Difficulties

Recently Victoria and I stumbled on a series from 2004 called “Long Way Round.” It is the story of Ewan MacGregor and his best friend Chaley Boorman who ride motorcycles all the way around the world. They start out from London and go through Central Asia into Mongolia, up through Siberia and the Road of Bones, hop on a plane to Alaska and back down over the north of the US to New York. I read the book when it first came out, so I was quite keen to see the series. Typically when you read the book first and then see the movie, the movie is ruined for you, but for some reason, perhaps because this was real life, the series was better. In fact it was incredible.

Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman journeyed long and hard on their bikes

Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman journeyed long and hard on their bikes

There are a lot of reasons that it was so incredible. Ewan and Charley and their cameraman Claudio have an amazing adventure and bond. Their camaraderie was inspiring. That was great. The scenery was just breathtaking. One might have expected that. I reminisced a lot as they went through Central Asia because it was so much like my own experience when I lived there. I actually went to bed that night thinking of the smells of the market, the roads they travelled, sitting at a hosts table and feeling like you were the most important person in your hosts world. Even more than these things however what struck me was how many deep deep struggles they had on their journey and the end result was almost the exact opposite of what we wish for in this life. Or rather, it is exactly what we wish for, but they got there…the Long Way Round.

So what did they want? What do WE want? In some way, they wanted an experience of a lifetime. For our purposes we can say a “happy life.” Much of our life today is lived in avoiding conflict and difficulties. Character is not the goal. A happy life is desired but rarely achieved. I could rail on and on about how to get that life and what is wrong with our society, but in their 9 part series, it was illustrated so much more effectively than I could argue.

It would seem that the “happy life” takes going the long way round. What is true is that those who are most happy in this life are those who have not had an absence of difficulty, but have been through much of difficulty and have developed incredible character through the process by virtue of their responses. As my MeMaw used to say to my mom, “It’s not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you that matters.” This was said by a woman who had seen her fair share of difficulties. But unless what I am saying remains unclear, let’s return to our 2 riders having a not so easy time as they get to Mongolia.

Up until Mongolia, while there had been some hard roads with pot holes and some other added obstacles like Kazakh hospitality distracting from the road ahead, they had not been completely prepared for what they found. It is hard to describe the conditions of the roads in Mongolia, or really the lack there of. Roads is too nice a word really, a goat path might be closer but somehow still comes up short. After making only a few miles over a lengthy period, Ewan and Charley were broken men. Days of getting lost, getting stuck in almost knee deep mud, falling down in swift rivers, eating sand as is shifted underneath them, and breaking down with no one to help until the most random of travelers just happened upon them, they were ready to hightail it Russia to get back on some “normal” roads, even though it was anticipated that these parts of the journey would be perhaps the most rewarding. Mongolia’s unspoiled nature was such a draw, but the difficulties had become just too great. They were at their end.

And so there they were, waiting for a couple of nomadic Mongolians to fix their stand-in Russian made bike (the cameraman’s BMW had broken down), talking on the satellite phone with their producer who was several days behind them with the support trucks and having almost just as terrible of a time making headway, when suddenly the producer had to hang up because the truck in front had flipped over! If ever there was a time to quit it was then. People’s lived were in danger. Their doctor, Vasily, came near to having his head explode, not to mention getting it nearly taken off in the accident, because such risks were being taken for…what? A TV show, book, and the dream of two guys? Oh how he laid into them for such non-sense.

And maybe he was right. Certainly in our day and age, the “happy life” comes from avoiding danger and difficulty. But that night after the dust had settled a little, Ewan and Charley talked with their producer and he gave what I think is some sage advice. He said, “Sure, we can split out of here and get ourselves up to Russia where it might be easier if you want. I’ll back your choice. But it would be a shame to miss all of this beauty in Mongolia for just a few days difficulty. We knew it would be hard, that’s the whole point. So what if we get to New York a few days late? It would be a real shame to miss all of this just to get there on time.”

In the end, the carried on. It was tough. They fell. They cursed. They questioned. They cried. But they made it through. Mongolia. They made it through stronger men, stronger and more capable to tackle what lay ahead, the Road of Bones in Siberia.

