The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day… life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal.
In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world – all quotes by Nicholas D. Kristof from “Half the Sky”
One of the challenges that the church faces is that it has often been, rightly, accused of being part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to elevating the identity, calling, authority, strength, and leadership of women in the world. Women have been censored, marginalized, shut out from positions of spiritual leadership, treated as property, burned as witches, tortured and killed as heretics , and abused.
I, for one, would like the church I lead to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. This is why we’re presently in a series on “Called by God: Women of the Bible”. In this series my intent is to show how God has called women to frontline visible ministries as prophetesses, Apostles, judges, leaders in civil disobedience, teachers, and more. I’ll also be offering, both on this blog and on our church website, some further discussion about critical questions related to the subject of women in the Bible. I hope you’ll subscribe and join us for the discussion.
I’ve been in church settings where men have walked out when a woman opened the Bible and began to teach or preach. I grew up in a church where women had very confined roles, none of which had to do with teaching or decision making authority. I’m part of a generation that, for the most part, embraced the culturally defined gender roles of “Fiddler on the Roof”. None of this strident patriarchy was fabricated out of thin air. The views come from a certain way of reading the Bible. The reading creates the culture. The culture reinforces the prevailing reading, which deepens the culture still further. And so it goes.
Here’s what can change that:
1. Consider a fresh reading of the Bible. It’s vital to recognize the danger of “cherry picking” certain passages and building entire ethical constructs out of them. My own movement away from strong patriarchy began with the realization that not everything in the Bible that God proscribes applies for all time. We don’t continue executing disobedient children, for example. Women are no longer viewed as property as they so clearly were under Old Testament Law.
Ethics change because God’s revelation is ripening, ultimately to find its fullest blossoming in the person of Christ. In Jesus’ narrative, a woman becomes the first evangelist. Another becomes exemplary of what it means to love God. Two more are the first eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. Paul the apostle doesn’t miss a beat in his continuing liberation of women as he speaks of a female Apostle, and of “when” women prophesy in the gathered faith community. I know there are questions about particular texts that seem to indicate confinement to certain roles, and I’ll deal with these in forthcoming material. For now know this: Christ’s example liberates women from previously constrained roles. Paul, if somewhat covertly, continues to develop that same trajectory. So should we.
2. Recognize the difference between Biblical mandate and culture norms. Many women have grown up in a culture of unequal pay, in churches that silenced them, and in homes where the word ‘submission’ was unilaterally imposed on women by men, but never applied to men (as the Bible declares it should be). These women have a weight of cultural baggage to overcome. When Paul says that believers are to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds” this is a classic example of what he’s talking about. Transformation comes from recognizing cultural mores and swimming upstream against them. Men can help women do that by recognizing that they have unique callings
My wife’s perspective is that it’s difficult for a woman to find her true voice because there’s been a historical cultural weight of expectations that have kept women on a clearly defined and constricting path. She says, “Men have often thought of women as fish in a channel. Men have tried to help women get from point A to point B by ‘helping them’, which is tantamount to straightening the stream or building fish ladders. The intention is good, but still too confining. The problem is that women are actually birds, and we can get to God’s appointed destiny of our calling by making our own prayerful decisions, finding our own path with our own unique giftedness as women.”
3. Find your gifts and use them. In the end, one of the reasons I believe women are called to any position in the church is because the last thing I’d ever want to do is censor someone from using gifts that God has given them. In Romans 12, we read that some are called to, variously, give, serve, teach, and lead. Far be it from me to prevent someone from using a certain gift because of their gender! All of us must work at understanding our strengths and how God has created us, and as we do this we’ll find those endeavors which a) bring us great joy b) we’re naturally good at and c) are affirmed by others because others are blessed by our doing them. Those endeavors are where we must focus our time.
How many women, though, have been unable to do that because of the cultural and spiritual forces of patriarchy which shut them out?
It can be otherwise, and it often begins with deconstructing the notion that women have confined roles. They’re not fish in a stream. They’re birds, with a world of heights available to them. It’s time to fly.
It’s not just that it’s been happening throughout history. It’s our collective complicity with it, through knowing and not speaking, through seeing and not saying. It’s the “this is just the way it is” of it that is at the heart of the blight. Turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, misogyny, and the abuse of power in relationships has been happening for millenia. These dark sins have, it seems, been so deeply woven into the fabric of our culture that they’ve gone tragically unnoticed.
Thanks be to God, the tide is turning. Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner occurred at a time when they were viewed as isolated incidents years and decades ago, and presidential liaisons before that were hushed up completely. But the rapid recent succession of Donald Trump, Bill O Reily, Roger Ailes, and now the Weinstein situation have brought the issue out onto the mainstage of culture, front and center. That’s good news, but only if we respond rightly and become part of the healing solution. So how should we respond?
