Saturday, April 4, 2020

Seeking God vs. seeking his blessings

Oswald Chambers is one of my favorite conversation partners. I don't always agree with his reflections on following Jesus, but he's always forceful and always makes me think.

There was a lot in this morning's reading from My Utmost for His Highest and I won't recap the whole thing. One of the many phrases that made me pause (and reread) was this:

Darkness comes by the sovereignty of God.

Think about that in the midst of this current pandemic. In the midst of social distancing. Quarantine.

What does it mean that darkness comes by the sovereignty of God?

Well, start with what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean God is punishing you. It doesn't mean God is angry. Truth is, we tend to gravitate toward the most pleasant option rather than the most needful option. So we have to consider the possibility that God is allowing hardship (or at least challenge... few of us are really experiencing hardship) for a greater good.

What greater good might that be?

Let's start here: Begin with the assumption that God's agenda might not align with your current self-interest. Be honest. Self-interest is notoriously fickle and well, self-centered. I want a pony. I want a million dollars. I want to eat whatever I want and still be trim and fit. I want...

What if God's agenda is for you to have exactly what Jesus said: Life. Abundant life, not by your definition but by his. Then we need to ask the question, how does Jesus define abundant life? Here's the closest he gets in the gospels, and it's not a bad definition:

This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

(That's John 17:3, by the way.) Knowing God, and knowing him in his fullness through Jesus, is life. Notice that it doesn't say "leads to life." Jesus says knowing God IS life. A=B. The two are one and the same.

Let's be honest. Most of our Christian agenda is built around self-interest. We preach family values because we want to have strong families. We subconsciously (or consciously) craft our churches to fit what's most comfortable for us. Even our theological definition of the gospel (accept Jesus' death on the cross so you can go to heaven when you die) is based on self-interest.

What if life really means knowing God?

That would mean instead of viewing our circumstances through what's best (i.e. most comfortable) for me, I need to ask in each moment how I can know God better.

If we try this point of view on, we find the Bible pops open in a new way. Suddenly we start reading all over the place that this is exactly what God desires. God wants us to know him. God wants us to seek him, not our own salvation. In fact, we'd understand salvation better if we focused on knowing God.

So what's going on in your world today? Are you frustrated with quarantine? Are you anxious about an uncertain future? Are you freaked out by exponential rates of infection? Are you lonely? Bored?

What would it mean for you to turn to God and ask, "How can I know you better in this moment?"

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dealing with loneliness

Months ago I read an article about how loneliness was an epidemic in our society. I needed no convincing. I'd seen it and experienced it. In spite of the crazy mix of social media that promises to facilitate all our relationships, we as a society were feeling more isolated, more alienated.

These days things have changed (how's that for an understatement?), but loneliness is still an incredible challenge for us. In the midst of social distancing, I'm in conversation with dozens of people. I hear over and over again how they're coping with the challenges of quarantine. Often the conversation comes back to some version of loneliness.

For almost three years now, I've been living alone in my cozy cabin. My nearest neighbors are relatively far away, a quarter-mile or more. My days and nights are pretty isolated. While I'm privileged to live in tremendous natural beauty among the oaks and the whitetails on the shore of this little lake, I've wrestled many times over the last few years with loneliness.

Out of that time, here are a few reflections on the benefits of enduring loneliness and how to cope with solitude.

1. Name it for what it is. You may not realize how lonely you are. It's a vulnerable thing to admit, even to ourselves, even during this crisis. You might experience loneliness as a deep sense of hurt, or fear, frantic energy, or even panic. Maybe you're focused on one idealized solution for your loneliness: You just want to go to a ball game, eat out at your favorite restaurant, or embrace that particular loved one. That longing is overpowering. Don't let that fixation cloud the real issue. That preferred solution might not be possible right now, especially in a time of pandemic. If you can name the fact that you're lonely, you can start dealing with the real need in a healthy way.

2. Recognize that your loneliness is the symptom of something good. Even before sin entered this world, according to Genesis, God looked at the man he had made and diagnosed isolation as a dangerous problem. "It is not good for the man to be alone," God said. (See Genesis 2:18.) The fact that you are longing for connection to others says that you are functioning as God intended. You need other people. You need conversation. At some level you need intimacy. This discomfort means your heart is healthy. Think of a teething baby. The baby's discomfort might lead to crabbiness and tears, but it's a symptom of a good thing happening. Your longing for connection means your heart is what God has created it to be. We need relationships.

