Tag Archives: outdoors

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!

Three Ways Sabbath practice will help you become whole.

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“all who are thirsty…”

Yesterday I spent some time in what is slowly becoming a sabbath routine for this season of life.  My wife and I packed a small lunch and some extra clothes in our backpacks and took off for a day of hiking.  In a normal year it would be a ski day, but this is not a normal year.  All the snow is over in Boston, and here where we normally get over 400 inches a year, the ski hills are brown brush; so we hike.

As we hike, we talk about life.  It’s become maybe the best time of the week for sharing, because we have uninterrupted space for needed dialogue, punctuated by periods of silence for reflection, response, or even just enjoyment of the woods.  The conversations always include remembrances of the past and considerations of the future.  The two subjects feed each other by this time in our life together.  We’ve seen 35 years of God’s faithful provision in our lives; seen many decisions we made with finite information which turned out far better than we’d anticipated, precisely because (we believe) God knew ‘the rest of story’ as only God can.

For example, I was sharing yesterday how profound it was to contemplate that we’d purchased this house in the mountains that had its own apartment, solely with a view of retiring there someday and renting it out as a ski chalet in the meantime, while keeping the small apartment for our own, for skiing, writing, hiking, and such.

Now here we are, living there, with my mom-in-law in the perfect little apartment as life circumstances converged so that it was best for her to move in with us.  Her love of mountains and snow, and our purchase converged to meet a need we didn’t even know would exist when we bought the place.  But God knew, and has provided space.  We tell each other these kinds of stories while we hike, recalling God’s faithfulness in the past.

We speak of the future too; pondering how we can best use the gifts and resources God has given us to live fully into the story God desires to write through us.  We ponder options, and they become matters for prayer.  We speak of our heart’s desires in ways that we don’t during week because the week’s too full of obligations to spend much time pondering deeper longings.  Giving voice to these longings is healthy, appropriate, necessary, if we’re to continue growing.

And of course, we speak of the presentof our own marriage, our children, decisions that need to be made.  We speak of money, car brakes, schedules for the coming week, and of trees, waterfalls, lichen, weather, and rocks.

We share a meal at the top.  We hike out.  We drive home.  Then there’s a meal, and peace, and a sense we’ve connected with God and each other.  We propose to do it again next time.  Sabbath; a gift from God.

Of course, this isn’t always the case.  In many circles, Sabbath is nothing more than a legalistic noose tied around the necks of religious people to prevent them from doing anything the religious elite consider work.  The list varies from generation to generation and place to place, including soccer, shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, wearing false teeth, and lifting anything heavier than two dried figs.  This is just one of many reasons why people rightly hate religion.  Jesus said you could know the worthiness of a person’s teachings and worldview ‘by their fruits’ and if the fruit of Sabbath keep is fear, withdrawal, and judgmentalism, I for one will be at the front of the line to condemn it.

Another group, seeing this legalist nonsense, has done away with the Sabbath completely.  It’s either spiritualized (“Every day is a day of rest in Christ”), or bastardized into simply a “day off” which means a time to knock oneself out with shopping, or obligations with the kids, or find some sort of adrenaline hit so that we can maintain our stress levels until Monday, though because it’s chosen, it’s good stress rather than distress.

Either way is an exercise in missing the point.  Sabbath, when properly practiced as a spiritual discipline, helps create a soil in which several good things can happen.  Here’s what I mean:

A good and consistent Sabbath practice, over time will:

1. Create capacity in our lives – The creation narrative offers a profound revelation that life is intended to be lived in a IMG_7920complimentary manner:  day and night; heaven and earth; sea and dry land; male and female; and yeswork and rest.  God was the prototype of this rhythm, and those who violate it do so at great risk to their own fruitfulness and well  being.  This is because we’re made for a pattern of engagement and withdrawal, and if our Sabbath’s neglect withdrawal, we’ll enter our weekly responsibilities of engagement with even diminishing resources.  The presenting symptoms will be stress related things like sleep troubles, nervousness, fatigue, and/or high anxiety.  When it comes to exercise, we all know that we need to both exercise and rest.  The same’s true with the whole of our lives and the Sabbath is God’s gift to provide for this.

2. Create a context for guidance – My wife and I have made many major life decisions in the context of Sabbaths, because that’s where we make the needed space to ponder God’s faithfulness in the past, and prayerfully give voice to our longings and hopes for the future, so that we can hear God speak and show us next steps.  The worst thing we can do is be reactionary with our lives, both day to day in our obligations and with respect to major life decisions.  It’s far better to be proactive, and this proactivity will come from creating space to pour our hearts out to God and then listen, and then act.

3. Remind you that you’re not the Messiah – One of the practical purposes of Sabbath practice when Israel was in the wilderness was so that they might learn that God will take care of them, all the time, even when they rest.  The more and better anyone learns this, the more fully and profoundly they come to believe that God sustains God’s work and will do so even when we step away from it.  I’ll be blunt in saying that its our sense of indispensability that often turns us into very ugly peoplecontrolling, demanding, fearful, even manipulative; all in the name of “getting the job done”.  The Sabbath, practiced well, will help you get over yourself, and rest in the reality that our participation in whatever work it is to which God has called us, is a privilege, not a necessity.

