“Stay a little longer” my friend Martin invited from Austria over FaceTime last August as I was planning my teaching trip for December. “We’re dedicating the new building the weekend after you finish teaching. So you should stay for that.” And so it was this past Sunday, (12.9.18) sitting in a marvelous new building, I was eking out enough understanding of German to not only celebrate the great new work there, but to recommit to my own work and calling in a fresh way.
I was reminded, both in the dedication sermon and the interactions with guests, that the work of God in a locale is bigger by far than any individual. Lacking this understanding, too many leaders develop Messiah complexes and make the work about them. Others hang on desperately to their titles and positions out of personal fear of letting go. Still others leave too soon out of odd ambitions, fear of conflict, or just plain laziness. All these options are toxic, both to the work and to the individuals clinging to, or fighting for, titles.
I’ve been visiting this Bible school as a teacher since 1995, invited by the principal at that time, named Phil Peters. Years later, Phil left, and Martin Buchsteiner took his place. Then, in August of 2013, the Director of Tauernhof, my good friend Hans Peter, died in a paragliding accident. His death came 25 years after the founding director, Gernot Kunzelmann died in a paragliding accident in 1988. Gernot began Tauernhof 22 years earlier in a facility that began as an orphanage more than five decades before. After Hans Peter’s death, Martin became the Director, and David Hines, a bi-lingual German who was studying at Gordon Seminary in the states, became the new principal of the Bible School.
What a joy to hear a sermon reminding us that the torch of leadership is only carried by any of us as individuals for a season and is then passed to a new generation. Gernot to Hans Peter to Martin. Phil to Martin to David. The torch passes and new generations carry on the work. The power of this was multiplied for me as I was able to share conversations with family members from each of these leaders. Garnot’s wife Gertraud was in attendance, as was Hans Peter’s son, and of course, Martin, Phil, and David (all three Principals of the Bible School during the decades I’ve taught there).
With each leader, there’s been a beautiful carrying of the timeless torch, the message of Christ as life, embodied in both the teaching and the life of the community. But there’s also been unique contributions from each leader, so that the whole is a reflection, like a prism, of the unique colors of Christ brought by each one.
I left the dedication ceremony and skied alone for a couple of hours, weighing what I’d heard, seen, conversed about. So many Decembers in this space, and a few spring, summer, and fall weeks as well. I’ve seen the changes – staffing changes, facility changes, senior leadership changes. But at the top of the climbing wall that sits at the back of the property there’s a banner which reads, “Jesus Christ. The same yesterday, today, and forever.” So leaders come and go, but the essence, the declaration of Christ in a way that moves people toward body/soul/spirit wholeness, goes on – bigger than any single leader. This, of course, is as it should be; must be if the work really belongs to God. I exhale, and rest, finding peace in the reminder that I don’t dare hold on to any role for a day longer than I should out of fear or pride (nor a day shorter out of laziness, or conflict aversion for that matter!) Rather, you and I are called to carry the torch of Christ into various spaces that are the contexts God has given us, and to be all in, all there, for those seasons God gives us, confident that whatever we build that has the mark of Christ will not have been a waste of days.
As I exit the gondola at the top of the ski hill, the valley rains that were my companion when I boarded the lift have turned to snow, the first real snowfall of the year. “Ah yes” I say to myself. “Another season has come, faithfully, finally, to the mountain. Thanks be to God.”
I came off the mountain and settled in front of my computer to listen to a live stream of the church I lead. I was privileged to watch one of our most recently hired pastors preach, and as I listened, I thought to myself, “yes God…your work will be fine for many years to come.” Strangely, in the act of letting go and trusting God with the future, I felt a sense of refreshment in my own work, and vision for the future – because vision can only fill empty hands!
O Lord Christ
Thank you for the timeless nature of your work in the world, bigger than any of us.
Thank you for the privilege of carrying the torch and using our gifts for a season to bless and serve.
Forgive us for any decisions we make about the future that are rooted in greed, or fear, or pride, or laziness.
Teach us to number our days and pour ourselves out fully in them, knowing that joy will be our gift.
Teach us to say goodbye at the right time, neither too early nor too late, but only in response to You.
And we will rest in trusting You with the future of the work, knowing it was Yours all along.
I’m not sure why “This is Us” even found its way into my life as a show to watch, but however it did, I’m often amazed by its power to speak to me at so many levels. Aside from being well crafted, the show has lots of freaky parallels to my own story, enough to make me feel, at times, like I’m watching a movie of some sections of my life:
The show has an adopted child in the family – I’m an adopted child in my family.
The sister among the siblings struggles with weight – my sister struggled with her weight.
The dad in the story dies during the adopted son’s senior year in high school – my dad died my senior year in high school.
The death of the dad overwhelms the mom. The death of my dad overwhelmed my mom.
It just goes on and on, so that in last night’s episode, when the son who got accepted to an exclusive college called and said he was going to delay for year to stay at home and care for his mom, I felt every ounce of his pain because I also delayed my entry into an exclusive college to stay home and care for my mom for a year, a year that turned out to be one of the hardest of my life. These episodes have had me reliving family history stuff related to weight, performance, how we dealt with conflict, sibling dynamics, marriage dynamics, parenting styles, adoption, and so much more.