3. Don't try to be holier than God. I hear so many people say that they just need to be more focused on a relationship with God when they're lonely. It sounds pretty holy, right? But it's not the way God created us. Yes, even in times of loneliness God is there for us. Yes, there's great benefit to spending time with God when you're lonely. But as noted above, God designed us to need other flesh-and-blood people. The Bible makes clear over and over again that a spiritualized connection with God is not enough. We need human community. Take advantage of the church right now. If you have church connections, use them. If you don't have a church yet, this is a fantastic time to discover new connections. Thousands of churches are expanding their online presence in many creative ways. Let those churches speak a word of hope and encouragement into your loneliness. I'm so privileged to be part of The Open Door Christian Church, and we're finding new ways to get online and connect with others. Take advantage. And if you are looking for a way to be connected at a deeper level, please email me. We have lots of new computer-based groups starting up specifically to help people stay connected.

4. That said, be smart about how you connect with God. One of the advantages to times of solitude is that we can pour out our hearts to God. We can be honest about the ache. If you're alone where you are, or if you have car time, don't be afraid to talk out loud to God about how you're feeling. (People used to think you are crazy if you did this, but these days people just think you're on the phone. It's great.) Two places in the Bible I'd suggest you spend time: First, the book of Psalms. It's full of all kinds of authentic, difficult emotions, and alongside those difficult emotions, there is a lot about what it means to have a relationship with God. Second, read the gospels––Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When you are feeling far from God, it's helpful to connect with God-in-human-flesh in Jesus. Notice how often Jesus retreats into lonely places. Notice how often he intentionally builds relationship with those around him. When you're lonely, bring that loneliness to God and know that Jesus experienced what you're going through. It won't fix the hurt, but it's still a comfort.

5. Reach out to someone. When you're lonely, it might feel like you just need to hunker down and fight through it. Okay, but the best way to fight through it is to reach out to someone else. Phone a friend. While texts and emails are good, there's something about hearing the sound of the voice of a person you care about that is balm for the soul. Rediscover the lost art of phone conversations. Call an at-risk person and check in on them. Take time just to chat. Because you are hurting, and this conversation may not be your first choice, it's tempting just to get morose and stare out the window or stare at the TV screen or stare at the news feed. Roust yourself and initiate a conversation. It won't fix everything, but it will give you a human connection. One of the best ways to deal with the pain of loneliness is to care for someone else.

6. Don't be afraid to stare into the abyss. Loneliness is deep and painful. In the midst of that pain, you might find yourself facing some realities about who you are. It can be really uncomfortable. But it can also be a tremendous time of learning and growing. Let God shine his light on things that you don't want to acknowledge. Face your fears and your weaknesses. If you keep a journal, write about some of these difficult things you're learning. But––and this is important––limit the amount of time you focus on the dark stuff. A half-hour a day is plenty. Force yourself to STOP contemplating the difficult stuff after a while. Depression is a real danger in times of isolation. Consciously turn away from that trajectory when you need to.

7. Let music help you. Music is one of God's greatest gifts at all times, but especially now. The right music can help you in every step of dealing with loneliness. Don't be afraid to have a happy playlist that is just lighthearted and fun. Because of my sense of humor, one song on this playlist for me during this pandemic is the Georgia Satellites, "Keep Your Hands To Yourself." It makes me laugh every time as I think about all of us struggling with social distancing. (When you're lonely, laughter is like Popeye's spinach.) You can have another playlist that helps you with staring into the abyss (#6 above). Not long ago I invested time listening to Bach's B Minor Mass. I guarantee if you have any openness to classical music, that one will move you and call you into the depths. Another musical friend that will help you through the loneliness is a focused worship playlist. One of the songs on my worship playlist lately is "New Wine" by Hillsong. This was recommended to me by a friend not long ago, and it's a powerful word in these challenging times. I've noticed lately that live versions like this one carry a comforting sense of being together with a crowd right now. Take advantage of that.

