Tag Archives: mountains

Playlists – Memorial Stones for the 21st Century

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retrieving our car meant enjoying this view again today!

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:

“Creed” by Rich Mullins: 

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.

“Speak O Lord” by Keith and Kristin Getty 

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.

“100 Years” by Five for Fighting 

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?

 

Completion as a Starting Point

50 miles of the PCT

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.

50 Miles of PCT

 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.

 

Forest Bathing as a Vision for the Church

malala-lake-sabbath_28178040973_oThis 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.

 

 

Beating Fear with Seven Words for Seven Summits

NOTE: I’m presently completing a book recalling various adventures of the trek through the Alps my wife and I enjoyed for 40 days in the summer of 2014.  I’m happy to share a few draft excerpts here in hopes of hearing your feedback – so thanks in advance.  This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”.  I’ll deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post, and the equally deadly danger of familiarity in my next 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.

alps 2As 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. 

alps 3On 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.

Fear:

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. 

alps 4Fear 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!

Into the fog of discipleship…step by step

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…

Amen.

 

Revival Story… My Loss and Recovery of Love

IMG_6668I 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.

STEPS BACK

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.

Setting Your Sights Higher: Why “Right Intentions” Matter so much

 “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance.  Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.”  Exodus 24:1,2

When climbers are headed up to Mt. Rainier through the Camp Muir route, they start in the parking lot of a place called “Paradise” which is the highest point to which one can drive in this beautiful national park.  This turns Paradise, at any given moments, into a weird mix of highly skilled mountaineers, beginners who are hoping to make it to the summit, and masses of people who will never leave the paved paths, ever, as long as they live.  They’re decked out in L.L. Bean’s newest and best, or REI tech gear, or whatever, slurping ice cream in the parking lot.  They’re peering through those coin operated telescopes to get a glimpse of the glacier before snapping a selfie with the imposing massif in the background, and calling it their “outdoor challenge for the year”.

The climbers are in the mix with the masses, but not for long.  They get their permit from a little office, use the bathroom, maybe grab one last taste of actual food for a few days, and that’s it, they’re gone, headed up for the summit.  When the paved path ends, the tourists turn around, while the rest step onto actual soil, and eventually snow, pressing onward, upward.  Even among the climbers, not everyone will continue to the top.  Camp Muir, at 10,400’ is the next common drop out point, as the realities of altitude sickness, sunburn, loss of appetite, cold, thirst, nausea, or any other number of factors will lead yet another group to say “far enough”.

Finally, there will be those who leave base camp the next morning with every intention of summiting.  They thought they’d prepared well enough, thought that riding their bicycle to work and doing the “7 minute workout” app on their phone twice a week would adequately prepare them for carrying 40 pounds on their back up one and a half vertical miles of snow, rock, and ice, into the thin air above treeline, where rockfall, avalanches, and crevasses hidden in the glaciers present a large menu of ways to die.  Somewhere before the summit they say, “this is good enough for me!” and either descend or stay put and wait for their group to go up and then join them on their descent.  The herd self selects out of further progress until only the best prepared, most courageous, and most diligent, make it to the top.

When God’s about to give the law to Israel as a centerpiece of establishing the new nation, a similar culling of the herd occurs.  God sets a boundary around the mountain and invites only Moses and his key leaders to ascend beyond the parking lot.  Then, beyond the high base camp, it’s to be only Moses.  Though he takes his successor, named Joshua, with him some distance, there’s no indication that Joshua summits.  At the top it’s Moses.  Alone with God.

In this story God’s the one who sets the boundaries around the mountain and keeps people away.  There are reasons for that, in that time and place, but they don’t apply to us (as I’ll write about in the forthcoming book, of which this post is a part).

We’re living in a time when summiting the pinnacle of intimacy with God is available to everyone because the barriers to the summit were annihilated at the cross.  Still, the same Christ who broke down the barriers said that the road to the summit is narrow (ref) and, like Mt. Rainier, there are few who actually find it.  There’s a parking lot filled with religion.  Jesus stickers and t-shirts are for sale, and lots people looking “a couple dollar’s worth of God”.  The parking lot is the Sunday meeting, and there are folks there for the photo ops and real estate contacts.  If there’s a little entertainment or even a dose of conviction along the way, so be it.  But they’ve not intention of going farther.  Others will hit the trail until the pavement ends.  Some fewer will keep going a bit further, until there’s more hard stuff than joyful stuff, at which point they turn around, in search of safety, predictability, warmth.

