Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next. If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media. For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul. Happy reading, and happy sharing.
Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’ Richard Rohr
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. Bill Gates
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you…. Jesus the Christ
“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time. You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened. You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success. The business grew. You were promoted. The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities. All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing. You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff. Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, Prom night, graduations. It’s not perfect. There are bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days. Life’s filling up. The business is gaining new market share. Investments are doing their job. It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly. Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed. You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more. Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful. That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become, in some measure at least, “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below. You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar. You’re not sure where you are anymore. You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute. The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too. You went, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll. You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living. Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly. There’s your influence to consider, and reputation. You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night. At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position. These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang. “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code. Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter. I thought you were Kristi. Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope. I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.” I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings our food. I’m sitting in rare Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today in the Alps. Paragliding. They found his body early this evening. I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.” After a silent moment Peter says, “I know. I’m sick too.” We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me. I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to. Then I go home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love mourning in darkness.
Hans Peter was the director of a school in the Alps where I teach regularly, and a kindred spirit. We’d skied his mountains together there, snowshoed in mine east of Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst the monuments of Washington DC. We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids; argued theology and commiserated about leadership. We’d walked life together enough that even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff. It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner. The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for a video that needed making. Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed. There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job. The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.
Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing. It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”. But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all. Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself. Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition? What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness. I wondered if I was on the right mountain.
Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table. Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them. I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant. What was wrong with me? As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.
I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring. Like any peak, it came at a cost. Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing. New locations. New leaders. New responsibilities. New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships. The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting. But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year. Success! And emptiness at the same time. Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. Success is like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”. You want it to shine on you too. We call it lots of things, depending on our profession. We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love. Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning. We want our lights to shine. We want significance. I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success. That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy. There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believe that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp. In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year. In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper. We were rural, small, subsistence. There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Kerouac spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings, laughing around the kitchen table. It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people. “Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small. I was wrong of course. Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me. I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger. Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame. In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment. When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.
That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily. This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more. HR task forces. Policy Manuals. Bigger and bigger budgets. Adapt. Grow. Celebrate. Adapt. Grow. Mourn a little bit. Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership. Grow more. Repeat.
People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all. I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy. After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”. I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”. Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth. The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people. Healed. Empowered. Transformed. Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question: “Where does this story end?” and the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room. The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable. “Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity. Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well. But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified. And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading. What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty. When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves. Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long. I knew I needed to move.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters. The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father. Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale. And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements. We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more. Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency. I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic, treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away. The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail. In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days
And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.
You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers. My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages.
“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all” is how Helen Keller put it. She’s was onto something, surely. When Dave Matthews mused about the “Ants Marching” in his masterful music some years ago, it seemed to me he was pondering a sort of inevitable decay into a ritual of breakfast, commute, work, commute, supper, exhaustion, repeat. There are surely forces at work in the systems that are western civilization contributing to this dismal picture. However, I’d suggest that Jesus wants to infuse our normal daily existence with Divine Life so that in the midst of whatever it is we’re doing, the source of wisdom, joy, hope, mercy, justice, generosity, compassion, and service that is Christ bubbles up from deep within. What’s more, this kind of life is available to us every single day, even the mundane ones, the unchosen periods of suffering, the challenges.
I needed to leave my job for three months and trek through the Alps to learn this lesson, and learn I did, and I’m thrilled to share my adventures with you in my new book “The Map is not the Journey: Faith Renewed While Hiking the Alps”. The death of my close friend in a paragliding accident in the Alps came just at a point in my career where I was beginning to question the future. The convergence of these elements led, a year later, to my wife and I doing a 40 day, 400 kilometer trek through the Alps. Beginning in Italy, we went on to experience the Alps in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Lessons learned there, along with all the adventure of it (yes, we did walk into our private room one night to find a couple sleeping in our bed!) are found in this new offering, now available at Amazon and fine booksellers. Each chapter includes a link to photos from the stories of that chapter, in hopes that you’ll experience the trip we took in a small way too.
It’s a book for everyone who’s wondering what’s next, at any age.
It’s for those whose lives have turned out differently than they’d expected.
It’s for those who are tired, and looking a fresh infusion of life in their daily routine.
It’s for those who have set goals that they failed to meet.
It’s for those who want to learn about hut to hut travel in the Alps, or long range hiking.
In short – I hope it’s for a lot of people!
Here’s a little video teaser I made on my iphone.
You can help this book succeed in a few simple ways:
If you think you know people who might like it, share your purchase, or this blog post, on your social media. Thanks!
