Strength and Beauty are Vital – and Vital to Redefine

IMG_5627 IMG_5826I’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 IMG_5770on 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 useven 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 priorityespecially 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.

IMG_6161All 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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Fiercely Interdependent

Fiercely Interdependent –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“A different plan” – Three Postures you need when Change Comes Knocking

IMG_4578
It was supposed to be the Cascades…

I spoke with a couple last week who lost their child to cancer at the age of six.  As we talked of loss, change and challenge, she reminded me that about 85% of the marriages where a child suffers a disability end in divorce.  This, I presume, is because of the tremendous gap between how we thought life would unfold, and how it actually unfolds.

Where’s your gap?  Job change, or joblessness?  Health challenges?  A relationship evaporating before your eyes?  Unexpected financial hardships?  Whatever the issue, our response is vital to our continued transformation, to our movement in the direction of joy, peace, wholeness.

The notion that we’ll escape these unforeseen changes is fantasy.  A quick glance through the Bible reveals otherwise.  Abraham left home.  Moses went home.  David became King, lost the throne because of his son’s coup, and then came back.  Let’s not forget the fallout from wars as sons were lost, families torn apart.  Job lost everything.  Peter changed vocations to follow Christ and was eventually martyred.  It’s not just that these people suffered.  It’s that they all lived in families that paid the price too.  Change comes knocking, and it opens the door whether you want to let it in or not   It’s what you do with it that matters (tweet this)

I’ve been thinking about this recently because this upcoming trip to the Alps, as amazing as it will be, wasn’t the original plan.  The plan, in less than two weeks, was to head down to southern Oregon and hike the Pacific Crest trail back home, or even further, to the Canadian border, if time permitted.

My friend’s paragliding death in the Alps eventuated in a change of plans, because he directed a Bible School with which I’m closely tied.  When the new director called and we chatted last September about the upcoming year, I knew I was to go over and help out.   So, two weeks from today, I’ll be teaching the Bible school and hiking with students high into the Alps.  My wife will be with me and we’ll separate from the students for a few days before meeting back up after hiking the “Bible smuggler’s Trail” (I’ll post about that later), speaking at graduation, and then beginning our long hike through the Alps.

The plan was solitude – The reality will be otherwise , we’ll find ourselves sleeping in bunkhouses and waiting for showers.

The plan was wilderness – The reality is that the Alps have been civilized for a thousand years, and so we’ll be learning more about the history of World Wars, religious wars, and tribalism, than we will about traveling through the wilds of our unoccupied Cascades.

The plan was to hang food in the trees so that bears can’t get to it.  Now we’ll be buying food at each hut, and it will be far better than the freeze dried stuff that would have been reconstituted each night in the wild.

It was going to be this… now it’s that.

It was going to be a life together.  Now there’s been infidelity and he/she doesn’t want to rebuild.  It was going to be comfortable retirement.  Now, after losing everything in the ’07 meltdown, I’ll be working into my 70’s.  It was going to be the lush green and mild climates of Seattle.  Now I’m living in Phoenix.  It was going to be a small, simple, rural ministry.  Now it’s urban, and complex, and 3500 people.

Yes, I know the illustration’s weak, because the choice between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Alps is like choosing between Filet Mignon and Copper River Salmon.  “All right God… I’ll go to the Alps!  Force me!”  Suffering?  Disappointment?  Get real.

Still, while a hike in the Alps isn’t, in the least, disappointing (how could it be?), it does require an adjustment, and the postures enabling us to adjust are, in the end, the same, no matter how joy filled or painful our unintended changes:

Availability – When God calls to Abraham in Genesis 22, his answer is “Here I am”, a Hebrew word (Hineni) which implies availability and a willingness to embrace whatever God brings to us.  This stands in stark contrast a word Abraham could have used, “I’m here” (Poh) which would have meant:  “Tell me what you want me to do and then I’ll decide my answer.”

My wife sometimes says, “Will you do me a favor?” and though the right answer is “Yes”, I often blurt out “What do you want?”, as if to say that I don’t trust you enough to give a preemptive yes, because I’m afraid of what you’ll ask.  I wonder how much richer our lives would be if our posture, vis a vis the God who loves us, would be “Hineni” rather than “Poh”?

A phone call from Austria was all it took to set in motion a drastic change of plans.  All of us have had far more profound phone calls, from doctors, spouses, parents, that rocked our world.  Our willingness to inhale and embrace what’s on our plates rather than railing against the universe can make all the difference between a life of joy and bitterness.

