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.

Taking thought for tomorrow – Lessons in making life meaningful from ants and firewood

ImageI slept on the sofa last night in the place where I go to study and write sometimes because it was snowing.  Maybe its because I grew up where it never snowed; or because the smell of fir trees remind me of my happiest childhood memories; or because my wife is at her very happiest in a snowstorm.  I don’t know the deep reasons why, but I love snow, so when it’s falling at night I lay on the sofa and turn the lights on outside so I can tilt my head to just to the right a bit and see infinite white flakes falling slowly from the sky.  They represent covering, and hope, and beauty, and the waters of sustaining life when they melt later.

On that same sofa, a tilt of the head to the left and I see the fire, which represents warmth, safety (when confined in the firebox), and a sense of reward.  I say reward because this heat is earned by thinking ahead.

Acquiring wood happens because I sharpened my chain saw chain, felled some trees with a neighbor and cut them into 18 inch long rounds, hauled the rounds, split them, hauled the split wood so it could be stacked in the meager sunlight it needs to dry, hauled it again to the deck just before first snow, and now haul it inside, piece by piece, for burning.  Each peace represents time outside, working for heat, for heart, for health.  The whole thing takes at least six months, and its best if the drying period includes two summers!  The wood I’ll stack this June will burn best in the winter of 2016.

Proverbs 6:6-8 tells us to consider the ant, learn from her ways, and be wise.  The ant, without any supervisor, org chart, performance evaluation, or any other metric holding her feet to the fire of day to day diligence, still does her work.  This, the author tells us, is worth imitating.  What does the ant, and firewood gathering have to teach us about the rest of life?

1.  There should be a big picture.  I should, in other words, have some semblance of an idea what I’m doing here on this planet.  If I’m a parent, then I’m serving, blessing, empowering, and loving, young lives that will, I hope and pray, grow into flourishing adults who love God and people, and are equipped to bless the world.  If I’m a teacher, I’m learning so that I can share, so that others can grow and be transformed.  If I’m an artist, I’m creating so that other can be comforted, or shaken awake from the complacency, and smitten by beauty.  Construction?  Business owner?  Administrator?  Electrician?  Nurse?  We are, each of us, a mix of strengths, gifts, passions and these things, taken together, constitute a call, the answer to the question “Why am I here?”.   It’s fine to wrestle with that, because such wrestling is surely part of every person’s journey, and the questions will, themselves, help solidify the answers.  If you’re in that searching phase, I’d encourage you to listen to a talk I gave years ago entitled, “Yes and No: Finding Your Voice in the World.”  It’s a vodcast, available in the itunes store for free.

2. There should be a knowledge of next steps.  All right.  I know why I’m here, and part of why I’m here is to provide warmth for my home and family (along with bigger callings like leadership, teaching, writing).  If I’m going to live faithfully in any of these areas, there will be next steps to take, each of which will move me closer to the big call.  If the vision if a fire on a cold winter’s night, a next step in the summer is cutting, then splitting, then stacking, then hauling.  Every next step is taken because of the big picture, and knowing those steps and having the skill to take them are essential because without the little next steps, the big picture remains forever just an idea.  I’m convinced that this is where we often fall down.  We want to write a book, or start a company, or move our church toward a vision of health, or run a marathon.  We have a vision!  But vision, without clarity regarding next steps, isn’t really a vision at all, it’s a wish, a fantasy.

3. There needs to be a focus.  If the big picture vision is important enough, then the next steps you need to take rise to the top of the priority pile.  Because fire is vital in winter, it’s more important than rock climbing in the summer.  Because writing is important, it sits above watching playoff basketball on the priority list.  Because I’m a teacher, I’m not a great skier.  Paul tells Timothy that he needs to “fan into flame” the gift he’s been given, which is a way of saying we need to know our big vision, know our next steps, and make taking those steps the most important parts of our days, every single day.  When we try to become twenty things, we’ll become nothing at all.  Recognizing our finiteness is, perhaps, the most liberating truth most of us need to learn.

