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.
As the cemetery comes into view on this spectacular January afternoon, I feel as if I’m being transported back in time, because this little piece of geography is so ripe with memories that all the feelings attending those memories flood to the surface, unbidden. I see the canopy where the graveside service will take place, but we’re early; early enough that we’ve time for a little drive. I head out, a bit further from the center of Kingsburg, to the land my grandpa farmed, the place where we’d put grapes on trays to dry in the scorching sun when we were kids. He had grapes and peaches, but now everything’s gone. All the cropland has just recently been stripped of any vestige of tree or vine, so empty soil, ready for a new generation of fruitfulness, surrounds the house. The soil’s the same, more or less, only now empty, which is somehow fitting for the occasion.
Just down the road a bit more, is where my aunt had a peach farm. Her land, too, has changed. Where the farmhouse that felt ancient fifty years ago once stood, there’s a modern ranch home complete with a bevy of solar panels leaning up against the south wall. Beyond the walls of the cemetery, it seems that life goes on; new crops, new houses, new families…new.
Returning to the cemetery though, all that’s new on this day will be an addition: Betty Nadine Dahlstrom, who died just before Christmas, at the age of 95. There are a few family members present and the service is short, a bit understated perhaps. I can say that because I was the officiant. The gold of the day came after the service. I’d wanted my youngest daughter to see some of the other headstones of family members, but they were all covered by the cheap artificial astro-turf that’s placed, temporarily, under the canopy, in order to provide solid footing for guests as the pass by the coffin before it’s lowered into the ground.
“I didn’t come this far to miss showing my daughter her family story” I said to myself, and so asked the landscape guy who would soon be putting mom’s body in the ground if we could peel away the AstroTurf to look at the other stones. A strange request, no doubt, but he accommodated, and soon we were looking at all the names, with their year and month of death:
Oscar Stokes – February 1972
Lillian Stokes – April 1973
Romaine Dahlstrom – October 1973
Esther Dahlstrom – 1975
Dorothy Stokes – April 1976
I’d known the “what” of my own story quite well. Right in the midst of that dark time of losing all my grandparents, I’d graduated from high school. The festival of death that reigned down on our family plunged me into a depression and faith crisis, hidden from most, but nonetheless real to me. At the time of my dad’s untimely death I’d decided that nothing was nailed down, no meaningful relationship secure. The same thing happens, of course, when there’s infidelity, or abandonment, but at least then you can rage at the perpetrator. In my story though, God was the perpetrator (or so it seemed at the time) and I was in a church with precious little space for honest to God grief, as Sundays were filled with praise music that seemed absurd, or dishonest, at least for me in that time and space.
So, instead of getting angry, I got depressed, but determined, at the same time, to leave a mark beyond the brief matchlight of my life by designing cool spaces as an architect. I was running from God, as sure as Jacob, or Jonah, or Moses, or any of the other graybeards of old. We all had different reasons, but the results are the same. It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want with it, so leave me alone.
Ah, but it didn’t work out that way at all, because in my pursuit of autonomous plans, I made my way to a state school, so called secular, and there met Christians robust with joy who drew me into their circle through love. I was doubting, they believed. I had health problems related to my depression. They didn’t care. I was confused about everything. They had a faith that believed God changed lives, swapping out anxiousness and replacing it with peace, or despair with hope. You get the picture.
And then, already drawn to the light, I went to a retreat up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, solely because a cute blonde invited me. Looking back, I can see that the stars were aligned for a mega shift in my life. The Christian students in my dorm had loved me well and I was not only finding my way out of the depression, but was experiencing a strange growing longing to share this same kind of love with others because it was working such magic in healing my own soul.
Yes, but how? I was still angry with God for stealing my dad. Every time I thought about my mom, and the reality that she lost both her parents, her husband, and her beloved mother-in-law in the span of two years, the doubts and anger grew. “No loving God would steal everyone in that short a time, so maybe God doesn’t exist at all” was one line of thinking. I was caught between hope and despair, and honestly, being pulled in both directions.
Then it happened. At that winter camp, in pursuit of that cute blonde, I made my way into the chapel for the evening talk. It was on Jeremiah 9:23ff, about how the only thing in this broken world that’s worth boasting about is that we know God. The word had a ring of truth to it even though the God I thought I knew a bit about might not be worth knowing. Still, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and when the preacher pointed directly at me and said, “There are some of you in this room who need to make knowing God the number one priority of your life,” I knew that I knew that I knew God was speaking to me!
