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.

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.

Grief & Gratitude

Those who navigate life best are those who learn to live with gratitude and with grief.

Because, here’s the deal: life is often full of hurt and pain and struggle. As Westley says in The Princess Bride, Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something. Sometimes, such merchants mean well; they might even be people of faith – confident that the act of belief covers over our pain; fixes all our hurt; erases the struggle. But they miss the hard reality of life, those who peddle this message – whether they do so from a perspective of religion, or science or pharmacology or self-help. Money, medication, even meditation won’t neutralize the difficulties of this life.

That’s where grief comes in. Grief faces the distance between life as it should to be, and life as it really is. Grief is honesty; it’s direct. The blade of grief is sometimes blunt, sometimes sharp – but it always cuts. Grief doesn’t deny reality, or turn away from it – but faces it, squarely.

Grief is about loss – the loss of what was, or what we thought would be. Of course, the most obvious example is the death of those we love. Those are losses of the largest order; but there are others, too. The loss of a career or a calling. The loss of a relationship. The loss of one season of a child’s life, which quickly gives way to another season. The loss of an expected future. The loss of independence. The loss of a past that’s not coming back. The loss of notions that we once held dear – about ourselves, our church, our country, our own understanding.

Loss is everywhere, and it’s not a matter of if we will face it – but how. You should refuse to believe anyone who offers a shortcut to facing it – whether they speak out of a scientific, religious, or political voice. Grief has no shortcuts. Pious phrases and platitudes rarely soothe. What does help, though, is an honest, open journey through its depths – with faith and friends at our side.

Gerald Sittser, in his wonderful book about grief, A Grace Disguised, tells about the aftermath of the evening when a car accident took the lives of his wife, his mother, and one of his daughters. Not long after that tragic event, Sittser had something he calls a “waking dream.” In it, the sun is setting and he is frantically running west to catch up to it and remain in its warmth. He can’t, of course. Exhausted, he looks over his shoulder to see the darkness closing in on him from the east. Terrified, he collapses to the ground – feeling as if he will live in darkness forever.

He talks with his sister about this dream, and she tells him: The way to reach the light is not to run to the west, chasing after the setting sun. Instead, it’s to plunge through the darkness, and head east – walking until one reaches the sunrise.

The way to face grief isn’t to deny it, but it’s also not to run after what is disappearing into the horizon. The way to face grief is to plod through it, step by step, walking toward the light of the rising sun – knowing that, for most of us, that journey isn’t a straight, unbroken line.

That’s grief, and though every life has more than its fair share, there is another side to the coin – one that feels like a different currency altogether. And that’s gratitude. Grief & Gratitude don’t seem to go together; in a way, that is certainly true. But what is also true is the fact that we must have both in our lives. Where grief faces up to loss, gratitude names what often is overlooked – for gratitude starts from the place of presence, not absence. Without losing sight of what is not, it starts from the place of what is. Gratitude starts by seeing life as a gift, taking nothing for granted: not this breath, not this day, not these people, not this sip, not this bite, not this moment. Where grief recognizes the hurt and brokenness all around us, gratitude recognizes that there is beauty and meaning around us, too.

The truth is: we simply cannot live authentic, meaningful, honest lives without both Grief & Gratitude. Those who choose the former, and deny the latter, become bitter, hardened, hopeless. Those who chose the latter, and avoid the former, are in danger of becoming polyannaish, hollow, even legalistic.

But while both are necessary, it also matters where you start. If you begin from a place of grief, it’s hard to find your way to true gratitude. If you begin by seeing what’s wrong, it’s hard to find your way to the true center of what is right. So, while an authentic life will have both grief and gratitude, the authentically hopeful life will start with gratitude – a gratitude that believes that even in the midst of the deepest grief, there is meaning. Grief may be our current reality, but it is not our ultimate destiny. In fact, the reason we can grieve the moments of dusk and darkness, is precisely because there is a sun.