The Road of Bones is a “road” that cuts through the most remote part of Siberia. It is truly wild land. The road itself was built by prisoners in the Siberian Gulags, many of whom fell and died and instead of receiving a proper burial, they were simply buried into the road itself. The road is as rough as its history. Bridges would be swept away by raging rivers formed by melting snow. Bears and wolves dominated the wooded forests. Finally after having to take engines apart because they took in water and the river ahead was just too wide and swift to cross, and because of a severe injury to Charlie’s shoulder, Ewan and Charlie had to simply load the bikes onto a Russian truck that ventured by on the route and they became participants. Along the way to Magadan, they had to help the trucks along though. They had to rebuild roads, jump in rivers after fallen camera equipment and more. Things did not get easier. Yet in the midst of all of this, they developed a ton of character, laughing and thinking more differently than they ever had before because what faced them no longer scared them. What was in front of them was no more that what lay behind.

Finally they came through and came to Magadan, got on a plane for Alaska and started again. The rest of their journey was easy paved roads. They sighed a sigh of relief and went to the first restaurant they had seen in months. It is here where the most telling of things happens. They had been so changed by their experience that along the road at one point Ewan makes a revealing comment. Difficulty was gone. Ease was now at hand. Yet he said, “I just want to be back on the Road of Bones.”

I argue the very same point. Life’s difficulties, while strenuous and often scary, make us better and happier people if we choose to walk through them focusing on the right things. For the believer, the focus and indeed only hope of growth is found in and comes from Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. Yes life is difficult, but when we are found in him and choose to walk in him focusing on how we can grow our character, we become, simply put, more like him.

It’s not an easy thought. It’s perhaps the most scary one we can have. It certainly isn’t comfortable. But it is the one that leads to life. I by no means do this well. If I am honest, I would rather have the paved roads of North America than the Road of Bones. But I also have to be honest and admit that if I don’t go down the Road of Bones I am a much more shallow person.

Back in Sweden

Well, about 2 weeks ago we did it again. We left one home and journeyed to another. It is such an incredibly strange feeling that we have a home, yet we have no home. Like our spiritual life, we have a home, we are comfortable here, our lives cry out for what God has made, to enjoy the beauty of his creation. Yet at the same time, we long to be in that perfect place that He has created for us, that his final redemption ensures and that we know to be certain.

Listening to Judah and the Lion’s Anthem of Invitation:

We long to see your face
We’ve come to sing your praise
Just come and have your way

These words are simple, but yet the hold within them so much of what I feel and want to say.

I long for something more. That something more is a someone. That someonehas forever chosen to be clothed in human form. Yet HE is so much more. And I am made in his image. I long for something more because this tainted, redeemed image is made for something more. And when I praise him, when I live through his Spirit, I agree with and live according to the future reign of the king that is so certain.

It is a mystery. But it is true. And I long for the reign of the one true King.

Of Volcanoes and the Human Heart

I first published these thoughts a while ago, but the idea of what is in a name and the dignity it brings has been bouncing around in my head again today. Enjoy

“I don’t believe in God. I believe in Science.”

I hear this line almost every day from students here. It is the number one answer as to why Sweden does not believe in a God in one form or another. To the average student, Science has answered the God question with a silver bullet. All questions of life, meaning, purpose, morality and destiny are answered in the text books and laboratories of the enlightened western world. What is interesting though is that while science can answer certain things with a great degree of certitude, the answers students give never actually involve a scientific study where God has been disproved, where all mystery has been solved. (Which I kind of thought was a prerequisite to being able to declare that Science has settled a matter)

Not once has a student been able to give me the journal or publication that has “scientifically proven” God’s non-existence. Instead, what is often offered is a long laundry list of reasons God doesn’t matter. Take for example the argument that we are merely a myriad of chemical and electrical reactions floating around, a product of time plus matter plus chance, and therefore we can do whatever we wish, so long as we don’t hurt any one–at least to the best of our understanding of hurt. Evil existence is often offered up in the same breath as our primordial chemicals slamming together as a reason that God doesn’t exist, and on and on the list goes.

