Guarding My Heart – Lessons learned from Running Slow

Last February I hobbled home from an attempted run around Green Lake near where I live in Seattle with sharp pain in my knee and ankle and a knot in my achilles that felt hard as a golf ball.  In my visions of running a local race I dramatically overtrained and my body let me know.  Too hard.  Too Fast.  Too much.  It happened suddenly, with a tensing up of the calf muscle that would, itself, take months to heal.

Today I finished a full loop from my tiny house, a full 3.5 miles, with only a little bit of walking and I can safely say that I’m nearly at the end of the long slow road to recovery, fully expecting gains to continue in the days ahead as I jog around my favorite urban lake by foot at least twice a week in the months ahead, God willing.  I’m confident because I’m finally a believer in the power of the heart to be my teacher.

The folks over at Soc-Doc have been preaching for years about the importance of not ‘overtraining’ and how you can avoid that danger by ‘listening to your heart’, in particular to the rate of your pulse while exercising.  You need to find your ‘aerobic zone’, and they describe one process of some easy ways to find it here.  Your zone is your pulse rate while exercising, and when you’re in the zone lots of good things are happening.  The challenge though, is that this zone will feel too slow for people who are competitive, or prone to comparison, and both those things happen to be me.  My zone requires that I keep my pulse under 135 while out jogging.  When I do that, I’m breathing through my nose, and what I’m doing barely feels like exercise.  It seems too easy and so what has happened too often in the past is that I’ve justified ‘trying harder’ by talking to myself along any one of these various lines…

“my watch isn’t recording my heart rate right.  It’s actually much slower than the 150 it says because I feel great!”  This kind of justification usually happens after I’ve quickened my pace because gray haired senior has passed me, and I’ve responded by saying, “you think I’m slow?  I’m not as slow as I look.  Watch this!” after which I pick up my pace, leading to excessive pulse, leading to my belief that my heart rate monitor is broken.

When your heart’s racing too fast, Soc Doc says that an injury is just around the corner.  I can tell you from experience, three different times, that he’s right.  “Fool me once, fool me twice…” there some saying about people who make the same mistakes but I can’t remember what it is.

Now, on the far side of the road to recovery, I can safely say that whatever the author had in mind when Proverbs 4:23 was written, it has a beautiful literal application.  I’m now intent on guarding my heart.

When I’m running too hard (literally running, around the lake) my heart will let me know long before there’s an injury and I’ve finally learned to listen to my heard and slow down, or even walk if that’s what it takes, to stay in the zone.  When I listen to my heart and obey it, like magic, I’m able to move around injury free.

There’s more though, as I’ve come to discover the same truths apply in lots of other settings as well.  Sometimes I ‘run too hard’ during the day, trying to cram six meetings, a boatload of emails, study time, writing time, and family time all into a single day without any breaks for inhaling, practicing gratitude, or even paying attention to what I’m doing.  My heart lets me know that this too is wrong.  My pulse picks up, along with my stress level, as my body tells me this level of activity and engagement should be acute, but it’s become chronic.  I need to slow down.

But the heart’s not all about warning and punishing me with a stick – it’s a rewarding carrot too.  When I make the time each morning to meditate on my identity in Christ, and to spend a few minutes praying for the blessing and peace of Christ to be on the various people that come across the contact list of my mind, my resting pulse drops, and my stress level falls from wherever it was to, literally zero – perfect peace and rest.  And of course, those are just the immediate benefits of meditation and prayer.  The longer term chronic effects are even better as I find, over time, a greater capacity to be present in each moment and respond with a fuller measure of peace and wisdom to the things that are in front of me, rather than responding from a place of fear or frustration.

Wow!  I’m amazed when I think of all the so called “spiritual” transformation that’s come about recently by paying attention to my physical heart!  I’m starting to believe that in our lust to do word studies about the Greek and Hebrew meanings of the word heart and apply those narrow definitions to the text, we might be missing the fact that God, in God’s wisdom, knew that not everyone would have access to cook lexical seminary tools.  So maybe we can apply what the Bible says about the heart to the cardia within us. Its wisdom can free us from addictions to performance, comparison, and the need to prove ourselves.  And that, dear friends, means we’ll end up looking more like Christ.  All because we began paying attention to our heart.

