August 21st was one of those rare days where people cheered darkness. In Seattle, where the eclipse only reached 92% of total, it was still dark enough, cold enough, awesome enough, to elicit cheers. It was the same everywhere along the path of darkness forged by the moon – eruptions of joy as people embraced the darkness.
The rest of our lives, it’s a different story, especially if we’ve been taught to love Jesus. We’ve often learned that darkness is unequivocally bad. Every verse mentioning it says so, linking darkness with Satan, and all else worth avoiding in the world.
As a result, we’ve managed to find ways of banishing darkness. We’ve caste it out of the natural world by lighting up the night so that we don’t need to deal with it at all until we close our eyes for sleep (though our extension of light beyond what nature intended means we’re paying a price). We’ve cast it out of our faith too, by creating what one favorite author calls “the full solar version of Christianity”, a faith which intensely seeks to keep the lights on perpetually. “All good, all the time – that’s Jesus!” they say, with a big grin and powerful handshake. In its worst forms, it claims to “pray the darkness away” whether the darkness is cancer, infidelity, abuse, job loss, or a shocking accident that leaves a husband and father suddenly staring into a future of loneliness, his family having been killed in the car. All good all the time? Wishing it were so, yea even praying it, doesn’t make it so. Ugh.
Darkness is real. But don’t despair. God lives there too.
When Abraham doubted God, where did God send him? Out into the dark to count the stars. When Jacob was running for his life as a self perceived failure and dropped down to sleep in desert, God met him there in a dream, in the dark. Later God met him again in the dark for a wrestling match. The shepherds? The dark. Jesus birth? The dark. Jesus final triumph over evil that caused him to cry “it is finished” and graves to break open? The dark yet again. It turns out some good things happen in the dark after all. But there’s more.
The reality is that darkness has been with us since the beginning, before sin. “There was evening and there was morning, the first day…” From the beginning, it was our lot in life to deal with the darkness, about half the time actually – at least physically. Ecclesiastes tells me that the same’s true in the real of spirit and emotion, at least in this present age. “There’s a time for everything” is how the wise old preacher put it: birth and death, war and peace, seeking and losing, laughter and tears – a time for everything; including darkness.
The reason this looms large as an issue is because we live in a world were all manner of bad things happen, plunging us into the darkness of uncertainty. She walks out of the oncologists office with a 40% chance of living a year. He weeps at the graveside of his spouse, wondering what’s next for he and his three children. They weep as the ultrasound reveals an abnormality.
What are we supposed to do? Celebrate? Resort to hollow praise in hopes that if we sing loud enough all will be fixed? Claim our healing and prosperity? Nope. There is one thing only:
Don’t be afraid of the dark. Recognize that these seasons of uncertainty, loss, betrayal, and even death, go with the territory of the world in which we live. I sometimes thing that some of us Christians like the light so much that, ironically, we stick our heads in the sands to live in denial of the darkness all around us. But hear this: the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that, though the darkness is real – God meets us there, and walks with us there. Our fear of the dark has the affect of shuttering our lives, so that joy dries up, risk dries up, faith and hope dry up. Our single paradigm becomes avoiding the dark – hardly a decent way to live ever, but especially if you’re called to courageous faith, as all disciples are.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” writes about one grown woman who was terrified by the dark: her fear was the fault of everyone who taught her to fear the dark, convincing her that it is cdangerous – all of it, all the time, under every circumstance – that what she cannot see will almost certainly hurt her and that the best way to protect herself from such unseen maleficence si to stay inside after dark, with the doors locked and sleep with lights on.”
Not Abraham or Jacob, as they pondered infinity under the starry sky. Not Jonah in the darkness of a fish’s belly. Not Job in the darkness of mysterious and massive loss. Not Jesus in the Garden, or even on the cross when the whole world turned dark. Not Paul and Silas in the darkness of dungeon prison.
Why? Because the light of the world is with us, even in the dark. “Even the darkness is light to you….” is how the Psalmist says it. This is why I say, “Welcome autumn – with your shorter colder days. Thank you for the chance to learn how to walk with you through the dark seasons.”
If you’d care to comment on how God has met you in the dark, I and perhaps other readers too, would be grateful.
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in a such a way that you may win…”
You are God’s uniquely handcrafted beautiful creation. You have gifts to bring to our darkening and weary world, and that means you weren’t just put here to survive, or have a few grand adventures of your own. You were put here to bless; to pour your life out onto the canvass of this world in the colors of hope, in an artistry that’s yours alone.
So get on with it.
Run to win.
Get over the mentalities of scarcity which define survival and a hefty stash of cash as the win because God knows that the world is full of people who have more than enough food, money, water, and activities, but who are utterly missing the life for which they’re created.
