Speaking About the Sun

Joy is contagious, just as sorrow is. I have a friend who radiates joy, not because his life is easy, but because he habitually recognizes God’s presence in the midst of all human suffering, his own as well as others’. Wherever he goes, whomever he meets, he is able to see and hear something beautiful, something for which to be grateful. He doesn’t deny the great sorrow that surrounds him nor is he blind or deaf to the agonizing sights and sounds of his fellow human beings, but his spirit gravitates toward the light in the darkness and the prayers in the midst of the cries of despair. His eyes are gentle; his voice is soft. There is nothing sentimental about him. He is a realist, but his deep faith allows him to know that hope is more real than despair, faith more real than distrust, and love more real than fear. It is this spiritual realism that makes him such a joyful man.

Whenever I meet him, I am tempted to draw his attention to the wars between nations, the starvation among children, the corruption in politics, and the deceit among people, thus trying to impress him with the ultimate brokenness of the human race. But every time I try something like this, he looks at me with his gentle and compassionate eyes and says: “I saw two children sharing their bread with one another, and I heard a woman say ‘thank you’ and smile when someone covered her with a blanket. These simple poor people gave me new courage to live my life.”

My friend’s joy is contagious. The more I am with him, the more I catch glimpses of the sun shining through the clouds. Yes, I know there is a sun, even though the skies are covered with clouds. While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds.

Those who keep speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky are messengers of hope, the true saints of our day.

-Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

Loosen Your Grip

How easily, it seems, we limit our own growth
in becoming like Jesus
in becoming love.

We are gripped with fear.
What if we are wrong?
What if I am judged?
by others?
by God?

We cling with trembling hands
to the assurances of others,
but tight fists
leave no space for the blessing of doubt,
nor the humility of uncertainty.
There is no space to give or receive love.

Loosen your grip on your certainty
if only just a bit.
For it is only open hands
that God is able to fill.

“And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.”

– “Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver

For my son, on his birthday

He is one who has taken many steps
along life’s road
bearing witness
to the rhythms of time.
He has known the sun’s warmth
upon his neck
and the sting of winter wind’s bite
upon his cheeks.
He has felt the pain of loss
at autumn’s death
but stands in hope,
because he knows
spring promises rebirth.
Life lived in the flow
of days
and seasons
and years
has endowed him with strength.
In courage, he journeys on
protecting and providing
for those battered by life.

Along the way,
he hungers for truth
and forages for understanding,
wherever it may be found.
He was wired with
both reason and curiosity.
Although he knows the map,
he’s not afraid of exploring.
He drinks deeply from wisdom’s spring
and nourishes himself
by listening to others with humility
knowing that every interaction
is an opportunity for growth.

His footprints leave impressions of goodness.
He seeks to bless his fellow travelers.
As he walks along,
he leaves the road
better than he found it.
He tries to live
by the rules of the road,
yet in humility
he knows that he will fall
-repeatedly-
because he understands
the path of goodness
is more journey
than destination.

As he courses on,
he looks not only to the road ahead,
but lifts his face
to the heavens.
He is aware
that night brings darkness,
but he knows too
that heaven’s canopy
is dappled with beauty and light.
He lives with a present awareness
of the beauty of the cosmos.
He appreciates
that all of creation
constantly reveals
a beautiful Creator.
As he gazes in awe
at God’s magnificence
he cannot help but glorify God
with the beauty
of word, form, and song.

Son, my prayer for you on your 13th birthday is this:

That as you journey in courage,
you develop the strength
to pursue justice
and a clear voice for those
who cannot speak for themselves.

That as you journey toward wisdom,
you allow God’s truth
revealed in his word
and in his world
to equip you for a well-lived life.

That as you journey toward goodness,
you look to the ways of Jesus.
This road can be bumpy at times,
but Jesus showed us how to walk well.

That as you journey by grace,
you never forget that
you are one who was made
in beauty.
Whatever brokenness
or pain
or darkness you feel,
it cannot extinguish
the light
of the beauty
of God
that exists in you.