 

 

Meditation: Good for the heart; the literal one that pumps your blood

If you’re any kind of endurance athlete, you’ve likely heard of Heart Rate Variability, the notion that when you’re least stressed, the length of time between each heart beat is varied, so that it doesn’t sound like a metronome, but a bit more random.  Random is good!  It means you’re healthy and at rest, not feeling any sense of threat.  There are lots of ways to determine your HRV (heart rate variability) including apps for your phone, and various watches.  My watch gives me a stress score!  Whether I’m watching an exciting basketball game, sitting in a meeting, or enjoying an after supper conversation, I’m able to see at a glance how my HRV is doing.

Meanwhile, there’s a verse in the Bible that says, “above all else guard your heart”, for from it flow the wellsprings of life.”  I’ve read that a few hundred times, at least, and always thought of it as purely synonymous with “spirit” as if they’re exactly the same thing.  As a result, I’ve applied the verse to mean, “make sure you don’t anything that God doesn’t like – anything unspiritual”.  This view led to a bit of fixation on avoiding sexual sin, bad movies, lying, and a few other notable evils.

Heart guarded?  Spirit Preserved?  Check

I’m not so sure anymore.  As I’ve looked at my stress levels, and how they rise and fall, I’ve come to discover that my stress, and hence my heart, isn’t rising and falling randomly, but rather in response to a cocktail of my cardiac health, life circumstances, the particular activity of the moment, and my response to that activity.  What if, in God’s wisdom, God is telling me to choose activities and thoughts that will allow my actual physical heart to enjoy the rest and peace that ought to be its default position much more than I presently do?  What if guard your heart means, “pay attention to your stress levels and when you’re constantly under stress and/or anxious, take the steps  I show you in order to fix it” . 

“There are steps?” you might be asking.  Yes!  There’s a fascinating series in Psychology Today about this entitle “The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide” (because HRV is controlled largely by your vagus nerve).  It turns out there are things you can do to increase your HRV, but what’s simply amazing to me is that each of this things that the author exhorts us to do has a parallel in the universe of spiritual disciplines.  Over time I’ll show you all of them.  The first one, covered here today is meditation.

Bergland calls it “diaphragmatic breathing exercises” but it’s meditation.  The Hebrew word for meditation is “hagah” and is used in Psalm 1, Joshua 1, Psalm 63, and elsewhere.  The word includes the meaning of “chewing on” and even implies a vocal participation.  We’re told that those who meditate will be fruitful, confident, and courageous.  That sounds like “not stressed”, and I’ll be such a person’s HRV would be stellar.  So how does meditation (on scripture or scriptural truths) touch our physical heart?

When you repeat a scripture like “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” or “I am complete in Christ” or “Christ lives in me”, slowly, over and over again, either silently or aloud, your breathing will slow down.  Why?  Because your breath responds to how you perceive the world at any given moment.  When the world’s a threat, you go into flight or fight mode and your breathing speeds up.  Stress hormones pour into your body and your HRV goes down, while your pulse goes up.  None of this is helping you live a longer life – it’s only helping you fight for a moment or two, or run away.  The trouble is that we’re essentially facing the “flight or fight” perspective almost all the time these days, from the tension of meetings and production deadlines, to traffic, to the news out of DC, Syria, Iran, and everywhere, to our own brokenness, body image issues, wondering if we’re “enough”, and a host of other issues.

Meditation is like shutting your computer down when it’s frozen and the spinning “wheel of death” won’t let you do anything and the little fan motor is whirring because its overheating and the CPU thing says its using a ton of memory and energy, which is weird because the only thing open is a word doc, and youtube.  So “shut her down” and start over.  Meditation does that!

I sit, take a couple of breaths, ring a gong on an app that has a timer set for ten minutes, and then begin breathing slowly.  On my inhale, I say my meditation verse for the day.  On the exhale I say “thank you”.  It’s prayer really, and an expression of gratitude for something that’s true about my identity, a deep reminder, so that the truth doesn’t get essentially stolen by the birds of worry, lust, fear, anger, traffic, shame, etc. etc.

My breathing slows down, my worries get swept away.  The truth of who I am in Christ comes flooding in.  And….

My pulse slows down.  My blood pressure drops.  My HRV goes up.  I’m at rest.

