I tell you not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. Matthew 6:29
It’s wildflower season in the mountains, and they’re everywhere. Mountain daisies made their first appearance down in the coastal foothills in late May. They’re long gone down below, and up here, after a few weeks of full glory, it’s clear that their glory days are already past.
Full flowering glory.
The Bible says that we’re just like flowers; here today, gone tomorrow. Far from depressing, I find that pondering the brevity of life is encouraging. It grants perspective, and fosters a cherishing of each moment as precious, each breath a gift.
I run the trail early in the morning and as I pass the wildflowers, ponder the power and poignancy of this millennia-old rhythm. Far from depressing, the truths apparent in the brief but spectacular wildflower cycle mirror critical truths of our lives precisely.
1. Life happens when we draw on resources. The wild daisies are in full force on the ski trail up to Thunderbird lodge, a trail that appears to be nothing but dry stone this summer in which we’ve had not a single day of significant rain in over two months. You’d think dry stones wouldn’t produce flowers, yet there they are. They find the water somehow, enough to thrive.
“What’s needed for thriving?” I ponder. I remember Jesus’ invitation, that time when he stood in the middle of a crowded courtyard and shouted, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.” It was a rhetorical question of course because, God knows, all of them, and us too, are thirsty. Not just for h2o, though that matters, but for meaning, hope, intimacy, peace, justice, enough. The outlandish promise is that those who come to Christ, wherever they are in the world, will be granted a capacity to blossom and bless. Some have blossomed as martyrs, others through radical generosity, still others through waking in valleys of poverty and injustice. The promise isn’t ease. It’s that God can use every single circumstance of every single life to pour blessing, somehow, into our world – if we’ll drink from the well that is Christ.
2. Life is a rhythm of flourishing and disappearing. The Indian Paintbrush, so abundant just a week ago are gone; so gone that to look at the hillside you’d never even realized they existed. This is the way of all living things. In fact the Bible explicitly says our lives are like flowers of the field; here and flourishing one day, gone the next, and “it’s place knows it no more”, which is a way of saying that eventually, even if you have a plaque or statue somewhere, the world is no longer yours. Like the flowers, we’ll be gone and forgotten.
Don’t forget the first part of that same passage though. We’re invited to “flourish like the flower of the field”. Over the course of the summer I realize that the flourishing of various plants come in waves. Daisy. Paintbrush. Foxglove. Bear Grass. They come, flourish, and disappear. “Pay attention Richard!” I say as I stop and soak in the landscape, which will never again be exactly this. I think of those who flourished and are no more. My dad as WWII soldier, teacher, principal, superintendent. My mentor as WWII soldier, evangelist, preacher, leader. My mom as wife, parent, teacher, volunteer, caregiver. My grandmother as baker, hostess, lover of her grandchildren. My sister as musician, mom, wife, sister, friend to so many that, at her funeral, dozens claimed her as their “best friend”.
They all flourished! They invested the preciousness of the single life each were given in ways that made a difference in the lives of others so that, in the same way that particular daisy might be gone, a daisy well-lived will carry on through generations of fruitfulness. That’s what flourishing means. As a result, my dad’s flourishing means a son who’s serving and leading. My mentor’s flourishing means there are over twenty Bible Schools around the world proclaiming Christ as life. My sister’s flourishing means the grandchildren she never met are learning to live as a blessing in the world because of her.
Yes, our time is short. Yes, we’ll disappear. Yes, we can continue to make a difference after we’re gone, and we’ll do that by flourishing while we’re here.
3. Life is short. Savor, don’t squander. A lifelong climber in Yosemite, Royal Robbins wrote this to his daughter during his end of life battle with cancer: “I mean to live this year as if it were my last (may God grant that it won’t be so), and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away, (much less days!) in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones…”
He echoes the Psalmist who reminds us that we have 70 years, maybe 80 or more if we’re fortunate, and then our days are gone, like the early season daisies. This stark observation, undeniable in spite of omega-3’s, cross-fit, stress management, and jogging, is followed immediately by a prayer. “Teach us, Lord, to number our days”. In other words, “don’t let me fritter away even a single second. Let me live with eyes wide open to all you’re saying to me – in the beauty and ugliness, the darkness and light, the joys and sorrows, the companionship and solitude. Let me absorb it all and live well, “flourishing” during those brief days I’m granted.
I look around, amazed that in all the vastness of time and space, this time, this space, are ours. We’re alive! Breathing, loving, learning, failing, weeping, serving and being served. Grant that when we sink into a mindset of squandering, allowing our lives to be reduced to bitterness, we will cease! Let us hear your voice calling us back to the fullness of life, that not another moment may be wasted.
Sometimes the best way to review a movie, play, or concert, is to tell you a story. Here’s mine, explaining why
Joyful Noise at Taproot Theater is not to be missed.
I’ve been to lots of funerals, partly because I’m a pastor and partly because death visited my family on a regular basis from my high school days until now. Only once, though, was there a choir at a funeral I attended and that was at my dad’s funeral which is a bit stunning because we were a decidedly non-musical family. He was baseball and track, so trips to San Francisco were always about Willie Mays, not opera or the symphony. And music in our house? “The Sons of the Pioneers” was as deep as dad went, a quartet of Cowboys singing tunes that could have come straight from the cattle country of Texas or Montana. Three chords, sad refrains, broken hearts…done.
