“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all” is how Helen Keller put it. She’s was onto something, surely. When Dave Matthews mused about the “Ants Marching” in his masterful music some years ago, it seemed to me he was pondering a sort of inevitable decay into a ritual of breakfast, commute, work, commute, supper, exhaustion, repeat. There are surely forces at work in the systems that are western civilization contributing to this dismal picture. However, I’d suggest that Jesus wants to infuse our normal daily existence with Divine Life so that in the midst of whatever it is we’re doing, the source of wisdom, joy, hope, mercy, justice, generosity, compassion, and service that is Christ bubbles up from deep within. What’s more, this kind of life is available to us every single day, even the mundane ones, the unchosen periods of suffering, the challenges.
I needed to leave my job for three months and trek through the Alps to learn this lesson, and learn I did, and I’m thrilled to share my adventures with you in my new book “The Map is not the Journey: Faith Renewed While Hiking the Alps”. The death of my close friend in a paragliding accident in the Alps came just at a point in my career where I was beginning to question the future. The convergence of these elements led, a year later, to my wife and I doing a 40 day, 400 kilometer trek through the Alps. Beginning in Italy, we went on to experience the Alps in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Lessons learned there, along with all the adventure of it (yes, we did walk into our private room one night to find a couple sleeping in our bed!) are found in this new offering, now available at Amazon and fine booksellers. Each chapter includes a link to photos from the stories of that chapter, in hopes that you’ll experience the trip we took in a small way too.
It’s a book for everyone who’s wondering what’s next, at any age.
It’s for those whose lives have turned out differently than they’d expected.
It’s for those who are tired, and looking a fresh infusion of life in their daily routine.
It’s for those who have set goals that they failed to meet.
It’s for those who want to learn about hut to hut travel in the Alps, or long range hiking.
In short – I hope it’s for a lot of people!
Here’s a little video teaser I made on my iphone.
You can help this book succeed in a few simple ways:
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What some have said who’ve read it:
Denny Rydberg – President Emeritus of Young Life . “For those feeling fatigue after years of faithfully doing the same thing, for those looking for new eyes to see what God is doing and has on his mind, and for those who need a jolt of adventure, this is the book to read.”
Les Parrott, PHD – “If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring. Richard paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation.”
Jim Zorn (former NFL coach and player) – “Richard’s travels aren’t just good stories of adventures. They’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people. Those looking to find transformation in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”
Please share this post if you think others would benefit from the book. Thanks!
NOTE: This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”. I deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post. Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!
August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m. We arrive there feeling strong, whole. Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically. It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut. Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse.
After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut. Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served. If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm.
The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one. The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over.
As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise. Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.”
“High or low?” I ask.
“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction. The trail is on the ridge the whole way.” I smile, nodding. I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”. Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together. I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes. “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning.
I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there. Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete. This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner.
This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills. I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges. My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity. You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash. Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it. Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”. They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.
As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t. As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress. It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread. The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles.
This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit. Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing. There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word. In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death.
For those with experience, this is not intimidating. You simply don’t fall. You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step. For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness. My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge. They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure. On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on.
I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing? This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me. Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face. We must descend it. On the one hand, it’s a ladder. The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much: we can climb down this ladder.
On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent. We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps. Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent. After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise.
So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder. The stakes are high. The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.
It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons. They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope. So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still. There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.
Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially. We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power. We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more. Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.
This is a very small way of living. It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels. The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top. Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before. We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank. By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.
…Except we can’t. As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created. This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management. When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling” It’s sin management. It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy. And worst of all: it’s boring.
In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin. God has a summit for us and it looks like this:
Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31 We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in. This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.
Abundance “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10 This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die. I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing. I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving.
Wholeness “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21 Yes! The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning. The vision is much more positive, more summit like. God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living. The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living. Summits. All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear.
After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure. We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides. It looks daunting, and is. Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”.
Exactly! The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option. I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut. The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck. It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here. No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip. And for this, I’ll be forever grateful.
Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety. We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust. The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain. The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!
The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way. They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets. They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives! They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities. They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so. They rose above the valleys of mediocrity. Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home. But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world. When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential.
Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit? When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits: Fear not – for I am with you!
It’s Friday. That’s meant ski day for 90% of the past four months. I hit the web to see what’s opened, what’s groomed, what’s happening. Dismay: four different ski areas within 2 miles of my house – ALL CLOSED!!
All right then. It will be a day to put on the touring skis, which means attaching friction creating skins to the base of the skis and freeing the heel so that you can ski up the mountain. At the top you’ll peel the skins off, lock down the heel, and in a few minutes ski down what it just took you and hour to go up. Some might call it hard work. I call it discipleship – learning to follow Jesus step by step. Here’s why:
There’s a calling
I cast my gaze to the ridge, the goal, some 1300plus feet above, It’s too far. Too steep. Too much. There’s an immediate visceral reaction, dwelling up a dozen or more excuses why this “isn’t a good day” for this. It’s cloudy – there’s no view to bring me joy. It might rain. I slept poorly last night. The snow’s thick, mushy. Not spoken, but the real reasons: it’s stinking hard work to walk uphill in slushy snow with skis on.
So why go? Here’s the crazy thing. I go because as John Muir said,
“the mountains are calling and I MUST go” – good weather or poor; tired or bursting with eagerness; it matters not, because the mountains themselves really are actually calling. I want to be in them, up them, challenged and transformed by their terrain; ravished and refreshed by their beauty. “I must go”
That’s discipleship too. We see, in the distance, a different life: freed from addiction, or fear, or shame. Or maybe we see a different world because Jesus and the prophets pointed to a world of peace, reconciliation, and the end of human trafficking and disease, to name just a few things. We see it out there in the distance, and we want to go there, be there – and with Christ alive in us, it seems we must take the journey!
