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

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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”
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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?

 

 

 

 

Last Journey’s the Best

It’s our last hike, the end of our forty days trekking through the Alps together.  I’ll begin teaching next week and thinking about re-entry to life in Seattle, while my wife will spend the weekend with friends, retrieving sheep from the high Alps in anticipation of upcoming snows.

Our final trek will take us to Guttenberghaus, significant for its beauty, and its proximity to the Torchbearer Bible school where I teach because I can see this hut, perched high in the Dachstein Alps, from the deck of my room at the school down in the valley.

The ascent requires no skill other than endurance of lungs, legs, and back, as we rise over 3000 feet in approximately three miles.  We encounter members of the Russian and Norwegian cross country ski teams doing speed ascent workouts on this trail in anticipation of their upcoming season, and 70 year old ladies too, all getting out into the midst of God’s creation on this, the final curtain call of summer.

IMG_6804It’s glorious, as these mountains, shrouded in clouds for us so much of this summer, are on this day, our last one in the high country, naked in their glory, lit up by the warmth of the sun.  We ascend, mostly quietly, with images running through our minds about all that we’ve seen and learned these past six weeks, and all the people we’ve met.  Most of all, I think about the powerful ways we’ve been transformed when our desires and visions move from maps to our actual feet, as step builds on steps until soon we find ourselves stronger, more attune to the rhythms of life, more grateful, more patient – not because we tried to be, but because we’re transformed by the journeystep by step.

IMG_6787I think about the various terrains we’ve encountered, from grassy paths in high Alpine Alms (grazing land) to challenging knife edge ridges where a mis-step means loss of life.  I think about how much this mirrors real life, how it’s so often the case that the terrain you anticipated for your day is harder, more dangerous, or easier, more beautiful, than you’d expected.  I think about how, at my best, I’ll let my days come to me, both rising to the challenge of ridges, and cherishing the beauty of flat green paths, receiving everything as what God allows.  I pray for friends who are on ridges just now, one having lost a spouse after a heroic battle with cancer, another still fighting, another at the cusp of vocational change; may they find the next steps on the ridge and strength for each step.

IMG_6622We arrive at the beautiful hut, settle in, and after a bit to eat, opt for a quick sunset ascent of Sinabell, which is a quick trail via a north facing ridge.  The Alps are a riot of changing colors as we ascend quietly, wishing the beauty of the moment would never end because we can’t think of any place, or state of body, soul, or spirit, that could be more perfect than this, our last sabbatical sunset together in the high Alps.

IMG_6638As we reach the top we see a cross, and this one is somehow perfect for our evening.  It’s small, wooden, and as unassuming as the small peak it graces.  Donna’s there first, and she signs the book.  The moments there, with the sun going down, defy description, but “holy” is the closest adjective I can find.   When she’s finished, I make an entry too and then, together, we pray at the cross.

IMG_6651We’ve stood under many these past weeks.  Sometimes we were exhilarated by being on the heights.  Other moments, bone weary and sore.  This day though, as light gives way to dusk, we’re simply grateful:  for the beauty, for the gift of the time granted us here in the mountains we love, for the gift of each other, for the privileges of health and the opportunity to serve others.  We can barely praymostly it’s tears of joy.

IMG_6700We descend through the wildflowers as the sun shines uniquely through clouds on a single ridge, offering the last light of the evening just as we arrive at the hut.   Soon we’re sitting with other Austrians talking about World Cup skiing, climbing routes nearby, Vienna coffee, and more, over spaghetti, or some other standard mountain fare.  There’s laughter, IMG_6728stories, some Austrian music, and an ache in my heart because these moments have happened so very often over the past weeks, and now, for the time at least, it’s over.

I’ll bring some of Austria home with me (a new hat, etc.) because these mountains, these people, have been the context where I’ve learned lessons about hospitality, courage, risk, rhythms of work and rest, generosity, hope, joy, service, and what it means to draw on the resources of Christ day by day, not in some theoretical doctrinal way but in real ways, every step of the way.  The journey’s been a gift, and my wife and I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity of Bethany Community Church in refreshing us this way.