Reject all objectification of women. It’s too easy for those who’ve never been guilty of overt abuse to wash their hands in false self righteousness, ready as they are to throw their stones. But the wise person will see abuse clothed in power as the presenting problem and travel further upstream to find the source of the malady. When he does, he’ll find that always, before there’s abuse, there’s an objectification – the reduction of a woman made in God’s image to nothing more than a body, a thing that exists solely for the satisfaction of the onlooker, as he uses her to fill some destructive void in his life. If this is the real problem, perhaps there’s not a man among us who isn’t guilty – and perhaps this is why Jesus took lust so seriously here.
Overcoming habits of objectification will require an active re-training of our senses, our interior thought life, because the reality is that our culture is complicit in the sex abuse problem, reducing women to objectified images in advertising, bait click portraits, movies, sitcoms, and shopping malls – let alone the vast world of porn. Every time I reduce a woman’s image or her presence to an object existing for my pleasure and satisfaction, I become part of the problem, feeding the purveyors of objectification yet another reason to continue and intensify their offerings.
I get it guys. You’re lonely, stressed, frustrated, insecure. You want comfort, intimacy, less stress, or at least a momentary hit of plelasure – and they all seem out of reach, so you reach for what’s so readily available in our culture and presto – problem solved. You leave satisfied. Except the problem isn’t solved – at all. The only thing that’s changed is that you’ve become weaker. You’ve made an offering to the gods of darkness intent on deepening the strongholds of abuse. O, and one other thing happened. Another woman was used – another story, another wall, another wound.
There’s a better way, and it starts with walking away from every whiff of objectification. And the courage to walk away usually begins by believing that I have a life and calling all my own, a completion in Christ that is real. Because of this, though I might feel lonely and frustrated at times, to the extent that I embrace my deepest and truest identity, I’m freed from letting the false void of inadequacy drive my behavior. I’ve no need to grab, fondle, or even fantasize about doing so, because I’ve an actual life to live, full of serving and sharing, blessing and building. Real life trumps fantasies and objectifications every time.
Restore the primacy of character in our voting, employment, and education. The words of Mr. Trump, caught on “access hollywood” tape should have been a warning: this is a man driven to conquer people, to use them, to acquire them as objects for his own purposes. “… and they let you get away with it…” He’s not the first president with the problem, by any means. Just the crassest, and most cavalier – on tape anyway. The scourge is well resourced with presidents from both parties.
The point isn’t perfection. One look at Abraham, or Noah, or David remind us that perfection isn’t the point. What’s happened in our culture, though, is that our silence, and our collective turning the other way, and our voting, have all become forms of tacit approval, not of those who have failed and know it, but of those for whom the misuse of power as a means of using a woman for sexual satisfaction became normal, even a matter for boasting.
All people are created in God’s image, and as such, none are ever to be treated as objects existing for the profit and pleasure of those with more power. Sadly, this has been one of the most violated truths in the history of the world, including American history. Blacks were literally property, for centuries, as confirmed “on the books” of insurance companies and banks whose records go back to the times of the colonies. American Indians? Objects. Women? Objects for sexual pleasure, void of voting rights, employment rights, equal pay rights, or even the most basic right of all – the right to walk through the world with the confidence that you’re being seen as a whole person, not an object to be used and discarded.
Are you intent on putting people in positions of power who believe in the dignity of all people, precisely because all are made in God’s image? Are you interested in ending the objectification culture that has wounded women in America for centuries? Are you going to take steps, as you’re able, to break down the dividing walls of racism, classism, and sexism that are a blight on both American culture and (too often) the church?
When Christians are outraged over a movie, it’s nearly certain that, not only will I like it, but that there will be an element of the gospel clearly presented. It happened years ago with Avatar. Now it’s happened again with Disney’s new version of “Beauty and Beast”.
Though I didn’t want to go because our pre-purchased tickets collided with an important basketball game on TV (yes – I’m that shallow), it was a family event, and I was persuaded it was “the right thing to do”. My intent was to check the score regularly, ducking under my seat and checking my phone, becoming one of those rude people in the theater who can’t seem to just sit and enjoy the movie. I checked early, but was soon deeply drawn in and forgot about the game entirely because something better was unfolding before my eyes: the timeless story of redemption, seen through the lens of fairy tale.
New to this version is the notion that the villagers once had a relationship with the prince, before his heart was hardened and he was ultimately placed under a curse. Part of the curse, though, was a sort of amnesia descending on the whole village, so that they forgot their identity with the prince, and identity which was recovered only after acts of profoundly sacrificial love led to the breaking of the curse.
The loss of identity and relationship is, to my mind, why the village is trapped in xenophobia, illiteracy, fear, and a destructive patriarchy. The cycle of darkness continues as the villagers, in this heightened state of anxiety, are prone to listen to voices that feed on fear, inciting more fear and anger. Rational voices and truth are drowned out by the loudest voices, lies, and insults. Sound familiar?
