I saw Taproot Theatre’s spectacular version of Godspell last night and wept through a couple of the songs because they took me back to the two darkest years of my life, and remembrances of my first encounter with Stephen Schwartz’ inspired musical. Back then, lonely, unhealthy, uncertain of the future, one song in particular stood out, and when I heard it last night I closed my eyes and was transported back in time…
I’m 19 and a good friend had landed the part of Jesus in Godspell, so he invites me to see him on opening night. It’s been two years since my dad has died, and this winter of my 19th year is the winter of my discontent. I’m lonely, because high school’s over and my cadre of friends have scattered. My future’s radically uncertain as I’ve applied for admittance to architecture school, but only one in six students will get in. Since my self confidence is in the toilet, I’m certain I won’t be accepted and there’s no plan B. The stress of living at home, a choice a made to help walk through my mom’s grief with her, is taking it’s toll. All of these elements together have conspired to make my unhappy, unhealthy, and uncertain about this God I grew up learning I was supposed to love and obey. “For what reason?” was the question I’d asked countless times in that dark era… “so that God can kill my dad?” I’d heard sermons about rejoicing and giving thanks, but lately they’d pretty much bounced off of me as pious nonsense – good for little kids maybe, but not for the real world.
And then the music of Godspell begins. There’s something about the masterful interplay of text and music that draws me in, so that by the time she sings the “Day by Day” prayer, I’m not only humming along, I’m wishing I had the courage to pray that very prayer. “What would it be like” I remember thinking, “to love God in a real way?” When the song ended, I began to see the possibility of loving God because the Jesus on the stage was lovable, mostly because he loves. The text between the songs was almost wholly drawn from the words of Jesus himself in the gospels, and yet the words took on new life, became almost believable, in spite of my doubts, fears, unhappiness.
Then it happened. With a guitar and a recorder, as setup, a man sings a thanksgiving song called All Good Gifts.
We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land, 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. [CHORUS] 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] 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…….
By the end of the song, back in 1975, I’m in tears, struck as no sermon had ever struck me, nor Bible study, nor Young Life talk, nor words at any funeral, party, or dinner conversation, that God is good because God is the source of all that IS good. With eyes closed, I’d see the snows of my nearby Yosemite, the ripe fruits of my central California Valley, the rich bounty of harvests in my little corner of the world. And more. I recalled the bounty of friendships. The joy of the family into which I’d been adopted. The reality that God had, in spite of my dad’s death, taken a rather inauspicious beginning and, like a grain of wheat, turned it into something good. “Yes it’s winter. Yes there are things I don’t understand. Yes, when this musical ends, there’s still no plan B” But in spite of it all, I found myself recalling previous blessings and singing along, “I really wanna thank you Lord” because I really did want to back then in Fresno, 1975, in my emptiness and frustration.
The song ended. I dried my tears, which flowed again with the lyrics of Psalm 137 about weeping by the rivers of Babylon. I knew my Bible well enough to understand that this song was a reminder: There are lots of things in life that you don’t really love and appreciate until they’re gone. And of course, in that moment, that was my dad, who was there for me in sport, in challenging me to rise to my best effort in study, in exemplifying teaching and gentle leadership, and in exemplary suffering. I don’t think I valued any of it deeply until he was gone, and by then it was too late. During the song, Jesus is saying good bye, knowing what’s coming. His disciples? Clueless like the rest of us, until darkness covers the earth.
And then hope. “Long Live God!” Only last night, August 20, 2015, did I realize that I left the theater a changed young man in the winter of 1975. I’m reminded of Jacob in Genesis 28, on the run from his brother; alone; afraid; sleeping in the desert. It’s there that God meets him and gives him a boatload of promises, causing Jacob to say, “Surely the Lord was in the place and I didn’t even know it.”
Surely indeed. The Lord was in a tiny theater in Fresno in 1975, and seeds were planted then that would germinate a year later while studying architecture. By the fall of ’76 I’d change majors, change schools, and change states. Little did I know that as a music major back then, I’d be playing percussion for a Seattle Pacific University musical about John Wesley called “Ride Ride” starring none other than Scott Nolte, who founded Taproot Theatre Company with his wife Pam, both of whom are now some of my closest friends.
