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.
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
He sends us snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above.
So thank the Lord, O, thank the Lord for all his love.
We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seedtime and the harvest, our life our health our food,
No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts,
But that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
So thank the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love..
I really wanna thank you Lord!
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
Then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love..
Oh thank the Lord…….
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:
I’ve been overwhelmed by beauty these past 35 days or so in the Alps. Sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and lightning, wildflowers and waterfalls, ruggedly terrifying mountain peaks and lush river valleys. It’s been beautiful; but expected. I came here looking for this kind of revelation and, other than the predominance of clouds that have hidden the night sky stars, I’ve not been disappointed.
Less anticipated, though, was the extent to which the aesthetics of Alpine hospitality would so bless us. Little things, like a welcome sign on the door of our room in a hut, or Alpine wildflowers on the table at supper, matchless care given to clean windows and floors; even the flower boxes gracing the sides of chalet balconies, all these things have said, in their own way, “we care about those who are with us—even if they’re just passing through.” This commitment to spatial beauty has become such a norm because of the culture, that wherever it was lacking, things felt sterile, as if we, the guests, were a bother, not worth the time.
Finally though, and most important, I’ve discovered a different kind of beauty that’s robust and life giving. It came as a surprise though, sneaking up on me on Sunday afternoon. Donna and I had come out of the high country and were staying in a wonderful hotel in a small village that we’d accidentally stumbled upon. We’d stashed our stuff, arriving mid-afternoon, and made our way to a little food festival in the plaza, where a stage was set up and a band was singing a mix of German folk tunes and old American songs from the 60’s.
It was here on this plaza on a Sunday afternoon that I heard the famous song: “What a Wonderful World.” Donna and I had just been pondering what it would have been like to be in this plaza 70 years earlier, in 1944, how different than the joviality of this Sunday afternoon. Just then, I heard “What a Wonderful World,” that song made famous by Louie Armstrong. The lyrics matched the day, as I heard:
I see friends shaking hands.
Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying,
“I love you.”
I hear babies cry,
I watch them grow,
They’ll learn much more,
Than I’ll ever know.
And I think to myself….”what a wonderful world.”
The sight of elderly folk walking hand in hand, small children playing, an older man in a wheel chair, and a developmentally disabled child, all making their way through this plaza with joy, all the beloved of someone, was beautiful enough that I was undone by it. These are the people who were declared “a burden to the state” in a previous era. In the end, though, the beauty of compassion won. Thanks be to God.
This has largely been the way of it during these past five weeks: in the high country we see the fit, the strong, the capable (that they’re made up of all ages, including the elderly, is an observation for another post). They’re up where the air is thin, often pouring over maps, and considering how they’ll use their strength to reach the next hut, or a summit or two. They are the beauty of health and vigor.
In the valleys, though, we encounter those unable to go higher, limited in their pursuits by illness, weakness, disability. However, and I can’t stress this enough, the beauty present in the midst of this weakness has been a greater revelation to me than the beauty found in strength. This is because the weakness and vulnerability that I’ve seen has been met with kindness, service, and the dignifying power of profound love. All of this is the more powerful if, while seeing it unfold before my eyes, I’m reading of the days when these very people were gathered up and “put away.”
Thank God for those who say “No!” to such thinking, for the Mother Teresas of the world, and Pope Francis, and those who volunteer in shelters and medical clinics, and those committed to being the presence of Christ precisely by loving and serving those most in need of love.
These are important things to ponder, because we live in a world that, increasingly, worships at the altar of a narrowly defined view of beauty, a view having to do with strength, youth, and “capacity”, whether intellectual, financial, social, or physical. I can’t stress how dangerous, and ultimately ugly, this path is. How do we avoid it?
1. Recognize the beauty of vulnerability. It’s a soil in which powerful love will grow.
2. Recognize the beauty of brokenness and confession.
3. Recognize the beauty of service and hospitality, and begin making both a priority—especially toward those who can’t repay.
4. Quit walking to the other side of the road when you encounter need, weakness, brokenness. Jump in and love instead.
All of this requires, not just a new set of eyes, but an openness to disruption, and that requires space in our lives, and that requires trimming the excess obligations, and that requires… alignment with God’s priorities.
Our world increasingly views those who can’t pay their way as a bother. Imagine the power of light in the midst of such darkness when compassion, love, and service take root again. Whatever it looks like, I know this much: it will be beautiful.
I’ve loved talking to folks in their twenties about the peaks they’re going after, but never did I imagine that the greater joy would come from chatting with elderly folks sitting on a bench, and yet that’s been the way of it, because it’s beauty I’m finding there that contains within itself the essence of the gospel.
I spoke with a couple last week who lost their child to cancer at the age of six. As we talked of loss, change and challenge, she reminded me that about 85% of the marriages where a child suffers a disability end in divorce. This, I presume, is because of the tremendous gap between how we thought life would unfold, and how it actually unfolds.
Where’s your gap? Job change, or joblessness? Health challenges? A relationship evaporating before your eyes? Unexpected financial hardships? Whatever the issue, our response is vital to our continued transformation, to our movement in the direction of joy, peace, wholeness.
