Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

From Germany to Seattle – finding hope in the midst of grief

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Jun 6, 2014

My oldest daughter is a Seattle Pacific Alum and writes from Germany this morning as she ponders the tragic shootings here in Seattle and the  empty pages in the books that are the lives of her juniors in high school, encouraging each one to fill the pages with hope.  Her words about being grounded hope in the midst of bitter realities are appropriate, not just in Germany, but right here, right now, in Seattle.  May peace be upon us as we grieve and hope — here are her thoughts:

As my first period takes the first final of Exam Week, I’m reading news updates from Seattle, where a gunman recently opened fire on the campus of my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. Yesterday, I read this letter to my students, promising that while the general discontent of American Literature is an honest response to the real suffering inherent to human life, we have better dreams, rooted in the love of a Creator who cares for us. This seems appropriate this morning, as I consider the broken world in which we live, and mourning with and praying for peace of those who are suffering in my home city, halfway around the world.

Period Five enjoying sunshine at our Literary Picnic on the last day of school.

My Dear Juniors,

Happy last day of school! I know as well as you that there are a few more hurdles to conquer before we’re officially in Summer World, but as today is the last day of regular classes, it will have to do for a farewell, for now. For some of you, this is a first last day. For others, there have been more than ten, but I win this game, at least in present company. This is my nineteenth last day of school. I don’t expect that you’ll all become teachers, but for those who will, I’ll tell you that even on the nineteenth time, it doesn’t get old. The last day of school is still relaxing, the first one still thrilling, and snow days still a magical treat made of time and ice. It’s a good life I still get to live alongside you.

I used to be jealous of Ernest Hemingway, specifically the version of his life he portrayed in A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his early years in Paris. He described a life of simplicity, a pleasant parade of words, food and sunshine. I wanted that. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I have everything he has, and more. I am richer than Hemingway. Because for him, the picnics on the Seine, the trips to the Alps, the attic in which to write, these things were as good as it got. We’ve been blessed so richly, students, given this time and place in which to learn and grow, yet even when we leave this quiet, emerald valley, the glory doesn’t end. We go on living and learning, growing in peace and joy as we follow Christ down the wildly divergent paths ahead of us.

Coming once again through the brightly whimsical postmodern gates at the end of our (literary studies) journey together, I notice that the path of American Literature has hardly been a happy one. Though I enjoy every book we share, I know that none of them—not one—offers a picture of wholeness, peace or joy. While the Thoreaus of the world are hiding in their cabins, watching even the ants wage war with one another, the Steinbecks are still pestering us with the suspicion that human life is full of trouble and disappointment, that sometimes even the simplest dreams are out of reach.

Of course, we know all this. We know that life is full of both beauty and brokenness. Christ promised us that, while we live in this world, we’ll “have trouble. But take heart!” He continued. “I have overcome the world.” Having come to love and respect you, my students, I wish I could promise smooth roads to success, romantic dreams-come-true for all of you, but at the end of this year of sad and lovely literature, the true triumph is that these aren’t our stories. Though we’ll all encounter setbacks and disappointments, I’m confident that each of your futures, bound up in the unspeakable imagination of our Creator, is better than a house of your own, stronger than rabbits, more realistic than time travel, and more complicated than the most postmodern plot sequence.

Wherever you go, this summer or a year from now, take heart in the knowledge that you bring with you wide eyes to see the world around you, and strong hearts, full of the joy of Christ, with which to serve and love it. I am incredibly proud of the vibrant young people who you are becoming, and eager to see Christ’s work in you.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi Gaster  (you can follow her writings here)

“Christian” – a tired word. May it rest in peace.

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Dec 2, 2013

(in light of some conversations I’ve been having lately, here are some formative, not definitive, thoughts, about the words we use and how they affect our testimony)

When you talk to people and the subject of spirituality or faith comes up, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to use the word Christian in any meaningful way.  Here’s why:

Words, in order to have meaning, need to have boundaries.  The noun Hat can mean a lot of things –  ranging from a baseball hat, to a helmet for football or motorcycle riding, to a lovely hat for some sort of formal event, to an Amish head covering.  But we all know that it isn’t referring to a bottle, or a piece of cake, or a car.  The limits of words make conversation and understanding possible, and though words can have varieties of meanings, the boundaries need to “reasonable” or else the possibility of some real misunderstandings arise exponentially.

This brings me to the word I’m putting on trial:  Christian.  Here’s why:

“I’m not a Christian – I’m a democrat”, implying that Christian and a view of the world that favors higher taxes and bigger government are inherently, de-facto, incompatible.

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I was baptized when I was 8 months old.”

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I grew up in the church.” 