The Good & Bad of Proverbs

Have you ever taken the time to read through the book of Proverbs? The whole thing in one sitting? There are thirty-one chapters chock full of wisdom. In these pithy sayings is a storehouse of knowledge, contrasting wise or righteous living with foolish and evil living. In the opening lines, we read that these proverbs can help show us how to live well. Below, I have written out a series of descriptors of a fool, an evil person, and a wise person pulled directly from Proverbs. Take some time and think through these characteristics in terms of your own life, and in terms of the culture you see around you. To whom are you exposing yourself? What do you value in others? Who are you becoming?

What are the characteristics of a fool?

A fool despises wisdom and instruction (1:7); hates knowledge (1:22); delights in mocking others (1:22);  uses words recklessly (12:18; 13:3; 29:20); blurts out folly (12:23; 13:16; 15:2); delights in airing opinions (18:2); answers before listening (18:13), lashes out pridefully (14:3); refuses to be corrected (5:12; 12:1; 13:1; 15:5); believes his or her way is right/is wise in own eyes (12:15; 26:5; 26:12; 28:26); is boastful (27:1); lacks discipline (5:23); lusts after another’s spouse (6:24, 32); cozies up to evil (7:6-23); uses flattery (26:28); feeds on folly (15:14); often speaks poorly of others (10:10); enjoys wicked schemes (10:23); destroys his or her neighbors with words (11:9); ridicules his or her neighbors (11:12); places trust in wealth (11:28); chases fantasies (12:11); believes anything (14:15); is easily annoyed (12:16); is quick tempered (14:17; 14:29; 20:3; 29:9-10); and mocks attempts to make amends (14:9).

What are the characteristics of an evil person?

Take note: there is assuredly overlap between the evil person and the fool. This list simply extends what characterizes unwise living.

An evil person delights in wrong doing (2:14; 6:19; 17:11; 21:10); listens to liars (17:4); gloats over disaster (17:5); is devious (2:14); pours out lies (6:19; 12:20; 12:22; 14:5; 20:23; 25:18); speaks corruptly/mouth gushes evil (6:12; 15:4;15:12); stirs up conflict (6:14; 6:19; 10:12;15:18; 16:28; 18:1); like a maniac, lies and then says “I was only joking” (26:18-19); plots evil (16:27; 24:2); lies in wait for blood (12:6); is cruel (12:10; 15:1); his or her teeth are swords (30:14); is hot-headed (14:16); has an appetite for violence (13:2) gulps down evil (19:28), loves to quarrel (18:1), is duplicitous (11:3); looks down upon others (6:19; 16:18; 18:12; 21:4; 30:13); mocks others (9:7; 21:24); is proud and arrogant (8:13; 11:2; 21:24); ignores and resents correction / refuses to do right (10:17; 15:12; 21:2); is selfish (18:1); exalts him or herself (25:6); makes him or herself a stench (13:5); closes eyes / shuts ears to cries of the poor (21:13; 28:27); oppresses the poor (14:31; 22:16; 30:14); acquits the guilty while condemning the innocent (17:15; 17:23; 18:5; 22:22; 24:23); accepts bribes (17:23); detests the upright (29:27); and builds a high gate (17:19).

Conversely, what are the characteristics of a wise or righteous person?

