I've been away from writing for the summer and now, as I return, I wanted to share with you what I've been doing. I was privileged to speak at conferences this summer on both coasts and in Canada. While home, I was busy cutting wood, doing a little bit of coaching/spiritual direction, hiking, cutting and splitting wood, and spending some time with kids and grandkids.
Fall is already palpable in our mountain here. The scent of summer's full ripening, shortened days, the first fire in the wood stove. All of it invites a moment of reflection before turning the calendar and jumping into the deep end of activity that is autumn.
In my reflections on a wonderful summer, here are the things I'm learning that stand out as worth sharing:
Ecclesiastes is as timely as ever.
My theme in conference speaking this summer was the rarely considered book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The "preacher/king" who wrote it was on to something when, in the first couple of chapters he declares two stark realities of "life under the sun," which is code for "life is it actually is, not as we wish it to be." They hit me like a cold shower, but will remain as sources of hope long after snow has covered the ground here in the mountains.
"First," he says, "nothing that we want to keep lasts." This said in various ways in 1:3,4,11 and 2:15-16. He's saying "Pick your attachment, that thing that really gives your life meaning. Go ahead. Name it. Finish the sentence, "I find great joy in ______." If you're fortunate, you'll have several answers, which might include spouse, children, work you love, a great hobby or two (skiing, hiking, climbing), your health, wine tasting, good music. The possibilities are endless.
But the preacher says trying to hang on to any of them forever is vanity. The Hebrew word is havel and it means "like trying to grab smoke." If you're happily married, the odds are good that one of you will die first. If you love being active, the odds are good that you'll know days toward the end when you'll need help getting to the bathroom or tying your shoes. If it's your kids, as kids who need you almost every minute, that won't last forever (for many, a cause for joy rather than sorrow). You won't have that job you love forever. I know that firsthand now and will write more about moving on from a job you love to find a deeper identity later.
The larger point though is to embrace the temporality of it all; to realize that we're just passing through, and so hold it all with an open hand. When we see our blessings as gifts rather than entitlements, we cherish them all the more. As I belay my granddaughters and teach them to climb, as I sit and enjoy a beverage with the wife of my youth who has become now the wife of my senior years, as I make eye contact with the deer passing through my yard, or enjoy my baseball team's playoff possibilities, I cherish all of it! None of these gifts are rights, entitlements. They're 'shards of grace', here for today with no promises for tomorrow.
The other paradoxically liberating truth is that "nothing we want to get rid of disappears." We'd like to think that after enduring a century of Great Wars, rising and falling dictators, implosions of democracies, coups, the rise of the KKK and covert and overt racism and anti-seitism, that we'd have learned something; evolved; moved on.
Nope. Just last weekend there was a shooting in Florida carried out by a young man with a swastikas painted on his assault rifle. There'll always be a Putin. There'll always be politicians who give lip service to liberty but are more concerned about gaining power than serving people and holding one another accountable to matters of character. There'll always be people "otherizing" and demonizing some minority, focusing on them as "the problem with our country." There'll always be culture wars. The poor will always be with us. There'll always be "wars and rumors of wars."
It's strange though. Instead of this being a call to either despair, passivity, or cynicism, the preacher/king makes even this truth is liberating. He tells us to put our utopian dreams to bed because a zeal that won't let us rest until we fix everything means we'll never rest, or know joy. I won't give too much away, but if you skip to the end of the book you discover that our invitation isn't to fix it all. Rather, we're to recognize that each of us, in our limited humanity, have contributions to make - neighbors to love, gifts to share, broken bodies to heal, injustices to expose. We're to find our callings and gifts, and get on with that calling. I know this is hard for some to hear, but the continuous rage that some feel and express was never God's tactic. Rather, it's "a cup of cold water" given in Jesus name.
There's much more to say, and my hope is to offer a few posts on this precious book of Ecclesiastes between now and the end of winter. For now its enough to share that, in spite of preaching it three times, I'm still revisiting my notes to remind myself of these truths, and the truth that things we hope to disappear will remain echoes in my heart every time I digest the news: another indictment, another predictable response from the right, another failure of the left to see why people are mad; another gaslighting; another "what about...?", another shooting with thoughts and prayers, which has become code for "nothing will change." We've heard it all, not just this summer, but throughout history. This is who we are as a species. And yet....
We're invited to rise above it all and live as people of hope. Can we do that? This is part of what I'll be writing about here in the coming year. I hope you'll join me.