That’s why I wrote, during intermission last night, that Taproot had become a worship service for me, as I celebrated God’s relentless faithfulness in my life. Seeds were no doubt planted last night that will sprout in a new generation.
And yes, “I really wanna thank the Lord”
(tickets are still available for Saturday’s 2PM showing. Worth. Every. Minute.)
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.
“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.
I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith – Paul the Apostle
You have need of endurance… Hebrews 10:36
Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way. – Annonymous
When the USA was beating Portugal, at the end of regulation, I said, “please please… let it be only two or three minutes of stoppage time” as a sort of prayer to the soccer gods who I don’t believe in. Then I saw the sign: 5 Minutes. FIVE? NOOOOOOOO!!!
Yes. And as anyone who knows anything about soccer knows, the trouble came in the fifth minute… about 30 seconds into the fifth and final minute, when a brilliant pass and header moved the USA from a new version of “miracle on ice” to a mere tie. We played brilliantly, to almost the very end. Almost, though, is an important word. The difference between almost and actually is found in a single word: endurance.
Just this past weekend, a co-worker finished a marathon, friends celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and another friend presses on in his vital leadership role, right in the midst of a battle with cancer. What all these remarkable people share is a commitment to finishing well, and endurance is a key ingredient for doing that.
Jesus doesn’t congratulate us for starting well, because the truth is that for most of us, starting is exciting. Right now, in preparation for a planned 400 mile hike in the Alps, my wife and I are in the midst of equipment preparation, trying out our shoes, reading maps and books, and all the other things that generate the excitement of anticipation. Engaged couples share that same sense, as do most people in their first week at a new job. New presidents, new locations, new friendships. We’ve all known the thrill of starting.
I’ve started enough things, though, to know that the thrill of starting isn’t sufficient to sustain me for the distance. The times I’ve done some mountaineering, I’ve loved the packing, loved the meal on the way to the parking lot, loved the first 1/2 mile. But shortly after that there’s an ache in my back, and later in the day my thighs or calves, too, are screaming. Did I mention hunger, altitude sickness, sunburn, and the need to build a base camp, boil snow for cooking and drinking water, cook a meal, clean the dishes, and set out equipment for summit day – when all you want to do is sleep or throw up?
Endurance means you keep going when you feel like quitting. In fact that the very definition of endurance; our need for it presupposes that we’ll encounter seasons in any worthwhile endeavor when we’ll need to silence the voice telling us to quit.
What are the qualities that build endurance capacity?
1. A goal. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is always helpful because it is, in a sense the reward. 26.2 miles is a long way, but if you know that’s how far it is, you can steel yourself for the task by training both mentally and physically for it. Marriage? Our goal is a deeper love, a truer knowing, a profound intimacy. Vocation? Our goal is excellence at our craft.
“If only the goal was meaningful” you say. Don’t say that too quickly. Rico Medellin works on an assembly line at a work station where it’s expected that he perform the same exact work over 600 times a day, or once every 43 seconds. Rico’s goal wasn’t to “make it through the day” so that he could go home and a enjoy a few beers. Instead he perfected his craft, reducing his performance time to 28 seconds per unit. Working at peak performance levels is his goal. Day after month after year, and he calls the experience “enthralling”
The good news is that meaningful goals can sustain us and motivate us, and the better news, from every century of history, is that meaningful goals are available to everyone: sick or healthy, free or imprisoned, wealthy or impoverished, single or married. Don’t fall into the trap of making “a change of circumstances” the pre-condition for going after a goal. There’s a reason to excel, a summit to pursue right here, right now.
Do have a goal for your fitness, spiritually, vocationally, relationally, physically?
2. Patience – A favorite recent read says, “The Gradual Progress Principle says that everything has to grow incrementally through its own developmental stages, from less to more or from smaller to larger.” Lincoln fought, not for every freedom for African Americans, but for the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew that change happens best when it happens gradually. Go further back and you find William Wilberforce working tirelessly for decades to abolish the slave trade in England.