Make space please!  For remembering; for considering; for sharing; for praying; for restoring.  If that’s not a habit for you, now’s a good time to begin.

Here’s a resource I’ll recommend to round out and develop this discussion further.

 

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:

IMG_6816IMG_6743

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.

Fiercely Interdependent

perfect_day.JPGWe 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!!

every_step_counts.JPGThis 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 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.

the_team_at_the_top.JPGI 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.

 

Light for Light – The joyous necessity of shedding Stuff

photo copy 4We’ve been moving a lot lately.  Some health issues for an extended family member has meant creating a small apartment in the basement of our house, and confining our stuff to smaller space in the mountains too, so that when we get home our mountain home can be a place of hospitality for family, friends, and the staff of the church I lead.

All this has been unfolding at the same time I’ve been preparing to embark on a sabbatical journey, which will begin with 40 days of hiking in the Alps with my wife, so that we can learn together –  things about endurance, walking with God, hospitality, revelation that comes through suffering and beauty, guidance, and o so much more!

For this trip, we’ll be carrying everything we need, except food, on our backs.  Toss in the reality that the planned hike will gain over 100,000 feet in elevation, and you begin thinking differently.   The physics minded among us, who think of work in terms of “foot pounds” will come to the same conclusion I did, which is that every OUNCE of additional weight, over the course of 400 miles, will create an extra 3 tons of “foot pounds”.    Lifting that extra ounce for about 20 miles of vertical elevation adds up, in other words, to a lot of work.

With this in mind, the decision making process of “letting go” began.  My wife and I would pack our stuff and then stand on the scale with our packs, and groan.  “Too much” we’d say, as we’d toss slippers, read articles about the “real” merits of some vitamins and decide that, in reality, we’re not sure we believe in their benefits enough to carry them uphill.  Toothpaste?  Extra shirt?  Third pair of underwear?  Everything’s up for debate.  This, of course, is because carrying everything had bloody well be worth it.

The very act of shedding stuff for the hike has me thinking about other realms in a similar way:

1.  Possessions in real life are work too – and as such, we should assess whether they’re worth the trouble of storing, caring, maintaining, repairing, insuring, protecting, losing, and fretting over.  With the caveat that our kids are all now grown and so we really don’t much, we’ve learned something these past three weeks.  We’ve been living in about 500 square feet, maybe a few feet more, and having a blast!  Most of the time we can’t even remember the possessions we’ve shed well enough to miss them.  We look around and say, “We have food, shelter, the clothes we ACTUALLY wear and enjoy, our health, our love, our friends….”  What more do we need?  It’s been fun to give stuff away to people who need it more than we do, and find our lives lighter as a result.

2. Activities – The shedding of activities began some time ago, with the selling of the piano I loved, but which was sitting more than being played.  I’m at a season where that which is most life giving to me is writing, teaching, and absorbing all that can be learned by being out in creation.  So I don’t play much any more.  I don’t watch TV.  I don’t keep up with the latest cultural trivia nearly as well as I once did.  I don’t know the batting averages of my favorite baseball team as I once did.   I’m no longing trying to keep with my friends at the art of cooking, because in the end, I’d rather eat a carrot than a carrot salad anyway, and bacon, by itself, brings me joy.

So the habits of coffee with God, along with a rediscovered joy of running and hiking, along with the writing, teaching, mentoring, and leading I do, plus some friendships along the way – this is enough.  I’m lighter.  And it feels better.

3. Emotions – I’m learning, through rereading the wisdom literature in the Bible, to shed some emotions too.   Life’s so short, it turns out, that bitterness, resentment, anger, anxiety over “what if’s”, and shame filled regrets over “if only’s” are all a waste of time.  I’m finding that by shedding these elements, little by little, my heart is lighter.    I don’t think this happens with the snap of the finger because, like lightening our packs, every element needs to considered and inspected for its value.  For example, close friends and work colleagues who speak hard truth into my life are priceless gifts.   Blog comments that are rude, inciting, demeaning, when I write about sexual ethics or guns, not so much.  Life’s too short, and who needs to extra weight of endless rude wrangling with people who, in the end, don’t want dialogue as much as diatribe?

Jesus declared made the remarkable statement that you “ARE” the light of the world.  Light shines, all by itself, as long as its not encrusted with the darkening burdens of excess possessions, life sucking emotions, and the diffused energy of endless priorities.  All three of of this light thieves, though, are at the door all the time, seeking to steal our joy and peace by inciting us to carry more and more and more.  But every ounce, carried for 20, 30, 50 years?  That’s many tons of foot/pounds – wasted energy.

We’ll let you know how learning to travel light goes for us.  Our first trek will be Monday, and I’ll post here when I can.

 

 

Achilles Heal: Lessons for life and leadership learned from a tendon

Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise.  She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died.  Achilles:  the place of vulnerability.