I didn’t know what would change by making knowing God a central goal of life. I didn’t even know if I’d like what I found. But I knew I wanted to know God better, and so after the talk I went outside on a starry night, and knelt down in the snow to pray. I told God that I wanted to make knowing Him the central priority of my life. I didn’t know what would happen because I prayed that prayer, but I didn’t think it would be anything dramatic.
I was wrong. Seven months later I was packing my red Ford Mustang with my few possessions and driving north to Seattle. Having never been north of Sacramento in my life, I was heading to Seattle Pacific University to study music, with an eye toward somehow entering ministry. What happened after that retreat was that the big deal in my life became sharing with other people that knowing God was worth the effort. This is because inexplicably, something started immediately inside me. I surely didn’t have all the answers to all the questions; still don’t. At the same time, the gaping void of loneliness in my soul was being filled with God, and more strangely still, a sense of companionship with God.
As a result, I found myself more interested in my role as piano player in the Sunday night bible study my friends were leading than I was in designing apartments for my drafting class. I was sleeping better, more fully engaged with people, less worried about the future. The poisonous introspection that had attended my depression and insecurity was replaced by a quiet confidence that, come what may, God would be my companion in this journey called life, and the reality of that gave me a joy, confidence, and peace that had been missing for about a decade. By the end of the school year, I knew that I needed to share this good news with others as much as possible, and so I changed majors and changed schools with an eye toward some sort of ministry.
The day at the cemetery to bury mom’s body was preceded by a day at the camp in the mountains, a pilgrimage of sorts, to thank the good Lord for the landscape of my life. It was the convergence of these two spots on the planet—Sugar Pine Camp, and Kingsburg Cemetery, that showed me that the life I live is precisely the fruit of new life born out of loss.
And this, dear friends, is the glory of the gospel. It’s not that we’re granted immunity from suffering. Far from it. The grand hope that is ours in Christ is that in this broken world, where loss in a thread woven into the fabric of everyone’s story, God’s wisdom is able to turn every loss into gain. It’s still loss; of that there’s no doubt. We can mourn, must mourn, because loss, and loneliness, and betrayal, is what happens in a fallen world.
But loss needn’t define us, because every loss opens a door for new facets of God’s character to be experienced in our lives. Of course I wish my dad had been at my wedding. Of course I wish he’d known his grandkids, and the fine folk they married. Even more, I wish they’d known him. But no. It’s a fallen world, and numerous bouts of pneumonia as a child meant dad had weak lungs that would catch up to him and steal his life at 55. The loss though, prepared the soil, and the life I’ve known, the wife I’ve married, the places I’ve travelled, the friends of made—all of it has sprouted in the soil stripped bare by loss. Wow. That’s a story a worth telling.
My daughter Holly is bent down, in tears, over my dad’s tombstone. I kneel down with her and cry. “I wish you could have known him,” I said. And yet I wonder—if she’d have had the chance to know him, would I have ever lived in Seattle? Ever met my wife? Would Holly have ever been born? And that’s when it hits me—the glory of the gospel is its profound capacity to turn loss into gain, as evidenced by the cross itself.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! Romans 11
I’m coming home next week “aware of a million failures”. There are “church fails” in my city. “Health care fails” in Texas. “Personal failures” on the list of summits and huts I didn’t reach, chapters I’ve not yet written, spiritual habits I’ve not yet mastered. My conversations these past weeks have largely been with people who are deeply aware of both their own failings and the failings of others, and who wonder what to do next. That’s why I wrote this post.
Failure isn’t really the main problem in this world. There are remedies for failures, and often clear steps to take so that in the wake of failure our lives can be stronger, richer, more compassionate, and more honest than they ever might have been without failing at all.
So failure’s not the biggest problem any of us face. The critical moments are the steps we take immediately after though. It’s those steps that will become the main determinants of our future. So here’s a quick and (I hope) practical guide, offering both critical steps to avoid and critical steps to take, after failure.
Steps to Avoid
Denial – Rock climbing is nice because a fail is always an obvious failure. It can be valuable and transformative, but it’s always a failure. Nobody cheers when you fall. I wish all of life were that easy because perhaps the biggest problem with respect to many failures is that we remain blissfully and intentionally unaware. We’ve got a temper problem, or control problem, or abuse problem, or a drinking problem, but don’t see it. In our own minds though, we’re just social drinkers, and have the guts to tell the truth when nobody else will, or to take control of things, or to put people in their place so that things can get done.
