The Pig Lady from Iowa: What the church and pastors MUST learn from the 2014 election

Last night’s American election has birthed both elation and despondency, respectively,  among those who care deeply about such things.  I care too, and if I were a political pundit I’d have much to say about hopes and fears for our country in the wake of what happened last night, but I’m not.  I’m a pastor who is increasingly concerned with the consumerist mindset prevailing in American Christianity, and write in hopes that we who lead churches might learn how NOT to lead by considering how politics is done in America.

The sad truth is that, even by their own admission, politicians and the machinery that work so hard to get them elected, had no interest in changing minds during this last election cycle.  Both parties messaged to their core constituency in hopes that their vilification of the ‘other’ would motivate people to get out and vote.

Everyone was, in other words, ‘preaching to the choir’.  This is the way everything’s done these days.  If you have a blog, I’m told the only way you’ll increase readership is to target an audience: minimalists, leftists, pro-lifers, moms, gun owners, environmentalists, whatever.  It works of course, or else people wouldn’t do it.  The same strategy works for politicians and TV news stations:  Fox and MSNBC live and breathe (remember, they’re not just corporations, they’re people), not by inviting civil discourse but by pouring gas on already existing fires.  They’re great at reinforcing what people already believe, and adding more “like-minded” to their folds.  How does this strategy work, though, when it comes to changing minds?  It doesn’t. 

What makes my blood boil is when churches adopt this same mindset.  “Who are we going after?”  is the question, and then everything is customized exclusively for that demographic: music, lights, teaching content, teaching style, programit’s all designed to reach a demographic.  The tragedy is that if you’re good at it, it works, and if it works, I think you’ve done more harm than good.

Fine, you’ve built an organization of like-minded people.  But let’s not point to such success as evidence of God’s blessing, because it’s the same strategy used by the pig lady in Iowa and The Huffington Post.  Gathering a group of people who think just like you, reinforcing their beliefs, and encouraging them to invite others into their ideological ghetto might work if success is defined by building an organization.  But that’s not the same thing as leading a church.

A core value of the church is that “the dividing wall has been broken down”between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females.  This community, in other words, will be bound together by shared life in Christ and nothing elseincluding one’s politics, music style.  I’m convinced that none of us have yet understood the depths of Christ’s radical inclusiveness, and while there are many reasons for this, one of the most common reason is that “leading like politicians” is easier than “leading like Jesus”.  Easier… just not better, and in the end, not real church leadership at all.

The Better Way –

Rather than tailoring our music, message, and ethos to a pre-selected demographic, and going after them, Christ offers a better and more challenging way:

1.  Cross social divides rather than reinforce them.  As a preacher and teacher, I want to share truth in a way that moves people.  This requires both a willingness to let the unpersuaded leave, and a commitment to declaring truth in winsome way that’s uniquely contextualized, as Paul did (changing his message depending on his audience so that he might move every single audience toward Christsee I Corinthians 9:20ff for more of this).

In other words, and this is huge, we don’t exist to reinforce beliefs as much as to challenge them.  That’s utterly different than “building a platform”, though a platform might well be built in the process.  But the size of said ‘platform’ is God’s prerogative not mine, and is never cause for boasting.

2.  Communicate the breadth of the gospel’s implications, recognizing that doing so will both invite, bless, challenge, and offend, every demographicrich, poor, left, right, young, oldeveryone.  This is because the trajectory of history points in the direction of creating something wholly new, rather than something which reinforces our pre-existing conditions and convictions.  We’re not in a bunker protecting what we already believe, we’re gathering and sharing life together in an ongoing pursuit of transformation.  That’s, at least, the way it ought to be.

When we do this, some people will leave, because we’ll speak about the environment and it will anger the right.  We’ll speak about protecting life in the womb, and it will anger the left.  We’ll speak about how important the family is as a central source of justice and hope in this world and it will anger the left again.  We’ll speak about the dangers of “shopping as patriotism” and the evils that arise in unfettered capitalism and the right will be mad again.  Whatever.  The gospel isn’t bound by our “pre-existing conditions”  and we need to be willing to be challenged, and to challenge our communities.  Otherwise, just go into politics.  You’ll find a group of like-minded people who will elect you.

3. Recognize how damning the “us/them” language and mindset is.  Yes, the very language that works so successfully in getting people elected, is the same language that is polarizing our nation, and creating subcultures within the broader culture who hate each other.  When the church does this, it just creates more ghettos of fear-based, like-minded people, alone together in their bunkers, afraid of, and mad at, those on the outside.  Such leadership happens all the time in the church, and I suppose all of us are guilty of it to varying degrees.  But at the least, we need a vision that begins with admitting how wrong this is.

Dear Pastors and Churches:  Don’t play the games that prevail among the talking heads and strategists seeking power and market share.  You’ll miss your calling.  Instead, determine to know nothing and proclaim nothing, other than Christ, and recognize that the true Christ will challenge entrenched views, deconstruct false idols and move everyone towards transformationeven you, dear leaderand I hope, especially you.

 

 

 

When “churches” implode – Three truths to give you hope

Because of its high profile, yesterday’s news from the Mars Hill church community in Seattle may create questions and/or pain for Christ followers in both Seattle and beyond.  But churches closing their doors is nothing new.  People who count such things say that about 4,000 churches close every year in America and the reasons are wide ranging.