4. Meet your new friend named Tedium.  Standing on the summit, or wearing the marathon medal, or attending your children’s college graduation, or your own 50th wedding anniversary; these events (or others like them) are the things we want on the highlight reel of our lives, and that’s all well and good.  But that marriage, and those kids graduating are the fruit of thousands of diapers changed, dishes cleaned, little games attended, tiny courtesies extended, bicycles repaired, oils changed, checkbooks balances, debts discussed, taxes payed, wood split, commute endured.  Most of life, it seems, consists of these seemingly mundane events, and yet its how faithfully and fully engaged we live there, in the land of tedium, that determines whether we’ll endure over the long haul.  For me at least, I’m best able to coexist with tedium when I do three things:

1) keep the big picture in mind – I’m not reading “Stop that Ball” for the 563rd time because the plot is so compelling; I’m investing in a life.  I’m not covered with pitch and sweat because I love hauling wood; I’m creating warmth in the winter.  When we tie daily living to the big picture its easier to press forward.

2) practice the art of presence – time flies by when the only thing I’m thinking about is “this piece of wood” or “this paragraph” or “this observational study of the parables” or “this staff meeting”.  I’m convinced that this too is where many of us fall down.  We have the vision.  We know the next steps.  And then we get bored.  While bored, facebook or the email pings, or we just start surfing the net, or dialing into to Colbert or Fox news, depending on your generation and outlook.  The point, though, isn’t the quality of the distraction; the point is that we allowed ourselves to be robbed of the chance to contribute to the bigger story God wants to write, because we didn’t like the step we were needing to take in the moment, so we stopped our progress and threw some time over a cliff.

This summer, when my wife and I hike in the Alps, the route will be filled with steps we don’t want to take, because they’re just another tedious step in a line of a million, or because the next step is terrifying (some routes in the Alps literally have ladders attached to rock faces – more later).  But the steps simply must be taken if we’re to reach our goal.  Learning that discipline of taking next steps because of the big picture isn’t just a hiking thing, or a writing thing, or a fire thing – it’s a life thing.

What’s the hardest part for you:  big picture, knowing next steps, making friends with Tedium?

What resources can you recommend to help others on the journey.

 

 

This one weird trick will change your life: Slow Down

The tree in the backyard is growing, relentlessly, powerfully, and slowly.

Our children are growing, as we do too, slowly; imperceptibly every day.

The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.

Our world, very much alive and changing all the time, is changing slowly.

Slow, it seems, is most natural, most of the time.  And yet we lust for speed.

We look for quick fixes to relationship issues, addictions, fears and anxieties, intimacy with Christ, weight loss, studying for tests, and o so much more.  Hucksters over promise on quick transformation  (six minute abs anyone?), have been doing so for centuries, and succeed because there’s always a market for “instant”.   Lately though, I’ve learned once again, that the way of Christ followers is utterly other than that – it’s SLOW.

I’m planning a big long hike this summer, over 400 miles, with over 100,000 feet of elevation gain, and in preparation I’ve been trying to fix some injuries.  My strategy though, of resting until I feel no pain, and then getting back at it with 150 calf raises, and running stairs in a weighted backpack, hasn’t been working.  Every attempted return to activity has sent me limping home, frustrated and angry.  “They say ‘stay active as you age!'” I rant to my wife, “but they don’t tell you that when you try to, you’ll get hurt… every – single – time.”

It was during my most recent period of forced convalescence that I discovered a word I’d not encountered before:  SLOW.  The author suggested that the best thing to do after an injury is to let your jogging pace be bound by two limits:  your heart rate, and your pain.  He suggested running in minimalist shoes so that, if there was something wrong, you’d get feedback from your body earlier rather than later enabling you to adjust or stop, letting your pain be your guide.  He also suggested using a heart rate monitor and staying, relentlessly, at the low end of the aerobic zone for your age.

All right then.  With toe shoes and pulse watch, I set off, striding lightly and slowly.  Quickly, my pulse is out of bounds, so I slow down further still.  I’m on the path by the lake, “running” but not really, more like “jogging”.  No, that’s not right either.  It’s just a cut above a brisk walk, and I feel fragile and weak as all who aren’t walking pass me as if I’m standing still!  I see people from the church I lead and they wave and smile kindly, as I do when I see senior citizens courageously walking the lake.  I’m frustrated because I know that I could run faster.

But recently, running faster hasn’t been good for me, so I stick with the plan, refusing to let my pulse rise above 140.  After 28 minutes, I’m home.  The pace is embarrassingly slow on my little exercise phone app, and I fear someone will find my phone and post the data on facebook.  I ponder deleting it, but determine to run the same route two days later, keeping my heart in the same zone, just to see if my pace would quicken a bit.  It did.  So I did it again, and again, again.

