Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next. If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media. For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul. Happy reading, and happy sharing.
Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’ Richard Rohr
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. Bill Gates
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you…. Jesus the Christ
“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time. You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened. You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success. The business grew. You were promoted. The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities. All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing. You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff. Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, Prom night, graduations. It’s not perfect. There are bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days. Life’s filling up. The business is gaining new market share. Investments are doing their job. It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly. Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed. You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more. Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful. That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become, in some measure at least, “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below. You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar. You’re not sure where you are anymore. You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute. The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too. You went, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll. You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living. Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly. There’s your influence to consider, and reputation. You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night. At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position. These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang. “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code. Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter. I thought you were Kristi. Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope. I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.” I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings our food. I’m sitting in rare Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today in the Alps. Paragliding. They found his body early this evening. I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.” After a silent moment Peter says, “I know. I’m sick too.” We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me. I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to. Then I go home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love mourning in darkness.
Hans Peter was the director of a school in the Alps where I teach regularly, and a kindred spirit. We’d skied his mountains together there, snowshoed in mine east of Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst the monuments of Washington DC. We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids; argued theology and commiserated about leadership. We’d walked life together enough that even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff. It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner. The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for a video that needed making. Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed. There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job. The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.
Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing. It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”. But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all. Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself. Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition? What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness. I wondered if I was on the right mountain.
Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table. Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them. I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant. What was wrong with me? As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.
I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring. Like any peak, it came at a cost. Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing. New locations. New leaders. New responsibilities. New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships. The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting. But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year. Success! And emptiness at the same time. Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. Success is like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”. You want it to shine on you too. We call it lots of things, depending on our profession. We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love. Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning. We want our lights to shine. We want significance. I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success. That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy. There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believe that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp. In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year. In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper. We were rural, small, subsistence. There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Kerouac spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings, laughing around the kitchen table. It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people. “Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small. I was wrong of course. Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me. I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger. Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame. In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment. When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.
That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily. This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more. HR task forces. Policy Manuals. Bigger and bigger budgets. Adapt. Grow. Celebrate. Adapt. Grow. Mourn a little bit. Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership. Grow more. Repeat.
People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all. I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy. After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”. I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”. Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth. The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people. Healed. Empowered. Transformed. Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question: “Where does this story end?” and the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room. The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable. “Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity. Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well. But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified. And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading. What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty. When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves. Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long. I knew I needed to move.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters. The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father. Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale. And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements. We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more. Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency. I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic, treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away. The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail. In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days
And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.
You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers. My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages.
“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.
In short – I hope it’s for a lot of people!
Here’s a little video teaser I made on my iphone.
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!
1. we had specific reasons for marrying each other, and through times of difficulty, it’s helped to remember those
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.
It was just over a year ago that my mom-in-law came to visit, and some health matters made it clear it would be best for her to stay with us. This set in motion a series of events that led to my wife and I moving east of Seattle a bit, up into the mountains, where we’d planned to move eventually anyway. The self contained apartment has become my mom-in-law’s home, and she’s pure delight to have with us. We’ve rented a tiny place next to the church in the city so I can skip horrific commutes and be “down” (as we say at the pass) on a regular basis, but selling our “big house” was the obvious next step. My lovely wife’s been preparing it for market with paint and care this past week. Of course, each brush stroke brought memories. Here are her thoughts….
Yes, these walls can talk. As I find myself sitting on the hardwood floor with mahogany inlay, painting the baseboards of my Greenlake house in Seattle, I’m hearing the sounds of Legos being spilled out, the vacuum cleaner chasing dust bunnies, tap dancing on the indestructible 1920’s kitchen flooring, violins and piano echoing off the lathe & plaster walls, drums pulsing from the basement, thumps from the climbing wall in the attic. As we prepare to sell our home of the past twenty years, the flood of memories is at times overwhelming. I always said that this little house had “good bones” but my family have been the ones who have fleshed it out and given it life for these past two decades, coming and going, filling it with laughter and joy and questions and tears and decisions and major life events of every kind, mostly documented in photos at the front door before heading out on another adventure.