Here’s the point though, for now: Life, Art, and Revelation are, at their best, woven together in a cord, so tightly that it’s difficult to pull them apart, separating the one from the other, so that deep transformation or understanding can arise from short periods of intense revelation. This happened in the past 24 hours with respect to the subject of time.
Life: I’m driving east on I-90 after an intense period of work in the city: big meetings; small meetings; one on one meetings; board meetings. I’m tired yes, but quickly brought to awe and worship as I see the maples and cottonwoods changing color, and leaves falling in the wind. Every autumn is a reminder of both the gift and brevity of life for me. Something about the trees losing their leaves shakes me awake, and I ask God, at least annually, at least in the fall, to empower me to live wisely, and well because I’m mindful that life is short. An autumn will happen, someday, when I won’t be here to see it. That’s why my hope is to keep my daily priorities more or less aligned with my mission statement. I don’t want to get to the end of the game and realize that I’ve lived just to survive rather than serve, to consume rather than create, to gain rather than give. “…teach us to number our days…” said the Psalmist, and yesterday the annual reminder of that prayer was in full color on the trees and in the air.
Art: That episode last night ended with the mom owning up, for the first time, to her passivity regarding her daughter’s struggles with weight – owned up to the fact that her husband’s death, and particularly the circumstances surrounding it, left her empty, with no love to give her children. The daughter owned some stuff too, in a real conversation that came about 25 years later than it needed to because we think that “time heals all wounds” for some stupid reason.
Right there, in the midst of that conversation, the producer embedded a profound Damien Rice song called “Older Chests” which poetically exposes how we speak out of both sides of our mouths regarding time. On the one hand: “I’ll be fine. I just need time” and on the other, “Everything’s falling apart as time marches on”. He exposes the folly that time heals anything at all. Yes, time is needed, but only time plus the hard work of forgiveness, or confession, or a next step of service or generosity, or a reconciliation of a relationship, or a naming of your addiction and getting help, or a step of brutal honesty — only those things heal. Time, without the intervention of our next steps, just leads to decay, and ‘presenting problems’ and unchecked addictions that are either visible or hidden.
Revelation: Then next, I read my devotions this morning, and came to this: The conventional explanation regarding suffering is that God sends us the burden because God knows that we are strong enough to handle it, but this is all wrong. Living in a fallen world sends us the problem, not God. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. (My paraphrase of a good word from Richard Rohr this morning.)
So there you have it. A theme just keeps coming up over and over again with incredible intensity for 24 hours: “You’re getting older Richard, and your years of enjoying autumn leaves are numbered. Use your time wisely!” Next up: “Time heals nothing Richard, and that show which mirrors your life so closely exposes the steps you need to take toward community in certain relationships because time doesn’t create community – calls, and supper, and conversations, and hikes, and laughter and truth telling – these create community in time. And finally, “There are times of suffering, but these times can be only be redeemed, not by passively riding the waves of more time, but by actively taking steps that move us to whatever we need to move toward, be it forgiveness, gratitude, dependency, truth telling, or whatever.
Time heals nothing. And I know it better today than yesterday at this time because God speaks through falling leaves, TV shows, and text… thanks be to God.
The to-do list is a document somewhere in the cloud, and every time I open it, this shows up:
MISSION STATEMENT: RD uses his gifts of teaching, catalytic vision, and leadership to serve and bless people by inviting them to wholeness, and demonstrating through both teaching and living, how Christ changes everything: spirit, soul, body – intimacy, family, friendships, values, ethics, relationship with neighbors, posture vis a vis culture – priorities as a citizen, global citizen, and citizen of a heavenly kingdom – and hope regarding the future. He offers clear steps for people to take in their journey of transformation and invites people to those next steps
This is my mission statement and I’m of the opinion that everyone needs one for two important reasons:
1. Jesus had one. In one of Jesus’ earliest public appearances, he opened Isaiah and read this: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisonersand recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Then he closed the scroll and told everyone in the room that this scripture was being fulfilled right before their very eyes, because Jesus was the “me” to whom this text was referring. He knew that the charge in Isaiah was his, that this was why he came to earth.
It’s best if each of us knows ‘why we’ve come to earth’ because such a knowing gives us clarity and purpose each and every day. Clarity and purpose are not only vital to our mental and physical health, but they alleviate the frustration of ultimately looking back on our lives and wondering if we’ve invested them well. If we both know our mission, and take the time to visit it regularly, there’s a sort of ‘sifting’ that happens, so that we spend increasingly less time doing things that don’t contribute to our mission.
This might sound like a mission statement will lead to a joyless life of pure self denial, but nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that when we’re living into our prayerfully crafted and wisely created mission statement, we will be living in ways that align with who we actually are, rather than who we perhaps want to be. For example, I’d love to be my neighbor sometimes because he has tremendous abilities with power tools and practical problem solving when it comes to matters of property. However, there have been a few times when I’ve tried to become him by fixing my own car, or solving an electrical problem in the house. Oops! The only thing I become good at when I try to be him is impatience and @#$%^. I now know that I’m not wired for wiring. I’m wired for writing. So, other than simpler projects which I can pull off easily with a ‘for dummies’ guidebook, I’m leaving repairs and remodels to the folks who can do it. I’ll stick with words, thank you very much.
As a result, because I’m doing more activities that contribute to my mission, I’m more fulfilled!