I take hope in knowing from the Bible that organizational failure and church failure are two different things.  The former is product of human error, economies, shifting demographics and at least a dozen other things.  The latter though, failure of the church, is something that doesn’t happen, because after 2,000 years, a handful of eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection, all of whom were martyred or imprisoned, laid a foundation for a work that’s continued to grow throughout the world.  Organizations will fail.  Christ won’t, and so it’s vital to gain Christ’s perspective on the “Big C” church when stuff like this happens.  Here are three truths to give you hope:

I.  Don’t confuse “church” with “organizations”

Down here in the muck of daily living there are so called “churches”.  I lead a large one in Seattle, but must confess that I’m ambivalent about using the word “Church” to describe the group I lead.  I use it, of course, because it’s the idiomatic way of describing the people who gather on any given Sunday together, many of whom are deeply committed to this particular expression of Christ’s life in our city.  But if we could see with the eyes of Christ, we’d see that the “church” in Seattle is made up of all Christ followers, and that there are some who attend weekly, here or there in various organizations, but aren’t really in the game, and others who gather in homes, whose church life is real and deep in spite of the fact that there’s no formal organizational structure.

While I’m speaking about home churches though, please don’t romanticize them, as if to imply that getting rid of organizational structure is somehow the promised land of a deep church life.  Having pastored both a house church in the mountains and a mega-church, I can safely tell you that when a house church is doing what it ought to do, lives will be changed, light will shine from there to the community and new people will come.  Where, in your house, will they sit?  And when babies come along, who will care for them?  And when someone disagrees with a course of action, what steps can be taken to address it?  I’ll save you some time by telling you that each of these problems will require structure, and then a bit more, and still more and presto!  You’re an organization.  Those who dismiss organizational necessities are living in a dream world, and yet it’s vital to also remember that the structure, and even the gathering on any given Sunday, aren’t what constitute the real church.  Jesus spoke of this when he talked about wheat and tares growing in a field together and said that we’re not to sort it all out now, because we’re (thankfully) not Jesus, and so we can leave the sorting to him.

The real church is there, in the midst of your gathering.  Believe it, celebrate it, pray for it to thrive and be the presence of Christ in real ways; and commit to a local expression that takes shape in an organizational structure.  But the structure is the wineskin, not the wine.  Never confuse the two.

II.  Don’t confuse “organization” with “leader”

OK, so we’re aligned with, and part of, an organization, and within that organization there are people who are part of Christ’s grand expression of life called “the church”.  A common problem with organizations is that they either dismiss the necessity of leadership, or they “deify” (not literally, but poetically) their leader.  Both positions are wrong and ultimately unsustainable.

By dismissing the necessity of the leader and the notion of leadership, you are swimming upstream against everything the New Testament has to say about the church.  Paul speaks of the qualifications of leaders, tells Christ followers to both honor and follow their leaders, and warns both leaders and teachers that they will face a stricter judgement because of their role, so that they’d best not seek leadership as a means of self advancement, but as a calling to service.

However, nothing in the New Testament implies that a leader should ever be above accountability, and what’s more, the very nature of our calling as leaders in the church should be to embrace both the accountability of a ruling board not chosen by us, and to continually raise up new leaders so that the work, and the honor, is shared.

Years ago, as our church was growing larger, I saw the danger of both the authority and honor of the ministry being centralized in one person, and so we began living into a vision of raising up new leaders (teaching pastors) and new locations, so that we’d better fulfill our value of passing the leadership torch to the next generation.  You can see this vision here.

The hope, when all this works right, is that the organization is bigger than the leader, so that when the leader is gone, whether due to old age or any other reason, the work remains.

III.  Don’t confuse “leader” with “Jesus”

So now we’re in an organization that contains, but isn’t the whole of the church.  We should also be following human leaders too, but never in an ultimate or absolute sense.  Here’s why:   No human leader is the head of the church.  We leaders might make decisions about the organization (though even there, accountability and mutuality of trust among a plurality of leaders is the best thing, as you see in Acts), but we’re not “running the church”.  That’s Jesus’ job, and I think he’ll do just fine, with or without we “high profile” leaders.

There aren’t any high profile leaders in Iran, where being a pastor can get you executed, or in North Korea, where it can mean you’ll do hard labor for twenty years.  But in our world of conference speaking and publishing houses, market share and Klout Scores, it seems that there are plenty of people eager to find the stage and lights and this place is fraught with dangerespecially the danger that we’ll believe our own press releases.

With all the love in my heart I say: don’t follow any of us blindly.  None of us!  Listen to us, learn what God gives you from us.  When you see our sins, pray for us and if you have a relationship with us or our part of our organization, take steps to help us see it.  How we leaders respond will reveal a lot about our integrity.  But don’t; don’t; make it all about us.  Don’t make it utterly dependent on us for success, especially as the organization grows older.

Why?

Because Christ, not any human leader, is the head of his church, and none of us charged with leadership is doing it flawlessly.  None. Of. Us.  If leaders would acknowledge this, they’d have a little more humility.  If followers would acknowledge this, especially in an environment of grace, it would give leaders a greater measure authenticity and humility.

A “church” began twenty years ago in Seattle and now it appears the wineskin is facing challenges.  But new wine of Christ’s regenerative life is now present, I believe and pray, in thousands of new believers throughout our city because of this work.  Is an organization going through a hard time?  Yes.  And we’ll pray for them.  Is the church in Seattle going to be fine?

Yes.  Because the church isn’t Mars Hill, or Bethany, or EastLake, or City Church, or whatever else is shiny and bright, or small and new, or small and old.  The church is Christexpressing his life through broken people who gather under the umbrella of various organizations to be embody the hope, joy, healing, and forgiveness that’s found in Christ alone.  And that, dear friends, will continue regardless of what we humans do.  So let’s relax and, as Paul says, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain.” 