In Mark 6:34 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”. Forgetting their identity as the people of God, forgetting that they were made for peace, generosity, the confident rest that comes from receiving deep love and blessing, they lived as if they were on their own. This led to various forms of legalism, pride, anger, and violence.
Nothing’s changed, of course. The profound human dilemma is that we’re seeking to know who we are – in relation to each other, to creation, to eternity, and to our creator. Until we get this right, the identity vacuum renders us vulnerable to all manner of voices inciting us to fear, hate, and violence.
The curse is broken in the movie, of course. It’s broken in real life too. The profound word of Christ on the cross that “it is finished” means that his act of sacrificial love has opened the way for us to live once again as free children of God, enjoying shalom, living in joy, and blessing our world.
The difference between the move and reality, though, is that we seem reticent to live without fear and hate, even though the curse has been broken. Why is this?
The answer to that question is, perhaps, for a different day.
For now though, I’ll note that Paul had the same habit of finding gospel truth outside the Bible and building bridges between the questions/critiques offered by artists and authors and the eternal truth found in Christ.
We’d be wise to take a cue from him. After all, when he quotes Greek poets, he’s quoting polytheists, and doing so as a means of defending and inviting people to Christ. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t agree with polytheism. Wherever he sees a kernel of truth, he celebrates it!
Many Christians have lost that capacity, preferring instead only to point out areas of disagreement. So there you go. You’ve shown where you’re right and they’re wrong. You’ve entrenched a stereotype that Christians are haters. You’ve built a wall.
Congratulations. But make no mistake. You’ll pay for your own wall.
The better way? Paul rejoices wherever he finds a vestige of truth and so Greek poets find their way into his preaching, just like Eminem, Beyonce, Van Gogh, Disney, Billy Joel, and more find their way into mine. Truth is truth, and wherever it’s found we should rejoice.
It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington. I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music. I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me. I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty. It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately. Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane. By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots. We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.
I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined. I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer. “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed. “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything. We belong there.” I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor. Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child. It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state. The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday. When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here. Home.
Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves. My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place, a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!
The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings. But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given. Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others. It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness. “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss. I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.
When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear. The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons. I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me. Wow! And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7. Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence: the gifts will come, are likely here already. Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude. They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.
Yes it’s a broken world. Yes there are clouds on the horizon. Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good. Christ is still here. And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.
January 18th was my 60th birthday and it was more than just a great day. It was an awakening. The day unfolded differently than I’d anticipated. Early rising, intense exercise, and solitude were the anticipated words of the day because these are things that, for most of my life, I’ve assumed to be life giving and energizing. They’re the things I usually choose, or have been prone to choose.
I don’t know if it’s the 60 thing, or some other winds of change blowing through the soul these days, but this birthday unfolded completely differently, so the last post, this post, and the next one are devoted to the three things I did differently on my birthday, each of which has changes for the better.
After sleeping in, we soon received texts from the neighbors who were putting together a neighborhood ski day. My wife, ever the lover of getting together and connecting, was all in. I wasn’t so sure. A year ago, when I realized my birthday was going to land on a holiday, I’d secretly declared a goal to myself that I’d ski 60′ vertical feet on my birthday, as a sort of feeble attempt to mock the inevitability of aging. “Take that!” I’d shout after 8 solid hours of hard skiing. Aging would smile condescendingly, knowing that the house always wins. But whatever…that was my plan.
The neighbors have children, and skiing with children wasn’t on my radar. Neither, for that matter, was skiing with grown up neighbors. It would be slower. It would be conversational. It would be limiting. I’ve always, at the least, been as comfortable with a day skiing alone as I’ve been skiing with friends. There are a dozen reasons for that, all beyond the scope of this post.
Suffice it say that when Donna suggested we ski with the neighbors, my response was, predictably, “I’ll do a run with you guys. But then I’m leaving. I need a good workout today.”
Yes. That’s right Richard. Use exercise as an excuse for isolation. It’s worked well before because it sounds so self-disciplined, so good, so pure.
We arrive and are quickly in line with the neighbors, and as fate would have it, I ended up with my neighbor Paul’s daughters: Elizabeth and Georgia. I’d been in rooms with them, at neighborhood parties before, and down at the end of street in the summers when we neighbors play pickle-ball, but I didn’t know them, not really, for the simple reason I’d never made the effort.
Turns out the loss was all mine. We started skiing together and these girls ski fearlessly, joyfully, with a childhood delight that made skiing with them some sort of shalom, by which I mean a window into peace, wholeness, and hospitality. They’d cut into the trees, take little jumps, go literally anywhere I suggested, even as I’d follow them on routes previously unknown to me.
Then there were the rides up on the lifts, learning about who likes math, and who likes swimming, and horses, and about life on a few acres outside Tacoma, and what they do at the cabin when they’re not skiing (checkers, sledding, “hangin’ out”…)
Their dad helped Donna and redesign the space under our deck so that it could become a decent wood storage space. He’s a sort of renaissance man – teacher, inventor, pilot, woodworker – and delightful role model as both dad and husband. I’d had a few conversations with him over the months, but the girls, never.
