Years ago I found myself in a debate over an organization’s mission statement. At the time it read, “meeting people at their point of need and enabling them to become all God had in mind when God made them” I liked it, but others didn’t. “Too consumeristic” they said, declaring that this kind of mission statement feeds narcissism, with the result that “having my needs met” would become the only thing people would care about. It’s a legitimate concern. The older I become, the more firmly I believe that the end goal of our lives is to become these full containers that are overflowing with compassion, generosity, courage, beauty, and creativity. These things are a far cry from the consumerism that prevails in both the marketplace and churches of today. And yet, the older I get, the more I stand by my statement that having our needs met isn’t just important, it’s foundational. Until we receive, we’re unable to give. Here’s what I mean….
You’re no doubt aware of the Mt. Everest spectacles this year. With overcrowding and unnecessary deaths, the events of this summer hearken back to the 1996 climbing season when eight climbers died on Mount Everest during a storm. It was the worst loss of life ever on the mountain on a single day. Author Jon Krakauer, who himself attempted to climb the peak that year, wrote a best-selling book about the incident, Into Thin Air, which was published in 1997. Anatoli Boukreev, also guiding on Everest that year, also published a book about the events entitled, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. (The two books offer a fascinating look at how two people, participating in the same events, can recall differently, highlight different things, and interpret the same exact events dramatically differently, attaching totally different motives to a person’s actions. This makes for interesting consideration of how we read the Bible, but that’s a different topic, for a different day)
Boukreev, the Russian guide working for Seattle guide Scott Fisher, had taken his clients to the top earliest in the day. He descended to the nearest camp without his clients, where he brewed tea, fortified himself, and then went back up the mountain to work on rescue operations. Here’s an excerpt from Boukreev’s book explaining the situation:
“I said to Scott that the ascent seemed to be going slowly, and I was concerned that descending climbers could possibly run out of oxygen before their return to Camp IV (at 7,900 m). I explained that I wanted to descend as quickly as possible to Camp IV to warm myself and get a supply of hot drink and oxygen in case I might need to go back up the mountain to assist descending climbers. Scott, as had Rob Hall before him, said ‘OK’ to this plan.”
Some said Boukreev was selfish to go down. But one article describes the value of how his time of rest for what came next:
Six people needed help and only Boukreev was willing to go out. With tea and oxygen he went out three times in the storm and brought back first Sandy Pittman, and then Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen. He repeatedly asked Sherpas and members of other expeditions to help save Yasuko Namba (Weaters wasn’t there at that point), but no one would.
(One climber), Gammelgaard, remembers seeing Boukreev after he returned with Fox and Madsen: “I woke up at around 5 a.m. and saw Anatoli [Boukreev]. He had returned. It was already light, and he sat without saying a word. He was completely exhausted. There was no energy left in him.
Going down early and resting was… selfish? The debate here is a debate that goes well beyond the climbing world, because it’s really about the role of self-care and service of others in the lives we live. The critics of Boukreev are perhaps rightly wary of an excessive focus on self care because, to be blunt, by almost any standard, most agree that we live in the age of the elevated selfishness.
The danger of being a “lover of self” is obvious in the Bible, and the warnings are there for a reason. There’s something in our nature that is tempted to withdraw from compassion, service, and generosity. When we yield to such tendencies our lives shrink dramatically, even though we have an outer coating of righteousness. We can redefine success as not breaking laws like stealing, killing, committing adultery, paying our taxes, and even add things like going to church, verbally defending the Bible, and perhaps even defending our politics. But this is not, by any stretch of Jesus’ imagination, what following Jesus looks like. This is self absorbed religion, taking in, and in, and in. If you strip the religious veneer off of it, it’s just pure narcissism – living for our own well being and not caring for others. When the warning against being a ‘lover of self’ isn’t heeded, religious people will be the worst kind of self lovers… self righteous self-lovers!
In contrast, God’s clear calling from the beginning is that humans are invited to feast on God’s blessings, but to do so in order that we might actively bless and serve others! Remember Abraham: “blessed to be a blessing”. Remember Micah: “what does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”. Remember Jesus: “if anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink, and from his belly will burst forth rivers of living water”. You get this picture of being filled so that we can pour out!
Which brings me, for a moment, back to Boukreev. Remember that warning when you’re flying. “If you’re flying with children and the oxygen masks appear, put your own mask on first!” None of us will ever know Boukreev’s true motives. We DO know that he had the strength and inner fortitude to rescue three people, above 8000 meters, in an Everest storm. He had to find them, stabilize them, move them. Some were snow blind. Some were refusing to move, preferring instead to die. No matter. He served…and saved… because he was strong enough to do so.