I close by praying for people that God brings to mind.  The bell rings again.  I start my day.  But I start my day with a guarded heart, bathed in the infinite love the creator.  It’s not a magic trick.  It’s meditation – which means saturating my being with the truth that I’m deeply loved by the creator of the universe.

People think that jogging and skipping bacon are the only ways to care for their hearts, and while at least one of those disciplines has merit, the habit of meditation has helped me live more deeply “rooted and grounded in love” as Paul desired all Christ followers be – and that’s a pretty good way of starting my day.  Try it!

The Disciplines of Self Care – (Why your Oxygen mask must go on first)

Years ago I found myself in a debate over an organization’s mission statement.  At the time it read, “meeting people at their point of need and enabling them to become all God had in mind when God made them”  I liked it, but others didn’t.  “Too consumeristic” they said, declaring that this kind of mission statement feeds narcissism, with the result that “having my needs met” would become the only thing people would care about.  It’s a legitimate concern.  The older I become, the more firmly I believe that the end goal of our lives is to become these full containers that are overflowing with compassion, generosity, courage, beauty, and creativity.  These things are a far cry from the consumerism that prevails in both the marketplace and churches of today.  And yet, the older I get, the more I stand by my statement that having our needs met isn’t just important, it’s foundational.  Until we receive, we’re unable to give.  Here’s what I mean….

You’re no doubt aware of the Mt. Everest spectacles this year.  With overcrowding and unnecessary deaths, the events of this summer hearken back to the 1996 climbing season when eight climbers died on Mount Everest during a storm. It was the worst loss of life ever on the mountain on a single day. Author Jon Krakauer, who himself attempted to climb the peak that year, wrote a best-selling book about the incident, Into Thin Air, which was published in 1997.  Anatoli Boukreev, also guiding on Everest that year, also published a book about the events entitled, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest.  (The two books offer a fascinating look at how two people, participating in the same events, can recall differently, highlight different things, and interpret the same exact events dramatically differently, attaching totally different motives to a person’s actions.  This makes for interesting consideration of how we read the Bible, but that’s a different topic, for a different day)

Boukreev, the Russian guide working for Seattle guide Scott Fisher, had taken his clients to the top earliest in the day.  He descended to the nearest camp without his clients, where he brewed tea, fortified himself, and then went back up the mountain to work on rescue operations.  Here’s an excerpt from Boukreev’s book explaining the situation:

“I said to Scott that the ascent seemed to be going slowly, and I was concerned that descending climbers could possibly run out of oxygen before their return to Camp IV (at 7,900 m). I explained that I wanted to descend as quickly as possible to Camp IV to warm myself and get a supply of hot drink and oxygen in case I might need to go back up the mountain to assist descending climbers. Scott, as had Rob Hall before him, said ‘OK’ to this plan.”

Some said Boukreev was selfish to go down.  But one article describes the value of how his time of rest for what came next:

Six people needed help and only Boukreev was willing to go out. With tea and oxygen he went out three times in the storm and brought back first Sandy Pittman, and then Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen. He repeatedly asked Sherpas and members of other expeditions to help save Yasuko Namba (Weaters wasn’t there at that point), but no one would.

(One climber), Gammelgaard, remembers seeing Boukreev after he returned with Fox and Madsen: “I woke up at around 5 a.m. and saw Anatoli [Boukreev]. He had returned. It was already light, and he sat without saying a word. He was completely exhausted. There was no energy left in him.

Going down early and resting was… selfish?  The debate here is a debate that goes well beyond the climbing world, because it’s really about the role of self-care and service of others in the lives we live.  The critics of Boukreev are perhaps rightly wary of an excessive focus on self care because, to be blunt, by almost any standard, most agree that we live in the age of the elevated selfishness.

The danger of being a “lover of self” is obvious in the Bible, and the warnings are there for a reason.  There’s something in our nature that is tempted to withdraw from compassion, service, and generosity.  When we yield to such tendencies our lives shrink dramatically, even though we have an outer coating of righteousness.  We can redefine success as not breaking laws like stealing, killing, committing adultery, paying our taxes, and even add things like going to church, verbally defending the Bible, and perhaps even defending our politics.  But this is not, by any stretch of Jesus’ imagination, what following Jesus looks like.  This is self absorbed religion, taking in, and in, and in.  If you strip the religious veneer off of it, it’s just pure narcissism – living for our own well being and not caring for others.  When the warning against being a ‘lover of self’ isn’t heeded, religious people will be the worst kind of self lovers… self righteous self-lovers!