You’re not made to survive and consume, though you’ll do both, throughout your days. You’re made to thrive and bless and serve. Abundant Life is what Jesus called it. Don’t settle for anything less.
Run to win.
Flush your fears of thermonuclear war, political insanity down the toilet, and quit arguing, or worrying, about who stands or sits during the national anthem of a football game . You have no control of any of this.
Focus instead on what you’re going to be doing with your “one wild and precious life” because if you waste your days in fear and worry, you’re not just cheating yourself out of joy, peace, and meaning – you’re cheating the rest of us too. The world needs what you have to offer.
Find your gift (is it teaching, healing, serving, walking with those who are suffering, empowering, creating…?) and spend your life developing your precious gifts so that you can be a blessing to others.
If you already know your gift then for God’s sake (literally – for God’s sake) turn off the TV, set aside the video games, let go of the petty tie suckers, and get on with using it.
Run to win.
Paul the Apostle said that he disciplines his body, so that at the end of his life he’ll be confirmed to have been a participant in the abundant life Jesus offers, not just a spectator, or worse, an armchair quarterback who knows Jesus, justice, hospitality, confession, risk, love, service…but only as theory.
Run to win.
I woke up one morning recently, having had a moment in a dream where my own moments of self-pity, petty indulgences, cynical judgement, time wasted in social media political grenade lobbing, and the paralysis of an absurd self-pity (in spite of all the blessings I enjoy) marched past my bed like characters in a parade. Each one filled me with regret and I woke with a start, in the middle of the night – praying to God that I’d create no more of these subtle, yet despicable characters the rest of my days. “Rather” I prayed, “may I run to win – continually receiving your revelation from creation, friendships, text, and trials” and “may I pour my life out, using my gifts to love, serve, and bless”
Are you running to participate?
Are you running when it’s convenient?
Are you running at all?
Run to win.
After a week of meetings in Germany with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship, my wife and I made our way to Schladming for a little bit of rest before I head up to England for a week of speaking at Capernwray Hall. The week is a break in the midst of what has been a very busy time, both at home and on the road.
Because I’m here without obligations or responsibilities, I hadn’t anticipated that the Spring Bible School students would still be here, but as it turns out, today is their last day. What this means is that they’ll spend their morning worshiping, praying, and sharing together the things God has taught them during their time here.
Though I don’t know them at all, Donna and I sneak in the back to listen just a bit and it’s there, in that space, that I remember my time here twenty years ago, in spring school 1995. That spring I spent my free time filling out an application for the role of senior pastor at Bethany Community Church in Seattle because, after speaking there for a week earlier in the spring, I’d been asked to apply for the job, a job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but was certain I didn’t want to miss, if it was God’s will. I remember writing answers to questions, printing the whole thing and faxing it to the church office in Seattle, fairly convinced that my lack of large church experience (I was leading a house church at the time) would disqualify me from consideration anyway.
I was wrong, of course, as I often am when I presume to know the ways and mind of God. By the fall of that same year, Donna and I were packing up our things for a move to Seattle where, on December 1st, we began our five year commitment to the big church of 300 in the big city of Seattle. After a year, 300 had grown to 225. After five years though, we said no to some other opportunities, convinced that there was another chapter for us in Seattle and Bethany.
Five years has become twenty. 225 people have become 3500 people. One location has become six. And all of this represents the faithfulness of God in changing one life at a time, one step at a time. The church in Seattle has changed profoundly.
And here in Austria? New facilities. New staff. New leaders. Larger Bible Schools. A sailing ministry in Greece. Yes… God’s been at work here too, and all the outward signs are but the most visible outward displays representing countless changed lives, now scattered throughout the world like so much life giving seed, making Jesus visible. This space has also been a place of change.
All these thoughts are swirling as I run through the mist hanging in the alps this morning. I’m mindful that the church I lead is changing in good ways, as is this school in Austria. New leaders. New locations. Changed lives. It’s good stuff! So I ponder, as the rain falls – “What practices and attitudes help create positive changes?” Though there are many, these ___ seem foundational:
I. Vertical Connection – Jesus said it: “Abide in me and you’ll bear much fruit” Those eight simple words are at the core of the work God wants to do in the world. This is because God’s desire is to express nothing less than the life of Christ through the likes of you and me. When it works, his joy, peace, power, wisdom, love, patience, generosity, forgiveness and hope are poured out through us, watering thirsty souls.
Foundational as this is, it is also the most elusive piece of the puzzle for many. We’re raised to believe that we have what it takes to make a grand difference in the world, and that with enough planning and projects, metrics and media, goals and objectives, we’ll reach the promised land of fulfilled vision, or meaningful work, or perfect children.
