It’s no news that we live in a world of increasing insanity, where daily headlines serve to remind us that humanity is collectively, like Sarumon in Lord of the Rings “replacing reason with madness” by choosing arrogance over humility, violence over reconciliation, individualism over community, and fear over hope.
The upcoming series I’m preaching at the church I lead is predicated on the very good news that nobody need be swept away in this avalanche of darkness, that there’s a different way of living, a way of hope. The foundation of this hope, as this video declares, is that we have the seed of Christ within us (or at least can have that seed if we desire it), and that this seed is the essence of wisdom, strength, humility, and infinite love. It falls to us, then, not to create these qualities, but to create the conditions in which these qualities can take root, germinate, and blossom.
What have been called ‘spiritual disciplines’ down through the ages provide the path for the soil care of our souls. All good. All true. All vital. And yet…
All of us need to be reminded that there are lots of other seeds in our souls besides the seed of Christ. Much has been sown there that’s destructive, things like self-loathing and lust, rage and greed, pride and hate. Some of the seeds are sown because of our stories – abuse, divorce, addiction, absence, and dozens of other family systems maladies sow destructive seeds. They’re there, inside us, waiting to choke out the good seed of Christ.
Other seeds are sown through our culture, which saturates us with lies in order to make us anxious consumers, buying more and more in order to escape the sense of inadequacy and meaninglessness that so often characterizes life.
So there are other seeds settled in the soil of our hearts. What shall we do about that?
Make the conditions right for Christ’s life. On a particular bike ride near my house I’m able to see the transformation of the landscape, from cedar and fir, to fir, to fir and pine, to pine. It all happens in the space of about 10 miles as I ride from western to eastern Washington. The difference of conditions cause one seed to take root, germinate, and thrive, while another withers.
I’m increasingly convinced that the news cycle feeds the invasive species. So does our tolerance of violence, in both video games and entertainment. Our unlimited access to sexual fantasy. The access to highly customizable entertainment that feeds our individualistic tendencies. Our access to meeting the demands of any and every appetite on demand. All of these create the wrong conditions, because by living these ways we’re inviting the wrong seeds, welcoming them even.
The whole scene hearkens me back to a profound scene in Deuteronomy. God says this to Israel: When the Lord your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.
All of this plays out in an antiphonal scene, clearly articulating two different lifestyles, with attendant consequences on two different types of terrain: “the blessings are over here. The curses are over there.” And then, with everyone standing between the two, God casts the vision: “So choose life, in order that you may live…”
This becomes a helpful lens, as we see that the quality of our lives is ultimately determined by whether or not we’ve made the soil of our hearts favorable for good seed or bad seed – and that determination is made by a thousand little choices every week, maybe even every day:
Will I gossip to boost my ego by putting someone down, or remain quiet?
Will I indulge my appetites for every creature comfort of food, warmth, and entertainment, or will I align myself with Christ and learn to overcome my appetites so that I’m master over them rather than they over me?
Will I open my fist and give freely of my time and money in order to bless others, or will I continue to grasp, and so develop the scarcity mentality that is part of the curse?
What will I think about when I have time to think?
What media will I consume, and how much?
Will I give thought to my food choices, my movement choices, my sleep habits, and simply go with the flow of culture?
Every choice is conditioning the soil of my heart to favor pine or fir, hope or despair, freedom or slavery, blessing or curse.
Learning to choose wisely requires disciplines… spiritual disciplines… soil care for the soul.
I mean to live this year as if it were my last, and will hate every time I fall below that standard and fritter seconds, minutes, or hours away in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones. I have been full of good intentions. Watch and see what happens when action takes the place of intention. – Royal Robbins 1935-2017
The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. – Jesus the Christ
The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates
A week ago I finished watching a Frasier rerun one evening on Amazon Prime. It was free. My evening was free. It was funny. I was a little down for reasons that aren’t relevant to my point. I watched. I laughed. I finished. I waited for the next one.
Though I knew it was the last show, the finale, it didn’t really strike me with full force until I saw that the next episode up was Season One, Episode One. I’d watched all eleven seasons over the course of the winter and spring. In horror, I turned the TV off and calculated, roughly, how many hours I’d squandered. I’d allowed what could have been, in moderation and under control, a fun little diversion to steal a week’s worth of precious hours from my life. That’s a week of conversation, or writing, or learning German, or stargazing, or reading great books, or nurturing relationships with friends and family.
Poof! They’re gone, those precious hours, and with them, all that might have been. The moment was my own version of that time when an alcoholic wakes up and sees empty bottles strewn everywhere, or the food addict surveys the empty Ben & Jerry’s cartons scattered about the room. These are what I call “mirror moments”, those times when we’re able to see ourselves clearly, and the seeing reveals something we don’t like.