A wise person applies his or her heart to gaining understanding and insight (2:2-3; 14:8; 18:15; 20:18) and acts according to knowledge (13:16); shares knowledge (15:14); heeds discipline (10:17; 12:1; 13:18; 15:31); does not trust his or her own cleverness (23:4); seeks out and listens to advice (12:15; 13:1; 13:10; 15:22; 16:20; 24:6; 27:9), yet chooses friends carefully (12:26; 20:19; 22:24; 23:9; 23:20-21); trusts in God’s wisdom (3:5-6); shows discernment (17:24), humility (3:7;11:2; 15:33; 18:12), gentleness (15:1), even temper (17:27), integrity (11:3), honesty (16:11; 16:13), trustworthiness (12:22; 25:13), prudence (16:22), patience (15:14; 16:32; 19:11), perseverance (24:16), and generosity (3:9; 22:9); is kind to the needy (14:21; 31; 19:12); feeds the hungry (25:21); cares about justice for the poor (29:7); speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves (31:8); stands up for the rights of the destitute (31:8,9); does what is just and right (21:3); does not plot harm against another (3:28-29); does not withhold good from another (3:28-29); promotes peace (12:20); brings calm (29:11); rescues those being led to death (24:11); keeps lips from corruption and perverse speech (4:24; 13:3); guards/holds his or her tongue (10:19; 12:12; 17:27; 21:23); has a healing tongue (12:18; 15:4); uses gracious words (15:26; 16:24; 22:11); overlooks insult (12:16); avoids strife (20:3); turns away anger (29:8); sees danger and takes refuge (22:3; 27:12);  hates wickedness (8:7; 13:5);  hates dishonesty (29:27); shuns evil (14:16); and shows a strong work ethic (10:4-5; 12:11).

You are the beloved

In his essay, The Path of Living and Dying, Henri Nouwen asked “Who was Jesus?”

“There was that voice, that incredible voice: ‘You are my beloved son and on you my favor rests.’ That’s the voice at the Jordan River, where Jesus heard and believed that he was the beloved of God on whom God’s favor rests. It was as the beloved that Jesus lived his life even in front of the demon. The evil spirit said to him, “Prove that you are the beloved by changing the stones to bread and becoming relevant. Prove that you are the beloved by being spectacular and throwing yourself down from the Temple to be saved by God’s angels. You’ll be in the news and on TV so everyone can see how wonderful you are! Prove that you are the beloved by having power and influence so you can control the situation.’ But Jesus answered, ‘I don’t have to prove anything. I am the beloved because that’s the voice I heard at the Jordan River. I know that I am the beloved. I have heard the words, “You are my beloved. You are my beloved.”‘ Jesus believed the words and he knew who he was. He lived his whole life as the beloved of God. He was imbued with Love.”

Nouwen goes on to ask “Who are you?”

“This vision is not just about Jesus. It is also about you and me. Jesus came to share his identity with you and to tell you that you are the beloved sons and daughters of God. Just for a moment try to enter this enormous mystery, that you, like Jesus, are the beloved daughter or the beloved son of God. This is the truth.”