The single exception was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. God only knows why, but dad loved that piece. He was the one who taught me to stand when the choir at church sang it every year at Christmas and Easter. Once in a while an orchestra would accompany, and I remember standing in awe, with my parents, in love not just with that piece of music, but with that kind of music. At the age of nine I would sign up for orchestra because I took a pitch/rhythm test and scored at the top of my nine year old class in both. My parents told me I’d play clarinet, but I wanted to play drums. I met with the orchestra lady and she told my parents, “His mouth’s the wrong shape for the clarinet – you should let him try drums. He was perfect on the rhythm test.” I smiled. Mom frowned. Dad said yes. By the end of the week we’d bought a snare drum, and thus began my career as a percussionist. I’d go on to learn how to hit lots of things: Scottish snare drums in a bagpipe band; Cymbals in my first fall of high school marching band; marimba; xylophone; and my favorite – timpani!
Music was my life in high school, providing me a ticket to social acceptance, a cadre of friends, and a craft to develop. My timpani skills opened the door for a trip to Europe with the band as a sixteen year old, and that same year I was privileged, for the very first time, to perform Handel’s Messiah, including the timpani part in the Hallelujah chorus, the very song dad loved, and taught me to love, when I was small. Because of my faith, the power of the entire oratorio spoke to my heart, especially as my dad retired early due to illness, and began living on oxygen. There were certain pieces: “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that I’d hear, and not only think of Christ, but of my dad, the consumate athelete who now couldn’t walk to the bathroom without the help of supplemental oxygen. What was happening, in the hearing and playing of music, was that I was begininning to see the radical identification of Jesus with our humanness, our brokenness, our pain.
Then dad died during the World Series of 1973. Our stodgy British pastor came to the house to visit right after his passing and I’ll never forget it. Mom said, “Can the choir sing the Hallelujah chorus at the funeral?” He said he’d check and, sure enough, it happened. There we were, all standing in the Baptist church of Fresno California, in October, listening to the refrain, “and he shall reign forever and ever.” I closed my eyes. “Forever” I thought, hoping it would be true, but utterly unsure in the moment because, my God! …my best friend had just been taken from me and I didn’t know what to believe. The next few years a string of deaths would plunge me into a period of depression and doubt.
A week after the funeral I began rehearsals to perform Messiah at my high school. Timpani players always bring books to big rehearsals because we don’t play often. Our parts are like thunderstorms in Seattle; few, loud, and powerful. During Messiah, though, I never brought a book. Maybe it was dad’s love of that one song. Maybe something deeper, but when not playing, I’d listen and absorb, so much so that to this day I know each piece, know what’s coming, know text, drawn straight from the Bible. That performance of Messiah was tough, because in the moment I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore. Still, the beauty of it held me,and I couldn’t shake it. With a revived faith, I’d sing, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” right after a physics final while studying architecture. The music gave voice to my renewed faith and I turned to it often.
SEPTEMBER 27th, 2016 – It’s week “too full”, of meetings, obligations, upcoming extra events that need planning, and more. To top it off, I’m a bit, I don’t know, melancholic. Baseball season’s ending, and with it, the career of a voice that is a final link the my childhood. I’m grateful for my family and missing those who are gone, which by now is basically everyone. I’m in no mood for theater, feeling I have neither the time nor the emotional energy for it. Still, “Joyful Noise” is a play about the writing of Handel’s “Messiah”, and I have a ticket, a gift from dear friends. I’ll go.
It’s a matinee, the average age of the audience likely 70, maybe more. Walkers. Wheelchairs. I’m close enough to their age by now that I get it, get the decline, the loss, the health challenges. I’ve an affinity with my theater mates that’s new for me, and growing.
The play itself is masterfully delivered. It’s about the composing of Messiah, a backstory filled with truths profound enough to realign the heart with hope and joy. God, I needed that yesterday afternoon – needed to be reminded in the present political climate of fear and judgement, that ours is a gospel holding out the promise of transformation and reconciliation. If I lose sight of this, I may still have a church job, but I’ll no longer have a calling! I needed to be reminded that courage of conviction requires putting our reputation on the line, maybe more often than we’d like to admit. I needed to be reminded, too, that the good news of hope is no longer good when we predetermine that it can only appear in church buildings. But there’s more…
I’m sitting there, near the back, when I hear the libretto read:
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)
Handel awakes on stage, because these words are his words. He’s known rejection, loss, shame. These words are her words, the singer whose life has collapsed because of accusations. Tears begin to flow for me because these words are my words too – given up by my birth mother, for whatever noble reasons, I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon in Seattle and it hits me with full force. I was rejected, but so was Christ! Suddenly, with a force I’d forgotten, I was struck by the reality that Christ is very well identified with the forsaken and marginalized of the world because Christ walked their path. I walk outside during intermission, and see a woman bent at 90 degrees, her torso parallel to the ground hanging on a walker. I see a child with a disability. And the words are there, as people rush by: “He was despised and rejected” – just like they must feel sometimes, just like me, just like you. Suddenly, I knew beyond knowing, that Jesus walks with me, even today, and will in the unknowns of tomorrow.
That’s why, there in the parking lot of a shopping center, during intermission, the reality of God’s love for me, and for all people, came alive again. Obligations and anxieties had quenched it a bit (yes, this happens to pastors). Thanks be to God for good art that shakes me awake.
Back in the theater, the play will close with the singing of the Halleljuah chorus and I realize that this song is a thread that holds almost my entire life together: Faith, family, high school social life, even baseball. Tears of gratitude flow for the truth that, though forsaken by birth parents, I landed in a family that loved me with love of God. Our family’s listening of baseball play by play on the radio exceeded our listening of classical music by a ration of about 1000 to 1. But O the One! Hallelujah!
If you’re near Seattle, don’t miss “Joyful Noise” at Taproot theatre.
My wife and I recently returned from a beautiful adventure, hiking 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and ending up at our front door! A thousand times, or likely many more than that, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of what we’ve seen. Even more, though, we were profoundly grateful for the rich privilege of being able to do this, for such a trip means we have means, health, access to God’s wilderness, time, and enough love for each other to still enjoy such adventures after 37 years together! (all 87 pictures from that journey can be seen here if you’re interested!)