THE POINT OF IT ALL
I’m increasingly convinced that one of the largest barriers to healthy marriages, families, churches, non-profits, businesses, even cities and nations, is the appalling condition of the people in charge. When I go to pastors’ conferences, for example, I hear material that is good, inspiring, and even important – things about casting vision, managing well, staffing and hiring decisions, change management, conflict management, how to think big, etc. Without being dismissive of any of it, my complaint is that if you sweep all of that stuff away, a fundamental truth remains: healthy leaders are the foundational element for creating healthy systems. Healthy individuals who marry create healthy marriages. Healthy couples create healthy families. Healthy pastors help create healthy churches. And so it goes. There are exceptions of course, but this is a deep flowing river of reality.
That’s why Boukreev warmed, rested, and drank tea. That’s why David “strengthened himself in the Lord” prior to his battle. That’s why Jesus went off “early in the morning to the mountains to pray”. Whole people have resources to share, not out pride, or anger, or to create something that will fill ego needs. Their strength of inner resources enable them to serve! That’s the reason things like solitude, silence, moving your body, eating real food, getting enough sleep, enjoying creation, and meditation are important. It isn’t so that you can become a dammed up narcissist. It’s so you can fully bless and serve others.
Paul prays that our spirit, soul, and body, would be made whole! I’m presently developing a curriculum around this theme, and know that one of the first things people will feel is that this is too self-absorbed. My answer: Yes, if you’re warming up, and napping, and drinking tea, just so you can stay comfortable while others die on the mountain, it’s self-absorbed. But if your wholeness leads to service, hospitality, justice, mercy, crossing social divides, and being compassionately present with others in the midst of their suffering, then it’s a different story. That’s the life for which you’re created: receiving fullness, that you might be fully poured out!
I’ll be writing more on this very important subject of wholeness, and starting a podcast soon, around the subject spirit/soul/body wholeness, but the healthy pursuit of wholeness is always toward a particular end: we seek fulness so that we might become people who shine as beacons of light, joy, compassion, hope and generosity in a world overwhelmingly governed by fear, anger, tribalism, and pettiness. I hope you’ll join me on the journey.
One of the most profound experiences of my life was attending a small retreat for pastors and scientists in 2010 on a tiny island in British Columbia. The intersection of science and faith rocked my world in the best possible way. Already a nature lover, I felt as if I’d been given permission, or more strongly, exhortation, to look for the fingerprints of God everywhere, from the structure and behavior of the atom to the vastness of black holes. My curiosity about all things was gloriously affirmed, and new adventures of seeing how Christ affects everything, began.
Somewhere in between the micro of the atom and macro of the universe, reside the flora and fauna we encounter on a regular basis in our daily living. They comprise our ecosystem and its increasingly clear that our Creator has called us to both feast on creation and care for it. Mark Wallace’s new book, “When God was a Bird” magnifies this invitation with stunning clarity and significant weight. His thesis might be controversial in evangelical circles because of how close it comes to “animism”. I surely didn’t agree with every word he writes either, but here’s the thing: profound truths often reside right near the edges of error, and our fear of error often prevents journey to those needed edges- and we’re all the poorer for having let this fear control us.“When God was a Bird” was, for me, a book at the edge. He posits, for example, that when the Holy Spirit shows up as a dove at Christ’s baptism, God is showing us that God animates and empowers ALL life, not just humans. You can argue about it amongst yourselves. For my part, I’ll note that a standard evangelical teaching is that, though humans are God’s image bearers, only humans are failing to display God’s glory. The rest of creation is essentially doing fine! (Psalm 19, Psalm 104). So I’m fine believing that God’s spirit is omnipresent in creation, expressing glory through the myriad interactions of sun, rock, stars, moon, elk, bird, bee, pollen, spider, squirrel, seed, and ….. unfolding of each day. Creation, in fact, is waiting for us to get our act together so that the universe can be healed! (Romans 8)
This book is mostly about feasting, receiving, worshipping, through creation – about learning to see God in all creation, to see that God is animating all life, and that all life is therefore, beautiful, ordered, and worthy of reverent preservation.