In contrast, God’s clear calling from the beginning is that humans are invited to feast on God’s blessings, but to do so in order that we might actively bless and serve others!  Remember Abraham:  “blessed to be a blessing”.  Remember Micah: “what does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”.  Remember Jesus: “if anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink, and from his belly will burst forth rivers of living water”.  You get this picture of being filled so that we can pour out!

Which brings me, for a moment, back to Boukreev.  Remember that warning when you’re flying.  “If you’re flying with children and the oxygen masks appear, put your own mask on first!”  None of us will ever know Boukreev’s true motives.  We DO know that he had the strength and inner fortitude to rescue three people, above 8000 meters, in an Everest storm.  He had to find them, stabilize them, move them.  Some were snow blind.  Some were refusing to move, preferring instead to die.  No matter.  He served…and saved… because he was strong enough to do so.

THE POINT OF IT ALL

I’m increasingly convinced that one of the largest barriers to healthy marriages, families, churches, non-profits, businesses, even cities and nations, is the appalling condition of the people in charge.  When I go to pastors’ conferences, for example, I hear material that is good, inspiring, and even important – things about casting vision, managing well, staffing and hiring decisions, change management, conflict management, how to think big, etc.  Without being dismissive of any of it, my complaint is that if you sweep all of that stuff away, a fundamental truth remains:  healthy leaders are the foundational element for creating healthy systems.  Healthy individuals who marry create healthy marriages.  Healthy couples create healthy families.  Healthy pastors help create healthy churches.  And so it goes.  There are exceptions of course, but this is a deep flowing river of reality.

That’s why Boukreev warmed, rested, and drank tea.  That’s why David “strengthened himself in the Lord” prior to his battle.  That’s why Jesus went off “early in the morning to the mountains to pray”.  Whole people have resources to share, not out pride, or anger, or to create something that will fill ego needs.  Their strength of inner resources enable them to serve!  That’s the reason things like solitude, silence, moving your body, eating real food, getting enough sleep, enjoying creation, and meditation are important.  It isn’t so that you can become a dammed up narcissist.  It’s so you can fully bless and serve others.

Paul prays that our spirit, soul, and body, would be made whole!  I’m presently developing a curriculum around this theme, and know that one of the first things people will feel is that this is too self-absorbed.  My answer:  Yes, if you’re warming up, and napping, and drinking tea, just so you can stay comfortable while others die on the mountain, it’s self-absorbed.  But if your wholeness leads to service, hospitality, justice, mercy, crossing social divides, and being compassionately present with others in the midst of their suffering, then it’s a different story.  That’s the life for which you’re created:  receiving fullness, that you might be fully poured out!

I’ll be writing more on this very important subject of wholeness, and starting a podcast soon, around the subject spirit/soul/body wholeness, but the healthy pursuit of wholeness is always toward a particular end:  we seek fulness so that we might become people who shine as beacons of light, joy, compassion, hope and generosity in a world overwhelmingly governed by fear, anger, tribalism, and pettiness.  I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

 

 

Hungry for a Tribe – musings on isolation and consumerism

A recent New York Times article (you can find the link over on my twitter account @raincitypastor) describes the gnawing hunger our culture has for belonging to a tribe, and how those longings are fulfilled in a tribe.   This longing has led to an explosion in self-help podcasts on all manner of subjects ranging from the development of morning rituals, to cold showers, meditation, and coffee made of mushrooms.

What’s going on?  Why does Joe Rogan have 30 million podcasts downloads each month?  And, more cogent to this blog and my own musings: “What needs are being met in the plethora of self-help broadcasts that the church is failing to meet?  Should the church be meeting these needs?  How?”

My observation:  In contrast to our longings for community, our consumer culture isolates and leads to paralyzing confusion.

C.S. Lewis postulates in “The Great Divorce” that hell is that place where we get whatever we want, but the result of having our particular consumerist desires met is that we become isolated.  In our zeal to build a customized life, we find ourselves increasingly isolated.   Rituals that once bound people together, such as church attendance, prayer groups, or whatever have fallen on hard times (for reasons I’ll address next).  The result is isolation and confusion.  I’m alone, and I don’t know what to do in order to live better.