To make our trip a one way journey to our house we needed to drive to the trail head last week and walk from there. Then today, we drove back and retrieved the car. This meant that the drive from the trailhead back to our house was spent alone; just me and my itunes! I hit the playlist I’d recently created, but not yet listened to intently, and then we began our drive out. The first twelve miles of this trip was labelled as “not for city cars” and included a stream crossing which, though dry this time of year, was nonetheless a stony minefield for the underbellies of “smallish” cars like my Yaris!
We’re off, and I settle in to playing the game that is avoiding potholes and large stones on forest service roads, it’s not hard work, so I’m able to pay attention to the music I’m hearing. After twelve miles of a wilderness version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I’m overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving to God because every song I heard was ripe with memories of times and places, and ways God met me.
Does music do that to you? Do songs evoke specific memories with such power that you’re nearly transported through time and space to that very time and place when the song became meaningful? Now, though, you’re there with the added benefits of wisdom and perspective that makes you appreciate how richly you’ve been blessed, or how faithfully you’ve been kept.
Remembering how you’ve been blessed, or kept, or guided, is more than a little bit important. Remember the reality of God’s activity in the previous days of our lives is precisely what’s needed to sustain our joy, hope, confidence, and peace when everything appears to be falling apart. God tells us this over and over again as seen here in just a word search of “remember” in Deuteronomy.
In the old days of what we call “Bible Times”, God often had people create signs as a means of remembering; stones in a river; a cord hanging from a window; some roasted lamb and a little flatbread – all these were at times signs intended to evoke memory.
Which brings me back to music, and today’s playlist, with every song evoking memory. As I’m driving along, avoiding potholes, the past comes to life:
It’s 1994 and our little non-profit is making a promotional video for our summer wilderness Bible School. We choose this song as background music for a slide show of climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking in the North Cascades. We choose it because of one certain line in the music which says that we believe what we do because it is “the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”. I believed it then, and believe it still – but between now and then, there have been many moments, days even, when the truth is I don’t have a clue what I believe. I’ve doubted plenty – and yet God has been faithful and I’ve been able, again and again, to return to the rock that is my foundation. I offer a prayer of thanksgiving as I veer left and avoid a pothole.
I’m at Seattle Pacific University, helping care for students after a school shooting left one dead, and a whole campus shaken. This is the song sung at the special chapel service. “Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, that the light of Christ may be seen today in our acts of love and our words of faith…” That happened in the ensuing days, so that a newspaper with little sympathy for our faith called “The Stranger” would write: “The evening of the shooting, a 7 p.m. prayer service at SPU’s campus filled to overflowing. Let it be said: This community looks ready to heal itself. There were psalms and songs. The whole room sang along, harmonizing, louder and louder.”
The song reminds me that God has yoked my heart with Seattle, and the university students that study there. I’d hear the song just about one year later in England, and the song would remind there that I need to be faithful to my calling, to not shrink back from the hard thing. I’m grateful for the reminders of these moments today as I inhale the scent of pine mixed with dust from this dry road.
The song is seared in my memory because I heard it for the first time after spending a fall in New England with my wife to celebrate our anniversary. We were growing older and knew it. Friends were dying, and parents. Life was moving on, and after walking through stunning colors and cheering on the Red Sox game six playoff victory over the Yankees at the Cheers Bar in Boston, we were heading home on i-95, listening to these words:
I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life
Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…
Indeed. I’m reminded, every time I hear it, that life’s passing by quickly and every day – even the hard ones and boring ones, are a gift.
There are too many more to do this for each song, so I’ll leave you with “Shattered” by Trading Yesterday
Here’s the part, in the chorus, that is deeply meaningful to me:
And I’ve lost who I am, and I can’t understand
Why my heart is so broken, rejecting your love
Without, love gone wrong; lifeless words carry on
But I know, all I know’s that the end’s beginning
Who I am from the start, take me home to my heart
Let me go and I will run, I will not be silent
All this time spent in vain; wasted years wasted gain
All is lost but hope remains and this war’s not over
I love this because it speaks to me of a time – no, of many times, when I’ve chosen the low road of fear, of cynicism, or pride, or worse; times when I’ve chosen death and indeed, I’ve lost who I am. When I pay the price, I know that the end’s the beginning, because I know that at the bottom I’ll come to my senses and return to life and reality.
And the beauty of it, of course, is the promise though “all is lost, hope remains” because “There’s a light, there’s a sun taking all these shattered ones to the place we belong, and his love will conquer all.”
I think of specific times, recently, when I’ve lost who I am, and yet his love has conquered. It happens over and over again, friends, because the good news is nothing, if it’s not a story of being able to come home after running away!
There are half a dozen other songs representing significant moments – after the death of a friend, after the completion of a book, a winter ski tour with my wife, a brother in-law’s battle with cancer. Music and memory – for me they’re seared together beautifully, and this makes playlists – this one anyway – a sort of “memorial stone”. As I listen, I’m encouraged because I remember God’s been with me through good times and bad, through beauty and pain, and will be with me today, and tomorrow too, come what may!
What songs evoke worship and gratitude for you? And if not songs, what evokes your memories of gratitude? Smells? Food? Places?
I started a little vacation about a week ago. The plan was to hike a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife of nearly 37 years. This kind of space would provide the kind of beauty and clarity needed for me to see far into the future (“Do you have a five year plan?” someone asks me) and so be able to prepare for it. After all, we learn from an early age that life’s about setting goals, envision a future, and then going after it with all the gusto we can muster. This is all well and good, perhaps, if you know exactly what your future is to be, but as one grows older assurances about the future become harder to assess. There are too many wild cards. Health. Money. The shelf life in one’s profession. Needs out there which you might be able to help meet. Your own need for rest. Desires to write. Or travel. Desires to keep doing what you’re doing.