Until today. By the end of the day, I’d only skied 5200 vertical feet, instead of my normal 20,000, and my ridiculous goal of 60k. But I’d never, in recent memory, enjoyed skiing more. The family would come over later that evening, with other neighbors, for some cookies and milk, a little birthday celebration, and I learned that they actually enjoyed skiing with me, which way maybe the best gift of my 60th birthday. It was a wake up call, a discovery…or at the least, rediscovery.
In this year of my 60th birthday, as I think about what I need to prioritize if I’m going to continue enjoying the life God has for me, a morning of skiing with the neighbor girls taught me a vital lesson:
We’re made for relationships and community. I’d read a great book recently about habits that help make us healthy, entitled, “The Primal Connection” documents that social isolation dramatically depresses one’s immune system, and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease, concluding that a lack of social connectedness is the health equivalent of smoking a pack a day, or drinking excessively. Wow! Apparently when God says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” God’s talking about something that’s good for you, both life giving and enjoyable!
Of course most of you know this, but there are two groups who are vulnerable.
First Group at Risk : There are some of us who write, study, teach, and live inside our heads creating ideas and interacting with ideas – so much so that this cerebral world becomes more important than flesh and blood. I’ll confess to you that this world sometimes feels safer than the messiness of relationship, so I’ve sometimes chosen isolation far too readily. I’m repenting now…and regretting what I’ve missed.
Second Group at Risk: The rest of you. You’re the ones who are better and texting than talking. Better at facebook than face to face. Better at virtual reality than real reality. You’re on the bus not talking to people. You’re in bed not talking with your spouse. You’re eating in front of a screen. You’re failing to understand that eye contact, activities together, and actual contact face to face and heart to heart is the life for which you’re created. You’ve traded that richness in for a fake world, a highlight reel that’s void of vulnerability, authenticity, and human touch.
That birthday gift of skiing with neighbors was more than just fun. It rocked my world, calling me to repent of isolation, especially my isolation painted over with the thin spiritual veneer of solitude, or commitments to health. Posh. I’m praying I’ll spend the rest of my days investing much more intentionally in loving my neighbors, blessing and serving, being in the thick of the laughter, shared burdens, and shared joys that comes from being part of a tribe.
Thanks Georgia and Elizabeth. Best. Birthday. Ever.
As the cemetery comes into view on this spectacular January afternoon, I feel as if I’m being transported back in time, because this little piece of geography is so ripe with memories that all the feelings attending those memories flood to the surface, unbidden. I see the canopy where the graveside service will take place, but we’re early; early enough that we’ve time for a little drive. I head out, a bit further from the center of Kingsburg, to the land my grandpa farmed, the place where we’d put grapes on trays to dry in the scorching sun when we were kids. He had grapes and peaches, but now everything’s gone. All the cropland has just recently been stripped of any vestige of tree or vine, so empty soil, ready for a new generation of fruitfulness, surrounds the house. The soil’s the same, more or less, only now empty, which is somehow fitting for the occasion.
Just down the road a bit more, is where my aunt had a peach farm. Her land, too, has changed. Where the farmhouse that felt ancient fifty years ago once stood, there’s a modern ranch home complete with a bevy of solar panels leaning up against the south wall. Beyond the walls of the cemetery, it seems that life goes on; new crops, new houses, new families…new.
Returning to the cemetery though, all that’s new on this day will be an addition: Betty Nadine Dahlstrom, who died just before Christmas, at the age of 95. There are a few family members present and the service is short, a bit understated perhaps. I can say that because I was the officiant. The gold of the day came after the service. I’d wanted my youngest daughter to see some of the other headstones of family members, but they were all covered by the cheap artificial astro-turf that’s placed, temporarily, under the canopy, in order to provide solid footing for guests as the pass by the coffin before it’s lowered into the ground.
“I didn’t come this far to miss showing my daughter her family story” I said to myself, and so asked the landscape guy who would soon be putting mom’s body in the ground if we could peel away the AstroTurf to look at the other stones. A strange request, no doubt, but he accommodated, and soon we were looking at all the names, with their year and month of death:
Oscar Stokes – February 1972
Lillian Stokes – April 1973
Romaine Dahlstrom – October 1973
Esther Dahlstrom – 1975
Dorothy Stokes – April 1976
I’d known the “what” of my own story quite well. Right in the midst of that dark time of losing all my grandparents, I’d graduated from high school. The festival of death that reigned down on our family plunged me into a depression and faith crisis, hidden from most, but nonetheless real to me. At the time of my dad’s untimely death I’d decided that nothing was nailed down, no meaningful relationship secure. The same thing happens, of course, when there’s infidelity, or abandonment, but at least then you can rage at the perpetrator. In my story though, God was the perpetrator (or so it seemed at the time) and I was in a church with precious little space for honest to God grief, as Sundays were filled with praise music that seemed absurd, or dishonest, at least for me in that time and space.