I welcome your thoughts…

 

 

After Failure – The next steps matter most. What to avoid and what to do.

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 anythingbut 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 yourselfyou 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 failedI 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 morningand 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 pleaseany 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.

Five Values for Sustainable Leadership (pt 2).

just to be loved... can it be enough?
just to be loved… can it be enough?

My previous post offered the first two of five essential values for leaders to nurture and develop if they hope to still be living into their calling and sustaining important relationships, “for the long haul.”   Giftedness will get you in the door as a leader, and romance will get you started in a relationship, but it’s these five critical qualities that will allow you to stay in the game for decades.  In addition to teachability/humility and a rhythm of work and rest, you’ll also need:

#3 To be Rooted and Grounded (A Firm Identity) – Jesus does things that are utterly exasperating to contemporary leaders, like walking away from his ministry in Capernaum when word about him had spread and “the whole city” was looking for him.  Who walks away from an opportunity to “expand their platform” or “build their brand” or “capture more market share?”  Apparently Jesus does, and this makes no sense to we who are bred in the capitalist mindset that bigger and more is always the highest and best way to go.

The thing about Jesus though was that he had only one foundational source from which he drew his sense of significance, and that source wasn’t the size or success of his ministry.  It wasn’t the response of the crowds either, because in John 6, Jesus is utterly undisturbed, even when the crowds shrink exponentially because of the harsh reality of his message.  It wasn’t the faithfulness of his disciples, all of whom fled the scene when things got tough.

What keeps Jesus so grounded, so solid, in spite of the ups and downs of popularity in the polls, and in spite of the reality that his closest friends didn’t have a clue what he was about ’til the very end of his post resurrection life?

The answer’s found in John 13:3, where we’re told that Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from the Father and was returning to the Father….  Because of this rootedness, Jesus is able to bend down and wash the feet of those who will betray and abandon him within a few short hours.  It’s this identity with the Father that is the foundation of his life because Jesus knows his place in the universe, knows his relationship with God is secure, knows his destiny.    And…

THAT.

IS.

ENOUGH.

Yes, enough for Jesus, but not us, because we have a gaping hole in our lives that longs to be filled with significance, and so we set off to plant 1,000 churches, or to have a perfect marriage that’s the envy of the world, or raise children who are scholars, athletes, saints, who always eat their organic vegetables and never get cavities.  Or we knock ourselves out to get whatever is, in our own world, the equivalent of a bestseller.  Armed with these goals, we’re convinced that when we reach them, it will be enough.

It won’t.  You’ll need to sustain it if you succeed, and then eventually you’ll need to let go of it because someday you’ll be old and tired.   Then what will be enough?  Or maybe sustaining it won’t be enough at all, because success can be addicting, like eating potato chips.  You won’t be able to stop.  If that’s you, then you’ll be on the tread mill in full swing, and it’s all for God, of course, because we’ve been told how vital it is that we use our gifts, and be a blessing, and make a difference.  The whole message, at its worst, baptizes ambitions born of insecurities and leaves us desperate to succeed.

When success is our goal (marriage success, family success, ministry success, job success, publishing success) then the people in our lives become tools to help us get there.  When that happens, I have a feeling we’ll no longer be washing the feet of our family members, or co-workers, or spouses, or church members  when they fail to agree with us or appreciate us, because we’ll see them as barriers to our success, and our since our success is our identity, “what will we do” if our children rebel, or our church doesn’t grow, or our book doesn’t get published?

Can you see how a wrong definition of success and our desire to “impact the world” is fraught with the potential for burn-out, and even the possibility of becoming a user of people rather than a servant/lover of people?  I hope so, because I can tell you from the driver’s seat that these temptations are real, and the world is filled with stories of power abuse at the hands of those who, with the very highest and noble goals articulated, came to insist that those goals be met at any cost, including the cost of servanthood, humility, and love.

The way of Jesus is different than this on two fronts:

A)  Jesus invites us to union with himself and makes the audacious claim that this will make us profoundly content, regardless of the scope and nature of “impact” we have, or “fruit” we display in our lives.  This is why leaders who are in it for the long haul have an identity rooted in what Christ has done for them and is doing for them, rather than in their own accomplishments.  People like this don’t need outward success as much because what sustains them is fellowship with Christ and enjoying the gifts of Christ revealed in creation, beauty, good food, meaningful conversation and laughter.  These gifts are received with gratitude by those whose life in Christ is their most precious gift.

Paul calls this being “rooted and grounded in love” so that coming to explore and experience the heights and depths of Christ’s love became the greatest joy, even greater than capturing market share!

Ministry, family, marriage, work; all these things are great gifts from God.  But none of them are foundational, and to be blunt, none will last.  The joy I have in knowing Christ, however, is a different story.  He’s with me know in the midst of this oh so busy season in life.  He’ll be with me later, when I’m sitting on a bench, too tired to run, or run a ministry.  And he’ll be with me at my last breath.  Why would I want to build on any other foundation?

God is in the mist
yes… just to be loved is enough.

B)  Jesus invites us to leave the scope and nature of the fruit he produces in our lives with him.  I’ll confess that it’s easy to get excited when I get published, easy to get discouraged when sales don’t match my hopes.  Church life?  Parenting?  Marriage?  Health?  Money?  In every area, we can get overly high or low based on whether reality matches our expectations.