The options are dizzying, and unknowable. Still, I thought the space of hiking through the wild would grant clarity; that I’d come home with needed understanding and some goals to pursue, marching orders for the next chapter. Mercifully that whole line of thinking fell off a cliff somewhere below Cathedral Rock on day two of our hike.
Instead, clear as the mountain peaks around me, I was granted the realization that two realities must be in place in order for any of us to move toward the life for which we’re created. What are they?
1. We need right motives for what we’re doing. Proverbs 16:2 says that “people may be pure in their own eyes, but the Lord weights the motives”. This is a stunning statement because we tend to look at a person’s pursuits as indicative of their wisdom, and the quality of their life. Look at the triathlete and you think, “self discipline”. Look at the person who started that non-profit and you think, “idealistic; devoted”. Look at the rich person with a reputation for generosity: “sacrificial”. It’s all very impressive, and certainly extends to people who work in ministry, or speak for a living, or are super committed to raising ‘excellent kids’. Yes. Let’s be a version of human that causes people to take notice, in a positive way.
And therein, my friends, is the problem because pursuits born out of a desire to be well thought of by others will lead us down the wrong path – every time – even when the pursuit seems noble. So will stuff born out of a desire to please others and avoid their judgement. So will stuff born out of a sense of the overwhelming needs we see, for the there are needs all around us and they will never go away. Ministries and philanthropic organizations are littered with broke down lives who could never say “no” because the need was always there, always hungry, always thirsty, always needing more us. So it’s not the thing itself that offers assurance we’re on the right path. It’s far too easy to justify the nobleness of any pursuit in our own eyes, even in the eyes of others.
“…the Lord weighs the motives” means just that. Pursuits born out of greed, or anger, or need for approval, or fear of rejection, or a desire for comfort, or a desire to prove something to someone – all these will, in the end, melt away. The one thing that matters is this: “What is God asking of me in this particular moment?” I think of Jesus in Mark 1. He’d healed some people and cast out demons, taught them, and hung out at a house ’til late into the night. By the next morning, word of his power had spread and whole town as knocking on the door, wanting to be with him. His response: “Time to move on to somewhere else and preach there. For that is what I came for.” This is impressive to me because it tells me that his motive is, as he says elsewhere, simply to do the will of the one who sent him.
How freeing would that be? For starters, it would free you and me from doing anything out of a FOMO, or any other fear. We’d also be liberated from being driven to action by every need we see, which can only, in the end, result on compassion fatigue in a world where racism, global poverty, sexism, oppression, environmental degradation, family breakdown, health crises, mental illness, and o so much more are knocking at our doors. It’s too much for any one to bear. What’s needed, then, is for each of us to know our part and do it, recognizing that along the way some will view us heartless, too liberal, too conservative, too prudent, too foolish, too ambitious, too lazy, and on and on it goes. If we’re in the right space, we’ll be able to sift this stuff and move forward with our true calling, but doing so requires that we have the second reality in our experience as well as the first one.
2. We need to be secure that we are complete in Christ. If the starting point of my life is that I’m already complete, then I’ve nothing to earn, nothing to prove, and nothing to fear. All my actions, when born from the reality of completion and security in Christ, will be nothing more than saying yes to God’s next step. For Elisabeth Elliot, decades ago, it meant moving back to Central America to live among the people who had murdered her husband, in order to share the reality of Christ with them. For another it means retiring early to care for aging parents. For another it means staying in the same job for 50 years. For another it means moving often. One might write and never sell more than a few thousand books, or less even. Another might regularly make the NYT Bestseller list. One’s a millionaire. Another’s living in a camper van.
Like various flora in the forest, each is fulfilling its calling without the anxiety and compulsion of comparison or fear.
How cool would it be to be secure in the assurance that we’re loved completely, perfectly, infinitely? It would free us to believe that, in Christ, we have a unique role to play in blessing the world, and our one true thing will be to pursue that thing – not out of a desire for fame, or financial security, or to prove to someone how important we are, but simply out of love for the one who has healed us, filled us with life and hope, and given us the chance to participate in blessing a world thirsty for blessing. That’s the life I’m after friends, no matter where it leads.
The good news is that Christ came to fill us with nothing less than his life so that we can enjoy this “confidence of completion”. The bad news is that religion has too often mutated into some sort of performance whereby we’re trying earn approval, from each other, or God, or the church. Sick stuff, really, when you realize the whole point of the gospel was to set us free from that very mindset!!
The hike’s over and the particulars of the five year plan are no less clear. Any anxieties I had about not knowing are gone though. They been blown away by the comforting winds of the Holy Spirit, who has reminded me that I’m complete, already, because of what God has done in Christ. I’m done performing for approval – seeking instead to live a life poured out in obedience to Christ as an act of gratitude for his matchless love.
Does this sound unapologetically Christo-centric? I hope so. People may or may not use the language of Christ, but I’m convinced, more than ever, that a world thirsting for peace, meaning, hope, joy, strength, confidence, beauty, intimacy, and Justice, is a world searching of Jesus.
There were times, not so long ago, when mourning was the first response to tragedy. This is appropriate. When 9.11 happened, there was a global coming together that simply grieved the catastrophic loss, acknowledging, before any rush to response or solution, that the world is not meant to be this way. Waves of grief and anger over “the way it is” rise up in the human heart when tragedy happens.