Loneliness is hard, but it's not insurmountable. If you're wrestling with loneliness in these days, I guarantee you God is using this time for good in your life. Don't be afraid to need people and to reach out. Don't be afraid to ask God what he's doing in all this. Don't be afraid to laugh. We need each other.

Friday, March 20, 2020

It's not unprecedented. There are lessons to learn.

I keep hearing the word "unprecedented" these days. Usually, it's someone who is reporting on the COVID-19 situation. I hear it most often from people (think government officials) in some position of responsibility who are floundering a bit with how, exactly, they should be responding. Often they use the word "unprecedented" to prevent or respond to criticism.

I get it. We all feel like the script just got thrown out and we are making things up as we go along. Improvising. It's uncomfortable.

But this situation is far from unprecedented. It's just unprecedented in our lifetimes, or in the lifetimes of the last few generations. A few examples of precedents:

1. The Spanish Flu. The flu epidemic of 1918 had significant differences from this pandemic. However, there were huge similarities as well. Trouble is, very few people today can speak from personal experience to that outbreak and the social consequences we experienced. Fear, social distancing, and radical changes in the way society operated were part of that epidemic as well.

A lesson to learn: Most of what we are hearing about social distancing, hygiene, and sheltering in place comes from hard lessons we didn't seem to learn quickly enough in 1918. The Biggest Lesson to Learn seems to be that we should take these measures very, very seriously.

2. In the 1400s, the Bubonic Plague devastated Europe. Estimates are that a third of the population of Europe died. Social structures, economic structures, political structures, religious structures... all were severely impacted. This pandemic is NOT the same as the plague, thank God, and I'm not saying we should jump to a place of despair or fear. Still, we can learn from what people endured at that time.

A lesson to learn: Much of what we now know about disease transmission grew out of the Black Death of the 1400s. This crisis will increase our knowledge base, without a doubt. Of course, the dark underside of this lesson is that we will feel the discomfort that comes with new learning. For what it's worth, this is why so many people are criticizing the government, CDC, hospitals, big pharma, or whatever for being under-prepared. We hate being uncomfortable. However, it's the necessary companion to expanding our knowledge base.

3. In the early centuries of Christianity's development, one action that set Christians apart from their neighbors is highly significant: When disease struck a city, most people fled (if they could) to the country. It was their version of social distancing. Christians, on the other hand, stayed in the city and cared for the sick. True, some of those Christians became sick and even died. But most survived, in large part because they had networks of people caring for one another. And a much higher percentage of those they cared for survived because they received even the most basic nursing care. (Michael Green did a great job documenting this in his excellent book The Rise of Christianity.)

A lesson to learn: This is perhaps the most important lesson for today. Here it is: Within the realms of wisdom and medical necessity, care for people. How? Well, you could start by calling people who might be in need of help. Then expand that to people who are likely lonely or afraid. Be a voice of compassion and reassurance. Call a teacher who had the end of their school year yanked out from under them and ask how they're doing. Call someone who is wheelchair-bound and worries about their respiratory system being compromised in the best of winters. Chat with them. Pray over the phone with them. The simple rule of thumb: When someone crosses your mind, call/text/email them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Taking the temperature of the morning

Eastern horizon getting brighter.
You can distinguish trees from grass from buildings.
Chickadees sing their two-note greeting, over and over.
Doe and three fawns browsing calmly through the meadow.
Red squirrel nosing around under the bird feeder.

Conclusions?
They seem to think the world is going on as usual.
And it's a good place.
Not safe, or perfect. But good.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Weekend with the guys

I've got some company staying over at the cabin this weekend. Two fathers and their sons, long-time friends, will hang out, eat lots of excellent food, watch some movies, and probably work on a project to benefit Decision Hills. I expect prodigious amounts of laughter, some deep conversations, and a great deal of joy. It's good to have friends.

Thinking back, I'm deeply grateful for these men. We have been in and out of each others' homes countless times. We've all leaned on each other through intense trials. In the decade and a half we've been close, I can't begin to count the times one of us has provided a listening ear or a desperately needed hug for one of the others.

And the sons have grown up in that context of vibrant friendship. They're each figuring out their own way in the world these days, of course. But you can tell when you spend time with them that they've been deeply shaped by living in Jesus-focused community. Not just that, but in that Jesus-focused community, their fathers were deeply invested in the lives of others. Their fathers talked about faith and relationships. Their fathers intentionally came alongside them and invested in them. That makes a huge difference in the lives of young men.

