Thursday, January 26, 2017

How a 19th Century Opera House can Change Your Life

I've been rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with a group of guys. It was recommended to me by a Southern Baptist pastor 20 years ago. The book is not for everyone, but it has some fascinating moments. There's one story that will open doors for anyone who has tried to write. In it he describes an interaction with a college student who was struggling just to complete a 500-word essay about the United States.

The task was too overwhelming. The topic was too big. So the author (also her teacher at Montana state) tried to narrow the subject for her. What follows is his account of the exchange:
"Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman." It was a stroke of insight.
She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distressed that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn't think of anything to say and couldn't understand why, if she couldn't think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.
He was furious. "You're not looking!" He said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn't looking and yet somehow didn't understand this.
He told her angrily, "Narrow it down to the front of one building on the Main Street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick."
Her eyes, behind the thick lens glasses, opened wide.
She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the Main Street of Bozeman, Montana. "I sat in the hamburger stand across the street," she said, "and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick  and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn't stop. They thought I was crazy and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don't understand it."
Neither did he, but on long walks through the streets of town he thought about it and concluded she was evidently stopped with the same kind of blockage that had paralyzed him on his first day of teaching. She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn't think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn't recall anything she heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing. (191-2)
He gave similar advice to his son who wanted to write a letter to his mother about their motorcycle trip across the west. When he sat down to write, he blocked. He didn't know how to get started or what to say.
Usually, your mind gets stuck when you're trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You're trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that's too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we'll figure out the right order. (283-4)
Any time I've been stuck this has worked beautifully. What is one thing I can say something about? Even if it's not the first thing? It will get used later, and even if not, it will get me going. So write to specifics and see how your writing will get rolling. And this works for everyone, not just those who are trying to write a book or article, or get published. When it comes to your personal journal - write to specifics! Because writing is thinking on paper, and capturing your thoughts will help strengthen them.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Bonhoeffer On the Ministry of Proclaiming

Continuing on with another quote from Bonhoeffer's book Life Together:
The more we learn to allow others to speak the word to us, to accept humbly and gratefully even severe reproaches and admonitions, the more free and objective we will be in speaking ourselves. The person who's touchiness and vanity make him sperm a Brothers Earnest since you cannot speak the truth and humility to others, he's afraid of being rebuffed and of feeling that he has been aggrieved. The touchy person will always become a flatterer and very soon he will come to despise and slander his brother. But the humble person will stick both to truth and to love. He will stick to the word of God and let it lead him to his brother. Because he seeks nothing for himself and has no fears for himself, he can help his brother through the word.
Reproof is unavoidable. God's word demands it when a brother falls into open send. The practice of discipline in the congregation begins in the smallest circles. Where did affection from God's word and Doctrine or life and perils the family fellowship and with it the whole congregation, the word of admonition and rebuke must be ventured. Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that cause a brother back from the path of sin. It is a Ministry of mercy, and ultimate offer a genuine Fellowship, when we allowed nothing but God's word to stand between us, judging and succoring.
I LOVE how the qualities expressed in these quotes have overlapped: The integrated power of listening, confessing, and proclaiming. To proclaim in a way that others will listen requires humility. To feel that it is safe to confess to another, you need to know that the person will listen. To receive a proclamation, one has to be in tune to the Holy Spirit speaking through it, which requires listening and humility. Christlikeness is required in Christian community to experience it at its fullest. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Bonhoeffer on the Ministry of Confession

This quote comes from Bonhoeffer's book Life Together, which is a short work summarizing what he put into practice to foster Christian community in an illegal seminary he led in the early years of World War II.

One important part of community is confession. Yet confession will only occur when one feels there is trust and safety. And that requires listening. Which is why this quote is so important as well. Listening to confession is a supreme act of love toward a fellow Christian. But I have to ask myself the hard question - do others feel that I am trustworthy enough to share their sins with me? Am I approachable? 
"Confess your sins to one another" (James 5:16). He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone... The pious Fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!
In confession the breakthrough to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sun is openly admitted. But God breaks Gates of brass and bars of iron (Psalm 107:16).
Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in The Fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother.
What happened to us in baptism is bestowed upon us anew in confession. We are delivered out of the darkness into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. That is joyful news. Confession is the renewal of the joy of baptism. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning" (Psalm 30:5).

From Life Together, p.112-115.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Favorite books of 2016

This was a pretty fun year of reading. I finished some enormous books and read some fun ones, but also some that improved my life and helped me see the world in new ways.

I’ll dive right in here on a light topic. Three books that I didn’t expect to read at the beginning of the year, nor did I expect them to be grouped together on a reading list, but they all challenged my thinking about race. Just Mercy opened my eyes to the tragedies of the justice system. Blood Meridian was probably the most disturbing book I read this year - yet so incredibly well written. The atrocities committed against Native Americans by truly evil people were astounding and horribly gut wrenching. Don’t read this if you are queasy. I can’t imagine how Cormac McCarthy was able to find this voice without slipping into depression. Amazing, disturbing, and yet important. Native Son was the second most disturbing read of the year. Not only because of the graphic violence, but the tragic nature of the downward spiral of the main character. Some parts were tedious, but collectively, the weight of the system he exposed for me was overwhelming. The section on ping-pong tables left me spinning. I’m too quick to offer solutions that make me feel good but might totally misses the root problem. 