How about, instead, we let go of our expectations, and simply rest in the confidence that Christ will express life through us in his way, his time, in the places of his choosing?  That would lead to security.  And rest.  And peace.

Next up…

#4 Patience but Relentless Pursuit

#5 Adaptation

 

 

 

 

“Five Values for Sustainable Leadership”, vital for churches, families, calling (part 1)

Will you still be using your gifts at 83 like Fred Beckey is here?  I hope so.
Will you still be using your gifts at 83 like Fred Beckey is here? I hope so.

My predecessor at the church I lead in Seattle served that community for 38 years.  The farmers in these high Alps have held the same land, stewarding the soil and shepherding the flocks entrusted to them, for generations.   Fred Beckey is still climbing in his 90’s, in the mountains he’s been exploring since 1936.  And yes, there are healthy marriages where spouses are still in love, having been faithful to each other in every way for over half a century.

In a world where leaders often burn out, melt down, get bored, or create some sort of credibility gap that forfeits them from leadership, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to be the kind of person whose life is characterized by longevity and sustainability rather than crisis and frequent change.

As I return to Seattle, soon to begin my 19th year in ministry at the same church, and begin my 25th year of teaching with Torchbearers this week, it’s become clear to me that there are some (at least five) non-negotiable values anyone interested in “being in it for the long haul” should assess, develop, and fan into flame.  I don’t offer these from some high point of arrival, but I do offer them as priorities that I’m trying to continually build into my life so that I’ll be able to use the gifts God’s given me for many more years.   The values?

1. Teachability/Humility –  This is the most important thing of all, because pride seems to be, as C.S. Lewis says, “the greatest sin” due to the reality that it shuts us off from receiving much needed truth so that we might continue to grow.  When we refuse to let other people speak hard truth into our lives, we’ve essentially sealed ourselves off from the food we need to keep our spirits alive.  After all, revelation doesn’t come from merely locking ourselves in a room and praying.  It comes from other people, whom God uses to challenge us, encourage us, and expose us so that we can grow.

If my spouse says I have an anger problem, the next ten seconds are the clearest revelation of my truest character.  If my friends or co-workers try and show me an issue and I refuse to see it; if my boss confronts me repeatedly on a performance issue and I become repeatedly defensive, then my days are numbered, no matter how many other well developed skills I have in my tool kit.  Teachability is the one ingredient I, you, everyone, must have, if we’ll keep growing our whole lives.

David was undone by the prophet’s exposure of the lust, deception, and abuse of power he thought he’d hidden so well.  There was no self-justification, no mitigating circumstances, nothing but pure confession as you can read in Psalm 51.  Saul on the other hand self-justifies, denies, blames others and circumstances for his issues.

All of us are either becoming more like Saul or more like David every single day, and we’d be wise to ask ourselves which way we’re moving because history is littered with highly gifted people whose gifts ended up on the sidelines precisely because they built walls around themselves and became “untouchable,” “unconfrontable,” “unteachable”.  Great gifts without humility and teachability can create a dangerous cocktail.

2. Rhythm of Work and Rest – I hope to write more about this soon, but for now I’ll note that we’d arrive “bone weary” at the various huts during our days of trekking.  Just this past Friday, I felt spent after our 3000′ ascent to the hut.  My legs ached, and the muscles around my shoulders were nearly yelling at me for carrying a heavy load on my back yet again, as I’d been doing so often the previous 40 days.  I took my pack off even before arriving, leaving it on a bench outside the hut.  I couldn’t imagine hiking another step.

Some soup.  A nap.  We wake, and I can’t even believe I’m saying, “let’s go for a hike before dinner” to my wife, who’s as ready to go as I am.  We ascend a summit, and enjoy some holy moments on our last night in the high Alps.  Without the rest, we’d not have made it, or enjoyed it.  With it, the miracle of restoration happened, physically and emotionally.

Are you finding a rhythm to your day that provides enough sleep and food and fresh air and exercise?  If not, don’t speak of “burn out” until you address the imbalance because you might just need a nap and a cup of soup.

How about your week?  Is there a day with less adrenaline, or are your weekends as packed as your week?  You can live that way for a while; just know it’s not sustainable.  You’re wired for rest.

Sabbatical years, and years of Jubilee were intended by God because the entire universe runs on principles that God will bring restoration when space is provided for rest; when people rest, when the land rests, good things happen.

Sure, there are seasons of intensity and periods on our trek when  we did a few consecutive long days.  But it’s unsustainable.  If we’re going to to go the distance, we’ll need to take sleep, Sabbath and extended periods of real rest seriously.

There are three more principles, equally important, and I’ll share them later this week:

3. Rooted and Grounded:  A Firm Identity

4. Patience, but Relentless Pursuit

5. Adaptation

so….

History’s filled with gifted people who refused to deal with the glaring dysfunction because they thought their giftedness would see them through.  It won’t.  Others neglected vital rest, thinking  their devotion to the work required the sacrifice of their emotional, physical, spiritual health.  It doesn’t.

Marriages, churches, athletes, students, leaders, farmers, all need more than mere gifts, exciting plans, and adrenaline induced zeal.  They need values that will lead to sustained fruitfulness.  Here’s hoping each of us take these values seriously.

I welcome your thoughts.

Obscurity has its privileges. Answers to feelings of insignificance.