The Achilles story is appropriate  because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes.   Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there.  Rest.  Repeat.  Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear.  “Why is this not healing?”

Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine,  let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.

Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy.  How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical?  Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine.   Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.

1. Daily is best – Physical Therapists prescribe exercises.  “Three sets of 20 on this one.  Two sets of 10 on that.”  Etc. Etc.   These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult.  You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired.  And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.

But here’s the key.  You need to do them!  Every day.  I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks  – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well.   Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.

I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t.  When I’m motivated, and when I’m not.  This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God.   There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.

The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine.   So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts.  They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed.   It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.

Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.

2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed.  “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”.  He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free.  Slow.  But pain free.  The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties.  “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years.  The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”

I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other.  After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way.  One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture.  Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.

This too has application for the rest of life.   You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health.  Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame.  It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success.  Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable.  Both are temporary illusions.  The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel.  The bad days are as important as the good.

Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ.  This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.

3. Ego is a setback  – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow.  I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!”  or worse, to speed up.  What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me.  The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me.  I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.

Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life.  It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom.  Enough!  When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read.  It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.

Take away:  When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.

The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer.   More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.

 

 

 

 

Success, Sabbaticals, Loss, and Heading to the Alps

afterlight(this new blog address reflects my profound belief that our lives are journeys of transformation, and that there’s always a step we can take towards wholeness – my upcoming sabbatical was the catalyst for the change, as you see here…)

If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber.

Has it ever happened to you?  You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time.  You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your goal.  It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.  You took initial step into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success.  The business grew.  You were promoted.  The publisher said yes.

It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities.  All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing.  You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff.  Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, Little League, Prom night.  It’s not perfect.  There are bumps along the way, but you’re still getting more responsibilities.  The business is gaining new market share.  Investments are doing their job.  It’s all paying off.

Days become decades, quickly.  Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed.  You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more.  Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful.  That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become “successful”.   You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below.  You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.

You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar.  You’re not sure where you are anymore.  You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute.  The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too.  You went, almost without questioning.   And then comes a moment when you know it’s time to rest and recalibrate.

Just such a moment came my way last summer.   I’d come home from  two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night.  At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position.  These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang.  “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code.  Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.

“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”

Silence.   And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”

“Peter.  I thought you were Kristi.  Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”

“Nope.  I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.”  I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings my food.  I’m sitting in the glorious Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today paragliding in the Alps.  They found his body early this evening.  I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.”  After a silent moment Peter says,  “I know.  Stunning.”  We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me.  I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to.    Then I go going home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love reeling in darkness.

One of my best friends is dead.   We’d skied the Alps together, snowshoed the Cascades east of  Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst monuments of Washington DC.  We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids.  We’d argued theology and commiserated about leadership.   Even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends.   And now he’s gone.   The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff.  It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and  I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner.  The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for video that needed making.  Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.

After that I collapsed.  There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job.   It was time for a sabbatical, a break from the normal routine in order to restore.  I knew I needed it.

Sabbaticals are for pastors, what fallow land is for a farm.  God invoked farmers to let the land rest every seven years, as a remembrance that God’s the provider, and as a gift of restoration for both the land and the farmer!  It’s important for the health of everyone: the pastor and the church, the farmer and the land.  It was time.

When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. It’s like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”.  You want it to shine on you too.  We call it lots of things, depending on our profession.  We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love.  Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life.  Maybe this isn’t a bad thing.  After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning.  We want our lights to shine.  We want significance.  I get it.

Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success.  That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy.  There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believing that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.

I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp.  In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year.  In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper.  We were rural, small, subsistence.  There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Keroak  spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings around the kitchen table.  It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.

That was nearly twenty years ago.  Between then and now, I’ve been privileged to pastor what I believe to be one of the great churches, in one of the great cities of the world.  Grace infuses our life together as we try to focus more on how Jesus unites us than how lesser issues divide.  There’s joy and laughter, there’s brokenness and healing.  It’s far from perfect.  But I’ve been thrilled and honored to carry the torch for this season.   In order to restore creativity and vision, though, I knew it was time, not for something different, but for a pause.

I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with a sense of refreshment, and  a re-calibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs.

I’ve been intrigued with the notion of pilgrimage for my sabbatical time, trying to learn what it means to walk with God by literally walking… for 40-45 days, through the high Alps.  My intent is to move away for three months:  out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency.  The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, putting one foot in front of the other for 400 miles.

Lessons will be learned through preparation and travel about suffering, traveling light, encounter, endurance, beauty, hospitality, and much more.   And while the original thought was to travel the Pacific Crest trail from the Canadian border south into Oregon, or from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Shasta, the death of my Austrian friend left a teaching hole for this summer that I’m qualified to fill, so I’ll teach the last week of their program and then my wife and I will begin in Northern Italy, head up through Austria into Germany, then west before dropping down and finishing our trek in Switzerland with friends.

I’ll post what we’re experiencing and learning here as I’m able, so I hope you’ll join us!

Departure: July 23rd  Return:  October 23rd – Here’s a Sabbatical Video  that will answer more questions.