If Christ’s blown up the barriers to the summit, then what’s holding anyone back?  The answer can be found by switching metaphors, because a quick glance at Jesus’ parable of the seed and sower explains why “some seeds don’t produce fruit”, which is the same thing, metaphorically, as not reaching the summit.  And what are the reasons?  O you know; the usual suspects: affliction, worry, the lying seductions of wealth.  There are, in other words, lots of reasons to descend to the parking lot of religious carnivals.

“Up” is about the pursuit of intimacy with God, about Christ becoming, in real ways, a friend, companion, lover even, in the daily stuff of living.  Getting there, Jesus is saying, doesn’t happen by accident, any more than you wake up one morning having run a marathon, or summiting Rainier.  It requires intentionality, prioritizing, and pressing on toward the goal when others stop.  It requires shedding stuff, so that by the end, there’s one true pursuit to which all other pursuits give way.

“Right Intentions” is the starting point: the way of fruitful discipleship.  Making intimacy with Christ your summit goal will be simple because you need to travel light if you’re going to travel at all.  It will be hard because it requires letting go of stuff the majority carry with them daily, stuff like self-medicating when disappointed, and being defined by consumerism and what we own, and feeding on a diet of entertainment rather than creativity.  It’s beautiful because the glory of meeting Christ in thin and unpolluted air will ravish you.  It’s ugly because you want to quit due to pain, more than once.

Where on this mountain called discipleship, are you headed?  If it’s the summit of intimacy, know that it takes more than the right gear.  It takes traveling light, endurance, and a hunger for the summit of knowing Christ like a lover.  Who’s in?  The rest of you?  Enjoy the telescopes and ice-cream.  I’ll see you later.

O God of the summit invitation

Thank you for inviting us to ascend utterly.  Stir in our hearts a discontent for the tourist faith that’s commonplace, where signing a card and signing a song, substitute for radical discipleship.  Fill us with a longing for the summit instead, and teach us to travel light, shedding the fears, bitterness, lusts, and attachments that the whole world seems to carry on its collective back this days.  When we tire, give us the grace to take next steps, and rest, and celebrate beauty.  But may we never, ever turn back short of knowing you fully.  

Amen.  

Beauty and Brokenness – Living in the Tension

image

I’m happy to offer a repost today of something offered earlier this summer during my sabbatical because it seems so very appropriate during the holidays, when sometimes the tension between beauty and brokenness is so great we’re afraid we’ll snap.  Here are some observations about that tension and living in it.  Enjoy!

We’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world.  During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey.  These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter.   For these reasons, we pray, and pay attentionstep by step.

These prayers, though, are also very provincial.  They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family.  We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).

High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep.  Yes. This was round one.

We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assault, in a different direction.  We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in  St. Louis.  Bombing in Iraq?  Ukraine?  Syria?  Fires still burning.  Refugees.  And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide.  My God.  Is this the same world?

Yes.  The same world indeed.  What are we to make of the disparity between candle lit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in a place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?

My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price.  There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment.  The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a costvulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial.  That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.

But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college.  I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings, for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child, for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.

imageAll I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering.  Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened.  Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasywhether that takes the form of  porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.

Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear.  He knew, as Simone Weil also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our Creator.  “There’s a time for everything,” is how the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.

For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days.  We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold.  We pray, we’ll be safe.  We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people.  But, the Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us cry out once again, “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger for Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final. ”   Rilke

 

 

 

Rhythm: Why You Need it – How you get it.

Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life (and) learn the unforced rhythms of  grace.   Jesus the Christ – Matthew 11

I’m sitting here on my weekly day of Sabbath, staring out the window at fir trees laden with wet, dripping life down onto the soil and melting snow below.  There are candles; a fire in the wood stove and choral Christmas carols fill the room.  Warmth.  Good coffee.  Beauty.  Shalom.

I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t it be good to sit here bathed in this kind of peace and beauty the rest of my life?” until I remember Jesus’ words a little bit later, after that bit about the “unforced rhythms of grace.”  Jesus had taken the disciples on a little wilderness therapy outing, up to a high mountain where he  transcended earthly dimensions and his disciples were able to see him in his pure unfiltered glory.

Jesus’ friend Peter likes this location, this revelation of glory, this peace, this mountaintop, enough to blurt out, “It’s good for us to be here Jesus, so just say the word, and we’ll start building.  We’ll make some places for you and your buddies, and then we can just stay up herebecause to be blunt, I don’t know if you know this or not Jesus, but we like this peace, this beauty, this joy.  Preferred future:  staying right here!”

The version of the story is that Jesus goes down.  The disciples follow.  Shortly after that there’ll be the week from hell, where Jesus goes from universal popularity to the whole world’s object of pure hatred scorn.  He’ll be executed.  The disciples will scatter, and wrestle with their doubts, disillusionment, and fallibility.