Mirror moments needn’t be bad. Indeed, they’re actually precious gifts, because they offer us a chance at recalibrating. For that to happen, I simply need to pause, ponder, learn, and respond. Here’s what happened when I did that:
Pause and Ponder. After shutting the TV off, I sit and consider what I’ve unwittingly done, how I’ve chosen to consume rather than create, how it became a habit over the dark winter months, and then continued on as the snows melted and spring turned to summer. I remember that poignant word from Jesus: “the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy”, and begin to ponder the many ways this is true in our culture, in families, and in each of our individual lives. Suddenly I see it; see the insidious strategy of my soul’s enemy, and how his thefts occur in the dark, so subtly that I don’t even know they’ve happened until a bucket of cold water wakes me up.
Learn. “This is not who I want to be. This is not how I want to spend the precious gift of time that is my life. This ends. Now.” Jesus goes on, in the subsequent word after talking about theft and murder, to declare that he came to this earth for exactly the opposite reasons, that we might live our lives in the fullest way possible. I know that making such a promise a reality in my life will require continual adjustments to priorities, continual willingness to change and be stretched.
The next morning I’m reading a eulogy of a famous climber who just died after a long battle with illness. His letter to his daughter, wherein he says that he doesn’t want to fritter “seconds, minutes, or hours away in foolishness, resentment, weakness, or any of the seven deadly ones” is simultaneously convicting and inspiring, likely the best sermon I’ve heard in a while, all wrapped in that single half-sentence.
In my journal I write a list of the many pieces of our lives that are destroyed, stolen, or killed. The list is long and I decide that it would be good to write about the many ways robust life is being stolen from us. I purpose, then and there, to return to my calling, my part of God’s story. “I will use the gifts God has give me, will continue to perfect them, all with the goal of blessing and serving others.”
Respond. None of the seeing, pausing, pondering, or learning matter if I don’t respond. So I resurrect an old “500 words a day” habit I had once, some years ago when life was less complex, and determine that, yes, this is part of my calling, part of who I am. The days of letting precious time be stolen are over. It’s time to get back to living.
NOTE: I’m planning on writing a bit more about other elements of our lives that are stolen or destroyed, such as joy, confidence, grace. What would you add to the list?
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Jesus the Christ
In quietness and confidence is your strength – Isaiah the prophet
God, in infinite wisdom, has given us a credit card for energy. It’s called adrenaline and comes in handy when we need to “rise to the occasion”. Historically it came in handy when a lion was roaming nearby in the savannah. You’d come up over a hill and your eyes would meet. Instantly, your heart rate elevates, glucose is released to give you both clarity and strength, and a whole cocktail of other chemicals and hormones begin coursing through your blood so that you can either “fight” with strength, or “flight” with speed, and have the wisdom to know which to choose.
Then it’s over, you’re either safe or dead. Either way, the draw down of energy for the acute crisis stops and (if you’re not dead) recovery begins. You breathe deep, and slowly, your heart rate returns to normal. You sit with your tribe in the fire circle, recounting stories from the day, and then maybe sing a song, before falling asleep amidst the safety of the camp. While you rest, you digest, your recover, your recharge your emergency energy credit card, so that the next time you go out, you’ll be ready again.
Or, you live in the 21st century, where the credit card draw down is, for too many of us, a nearly continuous elevation to the fight or flight response for any number of reasons:
1. The rude awakening with the alarm 2. The 24/7 news cycle, because it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, it’s presented as a crisis of epic proportions. Toss in a measure of guilt or despair for not doing enough about it, or weariness because you are doing enough, marching every weekend. 3. The rent increases, or tax increases. 4. commute challenges and work challenges, encompassing a host of emotions. 5. A virtual world on social media that is, for too many, its own form of porn, offering escape from painful realities, and painting fantasy pictures of a world better than our own. 6. Relational challenges with spouse, children, parents, roommates, friends, ex-friends – or the opposite challenge of 7. Isolation, which was never God’s intention of people 8. Sleep challenges, usually stemming from some combination of spiritual, emotional, and physical reasons. 9. Foods that stress our body because, though tolerable, God didn’t design your body to eat pre-fab food. 10. A perverted notion of faith that leaves one questioning whether they’ve done enough, learned enough, are holy enough – so that there’s a constant nagging that ranges somewhere between shame and inadequacy.
In such a world, overdraws of your stress response credit card become the norm. Still, you need to pay. And you will. it will show up in hypertension, or obesity, heart disease or diabetes, or perhaps any one of a number of other “diseases of civilization”.
When Jesus invites us to learn the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’, what’s he talking about? For one thing, I strongly believe he’s inviting us to a rhythm of engagement and withdrawal, as well as an internal perspective of mindfulness, because these two things, taken together, can create break the cycle of the chronic stress response. Here are some practical steps to take:
1. No screens for two hours prior to bed – In one of my favorite books, I learned that sleep difficulties are a major challenge in the 21st century, and that this matters because the evidence is in: sleep shortage has all kinds of negative effects, the summary of which is described by Robert Stickgold, sleep specialists who builds a compelling case that chronic sleep shortages make us, to quote Stickgold, “sick, fat, and stupid”. One of the major contributors to sleep loss is screen time before bed, because it dampens the production of sleep hormones that would be created if we were, instead, reading a real book via real light, or better yet, doing our stretching, praying, or snuggling, by candlelight.