I will grant that evil is a horrible thing, and I’m not actually here to debate the merits of most of the arguments people use to justify their non-belief in God. Why I am writing this blog today is that I was struck by a piece in the latest edition of National Geographic. For I believe that it gets at the real heart of the issue, and that is the condition and humanity, not chemical nature, of the human heart.

st_helens

Thirty years ago Mt. St Helens erupted and left 57 people dead. A tragedy to human life and natrual beauty. Darwin might throw his hands up in the air and declare that in a world where time plus matter plus chance rule, what can we do about such an event? And if an evolutionary world is all that we have, that’s not a bad answer. Unfortunately, this is not an answer that corresponds to reality. Death leaves us hurting. Pain is hard to watch. Separation from loved ones makes us cry for an answer to our questions. Yet, in a world-view where there is no God, and we are just chemicals, there is no real answer. The editor of this edition of National Geographic, Chris Johns, states it well:

“In 1981, nearly a year after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, I flew over a monochromatic landscape littered with the shattered trunks of old-growth firs. Before the deadly event that killed 57 people, this had been one of the most beautiful mountains in the Cascades. Afterward, it was a gaping hole breating plumes of steam.

A colleague from the Seattle Times and I were looking for Raplh Killian, a man on a mission. We spotted him, digging in a tangle of trees. He had the weathered look of someone who had spent most of his 61 years working the timberland of the Pacific Northwest. Over the past year Ralph had been searching for the remnants of his son John and daughter in law Christy who had been camping in the area at the time of the eruption.

“A lot of people would just try to forget about it,” he said when we landed to interview him. “We go on living. Have to. But we can’t just forget that easy. I’ve got to know what happened.” Ralph had accepted the deaths of his loved ones long ago. But he still wanted to fill in the details of that day. In a bittersweet ending, he did recover his daughter in law’s remains though not those of his son.

Science helps us understand many things: We can track a hurricane and measure a tsunami’s wall of water. But some things are beyond the dissecting lens of science. An aching heart, for one.”

Well said Chris Johns. Well said.

What do you think Raplh Killian did on that day that he found his daughter-in-law’s remains? Do you think he laughed? Did he shrug his shoulders? Did he keep walking by unaffected? Do you think he thought about how time plus matter plus chance had somehow in an indiscriminate way formed into a ball of mass, the bones and eyes and lungs and hair and smile of his loved one? She had a name. Her name was Christy. Christy Killian. She wasn’t a ball of chemicals. That doesn’t correspond to reality, no matter how much one would wish to justify their behavior in this life. No, I would imagine that Ralph wept. He probably wept bitterly. He probably remembered the good times he had had with John and Christy. He probably mourned all the Christmases and other holidays that they were not there to join with them. He probably acted like a human who hurt because indeed he did. Ralph had experienced something he was never meant to experience: death.

There is more to life than the physical. There is more to life than science can test in a laboratory. I prefer a world of men like Ralph to men who claim science has explained everything.

I prefer a God who created and who will redeem his creation through his son Jesus Christ. This corresponds to reality. It lifts up the human and dignifies him as an image bearer of an infinite God. A God who loves.

Rest in peace John and Christy Killian.

Home

In two weeks we fly back to Los Angeles where we will be for the next 6 months. We have a lot to do between now and
then, and today I feel a somber pang go through me as I consider “home”.

I am on a plane as I type this, heading “home” to Sweden and my family. In two weeks I will leave “home” for “home.” My son and daughter on that same day will leave “home” for a place they have never known. And yet as believers, home is not this world. What an odd thing to grasp as a finite man…

Coming to America

Just a short post here to update our lives.

Because of a tax treaty between the US and Sweden, we have to move back to the US for six months every five years. This allows us to maintain our eligibility for Social Security in the US and not have to pay social taxes here in Sweden.

So, sometime early in March 2013, we will be heading back! It turns out to be good timing as we are in need of raising a good deal more support. It is our hope to visit California, Texas and a few other places where we have supporters, and to add more partners in the process. We are still working on the exact numbers that we need, but I will let you know when we figure it all out.

We are already starting to realize just how quickly the time will go as we look at all the places we need to be! We hope to be able to see as many of you as possible as we swing through!

On Football, Politics, and what occupies our time

Today on Facebook I noticed that it is footbal season. I am not sur eif it is that I have lived outside of the USA for a decade now, or if I have just moved on from sports in general, but I found myself not caring one iota.