I’m still running, faster every time, and injury free, as I stay in the zone and slowly, slowly, slowly, add distance.  I don’t feel the changes, day to day, workout to workout, but I know they’re happening because of that nifty app on my phone!

Of course, this isn’t ultimately about running, or hiking.  It’s about the true nature of the path to which each of us are called; the path of transformation.  Paul says that we’re called to look towards Christ, soaking in his glory and learning to enjoy intimacy with him.  This in itself is a practice which takes time to develop and countless Christ followers, if honest, would say they have little or no enjoyment of intimacy with Christ as a reality.  One reason for this is because we have this sickly “cost/benefit analysis” mentality whereby we assess the value of our activities solely based on whether they yield immediate fruit.  So we try a little Bible reading, maybe light a candle and read a prayer – but our minds wander.  It’s challenging to meet with Jesus because he’s Mr. Invisible and we’re not sure, at the level of our deepest selves, whether we’re even meeting with anyone.  So, after a little while, we ditch the effort.  Cross-fit’s more measurable, clearly a better investment of our free time.

The problem is that meeting with Jesus is like meeting with anyone.  It takes effort to carve out the time, and no single encounter, any more than a single run, or cross fit workout, is necessarily meaningful or measurable.  Like romance, or practicing the violin, meeting with Jesus is sometimes profound, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. sometimes enchanting.  And just like romance and the violin, it gets better with time.   The ones who quit too soon don’t know what they’re missing.  They think the problem is the practice, or their skill level – but the problem is impatience.  Keep showing up and good things will happen….slowly.

The transformation we’re promised is “from glory to glory” and the language implies that the change is imperceptible because it’s slow.  To the extent that we’re concerned with “how we’re doing” we’ll become mindful of our shortcomings, and then looking to fix them, one at a time, as quickly as possible.  How much better to just keep showing up in the presence of Jesus, learning to enjoy companionship with him, and resting in the belief that, by staying “in the zone” so to speak, good things will happen.

in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:

“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”

Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.  (thanks to Justin Roth of  “The Stone Mind” for this)

Focus on the practice of enjoying fellowship with Jesus, not the expectation that if you read your Bible enough, or pray enough, or are quiet long enough, you’ll make a quantum leap out of addictions, or fears.  You’ll move out alright… but It. Will. Be….. Slowly.  Step by Step.   enjoy the journey.

PS… if you’re interested in practical help with developing habits of pursuing intimacy with Jesus, I’ll be re-releasing my book “O2” for Kindle on Amazon under the title, “Breathing New Life into Faith”   Stay tuned!

O the Places You’ll Go! The Wisdom of Embracing Life as Journey

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”

I grew up living in “Cat in the Hat”, and by that I mean that rainy days were crazy days spent stuck indoors because of a California “hydrophobia” that led my parents and every other authority figure to say, “you’ll catch a death of a cold if you go out there!” (in that sky spitting a few rain drops at 63 degrees!).  The result, for my sister and I, was that Dr. Seuss became a good friend, and the antics of the Cat in the Hat become our reality.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, it turns, had a lot of wisdom.  I’ve sat in more than one graduation and listened to someone read “O the Places You’ll Go!”, intimating that life is journey, and that, as cliché as it sounds, the journey is the destination.  In fact, I’m finding that the more consistently I seek to interpret my life through lens of being on a journey, the more wisdom I have for the bumps in the road, fog, weariness, great heights that are both challenging and rewarding, hunger, light, and darkness that I find along the way.  Abraham was transformed by the journey. So was Moses.  So was the Apostle Paul.  Why not you?  Why not me?

I’m thinking about journey these days for a reason.  I have a sabbatical from my work in Seattle coming up this summer, and am planning a gigantic journey.  In order to better understand what it means to “walk with God” I’m planning on doing just that: walking with God for about 450-500 miles (somewhere in this neighborhood)  I’d originally planned to do this through the Cascade mountains close to my home, but the untimely death of a friend in Austria led to a change of plans, and so now I’ll be hiking through the Alps.  This will be a time not only of physical challenge, but of learning Alpine history, the wars fought, the refuges for faith established, the borders challenged, the blend of beauty and terror that made these mountains central to European history.  I’ll come to discover how people’s lives were changed forever by their journeys through these mountains.  But it will also be, much more, a time of learning at a profound and intimate level as each step, each crossroads, each setback and triumph will be instructive about what it means to walk with God.  I hope you’ll join me on the journey as I plan to share what I’m learning, as much as I’m able, right here on this blog, with a diary of the trip and key prep and pics  posted here.