2. Spend more energy on your sphere of influence than your sphere of concern. Jesus hints at this numerous times, but nowhere more clearly than in Luke 12:25, where he ponders the question: “can any of you make yourself an inch taller by worrying about your height?” Your height is in your sphere of concern, but not your sphere of influence. You can’t change it!! And you can’t change who’s in the White House right now, or the cost of housing, or how your boss will respond to your request for a raise.
The point Jesus is trying to make? He’s calling us to wisely invest most of our energy in things over which we DO have influence, rather than whining about, or worrying about, things over which we don’t have influence. This isn’t a call to passivity or withdrawal. We live in a democracy and all of us have some influence over big things. But we need to invest most of our energies in things over which we have direct control. Am I loving my people? Am I living generously and enjoying intimacy with Christ? Am I standing for actual vulnerable people in my life, not just advocating for an anonymous “people group”? It’s been freeing in my own life to begin with things over which I have control, and move outward from there. Until I learned that lesson, my sphere of concern was paralyzing me with worry, and rendering me ineffective in my sphere of influence.
3. Learn to live in the present – with gratitude. Jesus is our guide here, when he tells us to take no thought for tomorrow. You don’t know how long you’ll live, don’t know how the market will do, don’t know when the next terror attack will be, or what will be tomorrow’s news from the white house. You don’t know. So don’t live in anxiety over what you don’t know.
You do know that today, the days are getting longer. You know that there’s glory and beauty in the face of those you love. You know that you are forgiven, and that One is infinitely and irrevocably for you – and not only you, but for all of humanity, and the planet. You know that, in spite of everything, there’s beauty still in this world, in abundance. You know where history’s headed. You know you have a next step to take, a practical one, that will bring life and hope to the world.
Knowing these things, and rejoicing in them, is enough to stop the adrenaline credit card drain, and bring the rest and peace you need.
NEXT UP: three more practices –
1. Eat real food
2. Get outside
3. Love your friends
“No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves.”
From “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
Yesterday, in the church I lead, I spoke on the importance of reading the Bible on a regular basis, fully realizing that this kind of exhortation is sometimes received as well as telling a vegetarian they need to have a steak for supper. For many people the Bible is fraught with difficulties, including:
1. Failed attempts at reading it consistently in the past, due to lack of understanding, which leads to a sense of frustration, which makes the discipline extraordinarily easy to jettison as other priorities crowd it out.
3. Meeting people who know the Bible well but whose actual lives aren’t very pleasant. The Bible, misused, can make you judgmental, arrogant, and less charitable. I know someone with a closet full of notebooks from sermons and knew her Bible backward and forward, but who treated her own daughter with contempt and manipulation.
4. We don’t know where to start; so we never really start at all.
Can I suggest that all of these understandable reasons for avoiding personal Bible reading are rooted in a misunderstanding of why it’s important to read the Bible? The Bible has one single purpose, which is to reveal God’s infinitely loving plan for humanity, a plan that ultimately presents Jesus Christ as the star, the key source of hope for each of us personally, for the future of humanity, and for the entire universe!
The fun thing I’ve discovered over the years is that when the Bible’s read through the lens of looking for Jesus, it becomes not just more enjoyable reading, but a means of building an actual relationship of intimacy with Jesus. We begin to see this standard-bearer’s heart for embodying love, servanthood, and generosity throughout the whole Bible. This is no accident, as we discover that in the end, Jesus is in every story in some way. Jesus knew this, as we read here.
We lose sight of this, though, often. We can’t see the forest for the trees, as we get tripped up on questions that we can’t answer, allow ourselves to get led down a side trail of arguments about ethics (whether about divorce, homosexuality, or the place of guns in our world), and soon we’ve lost the big picture and the main point. Questions and ethics matter, but they’re best discovered in the context of the big story.
This is where “The Jesus Storybook Bible” comes in.
It’s the only children’s book I’ve recommended for our teaching team at church, and now, if you’re looking to reinvigorate your devotional life or understand the Bible better, I’m happy to commend it to you too. I have a friend (we’ll call her Donna) who struggles with regular Bible reading. However, reading the “The Jesus Storybook Bible” through the lens of a child has once again renewed her joy of discovery as it’s helped recapture the main story.
She says, “The author has a lovely way of wrapping up each story or event by pointing to Jesus. Rather than being distracted by my questions, I’m simply reminded that it’s not just a book about how God wants me to live my life but, rather, how God loves me enough to orchestrate my rescue. This is pretty exciting (& liberating)!”
Of course, if you have children, the book is a must. But if you’re 20, or 35, or 58, or 78, the book is just as valuable. I can’t think of a person who wouldn’t benefit from reading it.
Lent is coming up very quickly, and a great way to fall in love with Jesus all over again might be by reading through this grand book in preparation for Easter. You’ll be glad you did.
In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah. It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching. Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked. I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of it all… cheers!
Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause. In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away. I, the Lord, affirm it! I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”
God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden. This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome. Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money. Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help. Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another. In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.
Not burdensome? Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:
What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?
What God’s thinking about is the big picture. When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself. Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths
There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment. This is one of the most important truths in the universe. You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart. You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.
Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day. The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts. The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation. The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.
You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden. But in the end? The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy. They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.
God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers. They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest. In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden. To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway. Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy. Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.
Christ’s motivator was joy!
He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice. In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed. And yet he said his commands were not burdensome! Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?
Not at all. We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him. Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”. We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden. I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory. One taste though, and we’re hooked. When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.
A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.
And we think God’s commands are burdensome? Maybe we should reconsider. After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”
To suffering. To self-denial. To service. To life!
I welcome your thoughts….
I didn’t even know I’d lost anything. This is a hazard of business maybe. We handle “God stuff” all the time, planning weddings, funerals, details, staffing issues, budgets, parking hassles with neighbors, potentially divisive theological issues bubbling under the surface, meetings, more meetings, and a few more meetings after that. In the midst of all that there are sermons to prepare, preaching to do, young pastors to equip through one-on-one and group meetings. It’s all there, but for any of these elements to have real meaning, they need to be infused with the grace and peace of Christ, as if Christ himself is in the midst of the decision, encounter, transaction, meeting.
Truth be told though, the ocean of details can conspire with my own Type A personality and propensity to get anxious about stuff, and “Poof!”—I’m still doing all the stuff, but Christ and his peace are no longer in my sense of reality, having been displaced by that worst of all things: religious professionalism. The slide into this territory is so subtle you don’t even notice it, because the words don’t change a bit—you still sound as holy as ever to onlookers, and so you actually begin to believe it, approval addict that you are.
Until somebody notices, and calls you out on it.
The Sunday I arrived home from Sabbatical last October, someone in our church approached me and told me I looked “ten years younger” and I hugged her, of course believing that she had the gift of discernment and truth telling! I felt it too, rested, at peace, in love with Christ.
FAST FORWARD to last Sunday.
The same woman approached me and said, “Can I pray for you? You look absolutely spent, and exhausted.” I told her I was fine, but underneath the surface of propriety, the truth was that her words were as accurate then as they were last October, and I knew it; knew that something wasn’t working right; knew that I was running on fumes. In her few pointed but accurate words, she’d ripped the veil off that I’d been wearing so skillfully—that of a religious pro who knows the words, but is, in the moment, experiencing nothing of the reality, knowing instead the companionship of anxiety and hurry, restlessness and frustration. I’d known it, but as long as I could keep all the balls in play in this pinball machine that had become my life, nobody would know how hollow I was. Thank God someone saw, and said, and prayed.
Meditation: After preaching for the 4th time that Sunday, I went home and pulled a book off my shelf I’d not looked at since about 1997. I’d first picked it up when I’d visited a convent for a personal retreat, and poured my heart out to a nun, also the librarian of the convent. She’d recommended it, and I’d read it there, and later bought it. It’s a book about meditation, and I hesitate to share it because so many Christ followers will be afraid of it, in spite of the fact that we’re invited to “pray without ceasing” and “meditate” on God’s word so that it saturates our being.
Anyway, this book recommends sitting quietly and praying The Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm, or the Prayer of St. Francis, slowly, over and over again, for a period of time each morning and evening. I started doing that, immediately that night, and then again in the morning and evening ever since.
I can’t even begin to describe the renewed sense of peace, and awareness of the reality that Christ lives in me, with me, loves me, is for me, has called me to shine as light and given me all I need to do that, will never leave me, and (o so marvelous) has called me to peace.
I’ve known these truths in reality, but lately they’d become words for others more than a central reality in my daily experience. Now, once again, having made a high priority of taking time to prayerfully mediate on God’s truth each morning and evening, I’ve begun to enjoy the reality of Christ’s presence in my actual living.
There’s a greater sense of peace, by the way, when driving, speaking, leading meetings. I’m far from ‘at rest’, but utterly confident I’m on the right road, and can only pray and hope for the same for all who suffer from anxiety, fear, emptiness, boredom—in spite of being full of ‘God words’.
Gratitude: In the wake of this new habit, a sense of profound gratitude and appreciation began growing in my moment by moment living. I’ll be listening to some music and it will remind me of days in the past when I wrote books in a log cabin—simpler days, when I led a smaller church. Rather than looking back wistfully though, my heart these days is filled with profound joy for the memories and privileges of the past. Today is today—and God will give us what we need for it; but one of the things we need is a sense of gratitude for the good gifts in our past.
The other peace of gratitude has to do with a fresh sense of seeing creation and being overwhelmed with joy simply by watching the rain fall from the sky, or seeing the clouds change color in the sunset. Yesterday I spent the day splitting and stacking wood with my wife, and we both commented on how delightful it is that we find joy anytime we can be in the midst of God’s beautiful creation. The cathedral of God’s stunning creation is better than anything for both of us, and we like it that way!