(Many) people are weary of polarizing culture wars and American evangelicalism
Conference speaking is a privilege because there's more to it than just preaching/teaching. People have invested some money in making a time for their families to "get away" from the norms of shopping, little league, domestic responsibilities, work, etc, in order to devote a single week to their family. There's space to hear better in this setting, and there's space for people who've just heard me preach to speak with me because I'm at their meals. They have a lot of important things to say.
I didn't speak with everyone, of course, but of those with whom I dialogued, the vast majority, (who come from every political, social, economic, and racial stripe) are hungry for a living faith that's more winsome, hopeful, Christ centered and transformative. Sometimes they approach me almost covertly, like they're hiding pornography in a paper bag. Then they'll say things like, "I can't have Thanksgiving with my ____ anymore. She's a believer like me, but our politics has driven us apart." "My pastor said we had stop watching Disney movies but my kids really want to anyway. What should I do?" "Our church lost people on both the left and right during COVID because of vaccination debates, Black Lives Matter debates, and Trumpism. I'm sick that we're fighting over this stuff." And these are just the tip of an iceberg that was dozens of these conversations.
Here's one response I found myself offering consistently: Paul didn't write the letter of Romans because he wanted to pave a road people could walk on all the way to a change of eternal destiny. Yes, the doctrine of justification is in that letter, but it's not why the letter was written. He penned it because the church was at risk of splitting in two over issues of what kinds of meat could be eaten, what day people should gather for worship, the role of "The Law" (Old Testament) in the life of a Christ follower and more. Jewish Christ followers saw it one way, Gentiles another.
Paul wrote to say, "For God's sake, literally, rise above the culture, which always polarizes and otherizes, always moves toward group-think and tribalism and exclusivity. DON'T DO THAT! He's shouting, telling them that shared life in Christ is the basis of unity. Not shared life in Christ plus your political persuasion, your view on vaccinations, your view on divorce, your view on alcohol, or any other thing. He's trying to tell us that "share life in Christ - plus nothing - equals the basis for fellowship".
Rome was filled with antagonism between Jews and Gentiles, and the church in Rome during Paul's time allowed the culture wars of the day to share their narrative. As a result they were divisive, accusatory, breaking fellowship, and at risk of passing into the oblivion of total irrelevance; just like evangelicals today.
I know it's a bigger subject than a single post, so this too will be a theme in coming months, maybe even years, as we walk together though challenging cultural waters. Though I can't answer all the question my thesis creates in this single post, I stand by it: "Shared life in Christ plus nothing equals the basis for fellowship". We need to get there, and fight to stay there, or we'll fade into oblivion. Here's a beautiful way of praying about this, taken from Lectio365. The last sentence of a prayer taken from last week reads: may everything that hinders love be removed... Yes! May it be so.
Here's my final take away from the summer: Meditation has become my most important and consistent habit.
I wrote "Forest Faith: Finding Hope and Wholeness by Learning to Pray Among the Trees" during COVID lockdown because I was, literally, learning how to pray by paying attention to trees, which faithfully sustain life on earth by doing what they do, no matter the interest rates, unemployment stats, mass shootings unfolding, culture wars happening, coups happening. The trees on my property have done their thing long before colonizers arrived and took land, and they kept doing their thing during the Civil War, statehood, WWI and WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines, Iran hostage crisis, Reaganomics. Their calling, like yours and mine, never changed, And what it that calling?
to receive gifts from above
to remain rooted, and so receive gifts from the soil
to remain connected with other trees, and so share life and gifts in community
to use all the gifts as a means of blessings others.
I unpack each of these in a little book, available here, so I won't go into detail now.
What has surprised me, though, is just how thoroughly the habit of mediating on the fourfold prayer has stuck with me. It's become a daily haibt. I now say it, synched with a breathing pattern, every morning:
Christ above me, I'm receiving
Christ beneath me, I am rooted
Christ around me, I'm connected
Christ within me I'm called
This embodied practice of reminding myself of the things that matter most has been healing and life giving to me, body, soul, and spirit. I sleep better, eat more mindfully, am (on my best days) able to digest news without my pulse shooting up higher in a rush of frustration/anger, and much more. If you want to learn more, please subscribe. I have a few posts about this already, but will offer more in the days ahead.
That's all for now. Thanks for reading this far and I hope you'll join me as I seek to get back into the habit of writing regularly.