2. A mission statement prevents mission drift. Every morning when I create my to-do list and look at past projects that are either done or due soon, I’m subconsciously weighing these activities against my mission statement. This helps me not only stay true to my calling; it helps me continually understand my calling better. As a result of this little daily process, I’m gaining a clearer picture of what I’ll hope to be doing with my time when, someday, I’m no longer leading a large urban church. My mission statement helps me narrow the broad array of choices, and focus – both on a daily basis, and when asking big life questions.
Before running off to make a mission statement, there are two caveats:
Caveat #1: Your mission statement must be more important than other things. Some people have mission statements, but they’re actually just window dressing to cover up their truest motivations, which are about wealth, power, fame, living in a certain nice place, being super healthy, or enjoying sensual pleasures as much as possible. It’s not that we shouldn’t care at all about such things; it’s just that when such things become central in our lives, they become terribly destructive. So you performed well in the cross-fit gym. Is that really why you were born? So you have spectacular sex four nights a week, or retire with multiple millions in the bank at 36, or buy a Tuscan Villa. Are these your core reasons for existence? I hope not. Our mission statement has to do with living into our perceived truest identity, and I’ll write more about that in my next post. For now the important thing to see is that we’re to be driven by our identity, not our desires. If I were driven solely by desires, I’d be the guy with a great villa in Tuscany and millions in the bank.
It’s better though, to be driven by the calling and identity that God has given us, which brings me to the second caveat…
Caveat #2: We don’t create our mission statement out of thin air. We discern it! At a level, this is a lifelong process of answering this question carefully: What do I do that brings me joy, and is affirmed by other people?
A deliberate, careful, and prayerful consideration of this question will likely yield a few answers, and embedded in those answers will be the seeds of your mission statement.
This is so valuable and practical for me that I hope you’ll walk with me through the process and create your own. It’s because of this mission statement that I say “yes” to coffee with God, still say “yes” to leading the church I lead, say “yes” or “no” to hospitality and speaking invitations on various occasions, and easily say “no” to various options for use of my time or money.
Does anyone else out there have a mission statement they’d like to share?
Do you have questions about crafting your mission statement?
If “yes”, please respond in the comments section and it will help craft this series. Thanks!
I recently watched Come Before Winter, a short documentary about two foes of Hitler. Sefton Delmer was a propagandist who broadcast fake news into Germany as a means of changing hearts and minds. Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer was the other protaganist in the film. I’ve written extensively about Bonhoeffer in other places, so I’ll leave him alone for now, other than to note that this documentary is perhaps the best articulation of his last days before execution you’ll find, and for that reason alone, is worth watching. I say that because dying well, especially as a martyr (he was hanged for his part in the resistance movement in the final weeks of the war), can only happen as the fruit of living well. Now, on to Delmer and the subject at hand.
Born in Germany and educated both there and at Oxford, Delmer was uniquely qualified to have a foot in both German and British culture, a trait which, during the 30’s caused both nations to accuse him of being “in service of the enemy”. By 1940, however, he was recruited by the British Government to organize ‘black propoganda.’ He created several fake German radio stations broadcast by short-wave from England into Germany. They were a mixture of truth and lies – enough truth to make the lies credible. The intent was to demoralize, confuse, and divide the German people. So if you think fake news is something new, think again.
Cambridge Analytica is just the most recent version of what’s been happening since the Garden of Eden. Two things, though, make todays environment more challenging than the past:
Everything is called “Fake” by someone. Trump calls CNN and (“the failing”) New York Times fake. Fox News is considered fake by most who read the Times and watch CNN. As a result, we who digest the news increasingly ‘consider the source’, but not in a healthy way. Instead we’re pre-emptively dismissive of a report precisely because of the source. As a result, thoughtful people speaking important truths aren’t heard. We’re both tribal (gathering in groups that only think like us) and post-modern (skeptical that truth is knowable) at the same time. These two conditions, taken together, are a deadly combo. They’re the soil in which fear, cynicism, isolation, and skepticism grow. Sound familiar?
Here’s the deal though. Everyone spins their news, at least a little. CNN fact checks their stories. So does FOX. The problem isn’t the facts (at least in major news sources). It’s the spin on the facts – which facts are elevated, which are hidden, and how they’re interpreted.
Our response primarily blames the source. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was grilled this week by congress, and the goal of the grilling seemed to be this: “We want you to prevent liars from selling lies on your website” (along with other privacy concerns). The notion, however, that we’ll be able to prevent lies from proliferating on the internet is, to be polite, rubbish. Just today I learned, on the internet, that the world is ending on April 23rd, in fulfillment of hidden Biblical prophecy. That shark cartilage will prevent and heal all forms of cancer, and that James Comey, former head of the FBI is a “leaker”, a “liar”, and an “untruthful slimball”. Why even bother eating the cartilage, or reading Comey’s new book, if the world’s ending on April 23rd anyway?
The Real Need: Discernment
Jesus said that Satan is a liar, the father of lies. Paul said that lies come wrapped in truth sometimes. Jeremiah said that there’d always be false prophets around. Paul said that its in us to listen only to voices that reinforce what we already believe, and that we need to fight this tendency.
