other elements of our lives that are stolen or destroyed, such as joy, confidence, grace. What would you add to the list?
It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington. I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music. I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me. I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty. It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately. Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane. By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots. We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.
I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined. I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer. “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed. “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything. We belong there.” I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor. Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child. It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state. The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday. When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here. Home.
Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves. My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place, a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!
The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings. But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given. Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others. It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness. “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss. I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.
When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear. The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons. I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me. Wow! And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7. Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence: the gifts will come, are likely here already. Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude. They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.
Yes it’s a broken world. Yes there are clouds on the horizon. Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good. Christ is still here. And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.
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!
We’d love to hear what’s worked for you in the comments section. Cheers!
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.
“Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.” Exodus 24:1,2
When climbers are headed up to Mt. Rainier through the Camp Muir route, they start in the parking lot of a place called “Paradise” which is the highest point to which one can drive in this beautiful national park. This turns Paradise, at any given moments, into a weird mix of highly skilled mountaineers, beginners who are hoping to make it to the summit, and masses of people who will never leave the paved paths, ever, as long as they live. They’re decked out in L.L. Bean’s newest and best, or REI tech gear, or whatever, slurping ice cream in the parking lot. They’re peering through those coin operated telescopes to get a glimpse of the glacier before snapping a selfie with the imposing massif in the background, and calling it their “outdoor challenge for the year”.
The climbers are in the mix with the masses, but not for long. They get their permit from a little office, use the bathroom, maybe grab one last taste of actual food for a few days, and that’s it, they’re gone, headed up for the summit. When the paved path ends, the tourists turn around, while the rest step onto actual soil, and eventually snow, pressing onward, upward. Even among the climbers, not everyone will continue to the top. Camp Muir, at 10,400’ is the next common drop out point, as the realities of altitude sickness, sunburn, loss of appetite, cold, thirst, nausea, or any other number of factors will lead yet another group to say “far enough”.
Finally, there will be those who leave base camp the next morning with every intention of summiting. They thought they’d prepared well enough, thought that riding their bicycle to work and doing the “7 minute workout” app on their phone twice a week would adequately prepare them for carrying 40 pounds on their back up one and a half vertical miles of snow, rock, and ice, into the thin air above treeline, where rockfall, avalanches, and crevasses hidden in the glaciers present a large menu of ways to die. Somewhere before the summit they say, “this is good enough for me!” and either descend or stay put and wait for their group to go up and then join them on their descent. The herd self selects out of further progress until only the best prepared, most courageous, and most diligent, make it to the top.
When God’s about to give the law to Israel as a centerpiece of establishing the new nation, a similar culling of the herd occurs. God sets a boundary around the mountain and invites only Moses and his key leaders to ascend beyond the parking lot. Then, beyond the high base camp, it’s to be only Moses. Though he takes his successor, named Joshua, with him some distance, there’s no indication that Joshua summits. At the top it’s Moses. Alone with God.
In this story God’s the one who sets the boundaries around the mountain and keeps people away. There are reasons for that, in that time and place, but they don’t apply to us (as I’ll write about in the forthcoming book, of which this post is a part).
We’re living in a time when summiting the pinnacle of intimacy with God is available to everyone because the barriers to the summit were annihilated at the cross. Still, the same Christ who broke down the barriers said that the road to the summit is narrow (ref) and, like Mt. Rainier, there are few who actually find it. There’s a parking lot filled with religion. Jesus stickers and t-shirts are for sale, and lots people looking “a couple dollar’s worth of God”. The parking lot is the Sunday meeting, and there are folks there for the photo ops and real estate contacts. If there’s a little entertainment or even a dose of conviction along the way, so be it. But they’ve not intention of going farther. Others will hit the trail until the pavement ends. Some fewer will keep going a bit further, until there’s more hard stuff than joyful stuff, at which point they turn around, in search of safety, predictability, warmth.
If Christ’s blown up the barriers to the summit, then what’s holding anyone back? The answer can be found by switching metaphors, because a quick glance at Jesus’ parable of the seed and sower explains why “some seeds don’t produce fruit”, which is the same thing, metaphorically, as not reaching the summit. And what are the reasons? O you know; the usual suspects: affliction, worry, the lying seductions of wealth. There are, in other words, lots of reasons to descend to the parking lot of religious carnivals.
“Up” is about the pursuit of intimacy with God, about Christ becoming, in real ways, a friend, companion, lover even, in the daily stuff of living. Getting there, Jesus is saying, doesn’t happen by accident, any more than you wake up one morning having run a marathon, or summiting Rainier. It requires intentionality, prioritizing, and pressing on toward the goal when others stop. It requires shedding stuff, so that by the end, there’s one true pursuit to which all other pursuits give way.
“Right Intentions” is the starting point: the way of fruitful discipleship. Making intimacy with Christ your summit goal will be simple because you need to travel light if you’re going to travel at all. It will be hard because it requires letting go of stuff the majority carry with them daily, stuff like self-medicating when disappointed, and being defined by consumerism and what we own, and feeding on a diet of entertainment rather than creativity. It’s beautiful because the glory of meeting Christ in thin and unpolluted air will ravish you. It’s ugly because you want to quit due to pain, more than once.
Where on this mountain called discipleship, are you headed? If it’s the summit of intimacy, know that it takes more than the right gear. It takes traveling light, endurance, and a hunger for the summit of knowing Christ like a lover. Who’s in? The rest of you? Enjoy the telescopes and ice-cream. I’ll see you later.
