In my own life, I have given hundreds of retreats and thousands of sermons. I know that when I talk, people sometimes get new ideas and they sometimes even get inspired. But they don’t often get converted, they aren’t really changed. It takes more than words to do that. What converts people are real-life situations. What changes people are confrontations, looking at something they don’t want to deal with straight in the face, or looking at life from a new vantage point. Observe your point from an honest perspective. Change your viewpoint every now and then, and stand in another pair of shoes looking back at yourself. How else will you ever get free? It is essential for human empathy. It is necessary, or we remain largely narcissistic and trapped in our own ego and culture. This is probably the core meaning of religious pilgrimage, which requires that you leave home.Richard Rohr
From Wild Man to Wise Man
For over a decade, I have put out a list of my favorite books from the year. Nearly every year, I read more than 100 books and it is always a delight to go back and consider what has stirred me most deeply. Reviewing past lists has also been enlightening. It is evident that my reading has diversified over the years. Some may find that concerning; but I believe it has been better for me as a reader and as a person. Scanning this year’s list, storytelling and an appreciation for nature are common themes.
- This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us by Cole Arthur Riley
I only had to read the first page of This Here Flesh to know that it would likely make my top ten. To steal a phrase from author Dave Eggers’ memoir, this is truly a “heartbreaking work of staggering genius.” Riley is a compelling storyteller. She invites the reader into her own narrative in a way that moves deeper still, to lead us into the depth and beauty of our own stories. A friend had recommended the book to me and I have recommended it to others and their responses have been similar. This Here Flesh is absolutely a must read book.
- This Is Happiness by Niall Williams
Earlier in the year, I was looking for fun audiobook titles and Steve Wiens recommended This is Happiness. I had never heard of the book, nor the author. Williams is also a wonderful storyteller. In this novel, he envisions electricity coming to a sleepy Irish town that has not dealt with much change over the generations. It is a welcome touch of humanity and a reminder of what connects us all.
- Call Us What We Carry: Poems by Amanda Gorman
Poetry is hard for a lot of people, but 24 year old Gorman–the first national youth poet Laureate and the youngest inaugural poet–makes it easier. Her ability to draw pictures with her words and to move her readers is breathtaking. If you have been reluctant to dive into poetry, her words and wisdom may be a great entry point.
- Everything Sad is Untrue: (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri
In my circles this year, it seemed as though Everything Sad is Untrue was getting a lot of buzz, but I wasn’t sure if it was fiction, non-fiction, or something else. I’m still not sure, and I think that is Nayeri’s brilliance. Daniel Nayeri was born in Iran and emigrated to Oklahoma when he was 8 years old with his mother and sister, after spending some time as a refugee, which are stories he shares in his book. The book is clearly based upon the details of his life, but reveals him to be an imaginative storyteller (can you sense a theme?). Regardless of what details are factual verses embellished, Everything Sad is Untrue touches something deeply true and human.
- Where the Light Fell: A Memoir by Phillip Yancey
I have read several of Yancey’s books over the years, but this is a new favorite. It is, as the subtitle suggests, a memoir–a spiritual memoir of sorts. Yancey said of the book, “I truly believe this is the one book I was put on earth to write. So many of the strands from my childhood—racial hostility, political division, culture wars—have resurfaced in modern form. Looking back points me forward” Yancey is not shy about naming the origin of some of his own unhealthy beliefs and how he has reckoned with those in his adult years, and continues to do so now in his seventh decade. He has something to teach all of us.
- 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Amrstong
Karen Armstrong has published a couple dozen books in her writing career that has spanned more than 40 years, but I am a belated fan. I read her 2022 release, Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond With the Natural World this fall and immediately wondered what else I had been missing, so I moved on to 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life and I loved it too. This former nun and religious historian explores themes common to various faith traditions to demonstrate our unified need for compassion. She wrote about concepts such as concern for everybody and love for enemies and how we might employ these in our day to day lives.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Braiding Sweetgrass had been lurking around my wish list for a long time and I finally decided to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. Dr. Kimmerer is a botanist and Potawatomi woman who writes beautifully about our connection with plants and the land on which they grow. Much like most of the authors on this list, she is an excellent storyteller and teacher. Books like this one make me want to care for the earth, and specifically where I have found a home, more deeply and thoughtfully.
- God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom by Andrew Peterson
If Andrew Peterson publishes a new book, there is a good chance it will be on my top ten list. In God of the Garden, he explores our connection with plants, and especially with trees and what they say about our relationship to God. Too often as Christians, we can distort what it means to steward the earth and we end up abusing our God-given role. Peterson invites us back to a gentler, humbler, more thoughtful place of creation care.