Um, no. That’s not going to happen. To the contrary, the story that God will write through any of us will, in the end, declare that it’s those who are mindful of their own thirst and need for the reality of Christ that God will use to express God’s life to the world.
Our thirst for God and for the enjoyment of Christ’s real presence in our lives are the most important realities we can pursue and experience. They’re as vital as air and water, critical resources for the kind of life Jesus invites us to live.
II. Patient Expectation – My techno watch tells me two things while I’m running this morning. First, it confirms the glad news that I’m running at pace that keeps heart happily ticking along between 130 and 140 beats per minutes, sort of a sweet spot for my running. Second, I lean the even better news that I’m travelling faster in this same sweet spot now than I was last summer when I was here. Same heart rate; faster running! How did that happen?
Gradually. In his book about training for alpine adventures, Mark Twight introduces the acronym: TINSTAAFL, which means “There is no such thing as a free lunch” It’s his way of saying that nobody can compress the time it takes to get in shape for a big climb, thinking that a few cross fit sessions where your heart pumps and your muscles ache and you feel like throwing up will never be able to do the job. “Gradualness is the only way aerobic adaptation is gained” is the essence of what he says.
I just focus on staying between 130 and 140. It’s my body, and the magic of health and exercise that make me faster. My own attempt to go faster nearly two years ago resulted in a strained Achilles, the result of which was a total ban on running for about a month. Faster? My attempts at self improvement were in the toilet. It was then that my physical therapist said, “you’re going too fast – keep your pulse under 135” My first days on my urban running path were an exercise in humility. As person after person passed me, I wanted to shout, “I’m faster than this!!” but I kept quiet and kept doing my turtle thing.
Slowly faster. I’m convinced that those who want to look more like Jesus need to find out what it is that Jesus wants us to actually DO, and what he promises to do in response. This is where my II Corinthians 3:16-18 favorite stuff comes in. That’s where I’m told to “behold his glory” and that if I do that, I will be transformed, slowly, yet relentlessly, ‘from glory to glory’ – so that I look more like Jesus. Little by little, hope will evict despair, light will overcome darkness, love will overwhelm hate, and the whole complex thing that is your personality will be infused with a hope, quiet confidence, and joy that I can’t be made in any self improvement program any more than the guys who make potato chips can fabricate, a butterfly.
Our transformation, you see, is divine handiwork. We are his workmanship, we’re told. So we can all just relax bit, drop our program of self-branding and building a following, stop worrying about what the other moms think of our recipes and living rooms, and simply make getting to know Jesus as a friend our chief aim in life. Then he’ll do the changing while we focus on other stuff, just like my body produces whatever it makes so that i run faster now than a year ago, not because I’m trying to run faster, but because I’m showing up more consistently.
No single devotional, or utterance of gratitude to God for a sunrise, or receptivity to what Jesus is saying through that difficult person – none of these things are deal breakers. The sky rarely opens up and pours out fire, or doves. Instead, like mitochondria multiplying in response to the stress of running, little unseen things are happening, just because we keep showing up.
Then one day, we open our eyes and realize that, in spite of ourselves, the years have given us more joy, more contentment, and more grace, than we’d every have hoped, surely more than we deserve. When that happens we’ll not only thank God for the work God has done, we’ll realize it happened in spite of ourselves, while we were living.
O Lord Christ…
You promise to change us, starting with the gift of rest, if we’ll just relax and learn of you. But we’re religionists, busy, striving, making ourselves holy for you, or effective for you, or at least less guilty in hopes you won’t destroy. Forgive us Lord, for the image we’ve made of you is an idol, and our souls are parched because of it. Staring now, we pray, may you be our pursuit, our joy, our companion. Teach us this, so that we’ll keep seeking you… and then we’ll simply thank you that, without a lot of perception on our part, the deepest changes of our soul needs will ripen. We’ll wake up some day, see the changes, and give thanks.
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.
In the avalanche of words that constitute our lives, I hope that for each of us there are particular conversations and moments that stand out as especially meaningful. Such words remain, long after the vast majority have evaporated, and they remain for good reason. They’re life giving, and wise. Here are five sentences filled with wisdom that I’ve received over the years, offered in hopes that they’ll be helpful to you as well. Enjoy!
1. Make knowing God the number one priority in your life. This was the word spoken to me from Jeremiah 9 when I was 20 years old and I realized at the moment that “knowing God” was at best, a peripheral pursuit in my life, far behind vocational aspirations, financial security, and having a little bit of fun. I was not only convicted by the truth of Jeremiah’s words, but I was drawn by their simplicity. In a world where I’m constantly being told to readjust my priorities to include P90X, wise investing, taking a cruise, losing weight, getting an advanced degree, finding cheaper insurance, avoiding cancer, finding my calling, protecting my identity from thieves, and about a thousand other things, the notion that the deepest joy in life can come from simply enjoying intimacy with my creator was stunningly beautiful. I’ve since come to see that truth in many texts, and have experienced the bliss, at my best, of knowing “the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”. This is the North Star to which I return over and over again.