In just a few short days, my wife and I will be off to Europe where we’ll trek through the Alps, fully expecting to find the fingerprints of God in both creations beauty and power, and in the fingerprints of history.  Carl Muth’s faithfulness in obscurity is an example of the latter, and a reminder the big, loud, high profile stuff, isn’t necessarily the best.  Obscurity has it’s privileges!  ….

In the Bavarian countryside, during the days of WWII, there was a small house, surrounded by a flourishing garden. Carl Muth lived in this house. Born in the 2nd half of the 19th century, Muth became a leading Cahtolic theologian, publishing a journal of Catholic Existential Theology for many years, until the work was censored and ultimately shut down by Hitler.

Hans Scholl found his way to Muth’s tiny house, having heard of this man who was now living in relative obscurity as the war was unfolding. It was here, at Muth’s house that Hans found both a mentor, and the theological underpinnings to carry out the subversive work of the White Rose, work which would eventually cost Scholl his life, but whose ‘subversive’ literature would be air dropped across Germany by the Allies helping to free Germany from Hitler’s grip.

Two things stand out about Muth. The first is his relationship with a younger generation. We read, “Muth’s magic was not only his philosophical sweep of knowledge or his deep hatred for National Socialsim, but his youthful, amost playful snesne of ethical and metaphysical exploration. He not only listened to young people, he wanted to live and share their experiences.” I love his posture towards emergent generations, maybe because I identify with it.  I don’t know why it is that to this day, I’m drawn to interact with, enjoy, and learn from, people in the late teens to early 30’s.  For whatever reason, though, I’m grateful for the privilege of investing in the next generation.  Muth did that by being not only teacher, but student, eager to learn from the thoughts and perspectives of those who are younger, even as they’re eager to learn from him.

The second quality I notice is his call to courage in the face of darkness. Again we read, “In a universe where all values have been shattered, where religions and histories and literatures and social structures have lost their meaning, man has to stand up again, accept his condition, accept that he is alone and has no protection, and proceed to create his own world, his own values, his own decisions, his own actions – and be willing at all times to pay the consequences.”

These are powerful words, calling people to stand courageously in a world adrift in every way. Hans and Sophie Scholl heeded Muth’s words and paid with their blood. Sophie took the words to heart, and every testimony said that she remained calm, steadfast, courageous to the very end. Hans shouted, “long live freedom” loud enough for his voice to be heard beyond the walls of his Munich prison, just before the blade fell, severing his head.

One of Sohpie’s last letters was sent to Carl Muth, expressing her deep gratitude for his friendship, and admiration for his life.

A man’s ministry of publishing and parish work is shut down and he’s left with nothing but tending his garden and getting by as he can. Then, a young man enters his home, his life, and soon his house is bursting with conversations and idea which would become part of the soil in which, in a world gone mad, sanity would once again be born.

In world where churches obsess about size, writers look for platform, and business and trying to capture market share, someone needs to shout, “FAME IS OVER-RATED!” at the top of their lungs.

Fame is over-rated. Muth isn’t exactly a household name, like Beyonce, or Russel Wilson.  But his seeds of faithfulness, sown in obscurity, took root in the lives of a new generation, whose literature shook Germany and the world.  They got martyrdom, and fame.  But who was the man behind the curtrain?  Carl Muth – quietly investing in a few young people who would shake the world. I think that’s the calling that belongs to all of us. I hope I can be that faithful.

Teach us Lord, to let go of our addiction to influence, knowing that in the end, it’s scope isn’t ours to create anyway.  Rather, grant that we’ll be faithful to live well, serve faithfully, and love deeply, those people and endeavors you allow into our lives, and let us rest in that, rejoicing along the way in the simplicities of beauty, fellowship, and intimacy with you. Amen

Adaptation to sameness – a skill to nurture and keep

201202-ifj-sidebar-1I went for a hike this past weekend in preparation for our upcoming plan: 40 days/400 miles of trekking in the Alps.  The big hike is now just about 3 weeks and a few days away, so these last times in our own Cascade mountains are important, as we check equipment, feel the weight of our packs to decide what we absolutely need and what’s expendable, and of course, train our bodies.

The training of the body of is vital for people like us, who have spent most of our waking hours during adulthood sitting in chairs.   Just over one year ago, my wife and I decided to tackle Mt. St. Helens in April.  We thought we were in decent shape for the hike because my wife did some circuit training a couple days a week and I did a little bit of jump roping, sit ups, and a few pull ups on a climbing wall two days a week and had skied a good amount during the previous winter.

We really thought we were in shape for it but the mountain didn’t care, and we turned back about 600 vertical feet from the summit, tired, cold, spent.  It was humbling, which I hope has led to some enlightenment.  Since then, I’ve learned a bit about the science of exercise, about mitochondria, and ATP, Cytochrome-C, and why muscles contract.

Here’s the bottom line for people planning long hikes.  The best training for you won’t be brief bursts of intensity, like a 20 minute cross fit workout.  A book specifically written to people hiking and climbing in the mountains reminds us that “the longer you can subject your muscles to a mostly aerobic stress (that’s the easier stress, like walking fast or jogging slowly) the better…”

This is because by subjecting your body to this stress, it will rise to the occasion and adapt, literally changing its own constitution so that you’ll be better able to manage the same stress the next time.  Or, to put it another way:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest (Recovery).

2014-07-02_10-25-34This insight was revolutionary to me, and I’ve been prepping for the long hike by taking longer, slower, runs, and long hikes, always wearing a heart monitor to make sure I don’t go too fast because my tendency is not to do much of anything slowly.   It’s during these long, slow, hikes, that I begin pondering how these very same principles of endurance apply to relationships, vocation, calling, and so much more in life.