It’s as if God has gone to great lengths to shout at us in all capital letters: YOU NEED TO LISTEN CAREFULLY AND WISELY SO THAT YOU CAN DISCERN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND LIES – BECAUSE LIES WILL ALWAYS BE RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU TO BELIEVE.
They’ll be on the sidebar of your Facebook feed. They’re present as “slants” in the news. Two examples: 1) The NY Times only offered criticism this morning for Trump’s role in a united allied response to Syria’s ‘crossing the line in the sand’ with chemical weapons, a response Obama promised to deliver, but never did. 2) FOX news remains remarkably silent about hush money paid to prostitutes, nepotism in the Oval Office, and the president’s inability to work with people who view the world differently than him.
These biases shouldn’t surprise us. They should, however, remind us that there’s no cave into which we can crawl, where pure truth will be spoon fed to us. In fact, Hebrews 6 says that maturity is defined precisely as our capacity to discern between good and evil, lies and truth, because both are coming at us 24/7 – not just in our newsfeed, but even the voices inside our heads.
Jesus taught us, outlandishly, that an obsession with him would enable us to know truth, and the truth would set us free. Truth doesn’t mean easy, prepackaged answers that we learn when we’re children, and then spend the rest of our lives defending. Truth means the answer to the question (as Bonhoeffer taught us when he wrestled with the question of whether to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler), “what is God asking of me in this exact moment?” – as a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, a voting citizen in a fearful and polarized society, a neighbor?
The right answer won’t be found in The NY Times or on Fox News. But it also won’t be found in cultural withdrawal or disengagement. It will be found by those living fully IN the world, enjoying its gifts, celebrating its beauty, mourning it’s ugliness, and fighting against its systems of oppression. And who should be able to do that better than anyone else?
Disciples of Christ. They don’t hide. The engage. They don’t call for censorship. They call for discernment.
Here’s how Bonhoeffer said it: To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom
Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next. If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media. For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul. Happy reading, and happy sharing.
Chapter 1:Accidental Climbers
Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’Richard Rohr
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.Bill Gates
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you….Jesus the Christ
“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom
Has it ever happened to you?You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time.You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future.It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success.The business grew.You were promoted.The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities.All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing.You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff.Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, Prom night, graduations.It’s not perfect.There are bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days.Life’s filling up.The business is gaining new market share.Investments are doing their job.It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly.Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed.You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more.Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful.That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become, in some measure at least, “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below.You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar.You’re not sure where you are anymore.You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute.The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too.You went, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll.You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living.Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed.High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly.There’s your influence to consider, and reputation.You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night.At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position.These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang.“Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code.Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter.I thought you were Kristi.Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope.I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.”I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings our food.I’m sitting in rare Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today in the Alps. Paragliding. They found his body early this evening.I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.”After a silent moment Peter says,“I know.I’m sick too.”We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me.I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to.Then I go home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love mourning in darkness.
Hans Peter was the director of a school in the Alps where I teach regularly, and a kindred spirit.We’d skied his mountains together there, snowshoed in mine east ofSeattle, and ridden bikes amongst the monuments of Washington DC.We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids; argued theology and commiserated about leadership.We’d walked life together enough that even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff.It would be filled with laughter and adventures, andI just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner.The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for a video that needed making.Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed.There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job.The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.
Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing.It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”. But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all.Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself.Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition? What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness.I wondered if I was on the right mountain.
Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table.Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them.I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant.What was wrong with me?As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.
I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring. Like any peak, it came at a cost.Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing.New locations.New leaders.New responsibilities.New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships.The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting.But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year.Success!And emptiness at the same time.Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. Success is like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”.You want it to shine on you too.We call it lots of things, depending on our profession.We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love.Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life.Maybe this isn’t a bad thing.After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning.We want our lights to shine.We want significance.I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success.That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy.There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believe that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp.In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year.In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper.We were rural, small, subsistence.There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Kerouacspent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings, laughing around the kitchen table.It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people.“Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small.I was wrong of course.Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me.I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger.Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame.In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment.When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.
That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily.This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more.HR task forces.Policy Manuals.Bigger and bigger budgets.Adapt.Grow.Celebrate.Adapt.Grow.Mourn a little bit.Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership. Grow more.Repeat.
People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all.I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy.After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”.I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”.Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth.The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people.Healed.Empowered.Transformed.Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question:“Where does this story end?”and the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room.The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable.“Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity.Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well.But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified.And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing.I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading.What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty.When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves.Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long.I knew I needed to move.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters.The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father.Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale.And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements.We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more.Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency.I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic,treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away.The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail.In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days
And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.
You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers. My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages.
“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all” is how Helen Keller put it. She’s was onto something, surely. When Dave Matthews mused about the “Ants Marching” in his masterful music some years ago, it seemed to me he was pondering a sort of inevitable decay into a ritual of breakfast, commute, work, commute, supper, exhaustion, repeat. There are surely forces at work in the systems that are western civilization contributing to this dismal picture. However, I’d suggest that Jesus wants to infuse our normal daily existence with Divine Life so that in the midst of whatever it is we’re doing, the source of wisdom, joy, hope, mercy, justice, generosity, compassion, and service that is Christ bubbles up from deep within. What’s more, this kind of life is available to us every single day, even the mundane ones, the unchosen periods of suffering, the challenges.