2. Everyone knows how rotten they are – they need to know how gifted and loved they are. My friend Jim said this while I was in architecture school, and he practiced it too. I was a wreck at the time, body, soul, and spirit—and yet felt encouraged and affirmed by this wild eyed Jesus fanatic who also happened to be a great architecture student. But what struck me most about him was his real, demonstrable knack for encouraging and loving people. When I asked him about it one day, he said this; “People know their own shortcomings, but need to know they’re loved.” At my best, I seek to remind people of this too. At my worst, I default, not to hyper criticism, but benign neglect, which might even be worse!
3. When you have too much to do and you’re overwhelmed – remember to let the peace of Christ reign in the moment. Breathe deeply. Do the next thing. This word comes from Elisabeth Elliot, wife of martyred missionary Jim Elliot. She no doubt faced an ocean of suffering and questions after her husband’s untimely death at the hands of the Auca Indians, and yet she managed to keep her wits. Eventually she would return to minister among the very tribe that killed her husband, and after that, return to Wheaton College with the newly saved man who was the killer. He stood in chapel at Wheaton and declared himself as a Christ follower because of this woman’s faithfulness. That faithfulness was micro, step by step, in the wake of loss. All those little steps built a life. Nothing’s changed since then. Books are written a word at a time, churches built a sermon, prayer, visit at a time; children raised, a meal, bedtime story, teachable moment at a time. The good life is neither microwavable nor achievable without a million “next things” being done—step by step.
4. If you have a million dollars, but you don’t have a leader, you don’t have anything. If you have a leader and a nickel… you have a significant future. Ray Harrison, founder of the International Needs ministry our church supports, told me this in response to my question: “When people give you unrestricted funds, how do you decide what to do with them?” His answer: “Invest in good leaders, because…” and then he said what I wrote above. The word has served me well in my own leadership role, and has been confirmed time and again. A good leader will be exerting influence even without money or a title and so, ironically, will likely gain both.
5. Take care of your whole self. You are body, soul, spirit. In all three areas, rest, exercise, and what you eat, matter. This comes from my friend who runs a Bible based wilderness program in Austria where I teach, and from I Thessalonians 5, where Paul prays that we’d all prosper in all three areas. I’ve come to see that my life is an eco-system and that body neglect will affect my spiritual life just as spirit neglect will harm my body. As a result, I try to get enough sleep and also spend time “letting the peace of Christ” rule in my heart. I try to eat good food, and ingest healthy reading material for spirit and soul as well. Whole life discipleship is the only kind of discipleship worth pursuing.
It’s an overwhelming world at times, and this is why the wisdom that’s risen to the top like cream and stayed there, is so very important. We’re at risk in a world where anchors are disappearing daily, of being tossed around, squandering the precious gift of our daily lives because we just don’t know what to do next. But these words have anchored me more than once, and so I’ll be forever grateful for those folk who spoke them and lived them.
Yesterday I spent some time in what is slowly becoming a sabbath routine for this season of life. My wife and I packed a small lunch and some extra clothes in our backpacks and took off for a day of hiking. In a normal year it would be a ski day, but this is not a normal year. All the snow is over in Boston, and here where we normally get over 400 inches a year, the ski hills are brown brush; so we hike.
As we hike, we talk about life. It’s become maybe the best time of the week for sharing, because we have uninterrupted space for needed dialogue, punctuated by periods of silence for reflection, response, or even just enjoyment of the woods. The conversations always include remembrances of the past and considerations of the future. The two subjects feed each other by this time in our life together. We’ve seen 35 years of God’s faithful provision in our lives; seen many decisions we made with finite information which turned out far better than we’d anticipated, precisely because (we believe) God knew ‘the rest of story’ as only God can.
For example, I was sharing yesterday how profound it was to contemplate that we’d purchased this house in the mountains that had its own apartment, solely with a view of retiring there someday and renting it out as a ski chalet in the meantime, while keeping the small apartment for our own, for skiing, writing, hiking, and such.
Now here we are, living there, with my mom-in-law in the perfect little apartment as life circumstances converged so that it was best for her to move in with us. Her love of mountains and snow, and our purchase converged to meet a need we didn’t even know would exist when we bought the place. But God knew, and has provided space. We tell each other these kinds of stories while we hike, recalling God’s faithfulness in the past.