This is demonstrated by Romans 8.28. We often cite this beloved verse with confidence that God is working good through all things – as we should. But this confidence is real and true because it comes in the midst of the struggles of life. Our assurance is not that God will clear away all the difficult overgrowth on our path; He doesn’t take away the challenging, uphill climbs. God does not promise that all of life’s journey will be good. But He does promise to be with us every step of that journey – using each one for our good and our growth.

And we find this to be truest when we acknowledge our grief and our gratitude. Romans 8.28 – all of Romans 8, for that matter – is a honest look at our brokenness, and the brokenness of all creation. One of the key words in Romans 8 is groaning – and it’s everywhere. For we know that all of creation has been groaning until now, Paul says in verse 22. But it’s not simply that creation is groaning – it’s that creation is groaning with or groaning together. This is no isolated, occasional longing to be remade and restored; rather, all throughout creation, voices are crying out, together. In verse 23, that groaning reaches us – the people who long for redemption and wholeness. We, too, are groaning for the day when our bodies will be made new.

Creation groans, we groan, yes – but we are also joined by the Spirit of God. In verse 26, Paul recognizes that we don’t know how we really ought to pray. In our deepest moments of pain and uncertainty, we find that the Spirit himself is interceding on our behalf with wordless groanings – groans that God hears, receives, and interprets.

This is the essential background to Romans 8.28. In God’s creation, in all that God has made – including us – there is a desperate longing that we can’t completely put into words. But God hears. God knows. And God responds. That’s the power of Romans 8.28 – and the remaining verses in that chapter. Even through tribulation or anguish or danger or sword, God is with us. Even when we aren’t sure what is happening, or what is to come – even in the midst of our deepest grief, Death itself – we will not be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the midst of Paul’s majestic ending to Romans 8, he inserts a strange Old Testament reference, found in verse 36: On your behalf, we are given over to death all day; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. I’ve never really known what to do with this verse. In fact, many times as I’ve read Romans 8 alongside hospital bedsides or funeral home caskets, I’ve skipped over this verse. It just didn’t seem to fit.

But recently I read the 2 OT passages that Paul is citing: Zechariah 11 & Psalm 44. The Zechariah passage describes the failure of God’s people – and God letting them face the reality of their sin. God’s people refuse to be shepherded, so a shepherd is predicted who won’t care for the lost, or seek the young, or heal the injured, or feed the healthy. It’s a picture of desolation, destruction – of grief and groaning.

Psalm 44, meanwhile, is a cry for God to vindicate the righteous. The writer says, We know that it’s not our sword that brings us victory; it’s You, of God. So where are You? We’re devoured like sheep; scattered to the nations. The psalmist goes on, making his case: We haven’t forgotten You, God – for Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. And then Psalm 44 closes with these words: “Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love” (NIV).

Paul takes both passages – both the desperation of our sin and the desperation of our struggle – and incorporates them into Romans 8, and the groaning for redemption, vindication and hope. And Paul makes clear: Jesus is our answer. Jesus is our hope. Jesus is the shepherd we need. He is the one who cares for the lost, seeks the young, heals the injured, and feeds the healthy. He is the one who laid down his life for our sake – and then rose up to help us. His love is truly an unfailing love.

And so, whatever groanings we have, whatever brokenness we feel, whatever is pressing against us – no matter how strong it is – it can not win. For Jesus has overcome; and through him, Paul says, we are more than overcomers – we are gloriously victorious. For no matter what we groan in or through – our groanings are answered – and one day will be fully answered.

And so, faithful people DO groan. Along with all of creation – and with the Spirit within us – we groan. But we do so, grateful that our groanings have an answer. For as we face our grief – and the grief of all creation – we do so knowing that we have a redemptive God working in ways we can’t fully see and certainly don’t completely comprehend. We can grieve for what is not, precisely because we are grateful for what already is – and for what one day fully, gloriously, will be.