All Creation Sings

It was our seventh day backpacking in the trail-less backcountry of Denali National Park in Alaska when we were awakened by the early morning sunrise in Wolverine Creek. It was going to be our biggest push yet- nine miles to exit- so we needed an early start. The cloudless, blue skies welcomed our early departure from camp.

The previous six days were the thoroughly definitive Alaskan experience- bears, glaciers, bushwacking, territorial and aggressive antelopes, torrential rains, river crossings, and 40-degree temperatures, but even more, brilliant views, wild blueberries by the millions, mountain ranges too vast and too numerous to have even been named, and an absolute solitude devoid of any human activity, communicative technology, noise pollution, or even a single, stray aircraft.

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There was a sense of great satisfaction, deep refreshment, and imminent accomplishment even as we took our first steps forward that last morning.

Alaska could never be fully conquered, but it didn’t conquer us.

And, we were about to finish something very few would ever have the honor and privilege of doing.

Grizzled and chiseled, we made our way through the gravelly and rocky Wolverine Creek toward Mt. Eielson. This rocky mount stands a mile above sea level and was our best and final hope of catching a glimpse of Alaska’s crown jewel, Denali, which had eluded us for the previous six days.

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Each labored step up the 60-degree sloped talus, which consisted of loose, softball-sized ankle busters, was aided by our trekking poles and closely accompanied by our heavy breathing. But ever so subtly, sneaking up on us westward, rising higher and higher with every foot of elevation gained, was the mighty, snow adorned Denali in all her glory.

Only seconds before, our breath was taken by strenuous activity and reduced oxygen level.

But now, our collective breath was taken by sheer majesty.

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As we reached the top of Eielson, no words were spoken, as if each of us already knew what to do and what the others were thinking.

There was a shared solemnity, a communal rite of the sacred and holy.

And along the ridge line we drifted apart, equidistant, to sit and stare and marvel and contemplate the beauty, to drink in the magnificence. It was an indescribably humbling, awe-inspiring, and deeply spiritual moment, quite certainly, the most spiritual experience of my life.

There was a familial union, an unbreakable bond between me, the creation, and the Creator. There birthed a moment of singularity between heaven and earth, of the two becoming miraculously one. The invitation was a present taste of that for which we have always desperately longed, and have continued to expectantly anticipate, in all it’s fullness, at the consummation of the Ages.

My Lord, my God.

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The truth is that we were always meant for perfect peace and perfect union with the Creator and the creation. 

And while there is a deep groaning as we await liberation from the curse, there is a perfect peace and a perfect union into which we can enter, a life into which we can presently reside, that is, not just at peace with God, but at peace with all of creation.

It is a place of shalom, a place of tranquility, completeness, and harmony with all things.

But I am afraid that the forces of our present age are actually fracturing us into successive degrees of separation from this place of shalom.

And it is evident in our busyness, in our technological attachments, in our substance abuse and addictions, in our over-consumption, in our willingness to exploit people and natural resources for finite and temporary gains, and in our utter obsession with the superficial to the neglect of our spirit.

We are quickly becoming a people without a soul, a people pretending to be alive, but who are dying from the inside-out. And this death is manifesting around us as we continue to neglect the ever-present invitation to life in the Spirit. 

As Rohr observed in our present condition, “We are a circumference people, with little access to our natural Center. We live on the boundaries of our own lives, “in the widening gyre,” as [Yeats] puts it, confusing edges with essence, too quickly claiming the superficial as if it were substance. As Yeats predicted, things have fallen apart, ‘the center cannot hold.'”

We were created to be so much more than the lives for which we have settled.

We were created for lives that are exceedingly full and abundant in love for all things. We were created for deep and meaningful relationships with God, with our brothers and sisters of the world, and with all of creation. We were created to taste and experience the wonder and joy of this precious life. We were created for thanksgiving for God’s daily provision. We were created to be good stewards of the animals and the land.  We were created to join all of creation in praise. We were created to be in shalom with the Creator and his good creation.

We were created for so much more.

And it doesn’t take a mountain high in the backcountry of Alaska to discover this, for our eyes to be opened, for our hearts to come alive (even though Alaska may certainly help).

All you have to do is walk outside and take a deep breath and accept the invitation.

Disconnect from all that enslaves you. Leave behind all that binds you and keeps you on the periphery and circumference of this life. Break free from your attachments and addictions. Turn off your phone, shut down your computer, power down your tablet, put them in the cabinet, and go outside.

You are entering sacred and holy space.

Do you recognize it?
Do you see it?
Do you hear it?
Do you feel it?

Lie in the grass under a shade tree, feel the cool blades of grass beneath your fingers, let the wind blow over you. Meditate on the sounds of the birds and the swaying of the leaves on every branch of the tree. Consider every single detail of the rough bark on the tree and all of the busy insects moving hastily through every deep groove.

Contemplate the Love and Beauty and Artistry within each thing. And how that Love surrounds you and how that Love holds you and how that Love invites you.

Spirit, Come!

Is this not humbling?
Is this not awe-inspiring?
Is this not miraculous?