Plus rumor has it that there will be a skid-steer, multiple chainsaws, at least one major bonfire, a vat of pheasant chili, wild rice brats, and a slab of salmon that just won't quit. I think it's going to be a great weekend.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Post-conference slide, or not?

I had the privilege last week of attending the Exponential Conference in Orlando, Florida with three of our leaders from The Open Door. It was a week full of excellent speakers, vibrant worship, and intense conversations. We rolled back into the tundra last night just before bedtime, and I know I've got a lot to process in the coming days.

The danger, of course, after an experience like this is that you can just let it all slide. Life fades back to normal and you ease back into the same ruts. I suppose that's true of any life-changing experience. The medical crisis passes, the passionate relationship ends, the mountaintop vacation comes to a close, and life simply slides back into what used to be normal.

The question is, how badly do we want things to change? Do we want things to be different enough that we're willing to endure the pain of change? By definition, change requires pain. We don't often think of that. Change means disruption. It's difficult. Most of the time, it's just easier to drift unintentionally back into being small.

Last week I had the privilege, on a professional level, of glimpsing what is possible. Our team spent several intense conversations hashing out the realities of moving toward that target in practical terms.

On a personal level, God graciously confronted me with some clear pictures of where I am and where I've been living. Am I willing to make the changes it will take to live differently? Am I willing to confront a more painful reality? The benefit is that I can start to live more intentionally. I can let go of some dreams and take hold of others. Am I ready? Is 2020, in fact, the year to live into a clear vision?

That's the work that comes after the mountaintop. That's the valley in which we are beaten into shape to receive the vision, in Oswald Chambers' words.

So this morning, I'm making concrete plans about how to implement what I've heard and seen. I'm doing my best to let go of the past and grab hold of the changes.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Divorce, shame, and worship

"Have you thought about telling your own story through your writing?"

We were making small talk at a wedding reception. She was a dynamic, intelligent woman approaching 40. She had introduced me to her fiancee a few moments before, and she seemed incredibly poised. But there was an urgency to her question that I couldn't quite identify.

"What do you mean?"

"Specifically around your divorce." That hung in the air for a second between us, and she glanced around, then plowed ahead. "I went through a divorce a few years ago, and it was rough. I'm a Christian, so I went looking for Christian resources to help me through it. I couldn't find anything."

I smiled sadly. "No. I suppose not."

"I limped through it on my own. I quit going to church for a long time. Since then I've started going to church again, but it's tough. I don't talk very often about the fact that I've been divorced. And it seems like lots of people get shamed out of the church if their marriages fall apart. It's one thing to hit a rough patch in your marriage and get help. People rally around you. It's another thing if the marriage ends. That just feels like failure and shame."

Failure and shame. Just yesterday I had another conversation, this time with an independent, strong-willed man who matter-of-factly mentioned that he quit going to church for many years when he got divorced. Only after he had taken a few years off, eventually remarried, and reestablished his new blended family did he risk darkening the door of a church.

It's almost three years since my own divorce. I vividly remember what it felt like to attend a worship service during that terrible time. I was a complete stranger to the congregation up the road. I very intentionally slipped into the back row two minutes after the service started. I cringed if the pastor directed us to greet other worshippers. I left during the closing hymn. I knew I needed to be in a public worship service. I was in my Bible and in prayer daily. But the weight of the breakdown in my own life made attending worship incredibly difficult.

The hardest part for me was the internal struggle I carried everywhere I went. My wife and I had separated, and she had initiated divorce proceedings. I had reached out a few times to open channels of communication, but she made clear she was not open to conversation. I was keeping a distance in many relationships, trying hard not to put friends in the awkward position of choosing sides between us. De facto, that meant I lost a lot of friends. At the same time, I was grappling with all the questions about my own mistakes, sins I'd committed, choices I should have made differently. Most days it felt like carrying a ball of molten lead in my gut. I desperately needed to worship in a community, but I felt like my soul was completely raw. Any word, any touch, was almost too much.