You don’t wake up one morning and move from couch potato to marathoner, from stale marriage to deep intimacy, from mediocrity to excellence. But you can wake up each day and, as I like to say, “move the ball the down the field”. I often need to ask the question, “What’s the next step to reach the goal?” and take it, being content to realize the gain might be visible to nobody but me. Still, it’s a step, and as I’m about to learn on my 400 mile hike, every step matters.
Other times, I can simply continue in practices that I know are transformative. Keep making eye contact with my wife at least once a day; run three times a week; continue having coffee with God. With such habits I can rest in the confidence that I’m being transformed step by step. This too requires patience.
What else aids in the development of endurance?
3. Needed Nutrients
4. Focus: Distance and Present
My goal is to address these elements in the next three weeks. I hope you’ll join me for this mini series on endurance because whether it’s a 400 mile hike, a desire to walk faithfully with Christ for decades, a marriage in need of passion, or a calling in need of fulfillment, endurance is a vital ingredient for your journey.
My oldest daughter is a Seattle Pacific Alum and writes from Germany this morning as she ponders the tragic shootings here in Seattle and the empty pages in the books that are the lives of her juniors in high school, encouraging each one to fill the pages with hope. Her words about being grounded hope in the midst of bitter realities are appropriate, not just in Germany, but right here, right now, in Seattle. May peace be upon us as we grieve and hope — here are her thoughts:
As my first period takes the first final of Exam Week, I’m reading news updates from Seattle, where a gunman recently opened fire on the campus of my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Yesterday, I read this letter to my students, promising that while the general discontent of American Literature is an honest response to the real suffering inherent to human life, we have better dreams, rooted in the love of a Creator who cares for us. This seems appropriate this morning, as I consider the broken world in which we live, and mourning with and praying for peace of those who are suffering in my home city, halfway around the world.
My Dear Juniors,
Happy last day of school! I know as well as you that there are a few more hurdles to conquer before we’re officially in Summer World, but as today is the last day of regular classes, it will have to do for a farewell, for now. For some of you, this is a first last day. For others, there have been more than ten, but I win this game, at least in present company. This is my nineteenth last day of school. I don’t expect that you’ll all become teachers, but for those who will, I’ll tell you that even on the nineteenth time, it doesn’t get old. The last day of school is still relaxing, the first one still thrilling, and snow days still a magical treat made of time and ice. It’s a good life I still get to live alongside you.
I used to be jealous of Ernest Hemingway, specifically the version of his life he portrayed in A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his early years in Paris. He described a life of simplicity, a pleasant parade of words, food and sunshine. I wanted that. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I have everything he has, and more. I am richer than Hemingway. Because for him, the picnics on the Seine, the trips to the Alps, the attic in which to write, these things were as good as it got. We’ve been blessed so richly, students, given this time and place in which to learn and grow, yet even when we leave this quiet, emerald valley, the glory doesn’t end. We go on living and learning, growing in peace and joy as we follow Christ down the wildly divergent paths ahead of us.
Coming once again through the brightly whimsical postmodern gates at the end of our (literary studies) journey together, I notice that the path of American Literature has hardly been a happy one. Though I enjoy every book we share, I know that none of them—not one—offers a picture of wholeness, peace or joy. While the Thoreaus of the world are hiding in their cabins, watching even the ants wage war with one another, the Steinbecks are still pestering us with the suspicion that human life is full of trouble and disappointment, that sometimes even the simplest dreams are out of reach.
Of course, we know all this. We know that life is full of both beauty and brokenness. Christ promised us that, while we live in this world, we’ll “have trouble. But take heart!” He continued. “I have overcome the world.” Having come to love and respect you, my students, I wish I could promise smooth roads to success, romantic dreams-come-true for all of you, but at the end of this year of sad and lovely literature, the true triumph is that these aren’t our stories. Though we’ll all encounter setbacks and disappointments, I’m confident that each of your futures, bound up in the unspeakable imagination of our Creator, is better than a house of your own, stronger than rabbits, more realistic than time travel, and more complicated than the most postmodern plot sequence.