Honesty – There was no mourning or loss over the change of plans, from Pacific Crest to Alps.  The same can’t be said for many other changes life brings.   The parents of the little girl who died of cancer, the wife of my friend who died paragliding the Alps, the other who lost his business; these are utterly unwelcome changes.  They’re a reminder that we leave in a world of dissonance as the chords of beauty, peace, and health, clash with the unwelcome intrusions of disease, loss, war, poverty, injustice.  We’re right to mourn, as Job teaches us, or David, or Jesus.

It’s no good pretending that unwelcome change is welcome, no good painting over it with some spiritual language about God being “all good – all the time”  God may be all good all the time, but this world is messed up.  So weep, for God’s sake, and your own.   This is the best way forward.

Acceptance and Gratitude – Acceptance and gratitude were layups for me with this whole “Alps instead of Cascades” plan.   In real life, though, change that forces its way through the door, ultimately requires a measure of acceptance if we’re to avoid shriveling up and becoming bitter people in the end.  Acceptance is born out of facing the reality that this intrusion is in my life.   Eventually, after a spouse dies, or we lose a job, or a house, or certainly with lesser intrusions, we say, “All right then… this is the way of it.  Let’s go.”  Fail to get there and you’ll spend the rest of your days in regret.

This acceptance, finally, leads to gratitude, not for the unwelcome change, but for the good that can and usually does come out of it.  Voices as diverse as Victor Frankl and Jesus Christ have taught us that, in the end, our gratitude is born from the faith that God is well able to bring beauty of ashes, hope out of despair, and a strange divine strength out of the darkest moments in our lives.  So we thank God, not for the change, but for what God will do because of it.

 

Postcard from Fresno…

I process by writing… and I’m here in Fresno because my mom’s resting, and ready to go home and be with Jesus.  Here’s what I’m thinking while she sleeps.

I’m sitting in the dining hall at the retirement center in Fresno, needing to study for Sunday, but finding it hard to do so.  Instead I’m thinking about the inevitability of loss, the profound joy of life, and how any attempts to separate the one from the other will always have the affect of making us hollow, shallow caricatures of the people we’re meant to be.

My mom’s asleep in the other room, waking long enough to tell me she’s thirsty, that she loves me, and “why did you have onions for breakfast?”  (I didn’t)  I show her pictures on my laptop and she smiles, in awe of my children, and mountains, and flowers, with her classic line “my goodness!”, which I’ve heard ten thousand times at least,  these 58 years.

I look at the pictures on her bookshelf, of she and dad in their youth – vibrant and hope filled.   Maybe like most children, I know my parents story better than any other, in my case even better than my own since I’m adopted.  I know she skated on frozen ponds in Colorado when they were stationed there during WWII, that they returned to central California to build a life because that’s where family was, and that’s what you do.   They suffered profound loss during those days, and great success and joy too.  Dad moved from teacher to principal, to superintendent, but always missed the classroom and the kids as his leadership role grew.  There were health issues, losses, struggles; there were vacations at the coast, and Giant games with Willie Mays, Rook games, and going to “The Sound of Music” as a family.   Joy and sorrow.  Laughter and tears.  Life and death.  Gain and Loss.  That’s what real life is, and the sooner we embrace that reality the better.  There is, after all,  a time for everything, including loss, want, and saying good-bye.

Our attempts to turn daily life into a highlight reel are offensive to me as I sit here and look at the half-dozen seniors sleeping in their chairs.  Real life, I’ve finally learned, is created by stacking normal days, one on top of the other, for decades, and living each of those days as fully as possible, embracing whatever each day brings.

I think about my mom canning peaches in the later summer heat, and my grandpa putting grapes on trays in the oppressive sun to dry them to raisins because Methodists don’t drink wine, and then coming in and making poetry at night in a house without air conditioning.  Oil changes.  Diaper changes.  House Payments.  Holidays.  My dad tossing fake vomit on the sidewalk at a party when I was about 7 and my mom thinking I was lying when I told her felt fine, sending me to my room where I watched as she tried to rinse it off the sidewalk and it slid, in tact, into the garden, while Dad fell over laughing;  A rubber hot dog in the fridge that mom tossed into the garbage disposal because it looked funky, and then hearing her scream as it shot out when she turned the disposal on with dad, again doubled over in laughter;  Skipping evening church, once a year, to watch “The Wizard of Oz” on TV.  The epic excitement of the same when we finally got (last on our block) a color TV.  Weddings.  Funerals.  BBQ spare ribs in the backyard summer heat.  H-O-R-S-E with dad after school.   It all adds up to what can be a remarkable life, if we’ll but learn that it’s less about what we’re doing, and more about the attitude with which we’re doing it.  Lives of faith, I’m discovering, can be rich even in poverty.  Vibrant even in the midst of health challenges.  Lush even in the desert.  I know.  I watched this kind of normal, in this slightly “out of the way” town, for decades.