I’ll soon begin working on some other projects related both to our travels and other big issues, for this blog, and work on a book about the experiences we’ve had, where I hope to share more of the beautiful gifts God has given us as we’ve walked step by step through the Alps.

For now though, I write a poem in my summit journal, next to the stamp from this hut:

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Where am I?

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(I’m happy to introduce the guest author for this post as my hiking partner, best friend, and one week from today, wife of 35 years! Enjoy Donna Dahlstrom’s thoughts on guidance, reality, and journey.)

I love maps. I’ve loved maps from my earliest recollections of traveling across the country with my family in the back of a camper. There was always a supply of maps we picked up from the gas stations for state after state after state between California and New York. I loved finding where we were on the map and where we were headed before jumping to the next map.

This trip in the Alps has been no different. I’ve loved pouring over the maps, discovering where we are, searching for the next destination and discerning the route to get there. I’ve learned to read the contour lines to determine if the route is going up or down. I’ve learned important German terms to accurately read these particular maps: “joch” is a pass, “hütte” is a hut (usually with delicious food and shelter), “spitze” denotes a summit, “see” is a lake, “alpe” is grazing land for cows, sheep, or goats, and if I’m very lucky, “bahn” is a gondola whisking us over steep ski slopes.

It’s been fun to have these two-dimensional maps become three dimensional as we hike through villages or look out over towns from the mountaintops. What was once nothing more than a name on a map is now a neighborhood with lovely flower boxes outside the windows, an especially cheerful waitress, a helpful information desk worker, a tiny church with a pipe organ, a grand monastery built 700 years ago, an elderly woman who exuded joy through her eyes and sweet smile even while indicating she had no available rooms to offer.

Another thing I’ve learned about maps is that they’re only helpful if you can identify at least one location on the map. Without having a known starting point, it’s challenging to orient your location to anything on the map. It’s possible to make guesses, especially if there is only one mountain or one river on the map but it gets difficult when there are many mountain ranges, many little villages, many roads and rivers from which to choose. Such was the case when we stepped off a train in a town of which we thought we knew the name but could never locate any of the other locations we explored on the map around the town. We discovered the next day that we were actually in a different town entirely! Aha! Now it made sense as we located all the other familiar points on the map near the correct town!

This minor error simply added to the special spontaneity of this particular stop along the train route but we could have run into serious difficulty if we’d been in the high country of the Alps, continuing to venture without knowing where we really were. Stopping to consult the map to be sure you’re on the right path is essential to safety in the high country. When the contour lines on the map are very close together, it means you’re either at the base of a cliff or about to go over one. Knowing your location will help protect you from making a wrong step and guide you to a safer path. We have found it essential to take the time to repeatedly check our locations on the paths we’ve been on while trekking and I can see now the importance of doing the same in everyday life.

Presently, I’m in a change of season in my life. My children have grown up. My vocation has changed. I have a new set of responsibilities before me, some not yet clearly defined. I’m at a crossroads. Time to check my map to determine the correct path. Which one am I on? Which way should I go? What are the trail markers and signs around me telling me? With an ear to God’s voice, whether by people offering advice or inner promptings or scripture verses, I need to be checking my path with God’s map for my life. Am I on the right path? Have I consulted the Mapmaker recently to honestly assess where I am? Walking step by step these past thirty days has impressed upon me the importance of not just wandering aimlessly, but walking informed by God as my guide who wants to show me amazing things along the way, whether it be castles or chocolate factories or gracious guesthouse hosts or majestic ripples of mountain ranges. Listening to His voice is impossible when I’m doing the talking (and planning). Learning to be quiet in order to hear His voice is not easy for me but step by step, I’m a little bit closer than I was thirty days ago.