2018–Top Ten Books

Every December, I put out a list of what I consider to be the best books I have read during the previous year. I generally read over 100 books each year, and not surprisingly, the quality varies. As an aside, I would comment that I no longer feel guilty for setting a book aside that isn’t stirring me at the moment. Often, I will come back later and it will settle on me more strongly. For example, yesterday I finished reading Robert Bly’s Iron John, a book I had previously attempted on 3 occasions. People often will ask me for recommendations on what to read and these top ten lists are often a good place to start.
10) Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea (2018)
Believe Me was written by John Fea, an evangelical and historian who writes on his blog about the “intersection of American history, religion, politics, and academic life.” Believe Me deals with Trump-era conservativism including several important issues to consider, such as evangelical politics of fear and what President Trump means by “great again.”  Fea calls evangelicals to hope, humility, and history. Fea captures several reasons why I am in the 19 percent.
9) My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok (1972)
Written in 1972, Potok told the story of Asher Lev, a Hasidic Jewish boy living in New York City. His family is deeply immersed in the Jewish culture, not only locally, but nationally and internationally. His father works for the “Rebbe,” who is essentially the head of their order. Asher, however, appears to be an artistic genius from an early age. He is compelled to paint, even when discouraged from doing so. What makes this story so compelling is the way that Potok wrote of the tension between Father and Son, between their fundamentalism and Asher’s gifting. Though 46 years old, the book has lost none of its beauty. 
8) Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary Moon (2018)
I do not read a lot of biographies, but I was excited for this one. Dallas Willard, who died in 2013, is one of my spiritual heroes. Willard also had a deep impact upon the author, Gary Moon. Moon clearly did his research, introducing us to Willard as a young man and tracing his history up through his death. Willard came from meager roots, instilled with a strong work ethic; however, he was also gifted with a remarkable intellect. Moon commented that there are few geniuses, but he believes Willard was one. Willard became a Southern Baptist pastor, but ultimately became a tenured philosophy professor at USC. He stated that he had clearly heard God say that if he became a pastor, the universities would be closed to him, but if he entered the university, both the university and the church would be open. Some of my favorite books have been written by Willard, and Moon’s biography is a welcome addition. 
7) Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity by Daniel Darling (2018)
I have been discouraged with how frequently we humans do not treat one another with dignity. It seems that in our social media culture, conversations are increasingly charged with sarcasm, name calling, and devaluing of others. I have frequently said that we have a tendency to treat people from other groups as less valuable. Darling wrote about these issues I have been thinking about with clarity, dignity, and courage. He tackles not just one, but many, pet issues that we hold dearly.  
6) Stumbling Toward Wholeness: How the Love of God Changes Us by Andrew Bauman (2018)
I read a lot of books about wholeness. I believe that our sanctification is deeply, if not principally, a journey toward becoming whole. This year I read two other wonderful volumes about wholeness including Whole by Steve Wiens and Wholeheartedness by Chuck DeGroat, whose book was on my top 10 list in 2016. I also tried to read Wholeness and that Implicate Order by David Bohm, which was a challenge. Regardless, Bauman writes with honesty about what wholeness looks like. I laughed, I cried, I cheered…literally.  
5)  Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (2017)
This is a stunning anthology of poems written by the incomparable Mary Oliver. A Pulitzer-prize winning poet, her works spans several decades and this might be the finest collection of her work. If you are reluctant to try poetry, this may be a wonderful place to start.
4) The Hidden Life: Awakened by Kitty Crenshaw and Catherine Snapp (2016)
The Hidden Life is another biography of sorts. It tells the story of Betty Skinner’s spiritual journey from dark night to wisdom. A woman now in her 90s, Betty was hospitalized for several months for depression when she was in her 40s. Her doctor had told her that she “had a hole in her soul.” Slowly, she began to explore her own soul and her own needs, ultimately becoming a mentor to others. I actually read this book twice this year. I read an earlier version first in March. I contacted one of the authors and asked if the newer version, which was retitled, was the same book. She told me that a few sections—specifically about neuroscience—were added, but it was otherwise very similar. She then graciously sent me the new version, which I read two months later and liked just as well.  
3)  Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People  by Bob Goff (2018) 
In 2015, Love Does by Bob Goff was my favorite book. I told my friend Mark that if I ever wrote a book, Love Doeswas the kind of book I would hope to write. Everybody, Always is no different. Goff is a captivating, humorous writer. He lives life on the edge, taking risks, and doing great big things under the heading of “love.” I come away from his essays with renewed energy and a desire to love better. 
 