Presence: I’m preaching a bit about this tomorrow, but looking back, I can see how easily I slipped into losing the present moment to either past regrets or (especially) future worries. Somehow, renewal brings with it the capacity to live more in this actual moment. One of the highest forms of generosity you can offer another is the gift of your absolute attention. I’m often terrible at this, but am aware that, to the extent that Christ is given freedom to express life through us, it will present, not in scattered attention, listening with one ear, while our other senses are watching our phones, or our brains are elsewhere in the future, or the other room. Rather, we’ll be all there.
Contentment: Finally, as ridiculous as it sounds, this little film of a skier and his dog reminded me that we’re made for fellowship: with God, with God’s creation, with others. People and creation itself aren’t commodities to be used for our pleasure or purposes—rather, they’re gifts to be cherished, loved, and enjoyed.
If you’re in need of renewal, I hope these principles help you forward. May you know the peace of Christ, not as a theory, but as a reality—before this very day is over.
I’ve not been writing the past few weeks because a nasty little virus took up residency in my lungs, robbing my sleep, turning the act of preaching into a Herculean effort, and leaving me feeling like a limp rag doll most of the time.
As a result, I’ve had time to think, and the convergence zone of some teaching I’m doing for staff at the church I lead, and my reading has directed me toward pondering both the need for peace in our lives and the purpose of peace.
The need for peace
We live in a world where personal peace is becoming as scarce as clean water. The evidence is everywhere: sleep loss, increased chronic disease health crises, such as heart issues and diabetes, and unhealthy addiction to drugs and alcohol. There are a myriad of reasons for our collective erosion of shalom, but analysis of the why can come later, because the Apostle Paul, and Jesus Christ both offer a clear prescription which, if taken, will move us toward a beautiful sense of peace and well being—not instantly, but surely, inevitably.
Rest gives us peace.
Jesus invites all who are weary to “come unto him,” learn from him, make his priorities ours, because his plans for us surely include the reality of finding “rest for our souls”. Wow! That’s a hefty promise in age of hyper-connectivity, hypertension, isolation, and a sinking pessimism due to politics, pollution, and terror, and the feeling sometimes that our whole civilization is just hanging on by a thread. Still, it’s a promise, so I need to learn how to seek Christ and find real rest in him. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my posts under the category “coffee with God”.
Paul ups the ante when he tells us to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer… let your requests be made known to God,” and this is followed with the spectacular promise that God’s peace will become a sort of wall, protecting our hearts. I believe this literally means a greater capacity to overcome the stress of daily living, and this will even mean, in most instances, greater physical and emotional strength.
Peace gives us strength
Paul implies as much in Romans 8:11 where we read about the spirit of God, fully operational in a human, gives “life to our mortal bodies”. Picture Jesus, at rest and asleep in the storm at sea; or Paul cracking jokes at his trial, or singing in prison. Who does this stuff? People who are strong because they are at peace.
The relationship between stress and physiological decay is well documented, and the pursuit of peace is a multi-billion dollar industry, with everything from yoga to pharmaceutical companies in the game. We all want peace and rest because we know that it’s a key to well-being.
Strength gives us…. ??
So, peace gives us rest and freedom from anxiety, and freedom from anxiety makes us stronger, but why? To what end? This, I believe, is one of the critical junctures where the gospel makes a radical departure from the entire “peace and rest” industry.
Paul’s exhortation that we “be strong in the Lord” here, and the command to be strong found here, are closely linked with a clear purpose. We’re not strong so that we can live robust and healthy self-centered lives, as consumers of culture and recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, we’re always, always, “blessed to be a blessing” as God both promised and called Abraham, and God reiterated to Moses, and Christ charged the disciples, and as the early church demonstrated in so very many ways, including the strength of serving the weakest and most vulnerable, and the strength of martyrdom.
I have known friends, both Christian and Hindu, along with practitioners of Yoga and various forms of meditation, whose goal is vibrant health and peace. This might sound appealing but make no mistake about it—it misses the point utterly because in the end such singular pursuits of health are nothing more than dressed up narcissism.
Jesus made it clear that he’s writing a story of hope in this dark and broken world, and toward that end he’s building a team of light bearers, those who will go into the darkness exuding hospitality, healing, joy, forgiveness, justice, capacity for restoration, and more. So when you have your quiet time, or do your exercise routine, or buy that slab of grass fed beef, or expensive wheat not tainted with roundup, it’s all for a purpose. Christ is calling you to a life poured out—washing feet, serving, and “doing good and sharing”. Anything less is narcissism.
This surely isn’t a call to asceticism. It’s rather, a call to recognize God’s healing us and strengthening us, to the extent God is, for a purpose, and if we receive the healing but don’t engage in our calling of blessing serving, whether in business, or with our neighbors, or on the slopes and rock faces, we’re still missing the point. That’s because the point is a vast family of people living out of resurrection power, day after day.