I just preached this past Sunday on the importance of making the most of “the time we’ve been given” and I’m sitting here realizing that I lived in a family that, for all flaws, sought precisely that.   I’m just now reading Ecclesiastes and am reminded that it’s only in jumping into the deep end of both joy and sorrow, responsibility and goofing off, life and death, that we find the treasure called abundant life.  That’s why Rilke said:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Keep going, no matter what. No sensation is too far out. Let nothing separate you from me….the land which they call ‘life’ is near. You will recognize it by it’s serious demands. Give me your hand!”

Or, to quote the preacher from Ecclesiastes:  “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” – Today, my hand finds itself in the hand of my mom and she squeezes and says, “why did you have onions for breakfast?”

 

 

 

 

Killing the Power Play – Lessons from World Vision and Church History

gotta kill the power play

It’s been over week now since World Vision acted, the Evangelical world reacted, and hundreds of us wrote about it.  This morning, I’m enjoying some coffee and reading John 9, which is a story about a blind guy Jesus heals with spit and mud on some random Saturday.   This leads to some intense questioning and right there in the middle of it all we read this:

Then some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God because he does not observe the Sabbath.”  But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs and miracles?”  So there was a difference among them

People who are experts in knowing the text, when confronted with a real life situation, have differing ideas regarding the proper interpretation.  Imagine that!  It certainly won’t be the last time people disagree about what it means to live faithfully.  Circumcision, meat sacrificed to idols, observance of “a day” devoted to worship will all become issues, just in the first decades of the New Testament.

As church history unfolds, the number of issues about which people who share the same faith in Christ disagree will multiply exponentially:  working in theater, working for the military, the ownership and/or use of weapons, the deity and humanity of Christ, the nature and meaning of the priesthood, the meaning of communion, the permanence or passing nature of miraculous signs in the Bible, women in ministry, divorce and remarriage, the weighted balance of calls to justice vs calls to personal pious morality, whether translate the Bible into common tongue, and once that was decided, which translation is better – and I’m just getting started.

Our sadness and shock regarding events surrounding World Vision last week say as much about our collective amnesia as they do about the state of Christianity.  There really is nothing new under the sun, including the way people have reacted, including accusations and withdrawal.

There’s surely a time for both of these things.  We look back in horror at the church’s collective silence in Germany, or the failure of the Southern Baptists to apologize for racism until the 1990s.  While the majority went one direction, in both these cases there were minorities that actively resisted the trend lines, and withdrew from the prevailing tide of culture.  Bonhoeffer both spoke out against the Reich and began an underground seminary.  There’s a time to quit fighting and simply seek to gather with like minded people, out there on the margins.

Is this such a time?  Rachel Evans seems to think so.  She writes:   “I’m done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, done trying to force that culture to change”  and this is a good thing because forcing culture change has never been our calling.  We’ve always been called to offer an alternative to the prevailing winds of culture, not force culture change.

I don’t think the church gets this right very often because starting with Constantine, the threads of power have been tightly bound with threads of piety, and the results have been ugly, not just in recent history, but for about 1800 years now.   Crusades, Inquisitions, and the boycotting of Disney and Starbucks are all the same iterations of bringing power to bear on people in hopes of changing their view of truth.  Last week, though, it was this same tactic applied to people who share the same mission, as some Christians called for withdrawing financial support for World Vision in protest over a shift in HR policy regarding gay married couples.  Two days later they reversed their decision, leading at least some people I know to withdraw their support over the reversal.  I’m stunned that the same people offended by such tactics when the right invoked them against WV turned around and used them against WV when the shoe was suddenly on the other foot.  It’s loud.  It’s ugly.  It’s embarrassing.  It’s evangelical Christianity in the 21st century.