The Wind of the Spirit – blowing plans away day by day

imageIt’s elemental things like wind, clouds, and fire that God uses to guide people throughout the Bible. “Don’t move unless the flame moves.” “The wind blows. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the spirit.”

Our view of guidance is important, because unless we believe God can still direct our lives, orchestrating encounters, moving us to certain places, then the bottom line is that we’ll go where we damn well please. If we’re tired of the heat, we’ll move north. If we’re tired of poverty, we’ll get another degree. We’ll marry or not, move or not, based on our own motives, goals, internal drives.

But to the extent that we let the wind of the spirit blow, filing the halls of our soul, a different story unfolds (from end to beginning):

8:00 PM – We’re sitting in a tiny chapel, in a dot on the map village named Zell, with 25 other people listening to “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, the pipe organ filling the chapel as we soak in the ambiance of sunflowers on the altar, rustic wooden pews, candlelight, dusk light wafting through the windows. God is speaking to me here, bringing restoration, as I inhale and soak in revelation from every sense.

2:30 PM – We learned of the chapel and the concert because we’d set out walking after checking into our lodging in Oberstaufen (which means “the high village”) tucked in the base of the Alps. We’d wandered down a street and encountered a hall named after Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and this is why I stopped and read the literature posted to the reader board, which included notice of the concert (my German just good enough to figure this out). With map and compass, we discerned that Zell was only about 3k away, and determined to walk there and hear a little organ music. The walk was every bit as glorious as the concert, through fields of freshly mown hay, with hot air balloons in the sky to the west, and contrasting lavish greens from fields and firs.

1:30 PM – We get off the train in Oberstaufen, having never been there before, and find, at the tourist information center, a large touch screen “lodging genie” which enables us to quickly find which inns have rooms. There’s a place within 50 meters of where we’re standing and when we go to inquire, the owner wins our hearts with his smile and gentleness, and we’re finished looking.

1:10 PM – We decide, as a result of conversing with a couple (she from Germany, he from Alabama), to get off the train at Oberstaufen instead of Lindau because the woman tells us that Lindau, being by the vacation destination of Lake Constance will be “very full and very expensive” at this time in August.

12:47 PM – We board the train, this particular one having individual cabins that seat up to six people. As we’re getting on, a man is busily removing his stuff from one cabin to move to another so that his whole party can be together. This leaves a German/American couple alone in a car and we join them. As we begin to discuss where to get off the train in Lindau, she says “Perhaps I can help answer your questions? I live in Lindau.”

11:34 AM – We board a train to our intended destination, Lindau. It will have one change over to a different train that will its station at 12:47PM.

11:00 AM – We disembark from the lift that carries us down from the high country and find our way to the Bahnhoff, where we purchase tickets to Lindau, with the intent of exploring there for a day before visiting friends in Friedrichschaffen.

10:45 AM – Donna passes through the gate to board the lift, carrying my pack, as I intend to run down the mountain. At the last second, for reasons that can only be described as “promptings”, I change my mind and join her. “Wait” I shout, as I too use my ticket to descend via lift instead of jogging down. “Why did you join me?” she asks. “Because I like being with you” is the shortest and easiest answer, though the mystical prompting is there too.

9:00 AM – We’re out the door, heading down and out instead of our planned “up and in” deeper into the Alps to “Bad Kissinger Hutte” (no political jokes please). We’d eaten lunch at this hut the day before after climbing to the top of Aggenstein peak, and were looking forward to spending the night there, but the danger of the hike is obvious to everyone.

image6:45 AM – The silence on the windows feels ominous instead of hopeful after a night of listening to pelting rain on the windows of our hut. “Could it be?” the eight of us sharing a room ask as morning dawns. It is. “Snow!” The weather report had predicted this to be a good day, sunny and warm. By breakfast some of the snow is sticking to the tables outside. We know the route to the hut, know that it’s a trail strewn with rocks that will be “slippery when wet”, know that there are sections where it’s so steep that one must use cables to “hang on”, know that the Romanian who speaks English and works at Bad Kissinger Hut but was helping out at the hut we’re staying in will tell us to go down the mountain, as everyone else will also decide to do.