That’s part of what calling means. And when that voice from higher up the mountain is calling, I pray you’ll go. There’ll be reasons not to, always, as Jesus warned us. Too busy. Too tired. Too tied down. Too preoccupied with the trinkets acquired by wealth. Your favorite team’s playing today. Theres’s always a reason to stay home, but if you listen carefully enough, you hear the voice of calling, and if hear it…don’t hesitate: go!
There’s a disillusionment –
It doesn’t take long to feel the effort of the journey. There’s something in me that want’s to call it quits about 500 meters in and 100 meters up because breathing is labored, legs are feeling heavy, and sweat is leaking out my skin as a means of cooling me, so that when I stop I’m not cool – I’m cold. “Is it worth it?” “I could be at home reading.” “It makes sense that I’m the only one here. Who does this?” “I could turn around now and nobody would be the wiser.”
And so it goes, in our brains, sometime after we’ve begun our pursuit of Christ too. This is because self-denial, though life giving over the long haul, is wearying in the moment. There are disciplines to discipleship, enough so that the words have the same root, and that root includes the reality of some suffering.
We all suffer. But who suffers willingly? Disciples, apparently, because Jesus said that unless we’re willing to deny ourselves, we can’t be disciples.
If we’re going to deny ourselves, then, we need some compelling vision that will allow us to transcend the gravities which pull us down into self indulgence. The vision for my little ski adventure is the thought that at the end of it there will have been both encounters with beauty and a strengthening of heart – both gifts, yes – but earned with the currency of suffering. Imagine that.
For the disciple, the self-denial and suffering produces strength of heart too, but in a different way. We become people whose lives are increasingly characterized by joy, patience, hope, peace, and generosity. We could quit the journey and indulge ourselves, or press on and enjoy this kind of beauty and transformation. That why vision matters so much. Without a reminder of what’s being produced in me, I simply won’t proceed. It’s the vision of transformation that keeps me going.
There’s a mindfulness –
Moving up steep snow on skis is an acquired skill, and the steeper the snow, the steeper the learning curve. As the initial gradual slope steepens, I’ve no longer any time to think about how painful it is, or whether I want to quit or continue. At its steepest the journey requires total focus: “slide ski upward – shift all body weight to directly above the binding, so as to mitigate risk of sliding backwards – fight the intuitive notion to lean into the mountain, committing to stay upright instead. Repeat”
My favorite hobbies have historically been skiing, rock climbing and fishing because these three disciplines require a total focus, and the total focus has a marvelous way of silencing the chatter of the mind. Such silence is life giving, wisdom imparting, and maturing.
We don’t do it well, if we’re honest. We’re easily distracted by our phones, our tunes, and our screens. And if that isn’t bad enough, when all three are absent, our mind has tricky ways of creating its own chatter, and the price is costly as seen in this excellent book.
Jesus hits on this when he tells us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” It’s his way of inviting us to be fully present. Here. Now. A wise woman named Elisabeth Elliot once said it this way: “When you are overwhelmed and your mind it talking too much, you need to calm down and simply do the next thing.” Indeed. It’s not just a question of getting stuff done, it’s a question of growing wise because wisdom is, at the core, related to our capacity to be “all there” wherever we are, and this is a skill that’s disappearing. I’m not on my cell phone when I need to focus on putting all my body weight above my ski on a 32 degree slope. I’m all in. I’m invited, indeed called, to be “all in” most of the time: conversations made up of real listening and presence, reading, prayer, sharing a meal with friends. We’re at our best and look most like Jesus when we’re doing one thing at a time.
There’s joy –
Step by step (hence the name of this blog) I ascend upward. Step by step in real life means another diaper, another meal, another encouraging word to a co-worker, or a confession, or a moment of hospitality with a neighbor. Like ski touring, no single step seems significant, but every single step matters. This is because our lives aren’t, in reality, highlight reels of profound moments, but a ten thousand regular steps followed by a summit moment.
When I arrive at the top on this Friday, there’s nothing to see.
Fog’s set in, and everything is white other than trees right in front of me. Still, I know it’s been worth it. And there’ll be a different skill set, and a different joy on the way down.
Sometimes, too, your best efforts to follow Jesus won’t result in a highlight reel moment. And then you’ll move on. It’s fine. You know you’ve taken the steps, followed the call, done the right thing. That’s discipleship and the more you do it, the more you know you’ll do it again tomorrow, because there’ll be another calling, and you’ll say yes because its become who you are!
O Lord of the mountains and valleys.
Grant that we might first have ears to hear your call – in the cry of child, a neighbor, a refugee. Give us grace, I pray, not only to hear, but go, and endurance to continue when we feel like quitting. Thank you for the gift and discipline of mindful presence, and the circumstances that help us develop it. May we celebrate those times rather than dread them. And above all, thank you for standing on the mountain with your disciples so that we’re able, here and now, to have a glimpse of the summit that’s worth it all – Your reign made visible in our lives and world. Give us eyes to see it. Every single day.
In your great name we pray…
In the morning on Sunday, I preached about paying attention by quoting Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 13 where he says, “Are you listening? Really listening?” Jesus says that because stuff doesn’t “just happen”. Stuff happens, and it elicits a response in our hearts, some mighty Yes, or No!, or tears of rage, or shouts of joy. 9/11 did that. Sunrises do that, and coffee, and funerals. Making love? News of terror attacks? Conversations with those whose beliefs are different than yours? Yes. Lots of events elicit response. But a football game? Absolutely…
The touchdown pass in overtime yesterday shook the city. Literally. The stadium was equipped with earthquake censors for some tests, and when the Wilson to Kearse pass was completed it was game over, but the shaking had just begun. Hugs and irrational joy in the basement of my friend’s house where we were watching were matched by fireworks outside and the commencement of a celebration that would last well into the night throughout the city. Clichés about it not being over ’til its over ricocheted off the walls of skyscrapers downtown, intermingled with the tears of those who left early, or tweeted too soon about boycotting cheese and other nonsense.
I had the privilege of driving all the way home, an hour east of Seattle, late at night when I’d caught my breath, and I did something I never do. I listened to sports radio. It was there I learned that the last pass of the game was really a story of redemption. Kearse, you see, wasn’t always a starter. He worked his way onto the practice squad, before making his way to first string in 2013, a local success story coming from the University of Washington.
But yesterday’s performance was anything but successful. In the first half, QB Wilson threw his way three times with the results: three interceptions. The ball didn’t come his way again until 5:06 left in the game, at which point the pass once again bounced out of his hands, resulting in an interception.
By any definition, his was a terrible day. The kind of day that makes you wonder why you’re even bothering to show up. He said after the game: “There’s some plays I felt like I could have made. I could have stopped some plays from happening on interceptions. I could have just turned the defender and tried to knock the ball down.” Yes, and he could have caught two passes too, which instead became interceptions.
Summary: Not just 0-4. Each pass was intercepted!
So of course, it makes sense that, after a miracle comeback which led to overtime, QB Wilson would tell his coach during the break: “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown.” To quote our local Seahawks radio voice, Steve Raible, “Are you kidding me?”
No. He’s not kidding at all. He’s a believer in the reality that every play is like a new day, that by God, we’re not going to be defined by our failures; that fall we will, but though we fall we’ll get up.
Sound familiar? Maybe not, if you live in the world of business, the world which says, “past performance is the best indicator of future reality,” the world which drops you when you drop the ball, the world of performance-based approval.
This, as you may know, is much of our world. We’re defined, as often as not, by our singular failures, which in a world of conditional love serve to sideline us rather than transform us. QB’s get exasperated and determine to throw to someone else. Managers fire us, or move us to a basement office.
And then there’s Jesus with Peter. No, it wasn’t four missed catches. It was three outright denials of any affiliation with Jesus the Christ. It was fear, hubris, lying, shame, defeat. In the end he’s even worthless as a fisherman.
So what does Jesus do after three denials and a failed night of fishing? He meets Peter and puts him in charge of the church during its infancy. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, along with some other charges and a prediction that the job will cost him his life as a martyr. Peter will go on to preach the first sermon with a boldness and fire that was utterly other than the man standing by the fire who didn’t have the guts to even let the servant girl know that he knew Christ. Cowardice to Courage—Failure to Faith. It’s nearly as good as the football story, maybe better—and equally true.
“But God… being rich in mercy” is how Paul interprets this somewhere. What he’s saying is that God delights in making unlikely heroes, in writing unlikely stories. That’s why the game yesterday was more than just a game—at least for those who know how to pay attention.
It was my birthday yesterday too, and as I received kind notes of encouragement for folks in many parts of the world, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to Christ for continuing to throw to me after what seems like a nearly infinite number of dropped passes.
The gospel is a story of redemption, of God intervening in a performance world and writing an unlikely script with unlikely players. A punter from Canada throws a touchdown pass to a lineman. A third-round draft pick deemed “too short” by every talking head in the sports world tosses a pass to a guy who barely made the practice squad at one point, and had been, to say the least, “unhelpful” all day today. And the results?
Are you kidding me?
Such stories aren’t just for football. They’re the gospel. Illustrated. If we pay attention.
‘O Lord Christ
Thanks be to you for inviting us into your story, for keeping us on the field when we want to quit, for teaching us through failure, for believing in our capacity to live into your calling in our lives even when we don’t believe in ourselves. Give us the grace to say yes, and open our arms, and receive. When we respond with delight and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You’ll say, ‘Not at all – this is the gospel.’ And we’ll rejoice. Amen.
They’re brothers, these two guys in their late sixties/early seventies. They’re on the deck of the first Alpine hut we stayed in, and it’s morning, about 7:15 actually. I’m out there to enjoy the view and take a few pictures, while these two are about to hoist their packs and head out for a long day of hiking to the next hut. They’re strong. They’re vibrant. They’re optimistic. They’re healthy. And they’re “old.”
They are the first of an endless stream of encounters my wife and I will have with people older than us who are also stronger than us, or at least as strong—well able to carry 20 pounds on their backs for 10-15k day after day, at elevations ranging from 3,000-7,000 feet. Their presence on the trail has shaken me in the best of ways. By example they’ve said: “Yes Richard… it’s possible to stay healthy for many years to come.”
It won’t happen accidentally though, so I asked some of the “wise and wonderful” seniors I met on the trail what kept them in Gore-Tex and polar-fleece, what kept them moving into their late years. Their answers, coupled with a careful reading of this book prior to my departure, have revealed four ideas that will give us a good shot at remaining healthy and active for a long time.
1. A good theology of the body – You know this already, but it’s important to be reminded that we’re not disembodied spirits, that the bodies we’ve been given are marvelous wonders, and that it’s our calling and privilege to take care of our bodies, because they’re the visible expression of who we are.
2. A new vision for normal – Prior to the start of the trip, we envisioned ourselves sitting around in these huts with people between twenty and fifty. They were there, but there were scores on either end of that, both the very young and the very old. Their presence served to create a different vision of what normal is, or can be. It can be normal, at nearly any age, to walk or jog several miles a day—often with a pack on that effectively adds exponential work to your exercise. It can be normal to eat fresh, well prepared food, rather than chemicals mixed together and microwaved. It can be normal to respond to stress by getting adequate rest, some outdoor exercise, and by spending time with good friends.
I know that this new normal isn’t always possible. There’s cancer and other unwanted intrusions, and some people are living in refugee camps, while others are working three jobs just to be able to afford health insurance. But for many of us, these exceptions don’t apply. For most of us, we have the capacity to stay healthy and active, and I’m increasingly convinced that such lifestyle commitments will make us more effective in everything else we do in our roles as teachers, health care professionals, spouses, parents, students, pastors, neighbors, and friends.
I challenge us to rethink our view of normal, because our culture faces an obesity crisis that stems from a slow decay of health habits
with respect to food and exercise. What’s worse, we’re teaching the rest of the world to follow us. It’s time for a fresh vision. One fellow traveler on our Alps journey was a 70 year old named Klaus. He’d been out hiking for 30 days and was nearing the end of his trek when we meet him in a hut and shared a meal. It was cold outside. I was tired, in spite of the fact that I’d done 1/3 the distance as him today. We’d just had supper together and he was absolutely effervescent with joy over his hike that day on dicey ridge, conquering seven summits, all over 6,000′ elevation in 15k of distance and eight hours of hiking. He was wild eyed as he spoke of the challenges and beauty. When he finished supper he went outside, and came back, knowing that I too enjoyed photography, and he said, “You must photo the sunset! Fantastisch!!” I didn’t want to go out, but I did because of his enthusiasm, his lust for life. Klaus became my new inspiration for a new normal that night.
3. A good aerobic base – The book I referenced earlier taught me about “building an aerobic base.” I thought I knew about this base, but no. It turns out that I, like most of America, was actually not doing aerobic exercise when I was out jogging, because I was going too fast. The whole thing’s rather complex, so I’ll spare the details because you can read them starting here.
The bottom line is that if we’re going to be active for the rest of our lives, we’ll need to start moving, at the right speed, most days of the week, for at least an hour. Most “walkers” need to speed up a bit. Most “joggers” need to slow down. On our recent hikes, we’ve encountered cross country ski teams from Russia, Italy, Sweden, and Norway. All of them are doing the same thing. They’re building their aerobic base through lots of long, slow, distance.
When I started exercising this way, just before leaving for Europe, I was appalled at how slow I was running around Green Lake, as I tried to keep my pulse rate in the treasured “aerobic zone.” Not any more. These days I’m cherishing the good vibes that come from a long slow jog, or a hike uphill, because at the end I feel great, and I know I’m building an even stronger base for the future, know that I’ll come home energized for the day, rather than drained.
“We hike together every year for a week, and because of this, most of us walk nearly every day to stay in shape for this one week adventure together,” is what I heard from a group of 70 year-olds.
“‘Use it or lose it’ is, I believe, how you say it in America, no?” said another woman, part of a group on a trail that included climbing a half dozen ladders and crossing a couple high suspension bridges.
All these testimonials from the wise and wonderful seniors we encountered elevate consistency as a high priority. Our bodies produce everything needed for an active lifestyle as long as we stay active. Stop moving though, and everything changes fast.
The “Body. Soul. Spirit.” logo you see on clothes I wear comes from the school where I’m presently teaching in Austria. They take all this stuff seriously, and yesterday the students were out playing soccer or volleyball or ultimate, or jogging or hiking or climbing. The goal though isn’t twelve weeks of this—it’s a lifestyle change we hope will last. Same with Bible reading. Same with prayer. Same with fellowship: consistency, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is the goal for every area of our lives—body, soul, and spirit.
How are yours?
I went for a hike this past weekend in preparation for our upcoming plan: 40 days/400 miles of trekking in the Alps. The big hike is now just about 3 weeks and a few days away, so these last times in our own Cascade mountains are important, as we check equipment, feel the weight of our packs to decide what we absolutely need and what’s expendable, and of course, train our bodies.
The training of the body of is vital for people like us, who have spent most of our waking hours during adulthood sitting in chairs. Just over one year ago, my wife and I decided to tackle Mt. St. Helens in April. We thought we were in decent shape for the hike because my wife did some circuit training a couple days a week and I did a little bit of jump roping, sit ups, and a few pull ups on a climbing wall two days a week and had skied a good amount during the previous winter.
We really thought we were in shape for it but the mountain didn’t care, and we turned back about 600 vertical feet from the summit, tired, cold, spent. It was humbling, which I hope has led to some enlightenment. Since then, I’ve learned a bit about the science of exercise, about mitochondria, and ATP, Cytochrome-C, and why muscles contract.
Here’s the bottom line for people planning long hikes. The best training for you won’t be brief bursts of intensity, like a 20 minute cross fit workout. A book specifically written to people hiking and climbing in the mountains reminds us that “the longer you can subject your muscles to a mostly aerobic stress (that’s the easier stress, like walking fast or jogging slowly) the better…”
This is because by subjecting your body to this stress, it will rise to the occasion and adapt, literally changing its own constitution so that you’ll be better able to manage the same stress the next time. Or, to put it another way:
Adaptation = Stress + Rest (Recovery).
This insight was revolutionary to me, and I’ve been prepping for the long hike by taking longer, slower, runs, and long hikes, always wearing a heart monitor to make sure I don’t go too fast because my tendency is not to do much of anything slowly. It’s during these long, slow, hikes, that I begin pondering how these very same principles of endurance apply to relationships, vocation, calling, and so much more in life.
In world of disposable relationships, countless job changes, hypermobility, and a kaleidoscope of “next big things” awaiting our very short attention spans, the best lives will still follow Eugene Peterson’s path of “A long obedience in the same direction”.
We’ll get up, morning after morning, with the same spouse (or the same empty bed because of our calling/gift of singleness), make our coffee, maybe read and pray, use our vocational skills, invest in the same relationships, encourage people, serve, practice generosity, eat real food, maybe even exercise. We’ll do these simple things – over and over again.
It’s the sameness of this that causes people to bail out, because we like new. We like sprints, and high intensity training, and the adrenaline rush of the start up, and church plant, and new relationship. There’s nothing wrong with new, of course, because starting needs to happen. But hear this: There will be countless days that seem to be nothing more than just another step that was o so similar to yesterday’s step. Same coffee. Same boss. Same friends. Same city. Same. And you want to drop out and find a new race, or new trail, or new job, or new spouse.
Not so fast friend! It’s when you feel like quitting that you are building transformative capacity by staying, (tweet this) and living, fully present and alive the moment that is so painfully “the same”. Most folks can rise to the occasion and nail the job interview, or the first date, or the part of the climb that’s all about shopping for new equipment. The challenge comes down the road, when you are risk of what you call “stagnation.” Maybe. But maybe you’re at risk of transformation, as you move into the deep waters of learning to be fully present with the o so familiar – so present that it becomes delightfully new. The principles of the exercise formula, I’m learning, apply to every area of life:
Adaptation = Stress + Rest
Stress – The stress created by endurance training isn’t sudden and acute. It builds slowly through the weariness that is a byproduct of sameness. Whether you’re at 13000 feet on Mt. Rainier, or on day 1300 of the same job, or day 300 of cooking chicken fajitas for your friends or family, “you have need of endurance”. You gain endurance by learning to be fully present with this step, this day on the job, this chicken fajita. That’s called maturity, and learning it will make you wise.
Rest – There’s a rhythm of work and rest in God’s design for us and we mess with this to our own detriment. Gone are the days when I can survive on pure adrenalin, running meetings, writing and studying, counseling and leading all week, and then cramming a taxing climb in on Fri/Sat only to return and preach four times on Sunday. Without rest, exercise is toxic to the body, a recipe for injury. With rest, it transforms us into people of strength. The same holds true for all the other areas of life.
By virtue of the blessings we’ve been given, many of us have a capacity to be people of strength in this world, with enough resources of joy, or hope, or even money, to be blessing for others around us. But our strength comes from adaptation, and the formula for adaptation never changes:
Adaptation = Stress + Rest There’s no need to mess with the formula, because it’s the way the world works! Accept the stress, embrace the rest, grow strong, be a blessing. Enjoy!
Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise. She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died. Achilles: the place of vulnerability.
The Achilles story is appropriate because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes. Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there. Rest. Repeat. Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear. “Why is this not healing?”
Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine, let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.
Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy. How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical? Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine. Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.
1. Daily is best – Physical Therapists prescribe exercises. “Three sets of 20 on this one. Two sets of 10 on that.” Etc. Etc. These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult. You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired. And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.
But here’s the key. You need to do them! Every day. I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well. Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.
I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t. When I’m motivated, and when I’m not. This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God. There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.
The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine. So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts. They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed. It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.
Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.
2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed. “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”. He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.
So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free. Slow. But pain free. The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties. “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years. The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”
I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other. After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way. One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture. Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.
This too has application for the rest of life. You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health. Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame. It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success. Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable. Both are temporary illusions. The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel. The bad days are as important as the good.
Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ. This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.
3. Ego is a setback – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow. I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!” or worse, to speed up. What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me. The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me. I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.
Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life. It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom. Enough! When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read. It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.
Take away: When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.
The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer. More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.
Fear is a net which evil casts over us that we might become ensnared and fall. Those who are afraid have already fallen. D. Bonhoeffer
I went for a tiny little run this morning around the lake by my house, grateful for health, grateful for the remarkable hope I hold for, literally, all of humanity, because of Christ, and grateful for the beauty that attends the newness of the morning. Running this morning, of course, I’m mindful of the many thousands who’ll be churning out their miles through the streets of Boston today, proud that there are at least two members of my own church who are there. Boston is the ultimate in marathons, and this year’s is unlike any other because of the tragic events of last year. This is the year when the runners, the fans, and the city of Boston declare that fear can be vanquished, that lost limbs needn’t stop runners from pressing on, that people in wheelchairs can offer hope to family members of last years victims, that every step is raising money to stand in the gap and support PTSD veterans, and families with children fighting cancer, and more; that runners say, over and over again, that they’re being carried by the spirit of the crowd. The whole thing is a reclamation project, a way of showing fear the door, slamming it shut, and sending fear on its merry way to hell.
I love finding the image of God and snapshots of the gospel in everyday life, and today its not hard to do. Fear is both a chief enemy of humanity, and one of Satan’s favorite and most often used tools. The events of today are rooted in a public groundswell acknowledgement of this, and every runner, every fan, every dollar given in support of causes to serve those on the margins, testify to the reality that fear is an enemy that can be vanquished.
Simply acknowledging this is a huge step, but the good news of the gospel includes several declarations regarding why fear need never shrink our lives.
1. We’re freed from the fear of death, according to this declaration. I have friends who have stared death in the face for their faith. Their belief that death isn’t the end of the story enabled them to live with courage and integrity in the face of persecution. Some of these friends escaped death and others didn’t. All of them, though, lived with integrity to the very end, believing that death isn’t the end of the story. Everything many of us celebrated yesterday is rooted in this reality, and if it’s not a reality for us, the fear of death will creep into our lives and create a terrible prudence, shrinking our concerns to the very private and personal, rather than the large outwardly focused hearts of generous service for which we’re created. I need to live every day intent on doing the right thing, because that matters more than the outcome, even if the outcome is death.
2. We’re freed from ever being alone. The first time I taught a Bible study, the text was Joshua 1:1-9, and the final declaration of that section shook my world that day I studied in preparation for teaching a small group of high school students in Fresno: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” The reason we’re called to courage is because God has promised to be with us, ‘wherever we go’. I tell people I never fly alone, and they say, “So your wife goes with you on all your teaching trips?”
“No” I say, and when they look at me for more; “Jesus always goes with me – he travels coach too!” That reality has served me well these past 40 years, because I’ve learned, through the untimely deaths of many friends and family, that our companions for our journey aren’t necessarily always able to with us. Sometimes they even stop wanting to be with us, as relationships drift apart. My dad; a favorite associate pastor at the church I lead (cancer); one of my best friends (paragliding accident); another close mountaineering friend (avalanche). You never know. One thing I do know, though, is that I’ll never be alone. That’s why I take coffee with God so seriously, and nurturing the reality of companionship with Christ. Our fear of being alone sometimes leads us into unhealthy relationships, or shabby substitutes for real intimacy, both of which can suck the joy and hope out of living. How much better to begin with the reality and confidence of companionship with Christ.
There are a host of other fears from which we’re freed because of the power, beauty, and truth of the gospel, but I simply offer these two in order to prime the pump of your own thinking. Because God loves us, God hates to see us enslaved to fear – ever. As runners cross the finish line today, I’m celebrating the image of God in humanity, and realizing once again that the best lives in history were those who gave fear the boot. As my favorite pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said so well:
It is not only anxious fear that is infectious, but also the calmness and joy with which we encounter what is laid on us.
O thou Christ;
What a privilege to be reminded this day and every day, that we’re at our best when we do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Thank you for the many provisions granted us in you which enable to us to choose courage rather than fear. Grant that we might hear your voice and, having heard, move with confidence into the future you have for each of us, clinging to you every step of the way and finding the joy and confidence that are ours in you. This way we will be people of hope in a world still trembling, most days, with fear. Thank you for the adventure awaiting us as we follow you every step of the way – and thank you for the marathon.
The tree in the backyard is growing, relentlessly, powerfully, and slowly.
Our children are growing, as we do too, slowly; imperceptibly every day.
The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.
Our world, very much alive and changing all the time, is changing slowly.
Slow, it seems, is most natural, most of the time. And yet we lust for speed.
We look for quick fixes to relationship issues, addictions, fears and anxieties, intimacy with Christ, weight loss, studying for tests, and o so much more. Hucksters over promise on quick transformation (six minute abs anyone?), have been doing so for centuries, and succeed because there’s always a market for “instant”. Lately though, I’ve learned once again, that the way of Christ followers is utterly other than that – it’s SLOW.
I’m planning a big long hike this summer, over 400 miles, with over 100,000 feet of elevation gain, and in preparation I’ve been trying to fix some injuries. My strategy though, of resting until I feel no pain, and then getting back at it with 150 calf raises, and running stairs in a weighted backpack, hasn’t been working. Every attempted return to activity has sent me limping home, frustrated and angry. “They say ‘stay active as you age!'” I rant to my wife, “but they don’t tell you that when you try to, you’ll get hurt… every – single – time.”
It was during my most recent period of forced convalescence that I discovered a word I’d not encountered before: SLOW. The author suggested that the best thing to do after an injury is to let your jogging pace be bound by two limits: your heart rate, and your pain. He suggested running in minimalist shoes so that, if there was something wrong, you’d get feedback from your body earlier rather than later enabling you to adjust or stop, letting your pain be your guide. He also suggested using a heart rate monitor and staying, relentlessly, at the low end of the aerobic zone for your age.
All right then. With toe shoes and pulse watch, I set off, striding lightly and slowly. Quickly, my pulse is out of bounds, so I slow down further still. I’m on the path by the lake, “running” but not really, more like “jogging”. No, that’s not right either. It’s just a cut above a brisk walk, and I feel fragile and weak as all who aren’t walking pass me as if I’m standing still! I see people from the church I lead and they wave and smile kindly, as I do when I see senior citizens courageously walking the lake. I’m frustrated because I know that I could run faster.
But recently, running faster hasn’t been good for me, so I stick with the plan, refusing to let my pulse rise above 140. After 28 minutes, I’m home. The pace is embarrassingly slow on my little exercise phone app, and I fear someone will find my phone and post the data on facebook. I ponder deleting it, but determine to run the same route two days later, keeping my heart in the same zone, just to see if my pace would quicken a bit. It did. So I did it again, and again, again.
I’m still running, faster every time, and injury free, as I stay in the zone and slowly, slowly, slowly, add distance. I don’t feel the changes, day to day, workout to workout, but I know they’re happening because of that nifty app on my phone!
Of course, this isn’t ultimately about running, or hiking. It’s about the true nature of the path to which each of us are called; the path of transformation. Paul says that we’re called to look towards Christ, soaking in his glory and learning to enjoy intimacy with him. This in itself is a practice which takes time to develop and countless Christ followers, if honest, would say they have little or no enjoyment of intimacy with Christ as a reality. One reason for this is because we have this sickly “cost/benefit analysis” mentality whereby we assess the value of our activities solely based on whether they yield immediate fruit. So we try a little Bible reading, maybe light a candle and read a prayer – but our minds wander. It’s challenging to meet with Jesus because he’s Mr. Invisible and we’re not sure, at the level of our deepest selves, whether we’re even meeting with anyone. So, after a little while, we ditch the effort. Cross-fit’s more measurable, clearly a better investment of our free time.
The problem is that meeting with Jesus is like meeting with anyone. It takes effort to carve out the time, and no single encounter, any more than a single run, or cross fit workout, is necessarily meaningful or measurable. Like romance, or practicing the violin, meeting with Jesus is sometimes profound, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. sometimes enchanting. And just like romance and the violin, it gets better with time. The ones who quit too soon don’t know what they’re missing. They think the problem is the practice, or their skill level – but the problem is impatience. Keep showing up and good things will happen….slowly.
The transformation we’re promised is “from glory to glory” and the language implies that the change is imperceptible because it’s slow. To the extent that we’re concerned with “how we’re doing” we’ll become mindful of our shortcomings, and then looking to fix them, one at a time, as quickly as possible. How much better to just keep showing up in the presence of Jesus, learning to enjoy companionship with him, and resting in the belief that, by staying “in the zone” so to speak, good things will happen.
in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:
“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”
Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation. (thanks to Justin Roth of “The Stone Mind” for this)
Focus on the practice of enjoying fellowship with Jesus, not the expectation that if you read your Bible enough, or pray enough, or are quiet long enough, you’ll make a quantum leap out of addictions, or fears. You’ll move out alright… but It. Will. Be….. Slowly. Step by Step. enjoy the journey.
PS… if you’re interested in practical help with developing habits of pursuing intimacy with Jesus, I’ll be re-releasing my book “O2” for Kindle on Amazon under the title, “Breathing New Life into Faith” Stay tuned!
My friend Matthew Kaemingk is a theologian and a sports fan. His guest post today shows us how these two worlds intersect if we’re looking for Christ in culture. You can find more of his writings at Christ and Cascadia. Enjoy!
“If we would know ourselves, [as] the ancient Temple at Delphi advises, the study of sports in all its connections to the rest of art and life would seem to be an ideal quest for understanding of self and the world.” Simon Kuper, athletic anthropologist
I am a rabid fan of the Seattle Seahawks. I am also a Christian theologian. It appears that Christ & Cascadia might just be the only “place” where I can bring these two disparate aspects of my life together.
When I claim to be a “rabid fan,” I mean what I say. Consider the following evidence of my semi-neurotic devotion. While studying theology in Amsterdam I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night to watch Seahawk games (pre and post-game shows as well). I regularly frequent no less than four Seahawk blogs (Hawkblogger, Field Gulls, Seahawks Draft Blog, and Seahawks Addicts). I have engaged in more than one extended debate with friends and family over who should start at the left offensive guard position.
Being active in the worlds of Christian theology and American football I have always felt a subtle pressure to keep these interests separate. My fellow theologians do not usually welcome extended discussions of football. Many find the game violent, stupid, frivolous, un-cultured, un-Christian, and/or corrupt. Likewise Seahawk bloggers typically maintain strict “no religion” restrictions on their discussion boards (as if discussing religion would endanger the genteel and civilized dialogue of a sports blog).
What follows is a series of “propositions” on the connections between my faith and Seahawk football. In this first section I reflect on the coaching and drafting philosophy of Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. In the second section, coming out soon, I will reflect theologically on the fan culture of the Seattle Seahawks (the 12th man). If the Seahawks continue to win in the playoffs, I might just write a third section.
In the following propositions my words of praise for football, the Seahawks, and Pete Carroll may at times seem effusive. My apologies. I am fully aware of the many valid criticisms that have been leveled against all three. My argument here is not that Seahawk football is perfect or divine (far from it). Nor am I arguing that Christians should skip or move Sunday worship to watch it. My argument is that Seahawk football is theologically interesting. What does that mean? Read on.
Proposition #1 – Pete Carrol and a Theology of Fun
“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” G.K. Chesterton
“I’ve got to find a way to make it into the game that they love.” Pete Carroll
“Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice, It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally, but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity…” G.K. Chesterton
“[I]f we’re not having a good time doing it, then I’m screwing it up.” Pete Carroll
G.K. Chesterton is known as one of Christendom’s most playful theologians. A gifted philosopher, novelist, debater, and columnist, Chesterton never took himself too seriously. If there was such a thing, Chesterton most certainly had the spiritual gift of levity. Chesterton argues again and again that human beings were not made to take themselves so seriously. He argues that “Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness.”
Coach Pete Carroll recognizes the central importance of play to the flourishing of the human person. His football practices regularly feature hip hop music, practical jokes, comedians, weird games and quirky competitions. While most football coaches are known for yelling and negative reinforcement, Carroll is known for a positive and playful approach to the game of football.
His players are, of course, well aware that Carroll expects high effort, competition, and intense focus on the practice field. That said, Carroll places a high importance on finding and cultivating players who genuinely love the game of football. Carroll is always cognizant of the ultimate reason why his players started playing the game in the first place—play.
Whether he recognizes the divine source of playfulness or not, Pete Carroll is the leader of 53 young men who were created in the image of a playful God. Carroll has tapped into the created human need for play.
“You watch [coach Carroll] for any length of time during the season, and you realize the thing you see him do more than anything else is throwing the football. He throws it before practice. He throws it after practice… He throws it around during meetings. You suspect, before he goes to sleep at night, he sits up in bed tossing a football in the air.” Steve Bischeff, Carroll biographer
“…for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” G.K. Chesterton
Proposition # 2 Pete Carroll and a Theology of Creative Competition.
“Competition to me is not about beating your opponent. It is about doing your best; it is about striving to reach your potential.” Pete Carroll
“Competition” is a bad word in some circles, but I am convinced that a certain kind of competition can be a way of fulfilling God’s creating purposes. Here is an interesting question, for example: Might Adam and Eve have played chess in their unfallen condition? I like to think that it would have been a good way to spend some of their time in the Garden. As human creatures whose chief aim it was to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, I think they could have competed in a way that pleased their Maker. Playing chess would have been a way of matching wits, of accepting the mutual challenge to devise winning strategies. As unfallen persons, they would not want to humiliate each other–instead they would want to use the abilities of the other person as a challenge to cultivate their own capacity for problem-solving.” Richard Mouw, theologian.
Kam “Bam-Bam” Chancellor is a 6’3 230 pound strong safety who has always loved to smack opposing receivers in the chest. That said, “Bam-Bam” was not always adept at actually covering wide receivers down the field. But Pete Carroll saw potential in the hard-hitting Virginia Tech safety and over the course of two years Carroll brought that potency out and developed him into what can only be described as the central “death-backer” in Seattle’s infamous “legion of boom.”
The theologian Richard Mouw argues that God actively plants in creation (and in all people) certain potencies, gifts, and talents. These gifts, like seeds, lie dormant waiting for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve to cultivate, grow, and develop them. God did not want humanity to simply nap in the garden and suck on its fruits. God wanted the garden (and its inhabitants) to grow, unfold, develop, learn, and flourish. According to Mouw, “God likes it when people cultivate the sorts of capacities and abilities that he has invested in the creation.”
Whether Pete Carroll knows it or not, whenever he nurtures a quarterback that is “too short,” a corner that is “too tall,” a defensive end that is “too slow,” or successfully switches a lineman from defense to offense he is cultivating divinely-given gifts that have been planted in players by the God of the universe.
On Sunday mornings Christians gather to purposefully worship and glorify their Creator through prayer and song.
On Sunday afternoons (whether they recognize it or not) the Seattle Seahawks gather to glorify their Creator through the competitive development of the gifts God has given them.
“The Glory of God is humanity fully alive” – St Irenaeus
Proposition #3 – Pete Carroll and a Theology of Community and Individuality
“We have an approach to help each guy be the very best he can possibly be. We’ll take a very precise look at each guy and find out their uniqueness and discover what they bring that’s special, then fit it into our football team.” Pete Carroll
The Church “is not a collective where the individual is of no importance… in the life of the Christian community each individual is indispensable to that of the whole.” Karl Barth, theologian
The Seattle Seahawks are “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.”
• A 6-4 cornerback whose knees seem to bend in all four directions;
• A monstrosity of a man who looks out of place at defensive end;
• A linebacker whose arms and legs are so long it seems he might never get himself underneath a blocker;
• An offensive guard who was playing defensive tackle this time last year … in college;
• Oh, and a quarterback who makes Doug Flutie look like an NBA center.” Dave Wyman, Seahawks reporter
Whether or not Pete Carroll is a Christian is immaterial, Carroll understands something very important about what it means to be human and what it means to be a member of a flourishing community.
Strong communities require a diverse cast of characters, gifts, and abilities. Coach Carroll takes unique talents and rare gifts and creatively appropriates those gifts towards the flourishing of the team. The NFL is full of athletic potential. What makes Carroll successful is his ability to move players from a state of unique potential to a state of unique production. According to Carroll, “We’re looking for unique qualities that separate players from other players,” Carroll said. “And then we try to accentuate that weakness and make them special.”
Dave Wyman is right. The Seattle Seahawks might be the “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.” Pete Carroll has indeed assembled an odd and motley crew of characters. He is adept at finding talents that are either unrecognized or underappreciated by other teams. The key to his success, however, has not simply been his ability to find unique talents but to bring those unique characters together into a common community with a common vision and a common purpose.
As has been discussed a number of times in Christ & Cascadia, developing deep Christian community in the Pacific Northwest can be extremely difficult. Cascadia is a culture of deep individualism. Cascadians consider themselves unique, special, and autonomous individuals. They are extremely wary of thick communities that might stifle their individual freedom, gifts, and desires. Cascadians look at the Christian church as a place where their liberty, creativity, and individuality will be threatened.
Cascadians are tragic victims of the false modern dichotomy of individuality and community. Cascadians readily accept the false choice and opt for a lonely individuality.
While there are important differences and caveats to be made, the Seattle Seahawks offer an excellent example of overcoming this modern dichotomy. Their team is made up of unique individuals who can only flourish when they are brought together.
Dave Wyman calls the Seahawks an “Island of Misfit Toys.” Is there a better name for the church? Are we not, after all, a motley collection of weird, gifted, and broken cast-offs called to a higher common purpose?
The dogma of “deep individualism” found in the Pacific Northwest claims that human beings can only be their “true selves” when they are “free” from communal restraint. Pete Carroll and the apostle Paul demonstrate that the opposite is true. We can only become our “true selves” in community.
“This whole [Seahawk] experiment may work and it may not. Either way, I admire it. It’s not safe. It’s not what everyone else is doing. It’s bold, ballsy, and iconoclastic… But if it works out the way I think it will, you may see teams scouring the country for big, lanky corners, converting mediocre defensive tackles to offensive guard and throwing out the rulebook on quarterbacks under 6-feet tall” Dave Wyman, Seahawks Reporter
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 12
Enjoy the Game!!