Along come podcasts which call people to what are offered as life giving rituals.  Whether it’s morning meditation, fasting until lunch, or a daily cold shower, purveyors of ‘primal wisdom’ are calling people to rituals.   The value of rituals are that I now “know what to do” because someone has offered a prescription of practices that lead to life.

Second, I now have a community, if only  virtual, who share my values.   These podcasters have, in other words, tapped into a need that the church, long ago, stopped meeting.

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

My Proposals

#1 – Elevate the Value Of Rituals – in past eras of the church, the pervasiveness of  consumerism, individualism, wealth disparity, and nationalism, gave rise to a counter response called “monasticism”.  They became “The Desert Father’s” or “The Benedictines” or “The Celtic Church” which thrived beyond the structures of the Roman Empire, or the “Confessing Church” in Germany during the rise of the Reich.  All these communities called people to various rituals of prayer, fasting, Bible Reading, service, and more.

I will continue to work at this in the church I lead.  I’ve written a book  in order to help people develope “Rule of Life” rituals.   I wrote this because the hyper-individualism and consumerism that is American Evangelical Christianity is horribly ineffective.   Perhaps, in our desire to make faith accessible, we’ve lowered the bar so close to the ground that self-denial, rituals, or challenges regarding the use of our time, money, or bodies never happen.  The result of this is that we end up with nothing to offer or nothing to say.   As a result, the church has been relegated to the dust bin of irrelevance for an increasing percent of the population.

Here’s how The NY Times article suggests that these podcasts are filling the gap:

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

To the extent that the church can once again elevate and create a culture where faith has particular practices, and to the exten that the practices offer a real path to wholeness and transformation, the church’s light might once again begin to shine.

#2 –  Stop behaving like Gnostics; Recover the Body – These podcasts, for all their flaws, are seeking to speak to the whole person.  Meditation.  Cold Showers.  Mushroom Coffee.  Finding your tribe.  Serving others.

Wow.  It’s clear to me that an appeal of podcasts is their capacity to address the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.  It’s not that I agree with everything offered (“Mushroom coffee?  Really?”).   The reality though, is that God cares about the whole person, and too often the church doesn’t.  The church’s failure to address the whole person is central to why so many are leaving the church.   Paul prayed that we’d be “set apart” and “made whole” in every way: spirit, soul, body.

I’m presently working on developing a discipleship pathway that addresses the whole person.  Such a pathway must include not only practices of prayer and generosity for the spirit, but doing soul work related to our brokenness so that our time use, money use and relationships all move toward wholeness.  Finally, we must also address the body work related to sleep, exercise, and making wise food choices.

What would it look like if God’s people were functionally tribes of people (called churches) committed to life transforming practices that will empower people to serve and bless the world out from a place of ongoing movement toward wholeness?  Such a church would shine as light in the midst of darkness, would become food in the midst of people hungry for meaning, belonging, wholeness, and ritual.  We hunger for these things because God has placed ‘eternity in the hearts’ of all people!  Thanks be to God that our world is hungry.  It’s high time we begin building cultures that become the food we’re meant to be.

I welcome your thoughts…

 

Sustainable Faith requires Practices

On Sunday November 25th I’ll be speaking at all our Bethany locations on the very important subject of how to turn spiritual disciplines into regular practices in your life so that you’re able to grow in joy, confidence, wisdom, mercy, strength, love, and freedom.  I hope you’ll make every effort to attend, and if you can’t I hope you’ll attend online, because this is what ties everything we’ve been discussing this fall together.  I believe it’s one of the most important sermons I’ve ever preached, and the material we receive tomorrow will lay the foundation for solid discipleship in our communities for years to come.  Here’s what I mean:

Saturday, November 25th, 4PM.  I’m on a train in Germany between the small village of Kandern where my daughter teaches, and the established city of Friedrichshafen, where I’ll be teaching this week at Bodenseehof.  I have a window seat, and it’s November dark, with clouds burying the Alps in a grey that’s reflected back on Lake Constance.  Trees are naked, stripped of all leaves, all color, all life.  The whole of the moment cries, “selah”, which means “pause”, “rest”, “pay attention”.  I do, and in the moment, breathe deep.  Classical music fills my ears, from the like of Josh Groban and Yo Yo Ma.  Indescribable.

