Places to go, books to read

So, back at the turn of the year, I thought I would do a bunch of blogs on stuff I liked in 2017. Now that we’re more than halfway through the 2nd month of 2018, I am woefully behind. But because this stuff doesn’t have an expiration date, here’s some more stuff I enjoyed in 2017.

Places I visited last year:

  1. New River, West Virginia. Rafting the New River was one of the best things we did as a family in 2017. My next goal is to tackle the more difficult Gauley River before I’m too old to hold a paddle.
  2. Eagle Falls, Kentucky. Located just down-river from the way-more-popular Cumberland Falls, Eagle Falls has a similarly deep waterfall, without all the visitors and the guardrails. If I get back to Cumberland Falls State Park, my first priority won’t be Cumberland, but Eagle — with a goal of going during the summer so I can swim up to Eagle Falls.
  3. Cabins with friends & family. There’s something about spending time at a cabin by the water that helps put everyday life on a needful pause, even if for just 24 hours.
  4. Fred Howard Park, Florida. This fall, I enjoyed time with my wife at this public park on the Gulf Coast. I even did a bit of snorkeling — one of my all-time favorite activities.
  5. Fritz’s Frozen Custard, Missouri. On any trip to the St. Louis area, you need to go to either Fritz’s or Ted Drewes. My family has something of a running debate over which of these 2 has the best custard, but I don’t think you can go wrong with either one of them. If you want history and nostalgia, go to Ted Drewes. If you want good custard and don’t want to look like a tourist, go to Fritz’s. Or, cover your bases and go to both.
  6. World War 1 Museum, Missouri. This museum in Kansas City helps make WW1 real, with all of war’s death, destruction, and evil. Visiting this museum — and then watching Ken Burns’s series on World War 2 — reminds me how even the winners of war face terrible losses.

Also, in 2017, I read some books that I would recommend. If you’re a reader, pick these up. If you’re a thoughtful reader, buy these. If you don’t read, find someone to read these to you:

  1. Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer. Perhaps the best treatment I have ever read on faith, doubt, and the honest search for truth. Taylor writes as a believer in an age when faith is increasingly marginalized and mocked. Taylor honestly wrestles with reasons to disbelieve, and doesn’t offer 4 simple steps to know that everything you know is absolutely certain. Instead, he does something better: he takes a look at the options, and suggests a way forward that deals with the reality that any choice a person makes is ultimately a step of faith.
  2. Randolph Richards & Brandon O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Great insight into how we can read the Bible through a different mindset, one more in tune with its origins in the Mid/Eastern world. Just one example: Richards served as a missionary in Indonesia, where he learned that Sunday worship started at “midday” (siang). Being a westerner, Richards tried to tie that to a time on his wristwatch, but his Indonesian friends didn’t think of it that way. He finally came to learn that ‘siang’ was connected to temperature, not time. Once the morning turns hot, it becomes ‘siang’. But, he wonders: “How do you start church at ‘hot’?” In short, relationships trump schedules – the opposite of how we do it in the west.
  3. Alan Jacobs, How to Think. A much-needed rebuke of the current tendency to listen only to people we agree with — and to ostracize those we don’t. Jacobs gives a simple, yet challenging, call to listen and think better.
  4. N.T. Wright, The New Testament & the People of God. A thorough examination of the background of the NT, and how we should read it. Has reshaped my understanding of the story of God. Wright is an indispensable thinker and writer that every thinking Christian ought to know. (If this book is too long for you, he has plenty of other shorter, more accessible works, like: Surprised by Hope, and Simply Christian.)
  5. Shushaku Endo, Silence. Powerful fictional account of how far faith can take us, and how deeply challenging it can be to know what faithfulness looks like. The movie version that recently came out is equally good.
  6. Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised. An easy-to-read, but hard-to-forget book on grief, loss, and moving on. I would recommend this book to anyone who has faced loss of any kind — written by a man who has been there.
  7. Brene Brown, Rising Strong. A friend recommended this to me, and while not everything in it stuck with me, this definitely did: her insight that, by-and-large, people are doing the best they can, and so we’ve got to offer grace. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we accept everything they do. We’ve also got to establish healthy boundaries. It seems to me this is where we should meet everyone we encounter: at the intersection of grace and boundaries.
  8. Walter Wangerin, Paul. An account of the Apostle Paul and the early church that just rings true. Wangerin writes fiction that is deeply rooted in truth.
  9. Andy Crouch, Strong & Weak. Leadership is rooted in authority and vulnerability, Crouch writes. A true leader has to have both. I’m convinced he’s right.
  10. Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. Rooted in John 15, this short book is rich with insight into how God calls us into intimacy, fruitfulness, and joy. A wonderful read, along with just about everything Nouwen wrote. Hardly anything he wrote was over 100 pages, but it’s amazing the spiritual insight and wisdom this man packed into the pages he wrote — as well as the life he lived.