We speak of the future too; pondering how we can best use the gifts and resources God has given us to live fully into the story God desires to write through us. We ponder options, and they become matters for prayer. We speak of our heart’s desires in ways that we don’t during week because the week’s too full of obligations to spend much time pondering deeper longings. Giving voice to these longings is healthy, appropriate, necessary, if we’re to continue growing.
And of course, we speak of the present—of our own marriage, our children, decisions that need to be made. We speak of money, car brakes, schedules for the coming week, and of trees, waterfalls, lichen, weather, and rocks.
We share a meal at the top. We hike out. We drive home. Then there’s a meal, and peace, and a sense we’ve connected with God and each other. We propose to do it again next time. Sabbath; a gift from God.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. In many circles, Sabbath is nothing more than a legalistic noose tied around the necks of religious people to prevent them from doing anything the religious elite consider work. The list varies from generation to generation and place to place, including soccer, shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, wearing false teeth, and lifting anything heavier than two dried figs. This is just one of many reasons why people rightly hate religion. Jesus said you could know the worthiness of a person’s teachings and worldview ‘by their fruits’ and if the fruit of Sabbath keep is fear, withdrawal, and judgmentalism, I for one will be at the front of the line to condemn it.
Another group, seeing this legalist nonsense, has done away with the Sabbath completely. It’s either spiritualized (“Every day is a day of rest in Christ”), or bastardized into simply a “day off” which means a time to knock oneself out with shopping, or obligations with the kids, or find some sort of adrenaline hit so that we can maintain our stress levels until Monday, though because it’s chosen, it’s good stress rather than distress.
Either way is an exercise in missing the point. Sabbath, when properly practiced as a spiritual discipline, helps create a soil in which several good things can happen. Here’s what I mean:
A good and consistent Sabbath practice, over time will:
1. Create capacity in our lives – The creation narrative offers a profound revelation that life is intended to be lived in a complimentary manner: day and night; heaven and earth; sea and dry land; male and female; and yes—work and rest. God was the prototype of this rhythm, and those who violate it do so at great risk to their own fruitfulness and well being. This is because we’re made for a pattern of engagement and withdrawal, and if our Sabbath’s neglect withdrawal, we’ll enter our weekly responsibilities of engagement with even diminishing resources. The presenting symptoms will be stress related things like sleep troubles, nervousness, fatigue, and/or high anxiety. When it comes to exercise, we all know that we need to both exercise and rest. The same’s true with the whole of our lives and the Sabbath is God’s gift to provide for this.
2. Create a context for guidance – My wife and I have made many major life decisions in the context of Sabbaths, because that’s where we make the needed space to ponder God’s faithfulness in the past, and prayerfully give voice to our longings and hopes for the future, so that we can hear God speak and show us next steps. The worst thing we can do is be reactionary with our lives, both day to day in our obligations and with respect to major life decisions. It’s far better to be proactive, and this proactivity will come from creating space to pour our hearts out to God and then listen, and then act.
3. Remind you that you’re not the Messiah – One of the practical purposes of Sabbath practice when Israel was in the wilderness was so that they might learn that God will take care of them, all the time, even when they rest. The more and better anyone learns this, the more fully and profoundly they come to believe that God sustains God’s work and will do so even when we step away from it. I’ll be blunt in saying that its our sense of indispensability that often turns us into very ugly people—controlling, demanding, fearful, even manipulative; all in the name of “getting the job done”. The Sabbath, practiced well, will help you get over yourself, and rest in the reality that our participation in whatever work it is to which God has called us, is a privilege, not a necessity.
Make space please! For remembering; for considering; for sharing; for praying; for restoring. If that’s not a habit for you, now’s a good time to begin.
Here’s a resource I’ll recommend to round out and develop this discussion further.
Most years, the first or second week of December, I’m in the little town of Schladming, in the Austrian Alps, to teach at a Bible school where countless lives have been transformed as students encounter the powerful cocktail of global fellowship, creation’s stunning beauty, and teaching rooted in the central truth that Christ is still alive, wanting to express life uniquely through each of us.
Because I get to be here at that time of year, I know Schladming in winter, know the Planai as a ski area, where you’re whisked upwards 1000 meters in a few minutes time to enter a winter playground, a skier’s paradise. When I go up the mountain, I always do the same thing after exiting the gondola: attach skis, turn left, and make the quick descent down to a different lift, one which will take me up the highest point. It’s up there that I make a little pilgrimage to the cross, where I’ll often snap a quick picture and offer thanks to God for health of body to be in the center of all this beauty. On that second lift, there’s a guest house off to the left, always shuttered up, and hard to access by skis apparently, because of the hills around it.