So, instead of getting angry, I got depressed, but determined, at the same time, to leave a mark beyond the brief matchlight of my life by designing cool spaces as an architect. I was running from God, as sure as Jacob, or Jonah, or Moses, or any of the other graybeards of old. We all had different reasons, but the results are the same. It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want with it, so leave me alone.
Ah, but it didn’t work out that way at all, because in my pursuit of autonomous plans, I made my way to a state school, so called secular, and there met Christians robust with joy who drew me into their circle through love. I was doubting, they believed. I had health problems related to my depression. They didn’t care. I was confused about everything. They had a faith that believed God changed lives, swapping out anxiousness and replacing it with peace, or despair with hope. You get the picture.
And then, already drawn to the light, I went to a retreat up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, solely because a cute blonde invited me. Looking back, I can see that the stars were aligned for a mega shift in my life. The Christian students in my dorm had loved me well and I was not only finding my way out of the depression, but was experiencing a strange growing longing to share this same kind of love with others because it was working such magic in healing my own soul.
Yes, but how? I was still angry with God for stealing my dad. Every time I thought about my mom, and the reality that she lost both her parents, her husband, and her beloved mother-in-law in the span of two years, the doubts and anger grew. “No loving God would steal everyone in that short a time, so maybe God doesn’t exist at all” was one line of thinking. I was caught between hope and despair, and honestly, being pulled in both directions.
Then it happened. At that winter camp, in pursuit of that cute blonde, I made my way into the chapel for the evening talk. It was on Jeremiah 9:23ff, about how the only thing in this broken world that’s worth boasting about is that we know God. The word had a ring of truth to it even though the God I thought I knew a bit about might not be worth knowing. Still, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and when the preacher pointed directly at me and said, “There are some of you in this room who need to make knowing God the number one priority of your life,” I knew that I knew that I knew God was speaking to me!
I didn’t know what would change by making knowing God a central goal of life. I didn’t even know if I’d like what I found. But I knew I wanted to know God better, and so after the talk I went outside on a starry night, and knelt down in the snow to pray. I told God that I wanted to make knowing Him the central priority of my life. I didn’t know what would happen because I prayed that prayer, but I didn’t think it would be anything dramatic.
I was wrong. Seven months later I was packing my red Ford Mustang with my few possessions and driving north to Seattle. Having never been north of Sacramento in my life, I was heading to Seattle Pacific University to study music, with an eye toward somehow entering ministry. What happened after that retreat was that the big deal in my life became sharing with other people that knowing God was worth the effort. This is because inexplicably, something started immediately inside me. I surely didn’t have all the answers to all the questions; still don’t. At the same time, the gaping void of loneliness in my soul was being filled with God, and more strangely still, a sense of companionship with God.
As a result, I found myself more interested in my role as piano player in the Sunday night bible study my friends were leading than I was in designing apartments for my drafting class. I was sleeping better, more fully engaged with people, less worried about the future. The poisonous introspection that had attended my depression and insecurity was replaced by a quiet confidence that, come what may, God would be my companion in this journey called life, and the reality of that gave me a joy, confidence, and peace that had been missing for about a decade. By the end of the school year, I knew that I needed to share this good news with others as much as possible, and so I changed majors and changed schools with an eye toward some sort of ministry.
The day at the cemetery to bury mom’s body was preceded by a day at the camp in the mountains, a pilgrimage of sorts, to thank the good Lord for the landscape of my life. It was the convergence of these two spots on the planet—Sugar Pine Camp, and Kingsburg Cemetery, that showed me that the life I live is precisely the fruit of new life born out of loss.
And this, dear friends, is the glory of the gospel. It’s not that we’re granted immunity from suffering. Far from it. The grand hope that is ours in Christ is that in this broken world, where loss in a thread woven into the fabric of everyone’s story, God’s wisdom is able to turn every loss into gain. It’s still loss; of that there’s no doubt. We can mourn, must mourn, because loss, and loneliness, and betrayal, is what happens in a fallen world.
But loss needn’t define us, because every loss opens a door for new facets of God’s character to be experienced in our lives. Of course I wish my dad had been at my wedding. Of course I wish he’d known his grandkids, and the fine folk they married. Even more, I wish they’d known him. But no. It’s a fallen world, and numerous bouts of pneumonia as a child meant dad had weak lungs that would catch up to him and steal his life at 55. The loss though, prepared the soil, and the life I’ve known, the wife I’ve married, the places I’ve travelled, the friends of made—all of it has sprouted in the soil stripped bare by loss. Wow. That’s a story a worth telling.