We found the house on a Sunday in December 1995, the FOR SALE sign having been put out the night before. Richard turned one street too early for the café he was headed that morning but that “wrong turn” led him past the house that was to become our home later that day. We made an offer an hour after seeing it and moved in within a month. It was a house like no other we had lived in; hard wood floors, white plaster walls, tiny kitchen, treeless back yard, neighbors within hearing distance on all sides. Over time, we learned to lower our indoor voices and wash dishes by hand. We planted trees in the yard that grew into our own forest retreat and discovered many, many special friends in the surrounding houses.
Around year five, I ventured into adding color to the walls and have since painted every room and hallway in the house. And they’re not neutral colors. Most are bold and bright. They’re not of the same color palette so they may be puzzling to potential buyers or new owners. But for me, the matriarch of this home, they are telling me story after story of the inhabitants of each room. I know, that under this freshly painted “guest room” in the basement, there are lovely blue walls with fluffy white clouds near the ceiling, carefully sponged on by our oldest daughter in her room where she filled journals with creative stories. The bright yellow room on the main floor has always been bright yellow, just like our bouncy youngest daughter who covered most of the walls with drama production posters and pictures with friends (hence needing to be repainted once we peeled the paint with each removal.) The dark forest green room belonged to our equally artistic son who choose to glue his excellent black and white photography masterpieces to the walls (in addition to a pastel mural drawn on one wall that never quite washed off as expected) but fresh paint repaired all that.
The Paprika red basement family room housed many late night slumber parties and “Basement Club” meals and movie events as well as hundreds of college students who found their way to our house for the Final Four Basketball Championships for several years. The bright green living room-turned dining room hosted our oldest daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner, hearing stories of how this group of thirty people happened to gather from all around the world to celebrate this special event. Birthday parties, holiday meals, ordinary meals, small group gatherings, meetings of many sorts, fill the dining room with stories. I’ll always remember my mother-in-law sitting for hours at the front window, reporting on all the comings and goings of the neighbors or my dad who was the last one to bring order to my workbench in the garage, many years ago.
The attic was what sold us on the house twenty years ago. The top floor became our master bedroom, our place of intimacy and “retreat” after long days. The same friend who built our indoor climbing wall also paneled the ceiling in knotty pine to match our log bed that was clamored upon every Christmas morning by our three children, no matter how old they became. We hung an Austrian cow bell on the front door to alert us when the kids came home and I’ll never forget the sound of the door opening to the stairwell while waiting for them to come up and check in. Sometimes there were long conversations, perched at the foot of the bed, about the event from which they had just returned and sometimes it was just a kiss goodnight, but always, a feeling of relief that they were home, safe and sound.
And then there is the kitchen. It was a difficult adjustment when we moved in, being about one third the size of my former kitchen. It has a smaller than average refrigerator and no automatic dishwasher and yet I’m proud to say that I managed to raise three very responsible adults from this kitchen. I’m fairly confident that potential buyers will see my woefully ill-equipped kitchen as a liability, but they will be mistaken. I think our step-saver kitchen has been our greatest asset. It taught us all to be creative. It taught me contentment. It always became the gathering place for conversation while chopping vegetables or stirring at the stove or scooting someone aside to open the oven door. And I’ve also discovered that there is something magical about soapy dishwater, lending itself to camaraderie and honest conversation. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned kitchen with old-fashioned values but the cabinets have a fresh coat of paint and shiny new knobs that may very well get pulled out by new owners, but they served our family well and the many guests whom we were privileged to host.
I know it’s silly to get sentimental about a house, but I’m going to just let the tears flow and pray that the next family is blessed by the stories imbedded in these walls. Thank you, sturdy little house, for protecting us from storms, within and without, for rooting us deeply in this neighborhood and in this city, and for filling our lives with tremendous memories. May the next occupants be sheltered well by your walls, making our sturdy little house a home once again.
“What is that in your hand?” God
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” The Preacher in Ecclesiastes
I’m sure you’ve been there. You want something to be different in your life. Maybe it’s a vocational success you’re after, or a new house, a remodel, a spouse, (a remodel of a spouse? nope), a successful and meaningful retirement. Or you want things to be different in the world because the racism, injustice, human trafficking, environmental destruction, or whatever it is for you, just incenses you so much that you’re “mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.”
It seems that all of us, at times, are on the hunt for the “next big thing” in our lives. I have a friend in his twenties about to move overseas; a friend in his thirties about to make a major job change; and a friend in his seventies who’s trying to figure out what to do with the time he has left. All of them are looking for the next big thing.