Or should, at least. In Ezekiel 18:32 God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” In John 11, Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and wept tears of grief, because death is an intrusion in our fallen world – a source of profound loss, sorrow, and separation.
These days though, there’s no time for mourning. The blood wasn’t dry on the floor before this tragedy was politicized. Islamaphobia. Homophobia. Gun Control. ISIS. Immigration policy. NRA. Ban on assault weapons. Blame Obama. Mock Trump, or praise him. Why mourn, when you can blame, or use the event to justify your worldview?
Here’s an observation friends: this is sick
Our rush to judgement is a cultural disease, the natural fruit of our increasing inability to listen, think, and learn a bit before talking. I was in Austria when Sandy Hook occurred and the first things I read in social media had to do with blaming the NRA, or declaring preemptively that “the gun control liberals will use this to steal our guns”. Heated rhetoric, even before the children were buried. An alligator steals a child from a theme park, and before his body has even been found, people are lecturing the parents about “responsible parenting”. The biggest mass shooting in American history happens and before there’s a single funeral, Muslims are blamed. Immigration debates fill the air. Christians are blamed. Guns are blamed. And those blamed respond with a whiplash of defensiveness.
Lost in all of it is the time honored tradition, in nearly every culture in the world, to “mourn first – thoroughly – and then respond” The cost of this loss will be huge, is already huge – because what’s happened is that all of us are now constantly at war, with each other. Constantly on the defensive, or to avoid that, on the pre-emptive offense.
Job’s friends may not have assessed Job’s problems accurately, but at least they had the decency to mourn with him a little bit before offering their misguided solutions. The same was true 15 years ago, when America, even the world, stopped for a week or so, and mourned. We were all angry. We were all learning new things about terror and waking up to the realization that our world had changed forever. But we held our tongues.
The Bible is a rich pool of lament for many reasons, one of which is that it allows the dissonance between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be to ferment in our spirits and souls. Such fermentation, born of compassion for victims of suffering and loss, strengthens our longings for the beauty of Christ’s reign to break into our world with full force. It’s only out from those deep longings, ripened in mourning, that the best wisdom of next steps will be born.
Last week was too busy for mourning for me. I was in meetings overseas from morning to night, and squeezing church work and sermon prep into the little margins. I barely saw the headlines, and then quickly saw the polarizing comments, coming from everywhere. Really! Everywhere. The weight of what happened didn’t hit me until yesterday, when I had some time to finally digest the event while sitting in the Frankfurt airport waiting to come home.
Today then, is a day of mourning for me – for one thing. The victims. Young lives were cut down too soon and while death is always tragic, it’s always the more so when the lives are young, still looking forward to most of their days.
Yes, the church must participate in robust and civil discourse about sexual ethics, gun control, gun rights, immigration, Islam, and more. Those are different topics for different days. But not today. Today I mourn…which begins with empathy, and compassion, which simply means, “to suffer with”. For God’s sake, and your own, learn compassion before anything else.
Again violence has taken young lives.
Again people woke in the morning not knowing their hours were numbered.
Again families of victims are faced with an unanticipated hole in their lives, with many parents facing the most difficult grief of all, the death of their own children. Of all the things that “aren’t supposed to happen”, this is near the top of the list.
Let your tears run down like a river day and night
As the beginning of the night watches
Pour out your heart like water
Before the presence of the Lord;
Life up your hands to Him
For the life of your little ones… Lamentations 2
Spoiler alert. If you don’t know what happens to Jesus after his crucifixion, I’m going to share the punchline in this blog.
“Peace be to you” says Jesus, standing in the midst of the disciples, in a room with a locked door where he’s suddenly appeared without it opening! Their stunned silence is understandable. After all, Jesus, the one upon whom they’d pinned their hopes, the one for whom they’d left everything, the one who they’d betrayed and denied, the one from whom they’d just fled as he hung on a cross, was dead. Not, “as good as dead”—actually dead, and with that death, so died their hopes and dreams.
All this makes Jesus’ next line even funnier to me, when he responds to their stunned silence with “why are you troubled?” as if they should have seen this whole narrative coming from day one, since he’d talked about his death and resurrection explicitly a few times and implicitly dozens of times. Still, somehow they missed it, and so Jesus’ words are much needed in the moment there in that room where it was slowly dawning on them that the whole course of history, not to mention their own lives, was about to change.
“Peace” and “Don’t be troubled” are his words to these anxious, troubled people, and they are just as significantly, words for us too, here and now in our troubles and anxieties.
Iran? Isis? Nigeria? Syria? Yemen? Black lives that matter? Policemen that are dead? Denominations that are in turmoil?
State rights? Individual rights? Health care? Your rights? Wall Street’s rights? Workers rights? Your relationships with children, parents, spouse?
“My God, what are we doing to each other?” is the only prayer some people know how to pray these days, and it’s really nothing more than a prayer for peace, because underneath it is the profound realization that things are broken and breaking, falling faster and harder than we’ve seen before.
Jesus, though, doesn’t bust out of tomb riding a white horse, raising hell, killing his enemies, and setting up shop as the newest savior, like Alexander the Great would, or V. Lenin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or even George Washington, or some power hungry pope, or Luther or Calvin. Instead he appears in a room with his closest friends, folk who’ve doubted, denied him, and functioned as largely clueless, fickle devotees, and offers his peace to them.
This revolution, unlike all others in history, unfolds from the inside out, beginning with the transformation of human hearts from anxious, fearful, and angry—to this state of peace. Wow! Are you interested in that offer? Me too.