My daughter Holly is bent down, in tears, over my dad’s tombstone. I kneel down with her and cry. “I wish you could have known him,” I said. And yet I wonder—if she’d have had the chance to know him, would I have ever lived in Seattle? Ever met my wife? Would Holly have ever been born? And that’s when it hits me—the glory of the gospel is its profound capacity to turn loss into gain, as evidenced by the cross itself.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! Romans 11
In two weeks I’ll be home, preparing to meet people in the church I lead who I haven’t seen in nearly three months. Their priceless gift of a sabbatical has blessed me with a rare opportunity for extended time away from church life, American culture, and the day-to-day responsibilities of my job. As a result, I’ll return restored spiritually and emotionally, refreshed and stronger physically (up to around 500k in hiking, running mileage now), and challenged.
I’m challenged because these three months have been a concentrated time away from teaching, studying, and writing, three activities I enjoy and look forward to doing again when I return. As much as I enjoy them though, I’ve come to see them as dangerous because America’s about education, and among American cities, Seattle’s all the more about education, and among Seattle churches, the church I lead, filled with university students and professors is even all the more about education. We’re educated. Highly.
All this education has upsides of course, but this trip has made me aware of the downside. That’s because I’ve met lots people with little formal education who in spite of their “lack” have poured generosity, service, hospitality, and joy, from their cups to ours, over and over again. Whether it’s been food, hospitality, the gift of sunglasses at a hut when mine had been stolen, directions offered when uncertain of the way to go, a much needed ride from strangers, or bus drivers signalling ahead to another bus so that it wait would for us, so that we’d make our train connection, we’ve seen people with large hearts, who allowed themselves to be inconvenienced in order to care for us.
Remember that story in the Bible about the guy who gets robbed and beaten up? Jesus uses it to draw a distinction between the educated religious leaders who, in spite of their eloquent sermons and theological precision, frankly didn’t give a damn about the wounded victim, even though they knew Hebrew. Then there was the Samaritan. He’s the one who, for the purposes of this story, is, (are you ready for this?): Blue Collar. He never went to college, earns below the median wage, and is having a hard time affording the new mandated health care. He doesn’t enjoy reading C.S. Lewis much and doesn’t even know who N.T. Wright is. He can’t tell the difference between a Neo-Calvinist, and a Rob Bell devotee because frankly, he’s too tired at the end of the day to read all the blogs and add his own comments. Besides, he doesn’t really care.
He works. He comes home and cares for all the things that need to be cared for in life—shopping, cooking, maintenance, friendships. You’re not even sure where he stands on most issues because in small group he doesn’t say much. He prays. He’s not perfect, God knows. He’s got issues, but he’s working on them. In the meantime though, until he’s perfect, his greatest joy isn’t found in talking about faith. It’s found in living it—“boots on the ground” as the saying goes.
When there’s a need in the shelter though, he volunteers.
When there’s a homeless person outside TJ’s he often makes the time to engage in conversation.
When there’s a neighbor in the hosptial, he’s there with meals, and laughter, and maybe even an awkward prayer.
He’s as generous with his limited money as he is with his time. He doesn’t know where he stands on the issues of homosexuality and gun control, but he’s had dinner with the newly married gay couple on his block, and the NRA guy whose Jeep has a bumper sticker with something about his “cold dead hand.”
Who is this guy? Never went to seminary. Falls asleep in most Bible studies. Wakes up immediately when someone needs a helping hand.
The point Jesus is making in Luke 10:36 is that this (along with loving God) is the point of the Christian life. And in that story, the protagonist is a Samaritan for God’s sake; a compromising half-breed who “anyone with a Bible degree would know is an outsider because his belief system takes him to the wrong mountain, and my pastor, who has a PHD (or is “super funny and edgy”) says that such people are…” blah blah blah.
Talk on if you must, o educated one. I’m tired.
Tired of doctrine being more important than living.
Tired of words being more important than actions.
Tired of writing about life as a substitute for living it.
Tired of Sunday being viewed as the peak experience of faith rather than Monday, or especially, Tuesdays.
Tired of hype and zeal on the surface, and pride and greed at the core.
Tired of ministry professionals like me thinking they have all the answers for “the little people.”
I don’t know all the ways that I’ve changed as a result of being on sabbatical. But I know this much: in the days to come, my criteria for personal health and spiritual maturity will have more to do with how I know and treat my neighbors, friends, co-workers, and those in need around me, than the size of my church, the “impact” of my sermons, or the hits on my website.
I know this because I’ve been pierced by the degree to which I’ve often lived alone, inside my head these past years, as slowly, I confused right thinking, and speaking/writing about right thinking, with spiritual maturity.
I suspect I’m not alone, because look at what Phil Yancey has to say in his upcoming book:
We’re good, it seems, at talking about Jesus—who he was, what he taught and stood for, how he died, how he rose, why it matters, and what people should do about it. I’m just suspicious (and so are lots of other people apparently) that I, maybe even we, have elevated our words as the real proving ground of maturity. When we do that, huge blind spots will remain and we’ll think we’re fine, when we’re really far from the life Jesus has for us.