I needed to leave my job for three months and trek through the Alps to learn this lesson, and learn I did, and I’m thrilled to share my adventures with you in my new book “The Map is not the Journey: Faith Renewed While Hiking the Alps”. The death of my close friend in a paragliding accident in the Alps came just at a point in my career where I was beginning to question the future. The convergence of these elements led, a year later, to my wife and I doing a 40 day, 400 kilometer trek through the Alps. Beginning in Italy, we went on to experience the Alps in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Lessons learned there, along with all the adventure of it (yes, we did walk into our private room one night to find a couple sleeping in our bed!) are found in this new offering, now available at Amazon and fine booksellers. Each chapter includes a link to photos from the stories of that chapter, in hopes that you’ll experience the trip we took in a small way too.
It’s a book for everyone who’s wondering what’s next, at any age.
It’s for those whose lives have turned out differently than they’d expected.
It’s for those who are tired, and looking a fresh infusion of life in their daily routine.
It’s for those who have set goals that they failed to meet.
It’s for those who want to learn about hut to hut travel in the Alps, or long range hiking.
You can help this book succeed in a few simple ways:
If you think you know people who might like it, share your purchase, or this blog post, on your social media. Thanks!
Reviews on Amazon are always helpful. Thanks!
What some have said who’ve read it:
Denny Rydberg – President Emeritus of Young Life . “For those feeling fatigue after years of faithfully doing the same thing, for those looking for new eyes to see what God is doing and has on his mind, and for those who need a jolt of adventure, this is the book to read.”
Les Parrott, PHD – “If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring. Richard paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation.”
Jim Zorn (former NFL coach and player) – “Richard’s travels aren’t just good stories of adventures. They’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people. Those looking to find transformation in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”
Please share this post if you think others would benefit from the book. Thanks!
My wife and I celebrated 38 years of married life yesterday. Here are 38 thoughts on what’s contributed to our marriage not just surviving, but thriving. Enjoy, and please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section. Thanks to all of you who’ve walked with us over various sections of our path!
1. we had specific reasons for marrying each other, and through times of difficulty, it’s helped to remember those
2. truth-telling occurs best in an environment bathed in affirmation and encouragement
3. your spouse can’t possibly meet every need in your life. Enjoy a broad reach of friendships without idolizing them, all the while affirming the strengths of your spouse.
4. having common passions (in our case, the outdoors and the mountains) makes life together very enjoyable.
5. apologizing when you make mistakes, as soon as you’re aware that you’ve made them, is by far the best path to maintain intimacy. Denial and justification is poison.
6. forgiving when the other apologizes is equally important
7. we both have our bad days, and hard seasons. Don’t panic when your spouse descends into a valley. Walk there with them and commit to walking through the valley with them, and out of it.
8. it’s important to create a secure environment where truth-telling and saying the hard thing can occur
9. truth-telling can only happen if the other party knows, at some deep level, that you’re committed to their wholeness and well being, and not just venting frustration.
10. truth-telling also happens best when the one saying the hard word has a sense that it’s safe to do so – but this safety takes time to foster.
11. celebrate and leverage the differences between you
12. she’s practical, he’s idealistic
12. she’s a doer, he’s a contemplative
13. she fixes things that break, he writes.
14. simple, affectionate touch matters – nurture it
15. good sex matters too – it can be a barometer of other areas, so keep investing in it
16. while apart, try to touch base every day
17. never grow tired of saying or hearing the words, “I love you”
18. approaching intimacy with God differently is fine – don’t impose your particular spiritual habits on your spouse
19. help each other discover the spiritual gifts you both have – affirm, celebrate, and use them. They’ll bring you great joy, and bless others.
20. know what your spouse longs for from you in order to feel loved. A good resource for this can be found here.
21. cook together and eat romantic meals at home
22. if you’re laughing together on an almost daily basis, that’s a good sign.
23. you can’t affirm what you appreciate about the other person too often – recognize the profound value of encouragement and offer it regularly.
24. say “please” and “thank you”
25. nothing will unfold exactly as planned, so as life happens, if you don’t have a spirit of adaptability, it will be trouble.
26. while the children are still in the house, make certain you’re investing in the marriage, not just the children. After the kids move out, the marriage will still be there, stronger than ever if you do. And remember this simple formula: happy marriage=happy children
27. in an age of cynicism regarding marriage, remember that your very act of committing to a covenant is culturally subversive, swimming upstream against prevailing currents. Celebrate that, and recognize the importance of it.
28. if she’s better at fixing electrical outlets, don’t be threatened by that.
29. backpacking together seals the marriage. When you’re in a tiny tent and it’s raining hard for eighteen straight hours with the wind blowing so that the tent fabric is in your face, you’re bonded for life.
30. recognize the many blessings God has given you as a couple, whatever they are. Count them. Be grateful for them. Celebrate them. See them as gifts, not entitlements.
31. recognize that the blessings you have are given so that you can bless others. Talk together about how you’re doing that, and going to do that.
32. don’t cling to certain seasons of life – embrace each new season as a new context for learning, growing, and growing closer.
33. if neither of you have “cards and gifts” as love languages, then count yourselves fortunate. You don’t need to buy each other cards and gifts!!
35. remember that you won’t always be facing the same season at the same time – so be patient with one another, and give each other grace to walk through seasons at your own pace.