- All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
bell hooks died one year ago today (12-15-21). She was a social activist, author, and professor who wrote nearly 40 books, often exploring issues of race, gender, and economics, but in All About Love, she explores how to understand love as people who grow up embedded in families, cultures, and systems. Along the way, she shares much of her own story and how she has come to understand love. I remain awed by her bravery and honesty as she wrote unapologetically about many of the difficult things she had experienced growing up and how they have shaped her.
- Wild Land Within: Cultivating Wholeness Through Spiritual Practice by Lisa Colon Delay
Sometimes I pick a book up and it isn’t the right time for me, but when I return to it, it touches me deeply. Wild Land Within did that for me. When I first purchased it, I started reading and realized I wasn’t in the right heart-space to learn what I needed to from the author. I am so glad I returned. Delay draws together threads from neuroscience, theology, and spiritual formation to help her readers “cultivate wholeness.” Perhaps my favorite part of this book was the way in which she drew upon the spiritual practices of various racial and ethnic traditions to weave together this excellent book.
I do not care
if my neighbors
think my yard is attractive
as long as the bumblebees do.
It does not matter
if golfers would never
play on my yard
as long as the pollinators
feel welcome frolicking there.
St. John began
“In the beginning was the Word”
and we have reduced the Word to words
a set of principles to observe
rules to follow
doctrines to believe
criteria by which to categorize and exclude
but that was never the apostle’s intent.
The Word is a person
the divine Logos
God with us
flesh and bone.
we were never commanded
to eat the Ten Commandments
or drink a liquified Bible
but to participate
in Christ’s holy body
eating his flesh
and drinking his blood
to remind us of our belonging
and our communion
with a real person
in flesh and blood.
On July 19, I tweeted:
I always heard that as people aged, they became more conservative. I’ve become much more liberal. Anyone else?
Inexplicably, the tweet went viral. As of this morning, it is approaching 53,000 likes and nearly 10,000 comments, and I am still getting notifications every few seconds. As a relative nobody on Twitter (before this tweet took off, I had around 750 followers), this attention was unexpected and a bit unnerving. I want to offer a few observations on the experience.
First, thousands of people agreed with me, and thousands didn’t, which was not surprising. Each person has their own experience and political trajectory. I was grateful for the number of people who wrote that their experience was similar to mine, and in truth, I was also grateful for people who simply said that they have indeed become more conservative. Many people also expressed that they do not know where they fit these days politically.
Second, I initially tried to keep up with the comments, but eventually, it became impossible to do so. I am certain I will never go back to read them all. It is a good reminder that when I comment on a thread from someone well-known, it makes sense that they do not respond. It is also true that when we throw our ideas out into the world, they can take on a life of their own.
Third, for all of the people expressing their opinions, it seemed there were an equal number of people who were more interested in name-calling, mischaracterization, offering false assumptions, and setting up straw men. Or perhaps their comments were just the “loudest.” This vitriol was launched in both directions. I was told by someone who has no idea who I am that what I shared about myself wasn’t actually true. I was told repeatedly that I have dementia, a brain injury, a mental illness, and that I’m gay. I was informed that I am not a Christian. These things were often shared by those professing to be Christians themselves. It breaks my heart that people feel so free to engage in hate-filled speech on social media.
Fourth, I knew that as a country, we were divided, but the comments solidified these observations. There appears to be a profound intolerance of those who think or believe differently with some people suggesting that those on the other side deserve death. There were blatantly racist comments.
Fifth, I was accused of posting the original tweet as an opportunity to sell my book, Letters to the Beloved. My immediate thought was, “Yes, I decided to write a viral tweet that has very little to do with my book just on the off chance that someone might buy it.” Truthfully, I never expected anything to happen with the tweet, so selling books was not even a consideration. However, I happily used my 15 minutes of fame to draw attention to a project I am proud of.
All in all, social media has its place, but it will never replace sitting around a table with real people having real conversations. Attacking people when you are looking them in the eyes is much more difficult. It leads me to wonder how I can connect with others on a local level in more significant ways.
One of my neighbors has an immaculate lawn. His attention to it is constant and uncompromising. The groundskeepers at Augusta would be thrilled to have him on their staff. I look across the street in admiration. There is never a blade of grass out of place.
My lawn looks nothing like his, but I love mine no less. Over the past couple of years, I have been diversifying my yard, adding clover and wildflowers where I can. I would estimate that most of my lawn has at least some clover in it now, and some sections are almost entirely clover. The backyard needs work; I think that’s why my dogs keep digging holes, but we keep at it–adding flowers and trees here and there. Over time, the plants mingle. I find lilies of the valley crossing the border into the lawn. Dandelions stand proudly next to the fescue.