It’s a dilemma for me. This is because words still matter. We grow in response to revelation and my calling and gifts have to do with teaching God’s revelation so others can respond. So we all need words in our lives, and I need to study words, teach words, write words.
And yet, I need and want to make room in my life for actually putting those words into practice with real neighbors, and co-workers, and friends, and family. How does it all fit together?
That’s the question I bring home with me, but this much I know—if something’s gotta give, it won’t be the living of it any more—that’s become a higher priority. Pray that I’ll live it. New adventures await, as I learn to be a Samaritan… who’s in?
My predecessor at the church I lead in Seattle served that community for 38 years. The farmers in these high Alps have held the same land, stewarding the soil and shepherding the flocks entrusted to them, for generations. Fred Beckey is still climbing in his 90’s, in the mountains he’s been exploring since 1936. And yes, there are healthy marriages where spouses are still in love, having been faithful to each other in every way for over half a century.
In a world where leaders often burn out, melt down, get bored, or create some sort of credibility gap that forfeits them from leadership, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to be the kind of person whose life is characterized by longevity and sustainability rather than crisis and frequent change.
As I return to Seattle, soon to begin my 19th year in ministry at the same church, and begin my 25th year of teaching with Torchbearers this week, it’s become clear to me that there are some (at least five) non-negotiable values anyone interested in “being in it for the long haul” should assess, develop, and fan into flame. I don’t offer these from some high point of arrival, but I do offer them as priorities that I’m trying to continually build into my life so that I’ll be able to use the gifts God’s given me for many more years. The values?
1. Teachability/Humility – This is the most important thing of all, because pride seems to be, as C.S. Lewis says, “the greatest sin” due to the reality that it shuts us off from receiving much needed truth so that we might continue to grow. When we refuse to let other people speak hard truth into our lives, we’ve essentially sealed ourselves off from the food we need to keep our spirits alive. After all, revelation doesn’t come from merely locking ourselves in a room and praying. It comes from other people, whom God uses to challenge us, encourage us, and expose us so that we can grow.
If my spouse says I have an anger problem, the next ten seconds are the clearest revelation of my truest character. If my friends or co-workers try and show me an issue and I refuse to see it; if my boss confronts me repeatedly on a performance issue and I become repeatedly defensive, then my days are numbered, no matter how many other well developed skills I have in my tool kit. Teachability is the one ingredient I, you, everyone, must have, if we’ll keep growing our whole lives.
David was undone by the prophet’s exposure of the lust, deception, and abuse of power he thought he’d hidden so well. There was no self-justification, no mitigating circumstances, nothing but pure confession as you can read in Psalm 51. Saul on the other hand self-justifies, denies, blames others and circumstances for his issues.
All of us are either becoming more like Saul or more like David every single day, and we’d be wise to ask ourselves which way we’re moving because history is littered with highly gifted people whose gifts ended up on the sidelines precisely because they built walls around themselves and became “untouchable,” “unconfrontable,” “unteachable”. Great gifts without humility and teachability can create a dangerous cocktail.
2. Rhythm of Work and Rest – I hope to write more about this soon, but for now I’ll note that we’d arrive “bone weary” at the various huts during our days of trekking. Just this past Friday, I felt spent after our 3000′ ascent to the hut. My legs ached, and the muscles around my shoulders were nearly yelling at me for carrying a heavy load on my back yet again, as I’d been doing so often the previous 40 days. I took my pack off even before arriving, leaving it on a bench outside the hut. I couldn’t imagine hiking another step.
Some soup. A nap. We wake, and I can’t even believe I’m saying, “let’s go for a hike before dinner” to my wife, who’s as ready to go as I am. We ascend a summit, and enjoy some holy moments on our last night in the high Alps. Without the rest, we’d not have made it, or enjoyed it. With it, the miracle of restoration happened, physically and emotionally.
Are you finding a rhythm to your day that provides enough sleep and food and fresh air and exercise? If not, don’t speak of “burn out” until you address the imbalance because you might just need a nap and a cup of soup.
How about your week? Is there a day with less adrenaline, or are your weekends as packed as your week? You can live that way for a while; just know it’s not sustainable. You’re wired for rest.
Sabbatical years, and years of Jubilee were intended by God because the entire universe runs on principles that God will bring restoration when space is provided for rest; when people rest, when the land rests, good things happen.
Sure, there are seasons of intensity and periods on our trek when we did a few consecutive long days. But it’s unsustainable. If we’re going to to go the distance, we’ll need to take sleep, Sabbath and extended periods of real rest seriously.
There are three more principles, equally important, and I’ll share them later this week:
3. Rooted and Grounded: A Firm Identity
4. Patience, but Relentless Pursuit
History’s filled with gifted people who refused to deal with the glaring dysfunction because they thought their giftedness would see them through. It won’t. Others neglected vital rest, thinking their devotion to the work required the sacrifice of their emotional, physical, spiritual health. It doesn’t.