Where has life fishhooked you?

 

Yesterday, I headed out through the garage, on my way to do some work for a friend. As I walked through the garage, I couldn’t miss it. Some kind of wire-y, point-y, fishhook-y kind of think sticking out of a tire on my wife’s van. I pulled on it a bit, but it wasn’t budging.

Dang it!, I thought. Now I’m going to have to deal with this.

So I took it the tire place, and as the guy looked at it, we both had a chuckle: How did that get there? My response: It’s my wife’s van. Must be her great driving!

Since she wasn’t there, and it IS her van, I could say that. But really, who knows how that fishhook thing go in the side wall of her tire?

That’s how life is. We shouldn’t be surprised when life hooks us, but so often we are. Sometimes, the fault is ours. But sometimes, it’s not. I mean, really, fishhooks happen.

What’s your fishhook right now? Maybe it’s cancer, or heart disease. Maybe it’s someone you love who is facing these things. Or maybe they’re facing dementia, or another condition for which there is no cure.

Maybe it’s work that has stuck a hook in you. Or school. Or a relationship. Or an addiction — yours, or someone you love. But somewhere, somehow, if you’re paying attention, there’s at least one thing in your life that has got you hooked.

A counselor recently shared with me a simple truth, but one we so often fail to accept. He said, simply: Life is hard.

Now, most of us get that. We realize life is challenging. Even so, there’s a part of us that keeps expecting it to get better, simpler, easier. But here’s the thing: when you expect life to be easy, and it turns out it’s not (which always ends up being the case), then you’re not sure what to do. You’re left staring at the fishhook, asking, Now what?

In these moments, if you expect life to be easy, you’ll look around for an quick escape hatch. Or someone to blame. Or you’ll just internalize it and blame the universe, or your upbringing, or your spouse — or, if you’re really heady, you might blame God.

But if you accept the premise that life is hard, then, not only are you not surprised when life sticks it to you, you’re also one step closer to dealing with challenges when they come. But let’s be clear: not all approaches to a difficult life have the same outcome.

It occurs to me that, once we accept the premise that life is hard, there are at least 4 ways to face life’s challenges. You can say:

  1. Life is hard … so you numb it.
  2. Life is hard … so you strive to overcome it.
  3. Life is hard … so you avoid it.
  4. Life is hard … but you face it.

The first response deals with life’s difficulties, and promptly looks around for something to deaden the pain. Alcohol, or another drug. TV. Food. Shopping. Mindless web surfing. Mindful web surfing, in an effort to find some one, or some image, to distract the mind. Or any number of other ways to drown out the pain of the world. And today’s sedative can all too easily become tomorrow’s addiction. As the writer Thomas Keating puts it: “Addictions are the ultimate way of distracting oneself from the emotional pain one is unwilling to face.”

The second approach goes the opposite direction. It seeks to overcome the difficulties through personal strength and smarts. It sees the pain and hardship, and says, I got this. It is confident in my ability to overcome through all kinds of methods, both secular and spiritual. Maybe it’s the latest meditation technique or self-help guru. Maybe if I save enough money or work harder. Or maybe if I just believe enough and pray hard enough, my cancer will go away or my relationship will be restored. But all of these approaches have one thing in common: they are about me — trusting that if I just work or pray hard enough, things will get better.

Or how about approach #3? It’s the method that lives out this mantra: When the going gets tough, just go. Leave. Whatever you have to do, get away from the pain and the heartbreak. Don’t climb the mountain; run from it!

This happens when we have a literal pain in the neck, and instead of going to doctor, we just ignore it. But it also happens when we have a relational pain in the neck, and we avoid that, too. Instead of talking with that person, dealing with the issue, we avoid them — and it. I remember a minister of a very influential church telling me once that when he began his ministry, he avoided conflict. He hoped that if he ignored it, it would go away. He pretty quickly learned that avoidance is a pretty lousy approach.