Are you strong these days, or even pursuing strength? Pursue Christ instead, recognizing that he is the source of the strength anyway, and that the strength he gives us is toward a purpose, and that purpose is to be poured out.
Let the adventure begin!
They’re brothers, these two guys in their late sixties/early seventies. They’re on the deck of the first Alpine hut we stayed in, and it’s morning, about 7:15 actually. I’m out there to enjoy the view and take a few pictures, while these two are about to hoist their packs and head out for a long day of hiking to the next hut. They’re strong. They’re vibrant. They’re optimistic. They’re healthy. And they’re “old.”
They are the first of an endless stream of encounters my wife and I will have with people older than us who are also stronger than us, or at least as strong—well able to carry 20 pounds on their backs for 10-15k day after day, at elevations ranging from 3,000-7,000 feet. Their presence on the trail has shaken me in the best of ways. By example they’ve said: “Yes Richard… it’s possible to stay healthy for many years to come.”
It won’t happen accidentally though, so I asked some of the “wise and wonderful” seniors I met on the trail what kept them in Gore-Tex and polar-fleece, what kept them moving into their late years. Their answers, coupled with a careful reading of this book prior to my departure, have revealed four ideas that will give us a good shot at remaining healthy and active for a long time.
1. A good theology of the body – You know this already, but it’s important to be reminded that we’re not disembodied spirits, that the bodies we’ve been given are marvelous wonders, and that it’s our calling and privilege to take care of our bodies, because they’re the visible expression of who we are.
2. A new vision for normal – Prior to the start of the trip, we envisioned ourselves sitting around in these huts with people between twenty and fifty. They were there, but there were scores on either end of that, both the very young and the very old. Their presence served to create a different vision of what normal is, or can be. It can be normal, at nearly any age, to walk or jog several miles a day—often with a pack on that effectively adds exponential work to your exercise. It can be normal to eat fresh, well prepared food, rather than chemicals mixed together and microwaved. It can be normal to respond to stress by getting adequate rest, some outdoor exercise, and by spending time with good friends.
I know that this new normal isn’t always possible. There’s cancer and other unwanted intrusions, and some people are living in refugee camps, while others are working three jobs just to be able to afford health insurance. But for many of us, these exceptions don’t apply. For most of us, we have the capacity to stay healthy and active, and I’m increasingly convinced that such lifestyle commitments will make us more effective in everything else we do in our roles as teachers, health care professionals, spouses, parents, students, pastors, neighbors, and friends.
I challenge us to rethink our view of normal, because our culture faces an obesity crisis that stems from a slow decay of health habits
with respect to food and exercise. What’s worse, we’re teaching the rest of the world to follow us. It’s time for a fresh vision. One fellow traveler on our Alps journey was a 70 year old named Klaus. He’d been out hiking for 30 days and was nearing the end of his trek when we meet him in a hut and shared a meal. It was cold outside. I was tired, in spite of the fact that I’d done 1/3 the distance as him today. We’d just had supper together and he was absolutely effervescent with joy over his hike that day on dicey ridge, conquering seven summits, all over 6,000′ elevation in 15k of distance and eight hours of hiking. He was wild eyed as he spoke of the challenges and beauty. When he finished supper he went outside, and came back, knowing that I too enjoyed photography, and he said, “You must photo the sunset! Fantastisch!!” I didn’t want to go out, but I did because of his enthusiasm, his lust for life. Klaus became my new inspiration for a new normal that night.
3. A good aerobic base – The book I referenced earlier taught me about “building an aerobic base.” I thought I knew about this base, but no. It turns out that I, like most of America, was actually not doing aerobic exercise when I was out jogging, because I was going too fast. The whole thing’s rather complex, so I’ll spare the details because you can read them starting here.
The bottom line is that if we’re going to be active for the rest of our lives, we’ll need to start moving, at the right speed, most days of the week, for at least an hour. Most “walkers” need to speed up a bit. Most “joggers” need to slow down. On our recent hikes, we’ve encountered cross country ski teams from Russia, Italy, Sweden, and Norway. All of them are doing the same thing. They’re building their aerobic base through lots of long, slow, distance.
When I started exercising this way, just before leaving for Europe, I was appalled at how slow I was running around Green Lake, as I tried to keep my pulse rate in the treasured “aerobic zone.” Not any more. These days I’m cherishing the good vibes that come from a long slow jog, or a hike uphill, because at the end I feel great, and I know I’m building an even stronger base for the future, know that I’ll come home energized for the day, rather than drained.
“We hike together every year for a week, and because of this, most of us walk nearly every day to stay in shape for this one week adventure together,” is what I heard from a group of 70 year-olds.
“‘Use it or lose it’ is, I believe, how you say it in America, no?” said another woman, part of a group on a trail that included climbing a half dozen ladders and crossing a couple high suspension bridges.
All these testimonials from the wise and wonderful seniors we encountered elevate consistency as a high priority. Our bodies produce everything needed for an active lifestyle as long as we stay active. Stop moving though, and everything changes fast.