Marriages, churches, athletes, students, leaders, farmers, all need more than mere gifts, exciting plans, and adrenaline induced zeal. They need values that will lead to sustained fruitfulness. Here’s hoping each of us take these values seriously.
I welcome your thoughts.
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.
It’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 journey—step by step.
I 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.
We 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.
As 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.
We’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 pray—mostly it’s tears of joy.
We 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, stories, 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:
I’ve been overwhelmed by beauty these past 35 days or so in the Alps. Sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and lightning, wildflowers and waterfalls, ruggedly terrifying mountain peaks and lush river valleys. It’s been beautiful; but expected. I came here looking for this kind of revelation and, other than the predominance of clouds that have hidden the night sky stars, I’ve not been disappointed.
Less anticipated, though, was the extent to which the aesthetics of Alpine hospitality would so bless us. Little things, like a welcome sign on the door of our room in a hut, or Alpine wildflowers on the table at supper, matchless care given to clean windows and floors; even the flower boxes gracing the sides of chalet balconies, all these things have said, in their own way, “we care about those who are with us—even if they’re just passing through.” This commitment to spatial beauty has become such a norm because of the culture, that wherever it was lacking, things felt sterile, as if we, the guests, were a bother, not worth the time.
Finally though, and most important, I’ve discovered a different kind of beauty that’s robust and life giving. It came as a surprise though, sneaking up on me on Sunday afternoon. Donna and I had come out of the high country and were staying in a wonderful hotel in a small village that we’d accidentally stumbled upon. We’d stashed our stuff, arriving mid-afternoon, and made our way to a little food festival in the plaza, where a stage was set up and a band was singing a mix of German folk tunes and old American songs from the 60’s.
It was here on this plaza on a Sunday afternoon that I heard the famous song: “What a Wonderful World.” Donna and I had just been pondering what it would have been like to be in this plaza 70 years earlier, in 1944, how different than the joviality of this Sunday afternoon. Just then, I heard “What a Wonderful World,” that song made famous by Louie Armstrong. The lyrics matched the day, as I heard:
I see friends shaking hands.
Saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying,
“I love you.”
I hear babies cry,
I watch them grow,
They’ll learn much more,
Than I’ll ever know.
And I think to myself….”what a wonderful world.”
The sight of elderly folk walking hand in hand, small children playing, an older man in a wheel chair, and a developmentally disabled child, all making their way through this plaza with joy, all the beloved of someone, was beautiful enough that I was undone by it. These are the people who were declared “a burden to the state” in a previous era. In the end, though, the beauty of compassion won. Thanks be to God.
This has largely been the way of it during these past five weeks: in the high country we see the fit, the strong, the capable (that they’re made up of all ages, including the elderly, is an observation for another post). They’re up where the air is thin, often pouring over maps, and considering how they’ll use their strength to reach the next hut, or a summit or two. They are the beauty of health and vigor.
In the valleys, though, we encounter those unable to go higher, limited in their pursuits by illness, weakness, disability. However, and I can’t stress this enough, the beauty present in the midst of this weakness has been a greater revelation to me than the beauty found in strength. This is because the weakness and vulnerability that I’ve seen has been met with kindness, service, and the dignifying power of profound love. All of this is the more powerful if, while seeing it unfold before my eyes, I’m reading of the days when these very people were gathered up and “put away.”
Thank God for those who say “No!” to such thinking, for the Mother Teresas of the world, and Pope Francis, and those who volunteer in shelters and medical clinics, and those committed to being the presence of Christ precisely by loving and serving those most in need of love.
These are important things to ponder, because we live in a world that, increasingly, worships at the altar of a narrowly defined view of beauty, a view having to do with strength, youth, and “capacity”, whether intellectual, financial, social, or physical. I can’t stress how dangerous, and ultimately ugly, this path is. How do we avoid it?
1. Recognize the beauty of vulnerability. It’s a soil in which powerful love will grow.
2. Recognize the beauty of brokenness and confession.
3. Recognize the beauty of service and hospitality, and begin making both a priority—especially toward those who can’t repay.
4. Quit walking to the other side of the road when you encounter need, weakness, brokenness. Jump in and love instead.
All of this requires, not just a new set of eyes, but an openness to disruption, and that requires space in our lives, and that requires trimming the excess obligations, and that requires… alignment with God’s priorities.
Our world increasingly views those who can’t pay their way as a bother. Imagine the power of light in the midst of such darkness when compassion, love, and service take root again. Whatever it looks like, I know this much: it will be beautiful.
I’ve loved talking to folks in their twenties about the peaks they’re going after, but never did I imagine that the greater joy would come from chatting with elderly folks sitting on a bench, and yet that’s been the way of it, because it’s beauty I’m finding there that contains within itself the essence of the gospel.