Ending a marriage should not be easy. I'm not asking for sympathy. Over the years, however, I've seen far too many people cut off from attending a church when their marriage hits the rocks. And if the marriage ends, they often disappear forever.

In the midst of all that, I ended up moving a couple hours away to take a new job. By God's grace, I transplanted into a community that is deeply committed to digging deep into the Bible. Part of that commitment is a deep sense that biblically speaking, we are not allowed to shame others. I found openness and gentleness in this new church that touched my heart. People let me sit in the back corners until I was comfortable enough. Conversations felt like compassion rather than an interrogation. I was able to start healing. Over many months, I edged more and more into the light. I built friendships. Lo and behold, in some of those friendships, people shared with me about their own struggles, including (in some cases) difficult marriages ending in divorce. As I felt ready, they listened to my own story. Along that path, I never once felt shamed. Confronted, convicted, yes. But never shamed.

I fully realize what a treasure it is to find a church that doesn't shame people. It's not a perfect church, but that one commitment not to shame others makes all the difference for me and many others. Living in that environment over time brings healing. It brings hope that I can be known for who I really am. It brings hope I don't have to pretend to be more together, more healthy than I really am.

It feels like grace.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Rich reminders

Thursday evenings more often than not you'll find me hanging out at The Open Door Christian Church's young adult ministry. This is not because I think I fit in there; quite the opposite. It's because I believe that having a cross-generational conversation is important. I care about this amazing group of young adults and I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to invest in their lives in some way.

This week, though, I felt like I was the one who walked away benefiting from the conversation. (That actually happens most weeks, but that's usually the way of things, isn't it?) While I've occasionally functioned as a speaker for this group, lately they've been focusing on missions and I get to simply listen in and be part of the conversation. Thursday's presentation was led by a couple preparing to move overseas. Their presentation was a deep, deep reminder of the uniqueness, beauty, and importance of Christian theology.

They started out asking the question, "What is the gospel?" If you haven't pondered this simple question lately, I encourage you to take time to do so. Can you answer that question concisely, in thirty seconds or less, in a way that a non-Christian might understand?

Over the course of about an hour, this couple led us to reflect on the importance of the Trinity in answering that question. In the process they led us deep into history, discussing the Athanasian Creed and Nicholas of Myra (more recently of "Santa Claus" fame) confronting Arius who claimed that Jesus Christ was the first creation of God, not an eternal being.

I know some of you are starting to glaze over right about now, but this is important. It gets down to basic questions like:

  • Did God create us out of some need to be loved and worshiped?
  • Is "the gospel" primarily about us going to heaven when we die?
  • Are we designed simply to be good people so God will be pleased?
  • What do Muslims and Jews mean when they say God is One, and do Christians understand this oneness of God in the same way?
And lots of others. But the simple answer to all these bullet-pointed questions is "No." If, as Christianity teaches, God contains other-centered love within God's self––the Father loves the Son and vice versa, with the Spirit flowing between the two as the expression and articulation of that love––then from eternity God has been relationally complete. God creates not to somehow have someone to love or worship him. Rather, out of the fullness and overflowing abundance of that love between the members of the Trinity, God creates not to receive anything but in order to give life. 

So all of Jesus' ministry and all of the New Testament makes sense, as we see in Jesus an other-centered love that overflows into the lives of those he healed, delivered, restored, and saved. What's more, we begin to understand our need in a deeper way: We are all broken and despairing to the extent that we are cut off from this kind of overflowing abundant love. To be "saved" means to be brought into right relationship with the God of superabundant love. We receive this love, are healed and restored by it, and begin (in imitation of God's character) live lives in which we pour God's overflowing love into a broken world. 

In short, Thursday night was a great reminder that something as basic as the Trinity matters. It's important for us to dive into it, to begin to understand God's love in a new and deeper way. If not, we risk falling prey to all the simplistic questions that drive people away from Christianity. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Transitions

February is more than half over.  It's been a busy month so far. The big event, of course, was my daughter Mathea's wedding out in Seattle. I had the privilege of traveling with my older daughter and her husband, and we kind of took over the Grand Hyatt in downtown Seattle. The wedding itself was at a tiny little venue (someone's backyard, really) about an hour north of the city. Lovely setting, and a very powerful, intimate gathering. We carpooled back to Seattle and the hotel and had another couple dozen close friends and family in the penthouse suite. All in all, though sometimes family gatherings can be a little tense, it was utterly beautiful and far better than I could have imagined. And Mathea and Matthew are now married in grand fashion. I am so very excited for them.