If you want to leave, there are plenty of places to go.  The Catholics have the coolest Pope ever, but they still forbid same sex unions, keep women out of leadership, and frown on birth control.  The Eastern Orthodox church has a marvelous creation theology, and a compelling view of the atonement, but they tend to think they’re the only ones with the truth (a kind of a “fundamentalism with incense”).  House church?  If it’s healthy it’ll grow and then you’ll need structure and kid care, and who makes these decisions?  No church?  It’s an option, but scripture’s clearer about gathering together regularly and living lives of interdependence in community as a testimony of loving each other than it is about nearly any other subject.  What should we do?

I’m about to write that we need to stop marginalizing people, and I can already hear the comments about how churches do exactly that when they draw lines.  But the reality is that every organization in the world stands for something, and when you stand for something, you draw a line, and when you draw a line there are outsiders.  So, we need to see that churches either have standards or they don’t stand for anything.   The question on the table is what do you do when an organization with which you’re affiliated, either through attendance or support, when you or someone you love is over there on the wrong side of the line on some issue?

 What then? 

Stay or go isn’t, in my estimation, the most important matter.  There are people in the church I lead who’ve done both very well, in spite of disagreements on some matters of faith and practice.  What matters most is that it’s high time to “kill the power play” (a hockey metaphor for my Canadian and Bostonian friends).  A British friend, long since passed away, shared a story with me once about a pastor in London.  He was intent on recovering a “true church” and was, by most counts, a brilliant bible teacher with a real capacity to see truth and communicate it with clarity. The trouble was that he saw things, in his own estimation, with such clarity, that he realized nobody saw the real truth except him.  He died only willing to take communion with himself, a tragic irony given the fact that communion is intended to be a testimony of our shared life in Christ.

And therein lies the problem with withdrawing.  Rachel writes about how great it would be to “focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion

Yes, it would be great.  But of course, there are theistic evolutionists who don’t favor gay marriage, or women in ministry.   What happens when that woman speaks in your new community, or isn’t allowed to?   –  because the reality is that if you’re now a community, you don’t have the luxury of not deciding – either woman speak or they don’t.   We don’t all agree on everything, and my British friend reminds me that when that’s the goal, we’ll end up dining, and worshiping, and bowling, alone.  That’s why the most important thing isn’t being in or out, it’s killing the power play.  Kill the notion that you’ll force change by exercising power!

What does that mean?  It means I need to stand with Rachel and everyone else by putting an end to the notion that our calling is to “force a culture to change” through boycotts, marginalization, and labeling.  It’s time we recognize that Jesus’ people have never agreed on anything, except that he rose from the dead.  This doesn’t mean an end to all discussion and spirited debate.   It doesn’t mean and end to communities and leaders needing to exercise spiritual authority and seek to uphold the faith with humility and courage.  It does mean an end to attempts at making other faith based organizations conform to my exact view of the faith, and rallying the troops to punish them when they fail to conform.

What does this look like in practice?   I think the best answer I can find is written by a former WV employee who is also gay (anonymous for obvious reasons)  Here’s what he writes in response to the decision and its subsequent reversal:

I am disappointed. I feel defeated. 

When it comes down to it, I understand the reasons behind the final decision – donor money makes things happen, and many donors didn’t agree with the policy change. My brain gets it, but my heart feels crushed.

It hurts to think that I could be turned away from my “dream job” at one of the best companies in my industry, not because of a lack of skill or education, but because of who I love and my self-expression.

… I feel all the emotions. Anger. Sadness. Disappointment. Shock. Confusion.

But beyond all of these, I feel love

I think of the millions of lives impacted for good. The children who have been fed and given an education. The parents who have received micro loans and given support for their families. This reminds me of why I love WV.

I think about the countless conversations I’ve had with people about the incredible work World Vision does. The feeling of excitement I get in my stomach when I explain the brilliant approaches WV has made for economic and community development around the globe. I still believe strongly that World Vision is one of the most effective development agencies operating today. This reminds me of why I love WV.

I think of my former coworkers and the relationships I’ve formed through World Vision. Several of my dearest friendships were established there. These are the people who have strengthened my skills, taken a chance on me, and challenged me to grow professionally and as an individual. These are also the friends who have been so supportive during my coming out process. This reminds me of why I love WV.

And so as I prepare for my meeting at World Vision (as an independent contractor not subject to WV’s employment standards), after hearing that individuals in same-sex marriages will still not be employed by WV, I am full of love.

Because love comes first, and the rest will follow. Because love is louder than hate. Even if hate has a louder bullhorn.