On Saturday we hiked the ski area, following trail #50 through meadows, people’s driveways, cow pastures, and forest trails. Up. Up. Up. We’ve only a tiny tourist map and no real way of knowing where we’re going, or even where we are, other than the altimeter on my watch, which clicks off the meters of ascent, each number an encouragement amidst the sweat and work of this hike on a humid day.
Minutes turn into hours. Breaks become a bit longer along the way, and though we’re living life and confident that up is the proper general direction, we’re equal parts “hoping” and “confident” that we’re going to reach our goal.
A few hours into our journey, we stop for a break, at an opening in the forest. I’m drinking water as I gaze off to the left at a guest house sitting on the crest of a little hill and slowly, I’ve this sense that I’m looking at something familiar. “How do I know this place?” I ask, looking intently, reading the inscription across the space between roof and windows. And then, in an instant, I know. My mind’s eye connects the scene of this place in snowy winter with the now summer scene in front of me, and I know precisely – precisely, where we are.
“We’re under the lift that will take us to the cross” I tell my wife, smiling, and the joy comes not just from knowing the place, but from knowing that I know. It comes from the resonance between this experience and something deep inside of me, a memory. In an instant everything changes. I know where I am. I know where I’m going. I know I’ll get there. This little place on this vast mountainside, itself a dot in the Alps, feels like home.
Soon we’re at the cross, but that last portion of the trip, with sure bearings and familiarity brought about by seeing something already in my heart made all the difference. Doubt and uncertainty were vanquished by the reference point, the knowing that I’ve been here before.
When CS Lewis writes of his heart’s longing to find the source of beauty, hope, intimacy, meaning, joy, he echoes “The Preacher” from Ecclesiastes, who says in chapter three that God has placed “eternity in the hearts of people…” which means that there’s something in us that rejoices in the seeing of beauty and recoils in horror over the killing of children in war, or in the womb, or the destruction of marriages, or soil, or cities, through greed and corruption.
But especially, it means that we should be on the look out for moments where our hearts will leap because something in us will cry out, in our sensing of justice, beauty, and joy, “Yes! This is real life, the way life ought to be.” It can happen when you see lavish generosity, or Rosa Parks refusing to be corralled into conformity, or a stunning sunset, or a moment of genuine intimacy. When it happens and something deep inside us is haunted by a joyous sense we’ve been here before, we’re made for this, then we know we’re on to something. Keep following and you’ll find home; you’ll find the life for which you are created.
I was in college, depressed, a little disillusioned with my studies in architecture, when I went to ski retreat at a Bible camp and the speaker spoke on Jeremiah 9:23-27 about knowing God, and why that pursuit matters more than anything in the world.
Sitting in the A-frame chapel with 150 other college students, my heart caught fire. It was as if I’d seen something I’d known before, as if I knew that this pursuit was for me, as if “seeking, and knowing God” would be a sort of “coming home to a place I’d never been before.” I prayed that night, alone in the snow, because I knew somehow, that this pursuit was where I was meant to be. That prayer changed my life, my priorities, ultimately my vocation. It’s changing me still.
Moments like this come more often than we realize; in the quiet hours at sunrise with coffee and the scriptures, sitting under a redwood tree; in listening to Mozart’s Requiem played by the Seattle Symphony after 9-11; sitting with old friends high in the Austrian Alps, sharing food and speaking of life and loss, children and love, and the faithfulness of God in the midst of all the change. It’s those moments when God is speaking, wooing, inviting.
Listen! Hear the voice inside you that cries out “Yes” when the reality of the moment corresponds to deep longings inside you, the life for which you were created, and invites you deeper into that life. Those are important moments, times to pay attention, for listening at such times is how we find our God, and our calling, and our joy.
Dream big and work hard for it, because doing so takes you places — not always where you want, but often way farther than you can imagine. – Ranniveig Aamodt
Setbacks come in all shapes and sizes. They are relational, financial, physical, emotional, spiritual. They are sometimes enormous, like divorce, and other times “death by a thousand cuts”, occurring so slowly that you wake up years later and find yourself wondering why you’re in a story that so utterly misrepresents your deepest self.
Setbacks come for all kinds of reasons. They’re the result of our own bad choices, or the wrong actions of others, or both. They’re caused by the market (that’s me), or the weather, or political turmoil, or a cell that randomly decides to multiply out of control. They’re the result of ice on the road (that’s me), or a drunk driver, or a hidden chunk of ice and ski binding that doesn’t release (that’s me), or a salesperson who lied to you.