So the last couple weeks I've been trying to figure out life in Minnesota again. It's been a challenge to go from such a conversation-saturated four days around the wedding back to the quieter pace of Decision Hills. Work. Writing. Snow. Dog-sitting. You can feel the days turning toward spring, though we have a long way to go yet. It is still most definitely winter. One still needs lots of patience (or mindless television) for the long, dark evenings.

I'm nearly finished with the interior work on reissuing my Exodus book. Mathea and I are working on cover designs, and that's probably the biggest remaining task. Erica and Eric have been just amazing with the editing process. I suppose it should be the case that a second edition should present new challenges and that updating needs to be a current-state-of-the-heart kind of thing. But I hadn't expected that to be as much of a challenge as it turned out to be. Good, healthy, introspective; but challenging.

One of the very necessary parts of this life, I'm realizing, is intentional community. The week after the wedding, I felt like a razor's-edge addict going to AA meetings. Each day that following week I had some kind of community gathering, Life Group, staff meeting. Each of those gatherings was so very necessary to help me transition back to a more solitary life. We are made for community. It is no accident that the first comment God makes about humanity, even before sin breaks in, is that "it is not good for the man to be alone." (See Genesis 2:18.) I'm incredibly thankful for the friendships and communities here.

But right now I'm dog-sitting, and it's time for me and Kenai to go for a walk. That's all for his sake, you understand. ;)


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Relationality

One of the enduring joys of my life in the last decade is an ongoing conversation I've shared with my daughter Mathea. Years ago she came to the deep conclusion that Christianity is only true if it's absolutely relational. That might sound simple, but very often we treat Christianity as a religious system. I put in my repentance, and Jesus dispenses forgiveness. It's a transaction.

This kind of transactional religion drives people to ask questions like, "How much do I need to do to be saved? How much commitment is enough?" That's like a groom asking his bride at the altar, "What is the minimum I need to do for you to stay married to me?" If we put it in relational terms, suddenly it looks abundantly foolish. As it should.

Mathea is getting married this weekend. I'm very excited. And it seems timely that Scott Sauls should post this blog during a week when I'm reflecting with great joy about the relational nature of both love and faith.

Winter writing

I've been writing, though it doesn't feel like it.

More specifically, what I've been working on is editing the manuscript of a book I wrote a decade ago, and I'm planning to publish a second edition. The book takes the Exodus story and applies it to our lives, asking the question: What does it look like for God to set us free today?

The editing process can be grueling. Simply said, it's not my favorite part of writing. My older daughter and her husband have been incredible in this whole process. They've combed through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, asking all kinds of hard questions and suggesting needed changes. The final product has taken longer than I anticipated, but it's also far better. They confront simple things that need to change stylistically, like the fact that the original manuscript consistently had two spaces after each sentence. That convention has absolutely changed since I wrote the original manuscript. They also confront places where I've shied away from dealing with difficult questions in myself and others. Because of their kind, firm probing I have addressed some hard questions in the updated manuscript. So the topic of what it means for God to set us free is now much more current than I expected. It's always a challenge to write in the vulnerable present rather than the somewhat settled past.

We're coming into the final stages of the manuscript work. My younger daughter does an amazing job with graphic design, and she's working on a cover for this book just like she did for New Wineskins. Little by little, we are making progress toward publication. Originally my optimistic goal was mid-January; I'm guessing the book will actually come out sometime in February or early March.

In the meantime, there are other projects on the burners as well. Some of these are directly related to my work at The Open Door. Others arise out of my fascinations with theology and leadership and biblical truth but aren't directly work-related. Still others are just stories for fun, though I haven't been taking much time for those lately.

We held a fishing tournament here at Decision Hills last Saturday, hosted by some of our middle school boys. They did a great job. Spending many hours focused on the fish living below the ice, I realized that this winter feels a little like that to me. Life has slowed down as the temperatures drop. It's a necessary season of slow work, churning out new words and editing old ones. But my mental processes are frustratingly slow these winter days. Most of my energy is going to my day job, and that's a good thing. Writing fills in the gaps and provides a challenge for the long evenings when a lingering conversation or a game of Scrabble might be more fun.