I’m not able to fix this broken world, but I can become a person of peace in the midst of it all, and that will make a difference, not only in me, but in those I touch. Thankfully there are steps we can take to become people of peace, right here and now. I share the first step here, and next steps this coming weekend:
Step One: Peace is, first of all, a person. “He himself is our peace” is what Paul says, and he goes on to talk about how the reality of Christ in one’s life will lead to the breaking down of dividing walls, because by his very nature, Christ’s heart is for reconciliation and shalom (peace) among people. If Christ lives in me, the tidal movement of my life will be toward unifying not dividing.
“Really?” says the thoughtful person who knows a bit of church history. “What about Rwanda, or the Christian settler’s treatment of American Indians, or slavery, or culture wars that push people to the margins of society, or doctrinal wars that so fracture the church and fill it with hurtful words that people on the outside want nothing to do with her? What about the 30 year war in Europe, or the Protestant’s treatment of the radical reformers, or… I could go on for a thousand words, but you get the point.
To say that God’s people are people of peace is absurd.
Ah, but Jesus knew that there was a profound difference between being religious and being people of peace. The former draw lines and rely heavily on exclusionary and dualistic language: in/out, saved/lost, right/wrong, civilized/savage, black/white and the way this plays out often gets ugly and violent. This was the way the disciples had been brought up. It’s the usual way for most of us, religious or not. That’s why Jesus’ disciples wanted to reign fire down on that village where people weren’t believing. It’s why they were so excited on Palm Sunday, as they believed that finally Jesus was going to exercise his divine right to bear arms, destroy the Roman violence machine by violence, and finally win this simmering war.
It’s also why Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying “if only you’d known the things that make for peace” —but they didn’t. They knew dualistic thinking. They knew how to win by making the other guy lose. They knew about the peace of Rome, which was a peace rooted in fear and violence. They wanted the peace of Rome to become the peace of Israel, still rooted in fear, but with the shoe on the other foot.
Jesus would have none of it. He’s into breaking down dividing walls and bringing people together. He’s into serving, even his enemies. He’s into going the second mile, and truth telling, but truth telling bathed in love and a commitment as far as possible, to redeeming the relationship. He’s so into peace, that when his disciple Peter cut a soldier’s ear off, rather than teaching Peter better swordsmanship, he tells him to put the sword away, and heals the guy’s ear. He even makes it clear that overcoming violence with violence is not a great idea.
He wins the peace, breaks down the walls, defeats the forces of evil with the most revolutionary weapon known to humanity—infinite love. “While we were still enemies… Christ died.”
You want peace? It starts by yoking yourself with the Prince of Peace. But be careful, You’ll find yourself going to parties with people you didn’t think you’d like, visiting seniors who are lonely, and sharing a drink with someone whose theology is, by your standards at least, “off”. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to bless those around with little thought of whether they’re ‘worthy’, agree with you, or even like you. Your fear will be melting away like a spring thaw. Love will blossom. And the tomb that held your bitterness, rancor, and pride, especially your religious pride—well you’ll wake up one Sunday spring morning and find it: empty.
Peace. Don’t let your hearts be troubled.
I didn’t even know I’d lost anything. This is a hazard of business maybe. We handle “God stuff” all the time, planning weddings, funerals, details, staffing issues, budgets, parking hassles with neighbors, potentially divisive theological issues bubbling under the surface, meetings, more meetings, and a few more meetings after that. In the midst of all that there are sermons to prepare, preaching to do, young pastors to equip through one-on-one and group meetings. It’s all there, but for any of these elements to have real meaning, they need to be infused with the grace and peace of Christ, as if Christ himself is in the midst of the decision, encounter, transaction, meeting.
Truth be told though, the ocean of details can conspire with my own Type A personality and propensity to get anxious about stuff, and “Poof!”—I’m still doing all the stuff, but Christ and his peace are no longer in my sense of reality, having been displaced by that worst of all things: religious professionalism. The slide into this territory is so subtle you don’t even notice it, because the words don’t change a bit—you still sound as holy as ever to onlookers, and so you actually begin to believe it, approval addict that you are.
Until somebody notices, and calls you out on it.
The Sunday I arrived home from Sabbatical last October, someone in our church approached me and told me I looked “ten years younger” and I hugged her, of course believing that she had the gift of discernment and truth telling! I felt it too, rested, at peace, in love with Christ.
FAST FORWARD to last Sunday.
The same woman approached me and said, “Can I pray for you? You look absolutely spent, and exhausted.” I told her I was fine, but underneath the surface of propriety, the truth was that her words were as accurate then as they were last October, and I knew it; knew that something wasn’t working right; knew that I was running on fumes. In her few pointed but accurate words, she’d ripped the veil off that I’d been wearing so skillfully—that of a religious pro who knows the words, but is, in the moment, experiencing nothing of the reality, knowing instead the companionship of anxiety and hurry, restlessness and frustration. I’d known it, but as long as I could keep all the balls in play in this pinball machine that had become my life, nobody would know how hollow I was. Thank God someone saw, and said, and prayed.
Meditation: After preaching for the 4th time that Sunday, I went home and pulled a book off my shelf I’d not looked at since about 1997. I’d first picked it up when I’d visited a convent for a personal retreat, and poured my heart out to a nun, also the librarian of the convent. She’d recommended it, and I’d read it there, and later bought it. It’s a book about meditation, and I hesitate to share it because so many Christ followers will be afraid of it, in spite of the fact that we’re invited to “pray without ceasing” and “meditate” on God’s word so that it saturates our being.
Anyway, this book recommends sitting quietly and praying The Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm, or the Prayer of St. Francis, slowly, over and over again, for a period of time each morning and evening. I started doing that, immediately that night, and then again in the morning and evening ever since.
I can’t even begin to describe the renewed sense of peace, and awareness of the reality that Christ lives in me, with me, loves me, is for me, has called me to shine as light and given me all I need to do that, will never leave me, and (o so marvelous) has called me to peace.