After that there’ll be a resurrection and things will get better.  Later still, a powerful success.  Then some arrests, and fighting, and martyrdom, with success and joy mysteriously interwoven into the thick fabric of trials.

Success.  Joy.  Peace.

Failure.  Loss.  Suffering.

The rhythms of unforced grace.

Embrace the reality that a life with Christ will overflow with everything, and by everything I mean there are times we’ll be drunk on joy and other times sorrow and suffering will take our breath away.  We’ll have Sabbaths, if we’re fortunate, and days of laughter and beauty in the forest, or at the beach, and meals with good wine and laughter.

But we can’t stay on that mountaintop because there’s poverty, and homelessness, abuse of power and abuse of spouses.  There are a million children who are refugees, and people of great wealth who have the freedom to travel the world, but are trapped in a prison of upward mobility.  Beheadings.  Injustice.  Racism.  Cancer.  Ebola.

We need to get down off the mountain and into the thickness of this dark world.  It’s not just that we’re called to be there as light, though God knows we are, and it feels more and more like high crime to me when the church becomes a gathering whose sole goal is the emotional and spiritual well-being of its congregants.  The reality is that we need to get down off the mountain because nobody is ever shaped well by pure sabbath and shalom, not in this life at least.  “The testing of your faith produces endurance,” is how James writes it, and Peter says, “Even though now, for a little while, you’re beset by various trials…”  and Jesus himself says, “In this world you will have tribulation.”

All this stuff down there below the summit is shaping us for the better, or can at least.  That’s because in the wisdom of the way God has created the world, it’s not just the beauty and rest that brings healing and transformation, but the suffering and loss too.  The enemy of our souls can throw everything at us, but our glorious hope is that no matter the stuff, though we may have scars, even the scars will become part of the beauty in our lives.

How do we open ourselves up to both deep beauty and deep suffering?

1.  Actively seek both engagement and withdrawal.  Jesus is a good model for us here, as you’ll find him alone in the wilderness a fair bit, as well as in the thick of things in the city, confronting religious hypocrisy and control, casting out demons, gifting people with forgiveness, healing, restoration, and teaching too.

This rhythm is best sought by paying attention to the way God made the world, with that day of rest each week, and that continual rhythm of sunrise and sunset inviting us to both work and rest.  You need all of it if you’re going to be fully in God’s story, and continuing your journey of transformation.

2. Don’t shy away from the edges.  A favorite book of mine posits that if you’re afraid of great suffering and as a result, build walls around your soul so you don’t see beheadings, don’t give a damn about ongoing racism, poverty, or a million child refugees, you’ll also become numb to great joy on the other side of the spectrum.  The result will be a bland middle, whereby we not only don’t let the news of our city and world affect us, but we also fail to pay attention to the profound beauty of art, music, and creation that could have filled us with the confidence and strength of Christ to continue shining as light in the midst of darkness.

Don’t let yourself settle for the middleunmoved by  Van Gogh, or Rainier, or human touchresistant to hard or painful truth and conversations; avoiding solidarity with the suffering of our planet.  The middle ground knows little suffering and little beauty.  The boredom, though, is soul killing.

Better to be on the lookout, always, for the inbreaking of beauty, whether art, music, generosity, creation’s glory, or intimacy.  To go there, though, requires a willingness, too, to come down off the mountain and enter into the thick of suffering, loss, sickness, death, injustice, and hard conversations.

Rainer Rilke puts it this way:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

All right then – let’s go.

 

Rethinking the Body, Aging, and Movement – 4 Vital Ideas

"we started when we were kids and just never stopped"
“we started when we were kids and just never stopped”
IMG_5291
when are you too old to ride your bike to church?

They’re brothers, these two guys in their late sixties/early seventies.  They’re on the deck of the first Alpine hut we stayed in, and it’s morning, about 7:15 actually.  I’m out there to enjoy the view and take a few pictures, while these two are about to hoist their packs and head out for a long day of hiking to the next hut.  They’re strong.  They’re vibrant.  They’re optimistic.  They’re healthy.  And they’re “old.”

They are the first of an endless stream of encounters my wife and I will have with people older than us who are also stronger than us, or at least as strongwell able to carry 20 pounds on their backs for 10-15k day after day, at elevations ranging from 3,000-7,000 feet.  Their presence on the trail has shaken me in the best of ways.  By example they’ve said:  “Yes Richard… it’s possible to stay healthy for many years to come.” 

It won’t happen accidentally though, so I asked some of the “wise and wonderful” seniors I met on the trail what kept them in Gore-Tex and polar-fleece, what kept them moving into their late years.  Their answers, coupled with a careful reading of this book prior to my departure, have revealed four ideas that will give us a good shot at remaining healthy and active for a long time.