Any failure that remains hidden will be repeated over and over again until it becomes a deep part of our character. This is the first and primary reason we’re a world of addicts and abusers. If we could ever move beyond the denial stage, we’d eventually do the beautiful and hard work of transformation, but until we overcome denial, we can’t overcome anything else. This applies, of course, to persons and institutions. A relentless commitment to uncovering reality, or “ground truth” as Susan Scott likes to say, is not the solution to anything—but it’s surely the first step for everything.
Of course, it’s easier to see your failures than mine. There’s no shortage of critics in this world. That’s why I love David in the Bible. His interest was in his own transformation when he prayed that God would search his heart and “reveal any unclean ways”. Try praying that, and the remedy for failure will begin to work immediately!
Blame – Once I’ve embraced the reality of the situation, it’s vital that I own my part. If it’s marriage, or church, or the corporate world, I’ll be sorely tempted to deflect my responsibility for the problem by blaming “circumstances beyond my control”. You know the suspects: spouse, board, pastor, co-worker, boss.
Of course there are circumstances beyond our control, but our response to those circumstances is entirely ours. We were free to leave and we stayed, or vice versa. We were free to respond with grace, but we lashed out. We were free to find comfort in some redemptive way, but we self-medicated with drugs, or porn, or drink, or shopping instead. It happened. Don’t blame the others.
Shame/Cynicism – For lots of Christ followers these twins are the biggest problems. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, they both have the effect of taking us out of God’s story. Embrace shame and you’ll say that you’re nothing but rubbish, and that God has nothing for you, and can’t/won’t use the likes of you. Don’t believe it for two seconds. A quick overview of the Bible shows us that some of the people most deeply involved in God’s story had also sold family members as slaves, slept with their daughter-in-law, committed adultery and murdered the husband, had a quick temper and rushed to judgement, doubted, had arrogance problems until their catastrophic failure forced confession etc., etc. O yes. God can use you. Whether you stay in the game or go to the bench for a break is God’s prerogative, not yours. But don’t preemptively bench yourself—you may never get back in.
Steps to Take
Embrace – This is really the positive flip side of denial. “Yes” we say, to ourselves if our failure is private, or to the one or ones we’ve hurt if public, “I failed—I own it without excuses.” You drank too much, or ate too much, or look back at your week and see that you didn’t pursue Christ, or exercise, or engage your neighbors in conversation, or whatever it was that you said you’d do and didn’t.
Own it. In the Bible this is called confession, and we’re told it’s the key to moving forward, both with relationships, and in our own internal freedom. I needed to do this again this morning—and pray it will remain a lifestyle for the rest of my days.
Learn – This principle requires more space than a sub-point in a blog post, but it’s vital. If you failed to a reach a goal, maybe it’s too big a goal and you need to adjust, or maybe it was just a bad week and you need to start fresh tomorrow. If it’s some besetting sin like anger, drinking, cynicism, or unhealthy sex, you need to discover why you go there; what are the triggers that move you, and how can you avoid them?
How can you build your life differently to favor transformation? Do you need accountability? Counseling? A chat with a friend who’ll walk with you in pursuit of your transformation? Someone to exercise with? Find your next step and take it.
Receive – Receive forgiveness from Christ, and hopefully from others, if others are involved. It’s vital to believe we’re forgiven because there’ll be a little shadow creature perched on your shoulder telling you that you are your failure, that you’ll never get over it, that you’re worthless rubbish and “why bother”—all in an attempt to keep you stuck in your patterns and failure. Give that voice the finger please—any finger you want, as long as the result is that you stand in the truth that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
Continue – I watched a little kid take an epic fall skiing a couple years ago. I was heading up on the lift and I saw him lose control, fall, slide 150′ down the hill, scraping his face on ice the whole way, and then screaming as he lay there in pain. I quickly got off the lift and skied down to see if I could help or call ski patrol. By the time I got there, he was putting his skis on again and within seconds was off again, bombing down the mountain.
I thought to myself, “Learn from this, R. This is how you fall and fail well. Whatever else you do, you need to get up and carry on.”
Please don’t misunderstand this critical last step. I’m not suggesting that we simply proceed as if nothing’s happened. Do that and we’ll just fall harder the next time. There’s a time to leave your job; or your church; or your leadership position, or your abusive relationship. The steps we’ll need to take in order to be free and really grow often require dramatic changes.
But, and here’s the key, they are changes toward transformation. Wisdom will be able to identify the steps God has for us. Leave your position. Change your church. File for separation and insist that your spouse get help precisely because you want a loving marriage rather than a shell. Join a gym. Find a program that limits your time on social media. Whatever it is… do it.