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I prayed the sinners prayer and went forward in church when I was nine” 

“No I don’t want to be a Christian.  Have you heard of the crusades?  Slavery?  The Christians were at the root of all that suffering.” 

“I’ll never be a Christian.  Just look at what Christian Europe did to our (African) continent.” 

You could go back through these comments and try to build a definition of the word Christian based on the answers, and what you’d end up with are six different definitions, but that’s only because I’ve shared six stories with you. I could share thirty, and then you’d have thirty definitions, each one diminishing the meaning of the word rather than clarifying.  The result?  The word has come to mean so many different things that it essential means nothing.

What’s a Christian to do? 

Continuing to use the word in the same way we talk about baseball and perfume, (assuming that everyone who’s listening knows what we mean by it) isn’t wise because we’re identifying ourselves with a word that, in the end, likely misrepresents us to the people who are listening.

If we’re not going to keep using it, there are only two options left: First, we can try to recover the word, offering a fresh definition.  I’ve been a fan of this strategy for a long time, believing that to surrender the meaning of the word to all its false detractors is sort of like raising a white flag and quitting the fight.  Isn’t it better to let everyone in the world know what the word really means by living out its true meaning for everyone to see?

Well, actually, no.  It’s not better at all.  That’s what I’ve come to believe at least.  I’m tired of fighting this battle and saying, “don’t confuse MY Christianity with that yucky stuff over there.  I’m not like that. I’m not like them” because these conversations have led to perhaps the worst definition of “Christian”-   “Christians fight with each other all the time!”  It’s a true statement, and ironic, since the one thing for which Jesus explicitly prayed is that Christ followers would be known by their unity. Instead, we’re known by our capacity to point out, more than any other religion in my opinion, how so many groups wearing the same word  Christian really aren’t – and are worse than us.

“Over here.  We have the real stuff!  We’re the real definition of Christian”  we shout, loud enough so that people already not interested in Jesus are now less interested than ever.

Nope.  I’m finished with that game, because the person not talked about very much in all this shouting is Jesus himself, which is ironic, because in the end, what we’re supposed to be doing is inviting people to follow Jesus.  The name calling, doctrinal fighting, and presumptive claiming of moral high is a game that’s worn me down.  But when all the shouting, and divisions, and pleas for institutional loyalty have died down, what I love is that Jesus is still here in the room with me.

“I’ve been waiting for you man.  Where have you been?”

“O you know.  Out and about, promoting your faith.” I know I look tired, and it’s a little embarrassing because he seems so calm, so centered, almost unconcerned that I’ve been running myself ragged for him.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that” he says, sipping his coffee.  “You’re confusing people.  Don’t promote ‘my faith’.  Why don’t you try just telling people about me?  People are tired.  They’re dealing with shame and failure.  They’re living in the midst of kingdoms that are enslaving them.  I want to bless them, help them, heal them, invite them to rest.  They don’t need religion. They need me.”

“I thought I was telling them about you.”  I say, defensive.  Jesus reminds me that telling people to “go to church” or “become Christians” are phrases so loaded with toxic junk that they do more harm than good.

“I think that’s why Paul said that he was determined to know nothing more than Christ crucified.  It might even be what Bonhoeffer meant when we referred to religionless Christianity.  But even those words are too loaded.  Just love people like I do.  And tell people about me.  Good things will happen.” 

It’s advent.  “Messiah” is playing on my computer, reminding me that the whole arc of history is, in the end, not about Christianity at all.  It’s about one person who changes everything, ultimately saturating the universe with glory and beauty, bringing hope and healing to all.  I pray that my eyes, this advent, will be looking for him all the time, talking about him freely, and giving him the freedom to do what he does best through the likes of me; love, serve, bless, and impart hope.

Yes.  I’m burying the word Christian… if it rises from the dead, so be it.  But may it never rise unless it represents the pure unadulterated glory of the risen Christ.  Amen?

These are my thoughts… still forming.  I welcome yours!

Faith, Sight, and Cairnes on trails: Examining the “historical” Jesus in the bestseller: “Zealot”

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Sep 11, 2013

ImageReza Aslan has written “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”.  I’ve read much of it and will have finished it by Monday night so that I can chat intelligently about it at The Kindlings Muse (Seattle folk: Hale’s Brewery, 7-8:30, register here).  I don’t want to spoil the upcoming event, so the focus of this post isn’t the book.  Instead, the author’s foundational statements are a launching pad for a single consideration:  what if there’s a gap between the Jesus we think we know, and the actual historical Jesus.

At the outset, Aslan shares his testimony of becoming a Christian, and then his predictable college deconstruction of his faith, as he writes,  “the more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unblievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.”  He goes on to write, “No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.”