One thing’s certain though: Setbacks happen. Moses came to the point where he’d rather die than continue embracing his role as leader of a whining nomadic tribe. He wasn’t where he wanted to be. Jeremiah complained that God tricked him when God called him to be a prophet and now that things had turned out as they had, he was reconsidering. Peter thought he was strong enough to stand in solidarity with Christ but when he say Jesus’ eyes after his denial, he ran away weeping. Paul preaches and suddenly finds himself in a random dungeon, chained to the wall.
The question of the day then is “What principles can help me respond well when setbacks happen?”
1. Always get up – Failure is rarely our biggest problem. It’s how we respond to failure that sinks us. If the failure’s the result of our own bad choices, it’s easy to relive the moment or the decision that led to our predicament, over and over again. “Why didn’t I…?” If it’s the result of another person’s wrong actions, bitterness comes knocking. “If only…” as we replay the boneheaded or evil actions of the other. Random stuff that falls on us, like tornadoes, or cancer, are maybe hardest of all because there’s nothing, no one to blame.
Whatever the cause the, though best response is always the same. “All right then. This is where I’m at. What’s the next step?” That’s the remarkable story of Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, whose climbing partner, thinking Joe to be dead, cut the rope, sending him into a crevasse with an already shattered leg. That’s the story of David after committing adultery and murder. Every story of transformation and climbing out of the hole that is our setback starts with a profound acknowledgement of reality, a belief that transformation is not only possible, but our calling, and a commitment to take step after step, for ten thousand steps if necessary, as we seek to move into a different place. Self-pity, after about 20 seconds, is a waste of time, and needs to be seen for the enemy it is.
2. You are not your circumstances – When Norwegian climber Ranniveig Aamodt fell, she was damaged beyond recognition: “I had three compression fractures in my back from L2 – L4. I had broken my pelvis, both my talus bones (the main weight bearing bones in the ankle), as well as numerous small bones in my feet. The ligaments in my ankles were stretched and torn and had ripped small pieces of bone off the bones they were attached to. My right elbow was broken into many small pieces and my triceps tendon was torn halfway off. I’d also smashed up my front teeth.”
Her accident shattered her identity as well, and in the end she needed to say, “I realized that I had to distinguish between who I am, and what I do: I’m not a climber. Climbing is something I do. Even if I lost climbing, I would still be me.” Setbacks happen precisely because they create a dissonance between we think we are, and what reality presents in the moment. I thought I’d be married. I thought I’d be rich. I thought I’d be healthy. I thought I was a climber.
Her recognition that she is not her climbing became a critical foundation upon which she would rebuild her life and, ironically, climb again. All of us have images of who we think we are and some of those images need to die, not so that we can become less, but so that we can become whole. This is because it’s vital to be passionate about our goals and pursuits, but always with an open hand, allowing God to shape them in ways we wouldn’t have anticipated or chosen. Jesus reminded Peter, after his failure, that in the end he’d be taken places he didn’t want to go, but that this wouldn’t make him less, it would make him more.
3. You are not your limitations – The notion of holding our goals with an open hand, though, is dangerous. It becomes, at times, a license to embrace our limitations and wounds, cherishing them to the point where they come to define us. When we find ourselves making peace with our setbacks and sort of “moving in and setting up furniture” we need to shout, “Noooooooo!” and fight back. That’s the biggest value I find in Ranniveig’s story (a little long, but worth it). The word “overcome” and “overcomer” runs throughout the New Testament because God is trying to tell us that it’s our move, that we have next steps to take, that we are not our failures, that we can overcome.
The point for Ranniveig isn’t to get back to climbing again. It’s to overcome the incredible pull of complacency, pain, and self-pity that will not only prevent climbing again, but prevent any sort of meaningful life. We need to find our next steps, recognize that there’ll be a piece of us that doesn’t want to take them, and then take them anyway. She writes:
I decided to accept the condition I was in, think positive, and face what as ahead. This triggered a kind of power. “Bring it on,” I thought. “I will do everything I can to make the best of this situation.”
4. You are not your fear. The most insidious thing about setbacks is that as we begin to recover, we’re sorely tempted to spend the rest of our days avoiding the possibility of ever reverting to that pain again. Of course, when we do that, the pain begins to define us. Again: “Nooooooo!”
Our friend writes about it this way: my physiotherapist asked me to jump 40 centimeters up onto a squishy foam pad. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and the idea of jumping with my bad ankles was terrifying. But I had to make a choice. So in action and attitude, I jumped. I still remember his words: If you don’t do this, you’ll try to find ways around your limitations. But to know your true limits, you have to get in over your head, and more often than not, you’ll realize your limits are greater than you thought.
We need to step back in: to relationships, on the slopes, in the gym, in our walk with God, whatever it is. And yes, we’ll be afraid. That’s why it’s called “overcoming”
What’s your limitation? What’s your fear? What’s your next step?