Using a different bird as his foundation for each chapter, Wallace examines God’s relationship to creation through a prism, revealing various facets of creation theology that instill, in me at least, greater sense of seeing and reverence. I read, and then look out the window at the forest in which I’m blessed to live. Long ago I realized that this forest wasn’t simply a stage on which my life was playing out, any more than your place, or any place, is simply stage. My place is also my teacher. Through the silence of winter snow, the song of the Varied Thrush in spring as I walk through the forest during after supper dusk, the chattering of squirrels in the summer, and the diminuendo of voices in the vibrant colors of fall. All are pointing to God as the source of beauty, provision, delight. Wallace simply takes it a step further, seeking to show us that the delight we feel when we pay attention to creation IS a delight in God. Argue the semantics of animism if you wish. But the larger point is clear: quit treating creation as either a stage for the play of humanity, or a store of harvesting by humanity. God’s in all of it, and we ignore or abuse at our peril.
Anyone looking for a deeper relationship with God through paying attention to the book of creation would be well served to consider the claims of the book, even if you don’t agree with everything. The only warning I’ll offer is that the book is academic. It will, for most of us, require an expansion of vocabulary. Coupled with interweaving of theology with ecology, it was, for me, a slow read. Slow, though, is often worthwhile, and that was surely true for me in this case. The wisdom and thought provoking revelation offered in this book will prove helpful in some emerging programs of a wilderness ministry our church offers for people in the greater Seattle Area.
note: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review
I’m on holiday today, and went hiking, which can be an exciting activity during spring in the Cascades. I begin my ascent at 1900’ and over the course of three miles climb to 3800’ before a slight descent down to my mountain lake destination. There’s not a hint of snow until I get close the lake, but then the trail crosses several avalanche chutes still filled with snow debris from a wild winter. Avalanche chutes are stripped bear of any trees so this means I’m crossing snow that has warm rock just beneath the surface, which means that I’m walking on snow bridges, often of unknown strength. The snow’s been melting out from the bottom up so that the thickness of the snow can vary from a foot or more to less than an inch. Add in the fact that the strength of said bridge varies not only by it’s depth, but by it’s temperature, and suddenly walking across these bridges can feel like you’re playing Russian roulette with every step.
Plunge your pole, hard, into the place you anticipate placing your foot. Look carefully. Step quickly. Go! They’ve collapsed under my weight more than once during spring hiking, but thankfully I’ve never been seriously injured by it. Not everyone is so lucky. There are lots of ways to mitigate this risk, but I’m using snow bridges as a metaphor today to remind you that every bridge in your life will collapse someday. If a bridge is what we depend on in our lives for security or meaning, the reality is that nothing lasts forever; vocation, health, marriage, children, are all destined for change along our journey. Like snow bridges these blessings are dynamic. One day everything appears solid and then, BOOM! There’s a heart condition, or a financial trial and the risk of foreclosure. Even the best of marriages usually end with one party dying first, leaving the other alone, grieving over the loss of that bridge which gave so much meaning to life. Economic boom periods are cyclical, just like the building of a snow bridge through the winter and its eventual collapse later in the spring. The same could be said of political parties, and even of nations. Nothing lasts forever. There’s a cycle of birth, vibrancy, decay, and death, that’s woven into the fabric of world.
Those who embrace this inevitable temporality of all things are standing on the threshold of freedom and peace! This is because there’s a single exception, in all the universe, to this reality. We who believe that Jesus rose from the dead see that resurrection as the shining light of hope, offering “the power of an indestructible life” as the prototype of where history’s headed. IF this is true, then we have a bridge that will never weaken, melt, or be destroyed. In fact, this is the langauge we find in the Bible…
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea – Psalm 46:2
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens. The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. – Hebrews 12:26,27
(Jesus) has been constituted a Priest, not on the basis of a bodily legal requirement [an externally imposed command concerning His physical ancestry], but on the basis of the power of an endless and indestructible Life. – Hebrews 7:16
There’s an indestructible life which cannot be shaken, and this life is united with the lives of all who call upon him, so that we become partakers of eternity. This means that we’re part of a better story, a story where God is making all things new, moving the cosmos away from the cycle of birth, death, and decay, to “life for the ages” which is the literal meaning of eternal life.
Where are you putting you weight these days? What bridges are you trusting in to give you meaning and security. I stood on a path today and at one point plunged by pole into the place where I intended to step and it broke through, collapsing the bridge and revealing huge rocks. A fall could have been serious. We need to put our weight where we know we’re safe, where we know that, come what may, our source will always be with us.
We need these truths, all of us, eventually in our lives. My hope is we’ll learn to seek the eternal rock sooner rather than later.
Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next. If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media. For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul. Happy reading, and happy sharing.