So, if life is hard, and numbing it, or overcoming it, or avoiding it aren’t the answers, what is?

Facing it. Recognizing the challenges of life, this approach chooses not to back down, run away, or self-medicate. Instead, we face the hardships. But not alone, and certainly not in our strength. No, the healthiest life is the one who recognizes life’s challenges and difficulties, and looks them square in the face — and does so, trusting that God is faithful. Shalom (true peace and wholeness) is where we can recognize all the ways that life “fishhooks” us, and then bring those before a God who meets us in the midst of those challenges. Shalom, you see, isn’t the absense of conflict or brokenness; it is the active and deliberate decision to bring those to the God of all grace and mercy.

For we have a God who faced down the reality that life is difficult; that sin is real; that hurt and hate are too often the human condition. And Jesus saw all of that, and he did not avoid it, nor did he numb himself to its reality. Instead, at the cross, he faced it and he overcame it. And because he faced down sin and death, we don’t have to avoid them. And we don’t face them alone. And we certainly don’t have to overcome them ourselves. Instead, in Jesus, we become more then overcomers (Romans 8.37). All because we have a God who overcame, for us.

And recognizing that doesn’t diminish the reality of our challenges. It simply brings hope where we need it most. Right where life is hardest.

 

How to Find Yourself: thoughts about marriage that are about more than marriage

This past weekend, I presided at a wedding. As always, the ceremony is a time of joy and celebration. The bride and groom look their best, and everything that happens point to one thing: happiness and smiles.

So, when I stand before the just-about-to-be-married couple, speaking to them (and to those who are gathered), I want to say nice, happy things. I want to add to the festive spirit. And I do.

But I also want to say: Do you really know what you’re doing? Are you really ready for this? Because your vows are real. This is the real deal. And marriage will be one of the most difficult things you ever do.

Now, that’s not what I say. At least not in so many words. But I do say this:

We live in a world that can be cynical about marriage. There are those who doubt that a couple can spend a lifetime of love together. That instead of finding freedom in marriage, it ends up being a shackle.

As someone once sarcastically said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who would want to live in an institution?”

But that’s not how the Bible sees it. In fact, from the very beginning, God makes man, and then provides man a helper; an equal, a partner for the journey. For life – with all its challenges and disappointments, with all of its joys and pleasures – is meant to be shared. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The days your heart aches and the days your heart skips a beat. The day you get a promotion, AND the day you lose your job.

And the way to grow stronger through Whatever comes your way – is by firmly holding onto each other.

In other words, marriage is hard. In part, because life is hard. And there’s a reason that in our marriage vows, we don’t say: “I do, if I feel like it,” or “I do, as long as it works for me,” or, “I do, as long as it’s not too difficult.” That’s not how marriage works. That’s not how life works. The way through the difficult times is to walk through those difficult times together.

I recently read a long article, published by the New York Times, that talked with couples who are practicing what is called “open marriage.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Open marriage is where a couple “opens” their marriage to other intimate relationships, to other lovers. And the article is full of people giving reasons why this makes things better, at least in their minds.

While most of us can come up with a number of reasons why open marriage doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense, perhaps it’s a perfect sign of our times — where so many believe that life is found, not in our commitments, but in our freedoms. That is to say: real life is found by always keeping our options open.

The preacher and writer John Ortberg contends that so many who live for so much freedom end up coming to the end of their lives, and they can’t remember what they did with all the money they were free to make and spend. They can’t remember what they did with all that time they were so busy protecting. They can’t remember what happened to all those relationships that they were so free to exit. In the end, by keeping their options open, and by not fully committing to anything, they end up with a life committed to nothing.

Then Ortberg makes this vital point: It’s not in our freedom, but in our commitments, that we find ourselves.

What an absolutely counter-cultural argument, one that is sure to mystify many. But what a vital truth that is spot on. In a world where so many run from commitment — whether it’s in marriage, or parenting, or a job, or church, or just settling in one place to be a blessing to those around us — it’s really true: real life is found, not in what we keep open, but what we hold onto. In the end, we are defined, we are shaped, we become: not by what we run from, but what we commit to.