It is a joy to see a project coming to completion. I'll keep posting here as this Exodus project moves toward publication. Meanwhile, it might be a good day to get out on my snowshoes and cut some brush for the deer to feed on.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Just for fun

Had a guest in my yard this afternoon. I was working at my computer, glanced up, and guess who was a few feet away?



He worked his way around to the back of the cabin and munched on the leftovers of my Christmas tree for a bit, sniffed at my birdfeeders and tasted a few morsels, and wandered off into the woods. Looks like he's weathering the winter just fine.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Fotos de Colombia


Here are a few pics from my lightning trip to Bogotá last week. I had a couple of meetings with our mission partners there on Thursday and Friday and was able to spend some time getting to know the city and its culture in the afternoons.

Monserrate is the obvious tourist destination in Bogotá. It's a high overlook on the east of the city. Like any such location, it's set up with all the kitschy photo ops. I gave in and paid a few dollars to have my pic taken with this tolerant llama before we boarded the tram to go up the mountain.


Said tram. We took this up, and the cable car down. I stood right at the window on the downhill side, contemplating what it would be like if the cable pulling us up the mountain should snap. Not comforting. However, everything went fine and we didn't die. Thank God.


The view of Bogotá from the top of Monserrate. It's a huge city and has swelled recently with a million and a half refugees from the crisis in Venezuela. More on that below.


My guide, Diego, and I walked around and through the marketplace atop Monserrate talking about culture, coca tea, tourism, missions, and more. I tried eating ants and we turned down food from multiple vendors (we'd just enjoyed a massive lunch). Around the back of the marketplace, we found these workers who bring supplies up for the restaurants on horses and donkeys.


The climb is truly intimidating, and I have no idea how long it takes them to get these supplies from bottom to top.


Back to downtown Bogotá. This picture doesn't seem like much at first. Look closer. All these intricate paper figurines on the street are folded from Venezuelan currency. The piles of cash at the center of the display are not outdated, they have simply lost their value in the economic crisis in Venezuela. They are literally not worth the paper they are printed on. This enterprising vendor uses the bills to fold handbags, animals, and decorations in order to try to convert cash into something with value. Colombia is reeling under the weight of so many who have fled Venezuela. Yet even in that, we heard stories of how God is working in the midst of this crisis to spread his word through evangelical Christians who have fled Venezuela and are sharing about Jesus wherever they go. It sounds almost like Acts 8:1.


Me and Simon Bolivar hanging out in the square at the heart of Bogotá. So few North Americans know any of the history of South America, and that is a tragedy. Reading just a few quotes of Bolivar's political and personal philosophy on the statues and in the National Museum, I was very impressed. Furthermore, it's a little humbling to look at the history of other countries in comparison to our own. For example, Colombia passed an edict freeing African slaves (much like Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation) a full decade before the United States.


This gets at the heart of the reason I was in Colombia last week. These are a few of the church leaders working to reach indigenous peoples in Colombia. The whiteboard is covered with names of tribes and individuals who might be key to this work. I have tremendous respect for these leaders, most of whom are themselves from various indigenous groups, for the wisdom, care, and passion they bring to this gospel work. It is a privilege to be associated with them.


These are avocados. The size of your head. Well, almost. Amazing.


Bogotá is in the throes of dynamic change, and this is one example. It's the bull ring where up until a few years ago, matadors played out the traditional business of bullfighting. These days the bullfights have been shut down, though one recent leader tried to bring them back. The effort was drowned in protests. There are lots of protests in Bogotá over various issues. On the whole, though, the Colombian people have a strong sense of what is good and important in their city and country. They work hard to make life better for themselves and for others (like the Venezuelan refugees). I was impressed and look forward to my next chance to visit.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Letting go of the season

Even though I haven't taken my Christmas tree down, we've moved on. It's mid-January now. All the markers of the post-Christmas transition have passed. Sales have ended. Those post-Christmas parties that we couldn't squeeze in before the holiday have happened. The radio stations went back to non-Christmas music on the 26th, of course. I just need to get that tree down.