Wherever you go, this summer or a year from now, take heart in the knowledge that you bring with you wide eyes to see the world around you, and strong hearts, full of the joy of Christ, with which to serve and love it. I am incredibly proud of the vibrant young people who you are becoming, and eager to see Christ’s work in you.
I process by writing… and I’m here in Fresno because my mom’s resting, and ready to go home and be with Jesus. Here’s what I’m thinking while she sleeps.
I’m sitting in the dining hall at the retirement center in Fresno, needing to study for Sunday, but finding it hard to do so. Instead I’m thinking about the inevitability of loss, the profound joy of life, and how any attempts to separate the one from the other will always have the affect of making us hollow, shallow caricatures of the people we’re meant to be.
My mom’s asleep in the other room, waking long enough to tell me she’s thirsty, that she loves me, and “why did you have onions for breakfast?” (I didn’t) I show her pictures on my laptop and she smiles, in awe of my children, and mountains, and flowers, with her classic line “my goodness!”, which I’ve heard ten thousand times at least, these 58 years.
I look at the pictures on her bookshelf, of she and dad in their youth – vibrant and hope filled. Maybe like most children, I know my parents story better than any other, in my case even better than my own since I’m adopted. I know she skated on frozen ponds in Colorado when they were stationed there during WWII, that they returned to central California to build a life because that’s where family was, and that’s what you do. They suffered profound loss during those days, and great success and joy too. Dad moved from teacher to principal, to superintendent, but always missed the classroom and the kids as his leadership role grew. There were health issues, losses, struggles; there were vacations at the coast, and Giant games with Willie Mays, Rook games, and going to “The Sound of Music” as a family. Joy and sorrow. Laughter and tears. Life and death. Gain and Loss. That’s what real life is, and the sooner we embrace that reality the better. There is, after all, a time for everything, including loss, want, and saying good-bye.
Our attempts to turn daily life into a highlight reel are offensive to me as I sit here and look at the half-dozen seniors sleeping in their chairs. Real life, I’ve finally learned, is created by stacking normal days, one on top of the other, for decades, and living each of those days as fully as possible, embracing whatever each day brings.
I think about my mom canning peaches in the later summer heat, and my grandpa putting grapes on trays in the oppressive sun to dry them to raisins because Methodists don’t drink wine, and then coming in and making poetry at night in a house without air conditioning. Oil changes. Diaper changes. House Payments. Holidays. My dad tossing fake vomit on the sidewalk at a party when I was about 7 and my mom thinking I was lying when I told her felt fine, sending me to my room where I watched as she tried to rinse it off the sidewalk and it slid, in tact, into the garden, while Dad fell over laughing; A rubber hot dog in the fridge that mom tossed into the garbage disposal because it looked funky, and then hearing her scream as it shot out when she turned the disposal on with dad, again doubled over in laughter; Skipping evening church, once a year, to watch “The Wizard of Oz” on TV. The epic excitement of the same when we finally got (last on our block) a color TV. Weddings. Funerals. BBQ spare ribs in the backyard summer heat. H-O-R-S-E with dad after school. It all adds up to what can be a remarkable life, if we’ll but learn that it’s less about what we’re doing, and more about the attitude with which we’re doing it. Lives of faith, I’m discovering, can be rich even in poverty. Vibrant even in the midst of health challenges. Lush even in the desert. I know. I watched this kind of normal, in this slightly “out of the way” town, for decades.
I just preached this past Sunday on the importance of making the most of “the time we’ve been given” and I’m sitting here realizing that I lived in a family that, for all flaws, sought precisely that. I’m just now reading Ecclesiastes and am reminded that it’s only in jumping into the deep end of both joy and sorrow, responsibility and goofing off, life and death, that we find the treasure called abundant life. That’s why Rilke said:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Keep going, no matter what. No sensation is too far out. Let nothing separate you from me….the land which they call ‘life’ is near. You will recognize it by it’s serious demands. Give me your hand!”
Or, to quote the preacher from Ecclesiastes: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” – Today, my hand finds itself in the hand of my mom and she squeezes and says, “why did you have onions for breakfast?”