A new year is a blank piece of paper; a chance to stop and consider how to fine tune our investment in the one wild and precious life that we’ve been given. The “unexamined life is not worth living” is how Socrates put it, and there’s no time riper for examining our lives than now, when the calendar is clean. Rather than just thinking about goals, though, this article reminds me that it makes sense to think about values. Here are some values that need adjusting… more or less.
More Intentionality in affirmation and encouragement – I’ve recently become freshly aware of the power encouragement has, both through experiences of giving and receiving it. Decades ago, in the midst of a depression that came about in the wake of my dad’s death, the person who made the biggest difference in my life did so through encouragement and affirmation. When I thanked him, he said, “All of us know our inadequacies pretty well – what we need is to be told how much we’re loved, where we’re gifted, where we can shine.” While the value of truth telling and hard conversations are also important, I’ve recently reawakened to the value of encouragement and plan to fan it into flame this year.
More Openness to the fullness of life – I’ll be teaching from Ecclesiastes this Sunday, and this coming summer for an outdoor course. This book, more than any in the Bible, invites me to fearlessly live “fully” in every moment. As one poet writes:
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…” We live in a hyper-insulated world these days, afraid of all that might go wrong if we venture outside our comfort zones, and the fruit of this is a lowering of the bar, so that for too many the biggest adventure of our lives is a visit to the newest movie, or upgrading our xbox. We’re too often missing the reality that in Christ, we’re sometimes invited to step outside the boat, or into the river, or give away the last of our loaves and fishes. What if we said yes, shooting the moon and casting all our hope in the reality that God’s calling us to this next step? What would happen then? Abundant life would happen and by that God doesn’t mean material prosperity necessarily, but fulness, vibrancy, wholeness, right in the thick of the beauty and challenges on our plates.
More Companionship because we’re made for community and relationships. I’ve just finished experiencing an overwhelming outpouring of support in my life from close friends throughout the time of my oldest daughter’s wedding. They helped make the wedding happen in a thousand practical ways and I was reminded throughout the experience of just how priceless deep friendships are. I’m looking for ways to continue fanning those flames of relationship in the coming year.
In addition to human companionship, I’m very much looking forward to nurturing companionship with Christ as I spend 40 days hiking through the mountains in order to learn more about what it means to walk with God. After all, we’re invited to friendship with Jesus, not religious ritual. I hope to learn more lessons about what that really means through my walking days.
More Creativity – For people with responsibilities like work, marriage, family, keeping the car maintained, keeping the sewer line between the house and street flowing freely, keeping the deck stained, there are seasons when it’s hard to be creativity. Our longing to write, paint, create music or pottery, or whatever, is eaten alive by our day job and our night job so that we’ve nothing left for creativity. There’s no sense moaning about it; such seasons simply happen.
On other hand, when one comes up for air, and the creative urges begin demanding they find expression again, it’s important to fan those urges into flames and give the fire some room to grow. I’m going to do that by making a modest commitment to a word count for writing during each two week period of the coming year. Rather than some lofty unattainable goal, I’m shooting for something challenging but doable.
More Vegetables – There’s nothing to say here.
Less Late Nights – Everyone’s at their best at some certain point of the day, and for me it’s that time in the earliest morning hours, around 5:30. As a result, staying up ’til midnight, weary and uncreative, robs me of my best time.
Less Stuff – We’re slowly working our way through the closets and garage because, like plaque in your arteries, possessions have a nasty way of accumulating and then remaining as nothing more than clutter long after they’ve served their purpose. “Give it away” I say, and it’s happening, and it’s liberating.
Less Whining – I love that the Bible invites me to pour my heart out to God with honesty, expressing the full range of lament and praise, joy and sorrow. But there’s one response to reality that God roundly condemns: grumbling, which is this sort of low level whining amongst ourselves about circumstances, leaders, politics, the weather, jobs, customer service quality of Comcast, Seattle traffic and more. The Bible says this is more than just a wast of time; it’s destructive sin. God seems to be saying, “Tell me anything you want about your reaction to life, or your trials or pains or joys. But don’t whine to one another. It’s worthless.”
Less Yes – All these musing about life change have to do with one single thing. I’m trying to answer the question of how to make the most of the few precious days we’ve been given on this earth. The answer, I’m learning, resides in focus. “Fan your gifts into flame” is what Paul said to Timothy, which is a way of saying that you can’t do everything so once you find your calling, don’t worry about saying no to the many sirens of temptation that will come your way. Stay committed to your thing… your craft, your marriage, your kids, your writing, whatever. Give it your best and take of yourself so that you have your best to give. Living into that requires less yes.
What are you saying more or less to in the coming year? I welcome your thoughts.