I’ve known these truths in reality, but lately they’d become words for others more than a central reality in my daily experience. Now, once again, having made a high priority of taking time to prayerfully mediate on God’s truth each morning and evening, I’ve begun to enjoy the reality of Christ’s presence in my actual living.
There’s a greater sense of peace, by the way, when driving, speaking, leading meetings. I’m far from ‘at rest’, but utterly confident I’m on the right road, and can only pray and hope for the same for all who suffer from anxiety, fear, emptiness, boredom—in spite of being full of ‘God words’.
Gratitude: In the wake of this new habit, a sense of profound gratitude and appreciation began growing in my moment by moment living. I’ll be listening to some music and it will remind me of days in the past when I wrote books in a log cabin—simpler days, when I led a smaller church. Rather than looking back wistfully though, my heart these days is filled with profound joy for the memories and privileges of the past. Today is today—and God will give us what we need for it; but one of the things we need is a sense of gratitude for the good gifts in our past.
The other peace of gratitude has to do with a fresh sense of seeing creation and being overwhelmed with joy simply by watching the rain fall from the sky, or seeing the clouds change color in the sunset. Yesterday I spent the day splitting and stacking wood with my wife, and we both commented on how delightful it is that we find joy anytime we can be in the midst of God’s beautiful creation. The cathedral of God’s stunning creation is better than anything for both of us, and we like it that way!
Presence: I’m preaching a bit about this tomorrow, but looking back, I can see how easily I slipped into losing the present moment to either past regrets or (especially) future worries. Somehow, renewal brings with it the capacity to live more in this actual moment. One of the highest forms of generosity you can offer another is the gift of your absolute attention. I’m often terrible at this, but am aware that, to the extent that Christ is given freedom to express life through us, it will present, not in scattered attention, listening with one ear, while our other senses are watching our phones, or our brains are elsewhere in the future, or the other room. Rather, we’ll be all there.
Contentment: Finally, as ridiculous as it sounds, this little film of a skier and his dog reminded me that we’re made for fellowship: with God, with God’s creation, with others. People and creation itself aren’t commodities to be used for our pleasure or purposes—rather, they’re gifts to be cherished, loved, and enjoyed.
If you’re in need of renewal, I hope these principles help you forward. May you know the peace of Christ, not as a theory, but as a reality—before this very day is over.
In the avalanche of words that constitute our lives, I hope that for each of us there are particular conversations and moments that stand out as especially meaningful. Such words remain, long after the vast majority have evaporated, and they remain for good reason. They’re life giving, and wise. Here are five sentences filled with wisdom that I’ve received over the years, offered in hopes that they’ll be helpful to you as well. Enjoy!
1. Make knowing God the number one priority in your life. This was the word spoken to me from Jeremiah 9 when I was 20 years old and I realized at the moment that “knowing God” was at best, a peripheral pursuit in my life, far behind vocational aspirations, financial security, and having a little bit of fun. I was not only convicted by the truth of Jeremiah’s words, but I was drawn by their simplicity. In a world where I’m constantly being told to readjust my priorities to include P90X, wise investing, taking a cruise, losing weight, getting an advanced degree, finding cheaper insurance, avoiding cancer, finding my calling, protecting my identity from thieves, and about a thousand other things, the notion that the deepest joy in life can come from simply enjoying intimacy with my creator was stunningly beautiful. I’ve since come to see that truth in many texts, and have experienced the bliss, at my best, of knowing “the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”. This is the North Star to which I return over and over again.
2. Everyone knows how rotten they are – they need to know how gifted and loved they are. My friend Jim said this while I was in architecture school, and he practiced it too. I was a wreck at the time, body, soul, and spirit—and yet felt encouraged and affirmed by this wild eyed Jesus fanatic who also happened to be a great architecture student. But what struck me most about him was his real, demonstrable knack for encouraging and loving people. When I asked him about it one day, he said this; “People know their own shortcomings, but need to know they’re loved.” At my best, I seek to remind people of this too. At my worst, I default, not to hyper criticism, but benign neglect, which might even be worse!
3. When you have too much to do and you’re overwhelmed – remember to let the peace of Christ reign in the moment. Breathe deeply. Do the next thing. This word comes from Elisabeth Elliot, wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliot. She no doubt faced an ocean of suffering and questions after her husband’s untimely death at the hands of the Auca Indians, and yet she managed to keep her wits. Eventually she would return to minister among the very tribe that killed her husband, and after that, return to Wheaton College with the newly saved man who was the killer. He stood in chapel at Wheaton and declared himself as a Christ follower because of this woman’s faithfulness. That faithfulness was micro, step by step, in the wake of loss. All those little steps built a life. Nothing’s changed since then. Books are written a word at a time, churches built a sermon, prayer, visit at a time; children raised, a meal, bedtime story, teachable moment at a time. The good life is neither microwavable nor achievable without a million “next things” being done—step by step.
4. If you have a million dollars, but you don’t have a leader, you don’t have anything. If you have a leader and a nickel… you have a significant future. Ray Harrison, founder of the International Needs ministry our church supports, told me this in response to my question: “When people give you unrestricted funds, how do you decide what to do with them?” His answer: “Invest in good leaders, because…” and then he said what I wrote above. The word has served me well in my own leadership role, and has been confirmed time and again. A good leader will be exerting influence even without money or a title and so, ironically, will likely gain both.