The “Body. Soul. Spirit.” logo you see on clothes I wear comes from the school where I’m presently teaching in Austria. They take all this stuff seriously, and yesterday the students were out playing soccer or volleyball or ultimate, or jogging or hiking or climbing. The goal though isn’t twelve weeks of this—it’s a lifestyle change we hope will last. Same with Bible reading. Same with prayer. Same with fellowship: consistency, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is the goal for every area of our lives—body, soul, and spirit.
How are yours?
I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith – Paul the Apostle
You have need of endurance… Hebrews 10:36
Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way. – Annonymous
When the USA was beating Portugal, at the end of regulation, I said, “please please… let it be only two or three minutes of stoppage time” as a sort of prayer to the soccer gods who I don’t believe in. Then I saw the sign: 5 Minutes. FIVE? NOOOOOOOO!!!
Yes. And as anyone who knows anything about soccer knows, the trouble came in the fifth minute… about 30 seconds into the fifth and final minute, when a brilliant pass and header moved the USA from a new version of “miracle on ice” to a mere tie. We played brilliantly, to almost the very end. Almost, though, is an important word. The difference between almost and actually is found in a single word: endurance.
Just this past weekend, a co-worker finished a marathon, friends celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and another friend presses on in his vital leadership role, right in the midst of a battle with cancer. What all these remarkable people share is a commitment to finishing well, and endurance is a key ingredient for doing that.
Jesus doesn’t congratulate us for starting well, because the truth is that for most of us, starting is exciting. Right now, in preparation for a planned 400 mile hike in the Alps, my wife and I are in the midst of equipment preparation, trying out our shoes, reading maps and books, and all the other things that generate the excitement of anticipation. Engaged couples share that same sense, as do most people in their first week at a new job. New presidents, new locations, new friendships. We’ve all known the thrill of starting.
I’ve started enough things, though, to know that the thrill of starting isn’t sufficient to sustain me for the distance. The times I’ve done some mountaineering, I’ve loved the packing, loved the meal on the way to the parking lot, loved the first 1/2 mile. But shortly after that there’s an ache in my back, and later in the day my thighs or calves, too, are screaming. Did I mention hunger, altitude sickness, sunburn, and the need to build a base camp, boil snow for cooking and drinking water, cook a meal, clean the dishes, and set out equipment for summit day – when all you want to do is sleep or throw up?
Endurance means you keep going when you feel like quitting. In fact that the very definition of endurance; our need for it presupposes that we’ll encounter seasons in any worthwhile endeavor when we’ll need to silence the voice telling us to quit.
What are the qualities that build endurance capacity?
1. A goal. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is always helpful because it is, in a sense the reward. 26.2 miles is a long way, but if you know that’s how far it is, you can steel yourself for the task by training both mentally and physically for it. Marriage? Our goal is a deeper love, a truer knowing, a profound intimacy. Vocation? Our goal is excellence at our craft.
“If only the goal was meaningful” you say. Don’t say that too quickly. Rico Medellin works on an assembly line at a work station where it’s expected that he perform the same exact work over 600 times a day, or once every 43 seconds. Rico’s goal wasn’t to “make it through the day” so that he could go home and a enjoy a few beers. Instead he perfected his craft, reducing his performance time to 28 seconds per unit. Working at peak performance levels is his goal. Day after month after year, and he calls the experience “enthralling”
The good news is that meaningful goals can sustain us and motivate us, and the better news, from every century of history, is that meaningful goals are available to everyone: sick or healthy, free or imprisoned, wealthy or impoverished, single or married. Don’t fall into the trap of making “a change of circumstances” the pre-condition for going after a goal. There’s a reason to excel, a summit to pursue right here, right now.
Do have a goal for your fitness, spiritually, vocationally, relationally, physically?
2. Patience – A favorite recent read says, “The Gradual Progress Principle says that everything has to grow incrementally through its own developmental stages, from less to more or from smaller to larger.” Lincoln fought, not for every freedom for African Americans, but for the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew that change happens best when it happens gradually. Go further back and you find William Wilberforce working tirelessly for decades to abolish the slave trade in England.
You don’t wake up one morning and move from couch potato to marathoner, from stale marriage to deep intimacy, from mediocrity to excellence. But you can wake up each day and, as I like to say, “move the ball the down the field”. I often need to ask the question, “What’s the next step to reach the goal?” and take it, being content to realize the gain might be visible to nobody but me. Still, it’s a step, and as I’m about to learn on my 400 mile hike, every step matters.
Other times, I can simply continue in practices that I know are transformative. Keep making eye contact with my wife at least once a day; run three times a week; continue having coffee with God. With such habits I can rest in the confidence that I’m being transformed step by step. This too requires patience.
What else aids in the development of endurance?
3. Needed Nutrients
4. Focus: Distance and Present
My goal is to address these elements in the next three weeks. I hope you’ll join me for this mini series on endurance because whether it’s a 400 mile hike, a desire to walk faithfully with Christ for decades, a marriage in need of passion, or a calling in need of fulfillment, endurance is a vital ingredient for your journey.