Aren’t you glad they practiced?  These artists have gifts, though the word gift is dangerous.  It implies that the skills of a virtuoso simply bubbled up from within until they overflowed, like a jar of kombucha tea that’s been shaken too much.  BOOM!  Talent awakens and bookings begin.  Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  Everything worth doing requires intention and practice, and while there are various theories about how to practice, and how much to practice, everyone agrees that there are things you must do if you’re going to master a skill.

Christianity isn’t a skill, of course, like playing the cello or singing.  But Christianity does, on the other hand, have deliverables, given by Jesus himself.  He said: When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father (John 15:8).   Fruit has nothing to do with electing republicans, contrary to current conventional evangelical wisdom (after all, you never saw Jesus advocating for a certain party, for the obvious reason that ‘his kingdom is not of this world’.  He brings an ethic that transcends all parties, nations, and economic systems – but I digress).  Fruit has to do with displaying the character of Jesus, allowing it to flower and blossom so that a supernatural love and joy, peace and hope, wisdom and patience, well up from deep within, arising from nothing less than the resurrected Jesus who’s taken up residence inside us!

If Christians could learn that this fruit of changed behavior and countenance, not the proving the resurrection or the age of the earth or the superiority of water baptism, is the whole point of the gospel, we’d all be a lot healthier.

Real health, though, arises in individual believers and faith communities, not when they know the right goal, but when they move toward it.  So the vital question for our consideration is this.  How do we who are filled with Christ, come to live lives that display Christ in greater measure?  

The short answer is this:  by developing ancient soul care practices!  This is because the right practices will have the effect of allowing the Christ who lives in us to find unique expression in our lives in greater and greater measure as days become weeks become decades.  Little by little, Christ is being formed, and growing and bearing fruit.  But only if the soil of our hearts is in the right condition – and that soil care is our responsibility.

There are people who’ve said they don’t like the notion of “spiritual disciplines” because they imply, wait for it…. discipline.  “I was in a legalistic church back in the day and there’s no way I’m going back to that phony, judgemental structure.”  Please don’t!  Go forward instead – into the life for which you are created.

You weren’t created for a noose of legalism.  Too many faith stories have ended shipwrecked on the rocks of shame imposed by authorities who understood neither grace, nor the reasons people should have spiritual practices.

You weren’t created for the desert of spiritual anarchy either.  Many, wary of legalism, have swung on the pendulum, and are now “free” which is code for “doing nothing intentional about growing in my faith”

You were created for “the ancient paths” – practices that can start with alarming ease and be incorporated into your existing routines, but which will, over time, transform you so that:

You enjoy increasing freedom from shame, fear, and addiction.

You enjoy increasing power and purpose.

You enjoy increasing companionship with Christ as your best friend, so that you can worship, while traveling alone on a train in November as you pass through barren fields in southern Germany with immigrants from Morocco to your left and from Somalia behind you.

A friend once said, “the Christian life hasn’t been found tried and wanting – it’s not been found tried at all.”  Too many of us got our salvation card punched, (or at least thought we did) by giving assent to some doctrines.  But we never grew into the life for which we’re created.  The way forward into robust faith reality is found on those ‘ancient paths’.  Don’t miss the November 25th sermon, and accompanying literature – live or online.

Soil Conditions for seeds of hope – Lessons learned on a bike ride

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.

A vital question for each of us is whether or not we’re creating conditions in our lives for Christ’s seed to thrive, or the invasive species of greed, violence, and lust.

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.

 

 

 

“Steal, Kill, and Destroy” – Your Time’s Been Stolen!

You’ve been ripped off

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?

You Can’t Live on Adrenaline Forever – A call to rest

12699122_f520 “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 bedIn 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

 

 

 

Bible Reading’s Boring or Difficult? Try this at any age!

“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.

2.  A sense that the Bible creates more questions than answers. “Why did God sanction violence and genocide?” “Why the polygamy?” “Why the crazy rules about underwear?”

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.

“Not Burdensome”…. musings on the ease of obedience and self-denial

 

Is self denial a burden?

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….