Is this not deeply and profoundly spiritual?

Is this Love not embracing you and holding you and enveloping you? Is this Love of the Creator not calling your soul to greater breadths and depths? Is this Love not what your heart has always desired?

This is the present taste of all we desperately long for in it’s fullness one day, and all we continue to expectantly and patiently anticipate in our future.

But it is also that which is always right here, in front of us, waiting to be discovered. For those who seek it, will surely find it.

It is good.

The Psalmist writes, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

Shalom in all and through all…

Brandon

For more on my backpacking trips, please visit A Joyful Procession blog.

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Christ is Christmas (So There’s That)

The following is from a sermon I gave, which I subsequently blogged, in December 2011. I recently updated it in December 2013.

Have you ever had an ache in your heart? You know…an ache that just weighs you down and hurts so badly that you can’t do anything but wish it would go away? Maybe it was a close friend talking behind your back and it just killed you on the inside. Maybe it was watching a loved one battle an agonizing fight with cancer or another disease until it took his or her life. Maybe it was a friend or family member who misread something you said or did and have held a grunge against you ever since. It could even be watching your child suffer from a disability, or getting made fun, or struggling through school. Or maybe it is the ache of being addicted, strung out, losing all control of your life… and feeling like there is no way out. Maybe you are under the crushing weight of debt or unemployment. You don’t know how you are going to pay your bills or make ends meet. Maybe on the other side you are a person who has a job but the stress of the job is taking its toll on you and you are suffering from anxiety and physical problems. Maybe you feel trapped in life- like you exist each day to satisfy the expectations of other people or you exist with no purpose at all.

Is this the best life has to offer? Will things ever change? Is there any reason to have hope?

Do you read the paper or watch the news? Kids killing their parents. Parents killing their kids. Kids killing other kids. Adults killing adults. Innocent people becoming the targets in a sad and tragic game called Knock Out. Shoppers killing each other on Black Friday for the newest gadget. People breaking into homes and businesses to steal Christmas presents. Cities offering the homeless one-way tickets to get out of town. A mayor bashing the possessions of a homeless man with a baseball bat.

And that is just in one week…in one country…at one time in history. The things we do to each other are so tragic and sad. The love of many continues to grow colder and colder.

And around the world we continue to war. Nation threatens nation and kingdom threatens kingdom. People protest around the globe because the system is messed up- the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Many hard-working men and women work endlessly to have the money taken out of their pockets by politicians, bankers, and corporations who, many times, operate by power and greed. People rise up and the establishment fights back…it’s an endless, endless cycle that isn’t unique to our day and age. Money makes the world go round. And it limits and categorizes and oppresses and weighs down on people.

And don’t you just get tired of it?

Is life only about accumulation and dividends and profits and commercialism?

And we treat people like objects. Around the world people are still enslaved- working at 10 years of age, working 16-hour days, working harder labor than we will ever know or understand. Right now another young girl is being exploited by a pimp who only cares about making another buck while she is emotionally, physically, and spiritually devastated. My God, help us.

Does your heart ache? Do you long for things to be better? Do you hope for a day when all will be set right?

Yes…in this world there is immeasurable glory…and yet there is immeasurable pain and suffering.

We long for something else…for a better world. We long for peace…but we never can seem to attain it. We long for justice…but the system seems wildly out of control and completely unjust. We have hope. But hope in what exactly?

Is this the way life will always be? Will things ever be set right? Will there ever be peace? Will there ever be justice?

Will the aching ever go away? Will the oppressed ever be set free? Will we ever quit hoarding and finally share?

Will we ever find joy in this life? Will love ever prevail instead of hate and violence and pain? Will the longings of hope that we have deep in our souls ever be realized into something?

Will the tears ever be wiped away?

Is there anyone who can help us?

Is there anyone who can save us from ourselves?

Every person we look to fails us and hurts us and manipulates us and leaves us in an even worse situation.

Is God just out there and distant and removed from our pain? Does God even know what this life is like and how hard it is? Does God know how unjust this world can be toward people? Does God know how people close their doors in your face when you are in desperate need? Does God know what it is like to be pushed to the edges of society without a place to lay your head? Does God know what it is like to ache and be in so much pain?

The surprising answer is yes, because that same God came down and lived a life in full flesh as a human being and understands our pain, our emotions, and our longings for all things to be made right.

Christmas…the Incarnation (God becoming Man)…the Word becoming Flesh…the Christ-child being born is the focal point of history. It is the moment in which God lowered himself and came to us…to love, to serve, to demonstrate life. He did not come down to force, coerce, or lord over people from the top like an oppressive King. He did not say, “You guys have really screwed this up so now you are going to do it my way.” He came down born in a simple, humble birth in a lowly manger on the edges of society. And it was in this unexpected that God demonstrated his character to each one of us who have fallen short of the way he created us to be. He came down to teach us the highest and most honorable way to live.

As we have gone our own way, worked for our own purposes and our own desires, and rebelled against God in every way imaginable…it was God through Jesus who came down in humility, in grace, in all his gentleness and subverted all of our hatred by his love.