O God of the summit invitation
Thank you for inviting us to ascend utterly. Stir in our hearts a discontent for the tourist faith that’s commonplace, where signing a card and signing a song, substitute for radical discipleship. Fill us with a longing for the summit instead, and teach us to travel light, shedding the fears, bitterness, lusts, and attachments that the whole world seems to carry on its collective back this days. When we tire, give us the grace to take next steps, and rest, and celebrate beauty. But may we never, ever turn back short of knowing you fully.
Yesterday I spent some time in what is slowly becoming a sabbath routine for this season of life. My wife and I packed a small lunch and some extra clothes in our backpacks and took off for a day of hiking. In a normal year it would be a ski day, but this is not a normal year. All the snow is over in Boston, and here where we normally get over 400 inches a year, the ski hills are brown brush; so we hike.
As we hike, we talk about life. It’s become maybe the best time of the week for sharing, because we have uninterrupted space for needed dialogue, punctuated by periods of silence for reflection, response, or even just enjoyment of the woods. The conversations always include remembrances of the past and considerations of the future. The two subjects feed each other by this time in our life together. We’ve seen 35 years of God’s faithful provision in our lives; seen many decisions we made with finite information which turned out far better than we’d anticipated, precisely because (we believe) God knew ‘the rest of story’ as only God can.
For example, I was sharing yesterday how profound it was to contemplate that we’d purchased this house in the mountains that had its own apartment, solely with a view of retiring there someday and renting it out as a ski chalet in the meantime, while keeping the small apartment for our own, for skiing, writing, hiking, and such.
Now here we are, living there, with my mom-in-law in the perfect little apartment as life circumstances converged so that it was best for her to move in with us. Her love of mountains and snow, and our purchase converged to meet a need we didn’t even know would exist when we bought the place. But God knew, and has provided space. We tell each other these kinds of stories while we hike, recalling God’s faithfulness in the past.
We speak of the future too; pondering how we can best use the gifts and resources God has given us to live fully into the story God desires to write through us. We ponder options, and they become matters for prayer. We speak of our heart’s desires in ways that we don’t during week because the week’s too full of obligations to spend much time pondering deeper longings. Giving voice to these longings is healthy, appropriate, necessary, if we’re to continue growing.
And of course, we speak of the present—of our own marriage, our children, decisions that need to be made. We speak of money, car brakes, schedules for the coming week, and of trees, waterfalls, lichen, weather, and rocks.
We share a meal at the top. We hike out. We drive home. Then there’s a meal, and peace, and a sense we’ve connected with God and each other. We propose to do it again next time. Sabbath; a gift from God.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. In many circles, Sabbath is nothing more than a legalistic noose tied around the necks of religious people to prevent them from doing anything the religious elite consider work. The list varies from generation to generation and place to place, including soccer, shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, wearing false teeth, and lifting anything heavier than two dried figs. This is just one of many reasons why people rightly hate religion. Jesus said you could know the worthiness of a person’s teachings and worldview ‘by their fruits’ and if the fruit of Sabbath keep is fear, withdrawal, and judgmentalism, I for one will be at the front of the line to condemn it.
Another group, seeing this legalist nonsense, has done away with the Sabbath completely. It’s either spiritualized (“Every day is a day of rest in Christ”), or bastardized into simply a “day off” which means a time to knock oneself out with shopping, or obligations with the kids, or find some sort of adrenaline hit so that we can maintain our stress levels until Monday, though because it’s chosen, it’s good stress rather than distress.
Either way is an exercise in missing the point. Sabbath, when properly practiced as a spiritual discipline, helps create a soil in which several good things can happen. Here’s what I mean:
A good and consistent Sabbath practice, over time will:
1. Create capacity in our lives – The creation narrative offers a profound revelation that life is intended to be lived in a complimentary manner: day and night; heaven and earth; sea and dry land; male and female; and yes—work and rest. God was the prototype of this rhythm, and those who violate it do so at great risk to their own fruitfulness and well being. This is because we’re made for a pattern of engagement and withdrawal, and if our Sabbath’s neglect withdrawal, we’ll enter our weekly responsibilities of engagement with even diminishing resources. The presenting symptoms will be stress related things like sleep troubles, nervousness, fatigue, and/or high anxiety. When it comes to exercise, we all know that we need to both exercise and rest. The same’s true with the whole of our lives and the Sabbath is God’s gift to provide for this.
2. Create a context for guidance – My wife and I have made many major life decisions in the context of Sabbaths, because that’s where we make the needed space to ponder God’s faithfulness in the past, and prayerfully give voice to our longings and hopes for the future, so that we can hear God speak and show us next steps. The worst thing we can do is be reactionary with our lives, both day to day in our obligations and with respect to major life decisions. It’s far better to be proactive, and this proactivity will come from creating space to pour our hearts out to God and then listen, and then act.
3. Remind you that you’re not the Messiah – One of the practical purposes of Sabbath practice when Israel was in the wilderness was so that they might learn that God will take care of them, all the time, even when they rest. The more and better anyone learns this, the more fully and profoundly they come to believe that God sustains God’s work and will do so even when we step away from it. I’ll be blunt in saying that its our sense of indispensability that often turns us into very ugly people—controlling, demanding, fearful, even manipulative; all in the name of “getting the job done”. The Sabbath, practiced well, will help you get over yourself, and rest in the reality that our participation in whatever work it is to which God has called us, is a privilege, not a necessity.
Make space please! For remembering; for considering; for sharing; for praying; for restoring. If that’s not a habit for you, now’s a good time to begin.
Here’s a resource I’ll recommend to round out and develop this discussion further.