Chapter 1:Accidental Climbers
Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’Richard Rohr
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.Bill Gates
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you….Jesus the Christ
“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom
Has it ever happened to you?You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time.You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future.It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success.The business grew.You were promoted.The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities.All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing.You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff.Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, Prom night, graduations.It’s not perfect.There are bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days.Life’s filling up.The business is gaining new market share.Investments are doing their job.It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly.Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed.You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more.Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful.That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become, in some measure at least, “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below.You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar.You’re not sure where you are anymore.You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute.The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too.You went, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll.You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living.Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed.High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly.There’s your influence to consider, and reputation.You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night.At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position.These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang.“Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code.Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter.I thought you were Kristi.Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope.I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.”I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings our food.I’m sitting in rare Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today in the Alps. Paragliding. They found his body early this evening.I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.”After a silent moment Peter says,“I know.I’m sick too.”We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me.I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to.Then I go home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love mourning in darkness.
Hans Peter was the director of a school in the Alps where I teach regularly, and a kindred spirit.We’d skied his mountains together there, snowshoed in mine east ofSeattle, and ridden bikes amongst the monuments of Washington DC.We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids; argued theology and commiserated about leadership.We’d walked life together enough that even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff.It would be filled with laughter and adventures, andI just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner.The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for a video that needed making.Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed.There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job.The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.
Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing.It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”. But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all.Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself.Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition? What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness.I wondered if I was on the right mountain.
Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table.Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them.I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant.What was wrong with me?As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.
I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring. Like any peak, it came at a cost.Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing.New locations.New leaders.New responsibilities.New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships.The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting.But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year.Success!And emptiness at the same time.Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. Success is like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”.You want it to shine on you too.We call it lots of things, depending on our profession.We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love.Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life.Maybe this isn’t a bad thing.After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning.We want our lights to shine.We want significance.I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success.That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy.There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believe that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp.In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year.In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper.We were rural, small, subsistence.There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Kerouacspent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings, laughing around the kitchen table.It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people.“Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small.I was wrong of course.Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me.I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger.Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame.In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment.When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.
That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily.This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more.HR task forces.Policy Manuals.Bigger and bigger budgets.Adapt.Grow.Celebrate.Adapt.Grow.Mourn a little bit.Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership. Grow more.Repeat.
People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all.I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy.After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”.I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”.Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth.The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people.Healed.Empowered.Transformed.Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question:“Where does this story end?”and the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room.The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable.“Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity.Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well.But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified.And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing.I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading.What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty.When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves.Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long.I knew I needed to move.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters.The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father.Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale.And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements.We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more.Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency.I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic,treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away.The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail.In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days
And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.
You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers. My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages.
“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all” is how Helen Keller put it. She’s was onto something, surely. When Dave Matthews mused about the “Ants Marching” in his masterful music some years ago, it seemed to me he was pondering a sort of inevitable decay into a ritual of breakfast, commute, work, commute, supper, exhaustion, repeat. There are surely forces at work in the systems that are western civilization contributing to this dismal picture. However, I’d suggest that Jesus wants to infuse our normal daily existence with Divine Life so that in the midst of whatever it is we’re doing, the source of wisdom, joy, hope, mercy, justice, generosity, compassion, and service that is Christ bubbles up from deep within. What’s more, this kind of life is available to us every single day, even the mundane ones, the unchosen periods of suffering, the challenges.
I needed to leave my job for three months and trek through the Alps to learn this lesson, and learn I did, and I’m thrilled to share my adventures with you in my new book “The Map is not the Journey: Faith Renewed While Hiking the Alps”. The death of my close friend in a paragliding accident in the Alps came just at a point in my career where I was beginning to question the future. The convergence of these elements led, a year later, to my wife and I doing a 40 day, 400 kilometer trek through the Alps. Beginning in Italy, we went on to experience the Alps in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Lessons learned there, along with all the adventure of it (yes, we did walk into our private room one night to find a couple sleeping in our bed!) are found in this new offering, now available at Amazon and fine booksellers. Each chapter includes a link to photos from the stories of that chapter, in hopes that you’ll experience the trip we took in a small way too.
It’s a book for everyone who’s wondering what’s next, at any age.
It’s for those whose lives have turned out differently than they’d expected.
It’s for those who are tired, and looking a fresh infusion of life in their daily routine.
It’s for those who have set goals that they failed to meet.
It’s for those who want to learn about hut to hut travel in the Alps, or long range hiking.
