El Capitan

This summer, I had the opportunity to visit Yosemite National Park. It is truly an amazing place – stunning in its views and vistas.

At the heart of Yosemite is El Capitan – 3000 feet of sheer granite, and one of the most challenging rock climbs in the world. What does it take to reach the top of “El Cap,” which includes places to navigate with names like: the Boulder Problem, Monster Offwidth, Lung Ledge, and The Sewer? There’s only one way: by taking it one step, and one handhold, at a time.

El Capitan to the left, Cathedral Rocks to the right, & Half Dome in the background (just left of center)

So, to reach the top of El Cap, one starts with the Big Picture: Let’s go climb this thing. And then there’s the reality of doing it, one move at a time, for 3000 feet. Three years ago, Alex Honnold did it in a way no one else has ever done – he climbed El Cap without any equipment. It’s called Free Soloing – where Alex climbed to the top with no rope, no harnesses, no help, no safety net – just a man and a mountain.

How did he do it? Well, first he had to give himself fully to the task at hand. Watch the movie about Alex’s feat, and you’ll see how much he prepared, he trained, he studied El Cap. He made conquering the mountain his passion and his pursuit. To climb 3000 impossible feet of granite, he had to know the mountain, and know himself.

Of course, he then had to go out and do it – one step and one handhold at a time. As he free-soloed El Cap, do you think Alex was thinking about the tricky toe-hold that was 18 steps away? Do that, and he likely doesn’t reach the top. The only way for him to conquer a mountain is to do the 2 steps and the 2 handholds that are right in front of him.

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So often, I find myself thinking about what will happen next. What’s coming for our country? What’s happening to the Church? Where are we going? Where am I going? Often, I find it much easier to worry about the future than to live in the present. But when I consider the foundational question: What is God’s will for me? – the answer is less about what I will do, and more about where I am. God’s will is less about planning for what might happen, and more about living faithfully in the realty of what is.

The truth is: we are all on a journey. For many of us the journey feels more like a climb – and for some of us, it may even feel like we’re climbing El Capitan. If so, the great mountain climbers can teach us a thing or two: Give yourself fully to the task at hand. Know the mountain, and know yourself. And don’t worry about the tricky, uncertain steps that may lie ahead; instead, focus on the steps and handholds that are right in front of you.

Maybe that’s why Jesus teaches us in pray for our daily bread. Maybe it’s an encouragement to us to invite God into where we are right now; recognizing that our focus should be our dependence on God for what is right in front of us; giving Him what our hands are doing right now, and following Him where our feet are going right now. Maybe praying for our daily bread is the foundation of faith – and a cry to be at the center of God’s will. God, be here – right here, where I am. God provide what I need – right now.

And I’ll trust Him in this day. In this situation. Following Him and holding on to Him, whatever life brings our way. Wherever the journey takes us, trusting that we’re not alone; He’s faithful. This gives us the freedom to tackle the trail, when the steps are smooth, and when they are precarious. It gives us the strength to move up the mountain – when we’re holding on firmly, and when it feels like we’re barely hanging on. It gives us the confidence to pursue His will, For God is with us. Every step of the way.

Romans 16

In a previous post, I wrote about the easy-to-miss names mentioned in Paul’s New Testament letters. But I can’t leave this topic without highlighting the one letter that has more unknowns per square inch of ink. It’s Romans, where Paul essentially takes all of chapter 16 to name names in the family.

Now, it would be easy to skim through Romans 16. There is so much in the first 15 chapters, where verse after verse is full of insight, wisdom, and gospel. But the final chapter of Romans isn’t just a conclusion – it’s a picture of what the gospel looks like, lived out. Romans 16 puts names and faces, flesh and blood to what Paul has been writing about in this letter. If the gospel is true, THIS is what it looks like. This is WHO it looks like.

Paul starts by commending Phoebe. This is her only mention in the NT (making her what I call a “one-hit wonder”). Even so, there is so much we learn about her in just two short verses. She’s definitely a Gentile, for her name comes from a description given to the goddess, Artemis. She’s a deacon, so she has a leadership role in the church in Cenchreae. And she is the carry-er of this letter, which means Paul entrusts to her, not simply the delivery of the letter – but likely its reading, as well.

In other words, it looks like Phoebe was the first person to read, and proclaim, the message of the most important theological treatise ever written.

How about Andronicus & Junia, likely a husband-wife team? Paul calls them apostles – of the “little a” version, I would say – missionaries, emissaries, ambassadors for the gospel.

Then there’s verse 13, where Paul writes: Greet Rufus the chosen in the Lord – and his mother, and mine. Paul mentions a woman, not naming her, because apparently he sees no need. To Paul – she’s simply, “Mom.” What do you think she must have done, what must she have meant to Paul – for him to think of her as his mother?

Paul, take your extra tunic. There’s a chill wind tonight.

Here, take this little lunch I made for your journey.

Make sure to get your rest, dear. You work too hard.

And please, please try not to get thrown into prison again. You know how I worry.

There are very few people in a person’s life who are known, not primarily by name, but by title; by relationship. And this unnamed, unknown, never-talked-about woman in Romans 16.13 is one of those for Paul. For apparently when Paul talked about her – when Paul talked to her – he simply said, Mom.