In world of disposable relationships, countless job changes, hypermobility, and a kaleidoscope of “next big things” awaiting our very short attention spans, the best lives will still follow Eugene Peterson’s path of “A long obedience in the same direction”. 

We’ll get up, morning after morning, with the same spouse (or the same empty bed because of our calling/gift of singleness), make our coffee,  maybe read and pray, use our vocational skills, invest in the same relationships, encourage people, serve, practice generosity, eat real food, maybe even exercise.  We’ll do these simple things – over and over again.

It’s the sameness of this that causes people to bail out, because we like new.  We like sprints, and high intensity training, and the adrenaline rush of the start up, and church plant, and new relationship.   There’s nothing wrong with new, of course, because starting needs to happen.   But hear this:  There will be countless days that seem to be nothing more than just another step that was o so similar to yesterday’s step.   Same coffee.  Same boss.  Same friends.  Same city.  Same.  And you want to drop out and find a new race, or new trail, or new job, or new spouse.

Not so fast friend!  It’s when you feel like quitting that you are building transformative capacity by staying, (tweet this) and living, fully present and alive the moment that is so painfully “the same”.   Most folks can rise to the occasion and nail the job interview, or the first date, or the part of the climb that’s all about shopping for new equipment.  The challenge comes down the road, when you are risk of what you call “stagnation.”  Maybe.  But maybe you’re at risk of transformation, as you move into the deep waters of learning to be fully present with the o so familiar – so present that it becomes delightfully new.   The principles of the exercise formula, I’m learning, apply to every area of life:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest

Stress – The stress created by endurance training isn’t sudden and acute.  It builds slowly through the weariness that is a byproduct of sameness.  Whether you’re at 13000 feet on Mt. Rainier, or on day 1300 of the same job, or day 300 of cooking chicken fajitas for your friends or family, “you have need of endurance”.  You gain endurance by learning to be fully present with this step, this day on the job, this chicken fajita.  That’s called maturity, and learning it will make you wise.

Rest – There’s a rhythm of work and rest in God’s design for us and we mess with this to our own detriment.  Gone are the days when I can survive on pure adrenalin, running meetings, writing and studying, counseling and leading all week, and then cramming a taxing climb in on Fri/Sat only to return and preach four times on Sunday.  Without rest, exercise is toxic to the body, a recipe for injury.  With rest, it transforms us into people of strength.  The same holds true for all the other areas of life.

By virtue of the blessings we’ve been given, many of us have a capacity to be people of strength in this world, with enough resources of joy, or hope, or even money, to be blessing for others around us.  But our strength comes from adaptation, and the formula for adaptation never changes:

Adaptation = Stress + Rest   There’s no need to mess with the formula, because it’s the way the world works!  Accept the stress, embrace the rest, grow strong, be a blessing.  Enjoy!

 

Achilles Heal: Lessons for life and leadership learned from a tendon

Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise.  She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died.  Achilles:  the place of vulnerability.

The Achilles story is appropriate  because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes.   Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there.  Rest.  Repeat.  Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear.  “Why is this not healing?”

Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine,  let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.

Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy.  How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical?  Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine.   Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.

1. Daily is best – Physical Therapists prescribe exercises.  “Three sets of 20 on this one.  Two sets of 10 on that.”  Etc. Etc.   These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult.  You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired.  And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.

But here’s the key.  You need to do them!  Every day.  I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks  – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well.   Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.

I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t.  When I’m motivated, and when I’m not.  This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God.   There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.

The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine.   So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts.  They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed.   It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.

Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.

2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed.  “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”.  He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free.  Slow.  But pain free.  The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties.  “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years.  The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”

I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other.  After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way.  One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture.  Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.

This too has application for the rest of life.   You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health.  Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame.  It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success.  Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable.  Both are temporary illusions.  The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel.  The bad days are as important as the good.

Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ.  This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.

3. Ego is a setback  – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow.  I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!”  or worse, to speed up.  What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me.  The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me.  I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.

Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life.  It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom.  Enough!  When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read.  It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.

Take away:  When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.

The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer.   More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.

 

 

 

 

Killing the Power Play – Lessons from World Vision and Church History

gotta kill the power play

It’s been over week now since World Vision acted, the Evangelical world reacted, and hundreds of us wrote about it.  This morning, I’m enjoying some coffee and reading John 9, which is a story about a blind guy Jesus heals with spit and mud on some random Saturday.   This leads to some intense questioning and right there in the middle of it all we read this:

Then some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God because he does not observe the Sabbath.”  But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs and miracles?”  So there was a difference among them

People who are experts in knowing the text, when confronted with a real life situation, have differing ideas regarding the proper interpretation.  Imagine that!  It certainly won’t be the last time people disagree about what it means to live faithfully.  Circumcision, meat sacrificed to idols, observance of “a day” devoted to worship will all become issues, just in the first decades of the New Testament.

As church history unfolds, the number of issues about which people who share the same faith in Christ disagree will multiply exponentially:  working in theater, working for the military, the ownership and/or use of weapons, the deity and humanity of Christ, the nature and meaning of the priesthood, the meaning of communion, the permanence or passing nature of miraculous signs in the Bible, women in ministry, divorce and remarriage, the weighted balance of calls to justice vs calls to personal pious morality, whether translate the Bible into common tongue, and once that was decided, which translation is better – and I’m just getting started.