This last guy, the older one, taught me a great lesson when we met recently. I’d seen him a few days earlier and he said, “we need to catch a coffee” and, with a grin on his face, “I’ve found the answer to the question of what to do with the rest of my time!!”
We met in my office recently, late in the afternoon, and he walked in with a gleam in his eye. He’s always been upbeat, as long as I’ve known him, but this was different. This was a gleam of settledness, contentment, purpose, calling. “Well,” I asked, “what’d you find?” He pulls a sheet of lined paper out of his pocket and holds it up in front of me. It’s filled, or nearly so, with names.
“See this?” he says. “These are the ‘kids’ I’m meeting with. All of them are in their twenties and thirties. I’m meeting them for coffee, walking the lake with them, having them over to my house. Whatever it takes. I’m investing in young kids!” He’s giddy with joy as he tells me about the newest name on the list; how they met, what they’re doing together.
I’m happy for him, of course, and curious. He has a contentment and enthusiasm that’s a refreshing contrast to the common “striving” mindset and posture that so many of us have so much of the time. I ask him how he came to the discovery of this calling.
He smiles and says, “I was already doing it! That’s what’s so funny!” He goes on to tell me that this new chapter isn’t as much new, as it is going deeper into what he’s already doing, what’s already been bringing joy to him and life to the young adults with whom he meets. “It was there all the time,” he said, and this got me thinking about calling, contentment, and ambition. Here’s what his story can teach us all:
1. If we don’t start where we are, we’ll never move successfully. You know the story from Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation about the weird unemployed uncle who’s living in a trailer? Fat, unshaven, and with all the emotional intelligence of some “real housewife” on TV, he’s “holding out for a management position.” He’s waiting for something better is another way of saying it, but whether you’re waiting for something better, or going after something better, the message is the same:
Don’t neglect “what’s in your hand” because according to this story, it’s what’s in your hand today that God will use to direct you to God’s preferred future for your tomorrow. One of the greatest forms of temptation many of us face, is the mirage like opportunity that’s “out there” somewhere. Its existence entices and, like the new wool sweater, we’re sure we’ll be more fulfilled if we can get there. So we go after it, with gusto, and sometimes with the side effect of neglecting what’s in our hand.
I’m presently working on two books and leading a large church in Seattle, along with needing to prepare for speaking at some upcoming things. At the time I met with my friend though, I was determined to get a magazine article published. I’d started writing it, and was researching the query letter when we met and the meeting was like a bucket of ice water, snapping me back to reality:
“Get a grip man! You already have a life. Do what’s in your hand now, with a whole heart, and joy. Quit looking over the fence, because where you go tomorrow is my responsibility, not yours.”
2. There’s a time for tossing projects in the trash.
Thank God. It’s a good word, and I suspect, not just for me. Discontent, at its worst, is a paralyzing mindset that strips our joy, inviting us to believe the lie that what God’s given us to do today isn’t worth doing, so instead we’d better spend our time creating a different tomorrow. Goals have value, surely, but they’re dangerous too, and just for this reason: they can make us neglect today in our pursuit of tomorrow.
I’ve literally thrown the query letter and article in my little virtual trash can on my computer, and taken out the trash. It was liberating! I’m back in the groove, focusing on what’s already on my plate: the church I lead, the writing on which I’m already working, the teaching for which I’m preparing, and the fantastic family with whom I’ll spend a glorious Christmas.
Sometimes we need to toss what we think are ambitions in the trash because they’re not ambitions; they’re temptations and distractions from the present. What have you let go of lately, or need to let go of, so that you can focus on what God’s already given you?
It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together. I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.
Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for its beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.
The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles. We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.
It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun. We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met. Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on steps until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journey—step by step.
I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life. I think about how much this mirrors real life, how it’s so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected. I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows. I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.
We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge. The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.
As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening. It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces. Donna’s there first, and she signs the book. The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find. When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.
We’ve stood under many these past weeks. Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights. Other moments, bone weary and sore. This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful: for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others. We can barely pray—mostly it’s tears of joy.
We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut. Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about World Cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare. There’s laughter, stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.
I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc.) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way. The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.
I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.
For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut: