When Clouds Part – And How to Part Them

IMG_2469At the end of a day spent sitting at a desk, I hop in the car and drive two short miles to the trailhead.  There are rumors of snow on the peaks just above the house where I live at the pass, but I’ve yet to see any evidence as the clouds have enshrouded the high country all day long.  Is it curiosity to know the truth, an itch to move instead of sit, or simply the intoxication of scent that wet fir trees offer the trail runner in the thick of autumn?  I don’t know the answer; likely all three.  All I know is that, as John Muir wrote:  “the mountains are calling and I must go”

Muir loved not just being outside, but being outside in weather; storms, wind, snow.  He felt that the mountains spoke powerfully during such times, and that the very act of listening would be transformative for him.

“Let the sea roar, and all its creatures, the world and those who dwell in it.  Let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills sing aloud together before the Lord; for God comes to judge the earth.  The Lord will judge the earth with righteousness and the peoples in justice.”  (Psalm 98:7-9)

IMG_2468As soon as I leave the car and turn around I see it; the first snow of the season.  The broken clouds have parted long enough to reveal what was hidden, and, just for a moment, I see that what’s been hidden is beautiful.  Quickly the clouds cover over the peaks again, as if embarrassed to have been seen naked.  For the rest of the run it will be this way:  a glimpse of glory, just above me, just out of reach, and then hidden again.  Another peek, with promising hope that this time the skies will truly part, and clear.  Poof!  Gone again.

The mountains and sky are toying with me, and I keep running up the trail, higher, higher, in search of clarity, until the darkness overtakes and all hope of seeing is gone, at least until morning.  Then, armed with headlamp and iphone as torches, a retreat to the car over stones, streams, steps, and roots.  The darkness is thick by the time I’m back at the car and make my way home to aromas of onions and the warmth of a fire and I ponder that the run was good, not just for my body, but for my spirit too.

The clouds of war, torture, economic injustice and racism are all around us these days.  It’s a fog, born of greed and lust for power, laced with violence.  Though thick, the fog isn’t new, having been with us from the beginning of the tragedy and beauty that is our story.  And yet, always, the clouds have parted.  Yes, there was Auschwitz, and stories that nobody believed because darkness couldn’t be that dark.  But when the clouds parted there was Sophie Scholl, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, courageous resistance work and prayer meetings.  Yes there was apartheid.  But light broke through.  His name was Mandela.  Yes, there was genocide, but there’s been a reconciliation movement in which the brightness of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation wash over the past like first snow.

As the clouds of Isis, school shootings, human trafficking, and a refugee crisis that will change Europe forever, it’s vital to remember what kind of world exists, already, because of what Christ did on the cross.  When he said, “it’s finished” he didn’t just mean that he was finished breathing, he meant that the destiny of history as a place of death and despair was over.  Isaiah foretold it:

  • He spoke of a time of peace, when all wars and oppression would be done with
  • He spoke of time of environmental restoration, so that this groaning earth would groan no more.
  • He spoke of a vast banquet, symbolic of abundance and joy, where every tear would be dried from every eye, and death would be done away with for good
  • He spoke of profound healing of bodies
  • He spoke of justice, so that a man who plants can enjoy the fruit of his own labor.

IMG_2470These are the Colors of Hope – the Colors of the Kingdom of God; and the glad news is that this kingdom always breaks through to refresh and restore.  What’s more, each moment of refreshment is a hint of how the story ends, where eternity’s headed.

As Christ-followers, it’s no good being glum, down in the mouth, and cynical about politicians, systems, and economies.  That doesn’t do much good for anyone.  On the other hand, those who believe that behind the clouds there’s a glory, become people who point the way.  They encourage people to make snow right where they are, to cover sadness and failure, shame and greed, fear and addiction – cover it all with the freedom found in Christ.

It starts, of course, with believing that there’s something hopeful there, behind the fog.  But it requires more than that – it requires a commitment to embody that hope and, like John Muir, get people out there into the wild places where hope is visible so that they can see it for themselves.

And all of this, of course, requires that we keep showing up.  Dozens of times I’ve brought people to places in the wild in hopes of showing them the view, only to have it shrouded in fog.  “Come back tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that” I’ll say, “and you’ll see it for sure!”  Likewise, I’m always on the lookout for Christ’s hope, in the generosity of a friend, in a community surrounding a beloved during their time of death, in the birth of a new child, in the remarkable signs of peace that the news never shows.

We need to keep showing up and keep looking.  When we do, sometimes the clouds part and we found hope, which means we can become hope, which means clarity, blessing, joy – not just for ourselves, but others too.

That hope, more than for the health of my heart, is why I run in the mountains.

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Places as People


My Daughter, exquisite writer that she is, expresses why places, like people, must be wooed, discovered, explored, experienced, before they can be known. This is why local ministry in real neighborhoods is the future of the church. It’s why I walk with my neighbors each morning. It’s why I’ve never considered, for two seconds, offers for big shot ministry opportunities that would have required me to move away. It’s why church must become more than sermons… it must become the incarnation of Christ in place. Enjoy!

Originally posted on The Way Home:

75906_692742706330_1174899592_nAnd having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
     and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
     so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
     job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
     little soft cities…

Carl Sandburg, from “Chicago” 

I take the long way to Penny Markt for romaine lettuce and a baguette, back behind the hill and past the dairy farm and Italian villa on the edge of the golf course. I’ve come this way because today is sunny and I’m extraordinarily busy. My day began with a meeting at 8:00 AM, and it won’t really end until my senior small group leaves around 9:00 PM. Or…

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It’s been great to write here at bodysoulspiritlife.com  but the time has come to move over to http://www.stepbystepjourney.com  so if you’re interested in keeping in touch, keeping up with the current trek through Alps, or receiving my blog posts, please go over to http://www.stepbystepjourney.com and hit the subscribe button.  The Alps are beautiful just now, in spite of and because of the abundant rain- and I’m eager to share all we’re seeing and learning with you.

Cheers!  See you at http://www.stepbystepjourney.com

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Well, actually, it’s my blog that’s moving, from this address to stepbystepjourney.com 

I’m doing this for a number of reasons: 

1. I believe that life is intended to be a journey, not of wandering in circles, but of moving closer and closer towards the wholeness God wants for us, and has made possible for us because of Christ. 

2. I believe that physical journeys, ranging from my morning jog, to my upcoming hike through the Alps, have much to teach us about the soul journeys of our lives. 

3. I love helping people discover next steps towards the wholeness found in Christ. 

So, if you’re a subscriber here, you might want to head over to the new site, check it out, let me know what you think, and subscribe there!  I’m thrilled about my own upcoming sabbatical journey, and even more thrilled to create a platform that I hope will help next steps happen in all our lives. 

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Beware of Fashionable Social Justice

It’s become fashionable to be socially just.  The evening news covers protests about the horrifically evil kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls.  We call each other to embody the gospel by breaking down walls of social division, and setting captives free, by working for environmental justice and empowering the poor and displaced.  Clean water.  End poverty now.  Buy a shoe, give a show.  There are buttons, campaigns, fundraisers, banquets.  Come on.  All the cool people are in.

It’s high time that the realities of suffering, racism, oppression, and ongoing injustice rose to the top of our collective consciousness.  For much of her history, we who call ourselves “the church” have been guilty of either intentionally crossing to the other side of the road, so as to disengage from these pesky dark realities, or worse, we’ve spiritualized away the suffering by promising a greater afterlife in some bastardized version of karmic justice.  Our passivity has misrepresented the essence of the gospel, and allowed ongoing exploitation of peoples and resources, resulting in mountains of suffering and loss for hundreds of generations.  That these issues are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness in both our culture and many of our churches is a very good thing indeed.

And yet there are at least two lurking dangers in this justice revival:

1. Superficial Solutions inoculate.  “I recycle and ride my bike to work on sunny days.  I bought those cool shoes to help some poor kids.  And last night I went to party where the tips at the bar went to a water project somewhere.”  This kind of thinking becomes the equivalent of thinking we’re equipped to climb Mt. Rainier because we bought an ice axe.  An ice axe is good, but it’s certainly not all you’ll need to get to the top.  The sacrifices, discipline, change in priorities, and even change in world view that will be needed if we’re to be in any way a substantial part of the world’s solutions are for more profound than attending a few cool events and riding our bike to work.  Take our call to justice seriously, and we’ll find ourselves, over time, becoming involved not only in deep personal lifestyle changes, but actively working to address systemic issues that are embedded in our world.  Paul the apostle called them “principalities and powers” because they’re animated by forces darker than single individuals.

Our fashionable protests, focused projects, and occasional forays into environmental stewardship or some other cause might do more harm than good if they create a resistance in us to the notion that we might be called to more.  Jesus called people to this principle when he told the pharisees that they “tithed even their spices” but did so as substitute for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  Of course, Jesus tells that crowd that they should have “done the latter without neglecting the former”, which is just another way of saying that an ice axe is vital, but you’ll need more than that to get to the top.

2. Spiritual Realities fade.  What’s not to love about redemptive involvement in the pressing problems of our time?  The most important answer is simply that there are two great commandments and that they’re wed together like an ecosystem, each feeding off the other.  Take one of them out of the equation and the other inevitably suffers.  We made for love, plain and simple – made to love god and love our neighbor as our self.  We’re in a season where love of neighbor is the rising star, and sometimes the light of one outshines the other.  A little look back into history though, and  we’re reminded of a time when it surely looked like people were loving God, at least if candles, hymns, preaching, and bible study were any indication.  But of course they actually weren’t any indication.  They were their own form of inoculation against more robust and truer faith, because in spite of it all, slavery was sanctioned, or racism, or colonialism.  Praying and Bible reading convinced people they’d hit gold, but it was fools gold when it wasn’t coupled with the hard work of crossing social divides to love the neighbor.  Bible reading mattered, and matters for some today too.  It’s just that real transformation will drive us into real relationships in our broken world.

Today’s justice based t-shirts, shoes, water bottles, blogs, missions, non-profits are at risk of becoming the same form of 19th century pietism in reverse.  Convinced we’re in the stream of God’s activity, we lost sight of our own need for transformation, healing, and freedom, so lost have we become in the consuming of justice symbols.  Real longing for justice will do more than paint a sign or wear a bracelet.  It will drive us to prayer, and brokenness, and mourning.  And those things will drive us to intimacy with God.

Do you want whole faith instead of the 2%?  Then you need to recognize the dangers on both sides of the ledge and go deep in your pursuit of intimacy with God, and justice in the world.  That’s a journey worth taking, and it has a name:  abundant life.

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In praise of healthy lament

“They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” -Jeremiah 6:14

Dissociative disorder is defined as a “disruption or breakdown of memory, awareness, identity or perception.”  It’s a common occurrence among war veterans, physical and sexual abuse victims, those growing up in family systems broken by deep addictions, and among victims of religious/spiritual abuse.  The pain and trauma of the past or even the present is simply too much, so the person dissociates, meaning he or she moves into a different space, a safer space, by denying the painful realities of the present moment.  By denying reality, pretending there is no pain, and getting lost in some form of alternate reality, we find a fantasy land which is in the short run less painful.  But when the Disneyland we’ve created closes, we’re forced to face our pain again.  Eventually, if we hope to live the sort of full life Jesus promised, we’ll need to face to truth of our pain, both personal and collective.  Whether we do that, and how we do that, are perhaps two of the most important issues many of us will every face in our lives.

All of this, though, sounds very personal, a sort of clarion call to get therapy.  Maybe, but recently I’m struck by the reality that there’s a broader collective application of this dissociative tendency and our collective need to face reality.  Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia company (standard issue clothing at the church I lead) recently wrote, “I’m not optimistic at all. I’m a total pessimist. I’ve been around long enough, traveled around enough, and been around a lot of smart people to know that we’re losing. In every single category, we’re losing.” 

Wow Yvon.  Way to ruin my day.  I want to get up in the morning, hop in my car and drive my 1.2 miles to work, put in my time contributing to the industrial machine that’s drawing down the earth’s resources, drive home, eat my food that was raised in the industrial agriculture machinery that’s stripping the precious topsoil from land and laced with growth hormones and pesticides.  I’ll watch a little something on TV, endure a few ads reminding me either of my inadequacy if I’m prone to insecurity, or that the reality of my economic well being is predicated on other people buying crap they don’t need.  Then I’ll fall asleep and wake up the next morning with an injection of caffeine and do it all again.  I don’t want to be reminded of species extinction, or the fact that human trafficking and the oppression of women are at an all time high in the history of the world, or of the harsh realities in South Sudan and Syria, Ukraine and the oceans of pain on the streets less than two miles from my house – so I focus on my upcoming world cup brackets and Stanley Cup if I swing towards sport, or a new band if I don’t.  After all, I’m not part of the problem.  I pay my taxes.  Vote.  Stay sober.  Read my Bible and go to church.  Eventually the world will see the wisdom of the free market (or the socialist “single payer” solution if I think that way) and things will turn around.  They always do.

I can live that way, but this is dissociative; a massive form of self-denial.  With respect to things always turning around, the reality is that they “always don’t”, at least of the history of empires is any indication.  Jeremiah’s mourning in the 6th century BC was not only over society’s condition; it was over the massive, intentional, and collective denial of society’s condition.  If we take our cue from Alcoholics Annonymous we’ll recall the first condition of transformation is the admission that things aren’t just bad – they’re beyond fixing in the resources of our own strength.  If it’s Bible you want (and I hope you do) the same thing is declared all over the place.  The starting point of healing and transformation is staring the harshness of naked reality in the face.

At some point, it happens; it hits us hard.  We can see that though the system might be working for us, it isn’t working.  It isn’t sustainable.  It’s isn’t life giving.  It isn’t whole.  We see it, it hits us, and we’re filled with both grief and a longing for things to be other than they are for our world.  When we really see with clarity, and are willing to sit in the reality of what we see, we mourn.  When we mourn and lament, we open the door to even clearer ways of seeing and then, of living.  We re prioritize.  We confess.  We take a step towards wholeness; and then another; and then the steps become a journey; and the journey has a real joy in it, because it’s rooted in the truth and the truth, as painful and dark as it might be, will set you free.

There’s more.  Those who are willing, like the prophets of old, to look beyond the superficial categories of personal well being and forgo the temporary anesthetics of culture long enough to feel the pain will become part of God’s grand and joy filled solution, and this will happen for three reasons:

I.  Because we’ll think collectively

Our hyper individualized society makes it easy to dissociate ourselves from the sins of our parents, but we do this to our shame.  When Israel returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls of the city, the dedication included a lengthy confession of the sins of the parents. This isn’t a blame game.  It’s an acknowledgement that we’re shaped by our culture, by our family, or nation, or geography, and that there are scars because of it.  Our insistence that all’s well, that Adam Smith is wiser than Chief Seattle, that our internment camps were necessary, and that racism is behind us are all just a massive forms of denial.

We’re terrified of becoming negative, depressing people, but the reality is that my willingness to own every piece of the story that has shaped me lays a foundation for redemption and my own transformation that would be impossible as long as I cling to denial.

II.  Because we’ll make wiser choices

Seeing, owning, and naming the disastrous consequences of consumerism, nuclear proliferation, industrial agriculture, unrestricted free markets, commitment free sex, unrestricted access to abortion, will, if we allow ourselves to really see, change the way we live.  It’s in the wake of this kind of mourning that take bold steps towards simplification, or hospitality, or eating less fast food, or maybe even making a bold vocational change.  I’ve no illusions that these simple choices will change the overwhelming systemic problems.   But I do believe that creatively imagining a better world, as we’re wired to do, and equipped to do by the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the prophets (see Micah 6:8 here) will move us into a more joy filled, life giving, and peaceful existence, making us part of God’s solution.

III.  Because we’ll say Maranatha and mean it.

We who follow Christ have a grand hope and that has to do with the promise of his coming reign.  Just as the prophets are saturated with the bad news in an attempt to shake us awake, they’re equally overflowing with hope, as they envision all tools of war melted down, and an end to suffering, injustice, environmental degradation, and disease.  This kind of cosmic transformation won’t happen because I bring my own shopping bag to Trader Joe’s, even if I go there on my bike.  Still, every chance I might have to live as a sign that there’s a different kingdom than the prevailing kingdom of consumerism and trivialities will testify to the hope I carry in Christ.

All of it begins, though, with an acknowledgement that all’s not right.  So maybe join me in praying this Anishinabe prayer:

Grandfather; look at our brokenness.  We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way.  We know that we are the one who are divided and we are the ones who must come together to walk in the Sacred Way.  Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor, that we may heal the earth, and heal each other.  Amen

to which I’d only add:  Marantha!  Come quickly Jesus!

Posted in Creation, justice | Tagged , , , , ,

Taking thought for tomorrow – Lessons in making life meaningful from ants and firewood

ImageI slept on the sofa last night in the place where I go to study and write sometimes because it was snowing.  Maybe its because I grew up where it never snowed; or because the smell of fir trees remind me of my happiest childhood memories; or because my wife is at her very happiest in a snowstorm.  I don’t know the deep reasons why, but I love snow, so when it’s falling at night I lay on the sofa and turn the lights on outside so I can tilt my head to just to the right a bit and see infinite white flakes falling slowly from the sky.  They represent covering, and hope, and beauty, and the waters of sustaining life when they melt later.

On that same sofa, a tilt of the head to the left and I see the fire, which represents warmth, safety (when confined in the firebox), and a sense of reward.  I say reward because this heat is earned by thinking ahead.

Acquiring wood happens because I sharpened my chain saw chain, felled some trees with a neighbor and cut them into 18 inch long rounds, hauled the rounds, split them, hauled the split wood so it could be stacked in the meager sunlight it needs to dry, hauled it again to the deck just before first snow, and now haul it inside, piece by piece, for burning.  Each peace represents time outside, working for heat, for heart, for health.  The whole thing takes at least six months, and its best if the drying period includes two summers!  The wood I’ll stack this June will burn best in the winter of 2016.

Proverbs 6:6-8 tells us to consider the ant, learn from her ways, and be wise.  The ant, without any supervisor, org chart, performance evaluation, or any other metric holding her feet to the fire of day to day diligence, still does her work.  This, the author tells us, is worth imitating.  What does the ant, and firewood gathering have to teach us about the rest of life?

1.  There should be a big picture.  I should, in other words, have some semblance of an idea what I’m doing here on this planet.  If I’m a parent, then I’m serving, blessing, empowering, and loving, young lives that will, I hope and pray, grow into flourishing adults who love God and people, and are equipped to bless the world.  If I’m a teacher, I’m learning so that I can share, so that others can grow and be transformed.  If I’m an artist, I’m creating so that other can be comforted, or shaken awake from the complacency, and smitten by beauty.  Construction?  Business owner?  Administrator?  Electrician?  Nurse?  We are, each of us, a mix of strengths, gifts, passions and these things, taken together, constitute a call, the answer to the question “Why am I here?”.   It’s fine to wrestle with that, because such wrestling is surely part of every person’s journey, and the questions will, themselves, help solidify the answers.  If you’re in that searching phase, I’d encourage you to listen to a talk I gave years ago entitled, “Yes and No: Finding Your Voice in the World.”  It’s a vodcast, available in the itunes store for free.

2. There should be a knowledge of next steps.  All right.  I know why I’m here, and part of why I’m here is to provide warmth for my home and family (along with bigger callings like leadership, teaching, writing).  If I’m going to live faithfully in any of these areas, there will be next steps to take, each of which will move me closer to the big call.  If the vision if a fire on a cold winter’s night, a next step in the summer is cutting, then splitting, then stacking, then hauling.  Every next step is taken because of the big picture, and knowing those steps and having the skill to take them are essential because without the little next steps, the big picture remains forever just an idea.  I’m convinced that this is where we often fall down.  We want to write a book, or start a company, or move our church toward a vision of health, or run a marathon.  We have a vision!  But vision, without clarity regarding next steps, isn’t really a vision at all, it’s a wish, a fantasy.

3. There needs to be a focus.  If the big picture vision is important enough, then the next steps you need to take rise to the top of the priority pile.  Because fire is vital in winter, it’s more important than rock climbing in the summer.  Because writing is important, it sits above watching playoff basketball on the priority list.  Because I’m a teacher, I’m not a great skier.  Paul tells Timothy that he needs to “fan into flame” the gift he’s been given, which is a way of saying we need to know our big vision, know our next steps, and make taking those steps the most important parts of our days, every single day.  When we try to become twenty things, we’ll become nothing at all.  Recognizing our finiteness is, perhaps, the most liberating truth most of us need to learn.

4. Meet your new friend named Tedium.  Standing on the summit, or wearing the marathon medal, or attending your children’s college graduation, or your own 50th wedding anniversary; these events (or others like them) are the things we want on the highlight reel of our lives, and that’s all well and good.  But that marriage, and those kids graduating are the fruit of thousands of diapers changed, dishes cleaned, little games attended, tiny courtesies extended, bicycles repaired, oils changed, checkbooks balances, debts discussed, taxes payed, wood split, commute endured.  Most of life, it seems, consists of these seemingly mundane events, and yet its how faithfully and fully engaged we live there, in the land of tedium, that determines whether we’ll endure over the long haul.  For me at least, I’m best able to coexist with tedium when I do three things:

1) keep the big picture in mind – I’m not reading “Stop that Ball” for the 563rd time because the plot is so compelling; I’m investing in a life.  I’m not covered with pitch and sweat because I love hauling wood; I’m creating warmth in the winter.  When we tie daily living to the big picture its easier to press forward.

2) practice the art of presence – time flies by when the only thing I’m thinking about is “this piece of wood” or “this paragraph” or “this observational study of the parables” or “this staff meeting”.  I’m convinced that this too is where many of us fall down.  We have the vision.  We know the next steps.  And then we get bored.  While bored, facebook or the email pings, or we just start surfing the net, or dialing into to Colbert or Fox news, depending on your generation and outlook.  The point, though, isn’t the quality of the distraction; the point is that we allowed ourselves to be robbed of the chance to contribute to the bigger story God wants to write, because we didn’t like the step we were needing to take in the moment, so we stopped our progress and threw some time over a cliff.

This summer, when my wife and I hike in the Alps, the route will be filled with steps we don’t want to take, because they’re just another tedious step in a line of a million, or because the next step is terrifying (some routes in the Alps literally have ladders attached to rock faces – more later).  But the steps simply must be taken if we’re to reach our goal.  Learning that discipline of taking next steps because of the big picture isn’t just a hiking thing, or a writing thing, or a fire thing – it’s a life thing.

What’s the hardest part for you:  big picture, knowing next steps, making friends with Tedium?

What resources can you recommend to help others on the journey.



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