6:00 AM – Howling wind and rain make sounds when a hut is situated on a high Alpine ridge. The whole place shakes a bit. Sleep is fitful in such a space.

9:30 PM – I fall asleep after taking pictures of the evening lights of Bavaria from the stunning hut. We’re looking forward to being still deeper in the Alps by tomorrow night.

Proverbs 16:9 says “A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.”

One of the great lessons I’m learning on this trip is both the importance and danger of goals. We’re at our best when we can live in the tension between planning, and holding our plans with open hands. We won’t reach our 400 miles in 40 days goal because snow changes plans, and the impossibility of some routes during bad weather changes plans, and the reality that we want to go slow enough to experience the Alps has also changed plans.

Yet still, we’re trekking nearly every day, committing each day to Christ at the outset and believing that weather, train schedules, and the people we meet along the way aren’t random encounters they’re divinely orchestrated encounters intended to lead to “Jesus the joy of man’s desiring.”

Does this apply to real life as well? Yes. We believe that God is guiding our lives, but this belief, rather than leading to a sense of fear (have I missed God’s will?) and paralysis (I can’t do anything until I’ve heard God’s voice) should lead to a sense of confident rest, assured that God is both speaking to our hearts and orchestrating the daily encounters of our lives. In this paradigm, we’re always on the lookout for the wind of the spirit, holding everything, including our plans, with an open hand. Then, and only then, will life become the adventure God intends it to be.

Fiercely Interdependent

Fiercely Interdependent –

We awoke to perfectly clear skies with stunning views of the Alps in every direction. A blanket of low clouds shrouded Innsbruck and the river valleys. Everyone was up early, per the instructions of our host the night before, and we enjoyed a breakfast of meats, cheeses, good coffee, and an egg. Again, as with yesterday, the tables were graced with candlelight, but the lingering conversations weren’t part of this morning, as everyone was eager to hit the trail.

My sunglasses had disappeared the night before, and this, along with some other things, meant that we were nearly the last people to leave the hut, starting our hiking at 7:45. We immediately caught a ridge, already high above treeline, and began making our way south and up. Up. Up! Up!!

This is the section of the via-Alpina about which we know absolutely nothing, having only the map, but no narrative description due to our change of plans stemming from italy’s holiday crowds.  Had we troubled ourselves to look more intently at the route we would have realized that we were in for a quite challenging day. The trail follows a high ridge up and down, seemingly endlessly, as we capture seven different summits and crosses along the way.  But what the map can’t tell you is the extent to which the route demands some basic rock scrambling skills. There are places of extreme exposure, where a slip would mean a fall of a thousand feet. There are places where the “trail” is narrow, and there’s no protection in spite of the exposure. Other places have steel cables to hang onto for extra security, and there was one steel ladder that needed descending. Hang on or you’ll die!

This kind of travel is taxing in every way, both physically and mentally. As a result, we didn’t make good time at all – the first 5.5 kilometers taking a full 5 hours to complete! That wouldn’t be so bad if that were the end of it, but this was a 15k day, which meant that at the end of all the very taxing ascending and descending (7 crosses!!) we still had a 10k to complete, and this second10k took 4.75 hours! The signs said 7.5 and it had taken us 9.75.

That’s a long day, and we arrived absolutely spent. However, there’s more to the story:

On the previous day, hiking up to our hut, we’d met, and passed, two young girls in their late teens. It was clear that one of them was more highly motivated than the other, but both of them were making their way to the hut, without poles, and wearing denim! We became friends with them in the hut that afternoon, Inga and Feli, from near Frankfurt, both 17 years old. The tour was Inga’s idea as she said, “this is something I want to do, something I want to accomplish for myself, and once I do it, nobody will be able to take it away from me.” She’s a young, determined woman, who speaks English easily well enough to converse with us. Her friend Feli is along, and much quieter, perhaps because of the language barrier, so I don’t know her motivations. 