Our sadness and shock regarding events surrounding World Vision last week say as much about our collective amnesia as they do about the state of Christianity.  There really is nothing new under the sun, including the way people have reacted, including accusations and withdrawal.

There’s surely a time for both of these things.  We look back in horror at the church’s collective silence in Germany, or the failure of the Southern Baptists to apologize for racism until the 1990s.  While the majority went one direction, in both these cases there were minorities that actively resisted the trend lines, and withdrew from the prevailing tide of culture.  Bonhoeffer both spoke out against the Reich and began an underground seminary.  There’s a time to quit fighting and simply seek to gather with like minded people, out there on the margins.

Is this such a time?  Rachel Evans seems to think so.  She writes:   “I’m done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, done trying to force that culture to change”  and this is a good thing because forcing culture change has never been our calling.  We’ve always been called to offer an alternative to the prevailing winds of culture, not force culture change.

I don’t think the church gets this right very often because starting with Constantine, the threads of power have been tightly bound with threads of piety, and the results have been ugly, not just in recent history, but for about 1800 years now.   Crusades, Inquisitions, and the boycotting of Disney and Starbucks are all the same iterations of bringing power to bear on people in hopes of changing their view of truth.  Last week, though, it was this same tactic applied to people who share the same mission, as some Christians called for withdrawing financial support for World Vision in protest over a shift in HR policy regarding gay married couples.  Two days later they reversed their decision, leading at least some people I know to withdraw their support over the reversal.  I’m stunned that the same people offended by such tactics when the right invoked them against WV turned around and used them against WV when the shoe was suddenly on the other foot.  It’s loud.  It’s ugly.  It’s embarrassing.  It’s evangelical Christianity in the 21st century.

If you want to leave, there are plenty of places to go.  The Catholics have the coolest Pope ever, but they still forbid same sex unions, keep women out of leadership, and frown on birth control.  The Eastern Orthodox church has a marvelous creation theology, and a compelling view of the atonement, but they tend to think they’re the only ones with the truth (a kind of a “fundamentalism with incense”).  House church?  If it’s healthy it’ll grow and then you’ll need structure and kid care, and who makes these decisions?  No church?  It’s an option, but scripture’s clearer about gathering together regularly and living lives of interdependence in community as a testimony of loving each other than it is about nearly any other subject.  What should we do?

I’m about to write that we need to stop marginalizing people, and I can already hear the comments about how churches do exactly that when they draw lines.  But the reality is that every organization in the world stands for something, and when you stand for something, you draw a line, and when you draw a line there are outsiders.  So, we need to see that churches either have standards or they don’t stand for anything.   The question on the table is what do you do when an organization with which you’re affiliated, either through attendance or support, when you or someone you love is over there on the wrong side of the line on some issue?

 What then? 

Stay or go isn’t, in my estimation, the most important matter.  There are people in the church I lead who’ve done both very well, in spite of disagreements on some matters of faith and practice.  What matters most is that it’s high time to “kill the power play” (a hockey metaphor for my Canadian and Bostonian friends).  A British friend, long since passed away, shared a story with me once about a pastor in London.  He was intent on recovering a “true church” and was, by most counts, a brilliant bible teacher with a real capacity to see truth and communicate it with clarity. The trouble was that he saw things, in his own estimation, with such clarity, that he realized nobody saw the real truth except him.  He died only willing to take communion with himself, a tragic irony given the fact that communion is intended to be a testimony of our shared life in Christ.

And therein lies the problem with withdrawing.  Rachel writes about how great it would be to “focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion

Yes, it would be great.  But of course, there are theistic evolutionists who don’t favor gay marriage, or women in ministry.   What happens when that woman speaks in your new community, or isn’t allowed to?   –  because the reality is that if you’re now a community, you don’t have the luxury of not deciding – either woman speak or they don’t.   We don’t all agree on everything, and my British friend reminds me that when that’s the goal, we’ll end up dining, and worshiping, and bowling, alone.  That’s why the most important thing isn’t being in or out, it’s killing the power play.  Kill the notion that you’ll force change by exercising power!

What does that mean?  It means I need to stand with Rachel and everyone else by putting an end to the notion that our calling is to “force a culture to change” through boycotts, marginalization, and labeling.  It’s time we recognize that Jesus’ people have never agreed on anything, except that he rose from the dead.  This doesn’t mean an end to all discussion and spirited debate.   It doesn’t mean and end to communities and leaders needing to exercise spiritual authority and seek to uphold the faith with humility and courage.  It does mean an end to attempts at making other faith based organizations conform to my exact view of the faith, and rallying the troops to punish them when they fail to conform.

What does this look like in practice?   I think the best answer I can find is written by a former WV employee who is also gay (anonymous for obvious reasons)  Here’s what he writes in response to the decision and its subsequent reversal:

I am disappointed. I feel defeated. 

When it comes down to it, I understand the reasons behind the final decision – donor money makes things happen, and many donors didn’t agree with the policy change. My brain gets it, but my heart feels crushed.

It hurts to think that I could be turned away from my “dream job” at one of the best companies in my industry, not because of a lack of skill or education, but because of who I love and my self-expression.

… I feel all the emotions. Anger. Sadness. Disappointment. Shock. Confusion.

But beyond all of these, I feel love

I think of the millions of lives impacted for good. The children who have been fed and given an education. The parents who have received micro loans and given support for their families. This reminds me of why I love WV.

I think about the countless conversations I’ve had with people about the incredible work World Vision does. The feeling of excitement I get in my stomach when I explain the brilliant approaches WV has made for economic and community development around the globe. I still believe strongly that World Vision is one of the most effective development agencies operating today. This reminds me of why I love WV.