Seuss was wise in “O the Places You’ll Go”, but a careful reading reminds me that it’s vital to always read and listen with a sense of discernment.  Embedded in this marvelous work, is this single stanza:

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You are on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

Brains? Check.

Feet? Check

But can I “steer myself any direction I choose”? Nope.  There will be places in the Alps where others, better suited for the terrain than I, will go, and I won’t be able to follow.  What’s more, I might plan to go a certain place, thinking it’s within my grasp, only to discover once I get there, that it’s not, that my ankle, or heel, or some other seemingly insignificant body part can derail my whole perfect plan. I’m planning 10-20 kilometers a day.  I may end up in a cabin by the sea, writing or playing piano.

This is life, of course.  We have plans, and then we have the setbacks that challenge our presumed sense of semi-omnipotence.  I thought it would be this, but it’s that.  I thought I would be there by now, but I’m still over here, feeling stuck.  I tried to steer my direction, tried to stay the course, but never arrived.  Still sick.  Still alone.  Still feeling stuck in my work, or my relationship, or my “walk with God”.  Been there?  Me too.  The truth is that I can’t go wherever I want to go.

The good news is that Seuss is wrong on another count too.  You’re not, “on your own” as he says.  You have a guide, and your guide has both plans, and contingency plans.  Your guide is committed to your destination, but the most important truth to remember along the journey is that your ultimate destination isn’t geographical, relational, physical, or financial.  Your destination is to look like Jesus, so that hope and joy, generosity and wisdom, peace and justice, flow through you into a world that’s desperate and thirsty.

And this destination, your guide says, is assured, regardless of seeming setbacks along the way, as long as you stick close to your companion and guide, who is Jesus.  You are, I hope, decidedly NOT “on your own”.

You may “know what you know”, but your journey will be best if you also “know what you don’t know” because this is the foundation for a humility that empowers you to check your map, talk with other pilgrims along the way, and most important, follow your guide.  He’ll take you places along the way that are not of your choosing.  You’ll be upset over this, and in the end you’ll see the value in it.  Let your guide be your guide.

Which brings me to the last point.  If “You are the one who decides where you’ll go” then all I have to say is “good luck” because “you’re on your own.”  The good news, though, is that you don’t need to be on your own.  You don’t need to simply look within the chasm of your own broken soul for direction regarding destination and next steps.  There is another.  Let Christ in.  Let Christ decide – about your money, your time, your vocation, your everything.  It’s liberating.

2014: A Better Path by Adjusting Values: more or less

A new year is a blank piece of paper; a chance to stop and consider how to fine tune our investment in the one wild and precious life that we’ve been given.  The “unexamined life is not worth living” is how Socrates put it, and there’s no time riper for examining our lives than now, when the calendar is clean.  Rather than just thinking about goals, though, this article reminds me that it makes sense to think about values.  Here are some values that need adjusting… more or less.

More Intentionality in affirmation and encouragement – I’ve recently become freshly aware of the power encouragement has, both through experiences of giving and receiving it.  Decades ago, in the midst of a depression that came about in the wake of my dad’s death, the person who made the biggest difference in my life did so through encouragement and affirmation.  When I thanked him, he said, “All of us know our inadequacies pretty well – what we need is to be told how much we’re loved, where we’re gifted, where we can shine.”  While the value of truth telling and hard conversations are also important, I’ve recently reawakened to the value of encouragement and plan to fan it into flame this year.

More Openness to the fullness of life – I’ll be teaching from Ecclesiastes this Sunday, and this coming summer for an outdoor course.  This book, more than any in the Bible, invites me to fearlessly live “fully” in every moment.  As one poet writes:

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…”   We live in a hyper-insulated world these days, afraid of all that might go wrong if we venture outside our comfort zones, and the fruit of this is a lowering of the bar, so that for too many the biggest adventure of our lives is a visit to the newest movie, or upgrading our xbox.  We’re too often missing the reality that in Christ, we’re sometimes invited to step outside the boat, or into the river, or give away the last of our loaves and fishes.  What if we said yes, shooting the moon and casting all our hope in the reality that God’s calling us to this next step?  What would happen then?   Abundant life would happen and by that God doesn’t mean material prosperity necessarily, but fulness, vibrancy, wholeness, right in the thick of the beauty and challenges on our plates.