As we began our hike and its level of difficulty became apparent, I wondered whether the girls would make it or turn back. Soon I realized that the danger of the route would be such that nobody would turn back and repeat the difficult risky moves, so Donna suggested that maybe they’d taken a different route. We were slow, and I watched with some dismay as everyone left the hut before us, and even when we began walking, distanced themselves from us because of their speed. We would be the last people to arrive at the next hut. Thankfully we’d made reservations.

As we achieved our first “summit” (a notch really, because there was no cross) we saw a view of a couple of people not far from us. As we pressed on we soon caught up with… Inga and Feli! It would turn out that we would hike the rest of the route with them.

There’s codependency in this world, and then there’s interdependency. Be careful if you use the word ‘codependent’ too much, because while it might be legitimate, it’s also possible that what you label codependent might stem more from a devotion to utter independence than anything else: trust no one, be vulnerable with no one, receive from no one, give help to others sparingly, if at all.

In this instance, all of us helped each other on the route. It was pure joy to watch Donna’s maternal instincts kick in, along with her commitment to being an encourager, as she became both mom and cheerleader for Inga and Feli. “Make sure you’re staying hydrated!” she’d say in one moment, and then “you girls are awesome” in the next.

Inga, on the other hand, was the model of healthy stoicism. She’d see a difficult climbing move that needed to be made, or another summit yet ahead, and sigh deeply. Then, after a moment of silence, she’d simply say: “and yet we must do it” in a German punctuated, matter of fact, accent, that made you actually want to do it. Though we’d have continued anyway because going back on this somewhat treacherous route would have felt like a death sentence, Inga made continuing much more palatable.

I was wondering if I had anything to contribute to this little thrown together foursome, until we encountered a brief snowfield across which we needed to traverse. This was a high stakes 30 meters, for a mis-step would have led to a rapid, out of control snow descent to waiting rocks below.

These girls knew nothing of this and had no poles, so I, being out front in the moment, surrendered one of my poles to Feli, and explained snow traverse to the girls. “Put the weight on your heel” I said, showing them by example in case language failed, “and plant your pole too” The girls nodded, and Feli took her first step without event, but by her third, landing on her toes first, she’d begun to slip and used her pole to prevent failing, swearing in German as I’d come to recognize these days on the trail. The rest of her steps were perfect and she and Inga both crossed the snow without event.

We became friends with the girls along the final 10k, and it was there that Donna learned that Feli, too, had a sense of stoicism about her, as she revealed that someone had taken the wrong boots this morning, so that she was wearing her brand of boot, but in the wrong size! That might not sound like a big deal, but you try achieving seven summits in one day with shoes that 1 size too large!

When we finally arrived, we enjoyed a meal with these two, and exchanged email before they left for their next journey while we stayed an extra night at this hut to recover.

I have blisters. Donna has a bit of pain in her joints. We not sure we’ll have all the stuff it takes to do the long days of the via-Alpina if there are too many of them like this “seven summits” day, but the huts, and trails, and the mutual interdependency are all rich blessings that make the blisters worth it – step by step.

 

Eternity in our hearts – Leaning into our longings

IMG_4676The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.  CS Lewis

Most years, the first or second week of December, I’m in the little town of Schladming, in the Austrian Alps, to teach at a Bible school where countless lives have been transformed as students encounter the powerful cocktail of  global fellowship, creation’s stunning beauty, and teaching rooted in the central truth that Christ is still alive, wanting to express life uniquely through each of us.

Because I get to be here at that time of year, I know Schladming in winter, know the Planai as a ski area, where you’re whisked upwards 1000 meters in a few minutes time to enter a winter playground, a skier’s paradise.  When I go up the mountain, I always do the same thing after exiting the gondola: attach skis, turn left, and make the quick descent down to a different lift, one which will take me up the highest point.  It’s up there that I make a little pilgrimage to the cross, where I’ll often snap a quick picture and offer thanks to God for health of body to be in the center of all this beauty.  On that second lift, there’s a guest house off to the left, always shuttered up, and hard to access by skis apparently, because of the hills around it.