Aslan’s attempt to unearth the real Jesus and deconstruct the evangelical Jesus is fraught with huge faith leaps, contradictions, and assumptions in my opinion – but I’ll save that critique for Monday night.  In spite of my disagreements with him though, the author has provoked a valuable conversation about the limits of knowing, the role of faith, and way we choose how to live.

The Limits of Knowing –

Aslan makes the claim that we can’t know history accurately, but that it doesn’t matter, because “The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age”  It’s not rocket science to counter with the observation that history is, by nature, not observable.  Nobody alive today observed Lincoln’s assassination.  History is the testimony of eyewitnesses and, like criminal cases today, its ours to consider the weight of evidence, the credibility of the authors, and decide whether to believe or not.

The certainty of our conclusions, though, gets thinner as history gets older.  It’s become trendy to get all postmodern with respect to ancient history and say, “we simply don’t know”, to which I would reply, no, you don’t KNOW, with all caps and a big bold font.  But you can still know enough to take a step.  In fact, you must take step, because even your failure to take a step is, itself, a step, a declaration that you know enough to know that you can’t know enough to take a step.

We are hemmed in, all of us, to the necessity of taking steps, even when we don’t know with certainty, and that’s OK.  “We walk by faith, not by sight”

The Role of Faith

The strength of post-modernity, though, is the acknowledgement that everyone walks by faith – believer, agnostic, atheist alike.  We walk by faith, because we’re making choices about things that are eternal and invisible.  These things require a different means of choosing than the choice we make when we drive from Seattle to Portland.  The map tells us that we head south on I-5.  We do it.  We get there.  It’s verifiable immediately.  History isn’t.  Neither is the afterlife.

So, we need more faith when deciding what we’ll believe about Christ, than we do when considering whether i-5 south will get a person from Seattle to Portland.

It’s ironic to me, then, that at a time when the world is finally beginning to acknowledge that there are limits to knowing, and that much in our lives requires faith, there are Christians declaring that they can “prove” the resurrection, or the worldwide flood.  They come out with mounds of evidence, all but saying that believing in the historicity of the whole bible doesn’t require any faith at all.  This is rubbish.  We’re better off acknowledging that faith leaps aren’t blind, but are based on some evidence.  We take into account the trustworthiness of the testimony, the strength of the evidence and then, KNOWING WE DON’T KNOW, take a step.  That step is called faith.  To imply that such a step isn’t needed because we can “prove” history is not only foolish, its unbiblical.

How we choose to live.

ImageIt’s one thing to hop on the interstate, map in hand, and head to some city.  It’s another thing entirely to hike, leave the trail, and negotiate the backcountry with nothing more than the narrative from a book of Cascade Scrambles, and a sketchy map copied from the same.  In such a setting, especially when negotiating scree fields that have no hint of a trail or boot path, you’ll tune your senses to look for signs.  On scree fields, those signs will be cairns, little stacks of rocks that are intended to point the way.  They’re placed by others who’ve gone before you and are trying to help by pointing the way.   You pass a cairn and then you stop and look carefully for the next one.  Each movement towards a cairn is an act of faith, a belief that there weren’t hikers there before you who had something to gain by misleading you.  Could there be such hikers, with misleading cairns?  Of course.  That’s why its called faith.  But you trust, you go, you continue one, looking carefully, walking carefully, and over time you become more and more certain, because of your sense of direction, that the placers of the cairns were telling the truth.

The gospels and early church history are cairns for me.  Do I know that Jesus rose from the dead in the same way I know that I’m typing this on a mac computer?  Nope.  But I believer, and my belief isn’t a shot in the dark.  I’m following the cairns, markers placed on the trail of history by those who clearly had nothing to gain, humanly speaking, by their testimony.  Peter?  Crucified upside down.  James?  Beheaded.  Thomas?  Possibly boiled in hot oil.  The martyrdom of the disciples and the early church is well attested history by credible sources, and they died believing Jesus to be who he said he was – Messiah, Savior, King.  I’ll put my faith dollar there, gladly.

Another set of cairns for me happen to be the saints of history.  Even if none of its true, I’d rather live like Bonhoeffer, or Sophie Scholl, or Dorothy Day, or MLK, or Paul Brand, then settle into a smaller story of either fearfully ‘safe’ living, or a Hemingway like pursuit of ‘adventure for adventure’s sake’.  The narcissism of adventurers and suburbanite conformists are, in the end, still narcissists.  I’d rather live for something larger than myself, so that when Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life – lived to the full – to point of overflowing” I say, by faith in the thousands of cairns dotting the historical landscape, “I’m in!  Sign me up”  –