More Companionship because we’re made for community and relationships.  I’ve just finished experiencing an overwhelming outpouring of support in my life from close friends throughout the time of my oldest daughter’s wedding.  They helped make the wedding happen in a thousand practical ways and I was reminded throughout the experience of just how priceless deep friendships are.  I’m looking for ways to continue fanning those flames of relationship in the coming year.

In addition to human companionship, I’m very much looking forward to nurturing companionship with Christ as I spend 40 days hiking through the mountains in order to learn more about what it means to walk with God.  After all, we’re invited to friendship with Jesus, not religious ritual.  I hope to learn more lessons about what that really means through my walking days.

More Creativity – For people with responsibilities like work, marriage, family, keeping the car maintained, keeping the sewer line between the house and street flowing freely, keeping the deck stained, there are seasons when it’s hard to be creativity.  Our longing to write, paint, create music or pottery, or whatever, is eaten alive by our day job and our night job so that we’ve nothing left for creativity.   There’s no sense moaning about it; such seasons simply happen.

On other hand, when one comes up for air, and the creative urges begin demanding they find expression again, it’s important to fan those urges into flames and give the fire some room to grow.  I’m going to do that by making a modest commitment to a word count for writing during each two week period of the coming year.  Rather than some lofty unattainable goal, I’m shooting for something challenging but doable.

More Vegetables – There’s nothing to say here.

Less Late Nights  – Everyone’s at their best at some certain point of the day, and for me it’s that time in the earliest morning hours, around 5:30.  As a result, staying up ’til midnight, weary and uncreative, robs me of my best time.

Less Stuff – We’re slowly working our way through the closets and garage because, like plaque in your arteries, possessions have a nasty way of accumulating and then remaining as nothing more than clutter long after they’ve served their purpose.  “Give it away” I say, and it’s happening, and it’s liberating.

Less Whining – I love that the Bible invites me to pour my heart out to God with honesty, expressing the full range of lament and praise, joy and sorrow.  But there’s one response to reality that God roundly condemns:  grumbling, which is this sort of low level whining amongst ourselves about circumstances, leaders, politics, the weather, jobs, customer service quality of Comcast, Seattle traffic and more.  The Bible says this is more than just a wast of time; it’s destructive sin.  God seems to be saying, “Tell me anything you want about your reaction to life, or your trials or pains or joys.  But don’t whine to one another.  It’s worthless.”

Less Yes –  All these musing about life change have to do with one single thing.  I’m trying to answer the question of how to make the most of the few precious days we’ve been given on this earth.  The answer, I’m learning, resides in focus.  “Fan your gifts into flame” is what Paul said to Timothy, which is a way of saying that you can’t do everything so once you find your calling, don’t worry about saying no to the many sirens of temptation that will come your way.  Stay committed to your thing… your craft, your marriage, your kids, your writing, whatever.  Give it your best and take of yourself so that you have your best to give.  Living into that requires less yes.

What are you saying more or less to in the coming year?  I welcome your thoughts.

Recovering the Body before its completely dead.

A little while ago I posted a piece about “the end of sex” as we know it, referencing an article about the dramatically diminishing sex lives of Japanese young people, as the joy of human contact is displaced by virtual realities, work demands, and the discovery that commitment free recreational sex is a mirage, as even popular movies tell us here.

Stepping back from the particulars of sexuality, its easy to see the trend line pointing all of us towards lives that are increasingly removed from physical realities.  Food comes from boxes.  Comfort comes from climate controlled indoor boxes called buildings.  Entertainment comes from boxes.  Sexual release comes from boxes.  It’s possible to live such a ridiculously insulated existence that we need never leave home again.

“That’s ridiculous!”  I can hear you saying it.  But when was the last time you ate food straight from a garden?  Walked barefoot?  Spent time outside in the rain? Slept under the stars? When was the last time you were hungry, or cold, or thirsty?  When was the last time you hugged you spouse or parent or child, not in a formal way, but in a lingering way, indicating of your deep affection for the other?  When was the last time you looked into your lover’s eyes deeply enough to see their soul, and allow yours to be seen too?