On Saturday we hiked the ski area, following trail #50 through meadows, people’s driveways, cow pastures, and forest trails.  Up.  Up.  Up.  We’ve only a tiny tourist map and no real way of knowing where we’re going, or even where we are, other than the altimeter on my watch, which clicks off the meters of ascent, each number an encouragement amidst the sweat and work of this hike on a humid day.

Minutes turn into hours.  Breaks become a bit longer along the way, and though we’re living life and confident that up is the proper general direction, we’re equal parts “hoping” and “confident” that we’re going to reach our goal.

IMG_4657A few hours into our journey, we stop for a break, at an opening in the forest.  I’m drinking water as I gaze off to the left at a guest house sitting on the crest of a little hill and slowly, I’ve this sense that I’m looking at something familiar.   “How do I know this place?”  I ask, looking intently, reading the inscription across the space between roof and windows.  And then, in an instant, I know.   My mind’s eye connects the scene of this place in snowy winter with the now summer scene in front of me, and I know precisely – precisely, where we are.

“We’re under the lift that will take us to the cross” I tell my wife, smiling, and the joy comes not just from knowing the place, but from knowing that I know.  It comes from the resonance between this experience and something deep inside of me, a memory.   In an instant everything changes.  I know where I am.  I know where I’m going.  I know I’ll get there.  This little place on this vast mountainside, itself a dot in the Alps, feels like home.

Soon we’re at the cross, but that last portion of the trip, with sure bearings and familiarity brought about by seeing something already in my heart made all the difference.   Doubt and uncertainty were vanquished by the reference point, the knowing that I’ve been here before.

When CS Lewis writes of his heart’s longing to find the source of beauty, hope, intimacy, meaning, joy, he echoes “The Preacher” from Ecclesiastes, who says in chapter three that God has placed “eternity in the hearts of people…” which means that there’s something in us that rejoices in the seeing of beauty and recoils in horror over the killing of children in war, or in the womb, or the destruction of marriages, or soil, or cities, through greed and corruption.

But especially, it means that we should be on the look out for moments where our hearts will leap because something in us will cry out, in our sensing of justice, beauty, and joy,  “Yes!  This is real life, the way life ought to be.”   It can happen when you see lavish generosity, or Rosa Parks refusing to be corralled into conformity, or a stunning sunset, or a moment of genuine intimacy.  When it happens and something deep inside us is haunted by a joyous sense we’ve been here before, we’re made for this, then we know  we’re on to something.   Keep following and you’ll find home; you’ll find the life for which you are created.

I was in college, depressed, a little disillusioned with my studies in architecture, when I went to ski retreat at a Bible camp and the speaker spoke on Jeremiah 9:23-27 about knowing God, and why that pursuit matters more than anything in the world.

Sitting in the A-frame chapel with 150 other college students, my heart caught fire.  It was as if I’d seen something I’d known before, as if I knew that this pursuit was for me, as if “seeking, and knowing God” would be a sort of “coming home to a place I’d never been before.”  I prayed that night, alone in the snow, because I knew somehow, that this pursuit was where I was meant to be.  That prayer changed my life, my priorities, ultimately my vocation.  It’s changing me still.

Moments like this come more often than we realize; in the quiet hours at sunrise with coffee and the scriptures, sitting under a redwood tree; in listening to Mozart’s Requiem played by the Seattle Symphony after 9-11;  sitting with old friends high in the Austrian Alps, sharing food and speaking of life and loss,  children and love, and the faithfulness of God in the midst of all the change.  It’s those moments when God is speaking, wooing, inviting.

Listen!  Hear the voice inside you that cries out “Yes” when the reality of the moment corresponds to deep longings inside you, the life for which you were created, and invites you deeper into that life. Those are important moments, times to pay attention, for listening at such times is how we find our God, and our calling, and our joy.