Reviews on Amazon are always helpful. Thanks!
What some have said who’ve read it:
Denny Rydberg – President Emeritus of Young Life . “For those feeling fatigue after years of faithfully doing the same thing, for those looking for new eyes to see what God is doing and has on his mind, and for those who need a jolt of adventure, this is the book to read.”
Les Parrott, PHD – “If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring. Richard paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation.”
Jim Zorn (former NFL coach and player) – “Richard’s travels aren’t just good stories of adventures. They’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people. Those looking to find transformation in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”
Please share this post if you think others would benefit from the book. Thanks!
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.
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.
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.
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.
NOTE: This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”. I deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post. Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!
August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m. We arrive there feeling strong, whole. Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically. It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut. Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse.
After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut. Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served. If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm.
The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one. The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over.
As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise. Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.”
“High or low?” I ask.
“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction. The trail is on the ridge the whole way.” I smile, nodding. I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”. Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together. I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes. “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning.
I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there. Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete. This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner.
This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills. I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges. My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity. You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash. Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it. Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”. They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.
As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t. As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress. It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread. The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles.
This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit. Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing. There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word. In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death.
For those with experience, this is not intimidating. You simply don’t fall. You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step. For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness. My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge. They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure. On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on.
I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing? This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me. Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face. We must descend it. On the one hand, it’s a ladder. The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much: we can climb down this ladder.
On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent. We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps. Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent. After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise.
So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder. The stakes are high. The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.
It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons. They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope. So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still. There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.
Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially. We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power. We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more. Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.
This is a very small way of living. It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels. The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top. Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before. We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank. By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.
…Except we can’t. As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created. This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management. When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling” It’s sin management. It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy. And worst of all: it’s boring.
In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin. God has a summit for us and it looks like this:
Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31 We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in. This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.
Abundance “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10 This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die. I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing. I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving.
Wholeness “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21 Yes! The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning. The vision is much more positive, more summit like. God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living. The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living. Summits. All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear.
After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure. We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides. It looks daunting, and is. Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”.
Exactly! The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option. I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut. The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck. It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here. No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip. And for this, I’ll be forever grateful.
Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety. We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust. The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain. The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!
The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way. They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets. They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives! They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities. They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so. They rose above the valleys of mediocrity. Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home. But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world. When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential.
Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit? When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits: Fear not – for I am with you!
It’s Friday. That’s meant ski day for 90% of the past four months. I hit the web to see what’s opened, what’s groomed, what’s happening. Dismay: four different ski areas within 2 miles of my house – ALL CLOSED!!
All right then. It will be a day to put on the touring skis, which means attaching friction creating skins to the base of the skis and freeing the heel so that you can ski up the mountain. At the top you’ll peel the skins off, lock down the heel, and in a few minutes ski down what it just took you and hour to go up. Some might call it hard work. I call it discipleship – learning to follow Jesus step by step. Here’s why:
There’s a calling
I cast my gaze to the ridge, the goal, some 1300plus feet above, It’s too far. Too steep. Too much. There’s an immediate visceral reaction, dwelling up a dozen or more excuses why this “isn’t a good day” for this. It’s cloudy – there’s no view to bring me joy. It might rain. I slept poorly last night. The snow’s thick, mushy. Not spoken, but the real reasons: it’s stinking hard work to walk uphill in slushy snow with skis on.
So why go? Here’s the crazy thing. I go because as John Muir said,
“the mountains are calling and I MUST go” – good weather or poor; tired or bursting with eagerness; it matters not, because the mountains themselves really are actually calling. I want to be in them, up them, challenged and transformed by their terrain; ravished and refreshed by their beauty. “I must go”
That’s discipleship too. We see, in the distance, a different life: freed from addiction, or fear, or shame. Or maybe we see a different world because Jesus and the prophets pointed to a world of peace, reconciliation, and the end of human trafficking and disease, to name just a few things. We see it out there in the distance, and we want to go there, be there – and with Christ alive in us, it seems we must take the journey!
That’s part of what calling means. And when that voice from higher up the mountain is calling, I pray you’ll go. There’ll be reasons not to, always, as Jesus warned us. Too busy. Too tired. Too tied down. Too preoccupied with the trinkets acquired by wealth. Your favorite team’s playing today. Theres’s always a reason to stay home, but if you listen carefully enough, you hear the voice of calling, and if hear it…don’t hesitate: go!