Power of Community

Two books this year that surprised me were both by the same author and both hit the theme of community: War and Tribe by Sebastian Junger. War wasn’t the typical war reporter book. But it was a snapshot into the inner workings of the relationships of young men on the battle front in Afghanistan. Tribe absolutely blew me away. You can ask anyone who spent time with me the month I was nibbling on it. I must have quoted from it daily. So much great content and stories on the power of community. I’m not saying that he’s right on everything – but it sure was insightful. Every pastor should read it for sure. Short read too.

CS Lewis: a mild obsession

This year was consumed by C.S.Lewis. I’d even call it an obsession. I re-read my favorite of his, Surprised by Joy, and then read a combined 3000 pages of his letters. Volume 2 covered the war years (1931-1949). Volume 3 was everything after that (1950-1963). If you want a huge treat, you should pick up Volume 2. Especially the letters he wrote to his brother during World War II. Epic. Of course, Volume three was amazing because of so many major milestones that occurred in his life (most of his popular works written, death of ‘mother’, marriage, death of wife, his own death). Such an amazing journey. Can’t wait to plow through volume one this year, which, at a paltry 800 pages, should be a breeze in comparison! These two volumes, when combined, were some of the best books I’ve read in my life.


Read a whole host of books on Productivity. Read The War of Art for probably the fifth time, and Linchpin the second (both as audio books). Both need to become at least annual reads. Maybe even more often. If you haven’t read either, put them at the top of your list. New ones were Grit, Better than before, Do More Better, and Checklist Manifesto. Each were important for different reasons. I probably liked Better Than Before (how to build habits) best, as it was the most practical and engaging.


Though I didn’t read a ton of biographies Rebel Yell (on Stonewall Jackson) was hands down the best. It was well written, and made an already fascinating, enigmatic personality even more intriguing. I’ll certainly be re-reading this one in the near future. On another note, the author of Rebel Yell wrote a book I found equally fascinating and have recommended many, many times: The Empire of the Summer Moon. Amazing. After being blown away by these two books, I’ll read anything he writes. Except for a book about a former University of Kentucky football coach. Probably won’t go there…. But everything else.

Fiction and Historical fiction

Went on a Jack London kick this year. As a kid I loved, loved, loved, reading The Call of the Wild. But this year I was introduced to his other long stories and ate up Sea Wolf and Martin of Eden. The first was a contrast in character development. One man blossoms while the other devolves into despair. Yet both learn so much from the other. The second book seemed semi-auto-biographical and though clearly a novel with an engaging plot, folded in a commentary on finding true happiness.

Musashi was a surprising delight of a book. A long form historical fiction work (900-ish pages) on the life of Japan’s most successful Samurai, winning over 60 individual bouts and never losing. There's also a graphic novel version by the title Vagabond. The graphic novels are mostly fine, though I wouldn’t recommend them to the young because of a couple of images in volume one and two. (By the way, I think the two volumes of Vagabond I read are a compilation of some of the over 30 issues of a Japanese comic book series… so I’m not sure how to best direct anyone to track these down. I thought they were compiled into three volumes, but I couldn’t confirm that when I searched on Amazon. Maybe you can find them at your library like I did. If someone who reads this loves Manga and knows the answer – drop it in the comments please). I’m also working through a short biography on Musashi, called The Lone Samurai that has been a good complement to the novel. His burden to simplify life was probably his main driving force, shunning anything that would take him from “The way of the sword.”

Two Others Books 

Extreme Ownership – Not a book on buying lots of things, rather, it's a treatise on taking responsibility for whatever is swirling in your life. I share a story from this book during the men’s session at the Weekends to Remember and each time I’m amazed by how many men mention how powerful the story is to them. It’s probably been the stickiest book I’ve read this year – with the main idea coming to mind over and over again – “OWN IT!” Every man should read this.

End of Sexual Identity I read a ton of books on gender and sexual identity this year to prepare for writing my own book on the topic. One stood out above the rest. I didn’t agree with everything in the book, as the author seemed to underplay the power of the creation account in establishing two distinct sexes, but much of what she had to say about our cultural identities and they way they are formed around our gender was very thoughtful. She really helped drive home the idea that so much of what we believe to be true of gender and sexual identity is heavily influenced by our culture. Again, I don’t agree with everything she writes, but it’s worth reading.


I’ve been using goodreads to track my books this year. If you want to see what I’m reading, or track your own books – check it out and get signed up. If you sign up with your amazon account, it will give you the option to import any books you’ve purchased from Amazon. You can also find a link on the right side of this blog.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Bonhoeffer on the Ministry of Listening

What follows are some challenging words, of which I readily admit I have failed often to keep them. Well... I've certainly kept the wrong ones. The bolded passages are especially hard to read. May we all be better listeners.

"The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the Brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God's love for us that He not only gives us his Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. (Ouch)This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.

Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God."

I think probably the most eye-opening part of this was his connection to listening to others and listening to God. Challenging words and a good reminder that we are called to put others before ourselves and consider their needs as more important than our own.  Listening well is just one example of how that plays out in our lives.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Life Together

I've been reading through Dietrich Bonhoeffer's powerful work on community called Life Together and ran across this fantastic quote this morning:

"The individual must realize but his hours of aloneness react upon the community. In his Solitude he can Thunder and besmirch the fellowship, or he can strengthen and how low it. Every Act of self-control of the Christian is also a service to the fellowship."

A good reminder that what we do in private does matter. It does affect others, even if in a seemingly subtle way. In fact, for Christians, our private lives are what gives us the right to minister publicly. But even more important than Ministry is the nature of love and community. It's pretty empowering to think that even how we use our private time can be an act of love toward other Christians.