When David encourages us to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, he’s inviting us to allow revelation of God’s character to come to us through our senses, to allow ourselves to be shaped not only by revelation from the scriptures, but from taste, touch, smell, beauty, pleasure, pain.  IN world that’s increasingly becoming virtual, urban, and disembodied, Christ followers have a chance to display an alternative: life lived fully, unmediated through pixels.

This, though, will be challenging because since the beginning, Christ followers have struggled with integration.  The gospel and letters of John, along with Colossians, address our tendency to split the universe into spirit and matter, a view that comes from Plato, not Jesus.  We’ve gone there though, for reasons beyond the scope of this little piece.  The results have not been pretty, as sexual phobias drive desire underground, misreadings about “love not the world” lead to neglect of the environment, and “set your mind on heavenly things” has come only to mean “read your Bible more”.  It’s time to come home to the good news that God has made us to be whole people.  It’s time to come home to our bodies.  Here are some ways:

1. View body care as a faith issue – Phrases about the spirit “giving life to our mortal bodies” and our bodies being “temples” ought to shake us out of our gnostic slumber long enough to help us see that exercising, eating real food, getting enough sleep, and maybe taking our shoes off once in a while aren’t evidence of self indulgent narcissism, but rather stewardship.  There are lots of places to go if you need motivation or inspiration.  I go here.

2. Embrace our identities as sexual beings – This is where we’re afraid to go, afraid even to talk about it because we think that any body positive, or sex positive messaging will lead to promiscuity and addiction.  That’s like saying that we shouldn’t take about food for fear of obesity or anorexia.  In fact, it’s the phobic taboo nature of the topic that leads countless men and women to struggle with their sexuality alone, underground.  Thus this fundamental part of their identity, this gift from God is only spoken of in hushed tones, when it ought to be an integral part of our lives and teaching.   I’m presently collecting resources to share in this area and will devote an entire post to a list soon.

3. Unplug. – You’ve got to turn it off.  Phone.  Pad.  Computer.  Music.  You’ve got to listen to the silence, or to the nuances in the voice and body language of the one to whom you’re speaking.  You’ve got to pay attention, tasting the food you’re eating, the smell of coffee just before it touches your lips, the new trees growing out of an old stump, the sensation of cold when you walk barefoot in November.  This kind of “tasting and seeing” is ultimately a tasting and seeing that the Lord is good, or can be, if we’ll but start with the realization that God is speaking – all the time, through all God’s made.  Reduce your focus to a screen, though, and you’ll miss it.

5. Get outside. Garden.  Hike.  Gaze at the Milky Way.  Go for a run.  Climb a mountain.  Walk to work.  Do whatever it takes so that you can come to see and believe that you’re part of something much bigger, that God’s providing for you through the water cycle, seasons, and the interconnectedness of all life.

6. Read your Bible.  I just wrote about Coffee with God, and the necessity of meeting Christ in the Bible.  Why?  This is your map, offering interpretation for all the beauty and pain, and desire and fulfillment, loss and hunger, feasting and celebration, intimacy and distancing that you’ll experience when you live an embodied life.  This is vital because in the end these very bodies we’re living in will decay.  But if we let them, they’ll inform, sanctify, and fortify all that we are, not just in time but in eternity.

You think our world is thirsty for this?  I do, as seen here:

Revelation, a Visual Poem. from sebastien montaz-rosset on Vimeo.

Embodiment Part One: Getting out of our heads and off of our phones.

Image 6AM – The alarm goes off and it needs to, even for morning people at this time of year.  Autumn in northern latitudes means every day the sun sleeps in a little longer, the morning air’s a little colder, and the bed’s a little more inviting.  “Why get up and suffer in the dark?” I ask myself, when I can stay wrapped in a cocoon of safety and comfort.

Embodiment is the answer.  I’m old enough to know that if I don’t get up and do something with my body before the day gets on, I won’t do anything physical.  I have a desk job, which means that I live most of my best hours sitting in a chair, often communicating in a virtual world with pixels, bytes, and other relatively recent inventions.  An e-mail here – a facebook post there – a text message.  A step up from this is reading a real book, and I’ll do some of that too, if it’s a good day.  O so much of my life, though, is lived necessarily inside my head and the affect for me, and probably you too, is not good.  Like fluorescent lights, the disembodied life in the realm of ideas and virtual relationships has a subtle but damaging long term affect on our lives.  Wendell Berry, who still writes on a typewriter, has been declaring this for decades, like a prophet before his time.  Some of us are beginning to believe he’s onto something, including Phillip Zimbardo from Stanford, and Bill Plotkin, who is spending his life helping people get out of their heads.