You can help this book succeed in a few simple ways:
If you think you know people who might like it, share your purchase, or this blog post, on your social media. Thanks!
Reviews on Amazon are always helpful. Thanks!
What some have said who’ve read it:
Denny Rydberg – President Emeritus of Young Life . “For those feeling fatigue after years of faithfully doing the same thing, for those looking for new eyes to see what God is doing and has on his mind, and for those who need a jolt of adventure, this is the book to read.”
Les Parrott, PHD – “If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring. Richard paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation.”
Jim Zorn (former NFL coach and player) – “Richard’s travels aren’t just good stories of adventures. They’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people. Those looking to find transformation in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”
Please share this post if you think others would benefit from the book. Thanks!
It’s no news that we live in a world of increasing insanity, where daily headlines serve to remind us that humanity is collectively, like Sarumon in Lord of the Rings “replacing reason with madness” by choosing arrogance over humility, violence over reconciliation, individualism over community, and fear over hope.
The upcoming series I’m preaching at the church I lead is predicated on the very good news that nobody need be swept away in this avalanche of darkness, that there’s a different way of living, a way of hope. The foundation of this hope, as this video declares, is that we have the seed of Christ within us (or at least can have that seed if we desire it), and that this seed is the essence of wisdom, strength, humility, and infinite love. It falls to us, then, not to create these qualities, but to create the conditions in which these qualities can take root, germinate, and blossom.
What have been called ‘spiritual disciplines’ down through the ages provide the path for the soil care of our souls. All good. All true. All vital. And yet…
All of us need to be reminded that there are lots of other seeds in our souls besides the seed of Christ. Much has been sown there that’s destructive, things like self-loathing and lust, rage and greed, pride and hate. Some of the seeds are sown because of our stories – abuse, divorce, addiction, absence, and dozens of other family systems maladies sow destructive seeds. They’re there, inside us, waiting to choke out the good seed of Christ.
Other seeds are sown through our culture, which saturates us with lies in order to make us anxious consumers, buying more and more in order to escape the sense of inadequacy and meaninglessness that so often characterizes life.
So there are other seeds settled in the soil of our hearts. What shall we do about that?
Make the conditions right for Christ’s life. On a particular bike ride near my house I’m able to see the transformation of the landscape, from cedar and fir, to fir, to fir and pine, to pine. It all happens in the space of about 10 miles as I ride from western to eastern Washington. The difference of conditions cause one seed to take root, germinate, and thrive, while another withers.
A vital question for each of us is whether or not we’re creating conditions in our lives for Christ’s seed to thrive, or the invasive species of greed, violence, and lust.
I’m increasingly convinced that the news cycle feeds the invasive species. So does our tolerance of violence, in both video games and entertainment. Our unlimited access to sexual fantasy. The access to highly customizable entertainment that feeds our individualistic tendencies. Our access to meeting the demands of any and every appetite on demand. All of these create the wrong conditions, because by living these ways we’re inviting the wrong seeds, welcoming them even.
The whole scene hearkens me back to a profound scene in Deuteronomy. God says this to Israel: When the Lord your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.
All of this plays out in an antiphonal scene, clearly articulating two different lifestyles, with attendant consequences on two different types of terrain: “the blessings are over here. The curses are over there.” And then, with everyone standing between the two, God casts the vision: “So choose life, in order that you may live…”
This becomes a helpful lens, as we see that the quality of our lives is ultimately determined by whether or not we’ve made the soil of our hearts favorable for good seed or bad seed – and that determination is made by a thousand little choices every week, maybe even every day:
Will I gossip to boost my ego by putting someone down, or remain quiet?
Will I indulge my appetites for every creature comfort of food, warmth, and entertainment, or will I align myself with Christ and learn to overcome my appetites so that I’m master over them rather than they over me?
Will I open my fist and give freely of my time and money in order to bless others, or will I continue to grasp, and so develop the scarcity mentality that is part of the curse?
What will I think about when I have time to think?
What media will I consume, and how much?
Will I give thought to my food choices, my movement choices, my sleep habits, and simply go with the flow of culture?
Every choice is conditioning the soil of my heart to favor pine or fir, hope or despair, freedom or slavery, blessing or curse.
Learning to choose wisely requires disciplines… spiritual disciplines… soil care for the soul.
Note: I’m presently offering a short series of the many ways in which our enemy seeks to steal, kill, and destroy the life for which we’re created. At this moment in history, many are at grave risk of losing hope. Here’s help:
If hope is a longing for a better world, then hope is a flag firmly planted in almost every human soul. Sharin Sabestari is an example of a woman whose heart stirred with a deep and hopeful longing. She shares her story of growing up in war torn Iran and going into the mountains on hikes and climbs with her father….
“I remember the sirens blaring and the bombs rumbling in the distance. When we ran under our basement stairs in a blackout, I was too young to understand… (But) I knew that soon Dad and I would be off again to the mountains, where there we no sirens and no bombs, only a world of wonders: porcupine spines and snakeskins to collect, trees to climb, rocks to scramble. The realm of butterflies and streams and wind…” (Alpinist. Vol. 58)
The beauty of creation instills hope, at any age, in any time and place. It’s a hope that we’re not made to live amongst bombs and air raid sirens, terror and war. We’re made for beauty, made for peace, made for fellowship. Sharin learned this in the mountains. For others hope is awakened at the sea, or at sunset while walking through a field, or in a circle of friends around a campfire, or in a concert hall filled with the sounds of Schubert, or Mozart, or U2.
“Deep calls to deep” is how the Bible says it, and there are some of us who believe that beauty and peace are like signed and sealed invitations from God: “Dear Sharin… May you enjoy this gift of the mountains I’ve made, with all their flowing streams, fresh breezes ripe with the scent of pine, and gorgeous views. You’re invited to enjoy more of my gifts and find the rich life I’ve created for you to enjoy. Love, God.”
I’m on solid ground for believing that the first thing we should learn about God is that God’s given good gifts to humans. Romans 2 tells us that “God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance” which is just another way of saying that God’s kindness is an invitation for us to move away from a life without God, to a life with God – as guide, companion, friend, provider, healer, and lover.
If all this intimacy is the fruit of taking a step towards God because of the presence of hope and beauty, it stands to reason that our enemy, who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, would seek to steal hope and beauty. Knowing how this happens will help us fan both hope and beauty into flame in our lives once again, to the end that others will see them and perhaps make a move toward the Source of it all.
Hope is stolen through misdirection. “We’d hoped it would be the war to end all wars.” “We’d hoped Obama would bring hope and change.” “We’d hoped Trump would “drain the swamp”. “We’d hoped our offer, 100k above asking price, would have gotten us a house.” “We’d hoped the medical test would have been negative”.
They all make sense, of course, these hopes we have. We hope for the future to turn out a certain way in countless areas over which we have no control. The problem with all these forms of hope, though, is that they are highly contingent on events outside our control. It’s fine to “hope” and be disappointed. The problem comes when our meaning and identity became so yoked to our vision of the future, that any shortfall undoes us utterly. These are the people “driven to drink, or abuse, or worse” when there’s an affair. These are the people killing themselves when the stock market crashes. These are millions who simply haven’t found a way to cope with the dissonance between how they’d “hoped” life would be, and how its actually turned out. The landscape of humanity is littered with countless tragedies precisely because of unrealized hope, and our response to dashed dreams.
Some chime in at this point, and say, “The answer is simple. Hope for nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.” Perhaps. But neither will you know hope or joy, and the fruit that blossoms in such an arid environment is always depressing. Just ask Ernest Hemingway, or Kurt Cobain. Despair is around us, even among people who “hoped for nothing”.
The better way is to recognize that “hope” isn’t actually a sort of “wishful thinking” that is rooted in a desire for things to be a certain way in our lives. Real hope is solid. The word might even be translated “confident expectation” in the Bible, because it’s rooted in the promises of God.
God is promising a world without war, without cancer, a world of reconciled nations, and justice, a world of matchless beauty, intimacy, deliverance from enslaving addictions and, infusing every breath of our future: joy! I believe history is headed in that direction. This is my confident expectation, my hope. “What makes you so sure?” you might ask?
Two things, at least. First, I believe in the resurrection of Christ, which is a sort of down payment on that hope. It might sound fantastical, but make no mistake, the world is filled with thoughtful people who believe the evidence is on the side of Jesus rising.
Second, Sharin’s experience in the mountains couldn’t help but lead her to long for more of it. It was the place her “hair could be uncovered and roam free.” It was the place of wild horses. It was beauty. It was “as it should be”, and because of this, “hope” was born.
But the longings of her heart won’t be answered by Tehran embracing democracy, or Isis, capitalism or socialism. In the end, every “ism” of this world over-promises and under-delivers. It misplaces hope, seducing us into believing that it is the headwaters of a better world. Every time, the tribe of the disillusioned increases, including when people put their faith in the institution of Christianity.