One more we should mention: Tertius. All we know about him is what we read in Romans 16.22: I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.

What kind of name is Tertius? Well, it’s not really a name – it’s a number, for his name means “Third.” Now, who would name their kid “Three”? Some not-very-creative parents, perhaps? Ok, we’ve had one kid; over there is #2. So I guess that makes you Three – Tertius it is.

No. It’s not that simple – or funny. Instead, the writer & speaker Andy Crouch points out that this is the kind of name that owners would use with their slaves. As property, they didn’t even warrant a real name – just a number.

And yet, this “Number 3” finds a place in the family of God. This “Third Slave” becomes the first person Paul turns to when he is looking for a brother he can trust to pen the words of the most important theological letter ever written.

Think about it this way. Paul speaks his letter to a Gentile slave, and then entrusts that same letter to a Gentile woman named after a pagan god —- and through Tertius’s pen and Phoebe’s sharing, Paul’s magnum opus reaches the most important city in the ancient world. And that letter would change their world, and ours – forever.

Because, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female – there is neither rich nor poor, black or white or brown, native-born or immigrant, old or middle age or young – for in Christ, for IN CHRIST – we are all one.

In fact, who else can do this, but Jesus? Who else but Jesus can bring us together, with all our differences? Who else but Jesus can heal our brokenness? Who else but Jesus can fill us with the grace and the courage to be the people he calls us to be – to become a family where everyone has a place?

Yard Signs

It seems to me that there are at least 3 ways to separate yourself from your neighbors. Put up a fence. Plant tall bushes or trees. Or you can put up yard signs. Because, really – when is the last time you walked by a neighbor’s house, noticed their yard sign, and stopped to say: I see you will be voting for _____________ for president/senate/congress/judge/sewer commissioner. Tell me more about his/her electoral qualities.

Nobody does that. Except the guy who wants to argue why your candidate of choice is the worst choice in the history of American elections. It seems to me that yard signs are less about starting a conversation, and more about sending a signal. I am FOR this candidate. I stand on the right side of THIS issue.

Of course, it’s not just yard signs. Bumper stickers & t-shirts can have the same effect. I even heard recently from a friend that someone had pressure-washed the word “Trump” into the sidewalk in his neighborhood. Several days later, someone came along and pressure-washed the cross-out symbol over his name.

If flying the flag for our presidential or political preference tends to erect a barrier between us and others, I wonder if the same can be true of faith expressions, too. Recently, on a walk, I noticed a sign I’d not seen before. It simply said: Jesus 2020. Now, that’s a sign I can certainly appreciate. I mean, if anyone needs to be in charge in 2020, it certainly would be Jesus. But, of course, Jesus isn’t on the ballot. If I’m not mistaken, he’s not even an American.

Even so, I can’t help but wonder: have those “Jesus 2020” signs led to any meaningful conversations? Have neighbors stopped by to ask: So tell me, how DO I go about voting for Jesus? (The answer, of course, would have to be: With your life.) Wouldn’t it be more likely for these neighborly Christian folk to have a real exchange about real things that matter – and the One who is behind it all – if they struck up a natural conversation through the course of naturally getting to know their neighbors? Wouldn’t their witness be more effective if, instead of putting a sign in their yard, they let their lives be the sign?

Of course, I don’t know them. Maybe that’s exactly what they do. Either way, I’m confident that we as believers are better at living out our calling when we seek to demonstrate to our neighbors the power of a life being transformed – while also being honest that we face real issues & struggles that continually remind us how much we have a real dependence on a real God. In other words, there’s no slogan or saying that can communicate to our neighbors the depth of what we believe, or the nuances of the ways it affects how we live. True faith isn’t ultimately a slogan, but a life – lived out, with others, through the day-to-day challenges and opportunities that come our way.

But of course, it’s so much easier to put up a sign in my yard or slap a sticker on my car. It’s more satisfying to vent on facebook or keep a Bible on my desk at work. But for so many in our world today, those efforts merely confirm what they already believe they know about Christians. Instead of having the intended effect – of drawing them to Jesus, or even simply inviting them into a conversation – they instead can set up an unnecessary barrier. So, as we wrap up an intense political season – and potentially move into a more difficult transition – how are you showing your faith? How are you representing Jesus? Through what you wear, or what you post, or what people see from your sidewalk? Or are you showing them what matters most by the one thing that fulfills God’s desires for his people?

That, of course, would be love. For the greatest commandment, Jesus tells us in Matthew 22, is to love God. And the second, he says, is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. And in a difficult season, in what has been a difficult year – which will certainly lead into more challenges in the year to come – what do we as believers want to be known for? Our politician of choice? Our preferred political party? Where we stand on the hot-button issues of the day? Instead, let’s be known for the one thing that has marked the Church in all seasons, in all cultures, in all political climates – the sign that has marked faithful believers no matter the political climate, or how acceptable it is to believe. The one thing – the one thing – that has been true of faithful followers of Jesus for 2000 years, has been love. So, no matter how 2020 ends, or where 2021 takes us, let’s make sure that doesn’t change. Let’s make sure we show Jesus most clearly, by clearly showing his love.