What helps me get out of my head is exercising, outside, in whatever weather happens to be there.  It’s only by showing up consistently, darkness and light, rain and shine, that I’ll be able to learn from all the revelation God is offering me through creation.  Afternoons don’t work for me.  I’m spent.  So I force myself out, and after coffee with God, I’m soon running the stairs at the Greenlake Aqua Theater, which is the remnant of a place where everyone from Led Zeppelin to Bob Hope performed back in the day.  Now it’s just stairs, for sitting, or mostly, for crazy people who like to run up them early in the morning.

There’s nobody on the stairs this morning, but that’s unusual, because this is a great place to get your heart pumping.  I always regret getting out of bed to come here and I’m always excited to run them once I arrive.  My goal is to dash up them 14 times and I usually enjoy the first four of five sets.  After that, suffering joins the party and I’m faced with the constant realization that I don’t need to do this.  I’m alone so there’s no reputation to preserve.  There’s enough suffering in the world already, so why I am inflict more by doing this?  I always ponder quitting before 14.  I usually make my goal.  Today though, I’m flooded with inspiration, right in the midst of my suffering.

The value of the stairs, I realize, is that it’s a school of sorts, preparing me for the rest of my day and the rest of my life.  “How so?” you ask.  Here’s how:

1. It builds endurance.  There’s little in life worth doing that doesn’t require consistent showing up, even when you don’t feel like it.  Marriage is that way.  So is the priceless work of developing intimacy with Jesus.  So is developing whatever craft or calling belongs to you, or starting a business, or learning to ski better, or improving your communication skills, or leadership skills, or pottery skills…or any skills.  If you can’t break through and keep going when you feel like quitting, you’ll get stuck halfway up the mountain or halfway in your marriage.  It won’t be pretty.  Every time I run stairs I want to quit.  That’s a good thing because I’m not just exercising my legs and lungs, I’m exercising my will.

2. It builds capacity.  God spoke to the prophet Jeremiah once when he was discouraged, and God’s word seemed harsh on the surface of things.  Jeremiah was complaining about how hard life had become for he and his people, but instead of sympathy, God offers this word:  “If you’ve run with the footmen, and they’ve tired you out, how will you run with the horses?”  From this, I learn that I need to have not just “enough in my tank” for what I think life will throw at me, but hopefully, extra capacity, so that I’m able to serve, or give, or go the extra mile, or do what needs to be done – precisely by developing habits that create capacity.  We’d all do well to ask ourselves how we’re building extra capacity – body, soul, spirit – and if we’ve no answers, we’d do well to take a step towards building some.

3. It teaches you to look for joy in the midst of pain.   When the heart’s up to 170 and every breath feel inadequate, and I’m only on round 10 of 14, the best way for to me avoid the thought of quitting is to look for some beauty and soak it in.  It’s always there somehow – the silhouette of a runner, a flock of geese, a heron, a falling yellow leaf, eventually the sunrise itself.  I don’t know why this happens, but the beauty helps me continue because I think that at some primal level beauty is the continual reminder that life is still worth living.  Our disembodied virtual worlds can only offer imitations or at best representations of real beauty.  We need to get out and touch, taste, see if the transforming power of beauty is to bath our souls in life giving ways.

4. Bacon.  You think I’m kidding.  Consider Hebrews 11, which is the reminder that Moses endured all the suffering of his calling because he was looking “to his reward”.  After the stairs, four slices, with eggs covered in sun dried tomatoes and sprinkled with Romano cheese, an orange on the side.  After the hard marriage talk, or a few of them; genuine intimacy and revealing.  After the hard thing, the reward.  The principle extends all the way to grave, as Paul declares that the greatest reward of all is Christ himself.  My friend Hans Peter, who died this summer in an accident, said once that dying will be like “a kid running home to papa after his first day of school”.  Our willingness to do the right thing, even though the right thing often means delayed gratification or suffering, is the price of our transformation.  The reward?  Our transformation.

Why wouldn’t we?