2) Courage, Dear Heart: Letters to a Weary World by Rebecca Reynolds (2018)
One of my favorite places on the Interwebs is “the Rabbit Room Chinwag,” a community of nearly 2000 creatives who discuss things like beauty, goodness, and Gargan rockroaches. My first exposure to Reynolds was through the Rabbit Room, where she is a frequent fixture. She had written an essay for one volume of the Molehill, which is an anthology of poetry, stories, art, and recipes from a variety of Rabbit Room folks. I remember telling my wife how blown away I was by that essay and read section of it to her. When I heard she was writing a book, I couldn’t wait for its release. I don’t think I was alone. Shortly after it was published, many online sources—including Amazon—ran out of copies. 
On Goodreads, I had this to say about Courage, Dear Heart: “I cannot speak highly enough about this book. Reynolds writes with intelligence, humility, and heart. She writes about the human condition not as an intellectual treatise, but as one who has seen it, who has lived it. She is a storyteller, through and through. I do not know which of the letters is my favorite, but I resonated deeply with several of them, perhaps a letter to the fearful, a letter to those living in chaos, or a letter to the disillusioned. I hope she doesn’t stop here; the world needs more storytellers like her.” 
1) Schema of a Soul: What Kind of Love is Stronger than Death? by Kimberlye Berg (2013)
This book blew me away. I described it on my blog as one of the most beautiful books I had ever read. In it, Berg tells the story of the loss of her son, Michael, and the subsequent journey through the pain. In my review, I wrote, “It is a memoir. A eulogy. A love letter to her husband. A confession. A prayer. Poetic. Raw. Honest. Tragic. And beautiful all the same. She treasures words.” I cried half a dozen times. Schema is one of the best books I have read. 
Honorable Mention
The Power of Vulnerability: Authenticity, Connection, and Courage by Brene Brown (2013)
Brene Brown is one of my favorite authors. If you are unfamiliar with Brown, she is a college social work professor who blew up the Internet with her 2010 TEDxHouston talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” which according to the TED website is the 4th most popular TED talk ever given, now standing at more than 37 million views. She has written several great books, but listening to her is an even greater treat. The 6 hour, 30 minute audio brings together her work on shame, authenticity, courage, and connection. I’ve listened to it several times, and I have no doubt I will listen again.

Previous top 10 lists

Unhurried Descent

Unhurried descent
flakes as large as lazy bumblebees
float toward the frozen ground.

Unrushed journey
toward their final destination.
Downward, but not without
detours on the breeze.

With their journey’s end certain,
they relax in hope
in this moment.

Disquietude

Last month, in honor of Eugene Peterson, Fathom Magazine ran a contest inviting folks to submit Psalm paraphrases. Those chosen appeared in this month’s issue and they are excellent. My paraphrase of Psalm 77 was not chosen, but I wanted to share it, hoping it might be a blessing to some. 

I do not hold back my tears from God.
Oh that he would hear my painful wailing,
that he would not be deaf to my disquietude.

In the depths of despair,
when all is blackness,
I grope around for my Comforter.
I strain to reach him, yet my hands come up empty.
How can I rest in peace without him?

Even as I think about him, tears stain my cheeks;
I try to pray, but what’s the use?

Breathe.

My pain blinds me, but you make me see.
Still, my words are held captive by my suffering heart.

I turn my thoughts to the past,
which seems so long ago.
I find my tongue, “Help me to remember joy’s melody!
let your mercy shine light into my darkness.”
I think long and hard.
“Will I always feel rejected by God?
Will he always be disapproving?
Has he stopped loving me?
Has he checked out of my life?
Has he forgotten how much I depend upon his grace?
Must I be crushed by his anger rather than upheld by his love?”

Breathe.

I tell myself, “Remember the past.
Remember God’s goodness to his people.”

Yes, I must recollect what God has done.
I need to recall his never-ending love.
“I will turn my thoughts to every good thing you have done, Father,
and when my thoughts stray, I will turn again to your goodness.
Your way, God, is the right way.
Why do I even consider that anything else compares with you?
You are the wonder-working God.
All I need to do is open my eyes and I can see your handiwork!
Again and again, you have saved your people from impossible situations,
generations have tasted your goodness.”

Breathe.

“When the oceans and the rivers see you, O God,
they retreat in awed surrender.
Even the very depths of the ocean
cannot hide from your glorious might.
At your word, O LORD,
Storms rained upon the earth,
torrents prevailed
lightning assailed
everywhere, accompanied by
thundrous wails.
All creation bowed to your command
winds whirling
with staccato flashes
and booming crashes.
You are the Lord of the lightning
and you are the gentle shepherd.
Your unseen presence
leads your people through life’s storms.”

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