Please don’t get me wrong here if you are a fan of the pigskin, I mean no offense. I have my new time sucker, politics. I have always enjoyed a good debate and haggling in the marketplace of ideas, so I guess politics affords me the best place to hammer out worldview and its consequences. The problem is that much like sports, politics chews up an inordinate amount of time. Like golf, it just takes too darn long to finish a round. Politics, unlike a football season, is never ending, mainly because the problem of man’s heart and the crux of the issue, will always be with us, no matter who is elected, much to the shagrin of those in power.

So about a month ago, I decided to take some time off of politics, and I can honestly say that like sports, I don’t miss it. I respond to life better, especially my family. I read things that give me life, rather than consume my mind all day about nuance over a given issue.

I am not sure that I am ready to give it up completely, as it is election season and all and that is like the Super Bowl of the marketplace of ideas, but I can see myself reading more the post game report rather than watching the whole drawn out slugfest.

But what is it about us that we get so consumed with things that will ultimately perish? I know sports and the like are fun, and I by no means want to take that away from anyone, but reading all those Facebook posts today I wass struck with how much we misallocate time to things that ultimately do not matter. As a “minister” I know the answer–we care more about the trivialities of this world than things that really matter like our relationship to God, family and fellow man, but it is surprising that what is common among man, no matter his belief, is a tendency to miss the big picture and focus on the temporal, life draining things.

I’m not really sur eof my point here as I am merely “verbal processing” what I read online today…but I do wish that I focused on some more important things instead.

Thoughts on Nightly Prayers

Quinn is a year and a half now. Each night as we put him to bed, we pray as a family. We range over a variety of things, but what is always constant is our prayer that he would grow to be a wise young man who will lead others in truth. As I have been pondering what it takes to obtain wisdom in life, I have begun to realize that in large measure it is up to us to give him a proper foundation for wisdom. God must first be plausible, then true wisdom can come. In an honest evaluation of my life at 33, I can see that I am just now beginning to understand what wisdom is, and it is a bit frightening to think that we are the ones to help Quinn live up to his name which means “Wise counselor.” He opens every day like a newly wrapped Christmas present, bright eyed and expectant. He takes after his mother in that way, and I am eternally grateful, and I pray that he never loses that joy for life. But even more than a joy for life and the happiness that every parent wants for their children, I want him to learn goodness and character. Happiness will be sure to follow. I know that I can teach him to enjoy life and laugh, but will he open life and God for his wisdom like a newly wrapped Christmas present? That is a prayer that is making its way into my nightly conversation more and more….

Quinn Christmas 2011

Clarity on Values

**My apologies to any of you who think that I get overly philosophical on this blog. Many times I have set out to type out a funny story, only to put it aside and write on something a little more “deep”. My drafts folder is full of stories from life overseas that would make many a person laugh, but some how I turn to this blog to hash out the things I have been thinking of late. I am under no pretenses that anyone tunes in to get my pining, but I heard one of President Reagan’s biographers and speech writes once remark that in the years between his Governorship and his eventual presidency, he refined his ideas and worked out his world view by sitting down with a pen and a legal pad. This I guess, is my attempt at that very same thing, clarifying the ideas bouncing around in the old noggin.**

I spend a lot of time thinking. When I run, walk, ride my bike, and a million other things, I listen to podcasts either on political, philosophical or religious topics. As an American living overseas in now my 3rd host country in 10 years, I am in a constant learning mode, looking and re-looking at things to get to the “why” of life. If I can reach clarity on an issue, then no matter if I agree, I can at least articulate my position better and in some cases, help others understand their own worlds as well. Or at least that is the goal.

One of my favorite daily podcasts is a guy named Dennis Prager. If the old “if you could have lunch with any one living, who would it be” question comes up, his name would be at the top of my list. One of Prager’s many insights into life is that “clarity is preferred to agreement,” after all, clarity is our best friend. Once clarity is reached on a subject, often times viewpoints are changed. But even more than that, the threat of a heated argument is squelched. Deep disagreements can still linger, but often times the heat is taken out of the pepper, so to speak.