Our hope isn’t in any ‘ism’. Our hope is in Christ, and because he is likened to a “solid rock”, we then have a hope that can never be shaken . Having this hope enables us to live as people of courage and integrity, grace and mercy, generosity and peace. We view every foretaste of glory seen in perfect powder, mountain sunrises, and the bracing cold waters of a mountain lake as foretastes of eternity; and we give thanks; and worship. This is as it should be.
If the object of your hope is Christ, the answer is a resounding yes.
All other “hopes” are forgeries, and I’m sorry to say, your real hope’s been stolen. Why not take it back right now?
O Lord Christ –
We thank you for the pains in our hearts that stab with every new discovery of corruption, every new lie from people in power, every new report of another friend dying of cancer. We cry out, and weep, and lament – because at some profound level we know that we’re made for more than this, other than this.
Forgive us for hoping in superficial solutions to the brokenness of our world, and the brokenness of our hearts. May you be our sole source of satisfaction, our only rock and foundation. And, filled with the confidence of your power and plan to heal the world, would you make us people of hope.
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.
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.
This week I’m living in the forest, in the San Bernadino mountains of California as I speak at a family conference. As I write, the morning sun is bathing the deck and Sugar Pines, along with a form of Cedar, some oak, and Manzanita, live together as an ecosystem, offering life giving space to squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, bear, and countless other life forms.
Scientists are discovering that humans are also profound beneficiaries of the forest. “Forsest Bathing”, which simply means to walk in a forest and pay attention to your surroundings while doing so, has been shown now, in numerous studies, to have profound health benefits. Lower pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rates are just some of the proven benefits. There are some who believe that prescriptions like this will be seen in the not too distant future.
Though the benefits have been easy to see, it’s been more difficult for scientists to understand and quantify the reason behind these benefits. Is there something in the scent, the Eco-system, the earth itself? Is it simply the contrast provided from the concrete jungle in which many of us find ourselves that makes the forest a healing place? These questions remain, but what’s known in the moment is that a “walk in the woods” isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.
Because of numerous experiences in my own life, I wonder if the power of the forest isn’t spiritual, and therefore unquantifiable with the measuring instruments of science. I say this because my past is filled with countless “forest encounters” with God:
1960’s – As a child I would lie in the middle of a circle of redwoods on the California coast, outside grandma’s house, and look up. The trees would all appear to be converging at a single point in the sky, and the punctuation of variegated greens set against a backdrop of sky blue did something to me. This was peace. Yes that’s it – peace.
1976 – It’s winter. I’m in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Unbeknownst to be, the worst two years of my life are about to come to and end, as a new journey, new calling, and new priorities are born. The death of my dad two years prior had sent me into a state of depression and isolation. I was in the mountains for a winter ski retreat, and when the speaker said “knowing God should be the primary pursuit of every one of you in the room” I knew he was talking directly to me. He’d been reading from Jeremiah 9 in the Bible and when his talk was finished I went out in the freezing air and prayed, in the midst of crunching snow under a million stars. I told God that I didn’t know what it meant, but that I wanted to make knowing God the main goal of my life, just as the speaker had invited me to do. This would lead to a change of major, a change of states, and an entirely different trajectory for my life.
1990 – My wife and young family move to a forested acre in the North Cascade mountains of Washington to begin a retreat center. It is there that I begin identifying with the verses about Jesus going “into the mountains alone to pray”. After a busy time of serving guests, I would depart for the high country, hiking up to some ridge, often alone, to pray, read, reflect, restore. These mountains were made for restoration, or so it seemed to me. Beauty seemed to pour through the atmosphere when I was in them. Glaciers and rocks spoke of timelessness, and I’d be reminded that I’m just here visiting, for a short time, that God’s work has been here long before me and will be long after. I’m reminded that God is the rock, a metaphor offering stability in a tenuous world. The vast distances, from the stars of space, and the surrounding peaks, reminded me that I’m small and that, in the grandness of eternity, so our my problems. The beauty of ever changing colors, the scent of the air, the form of trees, the reflections of mountain lakes… All of it together spoke “shalom”, a visible representation of peace for me. I’d come down the mountain restored, having seen something, having prayed, and having received.
And so it’s gone, year after year, until now, when I have my coffee with God in the mornings, in the midst of forest, wether misty or dry, chilled or heated, breathing in not just the words of the text, as I seek to meet Christ, but the air of the forest, which speaks of eternity and passing moments; vast strength and human fragility; and the breath of peace, offered freely to all who will receive. Things happen in the forest because of who the forest is.