36. Even if you’re better at fixing broken stuff, remember to affirm the myriad of ways HE enriches your daily life, talks you into activities you would never do on your own, and cooks delicious food for you.
37. now that she’s a ranger, remember to always obey her while you’re in the forest
38. don’t forget that you now live in the forest. So…..
Since moving to the mountains it seems my wife and I are always thinking about wood and fire. From the start of fall until at least halfway through spring, we’re hauling wood up from storage and burning it for heat.
Before burning season is over, though, we’re already on the prowl for new wood for the next season. It must be found, cut into pieces small enough for hauling, hauled, unloaded, cut, split, stacked to dry,. All this is as good as, maybe better than, a cross fit workout. Then, once the holzhausens are in the shadows, the wood will be moved under the house to await its contribution as family warmth while the snow falls.
Meanwhile in the middle of the summer, we light a fire in a marvelous home made bbq, using sticks from the forest, in preparation for a grand 4th of July party at our house. Primal fire, with friends gathering from the neighborhood to bid goodbye to a dear couple who are moving east after twenty years living at the pass.
Fire in the mountains has a beautiful rhythm, all by itself, but the more I gather, cut, split, stack, haul, and burn wood, the more I find profound meaning in it as well. My reasons have to do with the ribbon of fire that flows through the Bible.
Worship and fire have always been linked. From the days of Noah, who offered burnt offerings, to the tabernacle, which provided an altar for burnt offerings, and perpetual light from lit lamps, fire and light were necessary to worship. The light represented God’s capacity to overcome darkness, a theme that would culminate in Jesus presenting himself as “the light of the world”.
But fire? It, too, is about hope. The fire on the altar of burnt offering was a divine gift, having been lit originally by God Himself (Leviticus 9:24). God charged the priests with keeping His fire lit (Leviticus 6:13) and made it clear that fire from any other source was unacceptable (Leviticus 10:1-2).
There’s enough here, in this little section of Leviticus, to see that in a cold world, God invites us to be people exuding the warmth of God’s fire. Here’s what I mean.
God IS our fire. God is the source of a holy fire as seen above, but more. We’re told that during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, God WAS a fire by night, and that the fire was there precisely to offer guidance. We’re also told that God IS a consuming fire, in two places in the Bible. Fire brings light, warmth, protection, and yes, fire consumes too. But be careful. It’s those of us who are certain God’s going to consume our enemies that are most likely in a for a big surprise; the realization that we who love God have boatloads of stuff in our own lives that need consuming. When the fire begins to expose and then burn away the lust, greed, self-pity, complacency, rush to violence, and so much more that is in us, then the best answer is: burn baby burn. Our God is fire.
God’s fire is now ours to keep lit. The priests of old were charged with keeping the fire lit. Today its all of us who claim to follow Christ, because he’s called all of us priests! So fire keeping is a thing for us, a responsibility. But what does this mean?
We get a hint when we come to see that the Holy Spirit shows up for these people as fire, and falls on them. This Spirit becomes a vital source of Christ followers, granting them direction, conviction when they’re wandering off the path, a power beyond their human capacity, in words, in the power to heal, in and wisdom.
The hope, it seems, is that such empowered people, lit on fire by God himself, will bring warmth to the world, and point everyone they meet to its source.
So there you have it. If you claim to follow Christ, you’re invited to tend the inner fire, so that the power, beauty, love, wisdom of Christ will be seen like light in darkness, and felt like warmth in the cold.
But be careful. Any old fire won’t do.
There are fires of religion, which are nothing more than legalistic performance, whereby the liberty found in Christ is strangled by long lists of forbidden activities and required activities.
There are fires of nationalism, uniting gun laws, low taxes, and a deregulated environment with Jesus, making him out to be American, the tea-party’s finest advocate. Liberals mustn’t throw stones because, in spite of what the leftist Christians believe, Jesus isn’t the poster child for liberalism either. Jesus’ kingdom is neither unfettered capitalism, nor social/economic liberalism. It’s wholly other, embodying peace, generosity, hospitality, courage, love for enemies, pre-emptive forgiveness, and much more.
There are fires of upward mobility and health, but I’m glad Peter, Paul, and Timothy (all suffering at various times with poverty, persecution, and illness) weren’t depending on those fires. They’d have flamed out.
No, the only real fire, the one with the power to heal and liberate anywhere in the world, won’t be confined by health, economics, politics, or denomination.
This fire wants you as fuel, hence God’s invitation that you be “filled with the Holy Spirit” – and this means allowing your whole self to be offered as fuel, a “living sacrifice” is what God calls it. The reason it’s living is because of God’s mysterious ways with fire. God’s fire was, for example, in the burning bush, a fire Moses saw as mystery because though the bush was burning, it was never consumed!
Imagine never being consumed?
I’m convinced we undersell the adventure that awaits us when we follow Christ wholeheartedly. Then, holding back our money, our time, our politics, our geographical or vocational preferences, we’re making our own fires. Religious? Perhaps. But they literally can’t hold a candle to God’s beautiful fire, the fire that could be, that should be, when a life is lived wholly – with a pre-emptive answer of “yes!” whenever God calls.
One author says “the Christian life hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it’s been untried at all, and it’s judged because it’s religious imposter turned out so ugly”.