The tree in the backyard is growing, relentlessly, powerfully, and slowly.
Our children are growing, as we do too, slowly; imperceptibly every day.
The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.
Our world, very much alive and changing all the time, is changing slowly.
Slow, it seems, is most natural, most of the time. And yet we lust for speed.
We look for quick fixes to relationship issues, addictions, fears and anxieties, intimacy with Christ, weight loss, studying for tests, and o so much more. Hucksters over promise on quick transformation (six minute abs anyone?), have been doing so for centuries, and succeed because there’s always a market for “instant”. Lately though, I’ve learned once again, that the way of Christ followers is utterly other than that – it’s SLOW.
I’m planning a big long hike this summer, over 400 miles, with over 100,000 feet of elevation gain, and in preparation I’ve been trying to fix some injuries. My strategy though, of resting until I feel no pain, and then getting back at it with 150 calf raises, and running stairs in a weighted backpack, hasn’t been working. Every attempted return to activity has sent me limping home, frustrated and angry. “They say ‘stay active as you age!'” I rant to my wife, “but they don’t tell you that when you try to, you’ll get hurt… every – single – time.”
It was during my most recent period of forced convalescence that I discovered a word I’d not encountered before: SLOW. The author suggested that the best thing to do after an injury is to let your jogging pace be bound by two limits: your heart rate, and your pain. He suggested running in minimalist shoes so that, if there was something wrong, you’d get feedback from your body earlier rather than later enabling you to adjust or stop, letting your pain be your guide. He also suggested using a heart rate monitor and staying, relentlessly, at the low end of the aerobic zone for your age.
All right then. With toe shoes and pulse watch, I set off, striding lightly and slowly. Quickly, my pulse is out of bounds, so I slow down further still. I’m on the path by the lake, “running” but not really, more like “jogging”. No, that’s not right either. It’s just a cut above a brisk walk, and I feel fragile and weak as all who aren’t walking pass me as if I’m standing still! I see people from the church I lead and they wave and smile kindly, as I do when I see senior citizens courageously walking the lake. I’m frustrated because I know that I could run faster.
But recently, running faster hasn’t been good for me, so I stick with the plan, refusing to let my pulse rise above 140. After 28 minutes, I’m home. The pace is embarrassingly slow on my little exercise phone app, and I fear someone will find my phone and post the data on facebook. I ponder deleting it, but determine to run the same route two days later, keeping my heart in the same zone, just to see if my pace would quicken a bit. It did. So I did it again, and again, again.
I’m still running, faster every time, and injury free, as I stay in the zone and slowly, slowly, slowly, add distance. I don’t feel the changes, day to day, workout to workout, but I know they’re happening because of that nifty app on my phone!
Of course, this isn’t ultimately about running, or hiking. It’s about the true nature of the path to which each of us are called; the path of transformation. Paul says that we’re called to look towards Christ, soaking in his glory and learning to enjoy intimacy with him. This in itself is a practice which takes time to develop and countless Christ followers, if honest, would say they have little or no enjoyment of intimacy with Christ as a reality. One reason for this is because we have this sickly “cost/benefit analysis” mentality whereby we assess the value of our activities solely based on whether they yield immediate fruit. So we try a little Bible reading, maybe light a candle and read a prayer – but our minds wander. It’s challenging to meet with Jesus because he’s Mr. Invisible and we’re not sure, at the level of our deepest selves, whether we’re even meeting with anyone. So, after a little while, we ditch the effort. Cross-fit’s more measurable, clearly a better investment of our free time.
The problem is that meeting with Jesus is like meeting with anyone. It takes effort to carve out the time, and no single encounter, any more than a single run, or cross fit workout, is necessarily meaningful or measurable. Like romance, or practicing the violin, meeting with Jesus is sometimes profound, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. sometimes enchanting. And just like romance and the violin, it gets better with time. The ones who quit too soon don’t know what they’re missing. They think the problem is the practice, or their skill level – but the problem is impatience. Keep showing up and good things will happen….slowly.
The transformation we’re promised is “from glory to glory” and the language implies that the change is imperceptible because it’s slow. To the extent that we’re concerned with “how we’re doing” we’ll become mindful of our shortcomings, and then looking to fix them, one at a time, as quickly as possible. How much better to just keep showing up in the presence of Jesus, learning to enjoy companionship with him, and resting in the belief that, by staying “in the zone” so to speak, good things will happen.
in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:
“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”
Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation. (thanks to Justin Roth of “The Stone Mind” for this)
Focus on the practice of enjoying fellowship with Jesus, not the expectation that if you read your Bible enough, or pray enough, or are quiet long enough, you’ll make a quantum leap out of addictions, or fears. You’ll move out alright… but It. Will. Be….. Slowly. Step by Step. enjoy the journey.
PS… if you’re interested in practical help with developing habits of pursuing intimacy with Jesus, I’ll be re-releasing my book “O2” for Kindle on Amazon under the title, “Breathing New Life into Faith” Stay tuned!