I think of my former coworkers and the relationships I’ve formed through World Vision. Several of my dearest friendships were established there. These are the people who have strengthened my skills, taken a chance on me, and challenged me to grow professionally and as an individual. These are also the friends who have been so supportive during my coming out process. This reminds me of why I love WV.

And so as I prepare for my meeting at World Vision (as an independent contractor not subject to WV’s employment standards), after hearing that individuals in same-sex marriages will still not be employed by WV, I am full of love.

Because love comes first, and the rest will follow. Because love is louder than hate. Even if hate has a louder bullhorn.

 

 

 

 

 

2014: A Better Path by Adjusting Values: more or less

A new year is a blank piece of paper; a chance to stop and consider how to fine tune our investment in the one wild and precious life that we’ve been given.  The “unexamined life is not worth living” is how Socrates put it, and there’s no time riper for examining our lives than now, when the calendar is clean.  Rather than just thinking about goals, though, this article reminds me that it makes sense to think about values.  Here are some values that need adjusting… more or less.

More Intentionality in affirmation and encouragement – I’ve recently become freshly aware of the power encouragement has, both through experiences of giving and receiving it.  Decades ago, in the midst of a depression that came about in the wake of my dad’s death, the person who made the biggest difference in my life did so through encouragement and affirmation.  When I thanked him, he said, “All of us know our inadequacies pretty well – what we need is to be told how much we’re loved, where we’re gifted, where we can shine.”  While the value of truth telling and hard conversations are also important, I’ve recently reawakened to the value of encouragement and plan to fan it into flame this year.

More Openness to the fullness of life – I’ll be teaching from Ecclesiastes this Sunday, and this coming summer for an outdoor course.  This book, more than any in the Bible, invites me to fearlessly live “fully” in every moment.  As one poet writes:

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…”   We live in a hyper-insulated world these days, afraid of all that might go wrong if we venture outside our comfort zones, and the fruit of this is a lowering of the bar, so that for too many the biggest adventure of our lives is a visit to the newest movie, or upgrading our xbox.  We’re too often missing the reality that in Christ, we’re sometimes invited to step outside the boat, or into the river, or give away the last of our loaves and fishes.  What if we said yes, shooting the moon and casting all our hope in the reality that God’s calling us to this next step?  What would happen then?   Abundant life would happen and by that God doesn’t mean material prosperity necessarily, but fulness, vibrancy, wholeness, right in the thick of the beauty and challenges on our plates.

More Companionship because we’re made for community and relationships.  I’ve just finished experiencing an overwhelming outpouring of support in my life from close friends throughout the time of my oldest daughter’s wedding.  They helped make the wedding happen in a thousand practical ways and I was reminded throughout the experience of just how priceless deep friendships are.  I’m looking for ways to continue fanning those flames of relationship in the coming year.

In addition to human companionship, I’m very much looking forward to nurturing companionship with Christ as I spend 40 days hiking through the mountains in order to learn more about what it means to walk with God.  After all, we’re invited to friendship with Jesus, not religious ritual.  I hope to learn more lessons about what that really means through my walking days.

More Creativity – For people with responsibilities like work, marriage, family, keeping the car maintained, keeping the sewer line between the house and street flowing freely, keeping the deck stained, there are seasons when it’s hard to be creativity.  Our longing to write, paint, create music or pottery, or whatever, is eaten alive by our day job and our night job so that we’ve nothing left for creativity.   There’s no sense moaning about it; such seasons simply happen.

On other hand, when one comes up for air, and the creative urges begin demanding they find expression again, it’s important to fan those urges into flames and give the fire some room to grow.  I’m going to do that by making a modest commitment to a word count for writing during each two week period of the coming year.  Rather than some lofty unattainable goal, I’m shooting for something challenging but doable.

More Vegetables – There’s nothing to say here.

Less Late Nights  – Everyone’s at their best at some certain point of the day, and for me it’s that time in the earliest morning hours, around 5:30.  As a result, staying up ’til midnight, weary and uncreative, robs me of my best time.

Less Stuff – We’re slowly working our way through the closets and garage because, like plaque in your arteries, possessions have a nasty way of accumulating and then remaining as nothing more than clutter long after they’ve served their purpose.  “Give it away” I say, and it’s happening, and it’s liberating.

Less Whining – I love that the Bible invites me to pour my heart out to God with honesty, expressing the full range of lament and praise, joy and sorrow.  But there’s one response to reality that God roundly condemns:  grumbling, which is this sort of low level whining amongst ourselves about circumstances, leaders, politics, the weather, jobs, customer service quality of Comcast, Seattle traffic and more.  The Bible says this is more than just a wast of time; it’s destructive sin.  God seems to be saying, “Tell me anything you want about your reaction to life, or your trials or pains or joys.  But don’t whine to one another.  It’s worthless.”

Less Yes –  All these musing about life change have to do with one single thing.  I’m trying to answer the question of how to make the most of the few precious days we’ve been given on this earth.  The answer, I’m learning, resides in focus.  “Fan your gifts into flame” is what Paul said to Timothy, which is a way of saying that you can’t do everything so once you find your calling, don’t worry about saying no to the many sirens of temptation that will come your way.  Stay committed to your thing… your craft, your marriage, your kids, your writing, whatever.  Give it your best and take of yourself so that you have your best to give.  Living into that requires less yes.

What are you saying more or less to in the coming year?  I welcome your thoughts.