It's a real tree, not artificial, so there's some urgency. Within a matter of days, it will be dry enough to start dropping needles. I'm already a little intimidated to think about what will happen when I take the decorations down. What a mess.

I'm headed back to Colombia for a quick trip, and I should probably buckle down and get rid of the tree before that.

Why is this so hard?

It's not, really. I can screw up my will to do hard things, whether it's pushing a needle through my own skin for a necessary insulin injection, finishing off a wounded animal, or having a difficult conversation with a friend. But part of me hates taking down the tree.

This reluctance balances out the irony my daughters would be quick to point out, of course: I hate putting up the Christmas tree until just a few days before Christmas. Once it's there, I want to hang on to the season longer than most.

At the risk of both anthropomorphism and excessive sentimentality, let me say: Goodbyes are hard. They are more difficult yet when there's not some shiny new thing to be looking forward to. The Colombia trip is a good thing. I have some more travel coming up in February for my daughter's wedding. It's not like life is bad.

I just know I'm going to miss sitting in the evening with the Christmas lights on and enjoying the twilight out my window as the sun sets beyond the lake.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Epiphany 2020

2020 has been glorious thus far. Contrary to most years, the weather has been nearly perfect for a Minnesota winter. Oh, sure, there have been a couple ice storms and some annoying blowing and drifting. But the temperatures have been pretty consistently above zero, and the sun is shining more days than not. Today it's an amazingly bright and glorious day outside. I'm going to go enjoy it in a bit, maybe breaking my snowshoes out for the first hike of the year.

My daughter and son-in-law just drove out. They were working like mad through Christmas, so we enjoyed the weekend together, celebrated a late Christmas, and just generally hung out and talked about stuff. I can't begin to express how precious conversations like that are to me. As I've written here before, I desperately need that conversational mirror that helps me see reality more clearly. The encouragement, correction, and delightful humor they brought this weekend was such a gift.

So much of what makes life meaningful is the web of relationships that give us a place. Love anchors us to each other and to the world. In essence, that's what today is about. Epiphany is a celebration of Jesus coming into the world as light. In 1 John you can read two unequivocal statements about the nature of God. They're not contradictory but complementary.

1. God is light and in him is no darkness at all.
2. God is love; the one who loves is born of God and knows God.

I think sometimes on Epiphany about the interrelationship between light and love. We use both of these words to describe the very best of relationships. (And for those of you who idealize the 1970's, here's a link to get the song thoroughly stuck in your head.)  Instinctively we associate light with love and vice versa. On this day when you can finally feel the days getting longer, it's appropriate to think about Jesus coming to be the tangible presence of God's love among us. It is this same Jesus who said, "I am the light of the world."

The sun is starting to drop in the sky as I write this, so I'm going to get my snowshoes strapped on. I hope your Epiphany is full of light and love!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Visions of 2020?


Happy New Year!

I have to admit, I'm a little awed to be here at the outset of 2020. At various times in the last decade, I figured I knew exactly what 2020 would bring. When I was leading a big church in the Twin Cities, this year served as a benchmark for my thinking and planning. And when I burned out in spectacular fashion, I had a very clear (but very different) picture of what 2020 would bring.

What was Shakespeare's line? "The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry." Yeah, that.

In the last few weeks, I've felt drawn (and sometimes chased) toward the idea of trusting God. I don't usually pick a word for a new year, but I have a deep sense that this year is going to be all about trust. I've even got a theme verse to go with it, from Psalm 37:5:
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. (NIV)
God has indeed brought me into good pasture. This place and the community of the church I serve are such a gift to me. Being rooted here drives me deeper into my particular God-given roles. (That's the part about "do good" in the verse.) Finding a voice here continues to be a challenge and a blessing. If I was to hazard a guess about what 2020 will bring at this point, I suspect it would have a lot to do with exactly that: Finding a voice and having the confidence to sing out loud. How people take that song, and who is harmonizing with it, those things belong to God. Trust.

I suspect it will be an interesting year. And I have no idea what it will bring.

On a slightly different note, Scott Sauls made me want to jump up and down and cheer with this post. I highly recommend it if you are pondering how to observe the outset of 2020.

Whatever your visions for this new year, may God bless you and keep you and make his face shine on you.