 

 

 

 

 

Practical Advice for Maximizing Your University Experience

ImageSchool’s in, and for those of you who read this and are in college, I’d like to offer a word of welcome.  As the pastor of a church with lots of university students in it, one of my favorite Sundays of the year is the one when you arrive, back from your summer experiences, to jump into another formative year of education.  As a pastor, I feel incredibly privileged to share, in a small way, in that formation.  I know that these are some of the most significant years of your life, know that the decisions you make and the values you form during these years will shape you for the rest of your lives, and even beyond that!

The NY Times had a great little read recently called, “Ditch Your Laptop – Dump your Boyfriend” filled with good, practical advice on how to make the most of your college years.  If you’re in college, or know someone who is, I’d recommend reading it.  The article started me thinking about what I’d want to offer students and I came up with a short list.

Since my list is incomplete, I hope some of you will add your own contributions by adding comments to this post. Thanks!  So what you can students do to maximize their college experience:

1. Be curious. This, I’ve discovered, is of huge value in the ‘real world’ after college.  Reading widely and developing your capacity to build bridges between different subjects is one of the things I look for when assessing someone’s leadership potential.  Sure, you’ll need some specialization; but you’ll need more.  You’ll need to capacity to think creatively, solve problems, and build bridges – skills which don’t happen accidentally.

2. Get intimate with God. That’s a tall order, I realize, but I think I’m simply talking about developing some habits that will help you and God become friends, like David and God were friends, or Moses and God.  Jeremiah 9:23-27 is a reminder that “knowing God” is the only thing worth boasting about in this life.  Of course, “knowing” isn’t offered here in some absolute sense because the truth is that we can’t know anyone perfectly and completely – not even God.  But we can establish a trajectory of intimacy, whereby God becomes someone to whom we pour out our heart, in both gratitude and complaint, frustration and longing, rejoicing and praise.

This will require some time apart from others, and maybe a journal.  If this is one of your greatest areas of weakness, I’d recommend this book as great place to start.

3. Do something to serve others. I just finished writing a new book, the thesis of which is that each person is uniquely gifted by God to paint the colors of hope on the canvass of our world.  To find your brush, and learn your strokes, you need to say yes to serving in some way.  You can do this on campus, or in your church.  This will help you swim upstream against the consumerism that is so prevalent in our culture.

Some of you love to serve, but have a hard time sitting still long enough to develop intimacy with God.  For others, you have the opposite problem.  If you’re in search of balance, I’d recommend my book, available through Amazon, or the church I lead.

4. Leave campus.  Get to know your city and people who don’t attend your school.  This broadening of your world has great value.  When I attended college in Seattle, I worked at an I-Hop, and the Seattle Sonics basketball team came in every game day.  I became a huge fan, started going to games, and felt deeply connected to the city because of it, so much so that, sixteen years after graduation, I moved back to pastor a church there.  There’s nothing better than falling in love with your city, and Christ, right in the midst of all that is college life.

What are some other thoughts you’d add, in order to help students maximize their college experience?

Naked and Not Ashamed: Steps in our pursuit of intimacy

NOTE TO MY READERS:  I’m going to be moving my blog away from the Patheos website that presently hosts it, so if you’d like to be apprised of my posts and join the conversations, feel free to subscribe by clicking over there on the right.  Thanks! 

We’ve all had moments when we ran and hid, tears stinging in our eyes as we either said or received angry words, words that should never have been spoken.  We’ve all had moments of anger towards those we love, when we felt our blood pressure rising and couldn’t imagine the person in front of us as capable of goodness or beauty.  We’ve all had these moments, and when they pile up we become something we were never meant to be.  We become lonely.

Isolation and our longings to connect would go on to saturate thoughtful music and film, beginning with Ordinary People, and continuing on with Fight Club, Garden State, Lost in Translation, and Goodwill Hunting.