1.  A good theology of the body – You know this already, but it’s important to be reminded that we’re not disembodied spirits, that the bodies we’ve been given are marvelous wonders, and that it’s our calling and privilege to take care of our bodies, because they’re the visible expression of who we are.

2. A new vision for normal – Prior to the start of the trip, we envisioned ourselves sitting around in these huts with people between twenty and fifty.  They were there, but there were scores on either end of that, both the very young and the very old.  Their presence served to create a different vision of what normal is, or can be.  It can be normal, at nearly any age, to walk or jog several miles a dayoften with a pack on that effectively adds exponential work to your exercise.   It can be normal to eat fresh, well prepared food, rather than chemicals mixed together and microwaved.   It can be normal to respond to stress by getting adequate rest, some outdoor exercise, and by spending time with good friends.

I know that this new normal isn’t always possible.  There’s cancer and other unwanted intrusions, and some people are living in refugee camps, while others are working three jobs just to be able to afford health insurance.  But for many of us, these exceptions don’t apply.  For most of us, we have the capacity to stay healthy and active, and I’m increasingly convinced that such lifestyle commitments will make us more effective in everything else we do in our roles as teachers, health care professionals, spouses, parents, students, pastors, neighbors, and friends.

I challenge us to rethink our view of normal, because our culture faces an obesity crisis that stems from a slow decay of health habits

Klaus is 70.  He's hiked 30+ days in a row in the high country.  His favorite word:  "fantastisch!"
Klaus is 70. He’s hiked 30+ days in a row in the high country. His favorite word: “fantastisch!”

with respect to food and exercise.  What’s worse, we’re teaching the rest of the world to follow us.  It’s time for a fresh vision.  One fellow traveler on our Alps journey was a 70 year old named Klaus.  He’d been out hiking for 30 days and was nearing the end of his trek when we meet him in a hut and shared a meal.  It was cold outside.  I was tired, in spite of the fact that I’d done 1/3 the distance as him today.  We’d just had supper together and he was absolutely effervescent with joy over his hike that day on dicey ridge, conquering seven summits, all over 6,000′ elevation in 15k of distance and eight hours of hiking.  He was wild eyed as he spoke of the challenges and beauty.  When he finished supper he went outside, and came back, knowing that I too enjoyed photography, and he said, “You must photo the sunset!  Fantastisch!!”   I didn’t want to go out, but I did because of his enthusiasm, his lust for life.  Klaus became my new inspiration for a new normal that night.

 

3. A good aerobic base –  The book I referenced earlier taught me about “building an aerobic base.”  I thought I knew about this base, but no.  It turns out that I, like most of America, was actually not doing aerobic exercise when I was out jogging, because I was going too fast.  The whole thing’s rather complex, so I’ll spare the details because you can read them starting here. 

The bottom line is that if we’re going to be active for the rest of our lives, we’ll need to start moving, at the right speed, most days of the week, for at least an hour.  Most “walkers” need to speed up a bit.  Most “joggers” need to slow down.  On our recent hikes, we’ve encountered cross country ski teams from Russia, Italy, Sweden, and Norway.  All of them are doing the same thing.  They’re building their aerobic base through lots of long, slow, distance.

When I started exercising this way, just before leaving for Europe, I was appalled at how slow I was running around Green Lake, as I tried to keep my pulse rate in the treasured “aerobic zone.”  Not any more.  These days I’m cherishing the good vibes that come from a long slow jog, or a hike uphill, because at the end I feel great, and I know I’m building an even stronger base for the future, know that I’ll come home energized for the day, rather than drained.

4.  Consistency. 

IMG_6029“We’ve been doing this together since we were kids, and we just never stopped,” is what the two brothers said.

“We hike together every year for a week, and because of this, most of us walk nearly every day to stay in shape for this one week adventure together,” is what I heard from a group of 70 year-olds.

IMG_6515‘Use it or lose it’ is, I believe, how you say it in America, no?” said another woman, part of a group on a trail that included climbing a half dozen ladders and crossing a couple high suspension bridges.

All these testimonials from the wise and wonderful seniors we encountered elevate consistency as a high priority.   Our bodies produce everything needed for an active lifestyle as long as we stay active.  Stop moving though, and everything changes fast.

The “Body. Soul. Spirit.” logo you see on clothes I wear comes from the school where I’m presently teaching in Austria.  They take all this stuff seriously, and yesterday the students were out playing soccer or volleyball or ultimate, or jogging or hiking or climbing.  The goal though isn’t twelve weeks of thisit’s a lifestyle change we hope will last.  Same with Bible reading.  Same with prayer.  Same with fellowship:  consistency, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is the goal for every area of our livesbody, soul, and spirit.

How are yours?