So Lord… light my fire! All of me. Consume my garbage, that the diamonds of hope, generosity, joy, and peace might thrive, be lit as everlasting offerings, and bless our cold dark world.
You wake up in the morning and scan the news on your phone. Two text messages into your day you already know you’ll be working late. Then you discover you’re out of coffee and realize that you’d stopped at the store on your way home last night for only one reason: to buy the beans. As you entered though, you saw the oranges and thought you should pick a few up since it’s the end of citrus season, and that led you down a different aisle where you picked up a few malted peanut butter balls as comfort food and some oatmeal to counter the effects of the balls. You decided on fish for supper and found a wine to pair with it, and left satisfied. Only now, just when you need the most, you’re lacking the beans so you curse yourself for being so flighty. The presidential debate debrief in the news tells you that every single candidate on stage last night lied numerous times except the guy that will soon need to quit because he has only 3% of the vote. You slam your fist on the table, wondering what’s to become of our country when clowns and mad men are the ones America is clamoring to elect.
While you drink your tea (TEA!!! ugh), you scan your schedule and realize you have three difficult meetings today and then a notification hits your phone for a fourth, slated for that time you were planning a stress relieving run. The traffic getting in is ridiculous, and by the time you arrive at work, you can only think of one thing: the weekend. You grit your teeth and prepare to endure another day in the trenches, just hanging on until you can breathe again.
Let’s hone in on that one phrase: “endure another day” because I’m increasingly convinced that, while there’s a place for endurance in our world, we endure we more than we should. Endurance is what we often choose when we’re facing circumstances that are different than our expectations. When we encounter them, we hang on, pushing through until it’s over. Hard meetings. Company. Meetings. The dentist. Eating our broccoli. There are lots of things we ‘endure’.
I’d argue that everything in life is either OE or OE. Either we have Obligations to be Endured, or Opportunities to be Enjoyed. As I grow older I’m learning that things I once thought of as obligations can just as easily be thought of as opportunities, and when considered in the light of opportunities, they become easier, lighter, and more joy filled, even if they’re things I would never have chosen. Notice I said, “easier” rather than “easy” because let’s face it, not everything is easy. Still, I’ve been a pastor long enough now to have watched people go through unemployment, business failure, cancer, the loss of a parent or child, and relationship implosion. Nobody would choose any of these things, but in this fallen world, these are realities that come our way.
What I’ve seen is that there are people who, though they wouldn’t have chosen their circumstance, manage to be fully present in it, and find enough beauty and joy in the moment to be express gratitude. I know one man who, shortly before he died, said to me, “Richard I am so grateful for all the things I’ve learned through my cancer, and how it’s shaped me to be a better husband, father, and Christ follower.” Then, with tears, he said, “I don’t know if I’d have learned these things without the cancer” Wow!
He reminds me of Paul who, in writing his letter to the Philippians, says, “I want you to know that my circumstances (of being imprisoned) have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel…and in this I rejoice.” The capacity to find opportunity and enjoyment in circumstances we’d never have chosen is, I’m learning, a sign of wisdom.
In contrast, I’ve known people for whom the couple is always half empty. Anger over their employment situation; bitterness over health challenges; staleness in their marriage; there are people who are, when they wake in the morning, already looking forward to the end of the day. This is sad to me, because their days are piling up as Obligations to be Endured. Joyless. Lifeless. Stressful. It’s ironic that Paul, in prison, sees an Opportunity to be Enjoyed, and I can’t even handle my commute.
It’s my commute, by the way, that showed me the power of this lesson. I received a fitbit watch for Christmas so that I can now see my pulse whenever I want just by looking at my wrist. The southbound traffic from North Seattle to downtown is almost always bad when I’m heading home, and since I’m new to commuting the time quickly became a source of frustration, an obligation to be endured. I’d fume about the poor planning of our city officials, fume about the endless growth of our city, fume about the tunnel project that I voted against twice! The whole time, I was also thinking, “as soon as I get past Issaquah, I’ll be happy again” thus making my commute through the city an obligation to be endured.
Then I started looking at my pulse while I was sitting in traffic and realized it was way too high, and I’d fume about my pulse, and my anxiety levels, which only made me more anxious, and then my pulse would go up some more. You get the picture. Type A; more than I care to admit.
Then I repented. I begin to see my commute as an opportunity to be enjoyed. The first day with this new perspective, I started paying attention to the views: our glorious space needle; queen Rainier; Lake Union. I’d pray little prayers of gratitude for the privilege of serving the city I love more than any other in the world. I’d thank God for the beauty. I’d pray for shalom for our city, pray for the churches.
After doing this once or twice, I looked at my pulse watch and didn’t believe it. My pulse was 25 beats lower per minute! This has been happening consistently now for a couple of months, so I know it’s not a mistake. It is, rather, a change of perspective. It’s a matter of looking forward to the commute as a time to pray, enjoy the beauty, maybe listen to a staff member’s sermon online to help give feedback. Enjoyment leads to peace, and peace leads to joy, or something like that.
I’ve begun expanding this little trick, applying it to other things. Social engagements I wouldn’t have chosen? The fourth sermon of the day? A report that needs to be written? A salad?