Loneliness and isolation are woven into the fabric of every cultural demographic worldwide.  It’s increasingly said that “all poverty is relational”, which means that when people are stuck in cycles of oppression and want, there’s a lack of healthy relationships upstream from those presenting problems.  Dealing with relational poverty is increasingly seen as the first step in dealing with material poverty.  But the wealthy aren’t immune from loneliness.  In The Price of Privilege, we read that wealthy people, “in spite of their economic and social advantages, experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of group of children in this country”.  The overwhelming evidence is that whether you’re shopping at Goodwill or wearing Gucci, odds are that you’ll face intimacy challenges.  There are two good reasons for this, along with the good news that the gospel provides a way forward in our intimacy dilemma:

1. We’re made for intimacy.  If the first two chapters of Genesis are our reference point for how humanity is intended to live, then we’re clearly made for intimacy.  “It is not good” says God, “the man (humankind) should be alone”, after which God creates another person and we find this glorious phrase, “naked and not ashamed” in the text, a word which means that this first couple knew each other perfectly, with nothing hidden, and were able to love each other in the knowing.  God is telling us something significant here about the longings of the human heart, telling us that in distinction to the animal kingdom, we’re made for more than procreation and copulation.  We’re made for intimacy, and this is as it should be because we’re made in God’s image, and God isn’t a one, but a three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living in perfect fellowship, community, and union.

It is, in other words, “in our nature” to seek intimacy, to be fully known, and to fully know.  It’s why we risk sharing our hearts with others, as we peel back layers to share our deepest selves, or listen intently as another unveils in order to be known.  It’s why we have parties and spend time with the neighbors.  It’s why we smile when we see an old couple holding hands and think to ourselves, “this is as it should be”.  Maybe the Beatles were right; maybe love is in fact, “all you need”.

2. Anti-Intimacy is in our nature.  Though love might be all we need, love isn’t “all we have”, because there’s something in us that runs from intimacy too.  We discover this in Genesis as well, where we see that it’s in our nature to make anti-intimacy choices.  First, we reject intimacy with God by saying in essence, “I don’t care about your longings for me.  I want to do what I want to do”, and choose paths of our own making rather than those of the one who loves us perfectly and longs for us to be whole.  Then, having chosen autonomy from God rather than intimacy, everything else unravels.  We suddenly see the world through a different lens, and shame becomes part of our being.  We feel the stinging pain of our own vulnerability, our loss, our hurt – and decide that we don’t want others to see that, so we cover our shame.  In the Genesis garden we covered it with leaves. Today we cover it with other things:  fancy clothes, fancy cars, plastic surgery, schedules so packed that we’ve no time to share or listen to those we love, machismo, hyper-sexualization; it’s a long list but in the end we see that there’s a whole tool kit enabling us to hide from each other.  And we’re experts at using it.

What’s more, we’re afraid.  Adam tells God that he heard God’s voice and was afraid, so he ran and hid.  I’m afraid of rejection, afraid of conflict, afraid of truth telling because at various times when I’ve gone down these roads, things haven’t turned out well – I’ve been hurt, and so I crawl into my shell – choose safe illusion over naked reality.  “Naked’s too risky” is what we tell ourselves as we run from each other, not literally usually, but metaphorically through the use of words that paint a thin veneer of propriety over reality.  The result is loneliness, as we know from movies, and the lives of others and our own lives as well.

This is our dilemma.  We’re made for intimacy and long for it, but there’s something in us that wants to run and hide.  The results are stale marriages, stalemate relationships between children and parents, millions settling for the pseudo-intimacy of porn or sexual addiction, and an ache in our hearts which, try as we might, we cannot fully numb.

3. There’s an isolation antidote – The gospel is good news because it makes a way for intimacy.  God pursued Adam in the garden and said in essence, “you’ll never be able to cover your shame – but I’ll deal with your shame” and God killed an animal and made coverings for Adam and Eve.  That act was a seminal picture of what God would do in Christ when, naked on the cross, he absorbed our dysfunction and shame, our sin and guilt.  This reality enables us to know that we’re fully loved and accepted, in spite of our failures.  There is ONE who is inexorably for us, more even than we’re for ourselves.  Learning to actually believe this isn’t some theoretical theological exercise; it’s what enables our own transparency and intimacy.

What’s more, this Jesus not only forgives and loves, he transforms, so that little by little, we find ourselves better able to choose truth telling, confession, forgiveness, sacrifice, and vulnerability.  All the ingredients of intimacy become ours in fuller measure because the Master of Intimacy lives with us, and in us, and is committed to teaching us his ways.  “Perfect love” we’re told, “casts out fear” because fear involves judgement, but the one who is our judge says, “you’re known – and forgiven”.  If I can believe this, receive this, then I can learn healthy patterns of intimacy, because I know that, come what may in this world, there is One who loves me completely, with whom I can be naked and not ashamed.  If I have this as my starting point, I’m on the right road.  If I miss this, I miss a lot.