5. Take care of your whole self. You are body, soul, spirit. In all three areas, rest, exercise, and what you eat, matter. This comes from my friend who runs a Bible based wilderness program in Austria where I teach, and from I Thessalonians 5, where Paul prays that we’d all prosper in all three areas. I’ve come to see that my life is an eco-system and that body neglect will affect my spiritual life just as spirit neglect will harm my body. As a result, I try to get enough sleep and also spend time “letting the peace of Christ” rule in my heart. I try to eat good food, and ingest healthy reading material for spirit and soul as well. Whole life discipleship is the only kind of discipleship worth pursuing.
It’s an overwhelming world at times, and this is why the wisdom that’s risen to the top like cream and stayed there, is so very important. We’re at risk in a world where anchors are disappearing daily, of being tossed around, squandering the precious gift of our daily lives because we just don’t know what to do next. But these words have anchored me more than once, and so I’ll be forever grateful for those folk who spoke them and lived them.
My previous post offered the first two of five essential values for leaders to nurture and develop if they hope to still be living into their calling and sustaining important relationships, “for the long haul.” Giftedness will get you in the door as a leader, and romance will get you started in a relationship, but it’s these five critical qualities that will allow you to stay in the game for decades. In addition to teachability/humility and a rhythm of work and rest, you’ll also need:
#3 To be Rooted and Grounded (A Firm Identity) – Jesus does things that are utterly exasperating to contemporary leaders, like walking away from his ministry in Capernaum when word about him had spread and “the whole city” was looking for him. Who walks away from an opportunity to “expand their platform” or “build their brand” or “capture more market share?” Apparently Jesus does, and this makes no sense to we who are bred in the capitalist mindset that bigger and more is always the highest and best way to go.
The thing about Jesus though was that he had only one foundational source from which he drew his sense of significance, and that source wasn’t the size or success of his ministry. It wasn’t the response of the crowds either, because in John 6, Jesus is utterly undisturbed, even when the crowds shrink exponentially because of the harsh reality of his message. It wasn’t the faithfulness of his disciples, all of whom fled the scene when things got tough.
What keeps Jesus so grounded, so solid, in spite of the ups and downs of popularity in the polls, and in spite of the reality that his closest friends didn’t have a clue what he was about ’til the very end of his post resurrection life?
The answer’s found in John 13:3, where we’re told that Jesus knew that “the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from the Father and was returning to the Father….“ Because of this rootedness, Jesus is able to bend down and wash the feet of those who will betray and abandon him within a few short hours. It’s this identity with the Father that is the foundation of his life because Jesus knows his place in the universe, knows his relationship with God is secure, knows his destiny. And…
Yes, enough for Jesus, but not us, because we have a gaping hole in our lives that longs to be filled with significance, and so we set off to plant 1,000 churches, or to have a perfect marriage that’s the envy of the world, or raise children who are scholars, athletes, saints, who always eat their organic vegetables and never get cavities. Or we knock ourselves out to get whatever is, in our own world, the equivalent of a bestseller. Armed with these goals, we’re convinced that when we reach them, it will be enough.
It won’t. You’ll need to sustain it if you succeed, and then eventually you’ll need to let go of it because someday you’ll be old and tired. Then what will be enough? Or maybe sustaining it won’t be enough at all, because success can be addicting, like eating potato chips. You won’t be able to stop. If that’s you, then you’ll be on the tread mill in full swing, and it’s all for God, of course, because we’ve been told how vital it is that we use our gifts, and be a blessing, and make a difference. The whole message, at its worst, baptizes ambitions born of insecurities and leaves us desperate to succeed.
When success is our goal (marriage success, family success, ministry success, job success, publishing success) then the people in our lives become tools to help us get there. When that happens, I have a feeling we’ll no longer be washing the feet of our family members, or co-workers, or spouses, or church members when they fail to agree with us or appreciate us, because we’ll see them as barriers to our success, and our since our success is our identity, “what will we do” if our children rebel, or our church doesn’t grow, or our book doesn’t get published?
Can you see how a wrong definition of success and our desire to “impact the world” is fraught with the potential for burn-out, and even the possibility of becoming a user of people rather than a servant/lover of people? I hope so, because I can tell you from the driver’s seat that these temptations are real, and the world is filled with stories of power abuse at the hands of those who, with the very highest and noble goals articulated, came to insist that those goals be met at any cost, including the cost of servanthood, humility, and love.
The way of Jesus is different than this on two fronts:
A) Jesus invites us to union with himself and makes the audacious claim that this will make us profoundly content, regardless of the scope and nature of “impact” we have, or “fruit” we display in our lives. This is why leaders who are in it for the long haul have an identity rooted in what Christ has done for them and is doing for them, rather than in their own accomplishments. People like this don’t need outward success as much because what sustains them is fellowship with Christ and enjoying the gifts of Christ revealed in creation, beauty, good food, meaningful conversation and laughter. These gifts are received with gratitude by those whose life in Christ is their most precious gift.
Paul calls this being “rooted and grounded in love” so that coming to explore and experience the heights and depths of Christ’s love became the greatest joy, even greater than capturing market share!
Ministry, family, marriage, work; all these things are great gifts from God. But none of them are foundational, and to be blunt, none will last. The joy I have in knowing Christ, however, is a different story. He’s with me know in the midst of this oh so busy season in life. He’ll be with me later, when I’m sitting on a bench, too tired to run, or run a ministry. And he’ll be with me at my last breath. Why would I want to build on any other foundation?
B) Jesus invites us to leave the scope and nature of the fruit he produces in our lives with him. I’ll confess that it’s easy to get excited when I get published, easy to get discouraged when sales don’t match my hopes. Church life? Parenting? Marriage? Health? Money? In every area, we can get overly high or low based on whether reality matches our expectations.
How about, instead, we let go of our expectations, and simply rest in the confidence that Christ will express life through us in his way, his time, in the places of his choosing? That would lead to security. And rest. And peace.
#4 Patience but Relentless Pursuit