The notion that we’ll escape these unforeseen changes is fantasy. A quick glance through the Bible reveals otherwise. Abraham left home. Moses went home. David became King, lost the throne because of his son’s coup, and then came back. Let’s not forget the fallout from wars as sons were lost, families torn apart. Job lost everything. Peter changed vocations to follow Christ and was eventually martyred. It’s not just that these people suffered. It’s that they all lived in families that paid the price too. Change comes knocking, and it opens the door whether you want to let it in or not It’s what you do with it that matters (tweet this)
I’ve been thinking about this recently because this upcoming trip to the Alps, as amazing as it will be, wasn’t the original plan. The plan, in less than two weeks, was to head down to southern Oregon and hike the Pacific Crest trail back home, or even further, to the Canadian border, if time permitted.
My friend’s paragliding death in the Alps eventuated in a change of plans, because he directed a Bible School with which I’m closely tied. When the new director called and we chatted last September about the upcoming year, I knew I was to go over and help out. So, two weeks from today, I’ll be teaching the Bible school and hiking with students high into the Alps. My wife will be with me and we’ll separate from the students for a few days before meeting back up after hiking the “Bible smuggler’s Trail” (I’ll post about that later), speaking at graduation, and then beginning our long hike through the Alps.
The plan was solitude – The reality will be otherwise , we’ll find ourselves sleeping in bunkhouses and waiting for showers.
The plan was wilderness – The reality is that the Alps have been civilized for a thousand years, and so we’ll be learning more about the history of World Wars, religious wars, and tribalism, than we will about traveling through the wilds of our unoccupied Cascades.
The plan was to hang food in the trees so that bears can’t get to it. Now we’ll be buying food at each hut, and it will be far better than the freeze dried stuff that would have been reconstituted each night in the wild.
It was going to be this… now it’s that.
It was going to be a life together. Now there’s been infidelity and he/she doesn’t want to rebuild. It was going to be comfortable retirement. Now, after losing everything in the ’07 meltdown, I’ll be working into my 70’s. It was going to be the lush green and mild climates of Seattle. Now I’m living in Phoenix. It was going to be a small, simple, rural ministry. Now it’s urban, and complex, and 3500 people.
Yes, I know the illustration’s weak, because the choice between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Alps is like choosing between Filet Mignon and Copper River Salmon. “All right God… I’ll go to the Alps! Force me!” Suffering? Disappointment? Get real.
Still, while a hike in the Alps isn’t, in the least, disappointing (how could it be?), it does require an adjustment, and the postures enabling us to adjust are, in the end, the same, no matter how joy filled or painful our unintended changes:
Availability – When God calls to Abraham in Genesis 22, his answer is “Here I am”, a Hebrew word (Hineni) which implies availability and a willingness to embrace whatever God brings to us. This stands in stark contrast a word Abraham could have used, “I’m here” (Poh) which would have meant: “Tell me what you want me to do and then I’ll decide my answer.”
My wife sometimes says, “Will you do me a favor?” and though the right answer is “Yes”, I often blurt out “What do you want?”, as if to say that I don’t trust you enough to give a preemptive yes, because I’m afraid of what you’ll ask. I wonder how much richer our lives would be if our posture, vis a vis the God who loves us, would be “Hineni” rather than “Poh”?
A phone call from Austria was all it took to set in motion a drastic change of plans. All of us have had far more profound phone calls, from doctors, spouses, parents, that rocked our world. Our willingness to inhale and embrace what’s on our plates rather than railing against the universe can make all the difference between a life of joy and bitterness.
Honesty – There was no mourning or loss over the change of plans, from Pacific Crest to Alps. The same can’t be said for many other changes life brings. The parents of the little girl who died of cancer, the wife of my friend who died paragliding the Alps, the other who lost his business; these are utterly unwelcome changes. They’re a reminder that we leave in a world of dissonance as the chords of beauty, peace, and health, clash with the unwelcome intrusions of disease, loss, war, poverty, injustice. We’re right to mourn, as Job teaches us, or David, or Jesus.
It’s no good pretending that unwelcome change is welcome, no good painting over it with some spiritual language about God being “all good – all the time” God may be all good all the time, but this world is messed up. So weep, for God’s sake, and your own. This is the best way forward.
Acceptance and Gratitude – Acceptance and gratitude were layups for me with this whole “Alps instead of Cascades” plan. In real life, though, change that forces its way through the door, ultimately requires a measure of acceptance if we’re to avoid shriveling up and becoming bitter people in the end. Acceptance is born out of facing the reality that this intrusion is in my life. Eventually, after a spouse dies, or we lose a job, or a house, or certainly with lesser intrusions, we say, “All right then… this is the way of it. Let’s go.” Fail to get there and you’ll spend the rest of your days in regret.
This acceptance, finally, leads to gratitude, not for the unwelcome change, but for the good that can and usually does come out of it. Voices as diverse as Victor Frankl and Jesus Christ have taught us that, in the end, our gratitude is born from the faith that God is well able to bring beauty of ashes, hope out of despair, and a strange divine strength out of the darkest moments in our lives. So we thank God, not for the change, but for what God will do because of it.