To be sure, some of the plants try to overwhelm, the others, and I uproot them or trim them back, but to my eyes, the diversity brings beauty.
Yesterday, I got home from Restore 2022 around noon and spent the rest of the day sitting on the couch. I could not do otherwise. I was physically exhausted and my soul was weary; Those two things often go hand in hand. For those who missed my reflections on day one, I attended Restore 2022, a conference dealing with spiritual trauma, with my friends Kelley and Mike. Much like the first day, I benefited from every talk. In fact, I have told several people that this is the only conference I remember where I not only attended every single talk (there were 11 of them) but I actually appreciated each and every one. On day 2, we heard from Lina Abujamra, Wade Mullen, Scot McKnight, Ruth Malhotra, Karen Swallow Prior, Lori Ann Thompson, and Diane Langberg. The day finished with communion. Although it was an emotional weekend, it was the hope of communion that brought me to tears.
A few quotes before moving on:
- War leaves no victors–only victims.-Lina Albujamra
- Each wrong must be rightly named.-Wade Mullen
- I believe in the church, but I don’t believe in toxic church cultures.-Scot McKnight
- All abuse causes a spiritual wound-Lori Ann Thompson
- To push oneself into the life of another is a form of rape. Jesus does not do that.-Diane Langberg
- Sometimes your greatest anger is not against those who perpetrated against you, but against those who did not protect you.-Mary DeMuth
Each of the speakers shared so much goodness (TOV), truth, and beauty, but sharing space with a couple hundred of the hurting and healing was equally a gift. I met Twitter friends. I heard peoples’ stories as they heard mine. I had a chance encounter where a woman stopped and said I looked familiar. Although it’s unlikely that she has ever seen me, we discovered that her college roommate was from my very small hometown.
I think the exhaustion and weariness come from continuing to reckon with my own story. As I said in my day 1 reflection, it is no minor miracle that I went to a conference about spiritual trauma with Mike and Kelley, two dear friends whom I once maligned and misrepresented, and I am deeply grateful.
A few months ago, our friend Kelley asked Heather and me if we would like to attend Restore 2022, “a conference restoring faith in God and the church,” with her husband Mike and her. The panel of speakers–experts in trauma, hurt, and spiritual abuse–intrigued me. However, I was concerned that delving into spiritual trauma further might be like picking at a healing scab; it itches, but it may be best to leave it alone. The fact that they would invite me at all as one who had abused and mistreated them was no minor miracle and one for which I am deeply grateful. At the last minute, Heather could not come, but yesterday, Kelley, Mike, and I drove to Illinois with a lively discussion along the way.
Entering the conference space this morning in the chapel at Judson University stirred many emotions for me–excitement, fear, and sorrow, to name a few. Singing was difficult, but the speakers, and the community of the broken (DeMuth) around us, were just what I needed. I won’t summarize all the speakers, but a single quotation from each will give you a flavor:
- “We are to be a place of refuge for the vulnerable, not a place for their exploitation.” -Diane Langberg
- “You cannot control someone into recovery.” -Phillip Monroe
- “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” -Warren Cole Smith
- “‘No’ is one of the most spiritual words we say.” -Paul Coughlin
- “You don’t have the right to prescribe a journey of healing for someone.” -Mary DeMuth
As much as the speakers fed a spiritual hunger, I was equally grateful to connect with folks I knew only through Twitter, to share some of my story and hear them share some of theirs. Healing happens in a community, but communities are not always safe, so having space to communicate honestly is a gift.
I do not know what tomorrow will bring, but I am hopeful. For tonight, I am exhausted.
I realized that I must live over again the years which I had lived wrongly…I went over my life…like a man who after travelling a long, featureless road suddenly realizes that, at this point or that, he had noticed almost nothing without knowing it, with the corner of his eye, some extraordinary object, some rare treasure, yet in his sleepwalking had gone on, consciously aware only of the blank road flowing back beneath his feet. These objects…were still patiently waiting at the point where I had first ignored them, and my full gaze could take in things which an absent glance had once passed over unseeingly, so that life I had wasted was returned to me…I did not feel so much that I was rediscovering the world of life as that I was discovering it for the first time.Edwin Muir, An Autobiography
Beyond all these sociological distinctions between true community and false, there is a theological way of expressing the differences which brings us to the heart of the matter. False communities are idolatrous. They take some finite attribute like race, creed, political ideology, or even manners, and elevate it to ultimacy. They seek security by trying to make timeless that which is temporal; by pretending that which is shaky is firm; by worshiping that which should be viewed critically. They confuse their own power with the power of life and death. False communities are ultimately demonic, which is not to say that true communities are divine, for both retain their human character.Parker J. Palmer
A Place Called Community