In Jesus, God’s Kingdom, God’s Reign broke into this world…and initiated a completely new way of doing life that looks nothing like anything this world has ever seen (or ever will see). It was in Jesus that Heaven and Earth came together as one. And it was in Jesus that Heaven and Earth are continuing to come together…until all things are brought together in their full measure at the renewal of all things.

The Scriptures say:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God’s plan of redemption and restoration started on Christmas Day through the birth of his son. But we only celebrate his birth for the victory over death through resurrection. For without rising from the dead, his birth is utterly meaningless. That is why we celebrate this light coming into the darkness. That is why we live by faith and have hope that the forces of evil are being extinguished, exhausted, and taking their very last breath. That is why we live and celebrate victoriously on Christmas Day, because we have hope that our sufferings are only temporary. It is on this day, in light of his resurrection, that we celebrate his birth in one accord and look forward to a day when:

Pain will be no more.

Hatred will finally and completely be defeated by love.

Heartache will give way to complete healing.

Killing will cease and life will abound forever.

Peace will reign throughout the cosmos.

The scars and wounds that we wear will be healed by his hands.

The hungry will be fed.

The lame will walk.

The blind will see.

And all things will be set right: heaven and earth will finally be one.

It is in Jesus that we know that God acted decisively in history by coming down to a people desperately needing life, hope, and rescue. The meager, tiny baby in the manger that drew the attention of all creation: the angels, the wise men, the shepherds in the field, the kings of the land, people all throughout the world, and every man, woman, and child throughout history…is celebrated, praised, and lifted high…because he won the greatest victory in history.

For once we were separated from God and without hope… but now we have the honor of participating presently in all God is making new through Christ.

We celebrate Christmas only because Christ is Christmas.

peace…

brandon

solitude and silence…

I sat down in front of the computer and put the first slide on the screen. Plainly and directly it read, “Please take a seat and remain quiet.” Amidst the conversations and music on that Sunday I heard someone say after seeing the instruction on the screen, “Yeah, good luck with that one.” But as the music faded and the conversations hushed to less than a whisper, everyone slowly began to take their seats as the room became completely silent. The room had settled into silence by a simple instruction on the screen, but the participants had no idea why they were being silenced. Even more, they did not realize that we were going to sit together in complete silence over the next forty-five minutes while I taught just using words on the screen about the importance of the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence. I believe it took us experiencing it before we realized how much we needed it.

But let me be very clear at the outset. The practice of the spiritual disciplines does not have anything to do with earning your salvation. The disciplines are simply a means through which the Christian learns and then teaches his or her body to become subject to the Holy Spirit. It is the “beating our bodies into submission” that we learn to become less, so that the Spirit may become more in our lives. The disciplines are the means through which we enter into active discipleship daily. But many of us have just not taken the time to consider how desperately we really need discipline in our spiritual lives.

It is an understatement to say that our lives are full of chaos. We do not take the time to stop and realize how dependent and addicted we are to the noise and the rush around us. Every minute of the day is full noise and busyness. It is the television, music, conversation, kids, and incessant chatter. When we finally come up for air we gasp, “God, where are you? This hardly feels like the abundant life you promised. Where is the peace?” We don’t stop to think how our minds have become so conditioned to the three second snippet or the fast paced motion of life. It is no wonder we are so anxious, impatient, discontented, addicted, and medicated. My God, where is the peace?

Think about how this affects us. We do not stop to listen to others. We are constantly thinking about what we are going to say next or do later or the next thing on our schedules. We are unable to concentrate and sit in silence and just listen. We have to speak. We have to turn up the volume. Is it not true that we live lives that make it seemingly unable to quiet those things around us and those things in our heads? We are unable to just sit still and breathe, contemplate, find peace, and hear God.

In solitude and silence, we intentionally remove ourselves from everything and everyone for a period of time. We cut ourselves off from everything we have become dependent upon or addicted to…standing still and alone with God. Solitude and silence strips away everything that we have filled ourselves with and leaves the infinite void of our soul wide open and exposed…preventing everything but God to fill us. In solitude and silence we realize that there is no thing or no one to trust in but God alone, and this is an excellent beginning point for all of us. It is in this place that we are able to see ourselves more clearly because there is nothing left for us to hide behind. In solitude and silence there is introspection and self-examination. We metaphorically come out from behind the bushes and trees and finally stand naked before God…exposed. We are left with nothing but God…and God alone.

Being able to experience the full presence of God uninterrupted and in the quiet is the beginning point of experiencing real and unconditional love. It is in this place that we begin to understand and experience peace and contentment. It is here that we take a first step toward life to the fullest. When we teach and train our bodies to be still and quiet and fully present with God, we can enter back into our social lives with a new found peace, contentment, and dependence…not on those things that we were previously dependent upon and addicted to…but on God alone.

Do yourself a favor…take time each day and each week to cut yourself off and find retreat with God alone. Be quiet and just listen to what God is telling you and what God is revealing to you. Make this a normal part of your spiritual life and you will begin to experience how peace and contentment find their way into every situation and circumstance of your life.

brandon