The Church as a Forest
The Church, at its best, functions the same way. We pastors think that the our teaching and preaching is the most important thing in the world, but the reality is that people are often persuaded more by the collective presence of Christ and the atmosphere that creates. Maybe at their best, preaching and environment work together, but at the very least, I’ve encountered many people over the decades whose front door to faith sounded similar to these words…
“No Richard, it wasn’t your teaching that convinced me. It was the community. I’ve never seen authentic relationships where people both accepted each other and pushed each other to grow and change. I wanted to be part of that”
“It was the beauty of the people Richard. When I saw that woman in her 60’s caring for her mother and singing songs of worship with her, it stirred something in me.”
“These people who make up the church – they’re building friendships with prisoners, making meals for the homeless, caring for vulnerable children. They give me hope, and I want in…”
On top of this, there’s often the beauty of gathered worship, the beauty of sacred space, the beauty of confession and vulnerability, and the beauty of restored lives.
So without answers, I simply ponder: Is the church an ecosystem, like a forest, which is life giving when it’s properly fed, and rooted, and located in the appropriate place? I’d like to think so.
However, when the church is place of shelter for misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political fanaticism, arrogance, favoritism of the strong and wealthy, or any other number of ugly things, it’s no longer a healing forest. It becomes a place of death, a prison of sorts. Using the letters C-H-U-R-C-H and singing a bit of Hillsong doesn’t make a church the collective expression of Christ. Only real discipleship does that, and the acid test of true discipleship is simple – am I on a path of embodying more of the humility, service, unconditional love, courageous care for the marginalized, and infinite forgiving grace of Christ? Or am I just singing some songs in a building while still closing my hand to poor, calling people who disagree with me idiots, getting angry with every latest political shot fired, all while pursuing my own personal well being above all else?
Forest, prison, or place of death – how do people experience life in the church?
For the church to be a place filled with the kind of life that God has in mind, some things need to be true for us that are also true for the forest:
1. We need to be an ecosystem. Christ’s vision for the church is that each person within it shares their unique contributions to for the well being of the community. Paul the apostle unpacks this vision and explains that when it works properly, when people experience various aspects of Christ’s beauty and love through various encounters within the community, they will sense the reality of Christ’s presence. This is paramount, because our desire is that people be given the freedom to choose or reject Christ himself, not the kind of caricatures of Christ that misrepresent him by portraying hate rather than love, law rather than grace, performance rather than receiving freely from a posture of brokenness. So we seek, increasingly as a church, to represent the heart of Christ with greater clarity.
2. We need a vision for beauty. My greatest moments of shalom (profound peace) have happened in either the beauty of the wilderness or the gathered community in worship. In the latter cases, it has been the gathered body of Christ, the church, declaring something of God’s character, through worship (Yes…singing matters more than we realize), or acts of service, or prayers of praise or confession, or simply through the power of Christ’s presence so evident in the gathering.
3. We need to believe that, in spite of our imperfections, God will be revealed through our life together. Let’s say that we, as a community, have a passion for mercy, Justice, and love (as I write about here in this book). Let’s see we long for the fruit of the spirit to prevail, in our lives, and our life together. To the extent that these things are true, we’re properly calibrated, heading in the right direction. We can rest, knowing we’re becoming a life giving forest. Of course, there’ll be the need for continual repentance and re-calibration along the way, because we’re not yet the healing, life giving force that we’re fully capable of becoming. But we’re getting there, and that’s enough for us to confidently believe God will use us. (“Abide in me, and you’ll bear much fruit”) is how Jesus said it.
All of this is looks very different than a community arguing about esoteric doctrines and implying that those who don’t believe exactly as our church does are lost and condemned. There are different kinds of forests. Catholics belong to forests. So do Pentecostals, and Baptists, and Presbyterians. No. None of us will agree with everything in every forest. But that’s no reason to start a forest fire. As Paul said, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed. In this I will rejoice.”
When Both Books Speak:
Just two nights ago, I was privileged to serve community to the gathered body of Christ at a family camp. We met in a lovely forest, around a campfire, praying with various people and listening and folks shared what God had been saying to them through the week. Then we finished our time together by singing “How Great Thou Art” an old hymn that includes a verse about walking through the forest and hearing the voice of God speak through the the beauty of creation. We finished singing, as the forest’s movement from light to darkness came to completion, ending with infinite stars hanging in the sky, and silence, save the crickets carrying on. Life. Beauty. Breath. Healing.
YES. Not only receiving all this, but being all this for one another and our world – this is our calling.