And so it is. I seek clarity. Even when I share the gospel with students. I want both of us to understand the other’s opinion crystal clearly. For often times in the moment, walls come down, at least with a little intellectual honesty.

One my “revelations” in recent years is one that becomes more and more stark as I reach clarity, and that is that life is most often dictated not by situation or circumstance, luck or even intelligence, but rather by one’s values. Values ultimately come from a worldview which most of the time originates in one’s religion, whether that religion be traditional or secular. (And yes, there are most definitely secular religions.) Values, more than any other factor have a way of shaping and even determining how a person will behave and often, who and what they will become. I know that this is not a popular concept, at least in America today, for we would much rather see a person as a result of gender, class, race, position, or the rest, but time and again, what makes a person is values. Will people of a certain race, socio-economic group and such often think and act the same? Yes, of course. But it is not because of skin color, amount of income or any such external factor, but rather it is because people in these groups tend to have the same values on any number of given ideas. This becomes problematic for those trained in Universities, because many of us were taught that race and class determine every thing, so a black man voting republican is vexing to many. Not to me, because all it takes to understand the WHY of voting or a person’s philosophy, is understanding their values, ie worlview.

Perhaps though it is not clear. It is actually quite difficult to explain, but for me there has been one clarifying example. The case of liberty versus equality. What on earth do I mean, you might ask? Many of us think that liberty and equality go hand in hand, and indeed they do, but our concepts of them can be quite varied. How we value these two concepts will end up showing a lot about who we are as people. See, I am American. I was raised with the idea that all men have been created equal and that liberty in life is paramount. I am also living in Europe, in what is arguably the socialists paradise, something my Swedish friends will quite proudly attest to. Many Europeans, and many Americans for that matter, do not understand why we in the USA would not just adopt a socialist model for our system (although one might argue that we already have, but this discussion is for another time.) What bothers many and leads to more than a few heated conversations is in essence a failure to understand one’s ranking of values.

For many Europeans, equality is the highest value. By equality, I mean equality of result, not equality of inherent worth. For an American, liberty is the highest value. Understanding this little nugget will lead to a whole world of insight into culture and people. In fact, one can even understand the UN! The UN health organization ranks the USA and Cuba rather close in their evaluation of the world’s health care system. Now let’s be honest here. I am guessing that all those boat people trying to get over in the 80’s weren’t fleeing Cuba because it’s health care system was so awesome was it? Matter of fact, aspirin is hard to find in Cuba often. so what is going on. The UN weights their rankings based on equality of access and outcome, therefore, Cuba looks good and the US looks bad. Never mind that you wouldn’t want to get sick in Cuba and heads of state from around the world travel to the USA for the best of service. Meanwhile, in the US, our system was not made out of a value of equality of outcome, but rather it was driven chiefly by a desire for liberty in the delivery and access of health services. That explains a lot about the US like it or not.

***Please note here that this is not a political statement about the quality or type of health care in the US. My only point here is that values drive even how we try to objectively evaluate something. If we can understand the way a person sees the world, their worldview, we can understand a lot about the choices they make.

And so it is with most things. The moment I understood what was going on in the values game, the more I finally understood the world around me and the decisions that were being made. And this is where real conversations can take place, in the realm of clarity. For when clarity is achieved, then and only then can we talk about what really matters.

Here’s to clarity! (which was probably not had in this post, but oh well.)

An early New Year’s Resolution

Embarrassing. My last post was in March of this year. It has recently come to my attention in more ways than one that I stink at communication. For all 3 of you out there who read this blog when I get around to posting something, or for those of you who are a part of what we do here and who want to know what is going on and who have in futility thought that this site might be a way of keeping up with us, I apologize.

It is with shame and embarrassment that today I make a renewed effort to update this blog more often and to keep in better touch.

For a quick update, we are doing well, albeit we have some sort of stomach virus. Quinn has staved it off thus far. He is active as ever understandinf almost every last word we say, which is just scary, beginning to speak a few words of his own, and basically being an all around blessing to our lives.

Christmas is coming with our team of 10 and 3 others joining us at our place for traditional Swedish Christmas table (Julbord) Christmas Eve, then a team brunch the next day. Should be fun.

Merry Christmas to all of you!