There’s a disillusionment –
It doesn’t take long to feel the effort of the journey. There’s something in me that want’s to call it quits about 500 meters in and 100 meters up because breathing is labored, legs are feeling heavy, and sweat is leaking out my skin as a means of cooling me, so that when I stop I’m not cool – I’m cold. “Is it worth it?” “I could be at home reading.” “It makes sense that I’m the only one here. Who does this?” “I could turn around now and nobody would be the wiser.”
And so it goes, in our brains, sometime after we’ve begun our pursuit of Christ too. This is because self-denial, though life giving over the long haul, is wearying in the moment. There are disciplines to discipleship, enough so that the words have the same root, and that root includes the reality of some suffering.
We all suffer. But who suffers willingly? Disciples, apparently, because Jesus said that unless we’re willing to deny ourselves, we can’t be disciples.
If we’re going to deny ourselves, then, we need some compelling vision that will allow us to transcend the gravities which pull us down into self indulgence. The vision for my little ski adventure is the thought that at the end of it there will have been both encounters with beauty and a strengthening of heart – both gifts, yes – but earned with the currency of suffering. Imagine that.
For the disciple, the self-denial and suffering produces strength of heart too, but in a different way. We become people whose lives are increasingly characterized by joy, patience, hope, peace, and generosity. We could quit the journey and indulge ourselves, or press on and enjoy this kind of beauty and transformation. That why vision matters so much. Without a reminder of what’s being produced in me, I simply won’t proceed. It’s the vision of transformation that keeps me going.
There’s a mindfulness –
Moving up steep snow on skis is an acquired skill, and the steeper the snow, the steeper the learning curve. As the initial gradual slope steepens, I’ve no longer any time to think about how painful it is, or whether I want to quit or continue. At its steepest the journey requires total focus: “slide ski upward – shift all body weight to directly above the binding, so as to mitigate risk of sliding backwards – fight the intuitive notion to lean into the mountain, committing to stay upright instead. Repeat”
My favorite hobbies have historically been skiing, rock climbing and fishing because these three disciplines require a total focus, and the total focus has a marvelous way of silencing the chatter of the mind. Such silence is life giving, wisdom imparting, and maturing.
We don’t do it well, if we’re honest. We’re easily distracted by our phones, our tunes, and our screens. And if that isn’t bad enough, when all three are absent, our mind has tricky ways of creating its own chatter, and the price is costly as seen in this excellent book.
Jesus hits on this when he tells us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” It’s his way of inviting us to be fully present. Here. Now. A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said it this way: “When you are overwhelmed and your mind it talking too much, you need to calm down and simply do the next thing.” Indeed. It’s not just a question of getting stuff done, it’s a question of growing wise because wisdom is, at the core, related to our capacity to be “all there” wherever we are, and this is a skill that’s disappearing. I’m not on my cell phone when I need to focus on putting all my body weight above my ski on a 32 degree slope. I’m all in. I’m invited, indeed called, to be “all in” most of the time: conversations made up of real listening and presence, reading, prayer, sharing a meal with friends. We’re at our best and look most like Jesus when we’re doing one thing at a time.
There’s joy –
Step by step (hence the name of this blog) I ascend upward. Step by step in real life means another diaper, another meal, another encouraging word to a co-worker, or a confession, or a moment of hospitality with a neighbor. Like ski touring, no single step seems significant, but every single step matters. This is because our lives aren’t, in reality, highlight reels of profound moments, but a ten thousand regular steps followed by a summit moment.
When I arrive at the top on this Friday, there’s nothing to see.
Fog’s set in, and everything is white other than trees right in front of me. Still, I know it’s been worth it. And there’ll be a different skill set, and a different joy on the way down.
Sometimes, too, your best efforts to follow Jesus won’t result in a highlight reel moment. And then you’ll move on. It’s fine. You know you’ve taken the steps, followed the call, done the right thing. That’s discipleship and the more you do it, the more you know you’ll do it again tomorrow, because there’ll be another calling, and you’ll say yes because its become who you are!
O Lord of the mountains and valleys.
Grant that we might first have ears to hear your call – in the cry of child, a neighbor, a refugee. Give us grace, I pray, not only to hear, but go, and endurance to continue when we feel like quitting. Thank you for the gift and discipline of mindful presence, and the circumstances that help us develop it. May we celebrate those times rather than dread them. And above all, thank you for standing on the mountain with your disciples so that we’re able, here and now, to have a glimpse of the summit that’s worth it all – Your reign made visible in our lives and world. Give us eyes to see it. Every single day.
In your great name we pray…
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.