It’s crazy, but when I seek to follow the example of Joseph in Genesis, and Paul in Philippians and the later chapters of Acts, I begin to view most of life as an opportunity to be enjoyed, and the results are an increased sense of joy and gratitude, not to mention better health! If the only thing on your “opportunity to be enjoyed” list, is your hobby and your free time, you’ve got a problem. You’re cheating yourself out of joy most of your waking moments. Repent. Enjoy.
An Austrian monk explains this perspective better than anyone I know. Take a few minutes now and watch this, and then go out and finish your day with the perspective that most of it, as much as possible, is a gift from God, an opportunity to be enjoyed!
Cheers friends, and may the Peace of Christ be yours in full measure as you seek Him.
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
from Rainier Rilke’s “Book of Hours”
In a few short weeks the church I lead will host a “longest night” service. It’s offered because behind all the glitter and “city sidewalks dressed in holiday style”, there are griefs and losses which are a bit elevated in December, precisely because it’s the month when “joy” seems some sort of expected norm. Because of this, those who don’t feel the joy are left dealing not only with their grief, but with a culturally imposed guilt because of their failure to enter into the joy that oozes through every song, every light, every tree, every cup of hot chocolate.
My parents were married on December 25th during the WWII, and so after my dad’s death, Christmas became an intensely difficult time for my mom and hence, for me too. The second Christmas Eve after dad died, I’d hoped to go to the candlelight service at our church, mostly to be with friends and escape the cloud hanging so heavily on my mom’s broken heart. Her car, though, was parked behind mine, and she was intent on me staying home and waxing the floors with her because her sister and their family, who live a mile away and drop in literally every day, were coming over for the Christmas meal. “It needs to be clean for Christmas” she said wearily. Of course, it wasn’t about the floor really, but I didn’t know that then.
I only knew that waxing the floor on Christmas Eve was, of all the options for the joyous night, somewhere just below the bottom of the list. I wanted to be with happy people, to celebrate, to find a little hope. Mom, though she couldn’t articulate it, wanted me mostly to be with her and since she’d found a reason to stay home, wanted me home too. An argument ensued. She wouldn’t let me leave. Her car was parked behind mine and it was not to be moved. Things got heated, and in a family with Scandinavian roots, known for moderation and civility, the tension and harsh words were some of the worst I can remember. It was a stalemate that wouldn’t be settled until my uncle/pastor came over to mediate around midnight. Thus when most families had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, I had visions of leaving home forever, and my poor mom had longings for her best friend to come back from the dead and restore normalcy.
Merry Christmas indeed.
Moments like that fateful Christmas night are precisely why everyone who walks through valleys of sadness, grief, and loss (which is everyone… or should be everyone) needs to watch “Inside Out”, Pixar’s marvelous movie about emotions. A girl named Riley is at the center of the story. Her emotions are personified and as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco the roles of joy, anger, and sadness all come into play.
Riley needs to deal with loss and grief is she’s ever going to adapt to her new environment, but those emotions are generally swept under the rug along with aging, disabilities, and failures, away from the limelight of what ‘ought to be’. It’s not just Christ followers who have a hard time with loss; apparently its all of us.
Joy is at the helm in Riley’s emotional construct and her “can do” attitude is both vital and annoying. The annoyance arises because “can do” isn’t always true, and until we’re willing to honestly face the losses that are present in lives, we’ll not find the critical next steps needed to move forward.
Sadness is present too inside Riley, but appears initially as a sort of unnecessary burden that she’s forced to carry. Joy’s view is that sadness only weighs Riley down, holds her back, and makes her suffer. Joy finds sadness annoying, and so do we some of the time, if the truth be told. This is because there’s a mythical narrative out there that says the only right way is up, the only worthy outcome is success, the only proper response in life is joy.
To which the Psalmist David, the Wise Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Paul the Apostle, Rainier Rilke, Desmund Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoffer, would all say: “rubbish!” Though some of us might, in the name of authenticity, overdose on grief and sadness, most of us are addicted to joy, or at the least we’re terrified of sorrow.
Inside Out, and the Bible, both remind us that real joy is on the far side of suffering.
Christ’s birth is good news precisely because humanity’s mucked it up so much, each of us contributing mightily to the problem, that we need a savior. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” is good news indeed because God knows without Christ’s coming we’d have flushed ourselves into the sewer of violence, greed and suffering that is too often our world. Instead, there’s hope, healing, and a new trajectory for humanity, made all the sweeter by the knowledge of what we are, would forever be, without him.
There’s the pain of childbirth and the joy of new life, the pain of hunger and loneliness, followed by the feast. War, followed by peace.
Pretending all’s well when it isn’t has a way of numbing our longings for a better life, a better world. Advent, ironically, is an invention to lean into our longings for the wholeness and healing that Christ alone can bring. But giving those longings space in our hearts means giving space in our hearts to grief, and sadness, and loss.
Eight days ago I was privileged to be in the room when my oldest daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, a beautiful healthy girl. I’m not sure any event has ever baptized my soul with more joy. The realities of sorrow in the night and joy coming in the morning were literally true that day – and yet the first moment I left the room after her birth, my heart was pierced with a longing that my dad, my mom, my sister, aren’t here to share the joy.
Sorrow and Joy. Longing and fulfillment. Suffering and Glory. This is our world friends. May the presence of Christ give us the courage to walk every single step with courage and grace.