I glance at my watch. 15:50. I shut my computer, toss on some shoes and a jacket, and am out the door because so far, all week, I’ve missed the sunsets over the lake. It’s about a half mile down to the park on the waterfront and when I arrive, the suns maybe 15 minutes from dipping below the Alps as it moves west, just now greetings my friends in Seattle as first light of a new day.
The views are stunning. Swans, ducks, geese, and a sky painted gloriously by the interplay of ever changing light and clouds make for spectacular, memorable artistry. But I’m equally intrigued by the people all around me. Over there a German couple holding hands, whose grandparents would have war stories to tell. There’s a man walking, slowly, who looks to be over 70. He would have been a child when this beautiful city was so heavily bombed in WWII. Today, this little plot of soil is a place of peace and beauty, a photo op for sunsets and, on a clear day, a stunning view of the Alps. A place for wind surfing.
But of course it wasn’t always so. I wonder what thoughts must have unfolded in the minds of people on this beach 70 years ago as they looked across the water to the mountains of Switzerland? Those dark days in Germany’s history were preceded by other dark days in the 1920’s and 30’s, days of want and deprivation. It was into that vortex of economic crisis that a leader rose up promising brighter days, a leader whose power and darkness would enshroud all of Europe in a dark cloud for a season.
During the those days, I wonder how many stood here and looked across the Alps, longing to be free from the scourge of war, and loss, and genocide? Getting there wasn’t possible, even though it was visible, just over there, just beyond reach. The darkness of war, the scourge and brutality of evil rulers – all of it was on full display then. But now there’s peace, and beauty, and couples holding hands.
What I find remarkable are the ways in which Germany has flowered these past 70 years after her defeat. The first Chancellor of Germany after the war put structures in place to assure less blind nationalism, less violence, and significantly, more economic equity. The “social market economy” was born at this time, and this article explains that it… “led to the eventual development of the Social Market Economy as a viable socio-political and economic alternative between the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and the collectivist planned economy not as a compromise, but as a combination of seemingly conflicting objectives namely greater state provision for social security and the preservation of individual freedom” The country is by no means perfect, but make no mistake – this nation that was so humbled throughout the first half of the last century learned from their mistakes and, to this day, display a marvelous blend of discipline and charity that comes about through hard work, thrift, and a collective commitment to the well being of everyone, evidenced in social services and taxation that would rile the sensibilities of the American political right. Even now, they, the most successful economy in all of Europe, continue to call their overspending European counterparts to both raise taxes and cut spending – a strategy that, while perfectly reasonable, offends both the American left and right.
I think about the transformation of Rwanda that’s occurred in the wake of the genocide. The transformation of Iceland in the wake of their own economic meltdown. The changed lives of friends who’ve been stricken with cancer and recovered with an entirely different set of priorities, or of those who finally stood up and said, “I’m an alcoholic” who have been to depths and back, raised up to a fuller life than ever before.
As I look around this peaceful setting, I realize that the glory of the gospel, and the glory of God’s goodness in the world is that beauty can come right out the ash heap of our own arrogance and failure; that if we’re willing to learn from them, the mistakes of our past can make us wiser, more beautiful, more generous, and more fruitful than ever we’d have been had we remained prim, and proper – looking good outwardly, but in reality filled with our own foolish presumptions and self-aggrandized priorities. This, of course, requires humility, and therein lies the problem.
To fix social or personal ailments always demands beginning with the notion that we are, at the least, part of the problem. Our choices, our history, our values – something’s broken. When was the last time you heard the Tea Party admit that they’re part of the problem, or BP, or Monsanto, or the Democrats. All I hear is blame, and the notion that the problem is wholly over there in “those greedy idiots” is, itself, the biggest problem of all. We can all see the flaws in the other’s ideas and policies with 2020 clarity. It’s the log in our own eye, we can’t seem to handle. And logs in eyes aren’t very good things to have when you’re in the drivers seat. That’s why I’m praying for humility… at any price… for me, and all the rest of us too in the developed world.